Street as Temple, Commerce as Ritual: the Street Shrines of Hong Kong

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Street as Temple, Commerce as Ritual: the Street Shrines of Hong Kong
Downs, Marco
Sanders, Nancy ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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Street as Temple, Commerce as Ritual: the Street Shrines of Hong Kong

Marco Dovns


In Hong Kong's dense streets, polished glass, oceans of concrete, and vertigo-inducing sheerness broadcast a

vision of a high-tech metropolis, bustling with activity and bristling with economic power. Just behind

this technological facade is a system of belief and ritual that blur the boundaries between commercial and

spiritual life. In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul describes the technique of machinery and the technique

of religion. He writes of magic as a technique, analogous to, but different than, a scientific method. The

relation between scientific and religious practices in Hong Kong is evident, but certain aspects seem to elude

Ellul's categorizations. For example, a florist's unusual use of an orange-colored shrine rather than a traditional

red-colored shrine seems to point to a change or evolution in religious technique. Electric lights rather

than smoldering incense transform some shrines at night. The street shrines of Hong Kong present a possibility

that Ellul does not discuss: the intertwining of the two sets of techniques as part of an integrated work/life

existence, all happening in the space of the street, the true home of the Hong Kong dweller (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Left: a shrine on a sloped street in HK's Central district. Right: electric light illuminating a

shrine at dusk.

In a diverse and seemingly contradictory city, the shifting network of street shrines serves as a connection

between worlds: private and public, rational and superstitious, economic and religious. The street shrine is

an example of how the space of the 'old' Hong Kong street accommodates disparate aspects of life. In the

'New Territories' north of the city center, ancient, small-scale villages and new, planned, mega-scale

housing developments settle into the rolling, verdant landscape in an uneasy relationship. Although many of

the buildings in the core of the city are from the 20th century, people have been inhabiting these areas for

centuries, rebuilding and redefining the streetscape while shaping and reshaping an urban culture (Figure 2).

The inhabitants dwell in the street, using its common space for their everyday activities as well as special

occasions such as funerary rituals and festival processions. One is almost always visible. Every person is

watching and being watched. People pass each other daily on the way to work, neighboring shopkeepers talk during

a lull in business, friends meet for lunch in a crowded restaurant, share a table with strangers. Jane Jacobs refers to

a similar phenomenon in The Life and Death of Great American Cities:

The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level-most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all

of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone-is a feeling for the public identity

of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.

Although Jacobs is referring to American cities, she could just as easily be describing Hong Kong.

The ubiquitous shopper meets with an entirely open commercial edge, with goods spilling into the street. The

entire street becomes a market space. Just above, thousands of residential spaces are stacked on top of each

other. Religious spaces are interspersed in the form of shrines and small temples. The inclusion of religion,

both formal and informal, in this space is natural because it is an integral part of life. The comfortable,

casual atmosphere that Jacobs describes as essential to an effective street is the same environment that

allows shrines to slip seamlessly into the interstitial spaces of Hong Kong. The absence of street shrines in

Hong Kong's newer planned developments may indicate the absence of a sufficiently comfortable and

vibrant streetscape.

Figure 2. Left: Sparsely populated street, Ma on Shan, New Territories. Right: Densely layered, lived-

in street, Sai Kung (Photos Robert Macleod/ Nancy Sanders)

The humble street shrine has more to teach us than the story of a localized commercial ritual, seeking prosperity

for a family business. The presence and persistence of street shrines in Hong Kong are both products and

signals. They are products of a personal, communal participation in the architecture of the street. They are signals

of an inclusive, healthy urbanism that has imbued Hong Kong with energy and personality.


The smallest scale of Street shrines in Hong Kong is a diminutive variation of the community Taoist shrine

(see Baker).

Figure 3. Left: a shrine in urban Hong Kong. Right: Communal village Shrine. (Photos Matt Judge)

The commercial culture of Hong Kong is one surprisingly preoccupied with ritual and what many would

call superstition. Commercial buildings lack 4th, 14th, 24th, 34th, etc floors because the Cantonese word for

four, "sei," sounds like the word for "death." Buildings are scheduled to be consecrated on dates containing

the number eight because it sounds like the word for "prosperity and abundance." In the design of the Hong Kong

& Shanghai Bank headquarters, a Feng Shui master (geomancer) was consulted to determine the exact

placement and angle of the entrance escalator. Large building projects are not the only urban elements governed

by this set of beliefs; smaller scale decisions such as the placement of a shrine for a shop are also made according

to similar principles. Indeed, the decision of where to place a good luck shrine may be a very important decision

to some shop owners, as it may provide the help they need in a highly competitive market. The scale and

appearance of shrines may differ, but shop owners are generally concerned with directionality and position.

