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Wong Tai Sin Nestles Beneath Lion Rock

Wong Tai Sin is a district of north Kowloon, dominated by apartment blocks that occupy level land on the north of the Kowloon Peninsula, and rise to the foothills of peaks including Lion Rock. It's named after the Wong Tai Sin Temple, which is in turn named after a Taoist god - the Great Immortal Wong, aka Wong Tai Sin. Perhaps appropriately given the district's history, Wong Tai Sin has been referred to as the "God of Refugees".

Today home to around 440,000 people, some 85 percent of whom live in subsidised housing, Wong Tai Sin attracted large numbers of the refugees who poured into Hong Kong from mainland China from the late 1940s to the 1960s. They first lived in shanty villages, and to provide better accommodation the government began building housing estates, dominated by multi-storey blocks. A resettlement estate at Wong Tai Sin was among the first of these, and by the 1960s its 29 blocks housed 97,000 people. Later renamed Lower Wong Tai Sin Estate, and with the northern part named Upper Wong Tai Sin Estate, this was demolished during the 1980s and 1990s, and new blocks were built.

The northern part of the resettlement area has become the Chuk Yuen North and Chuk Yuen South estates. Chuk Yuen means "Bamboo Garden", which may seem fanciful for a group of apartment blocks - yet this was the original name of the area. Early last century, there was little here but the village of Chuk Yuen, which was indeed surrounded by bamboo groves, and was by a stream that flowed from the hills to Kowloon Bay.

In 1921, herbalist Leung Renyan (梁仁庵) established a temple to Wong Tai Sin just west of Chuk Yuen. Later, this was designated as being within the resettlement area, and looked set to be replaced with housing - but the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals persuaded the government to spare the temple - which since boomed in popularity.

Away from the temple, Wong Tai Sin has mostly reflected Hong Kong's tendency to ensure the past does not stand in the way of developments. Tai Hum Chuen, an old village area, was recently transformed to make way for new, high-rise housing. Despite protests, most of 650-year old Nga Tsin Wai, the only walled village in urban Hong Kong, is set for redevelopment - albeit the village is today but a relic of its former self.

Yet history and culture are not forgotten. Close by Wong Tai Sin Temple, Fung Tak Park has murals and artificial landscapes based on the story of the Monkey King. The tiny Wong Tai Sin Cultural Garden was created in 2007, with Chinese culture as the theme, on a site including a centuries-old well that's now one of the exhibits.

The Chi Lin Nunnery (志蓮淨苑) temple complex was founded in 1934, and rebuilt in 1990; it is closer to the MTR's Diamond Hill station than to Wong Tai Sin station.

While lacking many natural features - indeed, it has the curious distinction of being the only Hong Kong district without a coastline - Wong Tai Sin can boast natural grandeur, as it nestles beneath Lion Rock. Surely the most distinctive peak in Hong Kong, Lion Rock looms over Wong Tai Sin like a celestial lion standing guard over the district. So don't hesitate to check this website : https://www.loi-malraux-monuments-historiques.fr/deficit-foncier-ou-loi-malraux/

Wong Tai Sin Temple

Wong Tai Sin Temple is large, extremely popular, abounds with traditional Chinese architecture and statues, and on busy days reeks of incense smoke. Yet though it seems an ancient place, the temple is less than a century old, and its history is interwoven with Wong Tai Sin District.

The temple was founded in 1921, by Taost herbalist Leung Renyan, who had emigrated from mainland to China to Hong Kong six years before, carrying a portrait of Wong Tai Sin - the Great Immortal Wong (Putonghua name: Wang Daxian). Leung had originally opened a herbal medicine shop in Wanchai, complete with altar to Wong Tai Sin. Yet when this burned down, he moved, and chose to settle by the village of Chuk Yuen (only later was the district be named after the god).

