Other Asian locations
Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Bali, Jakarta...

(more about my travels in Asia)

Earth God Platform, Ping Shan, New Territories, Hong Kong

When you're walking in the Cantonese countryside, whether in Hong Kong or Guangdong, you often find these peculiar little altars in the villages. (I've even seen them in ultra-modern Shenzhen.)

Sometimes they feature statues, but often, like this one, they're much simpler, as befits veneration of the Earth God.

I saw this one on a ramble along the Ping Shan Heritage Trail in Hong Kong's New Territories back in December of 2004. (You'll also find it on this map; click number 5 on the right sidebar for more details.)

As we approached

A slightly more frontal view.
Where are the statues?

No statues, just these two stones.
They seem to have a pinch of red powder, a form
of veneration I've also seen used by Pueblo Indians.

Shiva Jnana Dakshinamurti, Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple, Singapore

One of the most attractive things about Singapore was, for us, the Hindu temples. They are rich in iconography, being veritable textbooks of Indian teaching--for those who know how to read them. If I lived in Singapore, I would probably while away the hours in these places, learning the symbolism and the stories behind these figures.

The image above is Shiva, the Lord of yogis. Here he is specifically Jnana Dakshinamurti, teacher of all wisdom.

The word "Dakshinamurti" means "one who is facing south (Sanskrit dakshina)," which is the direction of death and therefore change. True to form, the image you see here was found on the south wall of the Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple in Little India.

In the form of Dakshinamurti, Shiva is shown seated under a banyan tree (the same kind of tree under which the Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment). Around him are seated sages whom he is instructing. His right foot rests on a demon called "Apasmara," who signifies ignorance. (He is the same one seen under the foot of the well-known Shiva Nataraja, the "Dancing Shiva.")

Each hand of the image is significant. His upper right (to our left) holds a snake, signifying Tantric knowledge (think of the serpent that ascends the spine in Kundalini). In some forms of Dakshinamurti, this might be a set of beads used in prayer. The upper left hand holds the flame of illumination. Below that, the lower left grasps a book (a scripture). In other forms of Dakshinamurti, this might be a bundle of kusha grass, out of which a seat can be fashioned for a meditator.

The lower right hand looks similar to our modern "OK." This is Jnana Mudra ("Knowledge gesture"). It can be interpreted thus: the thumb is God, the index finger Man. When they are joined, knowledge (wisdom) is achieved. The three raised fingers represent three impurities (perhaps arrogance, illusion, and the bad karma of past deeds); when one achieves knowledge, these are removed (indicated by their separation from the God-Man union). Note that in some forms of Dakshinamurti, the lower right hand may be simply in the Abhaya Mudra, raised palm out, meaning "fear not."

(The description above is based on the one on Wikipedia, with some of my own interpretation added.)

The Ruins of Saint Paul's, Macau

St. Paul's Cathedral in Macau was built between 1582 and 1602. Fire swept it in 1835, and all that remains is the façade, the steps leading up to it, and the crypts of Jesuit priests behind it.

The Wikipedia article says the façade was "intricately carved between 1620 and 1627 by Japanese Christians in exile from their homeland and local craftsmen under the direction of Italian Jesuit Carlo Spinola." It is impressive whether viewed from a distance, or examined close-up.

Next to the ruins is a high hill containing the equally-ancient Fortaleza do Monte, once the main fort protecting Macau. It still offers spectacular views. So the first shot below is the standard one, of the steps leading to the ruins of St. Pail's; the second is a slightly less conventional one, a night shot from the fort hill, looking down, with part of Macau sprawling behind.

Four Generals (?), Man Mo Temple, Central Hong Kong

The first temple I ever visited in Hong Kong (back in 2004, my first year in China) was the famous Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in Central.

"Man" and "Mo" are Cantonese for "Wen" and "Wu"; "Wen" is Wen Chang, a deified scholar who is now considered a god of literature, and "Wu" is Wu Di (Warrior God) better known as Guan Yu or Guan Di, patron of soldiers and police officers.

Together, they represent the civil and military aspects of government.

It's still one of my favorite places in China, filled with all kinds of figures, mostly judges of one kind or another. (That's "judges of the dead.")

