Why Hong Kong makes such a big deal of sea goddess Tin Hau’s birthday

Two months of festivities begin today for a goddess who no longer has many fishermen to bestow good fortune on but in whom landlubbers firmly believe. Here’s what Tin Hau means for indigenous culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2016, 4:36pm

Christmas almost seems low-key compared with the extended celebration of Tin Hau’s birthday.

For the next two months, devotees in Hong Kong will hold elaborate events in the name of the Chinese goddess whose well-established date of birth is the 23rd day of the third month in the lunar calendar. This year, it falls on April 29 but festivities have already kicked off. On Sunday, thousands will gather outside the Tin Hau temple in Tai Po for Taoist rituals, traditional dances and displays of paper models of altars called fa pau (literally, flower firecrackers). This is followed by weeks of street parades (the biggest is in Yuen Long), temple ceremonies, Cantonese opera performances in temporary bamboo marquees and, finally, a flotilla of Aberdeen fishing boats decked out in colourful flags at the end of June.

All this seems anachronistic and over the top, especially since Tin Hau is a goddess whose main job is to protect fishermen and sailors – hardly major occupations in today’s Hong Kong.

But the goddess of the sea, who also goes by the names of A-ma and Ma Tsu in Macau and Taiwan, also appeals to plenty of landlubbers. That’s because Tin Hau is widely believed to be able to grant wishes and get rid of evil spirits – in Cantonese parlance, she is very lang, or effective.

This long tradition of Tin Hau worship in Hong Kong makes her an important symbol of indigenous culture. Then there is the more practical consideration of tourist dollars. After all, who can resist the photogenic appeal of colourful pageants, operas and flotillas?

Tin Hau, whose name means heavenly queen, was a woman from the Song dynasty named Lin Mo before being declared a deity. She was born in Fujian about 1,000 years ago and was said to have remarkable gifts: the ability to predict the weather and protect fishermen caught in violent storms. Depending on the historical accounts, at the age of 28, she either died in a rescue attempt or simply went up a hill one day and declared she was to become a goddess. Within decades of her death, enough miracles were attributed to her that the Northern Song court officially recognised her as a celestial being.

That last development clinched her widespread reputation, says Professor Liu Tik-sang, a cultural anthropologist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and author of a book on the Tin Hau tradition in Hong Kong.

“It was a significant endorsement to be recognised as a deity by the court, so a lot of people from the Song dynasty onward pray to her rather than others without such an official stamp of approval,” says Liu. That explains why temples are found in inland locations, such as the ones in Kam Tin and Ping Shan in the New Territories, and why there are about 70 Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong when there are fewer than 10,000 fishermen.

Tin Hau is a product of southern Chinese folk tradition and is claimed by both Taoist and Buddhist communities. In Hong Kong, at least, celebration of her birthday is usually a highly localised affair, Liu says.

“Unlike Buddha’s birthday, for example, there has never been a coordinated effort to make Tin Hau’s birthday a public holiday in Hong Kong, probably because each temple, each birthday event is managed at a grass-roots, neighbourhood level,” he says.

It is different in Taiwan, where Tin Hau (or Ma Tsu) celebrations are hierarchical, involving the distribution of incense by “mother temples” to small temples, Liu explains.

Regardless of her name, modern-day devotees splurge on incense and charms at her temples because they believe her powers are as strong as ever.

That was why business owners in Causeway Bay decided to put up a fight when the administrators of a historic Tin Hau shrine proposed to relocate it.

“We thought about moving the floating Tin Hau temple from Causeway Bay typhoon shelter to Aberdeen when the government started work on the Central-Wan Chai bypass. It seemed to make sense for the temple to be among the fishing community anyway,” says Leung Tai-sing, a fisherman who manages the Triangular Island Goddess of Tin Hau Shrine of Peace.

“But residents and business owners in the area objected because they worried what would happen if the shrine, which has protected them for decades, is taken away. They said they’d rather not find out.”

