Originally published: June 2019
Re-published: Mar 2021
Walking along Sheung Wan you find various types of shops in the lovely place such as little coffee shops, boutiques, museums. It is hard to imagine it used to be a place where coffin houses and funeral-related service took place. Sheung Wan was designated as a Chinese settlement area; the Chinese population boomed by 4 times within 10 years in 1860s. These people were mainly single male from Fujian and Canton with no family support, they migrated here for political stability.
Pic courtesy: http://momentum.travel
Medical and social services were weak at that time. The colonial government had no specialized management system for the dead. Many dead bodies were thrown around Hollywood Road Park and it became a burial ground.
This drew Chinese people’s attention because it directly related to an important Chinese myth: Death outside of hometown is a big deal; it was regarded as one of the most miserable fate of one’s life because the restless spirit haunts and lingers around human world which is definitely no good.
Consequently, coffin houses and funeral-ish service businesses started to develop.
Coffin houses aggregated on Sai Street and Square Street. With the city development, there are only a few coffin houses left.
By contrast, art galleries and restaurants have taken over. From the photos, as below you can see they are old shops with traditional settings and you can tell they are more than a few decades old.
One of the most famous coffin houses Kwong Fuk Ancestral Hall (i.e. Hundred Surname Temple in Chinese). This temple was built by a group of gentries and businessmen in 1850s and pays homage to the Kshitigarbha Buddha (the King of the Dead). It not only provided Chinese medical service but also afterlife. Firstly, the dead people could be buried here with their name and place of origin on a wooden tablet (of course, you needed to tell the staff here beforehand). Thus, once you died your family member in the Mainland could come all the way to claim the tablet back; so the soul of the defunct could return to it's "hometown" even when the body buried in Hong Kong; it solves the issue of wandering souls around the human world.
However, this service led another issue. People who were sick and were dying came to the temple and stayed which resulted in making the place overcrowded. Dead bodies packed tightly also resulted in poor sanitation condition which the colonial government wanted to destroy initially.
After negotiation with the Chinese elites, governor Richard McDonnell agreed with a longstanding request from the Chinese community to cede a land for a public hospital, caused the birth of Tung Was Hospital in 1870s.
Today, there are hundreds of tablets still placed in the inner chamber of Chinese temples, if your heart is strong enough you can go and take a look. A note of caution though, before we end: Be careful where you take pictures in Chinese temples. If traditions are to be respected, we should not take photos of inside room of temples which could host the ancestral tablet where ashes to the dead are stored. Indeed, traditional Chinese think taking photo of the ancestral hall of a temple might take the soul away....