If you need a reminder that Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road is even older than its art galleries, posh restaurants, and cutting-edge shops suggest, you only need to visit this compact, ancient-looking Taoist structure on the Sheung Wan end of the street.
Man Mo Temple was here before Hollywood Road’s antique shops—and will be here long after they’re gone. The temple may have stood here before the British landed on Possession Street in 1841 to take command of Hong Kong. As the colony grew into a bustling trade entrepot, Man Mo Temple grew in stature as a community center, providing essential services to Hong Kong’s Cantonese working class.
Now, 180 years later, Man Mo Temple continues to serve Hong Kong’s Taoist community. The Hong Kong temple’s statues of divinities and the smoky incense coils attest to the temple’s never-ending relevance— and its status as a must-visit site for tourists in the Sheung Wan/Central area.
Two Gods, One Hall
In a way, Hollywood Road owes its existence to Man Mo Temple; after all, the street’s original Chinese name was Man Mo Temple Street, attesting to its status as a prominent landmark in the area.
The smoke-filled main hall of Man Mo looks much the same as it did when it was founded at the dawn of Hong Kong’s history. The main building, fronted by a pair of intricately-carved screen doors, opens up into a space-within-a-space, the central sanctum topped with incense spirals that can burn for weeks at a time.
The central space (with its massive brass burner) might catch your attention first, but it’s the rear hall that should pique your interest. Two deities are enshrined here at the far end of the room, the namesakes of the temple.
“Man” and “Mo” are two different gods: the Taoist god of literature Man Cheong, and the god of war and fighting, Mo Tai (or Kwan Tai). The former, a deified Qin-dynasty administrator, enjoys the devotion of civil servants and students. The latter, a deified Han-dynasty general, appeals to police and triad gang members alike.
A Chinese Support System
Two other halls are attached to the main hall, each serving a different but related purpose.
Kung Sor Hall is contemporaneous with the main hall; it was built to serve as a civic space where local Chinese could discuss and resolve disputes that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be settled by the British authorities.
Most Cantonese locals were workers imported from the mainland; Man Mo Temple and its devotees were the only support system they could count on so far from home. The Temple was not just a place for worship; it was the embodiment of the Chinese social safety net, where they could get free healthcare, celebrate important festivals, teach their children, have their fortunes told, and settle conflicts with their neighbors.
Illiterate devotees could also count on the Temple’s letter writers to help write messages to send back home—and to read any messages that eventually arrived.
Lit Shing Kung, to the west of the main hall, is called the "saints’ palace," where other Taoist and Buddhist deities could be supplicated to. The most recent addition, Virtue Court, was added to the back of Kung Sor to facilitate Taoist ancestor worship.
Praying for Success
Strictly speaking, Taoists here do not “worship” the way Christians or Muslims do. However, Taoist deities like Man Cheong and Mo Tai are venerated, implored for their assistance, and thanked for a successful venture.
Tokens of answered prayers, remembrances of past donations, and other items indicating wishes desired by supplicants can be spotted around Man Mo Temple’s main hall.
Next to Man Cheong’s likeness, for instance, you’ll find tablets hung with wishes left by examination-takers praying for the success of their exams. That’s not to mention the many sticks of incense left behind, burning endlessly, to signal the wishes of their respective devotees.
Many historical souvenirs in the main hall indicate significant moments from Man Mo Temple’s long history. A lacquered plaque at the hall’s front was awarded by the Chinese Emperor in 1879, as thanks for a generous donation raised by Man Mo’s devotees.
Imperial sedan chairs next to the Man Mo statues were created in 1862, and are still used for the annual Autumn Sacrificial Rites, where the two deities are paraded around Sheung Wan.
Autumn Sacrificial Rites
The annual Autumn Sacrificial Rites—the Temple’s most festive occasion—take place around the 25th day of the ninth lunar month (varying from the second half of October to the first half of November).
The festivities are hosted by officials of the Tung Wah Hospital, an establishment that shares a long history with the Man Mo Temple. Man Mo’s free temple school was organized and run by Tung Wah Hospital, and the temple was formally entrusted to the hospital’s care in 1908.
On the day of the rites, Tung Wah Hospital’s directors, all wearing Chinese-style silks, lead a parade that carries the gods’ effigies on their antique sedan chairs, through Hollywood Road, Queen’s Road Central, Bank Street, and Possession Street. Dancers, marching bands, and dancing lions accompany the parade as it winds through Hong Kong’s streets.
The parade ends at Man Mo Temple, where the directors offer donations of wine and other gifts to the temple.
Getting to Man Mo Temple
Travelers using the MTR to get around can disembark at MTR Sheung Wan Station, then take Exit A2 to take the 15-minute walk up to Man Mo Temple.
No admission is charged for Man Mo Temple visitors; you can come and go freely from 8am to 6pm.