Ultimate guide to the Buddha's birthday in Hong Kong
Nothing embodies Hong Kong’s jumbled spirituality better than today, Lord Buddha’s birthday.
The day is important for local Buddhists of course, but coincidentally is a significant day for other unrelated religions too.
The spiritual and the spiritual tourist will have ample room for seeking enlightenment as the city’s large-scale celebrations for Buddha, as well as for Taoist god Tam Kung and Pak Tai all take place. Macau will also be holding its annual Drunken Dragon parade according to local custom.
Bathing Buddha Ceremony
Approximately 500,000 Buddhists live in Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. The organization began hosting large-scale “Bathing Buddha” events in 1999, following the custom practiced by Buddhists worldwide on Buddha's birthday.
This year’s ceremonies moved to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wanchai. Non-Buddhists are welcome to join.
“The true meaning of the rite is purification of your own soul,” says Pico Cheung, executive officer of Public Affairs. “For onlookers, it might be interesting to see, but the meaning is different.”
Group chanting and prayer sessions will run throughout Tuesday. Those who are unable to join in the Grand Hall may queue to perform the “Rite of Purification” for free at special booths in the foyer.
The rite involves bowing, offering a prayer chant, and pouring fragrant water onto the head of a small Buddha statue.
May 10, 9:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door for HK$20. Grand Hall, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai.
Buddhist temples, shrines and monasteries
Buddhist temples will be packed. The following are notable temples and monasteries, each built during the past 100 years and offering vegetarian dining.
Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island is best known for its proximity to the Tian Tan Big Buddha, the world’s largest, seated outdoor Buddha. The public is welcome to Buddha Bathing rituals between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. in the Hall of the Great Hero.
Today is also the final day of a weeklong Shaolin Kung Fu variety show from noon until 1 p.m. and 2-3 p.m. The monastery is accessible by bus or cable car from Tung Chung MTR Station.
Chi Lin Nunnery will hold “Bathing Buddha” ceremonies from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Chi Lin is located outside the Diamond Hill MTR Station, Exit C2.
Miu Fat Monastery is a complex adjacent to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda. The monastery is currently under renovations but is open to the public. It will hold Bathing Buddha rituals from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. The monastery is located at 18 Castle Peak Road, Lam Tei, Tuen Mun, New Territories.
The Temple of 10,000 Buddhas is notable for its steep access path, lined by more than 10,000 unique golden Buddha statues.
The Temple will serve complimentary vegetarian noodles on a first-come-first-served basis starting from 9 a.m. in addition to Buddha Bathing rituals for the public between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The temple is located at 220 Pai Tau Village, Sha Tin near the Sha Tin KCR.
If you want to visit the origins of Buddhism in Hong Kong, you must journey to Tuen Mun. That’s where Buddhism was first documented in the region, said Sik Hin Hung, the Acting Director of the University of Hong Kong’s Center of Buddhist Studies.
Sik said that three monasteries and temples in New Territories are more than 1,000 years old. The oldest is Tsing Shan Monastery.
“The exact age of the monastery is not so clear, because it’s been torn down and rebuilt over the course of 1,000 years,” Sik said.
The Tsing Shan Monastery -- also called Castle Peak Monastery -- is located at the end of Tsing Shan Monastery Path near Tuen Mun.
Ling To Temple is also ancient, dating back to the Ming Dynasty, and is located near Lau Fau Shan on a road jutting from the Kong Sham Western Highway.
The Cheung Chau Bun Festival
Bun-mania has descended on the sleepy island of Cheung Chau this week. Organizers expect more than 20,000 visitors today, the final festival day.
Bakeries have been working round the clock to supply enough steamed buns stamped with the Chinese character “peace.” More buns cover phallic bun-tower shrines across from Taoist deity Pak Tai’s temple.
Wandering ghosts supposedly feast on the ceremonious towers. Three giant paper statues of the god of the ghosts, mountain and earth, make sure that baked offerings are distributed evenly to wayward spirits, said Bun Festival Director Yung Chi-ming.
The festival dates back 200 years ago. Ghosts of pirates once caused a plague on the island, until the fishermen discovered Pak Tai’s sword in the water. The islanders then marched a statue of Pak Tai through the streets. The commotion scared the spirits away. Plague vanished, and the event became a tradition.
Islanders observe a vegetarian diet and offer prayers during three days to honor Pak Tai and appease any spirits who could again plague the island.
Even McDonalds offers an all-vegetarian menu during the festival. Yung said it’s the only all-vegetarian McDonald’s in the world, for those three days only.
All deities from the island’s eight temples join in the annual spirit-banishing parade, which runs 2-4 p.m. from Pak Tai Temple.
The parade includes costumed children hoisted on poles (a tradition borrowed from Fujian Province), lion dancers and community groups. The grand finale is a bun tower competition, which starts midnight at the soccer pitch.
The giant paper god of the ghosts is incinerated on the waterfront just beforehand, and Yung said the other paper giants are burned after the bun scramble.
Winners of the scramble will take away gold-plated buns as prizes.
At 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, all are welcome to queue outside Pak Tai’s temple for the buns stripped from ceremonial bun towers.
Each bun holds magic medicinal power, Yung said. “Someone could eat the bun to get well. If they’re not sick, they may put it on a shrine at home. The bun won’t mold for the entire year.”
Tam Kung’s Birthday
Fishermen and sailors have long worshiped Tam Kung for protection at sea. The deity enjoys strong local folklore in Hong Kong.
