No Frolicking! Searching for authentic old Hong Kong

Chi Lin Nunnery

Perhaps I’m among the few who finds the Chi Lin Nunnery and adjoining Nan Lian Gardens beautiful, but utterly soulless.

The site is intended to be a peaceful, spiritual place in the hustle of the city. A place for Buddhists to worship and the general public to quietly contemplate.

It’s a shame that it’s sterile, rule-bound and ultimately fake. After roaming the noisy temples of South Asia, Mainland China, and Hong Kong, it was all rather too quiet and rule-bound. No intoxicating scent of smokey incense? No jostling for the best prayer position? Not one speck of peeling paint? No donation boxes?

Maybe I started off on the wrong foot with a tired 5-year-old in-tow who wasn’t allowed to sit anywhere (“Missy, missy! Can’t sit there!”), wasn’t allowed to poke her head over the rail to better see the massive koi fish in the pond (“Missy, missy” followed by gesture down.), or linger and sip a drink (“Missy …” Sigh. Yes, we just saw the sign prohibiting drinking.).

No frolicking or running

Sign from Nan Lian Gardens. One hopes there is a Julie-Andrews-type nun at Chi Lin just waiting to break free and frolic!

I’ve also enjoyed so many truly special and unexpected visits to slightly grubby, but authentic historical places in Hong Kong’s quiet and remote New Territories recently, that a nunnery built-in the 1990s in the style of the Tang Dynasty flies too close to Disneyland.

So I gasped upon reading this morning that the nunnery is a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to today’s South China Morning Post, the powers that be are pushing for it, rather than truly historic Victoria Harbor, to be classified as a World Heritage Site: Helene Franchineau, “Harbour Heritage Snub: Historic Waterfront given thumbs down for nomination to Unesco list, with government officials favouring rebuilt nunnery at Diamond Hill,” South China Morning Post, 20/1/2013.

I found the quote from this Hong Kong-born man-on-the-street particularly telling:

“I have not heard about the Chi Lin Nunnery. I have been living in Australia for the past 20 years.”

Not surprising since the re-build of the nunnery was only completed in 1998. How can this be a historic place warranting preservation and special status?


If you want to see really old Hong Kong, take the MTR a few more stops past those eight hills that divide Kowloon from the New Territories, hop on a mini-bus and you’ll have the chance to see some truly old Hong Kong! Within the last month I’ve visited and posted about old walled villages, wishing trees, temples, and ancient pagodas. Each of these places is marvelously authentic, soulful and a bit rough around the edges. Perfect.

New Territories praise aside, the highly accessible Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in the heart of town also has more depth of feeling (to me) than the beautiful, but ultimately sterile, Chi Lin Nunnery (though I’m sure the actual nuns, who we never saw, don’t feel that way …).

Many more ideas on where to find obscure and authentically old Hong Kong are on the great blog “Hong Kong (& Macau) Stuff.” Phil has visited and photographed many interesting places in all parts of Hong Kong (so you can see something interesting without crossing those eight hills after all if you’re short on time!). These are the places that need to be seen and more importantly, preserved.

And no one will care if you frolick a bit. They’ll be happy to see you.

18 responses to “No Frolicking! Searching for authentic old Hong Kong

  1. Jen – many thanks for the mention. Much appreciated. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the whole Chi Lin Nunnery/Nan Lian experience. I can think of a whole bunch of places more deserving for a UNESCO grading – it’s an odd choice but I’m sure if someone digs deeply enough they will find some nutty property developer behind it all hoping to get a bit of business for his nearby mall (or perhaps I’ve just been in HK too long to expect anything else?).

    With regards to the garden – well, it’s jointly run by the LCSD who have a reputation for overbearing rules forbidding anything but sitting still or lying in a coma (allowed, as long as its not on a bench). I made the mistake of hoisting one of my boys onto my shoulders next to the Koi pond once and was quickly informed I was doing something “very, very dangerous”. I couldn’t tell if she meant for him or for my back (both were okay afterwards, don’t worry).

    • Suddenly the line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” springs to mind. Property developers working behind the scenes to achieve their own outcomes. Maybe I’ll have to re-watch that movie.

      After being admonished many times during our Saturday visit for trivial things, my daughter and I took to sneakily eating snacks — “here, reach in my bag, grab a cashew and then pretend to wipe your face and stick it in your mouth” — just to get away with violating their restrictive rules.

  2. Not to be overly critical, but this nunnery just seems plain fake. We visited it a few months ago only to be underwhelmed. Same for Kam Hing Wai. By and large, we find HK’s so-called ‘historical’ sites, Chinese or otherwise, largely wanting, as if they were not preserved for a purpose (not proud of being Chinese).

    • Yes the nunnery is rather fake indeed. I haven’t visited Kam Hing Wai, but it seems like the kind of place I’d personally enjoy (but that probably does need clearer/more targeted preservation).

  3. haha yes, the place is so underwhelming 😦 sorry they were so rude! oh goodness. we were tehre in summer and drinking all the time and photo enthusiasts were peeping thru those railings at fishes too, cna’t believe they woudl say “frolicking” to a child.

    • It was a very strange outing. It’s been comforting to see that other people also find the whole place rather fake and underwhelming (perfect word choice). Makes the potential UNESCO designation all the more odd.

      I should note that the guards weren’t directly rude and mean, they were kind every single time (of the many) that they told us we were doing something wrong…. It just became ridiculous how many times they approached us to let us know we were breaking another minor rule!

  4. Seems it’s more and more difficult to find anything left of the old Hong Kong but I still love my birthplace …

    • It’s wonderful isn’t it? Despite all the shopping malls and other new developments, I’ve really enjoyed searching out old, interesting corners of Hong Kong this winter.

  5. Sorry to hear about your underwhelming experience. I’m shocked that this soulless nunnery beat out iconic Victoria Harbour for a UNESCO World Heritage nomination. (Echo your thoughts on how amazing Man Mo Temple is!) Perhaps the powers that be already know that at the current pace of construction, development and land reclamation, Victoria Harbour will probably disappear in a short while, with high rise developments connecting TST to HK Island! I’m sure the property developers are simply biding their time to just reclaim the entire harbor and just develop over all the reclaimed land! 🙂

    • I think that’s exactly what the “city fathers” are afraid of: that historic designation would mark an end to land reclamation. But, I think there is some precedent for evolving historic spaces still winning designation…. Why the 15 year old nunnery rather than something (anything?) else is a question that remains…

      How is Seattle? Three things I’m desperately missing here right now are: winter skiing, double-trouble Top Pot donuts and Mexican food. Can I live vicariously through you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s