Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Po Fook Shan Columbarium, Shatin

For anyone who has visited Shatin, 10000 Buddha Monastery is probably one of the main reasons for taking their trip - although I hasten to add there is a whole bunch of other stuff to see too. And so it was with me too during my first trip to Hong Kong back in November 1995. This was in the days before all those rather tacky but amusing Arhan figures appeared on the path up. And what a path up it was - several hundred steep steps that left you feeling a little bit weak by the time you go to the top.

So imagine my delight when I read on a subsequent trip (probably in 1996) that the monastery now had a nice set of escalators to whisk you to the top of the hill without all that huffing and puffing. Taking the rather well-regarded travel literature at face value, on a subsequent trip I opted for the escalators and only by virtue of my previous trip, realised that I was totally in the wrong place! I had actually stumbled into a neighbouring complex called Po Fook Shan.

Po Fook Shan entrance gate

It seems that some not-so-thorough person had either neglected to visit the 10000 Buddha Monastery completely, or had simply gone into the first place they came across, ridden the escalators, found a temple hall at the top with (admittedly) a large number of Buddha statues and come to the wrong conclusion. Either way, the escalator's existence and its mistaken association with 10000 Buddha Monastery had made it into mainstream travel literature and the Po Fook Shan Ancestral Halls was experiencing an increase in tourist foot traffic.

Thankfully, things have sorted themselves out and no one seems to be getting too confused anymore, but to be honest, Po Fook Shan is a fairly interesting place to visit in its own right and well worth visiting to or from any trip to its more famous neighbour.

So what is it anyway? Po Fook Shan is actually a large columbarium complex run by the Po Fook Hill Funeral Company. The columbarium provides urn niches for the cremated ashes and they can go for a tidy sum due to the lack of available land and the Chinese culture of ancestral worship. As a result everyone now seems to offer them (legally or otherwise), but the Po Fook Hill people seem to have the whole funeral business in the bag offering cremation services (at a facility next to lower Shing Mun Reservoir in Tai Wai), local sales centres and niches at various sites around the territory. This large complex in Shatin seems to be their flagship site so it's well worth a look.

Lower terrace

Wandering in through the main entrance (above) presents you with a steep set of terraces, but before you tackle them the lower section is a fairly nice quiet place to wander around. There is some nice architecture to look at and a few shrines dedicated to various Taoist and Buddhist gods. One of the more impressive ones is the four-faced Brahma (see below). Actually, even if you have no intention of heading further up into the complex, this lower section provides some respite from the nearby bustling Homesquare mall.

Brahma

I do recommend heading up the terracing to the upper levels though because you also get nice views over Shatin. Whether or not you walk up or take the aforementioned escalators is up to you but walking gives you plenty of opportunity to rest and take in the gradually ascending view. There are various pavilions with seats and they are usually empty because most people opt for the easy way up.

Escalators on the left

The view is now obscured partially by the newish Govt offices that now stand in front of the complex, but when I made my inaugural trip in 1995, the bottom of the hill was largely a maze of squatter huts - this made the task of finding the path up to 10000 Buddha Monastery a little bit more difficult but, to be honest, I preferred it when there was less concrete.

One of the more quirky features of Po Fook Shan is the presence of a funicular lift system. It's really REALLY slow but worth using just for the sheer novelty. I believe the one in the picture below (this is nearer to the main entrance) was installed when the complex was constructed in 1989, but they have since added an additional one on the other side (bottom picture). It's a great way of negotiating the steep hillside and I wonder why the type of system hasn't been used elsewhere (well, other than the Peak Tram, of course).

Funicular Lift Systems at Po Fook Shan

The Po Fook emblem (below) marks the start of the main complex area which includes several tiers of niche halls as well as a temple (containing a lot of Buddha statuettes) and pagoda. I'm quite sure the wet floor warning isn't part of the official emblem.



For some reason, this particular area in Shatin is replete with all manner of religious/spiritual institutions. The village you can see below has several private Buddhist monasteries, the hill behind it has the Christian Tao Fung Shan at the top and above Po Fook Shan is 10000 Buddha Monastery.

Looking down to the village

Looking up towards 10000 Buddha Monastery

I mentioned the pagoda at Po Fook Shan earlier and here it is. It's quite ornate but unlike the neighbouring pagoda up the hill at the 10000 Buddha Monastery, I don't think this one at Po Fook Shan is accessible. It appears to be for show only, but if someone knows better please feel free to let me know.


If you look at the lower picture (above) you can see several roof structures. These are all part of the various niche halls. I think I counted 60+ halls cascading down the hillside, each containing about 1000 niches. If you do the maths you can see why so many people want in on this business. 60,000 niches (and more being built) selling for at least HK$50,000 each (and I'm being conservative on that price because I have seen some advertised for much more). The potential income is massive, so it’s not surprising that many illegal columbariums began sprouting up all over the place.

Niche halls by the handful

For the record, no one batted an eyelid with me walking around the complex. Most people here were too busy sorting out their offerings and burning stuff to worry about some pesky foreigner nosing about. I was here on just a normal day so it wasn't that busy, but I can imagine it gets fairly packed on the two occasions a year when relatives are supposed to come and grave sweep (mainly Ching Ming, but also Chung Yeung festival). The niches are arranged in a huge grid like configuration across the wall of the hall. It's almost like a morbid recreation of the high rise living that typifies the average Hong Konger's mortal existence. Even in death you can't escape from being stuck in a poky room surrounded by others in a similar situation. Each niche usually has a picture of the deceased on the front plus date of birth/death and sometimes an explanation as to how they died. There are some sad stories to be told here. If you are/were wealthy, then it is possible to buy more than one niche and join them together. You can immediately tell who the richest in the graveyard are (so to speak) by the amount of space they take up in the wall.

Anyway, I'll leave you with a picture of one of the local sales outlets. This one is in fact in Tai Po but they are all over the place. You can walk in and book your funeral, cremation and niche all in one sitting. I guess this is one of the appeals of larger companies offering the full range of death services.

A sales outlet in Tai Po

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful post and beautiful photos. Thank you so much for sharing.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Linda. Cheers, Phil

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