Sai Lam Temple (西林寺) Columbarium, Shatin
The other week I had a few hours to kill whilst my kids did their badminton stuff at school and so I wandered off towards Shatin to go and explore a place I have been to a few times but never done any blog stuff on before. The result was a nice and sometimes depressing exploration of Po Fook Shan and I will publish an entry on that later, but until then I thought it would be nice to look at a few other places in the vicinity, one of which being the West Forest Monastery (西林寺 Sai Lam Tsee).
The West Forest Monastery has a reasonably lengthy history in Shatin and used to be a local beauty spot that was popular with weekend trippers and locals alike. The monastery was situated right next to the rail track in Shatin and had pleasant gardens to wander around. I even heard mention (though can’t remember where) that a young Bruce Lee would also take advantage of the environs on family trips and the like. The excellent Hiking in Hong Kong website has some information on it here if you can read Chinese (as well as some photos of the old main door here), but if you can’t read Chinese then you’ll just have to make do with my poor translation.
Basically it says that the Sai Lam Monastery is said to have preceded the nearby 10000 Buddha Monastery (so pre-1949?) and had lovely landscaped gardens and even just a few years ago it still had remnants of a Long Hua Hall (no idea – answers on a postcard please) and a Kwun Yam temple but the title of the land had long been abandoned and the whole area had fallen into disrepair and attracted a very large squatter village. I can remember the squatter village used to sprawl all the way over to the entrance to the path up to 10000 Buddha temple and you had to walk through a few shanty huts to get there until the Govt cleared the land and tidied the place up a bit (they do this periodically with illegally erected houses under the premise of landslip threats nearby).
Well, once the area was cleared it became viable as a bit of leasable land again and a private company took over the area previously occupied by the Sai Lam Tsee and started building on it. What resulted has proven to be a bit controversial.
A new place has sprung up under the Sai Lam Tsee name but it’s no longer a monastery nor a place with lovely landscaped gardens for the public to enjoy. It has become a columbarium.
Yes, another one of these place where people pay top dollar to have the ashes of their nearest and dearest stored in a niche where they can be conveniently be worshiped without having to trudge up into the hills and start hillfires in the name of ancestral worship. Great you might think – no more hillfires. But, actually the reality is a bit more complicated. First many of the local villagers are a bit peeved that they have the equivalent of dead bodies being stored next to them (you can quibble over the details, but the fact remains that Chinese people are a damn sight more superstitious about the dead or their remains and are a bit more squeemish about living next door to such a place). The second is that there has been a rash of incidents of illegal storage sites being created to take advantage of the vast amounts of money that these places can make.
Think about it. These places charge anything from around 50k upwards for a tiny slot in a wall to store an urn. Build a small hall that has 1000 slots and already you can see the amount of money that can be made. The lure of money is so great that everyone is doing it and if this means illegally taking over Govt land to build more space or simply legally leasing land but then breaking the lease clauses to turn the land into an urn shrine, then so be it. Let’s face it, the Govt are so well-known for pussyfooting around whilst people openly break laws that I’m surprised the crackdown they launched ever got off the ground in the first place (although it doesn’t seem to have achieved anything in the meantime).
Anyway, the new Sai Lam Monastery is one of these places that has cropped up, sitting on land leased from the Govt but being used for purposes for which it hasn’t been designated (or zoned in Govt-speak). The result is basically an illegal columbarium that has taken a bunch of money off people with seemingly no guarantee that it will still be around in 5 years.
So, no surprise then that when I turned up with my camera to have a quick wander around and see what still remained of the old monastery I was quickly pounced upon and it was made clear to me in no uncertain terms that I should fuck off and go and take some snaps of the 10000 Buddha monastery instead.
Mission failure I’m afraid. However, I did get a snap of the entrance to the place which if you will compare with the older picture from the Hiking in Hong Kong website (link posted earlier) you’ll see that the new place does at least still use the same main gateway but it has been given a funky new paint job.