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Diary: Francis Martin

13 January 2023

ISTOCK

Hong Kong Christmas

THE singers were determinedly dreaming of a white Christmas, but, given that the temperature outside was touching 20ºC, it seemed a vain hope.

I was sitting in St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong — the oldest of the region’s three Anglican cathedrals. An unadorned, custard-and-cream-coloured building (one of relatively few that survive from the early days of colonial Hong Kong), it perches amid the forest of skyscrapers and tower blocks on the northern slopes of Hong Kong Island.

I had been invited, by a friend of a friend, to the annual Fayre at St John’s, which turned out to be an invitation-only fund-raiser for Maggie’s, a cancer charity that operates centres in Hong Kong as well as in the UK. The section of the evening held in the cathedral was a curious blend of concert, service, celebrity appearance, and infomercial for the charity.

Keith, a young man who had suffered from liver cancer, spoke movingly about the support that he had received from Maggie’s, before we saw a rollicking performance of “Underneath the tree” by a 15-year-old talent-show star.

The religious content was brief: a prayer at the beginning and end from the Dean, and a reading (Luke 1.26-35, 38) by a former Miss Hong Kong — after which the event’s compère thanked the pageant champion for her “powerful and inspiring quotes”.

As we filed into the cathedral, photographers from the Tatler were shooting those present against a screen; evidently, they were ignorant of the stature of the Church Times, since I managed to slip in unsnapped.

The real work began afterwards, at the bar of the Mandarin Oriental, where there was a well-lubricated charity auction. The lots were sumptuous, and I kept a firm hold of my drink as the bidding disappeared into the clouds. I got the sense that everyone knew, or was known to, everyone else, but my partner and I were welcomed generously, repairing to a “speakeasy” bar upstairs with the younger members of whatever social set we had stumbled into, before stumbling rather more literally back to our hotel.

 

Missing the mark?

SHOPPING malls are unavoidable in Hong Kong: station entrances are embedded in them, and often the quickest route from one place to another involves passage through a mall. But they also host the most prominent manifestations of Christmas.

In Landmark — a high-end mall a stone’s throw from the cathedral — I watched the throngs descend on Mrs Claus Bakery (apostrophe absent). Situated in an atrium between Dior and Celine, it was something between a grotto complex and an immersive playground, with VR games; a ticketed section, with activities including a trampoline inside a giant gingerbread teapot; and Disney-style photo opportunities with an actor dressed as an owlish Mrs Claus, her ursine sous-chef, or a top-hatted gingerbread man.

The kicker to this feast of commercialism is that all the profits from Mrs Claus Bakery (judging by the numbers of families thronging the place, they would have been considerable) go to charity. Like the Fayre at St John’s, it was all a bit gaudy, but for a good cause. It’s just a shame that the apostrophe got lost in the mixture.

 Francis MartinSt Mary’s, Causeway Bay, an Anglican church in Hong Kong built in the Chinese Renaissance style

Strangely familiar

THERE had been only a couple of congregational hymns at the service-cum-concert, and I had a hankering to sing more carols. I thought that I had found the place to scratch the itch when I arrived at the Nine Lessons and Carols at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Kowloon.

Unlike St John’s, the building is in the Chinese style, reminiscent of a Taoist or Buddhist temple, and is situated in an area of Hong Kong where few Europeans have lived or worked, either in colonial times or today.

The Dean, the Very Revd Franklin Lee, explained that the architecture was conceived as a way of showing that Christianity was not the religion of aliens, but organic and relatable. So it was apt that the service booklet was in Chinese, of which I couldn’t read a single character. I gamely hummed along to the familiar carols, and enjoyed the performances as well as the architecture, but left without getting my carol-singing fix.

Happily, this was satisfied the next evening, at another Nine Lessons and Carols — this time in St Augustine’s Chapel, which serves both as a sister church to Holy Trinity, and as chapel to the Diocesan Boys’ School, one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious educational establishments.

Many members of the congregation were savvy enough to download the order of service on their phones; so the soft glow of LED screens accompanied the flicker of candlelight in the chapel. The chapel’s choir, bolstered for the occasion, sang beautifully. I joined in with gusto, finally getting my fill.

 

Last word

OF ALL my diverse experiences of carolling in Hong Kong, the most surreal was on a mist-enshrouded peak on Lantau Island, where there is a mountaintop Buddhist monastery with a 112-foot-tall statue of the Buddha, cast in bronze and positioned to overlook the island.

Beside the monastery gates, a loudspeaker was playing easy-listening Christmas songs, which gave way to a choral version of “O come, all ye faithful”. As a long-horned cow sauntered past, and I looked up at the Buddha, perched in his mountain seat, the words “O come, let us adore him” mingled in my mind with another refrain — a phrase embedded in the self-mythology of the city: “Only in Hong Kong”.

 

Francis Martin is a staff reporter for the Church Times.

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