Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am

Tens of thousands of newcomers poured into Hong Kong in the late 1940s and early 50s, delivering a resounding vote with their feet - then, as now, the only really meaningful one they possessed - on the 'people's paradise' then being established across the border. By the mid-50s hillsides all over urban Hong Kong and Kowloon were encrusted with sprawling, ramshackle mook uk kui (wooden house areas), or squatter settlements; only a few isolated rem-nants survive. In their place, east Kowloon's massive public housing estates provide typhoon- and fire-proof, affordable if basic, social housing for the masses. Symbolic of post-war Hong Kong's greatest, yet most under-appreciated, achievement, the cheer- ful, irrepressible 'Hong Kong flag' - bamboo poles bright with washing - flaps in the breeze from almost every window.

An early temple dedicated to the god Wong Tai Sin was established at Chuk Yuen in 1921. It housed an image of the deity which was brought as a refugee from the mainland by other refugees. The current complex opened in 1956 and has steadily expanded. Worship of the god-turned-refugee Wong Tai Sin in this immigrant heartland seems most appropriate. A popular clinic here offers free or heavily subsidised treatment to the district's elderly - many of whom were part of the post-war influx.

The temple, which is undergoing a HK$140 million renovation, sees buses disgorge hundreds of visitors from Malaysia, Taiwan, the mainland and further afield every day. All come to seek Wong Tai Sin's blessing and like at France's Lourdes, remarkable cures and divine interventions are regularly reported and eagerly believed.

Fortune tellers are a staple here; for HK$100 (or much more, depending on your susceptibility) your palms and face can be read and - for an extra charge - hairy moles, warts and freckles declared auspicious and worthy of preservation, or as contributing to your run of bad luck and in need of removal.

Wong Tai Sin, like Po Lin Monastery on Lantau, combines a fairground-like atmosphere with more spiritual matters. Both show how animistic beliefs are thriving in 'cosmopolitan', post-industrial Hong Kong.

MTR stations in these areas are colour-coded and symbolic, partly to aid the semiliterate. Wong Tai Sin station is bright yellow (the character 'wong' also means 'yellow' as well as being a common surname); neighbouring Diamond Hill's jewel-like white dots on a black background symbolise Hong Kong's favourite precious stone and Choi Hung - 'rainbow' - is decorated in multihued patterns.