Kyoto, Japan - the Gion Festival is one of the largest festivals in Japan, crowned by the grand parade of magnificent floats. It is a traditional ritual inherited from the Edo Period (1603-1867), to pray for safety in seafaring activities and a bumper harvest in fishing and farming. In July, there are performances all around the city for thousands of people to enjoy the spectacle.
The incredible number of temples in this small fishing village is the best evidence to prove Tai O people's faith in this old saying, "Worship was the blessing of God more than God's own". Tai O people display devout reverence to hope for peace, health, fortune and happiness, making Tai O ever-shining with abundance of blessings.Yeung Hau
Built in 1699, Yeung Hau Temple is the oldest temple in Tai O dedicated to the deity of Hau Wong, the historical figure symbolising loyalty and bravery. Hau Wong, originally named Yeung Leung-Jit, was a faithful and courageous general in the Southern Song Dynasty. He was honoured for his loyalty in protecting the Emperor Song as he took refuge on Lantau Island, and was revered as Hau Wong after his death.
According to its inscription, Yeung Hau Temple is intentionally located in the northern part of Tai O to help protect residents against the strife between Lion Hill and Tiger Hill in competition for a precious gem situated nearby. It is believed that the existence of Hau Wong helps pacify the instability triggered by the two beasts.
Besides shouldering the "heavy responsibility" of safeguarding Tai O, Yeung Hau Temple is also highly valued by the fishermen as it blesses them with an abundant harvest in the unstable fishing environment. In the eyes of Tai O fishermen, Hau Wong is their tutelary god and prophet. They seek opinions and instructions from Hau Wong whenever they encounter difficulties or are on the horns of a dilemma, through divination methods using two moon-shaped wooden blocks or bamboo sticks. The mighty bell, whale bone and old dragon boat displayed in the temple are the grateful fishermen's tribute paid to Hau Wong, as thanks for his blessings all along.
If you peer inside, it is not difficult to discover the delicate artwork all over the interior. The entire temple is designed in Chinese traditional style, using green tile, granite and wood as the main construction materials. Inside the temple, there is a collection of porcelains that are adorned with dragons, mythical birds with ribbons, dragon fish and various characters. Besides animals, various botanical elements like plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums are utilised immensely on the wood carvings. The auspicious meaning of each component is accentuated in combination with the use of chayote, peach and pomegranate, which indicate fortune, longevity and offspring.
Established in 1488, Kwan Tai Temple has the longest history in Tai O. This temple is dedicated to the Chinese god of war, a Taoist symbol of force, loyalty and righteousness.
Kwan Tai, also being called Kwan Wun Cheung or Kwan Yu, was a legend of military competence and virtue in the Three Kingdoms period. As recorded in historical accounts, Kwan Tai was not just a valiant red-faced general, but also an unconquerable hero in the eyes of posterity. In the heart of the people, Kwan Tai has become an omnipotent figure with multiple roles: god of war, wealth and various industries, as well as an exorcist and guardian figure.
As far back as a thousand years ago, there was already a traditional custom of hanging up Kwan Tai's portrait on the door as a gate-god to safeguard households, expel evil spirits and soothe calamity, protecting the safety and well-being of the family inside. There is also another common ritual in Cantonese Opera called "stage-sweeping," in which an actor representing Kwan Tai will mount the stage and cast out evil spirits before the performance.
Being regarded as the commander of weather, Kwan Tai is notably the most respected deity among fishermen and farmers hoping for seasonable weather and a prosperous harvest. In Tai O, there was a folk tale about Kwan Tai saving the residents from a fire among the stilt houses many years ago. The fire was finally extinguished by a red mace which descended from the sky. Seeing the similarity between their saviour and Kwan Tai, both symbolised by red, people believed the god to be responsible. In gratitude for his help, the natives built a temple to worship Kwan Tai and he remains the most highly regarded god in this small village to this day.
Tin Hau is not simply the goddess of the sea, but also the guardian of the Tai O fishermen who drift and wander on its waters throughout the year. In the face of unpredictable weather and unreliable communications equipment several centuries ago, fishermen could only put their faith in the sailing experience of the older generations. The people of Tai O have always felt vulnerable when rainstorms sweep the village, and so Tin Hau became a spiritual pillar to support and bless Tai O people with standing the ever-changing weather.
Tin Hau is believed to have the divine power of foreseeing the future and safeguarding any seafaring activities. Over a century ago, there was a legend about Tin Hau who stood on the shore, guiding fishing boats home, unflustered by tempest and storms. Tin Hau was then regarded as the sea goddess with the strongest magical power over the water.
To guarantee safety, pleasant weather, good health and full nets, fishermen usually ignite fireworks and pray to the Tin Hau statue enshrined on their boat prow, wishing for good luck and promising yields. Fishermen will also embellish boats with colourful ribbons to thank Tin Hau for her protection and to pray for future luck. Tradition has it that several incense sticks be dedicated at the Tin Hau Temple during the Tin Hau Festival, and that one of those be brought onto the boat after being extinguished by water. It is believed that Tin Hau will miraculously appear to rescue fishermen if they ignite that incense stick whenever they come across danger at sea.
Hung Shing, respectfully addressed as the god of the sea, was a highly honoured god praised by fishermen living along the seashore in the south of China. As history tells, Hung Shing was a highly regarded official in the Tong Dynasty who was knowledgeable in geography and astronomy, assisting many traders and fishermen in their maritime activities. During his tenure, a meteorological observatory was established for weather forecasting. Thanks to his contribution, the risk of seafaring activities was greatly reduced.
Wishing to uphold Hung Shing's spirit, temples were constructed to commemorate and pray for his continuous protection and blessings.
The Hung Shing Temple in Tai O was built in 1748, and its presence was related to a myth in Sha Lo Wan Village, a place which used to suffer from fierce winds and storms. A wise man advised that they must have a temple to watch over residences nearby the protruding cape. After enshrining Hung Shing in the temple, the sea was ever after calm and tranquil. Since then, the villagers have been devoted to Hung Shing.
On 13 February in the lunar calendar, people organise an array of activities to express gratitude to Hung Shing for bringing good fortune and safety to them throughout the year. Ritual performances and igniting firecrackers are the common traditional customs during the big day, filling this serene fishing village with vibrancy and excitement.