Book review: Small God, Big City, by Michael Wolf

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 3:32pm

Small God, Big City: Earth God Shrines in Urban Hong Kong

by Michael Wolf

Hong Kong University Press

Hong Kong-based German photographer Michael Wolf has the habit of looking at the city anew. With the 67 stark photographs in Small God, Big City, he draws our attention to an ubiquitous but easily ignored part of the city's urban fabric: the numerous shrines to earth god Tu Di Gong.

He may be a mid-ranking god but Tu Di Gong's role in protecting wealth makes him a popular choice among households, and a near universal one among businesses. Most of the shrines captured by Wolf are basic: the deity is sometimes depicted in his traditional image as a white-bearded old man, or represented by a stone, but more often it's writing, sometimes just on a card, that indicates his presence.

The book is rich with ironic, jarring and sometimes comical juxtapositions: shrines appear underneath electricity meters, behind pipework and lampposts, wedged into busy shop windows, next to brooms, buckets, hosepipes and drains, and in dilapidated-looking paths and alleyways. They are integrated into the urban fabric of the city, housed in niches and crannies and corners of all descriptions; Small God, Big City shows how Hongkongers' expertise in maximising limited space has translated itself to the spiritual sphere with characteristic pragmatism and practicality.

Many of the shrines look tatty but that they exist at all is interesting. The shrines and the beliefs they encode persist in the face of an environment that's hostile to the former, wedged as they are among the urban panorama, and the latter, a rural faith as far removed from 21st-century Hong Kong as you can get. The god is like a rural migrant worker in the big city - one that, the book suggests, might struggle in the future, as younger people lose interest in folk religion, regarding it mainly as a duty for their older relatives, and widespread incense-burning becomes less socially acceptable, exacerbated both by worries about children's lungs and by the migration of many shops to air-conditioned malls.

The photos are preceded with a short essay by academics Lee Ho-yin and Lynne DiStefano that places them nicely in context, highlighting how the prioritisation of function over beauty has produced a much-loved aesthetic of its own. After the photos is a series of interviews with worshippers at the shrines, their custodians and even the people who sell them; all highlight what they see as the importance of observing customs and preserving traditional Chinese culture, along with a ritualistic, almost meditative element, rather than any strong religious belief.

The shrines themselves dominate the photos in Small God, Big City; there's not much extraneous matter, just enough other objects to suggest a prosaic context that is at once superficially jarring and perfectly appropriate to Hong Kong life. In Wolf's Architecture of Density series (2005-9), featuring extreme close-ups of Hong Kong high-rises, and Transparent City (2008), featuring the inhabitants of high-rise apartments at their windows, all traces of ground, sky and other surroundings were cropped out.

In Small God, Big City the depictions are more straightforward, without visual pyrotechnics, showcasing the former photojournalist's journalistic skills more than his photographic ones.

Unlike his other work, the photography here isn't particularly impressive in and of itself; instead, the book's strength lies not so much in anything particularly clever Wolf does with the camera as in his observational skills: his ability to pick out a mundane aspect of Hong Kong life and make it instantly emblematic of the city.