Exploring Yau Ma Tei with the Hong Kong locals

Written by Dyami Millarson

Last year Ken Ho stayed from the 24th of June to the 21st of September in my home and we introduced our language project to the world during that time. Ken Ho was my Hong Kong partner for this project and we have told the press explicitly that we are a team of two. It was big news that a Hong Kong person was not just interested in the preservation of the Frisian language but also paid attention to the link between language, culture and history. We saw this project as just the beginning and we hoped that people would be interested so we would have more reason to continue the project. Encouraged by the success of the project as evidenced by the media attention and the people’s interest, we felt strengthened in our decision to continue our project indefinitely. By the time Ken Ho left Frisa to fly back to Hong Kong, he had become a local hero. I returned to my daily life much as usual, but occasionally people would ask me about the project and what we are planning to do right now. I have told people that we are currently writing a book to document the adventure of our language project in 2016 and we are working on a blog to share our ideas about language, culture and religion.

I have supported Ken Ho as his language tutor, personal coach and time manager for this project. I helped him to practically realise his goal of learning the Frisian language within 3 months. Initially he felt unconfident about the entire endeavour, but eventually he gained more confidence. Whenever there were difficult moments, I dedicated all my energy to motivating him so he could achieve his goal. Both of us were interested in learning more about Frisian. At the same time, we found it practical to have a task division. I did all the planning so Ken Ho would have more time to focus solely on learning Frisian and achieving the goal of speaking it in 3 months. With a lot of planning, Ken Ho managed to speak it in just 2 months. It should not be underestimated just how difficult it is to learn Frisian because you have to study sounds, words, idioms and grammar rules. We focused especially on the speaking and listening.

I am very thankful that I could do this project together with a Hong Kong partner because it added so much depth to the project. It seems a miracle that someone from Hong Kong could have the exact same interests and be so dedicated to Frisian language, culture and history. I believe that Ken Ho will have a key role for the preservation of the Frisian language in the 21st century and beyond. He wants to make his own contributions to the Frisian language as a Hong Kong person and he would like share his own visions for its preservation. Ken Ho believes Chinese traditional philosophy (e.g. Confucianism) may have something to teach about how the Frisian language community as a whole can be preserved for future generations. The practical lessons that can be learned from Confucianism for instance can then be applied to the efforts for the preservation of the (multiple) Frisian languages. Ken Ho does not just focus on Standard Frisian but he also focuses his attention on the preservation of the various Frisian languages found in the Netherlands: Aasters, Hindeloopers and Schiermonnikoogs. All these languages are unique ‘stories’ of how ancient elements of Frisian were preserved and Ken Ho is firmly convinced that these ‘stories’ must be preserved for the future because they constitute Frisian and human heritage.

Ken Ho told this to people while he was in Frisia: ‘Aasters is the Frisian language with archaic features that is spoken in the Eastern part of the Frisian island of Terschelling. Hindeloopers, spoken in the small harbour city of Hindeloopen, is the most archaic Frisian spoken in Frisia today. Schiermonnikoogs which historically found its refuge on the island of Schiermonnikoog after the last traces of living East Frisian in the Netherlands had disappeared from the mainland is the only living remnant of the East Frisian language once spoken in Groningen and so it is part of the Frisian heritage of Groningen and it would be a dream come true if Groningen can welcome Schiermonnikoogs back to the mainland and receive Schiermonnikoogs as their own unique heritage language and start speaking and teaching it in small, enthusiastic groups. All these different kinds of Frisian – Aasters, Hindeloopers and Schiermonnikoogs – matter because historical curiosities are conserved in them. I am interested in the ancient origins of Frisian. I see many opportunities in the modern age for the Frisian languages. I do not see why Frisia cannot preserve the historically fascinating Frisian diversity and I do not see why people from Groningen should not defend their own heritage found in Schiermonnikoogs and bring it back to the mainland whence that heritage once came. Schiermonnikoogs is a treasure that deserves historical appreciation. Aasters and Hindeloopers are treasures of Frisian history as well.’

