Wong Tai Sin Temple

wong tai sin door godwong tai sin right door godWong Tai Sin Temple is large, extremely popular, abounds with traditional Chinese architecture and statues, and on busy days reeks of incense smoke. Yet though it seems an ancient place, the temple is less than a century old, and its history is interwoven with Wong Tai Sin District.

wong tai sin temple

The temple was founded in 1921, by Taost herbalist Leung Renyan, who had emigrated from mainland to China to Hong Kong six years before, carrying a portrait of Wong Tai Sin - the Great Immortal Wong (Putonghua name: Wang Daxian). Leung had originally opened a herbal medicine shop in Wanchai, complete with altar to Wong Tai Sin. Yet when this burned down, he moved, and chose to settle by the village of Chuk Yuen (only later was the district be named after the god).

The Great Immortal Wong

While Leung's tale seems straightforward, the story of Wong Tai Sin is far from clear cut - which is perhaps to be expected given it is a legend of a man who became an immortal. According to one version, he was born under the name Wong Cho Ping in 338 in Zhejiang Province, China. Aged eight, he became a shepherd boy, and seven years later he began practicing Taoism. Eventually, he was so proficent that he could turn stones into sheep. Yet scholars have also found that a Great Immortal Wong is said to have inhabited Mount Luofu in Guangdong province - where he was perhaps a Taost hermit known as Wong the "wild man". It may be that today's Wong Tai Sin blends stories from two or more origins.

No matter which legend is preferred, Wong Tai Sin was evidently not well known early last century. Yet the timing was ripe for the emergence of a new divine figure. The last Chinese dynasty had been overthrown in 1912, and in Hong Kong a wave of refugees would arrive, seeing new lives and far better fortune.

The temple was originally small and had restricted access, managed by a body known as Sik Sik Yuen. But in 1956, the government proposed demolishing it, as part of a new resettlement area to house people from squatter sites. The Sik Sik Yuen's chairman successfully appealed for the temple to be spared; and the temple was then opened to the public. The district - later renamed after Wong Tai Sin - was home to a swelling population of refuges, and Graeme Lang and Lars Ragvald later documented the interlinked history of god and local people in The Rise of a Refugee God: Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin.

wong tai sin temple steps

As a visit today reveals, the temple boomed in popularity. There are several buildings, including the main hall, together with a Nine Dragon Wall modelled on the wall of the same name in Beijing's Forbidden City. Above and behind the buildings is a new, Chinese style garden, partly inspired by the Summer Palace. In the west of the complex there are rows of fortune teller booths.

While there is no charge for entering the temple complex, a HK$2 donation is charged for entering the garden. Plus, there are donation boxes, including for incense sticks. The monies collected go to the Sik Sik Yuen, which uses the funds for maintenance, and for a range of social services - including a herbal clinic near the main gate.

saluting wong tai sin

Chinese New Year at Wong Tai Sin Temple

Wong Tai Sin Temple is especially popular at Chinese New Year. On New Year's Eve, throngs of people arrive, seeking to place burning incense sticks on the main altar once midnight arrives - as there is supposedly more luck for earlier incense sticks, there can be a massive rush to place the first sticks. Even in days following Chinese New Years's day, the temple is crowded with people who light incense sticks, and move through the complex in slow processions, waving lit incense towards images in halls, and placing incense sticks in bowls. Incense smoke pervades the atmosphere; staff guiding the crowds and burning excess incense wear paper masks as some protection from the fumes.

wong tai sin praying for fortune

Fortune Telling

The temple is also known for fortune telling. Some people gather before the main hall, and conduct DIY fortune telling, perhaps shaking pots of bamboo fortune sticks until one falls out, and indicates destiny, then making notes of the results. It's a serious business; intense expressions reveal that some people are making wishes that are dear to their hearts.

wong tai sin fortune telling

Other people prefer to get advice from experts - from the fortune tellers who wait at booths decorated with charts showing palms and faces, and sometimes with photos of famous people who have come to them for advice. The rows of fortune tellers booths were established by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, a charitable organisation that puts some of the revenue towards its services, including hospitals and schools. Some fortune tellers advertise services in English, as well as Chinese.

Tourists are also drawn to Wong Tai Sin Temple, including coachloads of mainland visitors who follow their guides, and perhaps light incense sticks to try and boost their own luck, following a tradition that has ancient roots in China, yet was officially condemned in the mainland under Mao.

Getting there

The temple is just outside Exit B3 of Wong Tai Sin station.