Thanks to the incense coils that fill the center of the hall, it's also smoky as hell. Literally. The grim-faced judges and the smoky hellish air make me want to be a better man.

In front of the figures of Man and Mo stand four figures, two on a side, facing inward to each other, like an honor guard. I can't prove it--the iconography isn't clear enough--but I suspect that these are four generals who personify the "Si Ling," the four celestial animals:

  • The Blue Dragon of the East, who also represents Spring

  • The Red Bird of the South, also Summer

  • The White Tiger of the West, Autumn, and

  • The Black Tortoise of the North, who is Winter

Here are the figures. Look, for example, at the colors on the figures below, and the faces (a reddish tiger at belly level on the first, behind the flowers; a dragon's head on the third)

Any help or suggestions from experts or dedicated amateurs (like myself) would be appreciated.

Da Er Ge Ye (Older and Second Brother), Thian Hock Keng, Singapore

These two guys are attendants to the City God, as seen in Thian Hock Keng (Tian Hou Gong), a temple in Singapore's Chinatown that Lila and I visited in early April of this year:

I found something about their "legend" (and their appearance) on this site:

Generals Fan and Xie represent loyalty, according to the following tale: due to a tragic misunderstanding General Fan (by far the shorter of the two) drowned during a flood as he waited for his friend at an appointed place; and General Xie accepted responsibility for his loyal friend's death and hanged himself. Thus, each is now represented in a form connected with his tragic death: Fan is dark black [from drowning] and Xie is pale white, with a long neck and protruding tongue [from hanging].

Further, in Keith Stevens' excellent Chinese Gods (page 173), a description of their functions (and multifarious names). My comments are in [square brackets], as above:

In a number of temples there are also larger than life-size images of the Wu-ch'ang Kuei, the Unpredictable Demons, standing just inside the main entrance. [The ones in Thian Hock Keng are in a side altar, flanking the City God whom they attend.] They are a pair of tamed demons commonly seen throughout Chinese communities in South-East Asia and Taiwan, who are known by innumerable titles, nicknames, and euphemistic honorifics. The most popular are the Tall and Short Demons, the White and Black Demons, and To Erh-ko Yeh (the Elder and Second Brother). [Note that Stevens uses Wade-Giles transliteration throughout.]

The pair are despatched on orders from the City God when the due date of a person's death arrives, to seek out and identify the correct human through the local spiritual official, the Earth God. Then they appear before the human and the Tall Demon announces that the time has come. The Short Demon binds the soul and drags it before the City God. The Short Demon carries the tablet of authority and the chains to arrest the soul whose due date of death has arrived.

The Tall Demon, as can be imagined, receives considerable attention from devotees, often relatives of the very sick, and in a few temples he is provided with cigarettes which are to be seen continually burning having been forced between his lips. [Note the ashtrays in the bottom-right of my photo.] More popularly, his mouth is smeared with a black substance to win his favor and bribe him to keep away. This used to be opium and is still said to be opium, though the substance appears to be more of a sweet sticky mess. [There is black on this figure's tongue, but I suspect it's burn marks from cigarettes. Note the smoke stains, too.] In northern and central China, only the Tall Demon is found.

A-Ma Temple, Macau

The A-Ma Temple is one of the oldest temples in Macau, having been built in 1488, and is certainly the most famous. It is believed to have lent its name to Macau itself.

A-Ma is also known as Mazu (in mainland China, more commonly called Tian Hou). She is a goddess of people who travel and work on the sea. Fittingly, the temple is located near the water, and was clearly once right on the shore.

There are numerous stories of Mazu saving ships in peril. In the local version, a young lady aboard a ship calmed a storm, and then stepped ashore where the current temple is located. Walking to the top of the nearby Barra Hill (Macau's second highest), she then ascended to Heaven with the expected attendant light show.

When the Portuguese arrived less than a century later, we're told, they asked the name of the place, then known as Haojing (Oyster Mirror) or Jinghai (Mirror Sea). The locals, thinking the visitors were asking about that specific spot, replied "A-Ma Bay"--in the local dialect, Amagao. Hence the name Macau.

