Thursday, February 3, 2011

10'000 Buddhas, Fake Meat & Real Meat

I had received a recommendation that the trip all the way out to Sha Tin was worth it because in Sha Tin there is a monastery that holds more than ten thousand Buddha's. It is called (very originally) "10'000 Buddhas Monastery". I took this advice seriously and decided to get up early and make the pilgrimage. And let me tell you, a pilgrimage it was.

I spent half an hour on a train, walked twenty minutes, spent one hour on another train, walked for an hour, got lost and walked for just over another hour, then found my way and walked for another thirty minutes until I ended up at the base of the four hundred steps to my destination.

I had left home at almost 9:00 in the morning, and arrived at the entrance gate to the monastery at about 1:30. The walkway up the mountain to get to the monastery is more than four hundred steps. Safe to say, I was expecting a lot from this place (read: I was a little pissed).

When you walk through the gate the Buddhas start. Giant, gold-painted Buddhas with freaky expressions and bright red lips on each side of the steps the whole way to the top. Each Buddha is different - looks like a different person -  freaks you out even more. As you get further up the hill, and you are more puffed, the path becomes thinner and the Buddhas get closer and apparently fatter. And more freaky. Their long feet stretch out and rest on the only hand rail. Their staffs finish with long hairy things that look identical to their beards and dangle near your head. Some of their faces are really long and sometimes their eyebrows are way too high and some of theirs mouths are frozen open with red paint flowing over the gaping hole where teeth should be. One Buddha reaches out with an arm that is double the length of his body. Another super fat one sits on a peacock with a malicious grin on his face and the white paint has worn off his eyes so he looks like a demon with whole-eye-filling pupils.

Safe to say I'm not impressed on the walk up (read: WHAT THE HELL GET ME OUT OF HERE).

Despite the knot of fear (read: maybe also cramp) that grows with each step towards the top, you cannot help but wonder what this place is going to be like. It must be good, surely! Tons of people come to this monastery! Something must be waiting for me at the top. This is my pilgrimage. It took me so long to get here it just has to be good.

So you round the corner and practically kiss the plateau of levelled cement that stretches in front of you. Walk a little further and then you see the temple. Then two things happen:

  1. You see that yes, there are most probably more than ten thousand Buddhas here.
  2. .... wait ....


(read: WHY AM I EVEN HERE?!?!??!)

Fine. I'll climb the pagoda. Climbed it. About 150 steps. It was a smaller-than-average cement structure with no viewing platform. It was filled with more Buddhas, but they were all facing outwards so all you saw was about 30 Buddha asses with plaques. One was called Herman. What kind of damn crazy people name a Buddha Herman? Climbed back down about 150 steps.

Fine. I'll eat at the restaurant. I sit down at the plastic, semi-child height table. I am the only customer and I place my order to a young waitress who had just been sitting down smoking next to an old lady who (in between eating) was hacking and coughing up flegm incredibly loudly. The old lady pressed down on one side of her nose and breathed in with such strength that the room filled with the noise of her snot  shooting down her nasal canal. A sip of tea and she was back to shovelling food in her mouth. I ordered "vegetarian chicken with sweet and sour sauce" at the recommendation of the waitress. She nodded, and walked back to the table with the ill old lady. Then - get this - she hands the order to this old lady, who scowls, runs her hands through her hair, wipes them on her pants, grabs a white cap, and then walks into the kitchen.
Holy shit. Old snot lady is chef.
Suddenly I look at everything with fresh eyes. Are these bits floating in my teacup really leaves? Has this gigantic bowl of chopsticks ever been cleaned? How often do they carry food up here? Where am I?

My food comes out, is placed in front of me, and then moved away from me on the table. The old lady then brushes my hair over my shoulders and starts jabbering vividly to me in Cantonese, saying god knows what. She finished speaking, then stood silent for a moment staring at me, and just walked away. I have no idea what just happened. Am I allowed to eat? More importantly: do I want to eat this?

