Serving the Gods: A Day With a Temple Keeper in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, every temple is packed with myths, tales, art and history. But some of the most overlooked stories are those of their keepers, the temple guardians that work quietly in the midst of incense smoke and ritual offerings.

At Tung Chung’s Hau Wong Temple, Hyelyong Tung starts every day with a 250-year-old ritual, striking a bronze bell and hitting a drum simultaneously 108 times. “This is to notify Hau Wong and the people near and far that the temple is ready to serve,” he says.

Hau Wong is widely believed to be the immortal incarnation of Yeung Leung-jit, one of the loyal protectors of the last two Song Dynasty emperors in the 13th century. Hong Kong is home to a handful of Hau Wong temples, and the one in Tung Chung has been standing in the village of Sha Tsui Tau since 1765, making it one of the oldest surviving temples in Hong Kong.

Legend has it that Tung Chung was once hit by a plague, and villagers acquired a statue of Hau Wong from his temple in Kowloon City and used it to build their own temple. They chose a hugely symbolic location. In the final days of the Song Dynasty, the imperial court was forced to flee from the invading Mongols. It eventually made its way to Lantau, which is where the last emperors met their demise. Yeung Leung-jit is said to have lost his life in a sea battle around Tung Chung Bay, the exact spot the temple now overlooks. It was Yeung’s bravery and sacrifice in this battle that earned him the status of a god.

This rich yet turbulent history has been inherited by Tung. At 35, he is probably the youngest keeper in the industry, and he has only been looking after the Hau Wong Temple since 2017. But his relationship with the sacred space goes back much further than that. Before he took over, it was Tung’s father who looked after the temple, and Tung spent his childhood roaming its halls.

Tung’s father had spent his own childhood the same way. He began helping out in temples at the age of seven. “He knew everything about managing a temple,” says Tung. In 1999, Tung’s father was invited by the Tung Chung Rural Committee to run the Hau Wong Temple. He enjoyed an 18-year tenure and a friendly relationship with the worshippers, one of whom even gifted him a German Shepherd puppy, which he named Raddy.

Raddy accompanied Tung’s father until the end. One night, the old temple keeper slipped and took a fatal tumble. With no one in sight, Raddy ran to the main road and awaited help. When a villager finally passed by, Raddy caught her by the trousers and pulled her to the temple, where she discovered the body of Tung’s father.

During his bereavement, Tung paid no mind to the idea of taking over the temple, although it must have seemed inevitable, as he was his family’s only child. “I could feel he was worn down by his work,” he recalls. “He worked constantly and we never had much quality time spent together as a family. I did not understand or think too much [of it] back then.” But his father had already planned the transition, “as if he could sense his upcoming end,” he says.

Tung missed his father terribly, and it was his grief that finally took him down the path of becoming a temple keeper. “The temple is the only place that I can have flashbacks to his life,” he says. He reminisces by reliving his father’s daily routine, and by looking at the objects his father left throughout the temple. “That is why I want to stay,” he says.

It’s enough to drive him forward. In order to take over the temple, Tung had to study a vast syllabus of history, rituals, architecture and maintenance in order to pass exams held by Chinese Temple Committee. On the surface, running a temple may appear to be a profession, but Tung sees it as fulfilling a promise to Hau Wong. He serves the deity as well as his worshippers, building relationships between them. These worshippers visit the temple for a number of reasons — to pray, to seek guidance and support, to express gratitude for blessings — and Tung is always there to help.

As in most temples, the most common way to worship at the Hau Wong Temple is to burn joss sticks or incense coils. Wishes and prayers ascend with the smoke to reach the almighties above. When worshippers are looking for divine guidance, they play lottery poetry or kau4 chim1 (求籤), which involves shaking a bamboo cylinder containing 100 sticks. Each stick has a number assigned to it that corresponds to a specific oracle or line of poetry; whatever stick falls out first contains the answer to the worshipper’s question.

Sometimes, as a backup, a practice known as zaak6 bui1 (擲杯) is performed in front of the altar. This involves throwing a pair of moon or crescent-shaped blocks — which have one round side and one flat side — on the ground. How they land is believed to be an another sign of divine guidance.

Tung sees himself as a vessel between the human realm and divine plane. He avoids having too many distractions in his daily thinking. “If there’s something you should do, you should love doing it,” he says with an air of serenity. “I take things one day at a time without thinking ahead how long I should or would be doing it.” At the same time, he enjoys getting to know his late father’s work, including the obstacles faced and the emotions he must have felt in the face of his temple duties. “Humans have attachments,” he says. “When you miss someone, how do you think of that person?” The temple provides him with the answer.

Just as his father once was, Tung is always tied up at work. His daily service hours are from 6am to 5pm, Monday to Sunday, without any official days off. In the particularly busy period around Lunar New Year’s Eve, he doesn’t even have a chance to sleep. This year, “I only had half an hour of sleep,” he says. He has adjusted his mindset to cope with the demands of his work. “There is no need to compare it with my previous jobs in any way,” he says. His wife often visits with their two young children, aged six and seven, for family time.

Despite being a temple keeper, Hyelyong is agnostic in his beliefs. “I believe in everything, but I am not religious,” he says. In his eyes, a healthy religion is based on a high level of inclusivity and tolerance. “You can believe something without being dogmatic about it,” he says. “It’s about respect.”

Unlike many Hong Kong temples, which are run almost like a business, with various services designed to earn as much money as possible, Tung keeps his service menu simple. Donations are strictly optional and they are used for the maintenance of the temple. The sale of offerings including incense, candles and oil is the temple’s major source of income, and this revenue can be highly variable.

“When you decide to do something, if you do not think about the monetary returns, then you will be more at ease,” he says. He elaborates further with a big grin. “If you are a big spender, no matter how much you make, you will feel the pressure,” he says. “At this very moment, I do not have this concern. But I am not sure if I will feel the same tomorrow. All I care is if everything inside the temple is in good order and well-prepared for worshippers, what is the difference between making one dollar more and one dollar less?”

Tung wanders off for some playtime with Raddy, the dog that tried to save his father’s life. While he devotes himself to connecting Hau Wong with his worshippers, the temple itself keeps alive the ties between Tung and his father – an unbroken circle of life and devotion. He thinks about that when his own family comes to visit him at the temple.

“Seeing my children spend time at the temple reminds me of my childhood,” he says. His own path to being temple keeper “could have been a coincidence, or it could have been fate,” he says. “But when the time felt right, it was natural for me to take this step.”

 

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