Taking it slow


There is a famous temple in Cho Lon that I have visited more times than I can count. It's the one the oldest and most visited in that district. The Thien Hau pagoda is an evocative place that is worth lingering in for an hour or so and, on a hot day in district 5, it provides a cooling retreat from that bustling community of traders and dealers.

To get a good view of this 18th century pagoda you need to stand across the street. From there you can see all the details on the roof which features gorgeously glazed, ceramic dioramas of feasts, battles, traders, demons, dignitaries, actors and merchants from other continents all set against creatively modelled Chinese houses, palaces and shops. It is incredible that these old ceramics have survived the ravages of weather and time to look as beautiful as the day they were created. From this side of the street you see this magical old temple through a moving wall of roaring traffic, with street cafes to right and left. Bird sellers with chirruping caged sparrows are completely inaudible above the din of motorbikes and taxis that trundle by, kicking up the dust and spewing diesel fumes.

Pick up a cold drink, and when the lights stop the traffic, you can slip across the road and into the forecourt of Thien Hau Pagoda. Now, the scale of this precious building becomes apparent and with two more steps you walk through a solid granite doorway into another world. A hush descends and you are in a place where everything is sacred, where civic pride and community endeavour meet the gods and ancestors, where all the richness of the lives of the residents of Cho Lon can be seen.

On the walls of the first, inner courtyard there are some unusual friezes, possibly from the 1970s depicting modern buildings, factories, a school, the interior of an elegant house. Maybe built by local philanthropists and entrepreneurs, these places must be very important to the community here. I can't image such urbane images being installed in a religious building in Europe. How different Westerners are from Asians in this regard.

The central , covered yard of the pagoda is hung with incense coils sending prayers and wishes out to deities and forebears, the spirals of smoke captured in vertical rays of sunlight that penetrate the gaps between roofs. The colourful ceramic frieze continues around the rim of each courtyard; the stories are from history and Chinese mythology create an imaginary world where fact and fiction co-exist. If you take a seat and linger in this cool space for 20 minutes, you will also see the two aspects of contemporary Cho Lon; the locals quietly carrying on with their religious rituals and the foreign visitors gawping at the overwhelming visual feast as they snap photos and wonder at the richness that surrounds them.

If you step in to an ante-room to the right there is yet another delight that has little to do with religion or ancestors but adds to the eclectic mix of incense coils, bronze-faced deities, relief friezes of factories, a 19th century fire-fighting device and dioramas of ancient fables. On the walls are large watercolour paintings of the twelve animals of the zodiac; each one a masterpiece. The animal of the year, the goat at the moment, is topped with a red garland and rosette. There are rows of elegant Chinoiserie chairs so you can take a seat to appreciate this unique gallery and decide which is your favourite.

One thing is for sure; this pagoda is not for rushing.

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