It is Hong Kong's millennium project, the latest national architectural treasure of China, and it is inscribed with 330,000 names of Hong Kong people on its roof. The spectacular Tang Dynasty-style temple complex at Chi Lin, made up of buildings and gardens covering an area of 23,000 square metres, has risen with surprisingly little fanfare incongruously close to the poor urban sprawl of Diamond Hill, and is a triumph of determination over pragmatism. Doubters said it could not be done in modern times, that the craftspeople simply did not exist, that the money would be hard to raise, that Hong Kong was not the right place, that AD 700-style wooden structures would not pass AD 2000-style fire regulations. And the doubters had a point. Creating these calmly ordered symmetrical gardens, these simple architectural lines, has involved untangling horrible knots of bureaucratic string. It has been such a tricky administrative maze that those involved can only look back, shake their head in wonder that they negotiated it successfully, and give a list of thousands of people - volunteers, civil servants, architects, labourers, craftsmen, celebrities and others - who should be thanked for going way beyond their job specifications to make this extraordinary, crazy idea happen. To give an idea of the bureaucracy, the temple required at least six government departments - Lands, Fire Services, Buildings, Highways, Immigration (getting permits for skilled craftsmen from China) and Works Bureau - as well as the notoriously ponderous Urban Council, to bend their rules. The biggest challenge to this whole project had been the Government and its rules, said both architect Don Pan (of Don Pan and Associates) and senior construction manager Yu Leung, of Hop Hing Construction Company. Despite the fact that both men, in their different ways, were going into areas of design and building far beyond their training, it was still the paperwork that hit them the hardest. 'Hong Kong building regulations were not designed for ancient buildings; everyone had to be flexible,' said Urban Services Director Elaine Chung Lai-kwok, who has been supporting the project since she was in the Works Branch. The Urban Council, for example, had the site designated for tennis courts. It took time, although not too much persuasion, to transform it into a public garden where people could walk in shady galleries. The Buildings Department was trickier, she said, and at one point had vetoed the entire exercise, because no amount of sprinklers could make a building constructed from 150,000 pieces of cedar wood pass the fire regulations. 'There we were lucky,' Ms Chung said. By chance fire expert Paula Beever from the University of Victoria in Melbourne was in town, working on the new airport's fire prevention measures. 'She gave a professional report on our temple - for which she didn't charge because she was so impressed by the construction.' Meanwhile, the Chi Lin nuns vouchsafed that they would be cautious with their incense and lanterns, and several Fire Services Department officials gave the project their personal backing. 'It all came down to the fact that, even though it seemed to break the rules, this temple was a lot safer than Wong Tai Sin on Lunar New Year. So what was the fuss?' Ms Chung said. Early on, fung shui was also a problem. A temple should be placed on a north-south line, with the mountains behind and the water in front. The land owned by the Chi Lin nuns was placed on a pleasant enough orientation but it was not the correct one. It is almost unheard of for the Lands Department to shift land rights for fung shui reasons, or their request in-trays would be overflowing. For the Chi Lin temple they agreed to break the rule. 'We are also grateful to the Director of Highways,' Ms Chung said, of the decision to alter road plans to cope with the new construction. 'Now there is one road surrounding it; fung shui calls it the 'dai wan yu', or jade belt around your waist.' When it is finished - and it is scheduled to open in January 2000 - it will be the only Tang Dynasty architectural complex in the world. The Tang years (AD 618-907) were some of the most creative - for poetry, pottery and architecture - in China's history. But now only single structures remain in China - and in Japan where there were similar traditions. The Chi Lin structures are built almost entirely in yellow cedar, symbolising vitality and bought from Canada (with the explicit approval of the Canadian Government), cut in Japan, where they have the best knowledge and technology, and pre-assembled by craftsmen in specially built factories in southern China. If Hong Kong, whose allegiances tend to be closer to the money-changers than to the temples, could be said to be ideal for such an enormous religious project, then Chi Lin is probably the ideal site. The nunnery is known for its charismatic leadership and humanism - with a vocational school and the most pleasant public old people's homes operating under its auspices. And it has long-established contact with Hong Kong's wealthier families, including Li Ka-shing, the Lui family of Kowloon Motor Bus, and Maria Lee Tseng Chiu-kwan, before her cakes burned. By the time the final accounts are done, the bottom line will be approximately $400 million plus unmeasurable quantities of good will. Beneficiaries such as Mr Li and Sally Aw Sian had already paid millions for the Big Buddha at Po Lin monastery on Lantau, and for the less touristy Guanyin temple a couple of kilometres away from there, so were not approached for big donations. After the multi-millionaires, the next stop on the fund-raising pilgrimage was pop stars and TV personalities. Comedian Eric Tsang Chi-wai, as well as Alan Tam Wing-lun, and Anita Mui Yim-fong agreed to help. On TVB they publicised a scheme where people could pay $100 to have their name inscribed on one of the 330,000 glazed tiles of the temple. Years before there was even a hint of a cake coupon crisis, a McDonald's Snoopy or a Chris Patten signature to queue for, Hong Kong people were waiting for hours to make charity donations for traditional architecture, raising more than $30 million. Other private donors have contributed both money and statuary, some anonymously. Others, in the usual Buddhist tradition, will have their names written on a great stone stele within the complex. 'We have a long way to go still,' said spokesperson for the Chi Lin nunnery, Elaine Wan Yee-ling - herself a lay volunteer. Touring the temple, you enter through great wooden doors on the south side. They open on to a great stone courtyard, with walking galleries around the side, a marble lotus pond in the middle, and a great temple to the north. The temple roof is decorated with glazed tiles, and flanked by two gold Chi Wei (Whale Tails based on a Mahabarata legend), each as big as a man and weighing a tonne. All around are 56 ancient bonsai trees, some more than 600 years old, given by a wealthy collector who felt it appropriate that they should be tended in this beautiful environment. The side galleries are filled with exquisite statuary of angry kings and serene Boddhisattvas, the designs made after many months of research. The impression of the whole tour was very much of pure lines, the movement from empty space to solid structure, and also of the rigorous perfectionism involved in such a building project. The lighting took months to find, and was eventually bought from America. The entire structure was created on a computer program which calculated exactly how the pillars would be tapered, and the wooden panels fixed in the old way, without nails. The Tang Dynasty brackets, each made from more than 100 interlocking pieces, were only built after several full-size models had been constructed to the design team's satisfaction. The main building is based on a temple in Shaanxi province, and by last month already had a huge new Tai Drum built from the wood of a 3,000-year-old cherry tree from Japan. The back wall, behind the Buddha, was blank, waiting for a skilled painter to arrive from Dunhuang, where he has trained in restoring ancient murals, to paint a new work for Hong Kong. As with the rest of the temple, the structure is part-new, part-old. Today's needs mean the Dunhuang-style mural hides air-conditioning units. Building to last typhoons means that steel plates have been inserted between the wooden panels. 'The panels have to take the wind force against typhoons: we want the place to stand for 1,000 years,' Mr Pan said. He added he did not think it would collapse even without the steel, but this was a compromise for the Government he had to make. Another compromise is the pagoda, on the other side of the nunnery, uncomfortably close to an ugly new high-rise public apartment building that is just being completed. 'Who on Earth put that monstrosity there?' muttered one of the professionals on the tour under his breath. The pagoda has a concrete frame but timber cladding. 'Otherwise they would not have let us build it,' said Mr Yu, who said his own input 'was because this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing' rather than about making money. When the half-finished temple opened for three days at the beginning of this year, it attracted 160,000 curious visitors, and involved crowd control planning by the police. How, when the temple is fully open to the public in 13 months' time, will the 80 nuns - half of whom are more than 70 years old - be able to cope? They are not expecting too much disruption after the excitement of the first months is over, said one nun who preferred not to be named. Certain parts of the temple would be reserved from the permanent public gaze, others would become part of Hong Kong's shared spiritual life. 'Over the past few years we have been lucky to see all these things happening, and learn from them,' the nun added. 'It is as if this exercise is integrated into our spiritual practice. In the future we will have to see how this will be used for the good of the public, the elderly people and of course the nunnery.'