It was a unique experience that I could work together with a person from Hong Kong on the language project in 2016. Furthermore, it was Ken Ho’s first time visiting Frisia and the Netherlands. In the light of my successful cooperation with my Hong Kong friend Ken Ho in 2016, it was so amazing to me when I got to know another Hong Kong person via the internet. He introduced himself to me 7 months ago. His name is Mike. I got to know him the 5th of August and since that time, we kept contact via Skype. We were both very busy with our lives, but we loyally messaged each other on Skype every now and then in order to stay in touch. He told me he is a native speaker of Cantonese and that I could ask him any question about Hong Kong. He had studied advertising. He was already working.

My first impression of Mike was that he is a very serious and interesting person. He told me he is interested in sports games, travelling and learning something new. Unbeknownst to me, he had visited the Netherlands for the first time as well in 2016. I got a really special feeling from this. Mike showed a picture of himself in front of Centraal Station (designed by the famous Dutch architect Cuypers) in Amsterdam, which made a deep impression on me because he really had visited my country and I knew the exact location of the place where he was standing in the picture. It gave me a feeling of familiarity that is difficult to describe and it made me wonder whether there would be more coincidences. Eventually I told Mike that I was coming to Hong Kong and he proposed that we should meet up. After staying in Hong Kong for a few weeks, the moment had finally arrived that I could meet up with Mike. I was very excited about meeting him for the first time in real life.

We contacted each other via Skype and planned a week in advance to meet up at Yau Ma Tei MTR station 2:30 p.m. on Sunday the 19th of March. He gave me his phone number so I could contact him when I had arrived. Mike had made a plan for the 19th. We would go to the fruits market, a temple, Temple Street, the jade market and have dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. I was really curious to see everything and I was happy that Mike would guide me around Hong Kong. Even before I had come to Hong Kong, Mike had promised me that he would show me a few places and guide me around Hong Kong. I felt really honoured and excited that I would be able to experience this. The day of our meeting finally came. It had been a rainy week in Hong Kong and also the 19th was a rainy day. Mike contacted me in the early afternoon. Reading his messages, I felt that he deeply valued our meeting. He reminded me to bring an umbrella because it was raining outside. He asked me if I wanted to take pictures for the project. I messaged him: ‘I would love to take some photos, but we will see. Let us just focus on each other for our first meeting!’ I sent him a picture of me and Ken Ho to show him we were coming. As we arrived in Yau Ma Tei, I noticed a place we could buy cookies and so I bought one and shared it with Ken Ho. The company where I bought the cookie was called Mrs Fields Cookies which is located inside Yau Ma Tei MTR station. I asked Mike which exit we should meet at. He messaged me that we should wait at Exit B and a few minutes later he called me that I should go to B1. When he called me, I felt excited and curious about spending time with Mike. We met each other outside. He stood there waiting with his girlfriend under one umbrella in the rain. Like a real gentleman, he introduced me to his girlfriend Rebecca while I gave her a hand, he gave me a hand himself and introduced Ken Ho to her as well.

We started walking. We spontaneously talked about food allergies because I cannot eat pork and Mike has G6PD – a common condition that people should be more aware of. Ken Ho heard us talking and wondered what kind of allergy Mike had. I told him that G6PD is the most common human enzyme defect. The only way to cope with G6PD is to avoid triggers. I could understand Mike’s condition based on my own experiences. My family from father’s side has not eaten pork for generations. I have never eaten pork in my life while I have strong allergic reactions to pork which makes it absolutely impossible for me to enjoy eating that type of meat. It can be really hard for me to avoid pork in the Netherlands and Hong Kong. I asked Mike what type of foods he cannot eat. He told me that he cannot eat beans. I asked him about how bad the allergic reactions can be. He told me it can be life-threatening and that he has been lucky. It was not the most pleasant of topics to talk about, but I felt that it is a part of reality and that talking about it can make us more cognizant.

