Historically, Chinese society has been characterised by tolerant, live-and-let-live attitudes firmly anchored in this world, much at variance with Christianity’s sour view of life on Earth as a preparation for death. Nevertheless, American-flavoured fundamentalist Christianity has experienced an exponential rise in recent years across the Chinese diaspora.
Evangelistic preachers from various Pentecostal sects periodically pass through Hong Kong, and their emotionally charged revival meetings generate fresh batches of “true believers”.
Despite having a constricted world view derived from literal interpretations of the Bible, their narrow-minded influence continues to expand and ferment within top levels of government and the business community.
Serious public discussion of the quantifiably pernicious effects these groups have on contemporary Hong Kong’s civil society remains muted.
Among the most renowned early “Holy Rollers” to visit Hong Kong was Aimee Semple McPherson. By the 1920s, she was one of the most recognised women in the world and only the second female in the United States to hold a radio broadcast licence.
McPherson exerted enormous influence, both through her religious revival meetings and faith-healing performances, and on the exponential growth of Christian Fundamentalist churches in poverty-stricken, backward areas of the US.
In recent decades, these groups have multiplied across the world – including Hong Kong – like bacteria on the petri dish of annually more apparent social disadvantage.
McPherson’s first husband, Robert Semple, died of malaria after an evangelical tour of China in 1910, and lies buried in the Colonial Cemetery in Happy Valley, under a Grecian temple-like canopy. What her life might have become had he lived, and the couple subsequently moved to China as planned, remains anyone’s guess.
While she enjoyed a tremendous following, not everyone was a fan. In Vile Bodies, his delicious satire of the 1920s, Evelyn Waugh lampooned McPherson as Mrs Melrose Ape – a woman evangelist with her travelling troupe of “angels”. This cutting novel was written some years before conversion to Catholicism transformed Waugh into a humourless, snobbish, religious bigot of another kind.
McPherson’s enormous Angelus Temple, in Los Angeles, was a precursor of today’s megachurches, with hundreds of enthusiasts packing the aisles at every service. Her coast-to-coast radio broadcasts made her one of the first celebrity “tele-evangelists”, whose slick showmanship has propagated their socially and economically conservative religious world view into millions of living rooms, in the US and – as that country’s “soft-power” steadily spread – globally.
Faith-healing stunts – “the blind shall see and the lame shall walk” – and other “old-time revival” numbers turned her activities into a religious fairground, and made McPherson a sitting target for her growing legion of critics.
Financial and sexual scandals also dogged her until her death, in 1944. In the early 30s, a disaffected former staffer wrote a book called Aimee: The Gospel Gold Digger, which tartly summed up much of the ambiguity surrounding McPherson’s life.
In this sense, McPherson was a role model (of sorts) for later generations of avaricious American broadcast preachers, such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who helped themselves mightily to the contents of the collection plate – and the wallets of their more vulnerable parishioners – while the rest waved their arms skywards, their eyes firmly closed to what was actually going on around them as they chanted and ululated in near-orgasmic religious frenzy.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong