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FEBRUARY 14, 2011, 10:21 PM HKT
Taoism Goes High Tech
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By Patrick Brzeski
Sik Sik Yuen
Wong Tai Sin’s new prayer hall.
Over the Lunar New Year weekend Vivian Choi made her annual visit to Wong Tai Sin, one of Hong Kong’s largest Taoist temples, to ask for blessings in the new year. But instead of burning dozens of incense sticks in the age-old Taoist tradition, Ms. Choi slipped a written prayer into a small box. An electronic deity statue then lit up and blew artificial smoke, signaling the acceptance of the offering.
As worshippers welcomed the Year of the Rabbit, Wong Tai Sin temple in Kowloon ushered in a new era of its own: high-tech Taoism.
For 100 million Hong Kong dollars (US$13 million), the 90-year-old temple created a  underground prayer room — decked with gold and marble and equipped with LED lights and motion detectors — just in time for the Lunar New Year holiday, which started Feb. 3 and is expected to draw more than a million visitors to the temple over two weeks.
The 10,000-square-feet chamber, which took three years to complete, features a vaulted echo-enhancing ceiling emblazoned with a planetarium-like digital replica of the Hong Kong sky that rotates in accordance with the seasons. Two HK$3 million floor-to-ceiling wall hangings, made of marble and rare gemstones, adorn the entranceway. Worshippers enter the hall and deposit a written prayer before one of 60 statues representing the gods of the Chinese zodiac, which responds with flashing lights and bursts of smoke.
The modernization of the 2,500-year-old religion has inspired both awe and disapproval. Further adding to the controversy is the new prayer hall’s entrance fee (HK$100; HK$50 for seniors), which makes Wong Tai Sin the first prayer facility in Hong Kong to charge admittance. A prayer offering at the temple’s automated statues costs an extra HK$300. Sik Sik Yuen, the Taoist nonprofit organization that runs Wong Tai Sin, says the fees are required for the maintenance of the new hall.
Lee Yiu-fai, chairman of Sik Sik Yuen and the chief planner of the new prayer room, named Tai Sui Yuenchen Hall, says he sought to create a more comfortable, healthful and modern Taoist environment, free from the pervasive incense smoke that often chokes the alters of traditional temples. Temple staff have been touting the eco-friendliness of the new facility’s energy-saving LED lighting and its smoke-reduction policy — burnt offerings inside the hall are limited to one small low-smoke incense stick. That contrasts with the atmosphere at the original and main altar, just above the new one, where templegoers burn large incendiary joss sticks by the handful.
Mr. Lee maintains that the new hall’s rituals are in accordance with traditional Taoist practice, and that he has simply employed new technology to streamline the conveying of visitors’ messages to the gods.
Sik Sik Yuen
Statue of Goddess Doumu, “Mother of Dipper,” which stands behind the main altar in the new underground prayer hall at Wong Tai Sin.
“Everything is proper; our plans for the temple were taken from the old Taoist books,” he said. “It’s the same tradition — we’re just using some new technology to honor the gods.”
Wong Tai Sin is one of the largest and wealthiest temples in Hong Kong, employing more than 300 monks. According to the Chinese Temples Committee, the statutory body responsible for the administration of Wong Tai Sin and 23 other temples in Hong Kong, Wong Tai Sin attracted more than five million visitors and collected HK$70 million in donations in 2010.
“They can afford to try some new tactics to attract visitors,” said Matthew Wong, secretary of the Chinese Temples Committee.
Chan How Ling, 49 years old, has been making Lunar New Year visits to Wong Tai Sin for more than 30 years. She says she will continue to make offerings at the temple’s traditional 90-year-old altar, refusing even to visit the new prayer hall.
“I don’t believe in this electronic stuff, and it’s ridiculous that they ask us to pay a fee to worship,” she says. “I think they probably just want to attract tourists, and they shouldn’t be using so much temple money for this.”
Inside the new temple, Henny Leung, 24 years old, was more approving: “I think it’s OK. It’s very beautiful inside and the new system makes praying feel more modern — but you still follow the traditions.”
The new electronic prayer hall is just the latest in a series of technological initiatives at Wong Tai Sin. The temple is perhaps best known for a fortune-telling ritual in which a worshipper shakes a vessel filled with 100 prayer sticks until one falls out. The numbered stick is then taken to one of many fortune-telling stalls where it is interpreted by a monk. Each vessel’s prayer sticks have to be counted after every use, to ensure that an official set of 100 is supplied to the next worshipper. Last year, the temple began using a radio frequency identification machine behind closed doors to streamline the flow of prayer sticks. A batch of 100 sticks can now be counted in less than three seconds.
And in December 2008, just in time for the 2009 Lunar New Year, Wong Tai Sin introduced its groundbreaking digital initiative: e-praying. Worshipers too busy to visit the temple can send a free e-mail prayer to the temple’s monks via the Sik Sik Yuen website. Monks receive the prayers, filter out hoaxes and print the rest on prayer paper before burning them in the traditional Taoist ritual. Wong Tai Sin says it receives about 30,000 electronic prayers annually, roughly half from Hong Kong and half from abroad.
Sik Sik Yuen Director Wilson Or says there are no set plans for further technology at Wong Tai Sin, but he isn’t averse to more. “I always tell people, don’t worry so much about the method,” says Mr. Or. “It’s all the same: Just use your heart, tell the god your prayer, and we’ll make sure he gets it.”
That philosophy hasn’t caught on with most other Taoist temples — at least not yet. Graeme Lang, a professor of sociology at Hong Kong’s City University and an expert on Taoist temples in Southern China, says he’s heard of just one other case of integrating technology with tradition: Chisong Daoyuan Temple in Jinhua, China, has a revolving altar that will display worshippers’ names before a god (for a fee).
But Mr. Lang says Taoism is a “market-oriented religion” that has a tradition of adapting practices to attract visitors. He says the practice could see more technological integration if Wong Tai Sin’s strategy proves fruitful.
“The richer temples in the Mainland will copy whatever attracts worshipers and makes money,” he says.
So far Wong Tai Sin’s new hall has drawn modest crowds, including about 1,000 visitors on the first day of the new year. The main temple drew more than 50,000 worshipers a day during the Lunar holiday.
“People from my generation, we have been following these customs our whole lives,” says Lam Lai Kuen, 66 years old, who has been visiting Wong Tai Sin for the past 40 years. “The ancient traditions are important to us. This isn’t the place for modern convenience.”
Culture, Religion, Taoism, Technology, Wong Tai Sin Temple
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Comments (5 of 9)
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8:44 pm February 15, 2011
Carl wrote:
GOD = Mac. god = pc.
8:10 pm February 15, 2011
Victor Marquez wrote:
Modern intellectual & technological development reveals the superstitious ridiculousness of all organized religion. You need that patina of the antique in order for any traditional “belief system” to retain its allure and veil of mysteriousness. In combining religion with cutting edge-technology, you create a clash of paradigms; and surely the old stories are going to lose out, coming off as hokey and implausible. I hope more religions adopt digital technology, so that we can all see them for what they are: the cultish scientologies of yesteryear.
3:56 pm February 15, 2011
Jack wrote:
I don’t suppose Laozi would approve of this?
3:01 pm February 15, 2011
El Duderino wrote:
What’s the big fuss? Polytheistic religions don’t have as many qualms about technocratic representations of God or Man. If you have many images of the holy, why not make one, or more, that is at the cutting edge of our technological development.
Can God live in a spliff?
11:09 am February 15, 2011
Alice Fong wrote:
Funny that the monks have to print and burn the e-prayers. God doesn’t accept email?
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