The Great Immortal Wong

While Leung's tale seems straightforward, the story of Wong Tai Sin is far from clear cut - which is perhaps to be expected given it is a legend of a man who became an immortal. According to one version, he was born under the name Wong Cho Ping in 338 in Zhejiang Province, China. Aged eight, he became a shepherd boy, and seven years later he began practicing Taoism. Eventually, he was so proficent that he could turn stones into sheep. Yet scholars have also found that a Great Immortal Wong is said to have inhabited Mount Luofu in Guangdong province - where he was perhaps a Taost hermit known as Wong the "wild man". It may be that today's Wong Tai Sin blends stories from two or more origins.

No matter which legend is preferred, Wong Tai Sin was evidently not well known early last century. Yet the timing was ripe for the emergence of a new divine figure. The last Chinese dynasty had been overthrown in 1912, and in Hong Kong a wave of refugees would arrive, seeing new lives and far better fortune.

The temple was originally small and had restricted access, managed by a body known as Sik Sik Yuen. But in 1956, the government proposed demolishing it, as part of a new resettlement area to house people from squatter sites. The Sik Sik Yuen's chairman successfully appealed for the temple to be spared; and the temple was then opened to the public. The district - later renamed after Wong Tai Sin - was home to a swelling population of refuges, and Graeme Lang and Lars Ragvald later documented the interlinked history of god and local people in The Rise of a Refugee God: Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin.

As a visit today reveals, the temple boomed in popularity. There are several buildings, including the main hall, together with a Nine Dragon Wall modelled on the wall of the same name in Beijing's Forbidden City. Above and behind the buildings is a new, Chinese style garden, partly inspired by the Summer Palace. In the west of the complex there are rows of fortune teller booths.

While there is no charge for entering the temple complex, a HK$2 donation is charged for entering the garden. Plus, there are donation boxes, including for incense sticks. The monies collected go to the Sik Sik Yuen, which uses the funds for maintenance, and for a range of social services - including a herbal clinic near the main gate.

Chinese New Year at Wong Tai Sin Temple

Wong Tai Sin Temple is especially popular at Chinese New Year. On New Year's Eve, throngs of people arrive, seeking to place burning incense sticks on the main altar once midnight arrives - as there is supposedly more luck for earlier incense sticks, there can be a massive rush to place the first sticks. Even in days following Chinese New Years's day, the temple is crowded with people who light incense sticks, and move through the complex in slow processions, waving lit incense towards images in halls, and placing incense sticks in bowls. Incense smoke pervades the atmosphere; staff guiding the crowds and burning excess incense wear paper masks as some protection from the fumes.

Fortune Telling

The temple is also known for fortune telling. Some people gather before the main hall, and conduct DIY fortune telling, perhaps shaking pots of bamboo fortune sticks until one falls out, and indicates destiny, then making notes of the results. It's a serious business; intense expressions reveal that some people are making wishes that are dear to their hearts.

Other people prefer to get advice from experts - from the fortune tellers who wait at booths decorated with charts showing palms and faces, and sometimes with photos of famous people who have come to them for advice. The rows of fortune tellers booths were established by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, a charitable organisation that puts some of the revenue towards its services, including hospitals and schools. Some fortune tellers advertise services in English, as well as Chinese.

Tourists are also drawn to Wong Tai Sin Temple, including coachloads of mainland visitors who follow their guides, and perhaps light incense sticks to try and boost their own luck, following a tradition that has ancient roots in China, yet was officially condemned in the mainland under Mao.

Hong Kong

Fat Jong Temple

A wonderful visit !

Fat Jong Temple (法藏寺) is one of the main Buddhist temples in Hong Kong. Set on the northern fringe of Wong Tai Sin, below green hillsides and right beside an electric station with a forest of pylons, it appears modern, spick and span, and colourful. Partly thanks to the location, the pylons, and the paint seeming barely dry, the temple does not feel infused with ancient meaning. Part of the temple complex is a columbarium. Yet incense burns, and there are grand, gilt covered Buddha statues. The temple is around 15 minutes' walk up Sha Tin Pass Road, which heads uphill from the minibus terminus outside Exit A of Wong Tai Sin station. Plus, the temple is along the route of minibus 18M, linking this terminus with Tsz Wan Shan (North).

