Goddess of the Sea, Tin Hau

The temple at Yau Ma Tei, honoring Tin Hau (a.k.a Mazu), is one of many temples in Hong Kong dedicated to the Sea Goddess. The temple, which was once located along the coastline, now sits amidst the urban landscape of Kowloon due to reclamation projects.

While there are multiple versions of the legend, all stories agree that Tin Hau was once a real girl born during the Song Dynasty to the Lin family and given the name Mo Niang meaning “silent girl”.  She was the only daughter of a fishing family, and one day during a horrible storm she “fell asleep” / went into a trance where she envisioned the men of her family at sea drowning.  In this state she was able to guide some of her family to safety; however, her mother finding Mo Niang asleep attempted to wake her, breaking Mo Niang’s trance resulting in the loss of the rest of her family.  The family members that survived returned home reporting a miracle had occurred.

To this day Tin Hau is revered by those whose lives are governed by the sea.

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Tin Hau Temple at Yau Ma Tei

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Incense hangs from the temples ceiling.

 

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Mazu (Tin Hau) sits in the middle of the temple.

For a more in-depth look into Lin Mo Niang’s story check out this post by Heathen Chinese: Mazu: The Story of Lin Mo Niang.

Or for more full variations of the legend: Mazu , Chinese Goddess of the SeaMazu – The Goddess of the SeaChinese Folktales

Songbirds of China

The keeping of Songbirds has been a cultural tradition among the Chinese since the Qing Dynasty.DSC02906

While this tradition seems to be dying out among the younger generations today, you can still witness the remnants of this long standing pastime at various parks and gardens throughout China.  In Hong Kong, Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is one such place.  

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Early in the morning men gather with their covered birdcages in tow.  The cages are covered so as not to rouse the birds too early, and hung on perches throughout the garden.  One by one the covers are removed so the birds can socialize – yes, that’s right “socialize” – and sing-in the morning.  

Amidst the “recreational areas,”  are a variety of shops selling beautifully hand-crafted cages, something worth considering as a gift/souvenir (even if it remains bird-free).

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Bird cages for sale

Repair shop for broken / damaged cages

Repair shop for broken / damaged cages

Hand-crafted bird cage with porcelain water bowls

Hand-crafted bird cage with porcelain water bowls

As an animal lover be warned, a walk through the garden, while interesting from a cultural perspective, can cause some upset; because of course, among the shops selling cages, are also shops selling birds.

Songbirds for sale

Songbirds for sale

In many cases, there were an appropriate allotment of birds per cage (if there can be such a thing) with only one or two finches/larks/canaries in each cage.   However, as I neared the end of the garden it was disconcerting to observe some very large birds held in cages barely big enough to hold them or too many birds stuffed into one cage.

As depressing as this is, I suppose the silver lining – if there is to be one- is that the birds that are purchased are well taken care of by their owners.  The proper care of songbirds is an intricate part of this long standing tradition and a point of pride among the owners.  The birds are bathed, “walked,” and fed healthy meals daily.  After all, an unhappy bird won’t sing.

The Markets of Kowloon

It’s been quite a while since my last post… But instead of regaling you with excuses -um, I mean, reasons – as to why its been so long, lets just get on with it shall we …

Encompassing just under 10sq km (that is less than 4sq miles folks), Kowloon, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, is home to a myriad of markets.

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Trekking through the markets can seem like an easy way to spend an afternoon, especially when starting out at the Flower Market and winding your way over to Yuen Po Street Bird Garden (more on that in the next post).

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Even the Jade Market is a breeze to walk through.

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But, traveler be warned, as you make your way into the bustling street markets and edge your way closer to Mong Kok you had better pay close attention to your surroundings.

As the buildings rise up, the narrow streets fill with people, making it is quite easy to lose one’s way.

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Inevitably, this would have been my fate (wandering aimlessly amidst a sea of people in this urban maze), had it not been for Danny. With his guidance we were artfully led through the shops, stalls, and hordes of people to find refuge in a less frantic, and thereby more enjoyable, space: Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market.

