We have all seen the brave men who work high up on Hong Kong’s bamboo scaffolding. Heavily tooled, yet balancing on bamboo rods just a handful of inches wide, they are the ones who build Hong Kong, from walkup tenements to towering modern skyscrapers. The construction workers of Hong Kong risk their life every day to ply their craft. Their skills, learned through years of apprenticeship and hands-on experience, are honed to a fine art. And for these skilled artisans, only one deity has their best interests at heart.
Lo Pan is the patron god of builders, carpenters and engineers. His quiet temple in Kennedy Town comes alive with noise and festivities on July 16, as tradesmen celebrate their protector’s birthday. His festival is one of the lesser known celebrations in Hong Kong. Lanterns are strung up along the street and the ceremony begins with Taoist priests conducting rituals before a whole roast pig is offered to Lo Pan. Builders pray to the god for safety and prosperity. Lion and dragon dances are performed outside the temple to entertain the god and the crowds. Special meals called si1 fu6 faan6 (師傅飯) are distributed to those present before officials from the Labour and Welfare Bureau conduct an award ceremony for outstanding members of the construction industry.
Lo Pan (lou5 Baan1 魯班), or Lǔ Bān in Mandarin, was a legendary carpenter, engineer, and inventor who lived between 507 and 440 BC. Born to a wealthy family at the tail end of the chaotic Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), his given name was Gōngshū Yīzhì. What we know of his prowess comes from a series of texts and in particular from the writings of his contemporary, the philosopher Mòzǐ (Mak6 Zi2 墨子). Mòzǐ wrote that Lo Pan invented three groundbreaking devices: a siege device for scaling walls called the cloud ladder, grappling hooks with a ram for naval warfare and a flying wooden bird that could stay in the air for three days. Later texts mention a series of inventions to Lo Pan, including the wooden horse carriage, an automated vehicle with a mechanical horse. There is even a book attributed to Lo Pan called the Lǔ Bān Jīng (Treatise of Lo Pan) that was actually written sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries. The illustrated guide to carpentry techniques is seen as the authoritative book on traditional building methods, including spiritual knowledge regarding temples.
Lo Pan was deified soon after his death, in honour of his achievements, and it did not take long for myths and legends to begin. He is credited with pioneering temple design, and in particular the use of dragons as decorative carvings. One story states that Lo Pan was commissioned to build a fabulous palace. He visited the palace of the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean and asked the king if he could borrow it to use as his template. The dragon king agreed and had the palace flown to the location of Lo Pan’s construction site by his dragons soldiers. Three days later, the dragons came back to return the palace to their king under the ocean, but Lo Pan had not yet finished his own building and resented to give it back. He nailed the palace down to the ground and, try as they might, the dragons could not move it. The dragons collapsed from exhaustion and died. Their bodies dried up and curled around the building. Lo Pan, seeing this, was inspired to redesign his blueprints to incorporate decorative dragon carvings curled around the columns and over the roofs of his commissioned palace, thereby inventing a new style of building. Whether the dragon king roared in furore, or was mystified by the fate of his subjects, nobody knows.
His own temple, Lou5 Baan1 Sin1 Si1 Miu6 (魯班先師廟), located in Kennedy Town, doesn’t have many dragons, but is special for another reason: it is the only one in Hong Kong. More significantly it is one of only two temples solely dedicated to Lo Pan in the whole world. On the mainland, he is found in a handful of temples, but the great engineer is rarely given his own exclusive space. The other temple to Lo Pan is in another former British possession, George Town, in the Malaysian island state of Penang. The Loo Pun Hong was built by the local Chinese carpenter’s guild in 1886, just two years after the one in Hong Kong. Its story echoes that of Hong Kong’s older and grander temple.
During the 19th century, many Chinese craftsmen left the mainland to work in overseas territories like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. As they had to compete with foreign workers, they began to form craft guilds to protect their business interests. Tailors, blacksmiths, potters and other skilled workers banded together for strength in numbers. The carpenter and construction guilds were the most active and also the most disparate, as they came from different parts of China and spoke different languages. The element that bound them together was the worship of Lo Pan. Temples act as meeting halls all over the Chinese diaspora and the Hong Kong Contractor’s Guild built the Lo Pan Temple as a place to worship their patron, but also as a place to meet, settle disputes and make plans under his watchful eye. The commemoration stone in the temple says that when it was built in 1884, contributions were collected from 1,172 people from various towns across Guangdong in order to pay for its construction. The temple was crafted by members of the guild from the constituent groups; carpenters, stone masons and brick workers. In 1921, the temple was acquired by Kwong Yuet Tong, a management organisation run by builders from Hong Kong, which has maintained the temple since then.
The building’s real showmanship can be seen on its façade and roof. The gables point upward like daggers, in a style called “Five Famous Mountains Paying Tribute to Heaven” (ng5 ngok6 ciu4 tin1 五岳朝天). This is the only temple in Hong Kong to have this style, which comes from Hunan province. Between the mountains are beautiful ceramic representations of figures from Chinese history and mythology. These are Shíwān (Shek6 Waan1 石湾) porcelain, a famous style made by artisans from near Foshan in Guangdong. Above the well-cut door lintel is a set of eleven murals that make one tableau featuring immortals and figures from history. The temple has 26 murals, all of which are painted to the highest standard. On either side of the door are scenes rendered in plaster depicting more scenes from history. From its roof to its foundations, the temple was built by artists and craftsmen who wanted Lo Pan’s protection and favour. Each tiny detail is styled to perfection to please the god who protects their interests.The Hong Kong Lo Pan Temple is an elaborate 3D storybook of Chinese mythology, rendered in wood, plaster, stone, paint and ceramic by the finest craftsmen in the territory. It is a unique, intangible piece of Hong Kong heritage that doesn’t get the number of visitors it deserves. Even with the extension of the MTR, the temple still sits high on the hillside, on a street that can only be reached by foot, putting off all but the most dedicated visitors. The Lo Pan festival breathes life into the figures that adorn the remarkable building. The sleepy temple is animated with noise, smells and activity that are not seen at other times of the year. The modern tradesmen of Hong Kong celebrate their predecessors who crafted the structure with such finesse more than 130 years ago as well as honouring their god. The festival is a living connection to the early days of Hong Kong and the men who built it. Their names may not be on their creations, but the builders and craftsmen of Hong Kong are recognised at Lo Pan’s home.
Find the Lo Pan Temple in Kennedy Town, on Ching Lin Terrace at Li Po Lung Path. The festival is celebrated on the 13th day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, which falls on July 16, 2016.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.