The first place Mike had planned to visit with me that day was the fruit market in Yau Ma Tei. Being my guide, he informed me that this was one of the largest fruit markets in Hong Kong. He asked Ken Ho if he had ever been here before and the latter gave a negative answer. So Mike was really showing both of us around in Yau Ma Tei. He told me that there is also a flower market in Hong Kong. I told him that I had been there to buy flowers a few weeks ago. It was raining heavily while we were walking through the fruit market. Ken Ho followed me with an umbrella to keep me dry. It was not easy not to get wet but I managed as I was walking around with the others. I was observing the great variety of fruits: mangos, pears, grapes, apples and many exotic types of fruits of which I do not even know the name. Everywhere we walked on the fruit market, I could smell the strong, sweet smell of durian. I had eaten this fruit thrice back in the Netherlands where it is an exotic fruit you can usually only buy in Asian stores. I asked Mike if he liked durian and he gave an affirmative answer. So he asked me if I liked it and I said yes. At the same time, I recalled a similar conversation I had on Skype with Ken Ho who implied he disliked durian because he thought it was too smelly. I have heard that people are not allowed to take this fruit to their hotel room because they will make the entire room smell like this fruit. My father had told me durian is a very typical fruit while one time it may be good, another time it may be bad. I have eaten it three times and indeed one time it was not so nice. However, I would definitely like to try it sometime in Hong Kong. My father had also told me that since durian is a fruit with such a specific taste, people may like it a lot or may not like it at all.

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The stalls of one of the biggest fruit markets in HK. You can buy all kinds of fruits here ranging from the more exotic to the less exotic.

I asked Mike what durian usually costs in Hong Kong. After verifying with his girlfriend, he answered that it costs between 200 to 400 HKD which corresponds roughly to 25-50 Euros based on the current exchange rates. I usually bought it for 20-30 Euros back home. As we left the fruit market, I remarked to Mike that the fruits are a bit expensive on this market. Ken Ho agreed. Mike said that it was more expensive because it was higher quality. Ken Ho admitted that he never really paid much attention to quality so he did not really notice. I had emphasised to Ken Ho in the Netherlands that it is vital to pay attention to the price-quality ratio. He was accustomed to pay attention merely to the price, but he accepted from me that quality is an important factor as well in the evaluation of fruits. So he always asked me in the Netherlands about the quality of fruits in order to distinguish the lower-quality fruits from the higher-quality fruits. Distinguishing quality is not a skill you learn just overnight. As we were walking towards the temple that Mike had planned to visit, I asked Mike what are his favourite fruits. ‘I like blueberries and strawberries,’ he answered, ‘but I do not like apples.’ He told me that he found it difficult to find good fruits in the Netherlands. I promised him that I would help him find good fruits next time he visits.

We arrived at the temple. As the temple is dedicated to Tin Hau who is the Goddess of  Seafarers, it is called Tin Hau Temple. The temple was once situated near the sea. This was not surprising to me because she is a Goddess closely associated with the sea. She reminded me of the historically popular Germanic Goddess Nerthus, married to Njorth, the God of the Sea. She is a Fertility Goddess that must have been worshipped for the same reasons as Tin Hau. Her worship was widespread in history. Nerthus was an important Goddess for the Germanic peoples dwelling near the sea. The Frisians, who are historically a sea-faring Germanic tribe that has dwelt near the sea since ancient times, must have worshipped Nerthus at the time as well. It can thus be concluded that Frisians are historically Nerthus-worshippers and that the worship of Tin Hau in Hong Kong resembles their ancient tradition that has now unfortunately been forgotten since centuries past. Ken Ho has helped me to realise that the spiritual heritage of Hong Kong can teach us to be mindful of the forgotten customs of the Frisians as well as to reclaim that heritage. I think moreover it is fair to presume the forest-dwelling Frisians would have been more inclined to forest worship (Baduhenna, a Forest Goddess) while the coast-dwelling Frisians would have been more inclined to sea worship (Nerthus, a Sea Goddess). This is similar to the geography-based distinction between Clay Frisian (spoken on the Frisian mainland in the clay regions that once used to be sea) and Wood Frisian (spoken in the old forest regions of Frisia). One can easily imagine that the latter would have worshipped Nerthus while the former would have emohasised the worship of Baduhenna who dwelled in the Frisian forests. I think she may be seen as a divine spirit that represented the forest as a living spiritual being. Baduhenna as a Goddess was just the forest appearing as a spirit. She was the spiritual appearance of the forest, all the spiritual power of the forest expressed in one Goddess. The Goddess Baduhenna was how the forest appeared to the Frisians as a spirit or spiritual being. She was a ghost embodying the forest. The forest was alive. The forest was Baduhenna, this is Frisian traditional knowledge. This knowledge can be inferred from the fact that the Frisians practising polytheism in ancient times were animists connected to nature. They believed in the spirits of nature or spirits found in nature. The natural world appeared to them in human-resembling form. Nature could change form and become a spirit, which would be called a God if this spirit had greater power than others. For instance, Baduhenna was the Goddess of all forests or trees, or just a specific tree which would be the domain of an ordinary ghost (a fairy or alf). These ordinary ghosts would be gods of a lower rank. Sacred but not as sacred as a great deity such as Baduhenna. This is the system of Frisian polytheism as it once was.

