Perhaps I’m among the few who finds the Chi Lin Nunnery and adjoining Nan Lian Gardens beautiful, but utterly soulless.
The site is intended to be a peaceful, spiritual place in the hustle of the city. A place for Buddhists to worship and the general public to quietly contemplate.
It’s a shame that it’s sterile, rule-bound and ultimately fake. After roaming the noisy temples of South Asia, Mainland China, and Hong Kong, it was all rather too quiet and rule-bound. No intoxicating scent of smokey incense? No jostling for the best prayer position? Not one speck of peeling paint? No donation boxes?
Maybe I started off on the wrong foot with a tired 5-year-old in-tow who wasn’t allowed to sit anywhere (“Missy, missy! Can’t sit there!”), wasn’t allowed to poke her head over the rail to better see the massive koi fish in the pond (“Missy, missy” followed by gesture down.), or linger and sip a drink (“Missy …” Sigh. Yes, we just saw the sign prohibiting drinking.).
Sign from Nan Lian Gardens. One hopes there is a Julie-Andrews-type nun at Chi Lin just waiting to break free and frolic!
I’ve also enjoyed so many truly special and unexpected visits to slightly grubby, but authentic historical places in Hong Kong’s quiet and remote New Territories recently, that a nunnery built-in the 1990s in the style of the Tang Dynasty flies too close to Disneyland.
So I gasped upon reading this morning that the nunnery is a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to today’s South China Morning Post, the powers that be are pushing for it, rather than truly historic Victoria Harbor, to be classified as a World Heritage Site: Helene Franchineau, “Harbour Heritage Snub: Historic Waterfront given thumbs down for nomination to Unesco list, with government officials favouring rebuilt nunnery at Diamond Hill,” South China Morning Post, 20/1/2013.
I found the quote from this Hong Kong-born man-on-the-street particularly telling:
“I have not heard about the Chi Lin Nunnery. I have been living in Australia for the past 20 years.”
Not surprising since the re-build of the nunnery was only completed in 1998. How can this be a historic place warranting preservation and special status?
If you want to see really old Hong Kong, take the MTR a few more stops past those eight hills that divide Kowloon from the New Territories, hop on a mini-bus and you’ll have the chance to see some truly old Hong Kong! Within the last month I’ve visited and posted about old walled villages, wishing trees, temples, and ancient pagodas. Each of these places is marvelously authentic, soulful and a bit rough around the edges. Perfect.
New Territories praise aside, the highly accessible Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in the heart of town also has more depth of feeling (to me) than the beautiful, but ultimately sterile, Chi Lin Nunnery (though I’m sure the actual nuns, who we never saw, don’t feel that way …).
Many more ideas on where to find obscure and authentically old Hong Kong are on the great blog “Hong Kong (& Macau) Stuff.” Phil has visited and photographed many interesting places in all parts of Hong Kong (so you can see something interesting without crossing those eight hills after all if you’re short on time!). These are the places that need to be seen and more importantly, preserved.
And no one will care if you frolick a bit. They’ll be happy to see you.