Temples bow to hygiene rules
ON a Sha Tin hill, a group of Buddhists were helping themselves to lukewarm, milk-like congee from a large bowl at a monastery restaurant. Having burned incense and paid respects to their gods, the believers chatted over their vegetarian meals.
The food, including fried mixed vegetables and fried mushroom with cashews, looked clean and came in sizeable portions.
A casual atmosphere prevailed in the airy restaurant opposite the main shrine at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. But unlike formal eateries in the territory, it is not governed by any restaurant or food business licence.
That is about to change. The restaurant's days of operating without a licence are numbered, following a plan by Regional Councillors to tighten control over the New Territories' 35 monastery restaurants by lifting their exemption from the Food Business (Regional Council) Bylaws.
If the plan is passed by the council today - and that appears almost certain - it will no longer be sufficient for the restaurants to pass regular check-ups by Regional Services Department health inspectors. And they will also have to comply with fire, building and fuel installation standards.
Hygiene standards do not appear to be a big problem, since the department has received no reports of unclean ingredients or food poisoning from patrons.
Regco's Environmental Hygiene Select Committee has endorsed the proposal and a senior Regional Services Department staff member says the chances of it being knocked down by councillors are slim.
Because of their small scale, the requirements for the monastery restaurants or temple canteens will be less strict than those for ordinary food shops, says select committee chairman David Yeung Fuk-kwong. ''We are not aiming to eliminate these restaurants,'' he said. ''We just want to make sure they offer clean food. They are different from other food shops in terms of food and services, so they should be treated differently.'' Just how the bylaws will be applied differently remains to be decided by the council and its executive arm. But the select committee has agreed that all temple canteens will be given a year's grace and after that, unlicensed operators will be liable to a $25,000 fine and six months' jail.
The largest of the temple canteens is the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau. Between 12pm and 2pm, visitors can enjoy a three-course vegetarian lunch at several designated areas, so long as they have a $50 meal ticket. The monastery has two large kitchens and a large catering staff.
Monks at the monastery seldom cook these days, says Po Lin's spokeswoman, Elaine Wan Yee-ling: ''They do other work for the monastery. Some are busy preaching. The younger monks tend to be better educated.'' Well-managed places such as Po Lin should have no problem getting a licence. The smaller ones may find themselves in difficulty.
Sik Sheung-yee, a monk in the small Wai Chuen Tze in Sha Tin, is worried about the implications of the proposed regulations, although not the standards of hygiene at his makeshift canteen.
''We may be able to afford the cost of upgrading our facilities and environment,'' he said. ''But the thing is the modifications will create additional pressure on us. We will have to always make sure that they fall within what is required.'' Vegetarian meals are provided only on special occasions at Wai Chuen Tze. And visitors pay whatever they like. ''I never expected that we had to get a licence,'' he said. ''I don't think we are conducting a business here.'' All monasteries say the same: they are not using their canteens for business. ''It's all for the convenience of fellow believers,'' said an elderly nun at Kun Yum Temple on Lantau.
''Some of them rise early in the morning and come all the way by ferry and bus. We just serve them with food in return, when they are here.'' The tradition of Chinese temples is to serve visitors meals. The main difference today is perhaps that fewer monks and nuns help to prepare the food. Local monasteries hire full-time kitchen staff and part-time help is enlisted when substantial bookings are made.