Fung Tak Park

Just five to ten minutes' walk from Wong Tai Sin Temple, Fung Tak Park (鳳德公園) is a fun place to visit in Wong Tai Sin. It's a compact city park, with the design based on the Chinese classic story Journey to the West - known in the west as being the tale of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

Built in the mid-1990s, the park has artificial mini landscapes based on scenes in Journey to the West. These include a grotto with waterfalls, and the Five Fingers Mountain - which appears rather like a cluster of huge, upside down vases. There are murals and a floor mosaic, too. Wall murals feature paintings based on the adventures of the Monkey King, whose tale was inspired by a pilgrimage to India, made by Buddhist monk Xuanzang. A mosaic of floor tiles outside the Crystal Palace - a circular area featuring a waterfall - portrays a splendid dragon's head.

Trees and ornamental flowers enliven the park. There's also a children's playground.

From the main entrance to Wong Tai Sin Temple, or exit E of Wong Tai Sin MTR station, walk east along Lung Cheung Road. The park is on the left, just before a junction with a highway (Po Kong Village Road).

Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen 衙前圍村

Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen (衙前圍村) is today a rather ramshackle area of southern Wong Tai Sin District, flanked by high-rise apartment blocks. It is of historical significance, as it is the last remaining walled village in Kowloon, and has a history of over 650 years.

Nga Tsin Wai means "the walled village in front of the yamen" [yamen means Chinese official's building - the remains of a yamen are preserved nearby, at the former Kowloon Walled City site]. The village was founded by the Ng, Chan and Lee clans during the Yuan Dynasty, perhaps during the early 14th century - an inscription in the temple says it dates from 1352. According to one story, the clan members were refugees from further north, arriving in Hong Kong as Emperor Duanzong, penultimate emperor of the Song Dynasty, fled Mongol invaders.

Living in walled villages like this helped safeguard residents against attacks by rival clans, tigers, and - especially - bandits and pirates during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Yet it also meant that there was little space for individual houses, and a visit to Nga Tsin Wai shows its houses were closely packed together, in a grid pattern with rows of buildings along narrow alleys just wide enough for two people to pass each other.

During the Second World War, Nga Tsin Wai was reportedly threatened as the occupying Japanese forces worked on extending Kai Tak Airport, but the main village was spared major damage after village heads made representations to Japanese officials.

Today, most houses are gone, demolished by a property developer that owns much of the site. But some remain, a few of them still lived in. These remaining houses are typically in poor condition, partly as development has been planned for two decades or more, so there has been little money or incentive for renovation.

Where houses have been demollshed, grey metal sheets flank the alleys; there are bare concrete floors, a few places where girders prop up remaining buildings. Plants with red flowers grace old rooftops, adding colour to the village, and - like birds such as bulbuls - recalling a time when this village was in a rural setting.

Though now isolated from the sea, Nga Tsin Wai perhaps once stood on or near the shore of Kowloon Bay, as there is a temple to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea. This small temple has been recently renovated. The ancestral hall of the Ng clan is also in good condition and - like the temple, village gatehouse and a few stone houses - plans call for it to be spared demolition, and preserved as new high-rises are built on part of the land. With the new development set to include two high-rise apartment blocks, which seem likely to transform the village character, there has been some controversy over Nga Tsin Wai's future. Perhaps a narrow belt of land between the new blocks will protect a conservation park. Whether this will really balance desires for development and conservation remains to be seen. For the time being, Nga Tsin Wai is interesting to visit; a place that's been caught in limbo between rural past, and modern day urban Hong Kong.

