Yuen Yuen Institute (圓玄學院) and Western Monastery (西方寺), Tsuen Wan
Hong Kong has several large temple complexes dotted around the territory. Several are quite famous and need no introduction: Wong Tai Sin, Chi Lin Nunnery, 10000 Buddha Temple etc but there are many many more in operation that may be far from the usual tourist haunts that are equally as impressive and have offer the opportunity of heading a little bit further from the beaten track. I’ve been to a few in the past: Fung Ying Sin Koon in Fanling, Wun Chuen Sin Koon in Ping Che, Ching Chun Koon and Tsing Shan Monastery, both in Tuen Mun as well as Pun Chun Yuen here in good old Tai Po.
The Yuen Yuen Institute (圓玄學院: Yuen Yuen Hok Yuen in Canto) and Western Monastery (西方寺: Sai Fong Ji) in Tsuen Wan are two of the most impressive places of this nature, but are well hidden away in the foothills of Tai Mo Shan above Tsuen Wan town centre. Why am I lumping them together in one post? 1. I’m lazy 2. They are slap bang next to each other so if you visit one it is no hassle to pop next door to see the other.
Actually, this whole area is dotted with a variety of temples and the like. You’ll see what I mean on the bus (or taxi) ride to the top of the hill. The #81 green minibus chugs along the well-trodden road up the hill and get your timing wrong (such as during Ching Ming or Chung Yeung festivals) and you may find yourself queuing for a long time to get on one of those 16-seaters. We queued for a bout 30 mins and the queue was being managed by 3 policemen, so is was fairly orderly but if this is the case when you go then best just to jump in a cab – actually, if you’re feeling fit you could always walk it, we walked the downhill leg back into town and it took about 30 mins.
Anyway, these two large complexes are not only the biggest* in the area but are also the most impressive in terms of design. Of the two the Yuen Yuen Institute is the older establishment, being built in 1950, and as a result it is also perhaps the better known of the two places. According to Wiki it is the only temple in Hong Kong to be dedicated to all three main Chinese religions under one roof: Buddhism, Taoism and Confuscianism. To be honest I’ve always understood that worship in HK was a broad combination of all three with a load of Paganism thrown in for good measure, but what do I know?
I remember being pointed towards a short film on Youtube a while back and asked to identify the location used. It was a film of the famous Hung Gar Sifu Chiu Chi Ling performing a Hung Gar form – watch it here or here. Yes, as you can see it was filmed entirely at the Yuen Yuen Institute. I think it is these sort of things that make large temples like this still appealing to me – I automatically associate them with many of the old kung fu and chop socky films I used to watch as a kid.
Anyway, it’s an impressive sight to behold, not just the large main paifong and open courtyard (containing a various pavilions including one housing a bell) but also the centre-piece pagoda, short and round, supposedly a replica of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing (though if it is a replica then it bears only a passing resemblance by the fact that it’s short fat and round – a bit like Albert Ho). There is the usual pond with Koi and turtles (and my kids were even lucky enough to see rat as well!!), Kwun Yam statues, wall murals and an excellent view across Tsuen Wan. There is also a surprisingly good bi-lingual display at the entrance to the complex which gives a little bit of the place’s history as well as a Taoist rock display behind the pagoda (much like the larger one that can be found at Nan Lian Garden in Kowloon). Certainly there is more here to keep the clueless (like me) entertained for a good hour or so.
One of the most surprising things on show though – and well worth the visit alone – was the inclusion of a small display of classic cars including an Austin, Rover, Jaguar and a Princess Vanden Plas – all seemingly on-loan from The Hong Kong Classic Car Club.
Once you have had enough of Yuen Yuen Institute you can head down the road and go next door to visit the Buddhist Western Monastery. Although it looks much newer than it’s neighbour – especially inside where much of the stone tiling looks to be new – this place is also reasonably old by HK standards. The main complex was built in 1972 but the extremely large pagoda – the Pagoda of 10000 Buddhas, which can be seen from quite a distance – is a much newer addition and was only constructed in 1999.
There is less open space inside this complex compared to Yuen Yuen Institute because the plot is slightly smaller and built on a steep part of the hillside, so everything feels a bit more squished in here. But it’s still impressive including a hillside covered in Kwun Yam statues.
Unlike the eclectic nature of Yuen Yuen Institute, Western Monastery is strictly Buddhist and the main hall has two floors – the upper one containing what is known as the “Buddhist Trinity” (which includes the Amithaba Buddha as well as Kwun Yam/Guan Yin and…erm…someone else) and the lower floor containing the Maitreya Buddha (i.e. more commonly known as the fat bloke with the smile – Albert Ho gets two mentions in this special Chief Executive Election post ).
There is another deity temple behind the main one as well as some rooms at the sides squeezed in for ancestral remains. Yes, that old chestnut – the columbarium – crops up everywhere these days. I neglected to mention that the Yuen Yuen Institute also offers urn niches which is one of the reasons these places get so busy around the grave sweeping festivals.
Appropriately, the Western Monastery also runs an old peoples’ home on the slope behind the main temple complex – although I can’t confirm the presence of a conveyor belt leading from the home down to the urn niches via an incinerator (it’s a missed opportunity if you ask me )
By far the most impressive part of this temple complex though is the huge pagoda – 9 storeys – that sits on the upper terrace. Sadly you can’t go up it, access is blocked by a gate, but you are still able to enter the ground floor and marvel at the intricacy of the artwork inside as well as a small display of Buddhist relics and art. To be honest this has to be one of the most impressive interiors I have yet to see in HK (including Buddhas awesome blue hair- reminded me of an early childhood trip to Bournmouth and all those blue rinses), it’s just a shame that the pagoda’s higher floor are off limits. No surprise given that it is a working monastery and they probably don’t want thousands of tourists milling around and tramping up and down the steps.
All in all a few hours well spent – despite the fact that I find Tsuen Wan one of the most frustrating places to visit, largely thanks to its overuse of pedestrian flyovers. But anyway, if you fancy a change from Wong Tai Sin and Chi Lin Nunnery and want to see some truly spectacular local religious buildings then this place is well worth checking out.
*There is another big complex not far away called the Chuk Lam Sim Yuen (竹林禪院 – Bamboo Forest Buddhist Temple) whose previous incarnation – because it has since been rebuilt – was used as a set for the filming of Unicorn Chan’s awful Unicorn Fist (read more about another famous location for that film here). However, although in roughly the same area its on a different part of the hillside and is accessed via another road – not that easy or convenient to reach if you are already on the road next to the Yuen Yuen Institute et al