Fuck it. After hours of being lost and hundreds of steps I'm ravenous, so I just literally shovel a glob of "vegetarian chicken" into my mouth and start chewing. Now I know the paradigm of successful mock meat - deep fry whatever the hell you want, cover is with so much sauce that you can't taste anything else, and then call it whatever animal tickles your fancy. It works. It was delicious.

So I pay, take a last look around, and find one gold Buddha that actually has a corpse in it. It's like a mummy of a monk. A dead guy, painted with plaster stuff, sitting upright at eye-height. I just shake my head now, I stopped trying to understand these things after the first week of being in Asia. I don't wanna know. I try and stop wondering what the hell I just ate.

Then I start the walk back down the steps. Getting quicker the further I go, fuelled not by the "chicken" (read: miscellaneous substance), but by my ever-increasing phobia of giant golden Buddhas staring at me. I nearly tripped over a cat. The cat doesn't have any significance really, it just amplified how abstract the day was.

So I reached the bottom at about 3:00pm, got lost on the way back to the train station, and accidentally wandered blindly into a "wet market". A large, but enclosed space where the live animals are sold next to the butchers next to the fish tanks next to the chopped up fish. I actually found it difficult to breathe. The ice from the seafood melted into puddles that were then contaminated with the blood dripping from the butchers' tables. People shouted prices at each others faces and held live chickens by a single wing, impervious to their cries of agony. Over and over. My eyes were watering from the stench, and I was crying a bit because of the horrendous cruelty I saw in front of me. A lady in front of me was carrying a small dog in her arms. As she pointed to the left at a set of ribs on a stand, the dog reached out to the right and came within centimeters of licking the lungs of an entire pig's entrails that were hanging on a hook from the ceiling to an inch from the bloody floor.

The whole pig, but without skin or flesh. You could see the process of sustaining life as if it were a celebratory diagram. The miracle of air flowing through the trachea then down to the lungs and the diaphragm. The complex process of food going in at the top, through the stomach, the intestines, the liver, the kidney - it was all there - with the heart at eye-height - in varying shades of reds and browns and purples.
And then there were piglets in cages on the other side of the walkway.
I was so overcome by such disgust I had to leave. Not disgust at the blood and bone itself, but toward the people filling that market. I felt as though I had stumbled into a void of humanity. A black hole where hunger and habit overcame any single other concept known to humankind.

Sunlight burnt my eyes when I finally found my way out, and I got straight on the train and headed home. Sat down to write this and realised that the hundred-or-so images of messed up Buddhas, and fake chicken, and fucked up real chickens that I thought I took, had been taken on a non-present memory card. Hence the lack of visual support for this particularly visually vivid day/post.

Perhaps a fitting, if not somewhat disappointing end to yet another educational day in Hong Kong.


  1. I spent a few minutes at one of those "wet" markets in Morocco, and I was holding my breath the moment after I got my first whiff of the smell. I didn't see piglets, but I saw the chickens just watching other chickens being slaughtered, and the local cats just loving all of the meat that falls to the ground. Every now and again, there was a cow's head or a pig's head just sitting on display. I know this is naive, but I'm quite content knowing which bits of a brain are red, and which bits are purple, etc.

    Have you found a shop at which you can buy some fruits and veg, maybe some bread or bran, for when you're feeling like a home-style meal?

  2. Oh yeah, I'm living right near SoHo at the moment, and this part of Hong Kong honestly has the best vegtarian food of anywhere I have ever been in my life.
    It's expensive and I have gained 2kg+, but it's worth it while I'm here in case it's not so great in Shanghai...
    But yeah man, food is off the chain.

  3. Oh! I am amazed you ate the little snotty old lady food. You know she was telling you that she hoped you would enjoy the rabbit and puppy dog with your sweet & sour, as she had run out of mock chicken, but as you were the first poor young woman there that day, with that unfortunate colour of red hair, she would not charge you any extra !!! Enjoy!!
    Wet market. YUCK! x Thank God for Coles pre pack.


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