Legend has it that Tam Kung was a 12-year-old boy when he became a god. He lived in Guangdong’s Huizhou prefecture during the Yuan Dynasty. He supposedly accomplished many good deeds in a previous life, which allowed him to become a deity so young.
The lunar calendar date when he became a god is celebrated as his “birthday.” Any connection with Buddha’s Birthday is purely coincidental, said Heng Ching, Chief Secretary of the Shau Kei Wan Dragon Boat Association.
The region’s largest Tam Kung celebration takes place over three days in Shau Kei Wan. Festivities began on Sunday. Cantonese opera and other attractions will entertain outside the temple on Monday evening.
Today, a dragon dance parade will begin at 9 a.m. outside the Shau Kei Wan Municipal Services Building on East Street, followed by lion dances and other performances in front of the temple between 10-11 a.m.
Heng Ching is one of the festival organizers and a longtime Shau Kei Wan resident. He tells the story of how Hong Kong’s oldest Tam Kung Temple came into existence:
“Over 100 years ago, an immigrant from Huizhou brought the statue of Tam Kung with him to Hong Kong. He missed home after several years working in Hong Kong, but when he tried to return with Tam Kung in his luggage, he found the backpack extremely heavy. He stopped to rest after several attempts, and the backpack only grew heavier. So he didn’t leave that day.
“That night, in his dream, a child spoke to the man. The child said he wanted a temple right here at the water’s edge. The worker built a little temple for the statue. In the old days, the Tam Kung Temple was right beside the sea. People came to believe in Tam Kung because many seafarers worshiped him before leaving for the ocean. Even if they encountered dangerous situations, they always came back safe, so the number of believers increased. They built the current temple 104 years ago.”
Heng said that Tam Kung has produced two miracles in Shau Kei Wan: The first occurred before the temple was built in the current location. A plague troubled the residents and Tam Kung possessed a man named Chong. Through the sickly man, the god instructed residents to hold a parade to drive away evil spirits.
Chong sat in a knife-covered chair during the parade and splashed boiling oil in his face to prove his supernatural powers.
The second miracle involved a raid during WWII. A bomb exploded during the day in the middle of East Street. No one was injured. Local residents believed that Tam Kung protected them. Other Tam Kung temples in Hong Kong are located at Ping Chau and Happy Valley.
Macau also holds a large Tam Kung celebration in Coloane Village with Cantonese opera performances from Monday until Friday this week at the Coloane Tam Kung Temple.
Shau Kei Wan celebrations for Tam Kung. Tam Kung Temple Road, MTR Shau Kei Wan Station Exit B1, walk along Shau Kei Wan Main Street East to the Tam Kung Temple. Enquiries: Shau Kei Wan Community Federation, +852 2560 7030.
Feast of the God Tam Kung in Coloane, 10:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Coloane Village (bus-stop at Coloane Village). Enquires: +853 2888 0170.
Cantonese Opera Celebrating the Feast of the God Tam Kung. May 10, 12, 1 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., May 11, 13, 7:45 p.m. Tam Kung Temple Square, Coloane Admission: MOP 250, 150, 60, 40 Enquires: +853 2888 2161.
Macau’s Drunken Dragon Festival
The festival has two rules: 1. You must drink alcohol before joining the Drunken Dragon Dance. 2. Only men can perform.
“If we weren’t (a little) drunk, you could only call it the ‘Dragon Dance’,” said Kwan Vai Meng. Macau’s Drunken Dragon Dance originated 200 years ago in Xiangshan County, Guangzhou.
The origin stories vary. The version promoted by Macau’s Government Tourism Board begins with villagers suffering from a plague. They were carrying Buddha’s statue along a riverbank, praying, when a giant python leapt from the water.
A monk slashed it into three pieces and threw the carcass into the river. The snake pieces wriggles and flew away. The plague dissipated. Everybody got drunk.
Another version involves a monk slaying a python en route to the river for a bath. An old, drunk fisherman picked up the snake’s discarded head and danced wildly. The snake reincarnated as a dragon and flew skyward. Fishermen continued the drunken tradition.
The Macau Fresh Fish & Commercial Association now organizes the event. Last year, the Fresh Fish & Commercial Association successfully petitioned for inclusion in China’s National Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Kwan said the legend is much older than Tourism Board suggests—probably originating in the 1580s. He is on the board of directors of the Fresh Fish & Commercial Association.
Kwan denied that the event is a Buddhist celebration: “There is no connection between the Drunken Dragon Festival and Buddhism. Our festival is held on Buddha’s birthday only because they happen to be on a same lunar calendar date.”
By 9 a.m. participants should be buzzing. The dragon dancers start from Sam Kai Vui Kun (Kuan Tai Temple) near Senado Square. No alcohol companies sponsor the event. But some residents will leave booze on the street for Dragon Dancers.
Passing seven different wet markets, they purchase more liquor, beer and water. “People are drinking all kinds of alcohol, everything except methanol,” Kwan said with a laugh.
They proceed via the Red Market, Nam Van, A-Ma Temple and the waterfront before returning to their starting point. The association distributes crispy pork and vegetarian rice lunchboxes throughout the festival.
Photographers be warned. There’s a saying in Chinese, “Golden droplets of the dragon fertilize lives of millions.” The dragon dancers take the idiom to heart and frequently spew alcohol into the air.
The Tourism Board recommends bringing a plastic bag to cover cameras as a precaution.
9 a.m. - 6 p.m. Starting point: Sam Kai Vui Kun, Rua Sul do Mercado de São Domingos (beside Macau Business Tourism Center). Enquires: +853 2857 5908.