THE RISE OF A REFUGEE GOD: Hongkong's Wong Tai Sin By Graeme Lang and Lars Ragvald (Oxford University Press, $95) THIS is the story of a phenomenon, the amazing and often improbable success of the Wong Tai Sin temple, visited by tens of thousands of worshippers seeking favours from the god and having his often cryptic answers interpreted by Asia's biggest concentration of fortune-tellers. Above all, it explores who, on earth and out of it, was - and is - Wong Tai Sin. The authors also examine, with limited success, why so many Hongkong people put their trust in a relatively minor figure in the pantheon of Chinese immortals who even at the best of times was scantily worshipped in China itself. It is obvious from the authors' research that the majority of Hongkong worshippers neither know nor perhaps care very much about the background of their god, despite the fact that there is a tablet giving an outline of the story at the temple itself. According to the Taoist legend, in his earthly existence the god was a shepherd named Wong Cho Ping who tended his flock on Jinhua Mountain. Under Taoist influence, he disappeared for 40 years. He was eventually traced on the mountain by his brother who asked what had happened to the sheep. He was shown a hillside scattered with white stones but when Wong Cho Ping shouted to them to arise, the stones turned into tens of thousands of sheep. He is also reported to have developed cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) into a drug which could produce immortality. ''This experimentation with cinnabar preoccupied many Taoists,'' note the authors. ''Cinnabar is actually a poison, and some of the hermits were no doubt 'translated into the heavens' by cinnabar more speedily that they had hoped.'' When Wong Cho Ping died he became Wong Tai Sin (the Great Immortal Sage Wong). The centuries rolled by with Wong Tai Sin receiving scant attention. But about a century ago, a Guangzhou man, Leung Yan-ngam, casting around for something to do after a long career in the customs service, began communicating with Wong Tai Sin. The method he used was fugi, spirit writing, in which the god controls the hand of the writer. He established two temples in succession in Guangdong and then in 1915 he received a message through fuji that he should move south - sound advice given the uproar in China following the 1911 revolution. So he moved to Hongkong. His first Wong Tai Sin shrine was set up in a flat in Wan Chai but after the building burned down and with guidance from the god, a new site was found at the foot of Lion Rock Mountain. It was, in a sense, in a wilderness with few buildings around but under the management of a committee called the Sik Sik Yuen it did modestly well. Then the Hongkong Government appeared as a threat with a measure aimed at closing down temples considered to be merely business speculations. The Sik Sik Yuen proclaimed itself a private shrine. It also built up some goodwill in government circles by making donations to the Chinese Temples Committee fund and giving away a certain amount of free medicine. With occasional hiccups the temple prospered. It even survived the Japanese occupation almost unscathed thanks to several incidents which were interpreted as intervention by the god himself. The boom days for the temple came with the massive influx of immigrants from China when the Japanese had departed. Squatter settlements followed by vast housing estates sprang up on the temple's very doorstep. So much on the doorstep that the Government wanted the land. This new crisis was defused by the election of new officials to the Sik Sik Yuen using divination blocks. To the surprise of the elders, they were passed over in favour of a relatively junior official, a former Principal Director of the Tung Wah group of hospitals. Under his leadership the temple was opened year round with the admission fees and other incomemade over to the Tung Wah group. It also sponsored several schools and homes for the aged. The new chairman who had been chosen by divination, abolished it and the use of fuji was ended with fortune sticks, to be interpreted by the rent-paying fortune-tellers, substituted. The book tries to analyse the reason people ask for the intercession of Wong Tai Sin. The god seems to have become all things to all men and women. Medical problems, careers, job prospects, housing, even gambling tips are all questions raised and answered in one way or another. The authors have generally done well in correlating a mass of references scattered over a whole catalogue of Chinese texts. Lars Ragvald researched the now-defunct temples in China and Graeme Lang, now a senior lecturer at Hongkong Polytechnic, explored the Hongkong end. It is somehow only fitting that their original research should have been financed by universities in Newfoundland and Sweden: it adds to the phenomenon.