It’s Tin Hau’s birthday today in Hong Kong (and everywhere else, even if most people don’t know about it). Unfortunately, I’m in mainland China right now, in one of those places where people don’t know or care about it. But I was in Hong Kong for most of 2013, and let me tell you about Tin Hau.
Tin Hau (天后 – Mandarin: Tian Hou), known in mainland China as Matsu (媽祖), is a goddess of the sea who is said to protect fisherman and others. There are over 70 Tin Hau temples on Hong Kong, the earliest dating back to 1012 (and later rebuilt) at Joss House Bay.
As legend has it, Tin Hau is the spirit of Lin Moniang, an adept swimmer who would help guide fisherman to shore in bad weather. She was said to have been born on Meizhou Island in Fujian on the 23rd day of the third lunar month in 960. The 23rd day of the third lunar month is today, so Tin Hau is 1,053.
According to Larry Salibra, the CEO of Pay4Bugs, adherents and celebrators were parading down a street in the New Territories all morning, starting at midnight.
Tin Hau birthday parade been going on all morning pic.twitter.com/6v5B79Xz6Z
— Larry Salibra (@larrysalibra) April 22, 2014
The celebrations like that, for various festivals that are hard to find even in mainland China, are some of the many wonders of Hong Kong. There are many ancient deities worshipped in Hong Kong that are not to be found in the mainland. Another example is Guan Yu, a famous general in the Three Kingdoms period, who is now found in many Hong Kong restaurants and businesses to ensure good luck. Everyone knows who he is on the mainland, too, but they don’t often use his spirit as such.
As for Tin Hau, I have a lot of good memories of exploring her temples in the various districts of Hong Kong. I would often sing karaoke at the outdoor KTV bars nearby the Temple Street Tin Hau Temple. One night I went out to the Joss House Bay Tin Hau Temple at around 9 p.m. when the temple surroundings were dark and quiet and swam at a nearby beach. Finally, right before I left Hong Kong, I found a joss paper seller in Kowloon City, and she offered to take me to a nearby Tin Hau temple and teach me how to worship Tin Hau. I wrote about my experience at Universia.
Here are some short excerpts:
[F]irst, you have to light your incense sticks and pray. … After bowing to each god or goddess three times, you plant three incense sticks.
Another thing you can do at the temple is see your fortune. You must make a wish then shake a bucket of sticks until one falls out.
Read the article to see in full: The Meaning Behind Tin Hau Temples
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.