According to an owner of a religious shop, the goal of the shrine is to collect Qi energy that flows through the

city. When determining the placement of a shrine, "there is a position in this flow that is able to pocket the Qi

of wealth" (personal interview). If the situation is too complex for the shopkeeper to decide a proper placement,

he or she may hire a geomancer to give advice. The rules and formulas are not absolute, however, and the

ultimate decision is up to the owner of the shop; the seeker of Qi.


Hong Kong's street shrines have parallels to Christian shrines, most directly to personal shrines to the Virgin

Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, etc. While both types of shrine are expressions of personal offerings, there are

three main differences between them.

Christian shrines focus on the representation of an image (such as Mary or the Cross) as a focal point for

veneration, while Hong Kong street shrines present textual pleas of little interest to the human observer.

Also, Christian shrines are usually associated with a particular church with a particular set of beliefs, while Hong

Kong shrines are more adaptable and do not necessarily indicate an intense devotion to one particular dogma.

Perhaps the greatest difference is that Hong Kong shrines have specific goals (luck, prosperity, etc), while

Christian shrines seem to lack explicit expectations, at least for this world. In Hong Kong, street shrines are points

of commerce, trading offerings for success in a businesslike transaction. Christian shrines are points of

worship, hinting politely at the gift of salvation as a reward for reverence.

Figure 4. Left: Shrine in urban Hong Kong. Right: Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico. (Photo


Street Shrines in Hong Kong follow certain generally accepted rules. These are not usually written down but

are passed on through example and spiritual advisors. They are brightly colored-almost always red, rarely orange

or yellow, very rarely blue. They are small enough for one person to place, or build in place without

special equipment. They bear an inscription or set of inscriptions: printed, hand-written, carved, or carved in

relief. They contain an offering: incense, fruit, or tea. They may use electric light, as long as it's red. They must

have at least one open face/aperture. These rules describe a metashrine, a shrine that contains the set of

possible shrines. This set of rules does not indicate form. The metashrine is a diaphanous and intangible space:

a dynamic, shifting field of color and ideas about reverence and ritual. A shrine can be a few sticks of incense in

a crack in the sidewalk, or a concrete box painted orange, or an open, inhabitable enclosure. The form is up to

each maker.

Case Study: Tree Shrine/Repair Shop, Aberdeen Street

On the side of a busy street near the central business district in Hong Kong, the base of a tree is painted red.

Incense and fruit are placed in the roots as offerings by the repair shop owner it shades. This unlikely shrine is

the basis for many mythologies among locals. A nearby tailor claims that the current owner of the repair shop

created the shrine after the tree kept him from being hit by a car. The owner himself denies this claim, saying that

he inherited the shrine when he bought the shop. While the origin of the tree shrine is unclear, what is clear is that

it has become the site of an exchange of offerings for protection. Similar shrines can be found in the outskirts of

the city (Baker). The persistence of rural-type shrines in a city's modern center is unusual, and speaks of

Hong Kong's dynamic, unpredictable nature. The presence of an old, untamed tree in the concrete jungle may

startle some, but Hong Kong residents do not seem to pay it any special attention. In the layered space of the

Hong Kong street, anything can happen, including the persistence of a rural custom in an urban context.

The Aberdeen street tree shrine is a fragment of nature in the city, and a taproot to an unseen network of

spiritual energy.

Figure 5. Left: Tree shrine, Aberdeen Street, Hong Kong. Right: Tree shrine in context.

Case Study: Orange Shrine/Flower Shop, Peel Street, Central Hong Kong

An exception to the ubiquitous red shrine is found on Peel street. A flower shop owner modified and painted

an existing shrine, changing its shape and color. She described orange as a "younger color," perhaps believing

the Chinese obsession with red to be old-fashioned. This young businesswoman from Singapore spoke about

her Buddhist beliefs, but consulted a Chinese geomancer to help her with her shrine. Could this shopkeeper

represent the future of the street shrine, changing tradition gradually while continuing to flourish and adapt with

the aesthetics of commerce? Although less than 2 percent of young people profess beliefs in "traditional

Chinese religion" (Lang), many believe in fragments of these belief systems (what many may call superstitions).

In the city core, perhaps as long as the reality of the bustling Hong Kong street stays intact and in local hands,

the tradition of the Hong Kong street shrine will persist and be passed down to new generations.

Figure 6. Left: Unusual orange shrine outside a florist's shop. Right: Detail of flower offering (prior

to refreshment).


Life in the New Territories is markedly different than life in the old city center, especially within new, mega-

scale housing developments. On Hong Kong Island the dense, public, claustrophillic nature of the street

forces interaction. The tiny, unobtrusive shrines are partially hidden in the overlapping layers of humanity

and commerce. With a kaleidoscope of other activities happening in the space of the street, burning a paper

offering or incense hardly seems out of place.

