Two images of Monkey God housed in the temporary temple.
HONG KONG - The Monkey God Temple in Hong Kong's Sau Mau Ping district was known for its celebrations commemorating Monkey God. During the annual event, the temple medium would climb barefoot up a ladder of knives, walk over hot coals and wash his face with boiling oil, impervious to pain, his body possessed by Monkey God's spirit.
The demolished Monkey God Temple.
I didn't get to visit this temple until 2008, and when I arrived, I was shocked to find that it had been recently torn down. The site on the hillside where the temple had stood, along with a temple dedicated to Guanyin and another to the City God, was just a field of rubble. A still-standing Tianhou Temple just down the hill was earmarked for demolition. All the temples had to make way for new apartments. As I wandered around in disbelief, I saw woodcarvings, stone lions, porcelain shards, broken roof tiles and other evidence of the temples that had once stood there.
The festive archway set up at the entrance to the temporary temple to announced Monkey God’s anniversary.
That same year during the anniversary of Monkey God's enlightenment, which was the 16th day of the eighth lunar month, I made my way back. I refused to believe that the temple was gone for good. Surely there would have to be some celebration, some commemoration of this beloved deity. I was right, a few hundred feet away from the original temple site, I saw a colorful archway and banners announcing Monkey God’s anniversary celebrations. A temporary corrugated steel temple had been set up looking very much like a shipping container with doors in the sides. It was so inconspicuous that I had not noticed it the last time. This structure was shared by the Guanyin and City God Temples that had once stood alongside the Monkey God Temple at the original site.
Offerings and devotees at the temporary temple.
The celebration seemed a bit subdued, just a few elderly devotees. There were Daoist priests chanting prayers, and Master Chan, one of the old temple mediums whose body used to host the spirit of Monkey God, sat close by. He appeared to me to actually have simian features. There was a large banner printed with an artist’s rendering of the new temple the devotees hoped to rebuild. Although it was Monkey God’s most important festival, the number of devotees at the temporary temple was small. I wondered how long it would be before they could raise enough money to make the artist's rendering a reality. To help them along, I made a small donation.
Daoist priests chanting prayers and making offerings before Monkey God’s altar.
The same time the following year, I made my way back again, to see if any progress had been made. I was disappointed to see that nothing had changed. The figures of the deities formerly housed in the temple were still crammed into that shed that served as the temporary temple. The banner with the artist's vision of the future temple was worn and faded.
An artist’s rendering of the new temple. The actual temple built was more modest.
While I was in Hong Kong this October for the fall sale, I found myself wide-awake at 5 am due to jetlag. My thoughts drifted to the Monkey God Temple. It had been four years since I last visited. I wondered what had happened.
The new Monkey god Temple still covered by scaffolding.
It was already light at 7 am when I arrived in Sau Mau Ping, and as the minibus approached Po Tat Shopping Center, I saw them – three new temples, in a row, in various stages of completion.
The original images enshrined in the Guanyin Temple, now housed in a shed outside.
The Tianhou Temple was already opened, and the Guanyin Temple was having its finishing touches put on. The temple was not yet open, but the temple keeper Mrs. Lam let me in. We chatted briefly about the temple and the topic turned to the Monkey God Temple next door. She mentioned that although the Monkey God Temple had been rebuilt, the old celebrations involving feats of self-mortification by the medium, Master Chan, may not continue as he was already very old and did not have a disciple. Temple mediums are a rare breed in Hong Kong these days. In the last few years the government had also denied the request to hold the celebrations in the nearby park. She then led me outside to a shed where the original figures of the deities enshrined in the Guanyin Temple where housed. There figures were all carved from wood and had been made in the 1950s for the original temple. That temple had been built when Sau Mau Ping was still a squatter settlement housing refugees from Northern Guangdong and Southern Fujian provinces, the Minnan language areas of China. New figures made of bronze had been made for the new temple and once consecrated, the old wood figures would be retired and put into storage. This saddened me, as the old wood figures had a typical Cantonese style and a robust spirit that reflected the hopes and dreams of their early devotees.
The new images enshrined in the new Guanyin Temple.
The Monkey God Temple next door was still covered in scaffolding. Master Chan, one of the mediums and Mr. Wong, a temple committee member sat outside. I was happy to see that the temple was finally close to completion, even though it was nowhere as grand as the architect’s drawing. The figures of the deities were enshrined outside in a small shed. I paid my respects, and approached Mr. Wong to make another small donation to the building fund. While Mr. Wong was writing out my receipt I took the opportunity to speak to Master Chan. He seemed frail and spoke very softly, quite unlike someone who leapt around possessed by the spirit of the Monkey God. He was already 83, and had become Monkey God’s medium in 1964 when he was 34 years old. He had become very ill when he was 70, and in a dream, the Monkey God had extended his life by 19 years in exchange for continued loyal service. He told me that the temple would be completed by November, and next year they will try to have a big celebration for Monkey God’s anniversary, depending on whether the government allows them use of the nearby park. I am hopeful and have marked the date on my calendar.
The Monkey God Temple medium and Mr Wong, a temple committee member.