The temple still thrives, both as a tourist destination and as a place of worship. These pictures were taken in a visit in October of 2005.

The large, round window at the front of the main hall gives a view of the interior; formerly, it also gave a view out to the bay.

The window is a popular spot for tourists to pose for photos.

Here's the main altar, lit only by the light from the round window. Notice the coils of incense hanging above; these are meant to burn for two weeks (from new moon to full moon, or vice versa).

In this wider shot of the main hall's front, you can see the former "seawall." The pebbled area in the lower right would have been under water.

Macau Hotels

Prayer Room, Hong Kong International Airport

I was flying to the Philippines at the start of this year, when I noticed this strange-looking sign in the Hong Kong Airport (recipient of numerous awards):

It was part of a row of "service rooms," such as the restrooms, as you can see in this shot:

See the blue sign next to the door? I walked over and read it, and boy, was I surprised. It said:

Welcome to this place of prayer

The Prayer Room is a multi-faith facility, open daily* to people of all faiths and nationalities. It provides a quiet place where all may pause to pray and experience stillness and peace.

The facility is supported by the colloquium of Six Religious Leaders. The colloquium promotes religious dialogue in Hong Kong since 1978 which includes Buddhists, Catholics, Confucians, Muslims, Protestants and Taoists. [Note the alphabetical order!]

You are advised to contact the Airport Operations Control Centre at 2181-8110 for any assistance.

Thank you for respecting the silence of people in prayer.

*Opening hours 06:00 am - 12:00 midnight

How cool is that?

Guia Fortress Chapel, Macau

The Guia Fortress was built between 1622 and 1638 on the highest hill in Macau. The lighthouse came later, in 1864-1865, but the chapel dates back to the founding of the fort.

Frescoes were revealed in the chapel in 1998 (some sources say 1996), during "routine conservation work." The frescoes were likely done by Chinese artists under the direction of Portuguese priests, and so reflect an East-West idiom.

We...ummm...kinda cheated, and snuck a few shots inside the (deconsecrated?) chapel. (I read thatthere is a service there once a year, but the place was pretty ripped up when we were there).

The first interior picture shows the vault of the nave leading back to the main door. You can just make out some of the frescoes on the ceiling.The other shows a figure of St. John the Baptist over a door inside a sidechapel. 

The entire area (and much of the city) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sri Krishnan Temple, Waterloo Street, Singapore

Lila and I saw this temple on our first walk in Singapore, the evening of our arrival in April 2009. This was our introduction to several stunning Hindu temples in the city-state.

A sign nearby informed us that, although the temple began over 130 years ago as a shrine to Lord Krishna under a banyan tree, with major developments continuing through the decades, the main entrance--of which these images are a part--dates only to 1987.

The first picture (by Lila) shows the gateway, with vendors set up right in front. You can just see one guardian's head peeking over the left tip of the umbrella.

The guardian on the right is Lord Hanuman, the famed monkey warrior of the Indian epic Ramayana. Some say Hanuman was the model for the monkey king Sun Wukong in the Chinese epic "Xi You Ji" (Journey to the West).

The figure on the left gave us a little trouble, until a passerby told us he was the eagle-man Lord Garuda. When we heard that, we had a "doh!" moment, as the giant wings and manifest beak should have been a dead giveaway.

See the cobra around his neck? He has a close association with serpents, his mother being the sister of Kadru, "mother of serpents." A look at the Wikipedia article will show several stories about Garuda and serpents.

This association of serpent and eagle is nearly universal (see the eagle holding the serpent on the Mexican flag, for example). The serpent represents earth (it crawls on its belly), and the eagle heaven, where eagles soar.

These two were fitting guides to introduce us to several days oftemple-crawling.

Asia, My Neighborhood

During the eleven years we spent in Shenzhen, we regularly skipped across the border to Hong Kong; found ourselves several times in Macao; discovered Singapore (once); and visited friends in Indonesia, first Bali (wow!) and then Jakarta. That's what I've seen of Asia (so far) outside of Japan, China, and the Philippines.

More to come, I'm sure…

Everything on these pages is © 2009 and 2023 by James Baquet.