From Hall of Worship to Tourist Center: An Ancestral Hall in Hong Kong's New Territories

From Hall of Worship to Tourist Center: An Ancestral Hall in Hong Kong's. New Territories

This Year, 1997, is Heritage Year in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Tourist Association decided that this particular year was an excellent time to launch a new set of day tours highlighting temples, ancestral halls, shrines, and "traditional Chinese" buildings located in remote corners of the colony.

Readers will no doubt be aware that 1997 marks another, more momentous event-namely the End of an Empire. At midnight on June 30, 1997, Hong Kong reverts to Chinese control after 154 years of British colonial rule. The Chinese media, both in Beijing and increasingly in Hong Kong itself, refer to this transfer of power as a repatriation process, a return to the ancestral land or zuguo, literally meaning "paternal-ancestral country." The transfer is much celebrated in the People's Republic as a patriotic fulfillment of national destiny, marking the recovery of lost land a repudiation of western imperialism. The people of Hong Kong tend to have more complex, often contradictory attitudes toward the repatriation process, but most local residents remain optimistic about the future.

Why has the local government chosen this year, of all years, to highlight Hong Kong's heritage? One obvious answer is the tourist association expects Hong Kong to be Flooded with visitors who want to witness a grand historical event. Most of these tourists will have little to see, given that the ceremonies marking the exchange of power are closed to the general public, and street celebrations (or demonstrations) are unlikely to be permitted. In fact, most residents plan to stay home on the evening of June 30th so they can watch the proceedings on television. With few spectacles to observe, tourists may wish to visit some of the historical monuments that Hong Kong Tourist Association has deemed worthy of interest.

But there is another, less apparent reason why 1997 is Heritage Year. As colonial Hong Kong metamorphoses into a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic, those who live in this capitalist outpost are experiencing a crisis of identity. They obviously differ from compatriots who went through 48 years socialism featuring regular outbursts of political turmoil and economic depravity. The majority of Hong Kong residents speak Cantonese, a language as distinct from Mandarin as English is from Dutch. "Northerners," meaning primarily the new overlords in Beijing, have always resented "Southerners," especially the Cantonese who are stereotyped as clannish, clever, and preoccupied with money. Residents of Hong Kong, for their part, often treat "Northerners" as ignorant yokels who have torn their country apart in useless pursuit of political purity, squabbling among themselves while the world passes by.

If Hong Kong is to survive as a separate entity or SAR, the people who live there must continue to be "special." The preoccupation with heritage must be understood as an important element in the campaign to claim special status. Hong Kong is different, to paraphrase brochures published by the tourist association, because Hong Kong combines the best of two worlds. It is an advanced, commercial center operating at the cutting edge of the world capitalist system, while at the same time, it preserves elements of a bucolic, rural past that have long since disappeared across the border in socialist China. The key to this unlikely combination - the postmodern surviving along side the premodern - is the New Territories, a 365 square-mile section of Chinese countryside leased from the Qing (Manchu) Empire in 1898. It is the expirations of this 99-year lease that triggered repatriation negotiations between the Thatcher government and the Chinese Communist Party. The Colony's fate was thus decided by London-Beijing talks that began in 1984 and with very little participation by residents of Hong Kong. Other than the decision to emigrate, local residents had no choice but to accept the inevitably of repatriation.

As anthropologists with nearly 30 years of research experience in Hong Kong, the authors of this article have observed dramatic changes in local attitudes toward the New Territories (NT as it was then known) was primarily a farming zone that produced vegetables, poultry, and fish for Hong Kong's booming urban markets. There were approximately 600 villages scattered throughout the NT, many of which predated not only the British but also the Manchu regime, (1644-1911). The best lands in this zone had been settled by five kinship groups during the 13th ad 14th centuries. By the time the British arrived, the original inhabitants had built a thriving local economy dominated by a landowning elite.

In 1969, when we first arrived and settled into the village of San Tin or "New Field," few urbanites of our acquaintance ever expressed interest in New Territories' society or history. For most of Hong Kong's urban population the New Territories was dirty, uncomfortable, and hopelessly backward. Since the late 1970s we have returned to Hong Kong on a regular basis. Beginning in 1895 - one year after the commencement of repatriation talks - attitudes began to change. Newspaper articles on New Territories' customs appeared with increasing regularity, local scholars launched a series of conferences on arcane ritual practices, lavishly illustrated "heritage" books were published by the Radio Hong Kong wanted to interview us. Suddenly the New Territories was fashionable and urbanites were keen to visit rural areas that their parents shunned in the 1960s.

One of the most popular destinations on the Hong Kong Tourist Association's Heritage Tours is the village of San Tin. Every weekend, tour buses disgorge dozens of visitors, mostly white collar workers who live in Hong King's densely populated, high-rise neighborhoods. These are enthusiastic tourists, determined to learn something about their heritage while having a good time in the fresh air. San Tin boasts two exhibits that are highlighted on these tours: a "Scholar's Mansion," built by a wealthy villager in 1865 and a magnificent ancestral hall, Man Lun Fung Hall, first erected in the 17th century. Man Lun Fung Hall in named in honor of its illustrious founder, Man (lineage name) Lun-fung (posthumous personal name).

