Wong Tai Sin Temple is one of the most famous shrines in Hong Kong. Every Chinese New Year, thousands rush towards the temple to burn incense and pray.
This year, the Wong Tai Sin Temple has gone for a revolutionary technological upgrade.
The 90-year-old temple has added a new underground prayer room decked with gold, marble, LED lights and motion detectors. It features a vaulted echo-enhancing ceiling emblazoned with a planetarium-like digital replica of the Hong Kong sky that rotates in accordance with the seasons. Two HK$3 million floor-to-ceiling wall hangings, made of marble and rare gemstones, adorn the entranceway. Worshippers enter the hall and deposit a written prayer before one of 60 statues representing the gods of the Chinese zodiac, which responds with flashing lights and bursts of smoke.
This 10,000-square-feet chamber costed HK$100 million (US$13 million) and took 3 years to complete.
The modernization of the 2,500-year-old religion has inspired both awe and disapproval. Further adding to the controversy is the new prayer hall’s entrance fee (HK$100; HK$50 for seniors), which makes Wong Tai Sin the first prayer facility in Hong Kong to charge admittance. A prayer offering at the temple’s automated statues costs an extra HK$300. Sik Sik Yuen, the Taoist nonprofit organization that runs Wong Tai Sin, says the fees are required for the maintenance of the new hall.
Lee Yiu-fai, chairman of Sik Sik Yuen and the chief planner of the new prayer room, named Tai Sui Yuen Chen Hall, says he sought to create a more comfortable, healthy and modern Taoist environment, free from the pervasive incense smoke that often chokes the alters of traditional temples. Temple staff have been touting the eco-friendliness of the new facility’s energy-saving LED lighting and its smoke-reduction policy (burnt offerings inside the hall are limited to one small low-smoke incense stick). That contrasts with the atmosphere at the original and main altar, just above the new one, where templegoers burn large incendiary joss sticks by the handful. Mr. Lee maintains that the new hall’s rituals are in accordance with traditional Taoist practice, and that he has simply employed new technology to streamline the conveying of visitors’ messages to the gods.
No matter how much this new technology fits with traditional Taoist practices, I am pretty sure that the high entrance fee (you only need to pay for offerings and incense only in temples) and the total deviation from tradition, will mean that only the younger generation or first time visitors will go visit.
Most dedicated worshippers still believe in the magic of incense and a simple prayer.