Mike remarked to me that the younger generations did not really take an interest in visiting temples or exploring the rich spiritual heritage of Hong Kong. Once inside the temple, the strong smell of incense entered my nose. Mike told me that some people cannot tolerate this. I like the smell of incense, however, and I told him this. It brings back good memories from my childhood when my parents used to burn incense at home. The smoke covering the temple which was produced by burning incense created an aura of mystery. Chinese temples are usually covered in smoke because worshippers burn incenses in them.

Whilst we were inside marvelling at the interior of the temple and observing people performing rituals of worship, Mike explained everything to me about the activities in the temple and he also explained various features of the temple to me as I asked him about it. Having told him about the project, Mike knows that I am interested in the spiritual heritage of Hong Kong.

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This is where we stood while I asked questions and Mike explained. We stood near the most sacred part of the temple (right corner).

He told about fortune telling. We talked about handreading. I asked him if anyone in his family is somehow related to the temple or its activities. He told me someone close to his family is a fortune teller. He told me what the lines on my hand generally mean, he said that I am a very focused person and that I would not change job much suggesting I have a strong will while I have a clear career path.  This is us discussion the traditions.

We could not take pictures of the most sacred part of the temple. We were watching people perform rituals of worship. It was interesting to witness this while Mike was explaining everything to me. We agreed that next time we would also do a handreading. Mike told me about how handreading is very complex. He said it is no easy job. Mike promised he would translate everything. He said they may use archaic Chinese for fortune telling. This linguistic aspect us interesting to me. Mike also emphasised that fortune tellers have a lot of Chinese traditional knowledge. They know many stories. All this was fascinating for me to hear because I focus on human heritage.

He told that the HK police worship a particular God. This is a tradition. He explained how to make wishes in the temple and next time we would do that. He said you can wish for longevity and health, money and a good career from this God of the Sea , he told very sometimes people also wish for love.

He said that people first give a sacrifice (like meat or fruit) and then make a sincere wish (they may repeat it a few times, they make just one wish hoping the God will fulfill it).

How to make an offer and wishes

I asked Mike about the nature of the polytheism as follows: Do people venerate especially this Goddess while there are other Gods or do they also worship other Gods? He pointed out that it depends because people are just focused on what is practical for making their wishes come true. People simply do what they believe is good for making their wishes come true or for having their wishes granted.

