A pair of bronze fan-shaped temple standards. Dated to the Dinghai year, corresponding to 1887. Lot 227. Estimate 6,000-8,000.

NEW YORK - When I worked in Hong Kong, my office was at Pacific Place in Hong Kong Island’s Admiralty district. In terms of lunch, there wasn’t much choice for someone watching his pennies, so I usually braved the lunch time hoards, noise and heat, and walked over to the adjoining Wanchai district where small reasonably priced restaurants lined the narrow streets. My search for sustenance often took me past a small temple sandwiched between commercial and residential buildings on Queen’s Road East dedicated to Hung Shing.

Hung Shing Temple at 129-131 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, probably built in 1847 on the site of an existing shrine.

Hung Shing (or Hongsheng in Mandarin) is venerated as a god of the sea. He was a righteous Tang dynasty (618-907) official in southern China, who was well versed in astronomy and geography. He established an observatory to monitor meteorological changes, in order to warn the fishermen along the coast of impending bad weather. He was so dedicated to his work that he neglected his health and literally worked himself to death. In gratitude, the government and coastal residents erected temples to his memory, and as a result, Hung Shing temples are found mostly in Guangdong province and Hong Kong.

(left) Figure of Hung Shing enshrined in the Hung Shing Temple in Ap Lei Chau, Hong Kong. (right) Figure of Tin Hau enshrined in the Tin Hau Temple in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

In recent times, Hung Shing has been eclipsed by Tin Hau, venerated as a goddess of the sea and patron of fishermen. Tin Hau was a Song dynasty (960-1279) maiden who had the gift of weather prediction. Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong today far outnumber the temples dedicated to Hung Shing. There are approximately 28 Hung Shing Temples compared to over seventy dedicated to Tin Hau.

Fan-shaped temple standards similar to lot 227 and a censer similar to lot 285, in situ at the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road, Hong Kong.

During the late Qing dynasty, the veneration of Hung Shing was still popular, as evidenced by a pair of bronze fan-shaped temple standards in the upcoming Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale to be held in New York on 17th and 18th September. Such standards were only found in grander temples where they flanked the main altar table, as can be seen in these images, which show a pair in situ, from the Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong.

An embroidered wool felt ‘dragon’ panel, Qing dynasty, 19th century. The panel is embroidered with the character xian, which means ‘to present’ and was probably once part of an altar frontal. Lot 237. Estimate: $4,000-6,000.

The pair in the upcoming September auction in New York were made especially for a Hung Shing temple in 1887. When temples were newly built or renovated, it was common for devotees to donate ceremonial objects, such as these standards, as well as vases, censers, and embroidered altar cloths.

A bronze censer and stand. Dated Guangxu Dingyou year, corresponding to 1897. Lot 285. Estimate: $6,000-8,000.

Another lot in the sale donated by a devotee to a temple, is a censer dated 1897. This piece is interesting because the name of the donor and the address of the maker are inscribed on it. This censer was donated to a temple honoring the deified Guan Yu, who was known for his honor, integrity and martial prowess.

A rare imperial Thangka of Guan Yu, distemper on cloth, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795). Sold Sotheby’s Paris, 18th December 2012 for 216,750 EUR. Lot 28.

Donating ceremonial objects to temples, or having religious figures made was viewed as a way of accumulating merit, which was a lot simpler than doing good deeds.

I am a big temple fan and during my time in Hong Kong, I visited temples almost every weekend. Every village used to have two or three temples, which were the centers of village life. Sadly, with urbanization, many temples that were once the spiritual focus of their communities have seen their devotee base relocated to high-density, high-rise apartments over the years. Many temples have also had to make way for redevelopment.