Last weekend, a Malaysian monk I met last year opened a new meditation center in Tsuen Wan, one of Hong Kong’s 18 political districts, situated in the southwest of the New Territories. He used to be the abbot of a Chinese Mahāyāna temple, built in the 1930s. Last year, he had to leave his position and he decided to move back to Malaysia to preach the Dharma there. However, his faithful group of students missed him so much (and with good reasons) that they pleaded him to open his own center in Hong Kong and come back every once in a while to teach the Dharma to them. Within a very short period of time, they found a good location for the center where the students can gather and the monk can share his Buddhist knowledge.
That center is on the sixteenth floor of the TML tower, a recently built (2013), 30-story high, very modern looking commercial building. Standing in front of the building – with its high, imposing entrance hall, and large glass windows – one would never assume that somewhere in this building, religious teachings and practices are going on. I am sure that when I first came to Hong Kong almost two years ago, I would have turned around, thinking surely a Buddhist center cannot be located in such a hypermodern commercial building!
In the past years I have learned, however, that for most religious organizations this is the only possibility to open religious centers. The scarcity of land in Hong Kong not only affects individuals (some of which have no choice but to live in ‘cages’ or rooms of merely four square meters, due to scarcity of rooms and ever-increasing housing and rental prices); it also effects businesses, shop holders and organizations such as religious NGOs. Since they get no government support, they struggle. Naturally, they would love to build large temples, churches or other religious buildings somewhere in Hong Kong’s country side or urban areas, but there is no more space for that. The only option for them is to enter commercial or residential buildings, where rent is high and their existence almost invisible.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a woman who works at a Buddhist center in Causeway Bay, a busy and expensive shopping district on Hong Kong Island. The center occupies about half of the first floor of a commercial building. The center is situated close to an MTR station, it has a large banner outside the building to attract visitors, and – even though it’s small – it is spacious enough for the activities the center organizes. The only problem is the rent, which will go up at the end of this year from HKD 115,000 to HKD 135,000 per month (about € 12,700 or AUD 18,500). Since the center is an NGO and is totally dependent on donations, it struggles. The main question now seems to be: should it stay at its current location, where rent is high but many people come, or should it move to a cheaper, less convenient place and thus attract less followers?
Not only Buddhist organizations struggle with this problem; the same accounts for Christian organizations, particularly Protestant ones (most Catholic organizations have had the luck to have built large churches during the colonial period with the help of the British colonizers, who favored Anglican and Catholic organizations over other religious institutions). Every Sunday morning, I wake up with the sound of dozens of Filipino women visiting the Protestant church in the apartment building next to where I live for their Sunday morning service. Every day, I pass by residential or commercial buildings with small signboards hanging out windows or doors, indicating a Christian organization to be present somewhere in the building.
For the past few months, I have been walking around the streets of Hong Kong (mainly the Kowloon side) with my camera in my hand, trying to capture signs of religious centers tucked away in high buildings. A big cross, surrounded by a sea of other commercial sign boards, indicates there is a Protestant center on the sixth floor of a building; multicolored flags on the top of buildings try to raise awareness for the existence of a Buddhist center in one of the many apartments of another building.
Probably only a small percentage of religious centers has such outward signs, which are only visible to the person who is searching for it (a paradoxical disadvantage of having so many sign boards is that passersby don’t see or notice them anymore). I realize that inside these thousands of tall buildings in Hong Kong, there must be so much more religious centers hidden away from public life, only visible to those who know their existence – just like the Buddhist center I visited last weekend.
How is it ever possible to know what is going on in this region?
Recognize the religious symbols in Hong Kong’s built environment: