Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am


Tucked away between Sham Shui Po's grinding urban poverty and Kowloon Tong's smug middle-class affluence, Shek Kip Mei remains synonymous - almost six decades after the devastating squatter fires that were its conception - with the birth and evolution of public housing in Hong Kong.

Squatter area fires were common throughout the early 1950s. The Christmas Day, 1953, fire in Shek Kip Mei left more than 50,000 people homeless in a single afternoon. Other squatter fires - most notably in nearby Tai Hang Tung the previous year - caused considerable devastation. Resettlement estates were established in the 50s to rehouse squatters and clear illegally occupied crown land for redevelopment, and the earliest estates were in Shek Kip Mei.

At first glance, Shek Kip Mei has what appears to be an over-abundance of religious institutions: church-affiliated schools, charitable organisations of various stripes and places of Christian worship. They are a legacy of the 40s and 50s, when religious groups were active in social-welfare work among Shek Kip Mei's squatter settlements.

A noted landmark is the Roman Catholic church of St Francis of Assisi. This attractive building is one of the few surviving local examples of the Chinese Renaissance style popularised in the interwar years; other notable buildings in this style are St Mary's Church in Causeway Bay and Holy Trinity Church in Kowloon City.

The church itself is reached by an interior flight of terrazzo-paved stairs, with offices below. The St Francis of Assisi church was built in 1955, with financial assistance from a well-known local Portuguese family, and the foundation stone, which can be seen outside, was laid by Bishop Bianchi.

Among the most unexpected sights in Shek Kip Mei is the Fook Tak Kwu Miu ('fortune and virtue ancient temple') near Kowloon Tsai. This hillside area contains hundreds of unwanted household gods. Superstition dictates that in certain circumstances, household gods are not taken along when people move house and, rather than run the risk of a disgruntled deity inflicting some cosmic revenge on the householder who has abandoned it, the unwanted god is brought to such a place and left to be worshipped by others.

Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva goddess of mercy, Kwan Tai, the red-faced, black-bearded god of loyalty and bravery, who is worshipped by both police and triad society members, and Sau Sing Kung, the white-bearded god of longevity, are among the most common deities found here. Almost every wayside shrine in Hong Kong contains a plethora of images that were placed there under similar circumstances - a tenacious persistence of traditional animist beliefs within an overwhelmingly modern, post-industrial society.