In the planned developments of the New Territories, the activity is internalized, imitating American post-

industrial mall spaces. An example of a new development type is the podium city (for more on the podium,

see Sanders). Residential spaces are grouped in clusters of towers, isolated from the commercial space, both

spatially and visually. Developments are separated from each other to give each isolated unit a

(theoretically) panoramic view. Podium cities compete to attract people into their isolated, interior worlds. In

the advertisement and design of the podium, developers proclaim a western idea of the nuclear family.

The advertising material of one such development, "Island Resort," presents pictures of carefully

orchestrated interiors; couples enjoying themselves by the pool. There is no sense of communal or traditional

life. The public spectacle of the mixed crowd is limited to tame, air-conditioned corridors. Communal, open-

ended interaction is suppressed. Corporate-owned shops eliminate the sense of local identity of the shop-

keepers. The street shrine, without the street that supports it, is absent.

Streets in the New Territories are generally vacuous, sparsely occupied, and not scaled to the pedestrian.

Restaurants and shops that occur on the exterior, automobile-scaled street may postdate the podium

phenomenon, occupying an awkward position: a Hong Kong street without the flow of passersby to occupy

the narrow space between building and road; the diluted Hong Kong street.

These changes in living situation and commercial space are not necessarily wrong or detrimental. High demand

for more space and low availability of living space in central Hong Kong have driven people outward, while

an expanded subway system has maintained a connection to the main city. Developers have offered western

shops and mall-like shopping experiences in response to a fascination with western culture, especially

among younger residents. The phenomenon of the planned development seems to have grown just as naturally

as the older parts of Hong Kong, and this experiment of urbanism is still young. But perhaps the phenomenon of

the Shrine can shed some light on the situation of the Podium city. Is the disappearance of the street shrine

the canary in the coal mine? Does its disappearance indicate a deplorable condition for living? If a shrine seems

out of place or pitiful in a street, will people also feel out of place or miserable in that street?


Looking toward the future, there are perhaps more questions than answers about the currently phenomenon of

the street shrine. Will the next generation of shop owners participate in the making and remaking of the

street through its details? Will the street shrine disappear altogether? Will the idea of the shrine persist, but

change form? Will shrines make their way into the new developments as these buildings become more at home

in Hong Kong? Will Hong Kong, in all its vibrancy, absorb the podium, or will the podium absorb Hong Kong?

These questions address an important conflict in Hong Kong-the ambition to prosper from the city, and

the increasing desire to escape from it. As more people commute to the city center, they may lose their

strong connection to each other, and Hong Kong may become simply a place to work during the day. If the

street shrine disappears from Hong Kong, this may correspond to an intangible loss: the vanishing of a

personal identification with the metropolis; the cultural abandonment of a city by its people.


With religious spaces open to and occurring in the street, Hong Kong can be thought of as the largest and most

open-ended temple in the world. The street is not just a way of getting from one place to another. It is a space

of interaction, whether that interaction be commercial, personal, or religious. While the New Territories develop

and become sites of new modes of living, life continues in central Hong Kong as it has for much of its history:

people live densely, making the most out of their compact island. Market streets thrive on a seemingly endless

flow of humanity. Thousands of street shrines hold burning incense; cradle fruit; present inscriptions. Through

these urban fragments, shopkeepers participate in a commercial/spiritual hybrid ritual that simultaneously

transcends and depends on commerce. In Hong Kong, everyday life and ritual, technique and magic, intertwine

in ways that seem contradictory to Ellul's definitions of religion and science. Each street shrine is a

visible manifestation of an attempt to tap into an unseen world of spirits and energy. Each carefully placed red

detail is a bid for a better life for a hard working person. Each is a tether to the past.


1. Baker, Hugh. Ancestral Images: A Hong Kong Album. Hong Kong: The South China Morning Post Press, 1979.

2. Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

3. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1961.

4. Lang, Graeme. Sacred Power in the Metropolis: Shrines and Temples in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong: the

Anthropology of a Chinese Metropolis. Ed. Grant Evans and Maria Tam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

5. Sanders, Nancy. Project on the Podium: Design Guidelines for Hong Kong's Infrastructural Housing Pedestal. For

the Fifth China Urban Housing Conference, 2005.

6. Personal Interview, Paper offering/shrine shop owner. Peel Street, Hong Kong, June 2005.

7. Personal Interview, Florist. Peel Street, Hong Kong, June 2005.

8. Personal Interview, Tailors. Aberdeen Street, Hong Kong, June 2005.

9. Personal Interview, Repair shop owner. Aberdeen Street, Hong Kong, June 2005.

10. All images by the author unless otherwise noted.


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