Friday, September 09, 2005

The Man Mo Temple

If one saunters down Hollywood Road from Central (named after the Holly Wood bushes that once grew there, rather than the famed land of movie studios), passing the many antique shops, one eventually arrives at a rather old part of Hong Kong. To your right, is Hollywood Road Park, the site of Possession Point, where Captain Edward Belcher raised the Union Jack on January 26, 1841. And to your left will be the Man Mo Temple. As one's guidebook will tell you, it is dedicated to two gods, the God of Literature (Man) and the God of War (Mo).

Although amusingly Hong Kong is neither particularly warlike nor literary-minded, the Temple remains popular for people from all walks of life - students hoping for a good score on exams and civil servants alike pray to the former deity, whereas policemen, triads and some people of more dubious professions seek succor from the latter. Just before Chinese New Year in particular, you will find the place quite packed full of people (and as you can imagine, the carcinogenic incense smoke makes it quite difficult to see or breathe).

What is not often reported though, is that the temple was actually founded by two wealthy brothel owners right after the founding of the colony (a shrine had already been on that spot for some time). These two gents were Tanka boat-people that had become very wealthy by collaborating with the British during the Opium War and getting them the supplies they needed. They were rewarded for their services with generous grants of land in the new colony, on which they promptly built cheap tenements and houses of ill fame. Loo Aqui in particular, was also given a monopoly to run the wet market in the Chinese district of Taipingshan. Sadly for him, it burnt down and he never quite recovered from that blow. He and his contemporaries dominated the Chinese scene in early Hong Kong for its first two decades though; it actually turned many more reputable Chinese for immigrating to the city because of their low status and uncouth mannerisms. However, fortunately for Hong Kong, the devastating holocaust of the Taiping Rebellion brought a more wealthy, urbane class of merchants to the budding Colony.

Because it was the most prominent institution amongst the Hong Kong Chinese for the first decades, the leadership of the temple also became the proxy leadership with whom the British leadership consulted in the rare times they chose to solicit Chinese opinion. They also began to take on extraterritorial powers in adjudicating disputes between Chinese, rather than involve the alien forms of British justice. This leadership role continued until the 1860s (read Elizabeth Sinn's excellent work on this subject) when it ended thanks to Governor Richard Graves Macdonnell. This Irishman was quite reserved and was strict with the Chinese community; however, he was the first (and only) Governor to permit the sale of gambling licenses in Hong Kong. This experiment made so much money for the government coffers (and almost all of it from the Chinese) that he felt duty-bound to give something back to them. That was the Tung Wah Hospital, built on the gambling revenues of the 1860s. That institution gradually became the social, economic and one could argue, the political centre of power of Chinese Hong Kong until well into the 20th century.

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