Nga Tsin Wai is around 15 minutes' walk to the south of Wong Tai Sin station. One way of getting there is via Morse Park: from Exit C2 of Wong Tai Sin station, turn right along Ching Tak Street, cross the street at a junction and follow a path through a housing estate garden to find an entrance to Morse Park No. 3. Walk to the much smaller Morse Park No. 2, and after this head right along Tung Fat Road, turning left to the side of Kai Tak Nullah. Here, you are beside Nga Tsin Wai; the entrance faces the nullah.

Morse Park and the Cultural Garden

Morse Park (摩士公園) is one of Hong Kong's largest city parks, with an emphasis on sports facilities for local residents, including soccer pitches, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a skateboarding park. There are trees - especially palms, shrubs such as azaleas, as well as grassy areas and flowerbeds - making it pleasant for strolling through.

Named after after Sir Arthur Morse, the head of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation during and after World War II, the park is in four numbered sections, which are separated from each other by roads.

Morse Park No. 3 is the northernmost and largest of the parks, and includes the soccer pitches, as well as a manicured "butterfly garden". Section No. 4, to the south, is dominated by an outdoor amphitheatre. A fountain plays over rectangular blocks in Morse Park No. 2, and the smallest and easternmost section, No. 1. has a short running trail. A sliver of Morse Park No. 2 has been transformed into Wong Tai Sin Cultural Garden. Here there are some exhibits based on elements of Chinese culture, such as the yin-yang symbol, and a sundial (curiously, indicating 1pm during a visit at after 5pm). The site includes an old well, which is reportedly several centuries old. It is fenced off, and topped with protective modern materials.

Morse Park lies to the southwest of Wong Tai Sin station. From Exit C2, you can walk right along Ching Tak Street, cross the street at a junction, then walk through a housing estate garden to find an entrance to Morse Park No. 3.

Lion Rock

Viewed from many places to the south, Lion Rock has a profile like a gigantic resting lion. With its craggy, 495-metre summit soaring above north Kowloon, it is one of Hong Kong's most distinctive - and most impressive - natural landmarks. It's also a fine hill to climb, whether by following rough trails, or rock climbing routes.

Lion Rock is formed of granite, an igneous rock that resulted from magma cooling beneath volcanoes during the Jurassic Period. Those volcanoes have long since eroded away, exposing the granite, and producing the Kowloon Hills, including Lion Rock. These hills are said to have given rise to the name Kowloon - Nine Dragons, as a boy-emperor counted eight main peaks (dragons), and was reminded by an advisor that he himself was a dragon.

Lion Rock Country Park is named after the hill, which is its main feature. So too were drama series and the series' theme song of the same name, Beneath the Lion Rock - with the song becoming Hong Kong's unofficial anthem.

There are various routes into the country park, and to trails that climb Lion Rock. Near Wong Tai Sin, these include a footpath from Lion Rock Park, and the Maclehose Trail from Sha Tin Pass.

The Maclehose Trail from Sha Tin Pass climbs up and away from the pass, and then winds along the north slopes of Lion Rock, roughly following contours. Two side trails lead southwards, to the top of Lion Rock: both are rather narrow, and many people might find the climb quite tough, perhaps requiring some scrambling in places.

Arriving at the top of Lion Rock, there's a sudden change in scenery, as the cliffs drop away to the south, and Kowloon is spread out below. Hong Kong Island is visible on clear days. North lies Sha Tin, with Tai Mo Shan rising to the northwest; Ma On Shan is closer, to the northeast. The climb may have been challenging, yet is well rewarded, as this is among the most spectacular summits in Hong Kong.

To some people, though, hiking and scrambling are way too easy - they prefer to climb Lion Rock via barely discernible routes on the south face of Lion Rock, which is among the best rock climbing sites in Hong Kong.

Among routes to Lion Rock: from Wong Tai Sin station, walk or take a taxi to Sha Tin Pass, then follow the Maclehose Trail and rough paths to the top. There are also various possibilities for leaving, such as via Amah Rock to Sha Tin. If you plan to hike here, it's wise to take a map in the Countryside Series, together with a mobile phone, plenty of liquids to drink, food, and clothing to suit the weather.