More than 50 protesters took to the streets early this month after a Taoist temple in Tuen Mun, Ching Chung Sian Yuan, abruptly switched the allocation of 750 funeral urn niches from a first-come-first-served basis to a ballot. The protesters called the change unfair, saying they had waited for many hours in hot weather, and some overnight, to secure a peaceful place in the hereafter for their loved ones.
The temple's administrator responded several days later, saying the arrangement was 'the best for most people' because 'many people were cross in the long queue' and 'a ballot would give them an equal chance of getting the urn niches without having to wait'.
Lau Chi-kong, chairman of the Funeral Business Association, who has been in the sector for 35 years, says he saw the fray coming and describes it as a symptom of issues facing the sector in general.
'It wasn't fair. It was dishonest and silly. How could they suddenly change the allocation basis when there were many people already waiting? First-come-first-served was very fair in my book. But it's not totally their fault; the government should share responsibility for this. The main problem is there are too few urn spaces because the government isn't willing to build them. Of course, long lines at private columbariums isn't surprising.
'Public urn niches cost about HK$3,000 and are valid forever, but there are too few of them and people often have to wait for at least three years for a space to accommodate the ashes of their ancestors. For a person you love, that's too long a time to wait.
'Urn places at private columbariums cost roughly HK$100,000. Of course the well off won't have problems, but many deprived people have no choice but to put ashes at home. In Chinese metaphysics, it's inauspicious for the living to live with the dead.
'The pros of storing ashes at private columbariums is that you don't have to wait. But the con is that it may stop operating one day, and if that happens when nobody in the family can be reached, the ancestor's ashes might not be found.
'Public urn places used to be very easy to get, but now they involve years of unsettling waiting. Coffin shops are an option while waiting to get the public urn place. Several customers' ancestors' ashes have been in my shop for four to five years. I charge them HK$250 a month just to let the ashes be put there. Many coffin shops do the same. The lack of urn places is evident.
'There are people living with misery who lose the love of their lives and want to treat them as well as they can, even after they pass on, but are financially incapable. But of course the decision makers in the government have no idea how these people feel.
'Maybe the government thinks the dead don't need welfare, but that's wrong. The love of family is very important in Chinese philosophy, and that stands firm long after one's last breath. We Hong Kong people had this welfare when the Brits ruled, but it seems to have gone away with the handover.
'Cape Collinson Crematorium has the longest history in Hong Kong and it never had to be knocked down and rebuilt. But the others that were built later, like Diamond Hill Crematorium, Fu Shan Crematorium and Wo Hop Shek Crematorium, have had to be revamped multiple times. Does it say something about our government?
'When I started working in this industry, some 30 years ago, almost everyone preferred burial to cremation. They liked the idea of keeping the body intact. But now we seldom come across people who care how a dead body is treated. Cremations are more economical in terms of space and money, so now almost everyone opts for it.
'I see people lose their loved ones all the time. From my decades of experience, I think the highly educated are less likely to love their family than those who study little. Perhaps they know many other things which they think are more important. So, as a father, I sometimes cringe to imagine my children passing their exams with flying colours.'
Ninety recycled urn spaces were released by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department this summer, for which 10,665 applications were received.