San Tin a single lineage village meaning that all of the indigenous male residents of a common founding ancestor, Man Sai-gok, who settled in this region during the 14th century. San Tin also has a hall named in honor of Man Sai-gok and three other halls commemorating famous Man ancestors. Lun Fung Hall is the largest and, according to specialists on Chinese architecture, it is a particularly fine example of Ming Dynastic-style (1368-1644) ancestral hall.

In 1981, the Hong Kong Antiquities Advisory Board announced that Man Lun Fung Hall had been legally reserved as an historic monument, meaning that its architectural character could not be changed. Renovation expenses were underwritten by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, the colony's wealthiest charity, and the Hall was opened to the public in 1988. The reconstruction was carried out with meticulous attention to detail, recovering woodwork and plaster features that had deteriorated since the hall's previous renovation in the 1880s. Lun Fung Ancestral Estate, as the building is called by members of the Man lineage chambers separated by two interior courtyards. The second chamber contains an alter with eight rows of soul tablets commemorating 218 ancestors; Man Lun-fung has the most prominent place in the center of the top row. Each tablet contains the name of a male ancestor, his titles, and the lineage names of his wives. The text is written on wooden slats approximately one foot high. In Chinese the building is called a citang, perhaps best translated as "worship hall" because it is here that lineage elders carry out many of the rites that underpin the Cantonese ancestral cult. Daily incense is offered on the tablet alter, and pigs (slaughtered and gutted elsewhere) are sacrificed before the tablets twice each year.

Man Lun Fung Hall is a private center of worship, as well as listed historical monument open to the public. By accepting Hong Kong Government sponsorship, Man lineage elders relinquished exclusive control over the use of their hall. In other parts of the New Territories, ancestral halls are regularly locked and entry can be obtained by personal appeal to trustees who hold the keys. San Tin's four other ancestral halls, mentioned above, are closed to the public; one can only catch a glimpse of the tablets through heavy steel gates.

Locked gates represent a dramatic change from the 1960s and 1970s when most halls in the New Territories were open to casual visitors. During those decades, villagers were happy and proud to show visitors-any visitors-their ancestral tablets. Few outsiders ever bothered to enter ancestral halls and it would never ancestral halls and it would never have occurred to anyone to lock the gates, even at night. Everything changed in the spring of 1991 when 14 tablets disappeared from a small lineage hall in the heart of the New Territories. The theft was covered prominently in the Hong Kong media. Within days, locked gates began to appear and the willingness to display one's heritage was replaced by a deep suspicion of outsiders. It is in this context that exceptional "openness" of Man Lun Fung Hall must be understood. Ancestral tablets. the most private of religious symbols, are vulnerble not only to the possibility of theft, but also to the untutored gaze of tourists who have little, if any interest in the micro details of Man lineage history. There is a radical disjuncture between what tourists see in Man Lun Fung Hall and what villagers experience when they use the hall as a ritual center. In fact, since its renovation in 1988, descendants of Man Lung-fung rarely venture inside the hall expect during the morning hours on prearranged days when ancestral sacrifices are performed. They are long gone before any tourist buses arrive. On most days of the year, Man Lun Fung Hall is empty. For those who remember the immediate past, the hall has the haunting quality of an echo chamber in both a literal and a figurative sense.

In 1969, when we first encountered Lun Fung Hall, it was the center of village activity. Every day of the year, at all hours, day and night, one could find Man elders holding court in this hall. It was the headquarters for the village watch, an unofficial but nonetheless essential local police force. Lun Fung Hall was much in demand as a banquet center. Villagers used it to celebrate weddings, births, housewarming, adoptions, and a dozen other auspicious events marking important transitions in people's lives. Throughout the years, James Watson has talking to elders about lineage history, farming technology, and the meaning of life and death. When visitors wandered into the village looking for friends or relatives, they were taken first to Lun Fung Hall where someone of authority was likely to be drinking tea, playing cards, or reading a newspaper. Many men slept in the hall, turning it into a second home; food, snacks, and occasionally shots of brandy were offered to passers-by with implicit understanding that the favor would be returned at a later date.

In 1997, the banquet tables are gone and even wooden benches, worn smooth by generation of use, have disappeared from Lun Fung Hall. All that remain are the activity. One is tempted to conclude that the prince of preservation, in this case, is the loss of community. Man Lun Fung Hall has become a museum, not a living museum as in Williamsburg, Virginia, or Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts, but is true that it has been restored to its original architectural and artistic magnificence, and that it is a delight to the eye of tourist who are oblivious to its utilitarian past. But for the people of San Tin, especially the descendants of Man Lun-fung, the social significance of the hall has changed forever.

We therefore return to the question of identity in post-colonial Hong Kong: Whose heritage does this hall now represent? The local tourist association reminds us that Hong Kong is a place that preserves the past while embracing the future. By a curious twist of historical circumstance, Man Lun Fung Hall has become a political symbol. It represents an imagined past for those who no longer have any evidence of a living past. Meanwhile, those who remember the days when the hall was a center of community activity grow increasingly distant from the experience of their grandparents. The bus loads of tourists are a constant reminder to the descendants of Man Lun-fung that they no longer control the monument that bears their illustrious ancestor's name.

For Further Reading: * Watson, Rubie S. 1985. Inequality Among Brothers: Class and Kinship in South China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. * Watson, James L. 1975. Emigration and the Chinese Lineage: The mans in Hong Kong and London. Berkeley: University of California Press. * J.L. Watson and E.S. Rawski, eds. 1988. Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. ed. by Berkeley: University of California Press.

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