Sunday, June 14, 2015

In which I attempt to explain antiques and temples.

Ok, first and foremost, I have to let you know that I’m kind of thrilled and intrigued about the Great Firewall of China. This is to say that China is pretty infamous for censoring what its citizens can and cannot see on the Internet, so the joke is that they live behind the Great Firewall of China. I logged in to Google this morning to check e-mail and see some friends graduate (congrats from HK, Class of 2015!), and discovered this as my homepage.

Wikipedia tells me that actually, HK is left pretty much to itself as far as Internet censorship goes. It’s still illegal to post or traffic the basics (child porn, obscene images, pirated material) but no government license is needed to operate a webpage. More interestingly, no website – regardless of its political views – is supposed to be blocked in HK.

So in the end, I am not behind the Great Firewall. Max and I have got a daytrip to Macau (on mainland China) planned for later this week, but that’s about it. It’s a little anti-climatic, but also makes me love the city more. So far, I’d totally live here.

… assuming I had a ridiculously high-paying job. Maybe they’re hiring articling students ;)

The humidity is something to get used to though. Wow. Where I grew up, and where I attend class, it’s pretty bone dry. Case in point, average humidity is 20% or so. The humidity is higher when it rains (~40-60%), but that’s about as humid as I tend to see in either Calgary or Kamloops. Haha… Hahahahahahaha! That’s cute by HK standards. Here it’s been between 75-90% humidity since I landed. Guys, that’s like… 1000% by my shrivelled little Canadian standards! Max is laughing because he’s already used to minimum 30-degree weather, so the humidity is a nice change for him. He could wander outside in this temperature comfortably all day, and as I write this, he is in fact out for a run.

Just in case this wasn’t clear, I’m hiding in the hotel lobby nibbling tiny pancakes with the AC.

The weather does some pretty cool things with the vegetation though. Remember when I mentioned that the whole city is covered in trees? It really is. Here the trees grow right up and through the retaining walls that are standard fare in HK.

The whole city is built on rolling hills, so of course there are retaining walls everywhere.

I love it. It softens the city, and breaks up the stone, metal, glass, and concrete that extends for miles around us.

The city also has a mind-boggling number of parks and green spaces, ranging in size from a couple squared hectares to just a small plaza with benches, sculptures and trees.  

Yes, that is a waterfall of stairs next to pedestrian stairs.
The greenery extends into the nicer alleyways, and many of the littler plazas have memorials or statues that are steeped in the history of this place.

Aside from my newfound obsession with trees, I spent yesterday morning antique shopping and temple-hunting. Hollywood Street isn’t far from our hotel, and it’s a veritable hub of antique shops and historic fine art galleries. If you’re looking for a sculpture carved out of bone – something I hadn’t thought about until I wandered down there – Soho is the place to go. I’m a little unsettled given that the art tends to be advertised as mammoth and elephant tusk carvings, but I have to admire the mastery of the work. The most fascinating piece did look like a massive tusk, and had been carved in minute detail as a stampede of horses coming out of the trees on one side, and then back up into the tree on the other end. There are signs all over the display windows stating ‘No Photos!’, so unfortunately I can’t show you what I’ve seen, but it’s something else.

I don’t know what the law states in China, but it’d definitely be illegal for me to bring something like that home to Canada.

The antiques that have most captured my imagination are the fans and court portraits though. Specifically from the Ming dynasty. Everything I had a question about turned out to be from the Ming dynasty. The antique specialist seemed to enjoy it.

Anyway, it turns out that the folding fan I typically associate with China is actually a scholar’s fan. It’s usually covered in writing, and is a part of what identifies the scholar’s station. A lady’s fan, by comparison, is round and has a handle pointing straight out the bottom. It doesn’t fold, because aside from helping to keep its owner cool, it’s used to hide behind and protect her modesty. Even as recently as 100 years or so ago, it was considered immodest for a proper lady to see a man outside her family, so the fan was a way to protect that modesty and allow greater mobility.

The court portraits are amazing as well. Just like kings and queens in Europe had their portraits done in oil paintings, court officials and high ranking families in China had their portraits done on rice paper. These portraits weren’t really for display, but they are beautiful. I received a crashcourse in court dress from one of the ladies in what is now my favourite antique shop.

Most court-goers wore a plain red robe overtop of their personal dress, with a mandarin square indicating their rank on the chest and back of the robe. The animal on the mandarin square indicates rank. The lion or the tiger is the highest, followed by the phoenix, and at least four other birds. Above court-goers with mandarin squares,  members of the royal family were permitted to wear a red robe with a four-clawed dragon embroidered into the fabric. The more dragons, the more closely related the person was to the Emperor. A five-clawed dragon was reserved for the Emperor himself. A purple robe indicated a very prestigious, highly-ranked scholar.

Anyway, we walked through basically the whole second and third floor of this antique shop and I had a wonderful time learning about court dress in the Ming dynasty. You should now clearly lose your afternoon Wikipedia-ing Ming dynasty court dress.

Once I’d had my fill of antiques, I went to check out some of the local temples. The Man Mo temple was the largest, and the first. The temple is dedicated to two gods, who are linked to writing and justice. The temple itself was used as a site for mediation and conflict resolution between the British and the Chinese during colonisation, and functioned as a neutral negotiation spot even when relations were tense.

The whole ceiling inside the temple is covered in massive spirals of incense, so everything smells earthy despite being right off a main road in the middle of Hong Kong. If you’re planning on asking the gods for a favour, or good luck, you have to light incense to place at the alter in front of them. If you’re looking for particularly strong luck, or a big favour, you ask a priest to sing a chant and beat a little metal drum while you pray and give the incense offering. This is supposed to attract attention to your favour, and mark it as something of greater importance than normal.

The priests at the temples I’ve been to so far are referred to as uncles, and will often have little hand written signs hanging off their desks offering to read your palm or tell your fortune in English or Cantonese. I haven’t been quite comfortable enough in a temple yet to have my fortune told for a donation, but I have lit incense, wished for good luck, and bowed respectfully.  The incense is particularly important because it’s what sustains the dead. If a family member passes away and you don’t light incense at their shrine, they starve.

I’m not entirely sure of the theology or mythology this is grounded in, but I do like that the practice draws families together. I also sincerely hope I have not offended anyone with my very abbreviated explanation of temple procedures.

The temple staff, priests, and general public were aware that handling the incense without gloves was a bad idea. I was not, so I left thoroughly scented, and covered in... stuff.
Max and I have agreed that we need to have our fortunes told before we leave, and Hong Kong is filled with temples, so I’ll be sure to keep you posted for when we have the mysteries of the future unveiled!

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