Yau Ma Tei Fruit Market has been around since 1913. Pre-World War II signs still hang on the outer walls of the building and the market has been exclusively selling fruit here since 1965.

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To finish up a day of being overstimulated for entirely too long of a period, head on over to a roof-top bar to grab a drink and unwind. Alternatively, you could always crawl back to your hotel room and take a nap, but nah, who needs sleep?…😉

 DSC02984Couple of Tips:

*If you are interested in seeing the markets of Kowloon sign up for a tour! It’s the easiest way to experience them (and NOT get lost).  I highly recommend Hong Kong Urban Adventures (and no, in case you are wondering, I am not getting paid to endorse this company.  The tour was very good and worth doing.  Danny is extremely knowledgeable and a great guide. ) The actual tour I did was “Around Kowloon in 8 Markets” – if you’re interested.

*Wear comfy shoes – though it’s a small area to cover, there is a lot of winding and back-tracking through the streets.

*Bring water! It gets very very hot.

*If you forgo a tour, bring a map/smart phone with GPS, and don’t be afraid to ask for directions! Seriously, it gets very confusing – especially once you’re in Mong Kok.

Island of the PINK Dolphin

Though in this story its islands, emphasis on the plural, and there are actual dolphins, and the dolphins are pink! Okay, technically they are white.  And I suppose when you get right down to it, this story has nothing at all to do with the book.  But I liked the title.  So there you have it. . .

Off the coast of Hong Kong, between the waters of Hong Kong island and Mainland China, live the Chinese White Dolphins (known scientifically as Sousa Chinensis).  These dolphins are only found in, and around, southern China.  In Hong Kong, the dolphins are mostly found around Lantau; in the waters near Tai O  and the surrounding islands of Sha Chau, Lung Kwu Chau, and The Brothers.

Pink Dolphins

The dolphins, originally thought to carry albinism, are actually born a dark grey.  As they age, their grey coloring fades to white.  I learned through my guide that scientists aren’t certain why this occurs, but there are two main theories.

  • The first:  when looking at satellite imagery of their habitat, the waters in their area are dense and cloudy with debris and silt.  The sunlight can not penetrate the water enough to maintain proper melanin production in the dolphins; therefore, they lose the pigmentation they are born with.
  • The second: is an evolutionary one; in the areas these dolphins reside, they have no natural predators.  (The only natural predators of dolphins are sharks).  The absence of predators has made the need for camouflage (the typical blue and grey coloring) nonexistent.  Through many years, these dolphins have lost this particular trait.

So, now we know – well have theories anyway –  why these dolphins lack pigmentation.  But, if they are really “white” dolphins, why are the called “pink?”  Well, I’ll tell you. . . they are flushed! No, seriously!  The dolphins are in fact white, but when they exert themselves,  their capillaries expand to allow increased blood flow through the skin’s surface and help cool them off – much like us humans.   The more the dolphin exerts itself, the more flushed it becomes.  Hence, pink dolphins!  Cool huh!?!

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While on the way to the boat the guide informed our group that at last count there were only 75 White Dolphins still in existence.  When I asked him if there were an type of conservation efforts being made he said there is very little being done and that  “protecting marine life has never been our (Hong Kong’s) priority, and Mainland China is worse.”  Sadly, this didn’t come as a shock. 

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Accompanying our group was a marine biologist who is studying and tracking these dolphins.  I learned from her that one of the problems (in addition to bureaucracy, pollution, destruction of habitat, overfishing, sewage, and sea traffic) in trying to conserve the species is that these particular dolphins do very poorly in captivity.  Efforts were once made to increase population density by breeding them in captivity and releasing them back into their natural habitats, but these have ceased.  However, on a somewhat brighter side, she did share that they have an updated database of 96 documented and actively tracked dolphins.  She said the number is quite small, but there has been a slight increase since Hong Kong put a ban on fishing trawlers and made it illegal to kill or harm dolphins.

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Big Buddha of Lantau

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Tian Tan Buddha, also known as the Big Buddha.

No visit to Hong Kong would be complete without a short stop over in Lantau Island to view the big Buddha statue: Tian Tan Buddha.  Sitting atop a 240 step climb, the Buddha itself is 112 feet tall, making it visible from afar.

Tian Tan Buddha seen from the cable car as we cleared the mountain

The metro ride from Hong Kong is a fairly simple one and once you reach Lantau you can either take a bus or do as we did and opt for the cable car ride through the mountains.

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You should note however, that the cable car ride is not recommended for those afraid of heights as the climb is pretty steep and as you pass through the canyons the wind tends to make the cars sway back and forth.

Once there, take some time to explore the area.  The trek up to the Buddha is a bit touristy with its shops, but directly across from the Buddha is Po Lin Monastery (unfortunately, while we were visiting, the monastery was closed to visitors for repairs. It is scheduled to open again in December of this year).

To the left of the Buddha you can follow the trail to the Wisdom Path  and some hiking trails around Lantau.

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On the day we visited the weather was very poor.  As we made our way past the Wisdom Path, the hiking trails began to narrow and disappear into the clouds rolling down the mountain.  Since we  couldn’t really see anything anyway, we decided it wasn’t worth continuing on.  It was a good decision on our parts too, because once we made it down, the mountain was completely engulfed.

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A visit to the Big Buddha is a great way to spend your day.  Depending on how much trekking/exploring you plan on doing you’ll probably only need about a half day.

Click on the image to view the Gallery

Click on the image to view the Gallery

Tips:

  • Wear comfy shoes if you are going climb up to the top of the Buddha or go trekking around Lantau.
  • If you are planning on taking the cable car, buy your tickets on-line (there tends to be a long line to purchase upon arrival).
  • To avoid too many crowds get there early in the morning or stay late towards closing time. * This last shot was taken about 10 minutes to closing when the monks were starting the evening prayers, you can see there is hardly anyone left on the grounds.

All Who Wander…

Are sometimes lost….

Like, for example, when you are eating brunch in a new place …

The Pawn Restaurant

A brunch that just happens to be so good that upon leaving you completely forget that you’ve left your map on the table, only to realize this once you’ve vacated the premises and find yourself on the streets of Hong Kong with no idea of where you are!

Oh, and of course … no cell service…

So it was, that we found ourselves wandering around the streets of HK when we happened upon this place:

Oldest Post Office in Hong Kong

Old Wan Chai Post Office

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From here we walked until we came across this blue building:Blue buildingAnd followed the road it sits on, until it dead-ended in this stone archway:

Stone Archway

Which, just so happens to sit directly to the right of this amazing little temple:

Click on the image to view Pak Tai Temple Gallery

Click on the image to view Pak Tai Temple

Which only goes to show that getting lost is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when aimless wanderings lead to the discovery of some pretty cool places!

I suppose, in hindsight, I could have just stopped somewhere and bought another map, but hey where’s the fun in that!

“The New York of Asia”

Before embarking on our little trip to Hong Kong I was repeatedly told that I was headed to “The New York of Asia,” and that I would LOVE it. . .

Having lived in “The Real New York” (aka Manhattan), I was highly skeptical of these claims.  After all, wasn’t I repeatedly told that “Singapore is like New York.”!?! – Which, by the way, it isn’t.  Don’t get me wrong, Singapore does have it’s charms, but equating the two is like saying that home-made boxed brownies are just as good as the gourmet bakery items down the street.  Both are good in their own ways, but they are so not the same thing.  Anyway, back on track. . .

Hong Kong. . . as it turns out, is very much like New York!  Though perhaps a bit more crowded, congested, polluted and grittier.  All that aside, I really did fall in love with this crazy city, or at least, fall in nostalgia (is that even a saying?).   This city was so much like NY that sometimes when snapping photos I had to make an effort to capture signs in Cantonese to prove that I wasn’t just wandering the streets back home…

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