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In good faith: religious diversity on Lantau

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Shyamala Padmasola takes a look at the different religious groups on Lantau and how well they interact.

Growing up in secular India, religious beliefs stayed at home. I had Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Buddhist, Jain and Christian friends and the religions we practised never defined our friendship. To my surprise, a few months after I moved to Lantau, religious assimilation took on a different meaning. One of my colleague’s grandfathers died and they had a ceremony for him that covered practices from Taoism (followed by the grandfather), Buddhism (followed by the father) and Christianity (followed by the grandson, my colleague Alex). It was a beautiful service that took secularism to a totally different level.

When I shared this story recently with Kevin Har, Pastor of Calvary Full Gospel Church (Tung Chung), he expressed no surprise, saying, “These cases are prevalent in Hong Kong where the majority are Buddhists or Taoist especially among the older generations. I think respect among individuals and a love for others are the keys towards religious harmony.”

Over the years, I’ve discovered that Hong Kong is rich with such experiences. Living on Lantau, having a mixed-faith bag of friends – both expats and locals – is totally the norm. We may not all follow the same religion but we see ourselves as part of one united community. While there is still some way to go – there is still some racism based on religious intolerance in Hong Kong –it’s fair to say that, for the most part, the different religious groups interact harmoniously.

Yuen Tan Temple, Shek Mun Kap Village, Tung Chung

Dialogue between different groups

Marcus Hall, teacher of philosophy and religious studies at YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College, points out that this sort of acceptance amongst different religious groups is just as it should be. “History has clearly proven to us that inter-religious and inter-cultural relationships are not always sunshine and roses. This is not to suggest that we must always be on opposite sides of any debate or argument. Religious belief, of any faith, is generally that of an inclusive nature. If we look at the six main world religions, we can see that love and acceptance is at the heart of their teachings. They all teach unity amongst different religions, encouraging dialogue between different faith systems.”

We do not live in an utopian society yet, we are not united under one ‘world religion’ yet, but this kind of dialogue between different faith systems, between different religious groups is something you see on Lantau every day.

I attend Eid celebrations and Christmas celebrations, invite nonHindus for Diwali parties at home and have never stopped to think about it. We live in a cultural melting pot socially and, for most of us, religion is never allowed to stand in the way of friendship.

Rabia Cheema, a Muslim mother of three living in Tung Chung and originally from Lahore, is overwhelmed by the acceptance from the community that she has experienced in Lantau. “When we moved here, we didn’t know where to start or ask for help, but with time we found good support and a lovely welcoming community,” she says.” I continue to feel amazed with what Lantau has to offer to people who come from different places with different views. Definitely, I would say this is very much a place where you feel at home, people are warm and they accept you.”

Absence of religious strife

While writing this article, speaking casually with friends about Lantau’s religious environment, our children’s attitudes naturally came up. I’ve realised that Lantau kids are basically unaffected by religious beliefs when it comes to who they hang out with. There is a total acceptance of another child as a friend with scant regard to faith. As one of my friend’s teenage sons told me, “It’s all about humanity.”

Of course, students attending the three top Lantau schools – YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College, Discovery College (DC) and Discovery Bay International School (DBIS) – are already one step ahead of the game because they are constantly surrounded by people from other cultures and disparate belief systems. Many grow up with mixedrace parents, so religious/ racial diversity is not an issue at home. As a result, harmonious integration seems to come naturally to them. What’s more, at schools like these, students are taught to celebrate and share their differences. Teachers place an emphasis on the importance of cultural integration and mutual respect. Children grow up taking pride in their own heritage and belief systems, and being interested in each other’s.

“I think of Hong Kong as a melting pot of religions but each community has its own boundaries and stays within those,” Rabia says. “When we moved to Hong Kong, we had only one child and we were not practising as much as we should have. Initially, we didn’t feel the need as back home everyone goes with the flow due to the culture and environment, but later on we decided to start focusing on religion as we felt that if we did, our child would at least be aware of our values and traditions.

“From a media and consumerism perspective, Chinese culture (obviously) and Western/ Christian festivities/ norms are more prevalent in Hong Kong,” Rabia adds. “But we can practise our culture openly. Minorities do enjoy freedom and safety and they aren’t hindered from practicing their own norms.”

Likewise, Pastor Har sees Hong Kong’s religious environment as a “salad bowl where there is harmony and respect among different beliefs.” And he agrees with Rabia, saying, “Hong Kong is remarkable for its absence of religious strife despite our ethnic groups’ diversity.”

You only have to look around Tung Chung to see how well the major world religions are represented. There are Buddhist and Taoist temples aplenty, two mosques, and Hindu priest Manish Maharaj has a Sada Shiv Temple at his home. While there is no synagogue, Sheung Ling Pei Village is home to Tung Chung Visitation Chapel, Calvary Full Gospel Church (Tung Chung) meets in Novotel Citygate Banquet Hall every Sunday, and Bridge Church at the YHKCC.

Rabia Cheema

Melting pot of religions

Here in multi-ethnic Lantau, a mix of religions within one family is, of course, not uncommon. My colleague Alex went to a Christian school and the religion spoke to him, though his father and grandfather had their own beliefs.

Oftentimes, in interfaith families, where the parents have different religious beliefs, we see children being brought up with the freedom to choose their own path. They grow up with a true understanding of both faiths and they can, it seems, handle the complexity.

I’ve observed how children raised in two religions are enriched by the experience, and that they often take on the role of interfaith interpreters, or bridge-builders. For instance, at a Bat Mitzvah, they can explain Jewish prayers and rituals to their Christian friends.

Pastor Kevin Har with his family

At a Christian confirmation, they can explain what’s going on to their Jewish friends. Friends of mine in DB, Anu and David James, are bringing their daughter Amber up in a different, though no less empowering way. David’s from the UK and describes himself as a ‘man of science,’ Anu was born in India and raised a Hindu.

“We are raising Amber with an understanding and appreciation of all cultures, and of both her Indian and British roots,” says Anu. “Shepherd’s pie and tandoori chicken find equal favour at our dining table, while nativity stories and Panchatantra tales [Indian fables for children] are read with equal interest by Amber. We travel extensively as a family as we believe this is the best education for a child – to meet people and experience places of historical and cultural significance, enjoy various cuisines, partake in multicultural festival celebrations and learn to see beauty and harmony in the diversity around us.”

“Our core values are very similar,” adds David. “We take Amber to places of historical, cultural and religious interest – she has, for example, been to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome and temples in India – so she understands how traditions and celebrations have evolved across the world. We are trying to raise our daughter as a global citizen.”

Anu, Amber and David James

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