The ever-increasing pace of development of Sai Kung (SK) is fast changing the face and atmosphere of our once idyllic SK town, touted by the HK Government as the ‘Back Garden of HK’. We are fortunate that some semblance of SK’s old way of life still manages to cling on in the old town, for now at least. Visitors wandering through the back alleys of SK old town can still see a number of shops that look characteristically as though they have been there for years serving the local residents’ everyday needs – old style grocery stores, hardware stores, ship chandlers, local eateries, hairdressers … etc.
Lung Fung Shop 龍鳳號 (literally translated as ‘Dragon Phoenix Shop’) is one such outlet. This little incense shop, situated in Tak Lung Back Street in old town, is operated by Mr. Tony Wong and his wife Lily, who have been serving the local residents of Sai Kung for over 30 years, helping to keep alive folk customs, traditional rituals and practices of Chinese religion, a complex interaction of four main traditions – Chinese folk religion, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
On the day of this interview, Mr. Tony Wong, his wife Lily, and Lily’s sister Mary who was visiting from the UK, were present in their shop.
Q: How long have you been operating here?
Lily: Altogether 35 years, 11 years at another location, 24 years here at this address. Both locations are here in Sai Kung … in the same street actually, just a few shop spaces apart.
Q: How did you get started?
Lily: It’s handed down within the family. I entered this profession when I married my husband. I knew nothing about this before. I gradually learnt what I now know over the years, gaining valuable experience along the way.
Mary: My young sister is very smart – she learnt fast. She started at Tony’s father’s shop; their family business. Tony followed the footsteps of his father who once ran a similar shop just a few doors down the same alley.
Lung Fung Shop’s nature of business is listed as ‘Joss Stick & Paper Money’ on their Company Registration Certificate. It is now the oldest of four such shops in Sai Kung, selling incense, candles, paper money, other papier mache articles along with items like laisee packets at Chinese New Year, and lanterns at Mid Autumn Festival. It is well known to all the long time local residents who basically form their stable clientele.
More than meets the eye, ‘Dragon Phoenix Shop’ serves not just as a place which just sells offertory items for sacred purposes and items for festival-celebrations; it doubles as a consultancy which offers customers expert advice on what specific offering items are to be used in different situations as well as the respective rituals to follow; it can also offer help with selection of appropriate dates/ timing for important events like weddings, big birthday celebrations, house moving-in, commencement of renovations etc. by referencing the Tung Shing通勝, a Chinese divination guide and almanac.
Q: When would people use your products?
Lily: Whenever people feel in their hearts that they want to do something, hen they’d come to buy some offerings to take home to pray to their gods/deities above regarding what they are thinking (當天稟吓); this can be called a religious ritual.
Lily explains that the practice of worshipping the gods, deities and spirits in Chinese religion is somewhat akin to religious practices in western religions.
Q: It’s like when Christians go to church to pray?
Lily: Yes, it’s kind of like that, only the ritual is different, but their frame of mind is the same.
For example, if they wish to seek blessings 作福 for someone they are concerned about in the family, they’d pray and make offerings to their gods above, asking for protection for the person they are concerned about, so that he or she would ride smoothly through the difficulties 平安大吉渡過, and when their prayers are answered, they would come here to buy another set of offerings to give thanks to the gods 還神.
Q: What do they actually do with the things that they have bought from you when they get home?
Lily: They’d first pray to their gods above, then they’d burn the paper offerings using a ‘Treasure Pail’ 寶桶, a metal container specifically dedicated for this task.
Q: Besides worshipping in temples and monasteries, some people seem to have altars 神台 inside their home or in their work place, and some also place an altar outside their front door … what are these for?
Lily: They are all meant for worshipping, but they serve different purposes depending on the locations they are put:
Inside their homes, some families keep a household altar for worshipping their ancestors 拜祖先
Some people keep inside their homes a ‘Lord of the Land’ altar 地主, dedicated specifically to the deity chosen to guard and protect everything inside that home.
An altar commonly seen placed on the ground outside, by the front door of a home, is called a Tudi 土地, literally translated as ‘Earth-Ground’; this is specifically dedicated to the deity chosen to repel evil spirits and protect the area surrounding the home.
Q: Beside spontaneous offerings to ask for specific blessings/to give thanks for prayers answered etc., are there any specific days when people would make regular offerings?
Lily: Twice a month, on the 2nd and 16th of the lunar month, some choose the 1st and 15th, offerings are made regularly. Some businesses keep an altar dedicated specifically to the Chinese God of War, Guandi 關帝 (chosen patron of numerous trades and professions). Our altar here in the shop is also dedicated to Guandi. On the 2nd and 16th of the lunar month offerings are made to Guandi in a tradition curiously referred to as ‘Tooth Making ’ 做牙; some big companies with a lot of employees like restaurants would also buy food offerings like chicken and roast pork, and afterwards the food offerings would be shared among the employees as additional dishes. This is a tradition for businesses.
Q: What do people do for auspicious events like a big birthday or a wedding day?
Lily: They need to refer to the Chinese divination guide and almanac 通勝 to pick an auspicious date to celebrate. For big birthday celebrations they should celebrate before the actual birthday date; they must not celebrate after the actual date. People who practice Chinese religion will not choose an inauspicious date to celebrate.
Q: Besides selling offertory products and your ability to use the Chinese divination guide and almanac 通勝 to help with selection of auspicious dates, what sort of other help would people come to you for?
Lily: For example, when an elderly person passes away, they’d come to ask what they need to buy to burn as offerings. If someone at home has just been admitted to hospital and subsequently passes away I’d need to teach them. If the deceased is elderly, they’d need red candles; and for the deceased who is younger, they’d need white candles. They are to light these candles at their front door to be used as a guiding light to guide the deceased’s spirit back home. If this is not carried out people would say there would be a lot of wandering spirits about.
Q: Over the years, what changes have there been in the design of the offertory items?
Lily: The traditional items people use for praying for blessings have not changed; the things that have changed with the times are the new items that are now produced for when people passes away – like a massage chair. People want modern things to offer the departed.
Mary: Mobile phones, roast pig, passports … all sorts of things.
Lily: In the past there were nothing like these, only Hell money. Now we have RMB, USD, Euro – all kinds of currencies.
Q: What about candles?
Lily: Candles have not changed.
Q: So just red and white candles still?
Lily: White candles are not used for worshipping; white candles are used for the ones who are not yet 60 years old 未上壽. When they have just passed away, the family does not want the deceased to become a wandering spirit roaming blindly outside, so a white candle is placed at the front door to serve as a guiding light to lead the deceased’s spirit back home; for those who are over 60 years old, a red candle is to be used to lead them home, so they would not become a lost soul 無主弧魂 …
Q: At the Ghost Festival 盂蘭節 that’s on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, I see people burning offerings by the roadside. is that for the restless spirits who are out and about that day, looking for clothes, food etc.?
Mary: No one knows what hell is like, so people postulate that it’s like what the living world is like.
Q: So on that day, when the spirits are out, offerings are burnt for them?
Mary: Yes, it’s like doing charity.
Lily: If foods are put out that day, the spirits would come for it (laughing).
Q: Food is also put out that day?
Lily: When people burn paper offerings, food will be put out, like fruit?
Q: What gave you the deepest impression over the years; what was the most satisfying?
Lily: There were such instances. Some young children kept falling ill despite consulting different doctors, they remained unwell and kept running a high fever – recurrent high fever – say after 3:00 pm each day. And the high temperature would not come down. Their family would come and ask me to look in the Chinese divination guide and almanac 通勝 and check the date/time/location/direction when the child might have offended the spirit world 査日脚 and then they’d buy a set of offerings to burn at home. After burning the offerings the child’s high fever seemed to disappear naturally. That’s magical 神奇; those instances gave me satisfaction – I felt I could actually help people that way; and they did not have to go back to the doctor.
Q: That really works?
Lily: Yes; I always say this is a reaction of being at peace in one’s heart 心安理得.
Q: But it’d depend on the adults knowing to come to consult you?
Lily: Yes, many people – some very young people in their 20s, I don’t know where they have heard about this – some living overseas, some living in Yuen Long and Sheung Shui, they would come here.
Q: So you use the Chinese divination guide and almanac 通勝 to deduce what should be prescribed to mitigate the ill effects?
Lily: Yes; we refer to the Chinese divination guide and almanac 通勝. It’s the book that’s being used over hundreds of years – it’s theory.
Q: Is it difficult to learn this business?
Lily: Yes it is quite difficult; there is a lot to learn, a lot a newcomer would not understand.
Q: If the knowledge is generally passed down within the family, there won’t be complete newcomers to the business since they would not have the knowledge, right?
Mary: The number of such businesses will gradually decline.
Q: How long will you continue running this shop?
Lily: Until the day when I want to rest and do not want to continue any more.
Q: How many children do you have?
Lily: I have 3 children, two daughters and a son. They each have a child; I have 3 grandchildren now.
Q: What will happen when you retire?
Lily: Young people nowadays will not do this; the young people in my family will not do this; they are not interested.
Mary: Nowadays many young people are Christians.
Lily: They don’t believe in any religion; they believe in themselves.
Q: When that day comes, if your children are not interested to take over, would you consider letting other people run the operations while you maintain ownership?
Lily: No one would want to do this any more. Even if I let them, they wouldn’t know what to do; even if I agree to teach them, they would not want to learn. People nowadays would not want to learn this.
Mary: The operation will end with this generation, no one would want to take it over. You have to keep your shop open every day of the year.
Lily: Yes, it is quite restrictive. It is not possible to close your shop all the time; only within the last few years, after a big festival like the Guan Yin Festival, Tin Hau Festival, Ching Ming – there are quite a few festivals, when it’s least busy, I’d feel okay to close the shop and go away for a few days on a trip. In the past I’d keep the shop open every single day.
Q: You said these shops would gradually become less and less and customers would also decline in numbers, so in time they will disappear altogether?
Lily: Yes, they will disappear in time I expect.
Q: Wouldn’t people still need to consult about auspicious days from the Chinese divination guide and almanac 通勝 … what’d happen then?
Lily: Nowadays the young go to the web and check auspicious days themselves, but they don’t understand really. Even if they have found auspicious days on the web, which are suitable for weddings, for example, they don’t understand that the dates also need to be suitable to go with their own birth details and zodiac sign 時辰八字. Many people don’t know this; it’s really necessary to check the dates properly. Many dates may look like good dates, but whether they are suitable for each individual’s own zodiac sign is another matter, a lot of times there are conflicts.
Mary: Things have become westernised; like choosing a wedding date – people might just choose Valentines Day – but Valentines Day itself could be an inauspicious date, but they believe that’s a good date.
Tony: This art has no one to inherit it 後繼無人