Less than a mile from where pro-government mobs clashed a day prior with student protesters, Tin Hau temple is an oasis of calm on Saturday; birds chirping in trees, incense wafting from the altars.
Every day, Hong Kong residents come to this temple in the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood to add to the incense and pray before ancient Chinese deities. It’s a sign of how Hong Kongers continue to embrace their Chinese heritage, no matter how much they disagree with the Chinese Communist Party and its policies.
“This is our daily life,” said Freda Chan, who spent part of the day at Kawn Yin Temple, a shrine that honors the goddess of passion and sits next to Tin Hau. “We come here to do our prayers for our families. At the same time, we can do a prayer for Hong Kong.”
Since students and other pro-democracy groups started occupying parts of the city last weekend, China’s Communist Party has lashed out at what it calls “anti-China” forces. “If this extreme minority of people insists on violating the rule of law and stirring up trouble, they will end up suffering the consequences,” read an editorial this week in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece.
Yet Hong Kongers such as Chan say they support the goals of the student protesters, and should not be labeled “anti-China” because of it.
Chan says she is proud of Chinese history and culture, and works to perpetuate it by visiting Kawn Yin and other temples. But Chan said she fears that, if Hong Kong relinquishes its autonomy to Beijing, it will lose its unique qualities within China _ its Cantonese language, religious freedom and historic buildings, some of which are already being lost.
“What the students are doing is right,” said Chan, 52. “They are the future of Hong Kong. I am so old that what happens here doesn’t really matter, but for them, it is very important.”
Hong Kong became part of China again in 1997, following a 1984 agreement with Great Britain that the territory would retain a “high degree of autonomy” to run its affairs. The territory enjoys liberties unknown on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedoms of the press and assembly. Yet many Hong Kong residents say they’ve been forced to spar with Beijing to protect those freedoms and prevent full assimilation into the motherland.
In 2003, mass demonstrations helped stop “anti-subversion” laws, backed by Beijing, that Hong Kong legal experts feared would undermine civil liberties. In 2012, some of the same student groups protesting now helped stop a “patriotic education” curriculum that critics feared would turn schools into brainwashing organs of the Communist Party.
Chan, who lives on Lantau Island _ part of Hong Kong’s territory _ said her greatest disappointment is loss of small shops and alleyways as Hong Kong redevelops.
“All the shops are for tourists, mainland tourists,” she said. “The small shops can’t stay in business because the rents are so high.”
Some China watchers say Beijing continues to show little appreciation of Hong Kong’s values, which in many ways, used to be traditional Chinese values. James Palmer, a writer in Beijing, made that point in a column published this month in the Spectator, a British magazine.
“Despite the calumnies from the state media, the truth is that Hong Kong is in many ways more Chinese these days than mainland China,” wrote Palmer. “That might be what scares the authorities so much. The shrines and altars that dot Hong Kong speak to the richness of Chinese custom, annihilated between 1949 and 1976 in the mainland.”
As Palmer notes, mainland China lost many of its historic treasures following Mao Zedong’s rise to power and the decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976. Mobs were empowered to destroy “the four olds,” and they desecrated thousands of temples, shrines, schools and other historic structures.
Hong Kong, under British rule at the time, avoided the same fate. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, the city is home to more than 20 temples, including Lo Pan, which honors the patron saint of builders and carpenters, and Man Mo, a tribute to the gods of literature (Man) and war (Mo).
Tin Hau is less popular than those two, but it still holds a special place in the hearts of city residents. Hong Kong sprung up as a fishing town, and as goddess of the sea, Tin Hau was thought to bring good luck to seafarers who offer prayers to her. The square around Tin Hau’s gave birth to the Temple Street Night Market, a touristy, but atmospheric destination that has helped many small local businesses.
Just to the north, part of Nathan Road remains closed to traffic, ever since student protesters blocked it off and “occupied” it on Monday. On Friday, crowds of government supporters converged on the students, throwing punches and trying to knock down student tents. By late Friday, student reinforcements had arrived, allowing the protesters to retake some ground they had lost.
On Saturday, skirmishes continued to break out, but not with the intensity of the previous day’s near-riots. Some protest leaders say the Beijing-backed local government hired thugs to break up the protests, which the government has denied.
The protests have revealed generational splits in Hong Kong. Support for the civil disobedience has come mainly from young people, with the strongest opposition coming from elders.
At the Tin Hau temple complex, there is a similar divide. A caretaker for the Kwan Yin temple said he doesn’t see many young people worshiping anymore. Next door, at Tin Hau, only a few people could be seen offering prayers before the sea goddess and other deities.
A young man who gave his name as McCann Wat, aged 24, was one of those. Walking into spicy smoke of the temple, Wat purchased a packet of incense, and then solemnly lit several sticks at a time, bowing and adding the sticks to each altar. While he prayed, a cat wandered around the temple. Caretakers dozed at their desks.
Wat, a 24-year-old Hong Kong native, said in halting English that this was his first visit to the temple. “It is very beautiful,” he said after finishing his prayers.
He then set off into the courtyard, heading in the direction of the protests.