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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung, Ana Paulina Lee, Authors

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Hong Kong's Tin Hau Temples: Tradition and Change

Before it became a British colony in 1841, and before it was a major trading hub between the East and West, Hong Kong was primarily populated by small fishing villages. Archeological surveys indicate that since its initial settlement nearly 6,000 years ago, Hong Kong's inhabitants have typically lived on the city's coasts. In line with their location, settlers subsisted on marine resources with their major economic activity being fishing. This is supported by the the fact that entire cultural groups' lives, like those of the Hoklo (fisherfolk) and Tanka ("boat dwellers"), revolved around the sea.

Religion in the area was highly localized. Naturally, interactions with the gods were tailored to fit the needs of the people. Beliefs were constructed as a response to common anxieties. Because the ocean was such a central yet unpredictable part of many lives, it follows that Tin Hau came to be one of the region's main religious figures, for she was said to protect fishermen and sailors. As a testament to her popularity, numerous temples have been built in her name and have become hubs of prayer and celebration. Even today, many continue to regard Tin Hau's birthday as an important event--especially the inhabitants of modern fishing villages.

In this way, we see how, even in the face of modernity, Tin Hau and her temples have persevered. One of the most fascinating aspects about Hong Kong is its dramatic transformation over the past century in a half. In that time, the city has grown from a sparsely populated fishing region to an international metropolis. Thus, Tin Hau temples may be viewed as a relic, an anchor to the past. Yet, despite their history, they too have changed--whether that is in location or in configuration. The temples of Tin Hau have come to represent, not only the past, but the present of Hong Kong. At once they indicate how local beliefs and customs have evolved, merged and disintegrated in the midst of a modern, globalized world.
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