HONG KONG - A hill slope by the Wah Fu housing estate on the south side of Hong Kong Island is covered with hundreds of figures of Chinese deities. For many years people have been bringing figures from their home altars that they no longer want, and leaving them there.

Hill slop near Wah Fu Estate on the south side of Hong Kong Island.

It began with a small shrine by the water’s edge, built to house the abandoned images. Later a cement terrace was built to accommodate the overflow, but now the number has grown so large that the entire hillside is obscured.  Most are porcelain, some are carved wood, and there are even reverse glass paintings. As there is no shelter, the wood figures and paintings slowly succumb to the elements, while the porcelain ones fare better. Elderly folks in the neighborhood stop by to offer incense, sweep up the fallen leaves and tend to these homeless gods.

A quick survey will find that figures of Guanyin far outnumber those of other deities. This supports the Chinese folk adage  ‘Every house has Amitabha, every family has Guanyin,’ which is meant to indicate how popular Guanyin is among the common folk – second only to Amitabha. In fact, Guanyin actually eclipses Amitabha in the hearts of lay devotees. Ever since the Tang dynasty, images of Guanyin have outnumbered those of any other deity.

Lot 57, A Rare Gray Stone Torso of Bodhisattva, Tang dynasty, estimate $100,000-150,000. Although the head and arms are missing, making a positive identification difficult, the figure is most likely to be Guanyin.

Guanyin is first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, the most important and influential of the Mahayana sutras, where it states that Guanyin can take whatever form necessary, male or female, to bring salvation. The Lotus Sutra started gaining popularity during the Sui dynasty (581-618), but even before that, images of Guanyin were already being produced.

Lot 12, An Important Bronze Votive Stele of Guanyin, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 484 AD. Sold New York, 19 March 2013, for $293,000.

The thirty-three forms of Guanyin mentioned in the Lotus Sutra formed the basis of the bodhisattva’s iconography. Some of these forms, such as Brahmin and Shakra had Hindu origins. Other forms based on Chinese indigenous sutras and folk legends were later added to give the bodhisattva a Chinese genesis. These iconographic forms include the Fish Basket Guanyin, the White-robed Guanyin, and the Son-bestowing Guanyin. All these forms were popularized by wood-block printed books during the Ming dynasty.

Lot 22, A ‘Shi Sou’ Bronze and Silver Inlaid Standing Figure of Avalokiteshvara, Ming dynasty, Footsteps of the Buddha Selling Exhibition. Avalokiteshvara is the Sanskrit name of Guanyin. The manifestations of the bodhisattva with Chinese origins are all female.

Along with the different manifestations of Guanyin, the Lotus Sutra provides a long list of dangers and sufferings that can be remedied by calling upon the bodhisattva. These include being attacked by bandits, being lost at sea, falling from a mountain, threatened by fire, harmed by black magic, tormented by demons, imprisonment, surrounded by vicious beasts, illness, and lack of children. This list reflects the real fears of people living at that time, and positioned Guanyin as being able to offer salvation to all.

Lot 64, A Rare Gilt-bronze figure of Bhaisajyaraja Avalokitesvara, estimate, $100,000-150,000. This iconographic form known in Sanskrit as the Medicine King and in Chinese as the Willowleaf Guanyin, is popular among devotees wishing for good health.

In addition to being a universal savior, Guanyin was also venerated by art and antique dealers in traditional China as their patron deity. These professions choose Guanyin as their patron because images of Guanyin could be found in all materials of value to those trades, such as wood, bronze, stone, jade, porcelain, and even paper and textiles.

(left)  Lot 58, A lacquered Wood figure of Guanyin, Qing dynasty, 18th century, estimate: $5,000-7,000. (right) Lot 66, A gilt-bronze Figure of Guanyin, Ming dynasty, 17th century, estimate: $15,000-20,000.

Because there are so many images of Guanyin in jade, and she is often depicted wearing elaborate jewelry, she is also venerated by jade carvers and jewelers as their patron deity.

(left) Lot 116, An Amber Figure of Guanyin, 17th century, estimate $5,000-7,000. (center) Lot 331, A Famille-verte Figure of a Seated Guanyin, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, estimate 6,000-8,000. (right) Lot 445, A Jadeite Figure of Guanyin, Early 20th Century, Sold 20 March 2013 for $34,375.

Today, Guanyin is so popular and beloved, that her image can be found in almost any Chinese temple, Buddhist or Daoist, and in any random sampling of figures of Chinese deities, such as on the Wah Fu hill side, it stands to reason the Guanyin figures will dominate. Wah Fu is however, not the only place where religious figures are abandoned.  There is also a drop-off spot in Yau Ma Tei, just outside the wall of the Tin Hau temple. Figures left here are not as ‘lucky’ as the ones in Wah Fu.  Because this is a busy street corner, the environmental agency periodically sweeps in, and the figures are unceremoniously taken to the landfill. The corner does not remain vacant for long, and the number of figures again begins to grow.

The corner of Jordan Road and Public Square Street. The red tablets are mostly shrines to the Earth God which are typically replaced when a family moves to a new home, and a few Kitchen God, Door God and ancestral tablets.

The reasons behind this abandonment practice are complex and involve changing cultural and societal norms. For instance, the family elder who tended the household shrine has passed away and the younger family members do not wish to continue the tradition, the family has changed religion or no longer believes, they wish to ‘westernize’ and a household shrine no longer fits their décor. In some instances, the figure is damaged, or they have moved and they have no room in their new home.

There are numerous other places scattered throughout Hong Kong, where the figures who escape the landfill have to endure the elements. This practice of giving up religious statues can also be seen  in Singapore and other overseas Chinese communities. In Singapore, unwanted images can be brought to a Tua Pek Kong Temple in Loyang where they are ceremoniously burnt at the end of the lunar year to symbolically send them back to heaven. In South Korea where the Christians outnumber the Buddhists, one can only wonder what happened to all the religious images that graced family shrines just a generation or two ago.

Figures made for religious veneration are woven into the social fabric, and home altars and shrines form the center of a family’s religious life. Because they are so much a part of devotees’ lives, societal and political changes affect the fate of such images. In the past, religious images had to deal with wars, natural disasters, social upheavals, religious persecutions and Western-style missionary education. That any old pieces have survived to this day is no small feat. Their survival is a testament to their craftsmanship and beauty.  Today pieces such as those in our upcoming auction on 17th and 18th September and the Footsteps of the Buddha selling exhibition are appreciated and valued as alluring and inspirational works of art.

Lot 70, A Gilt-bronze Figure of Guanyin, Ming dynasty, 16th / 17th century, estimate: $60,000-80,000.


Footsteps of the Buddha: Masterworks from Across the Buddhist World, A Selling Exhibition, will be on display in New York from 3 – 23 September 2013.

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art auction will be held in New York on 17 and 18 September 2013.