Hong Kong still has an array of working temples which provide a real sense of the historic in a place known for its uncompromising modernity.
As with most places where atheism has taken root, the sharp decline in practiced religion is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hong Kong. Add to this the tentacle-like influence of China’s ruling Communist party (Hong Kong is only semi-autonomous, let’s not forget), and we can assume that attitudes towards religion have changed significantly in the past 15 years alone.
Still, quite a few of Hong Kong’s religious sites are wonderfully maintained by dedicated followers and, moreover, are a genuine pleasure to visit. Most of these remain so delightful purely because of their comparative lack of visitors. Hong Kong’s tourist board prefers to push money spinners like Disneyland and Ocean Park which predictably draw hordes of tourists like nothing else.
It can feel at times like Hong Kong’s relentless pressure to consume is irresistible; that you may as well join the country’s zealous congregation of shoppers in those Cathedral-like shopping malls found on practically every major street. Hong Kong has always felt like a kind of capitalist frontier town - a disorderly mass of exponential commercial growth which compels you towards its busy orbit. But there are opportunities to escape, and one of the city’s many religious sites and shrines in particular affords the perfect opportunity.
The Chi Lin nunnery and adjoining Nan Lian gardens in Diamond Hill, Kowloon form a particularly powerful example of inner-city contrast. On walking out of the MTR station to get here, you’re confronted with a roaring multi-level flyover so monstrous that you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d gotten off at the wrong stop. Yet a two minute walk down the road leads you into an impossibly tranquil garden of green-hued lily ponds surrounded by painstakingly reproduced Tang dynasty-style architecture.
The centrepiece here is the collection of imposing wooden halls with their sweeping slate roofs that house golden statues of various bodhisattvas - those who have reached enlightenment. Not a single nail is used in their construction, the architecture relying purely on an intricate system of interconnecting beams. This is not to be sniffed at - the largest hall is 176 tonnes of thick polished cedar and clay tiles.
The gardens themselves are arranged according to strict Taoist principles. Nothing, not even the placement of the smallest boulder, is an accident. Indeed, the layout has been lifted as fastidiously as possible from the only existing plans of an ancient Tang landscape garden - that of the Governor of Jiang in Jiangzhou. Like Nan Lian, Governor Jiang’s garden was backed by mountains - providers of energy and strength. In Hong Kong, the gardens also face the sea - a supposed bringer of abundance.
Hong Kong can be a shallow and impersonal place, its merciless hustle and bustle trying the patience of even the most stubbornly relaxed among us. Chi Lin is a sanctuary of profound quiet inside a whirlwind. If you haven’t been yet, set aside half a day - it’ll do you good.