What’s the Occasion? Tin Hau Festival  (天后誕)

By Elaine Dunn

When is Tin Hau Festival?

 

Hong Kong, the Fragrant Harbor, is known for its natural, deep-channel harbor, shopping and ornately decorated floating seafood restaurants. The majority of seafood served at these and other Hong Kong restaurants is the labor of the 4,000-strong fishing fleet that ply the surrounding waters of Hong Kong and the northern continental shelf of the South China Sea. 
 
Every year, on the 23rd day of the third lunar month, which happens to be May 2 in 2013, the fishermen (and anyone whose living is associated with the sea) of Hong Kong and its outlying islands, celebrate the birthday of their “patron saint” and guardian, Tin Hau. Although her name Tin Hau literally means Empress of Heaven, she is actually the Goddess of the Sea, and is one of the most popular goddesses. 
 
Legend has it that she was the daughter of a fisherman, born in 1098 A.D. in the Sung Dynasty. Her name was Lin MoNiang and even as a young child, possessed special powers that could predict weather conditions, keeping sailors and fishermen safe. She took to wearing red and was said to have stood onshore in her red robe, alone, through typhoons and storms, guiding the boats safely home.
 
Her fisherman father and brothers were out at sea during a violent storm. At home, MoNiang went into a trance. Her spirit sailed out to her father’s floundering fishing boat. She grabbed her male relatives with her mouth to bring them to safety. Unfortunately, before she could complete her rescue mission, her mother woke her from her trance and she dropped one of the fishermen. When the surviving relatives returned home, they told of the amazing experience of someone holding them up, protecting them from drowning in the raging water. 
 
She passed away before her 30th birthday, but her popularity among seafarers never waned. With 65 percent of the current HK fishing fleet under 50 ft. in length, one can understand why observing Tin Hau’s birthday is taken seriously. 
 
What happens on this day?
 
Tin Hau Festival is not a public holiday; however, fishing communities make it one of the most colorful celebrations in Hong Kong, on the water, along the seashore and at the 60-70 Tin Hau Temples all over Hong Kong. Fishermen and sailors honor Tin Hau to ensure safety, security, fine weather and full nets for the coming year. 
 
The Hong Kong Tourism Board and other fishing associations organize boat processions. The Hong Kong Tourism Board’s flotilla, with the authentic Chinese junk Duk Link bringing up the rear, crosses Victoria Harbor from Kowloon to the eastern district of Hong Kong Island, home to one of the biggest Tin Hau Temples, where the celebration moves ashore. This and other flotillas include boats that are fully decked out in showy streamers, flags and banners giving thanks to the goddess. Boat processions take place in most fishing villages, but the most impressive and well-orchestrated ones are at the bigger fishing communities such as Stanley (southeast part of Hong Kong Island); Sai Kung, a fishing village in years gone by, in the New Territories, where the 700-year-old Tin Hau Temple is, and the outlying islands: Lamma Island, Cheung Chau and Peng Chau.
 
On land, the celebrations include the traditional pilgrimage to one of the Tin Hau Temples to burn joss sticks and make prayer offerings. There are parades with the signature “fa pau” (花炮) - gigantic paper floral arrangements with an  image of Tin Hau within, lion or dragon dances, Chinese opera performances, martial arts demonstrations and setting off firecrackers. Many communities also have competitions for the best “fa pau” or a raffle to win one of the floral shrines, which is believed to bring good luck. I n Chinese, “fa” means flower and “pau” means cannon. In the old days, these “fa pau” were launched by rockets at the end of the celebrations and young men from different fishing villages fought for the biggest and luckiest chunks. So the modern raffle is quite the tamer version of the celebration.
 
As with all Chinese traditions, giving thanks involve food offerings. Popular foods are picked for their symbolism. These include oranges, which are suggestive of immortality and good fortune; roast suckling pig for good health and luck; persimmons to represent joy and pomegranates, with their numerous seeds, fertility.  
 
These days, for most Hong Kong residents who no longer make a living off the sea, their Tin Hau Festival celebration more likely means catching (read selecting) a fish from one of the seafood tanks inside a seafood restaurant! Thanks to the Goddess of the Sea who answers the prayers of the fishermen!
 

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