The temple carries a Tin Hau statue believed to have been rescued during the Cultural Revolution from an island situated between Macau and Hong Kong.

Leung, who claims to have witnessed Tin Hau’s powers and feisty spirit, hopes his tales will help the management association raise the estimated HK$10 million needed to move the temple to a permanent location – on land in Causeway Bay, which he says will be more convenient to visitors.

People who have not seen spirits would think it’s all hocus-pocus, says Edwin Ma, chief priest at the Tin Hau temple in Tai Po and a feng shui master who writes the SCMP’s Chinese horoscopes.

“If you haven’t seen a ghost, don’t wish it upon yourself. But I’m telling you that I have conducted many Taoist rituals in this temple to rid people of demonic possession,” he says.

Ma is one of the organisers of Tai Po’s street parade on Sunday, which takes place nearly a week before Tin Hau’s official birthday to avoid clashing with the bigger and more historic pageant in Yuen Long.

These events are expensive and logistically challenging, which explains why organisers stagger them over the two-month period. The extended celebration may have less to do with devotion than practical considerations.

“The biggest Tin Hau parade takes place in Yuen Long on the actual birthday so ours is held earlier, which will hopefully help us attract more visitors. Ours is run completely independently from Yuen Long and I hope that one day we will catch up with their size,” Ma adds.

That sense of rivalry is not just about each community chasing a limited pot of tourist and donor dollars, though that is also a major consideration. It also reflects the fact that the ceremonies are important political platforms, Liu says.

“Tin Hau celebrations have a long history in Hong Kong’s indigenous villages and her birthday has been a major calendar event for hundreds of years. So anyone who wants to run for the village chief position, for example, will want to be seen by voters to have played a big part in staging a successful Tin Hau birthday celebration for the neighbourhood,” he explains.

Organisers of the celebrations in Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island always put on a good show to coincide with the official birthday, including days of Cantonese opera inside a temporary marquee made of bamboo – one of many put up outside Tin Hau temples across Hong Kong from April to June.

“Bookings that coincide with the official birthday are the most expensive and we want to book star performers with a lot of fans, so it costs us more than HK$1 million a year to stage the Tin Hau opera performances,” says Chow Hing-fook, deputy chairman of the Lamma Island (North) Rural Committee.

This year’s main attraction is Joyce Koi Ming-fai, the popular performer from Ming Chee Sing Chinese Opera troupe. “We need a star of this calibre to make sure enough fans are willing to come over and donate money to cover most of the cost,” he adds.

Communities with less clout have to put up with having B-list troupes and stage performances outside the week of the official birthday.

Wong Siu-sang, manager of the Ming Chee Sing Chinese Opera troupe, says his group usually performs at two or three different venues for Tin Hau celebrations each year. But the number of shows they put on at each venue has fallen.

“The peak was probably from 1960 to 1970; back then, all live performances had to pay an entertainment fee to the government apart from when they co-produced events with kaifong associations [neighbourhood committees]. So Cantonese operas often took place on the streets as part of traditional festivals,” he says.

Today, audiences generally prefer the comfort of air-conditioned theatres, and rising costs are another issue. They make performances harder to organise, says Ma. The Tai Po temple used to put on an opera every year but the district can only afford one every three years today. Tuen Mun’s Sam Shing temple hasn’t been able to hold theirs for the past two years.

Jennifer Chow, the Wan Chai district councillor who helped secure a plot of land by Tung Lo Wan fire station for the relocation of the floating Tin Hau shrine, believes the Tin Hau tradition needs to be spread to the younger generation.

“That’s why we insisted on making the new temple design contemporary, while retaining all the original fittings from the boat. Most visitors to the floating temple are elderly but we believe a younger, more diverse group will come, assuming we get the money to build it,” she says.

Wong hopes more people will appreciate the secular appeal of Tin Hau’s birthday. “Cantonese opera is a form of entertainment. Going to a Tin Hau temple is part of the entertainment, too. They don’t have to be believers,” he says.