For the rest I asked him about the objects in the temple.
There are different manners to make wishes. There are three manners to make wishes. You can see two of these manners below.
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These are people’s wishes. People write down their wishes on these objects and hang them up on this rack. Red is a colour that is believed to bring luck.
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The spiral or circular incense can make your wish come true. These may burn for a month. Again notice the red colour which has a special meaning.
So the first manner is to write your wish down and to hang it up (first picture above). Another manner is to burn a big incense (second picture above). There is also a third manner to make your wish: worshipping the Goddess directly. As we stood in the temple, we saw people worshipping Tin Hau. You bring a sacrifice to the Goddess (incense, fruit or meat) and then you bow three times and you make a sincere wish (you may repeat it a few times in your mind, but you may not make more than one wish at a time). You can sacrifice in two manners: You can leave your offer to the Goddess in the temple and the Goddess will consume it there or you can burn it with fire for it is a medium to the otherworld. Mike told me this about fire and I found it quite a revealing fact because the Germanic peoples, the Frisians included, also traditionally used fire to sacrifice to the Gods. Calling fire a ‘medium’ really made a deep impression on me. He summarised a complex idea in just a single sentence and I am thankful he took the time to explain it.
I asked Mike for what people usually wish with this Goddess. He said they wish forhealth and longevity, wealth and a good career, very rarely also they wish for love (which makes me think she also has the function of a fertility Goddess like Nerthus).

He said that especially people who believe in the Goddess of this temple come here. They really believe in her power to make their wishes come true.

We made an agreement that anither time we would prepare meat/fruit to make an offer and then a wish. I do not only want to talk about it but I just want to perform the ritual to understand itnor to wrap my mind around it.

 For the rest we discussed we would also let my fate be predicted another time. To have my fatw predicted
 So we had made many plans for next time.
SACRED SPACE
I asked him if the temple has a part that is so sacred that you may not come there.  I asked him about where the sacred part of the temple is where you may not come..  He said that one may not touch the God image and also not the fire. We were also not allowed to take pictures of the most sacred part of the temple. The most sacred part was in the back of the temple. YOu enter through the front gate and you can see the God image a few meters removed from yuo.
HK POLICE AND IMAGE WORSHIP
For the rest he said that the police of HK have an image of a God. They have a certain tradition to venerate a certain God. He emphasised that it is a special tradition that the police honours this GOd.
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This is us in front of the entrance gate of the temple. Ken Ho had asked a few Germans in their own language to take a picture of us. 
After visiting the temple, Mike and I went to Temple Street. It is a kind of marketplace. I have observed similar marketplaces in Mongkok while I was there.

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This is in front of the gate to Temple Street.

Mike took me to the jade market.We discussed gold, silver and jade.Mike told me gold and silver in HK are cheap.He said you should especially buy silver in HK.I discovered from this conversation we both share an interest in gold and silver.We discussed it is difficult to determine whether jade is fake or real.He said he does not know much about it, I said I do also not know.It would be too risky for me to buy jade.We both concluded jade is not something we would buy given we know nothing about it.Mike did explain the meaning of different colours of jade to me.

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We walked around discussing matters seriously: gold, silver and jade. It was clear we have the same ideas about these matters.

Next we had lunch.We rested and did not talk much.We just enjoyed the food.We both had to be careful with what we chose because we both have allergies.We found something to eat.I drank hot soy bean milk.Later we had dinner in a vegetarian restaurant.Mike had planned this for me.I paid for the dinner.I had baozi , a soup and a hot lemon honey drink.Mike talked with me about what we could plan to do.He asked me if I have hiking shoes and sports wear.I gave an affirmative answer.He told me he wanted to go hiking with me in the weekend.He said we could go hiking in Sai Kung, Shek O or a few other places.I told him I already had visited Sai Kung.At the end of the evening we had ice cream and we talked about our birthdays.Our birthdays are about the same date.We are both Taurus.We have similar personalities and facial expressions. Isn’t it funny we are both Taurus? We agreed to celebrate our birthday together. He will go to Taipei for a few days in May, I told him we can meet up there. So we may spend some time together in Taiwan , we will see.At the end of the day, he told me it was soecial for him to have a European friend. He always wabted to have a friend from Europe. I told him it was special fir ne as well. It is not usual to have friends from HK. It was an unforgettable experience with Mike on the 19th and I am looking forward to our next meeting on the 29th.

 

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