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Hong Kong’s Catholic places of faith and Church-government relations

By Ayako Fukushima 
 
This September, I am publishing an academic book titled, Building Catholic Churches in Hong Kong, in Japanese language through Kyushu University Press. This is the outcome of 10 years of research and my thanks go out for kind support from many Catholics in Hong Kong (I am hoping to publish English version in the near future). My major interest has always been the church building, church architecture, or place of faith. 
 
I have seen a lot of church buildings in Japan which are underused or empty. It is such a contrast that almost all the churches in Hong Kong are full of the faithful and their activities. Shortage of church space is the common problem in Hong Kong whereas it has never been the case in Japan. 
 
I always wondered why Japanese people have less or no interest in religion while we enjoy freedom of religion and speech as well as democracy. Hence, I have tried to understand how socio-political factors affected the characteristics of Hong Kong’s Catholic places of faith from the 1840s to the present.
 
At this moment, Hong Kong is experiencing the biggest political and social turmoil. However, looking back at history, Hong Kong has been constantly in a turmoil, big or small, due to its nature as a British colony and a shelter for different types of refugees. I am always amazed at how the Catholic Church responded to rapidly changing situations and devised different ways to secure place of faith. 
 
Let me briefly review the history of them:
 
For the first 100 as a colony, from the 1840s to 1940s, the colonial government and the Catholic Church maintained good, friendly, cooperative relations. The Catholic Church as well as other charitable organisations were useful to the government since they were willing to provide educational and welfare services with a small amount of government subsidy. 
 
The Church opened many mission stations, which often accompanied vernacular schools subsidised by the government. Many of them were located in the New Territories, where local Chinese residents wanted education for their children. Hundreds of them were opened all over Hong Kong including remote islands such as Hei Ling Chau. Most of them disappeared during and after the World War II. Some were developed into a permanent church like Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church in Tai O (the building was rebuilt in 1961). 
 
In terms of number, those mission stations served as of places of faith until the 1940s. On the other hand, in terms of number, very few of what I call “stand-alone churches” such as today’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Rosary Church in Tsim Sha Tsui, or St. Teresa’s Church in Kowloon Tong, were built. Even these grand, permanent parish churches were the fruit of cooperative relations between the Church and government, which willingly provided site and subsidy for building cost.
 
Such loosely interdependent relations between the government and Church, and their traditional practice of establishing places of faith became strengthened in the post-war years, particularly in the 1950s, because of the refugee influx from mainland China. 
 
A number of chapels and welfare facilities were built in refugee settlement areas such as King’s Park, Chai Wan, and Kowloon Tsai. Most of them were built of locally produced granite stones, which would probably reflect the shortage of building materials in the 1950s. 
 
To cope with the growing number of refugee children, the government urged the Church to build more and more schools but not churches alone. Hence, the 1950s and 60s saw opening of a large number of new Catholic schools, which incorporated a church. 
 
In the 1950s, the Church managed to secure a permanent and exclusive space of faith within a Catholic school, e.g., St. Francis of Assisi Church in St. Francis of Assisi’s English Primary School, St. Jude’s Church in St. Jude’s School (the name of the school was later changed and now it is a kindergarten). 
 
In the 1960s, there were no more permanently exclusive church spaces. The new church was always a Mass centre utilising a school hall-cum-covered playground in a Catholic school. All of these were the result of intensively interdependent Church and government relations. 
 
The government provided 50-100 per cent of the building cost for schools. The Church could have place of faith along with a school with very little amount of money. It was a win-win situation.
 
The Mass centre is the most innovative form of church so particular to Hong Kong. Once primary and secondary education became mandatory in the 1970s, the government itself began building “government standard design schools,” which cost almost nothing for the Church and could still be utilised as Mass centres.
 
Yet, such intimate Church and government relations had to come to an end when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was announced in 1984. Knowing that Hong Kong would be part of China after 1997, you will understand why permanent and exclusive church spaces have suddenly revived since the 1990s, e.g. St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Tsing Yi, St. Jerome’s Church in Tin Shui Wai, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Wan Chai, and St. Andrew’s Church in Tseung Kwan O, all of which accompanied kindergartens rather than primary and secondary schools.
 
Now Hongkongers are acutely aware that One Country, Two Systems could end a lot faster than expected, yet, the number of Catholics is increasing, while property prices are so high. What form and type of place of faith then, would you have?
 
This July, there was a national election for the Upper House in Japan. Of course, every Japanese over 18-years-old has the right to vote. Only 48.8 per cent exercised their right. I wonder if taking democracy and universal suffrage for granted might make a society worse. 
 
I also suspect it has something to do with empty places of faith in Japan. And all these make me understand why churches in Hong Kong are so full and lively in contrast.
 
 
 
Dr. Ayako Fukushima, is an Honorary Research Associate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, specialising in heritage studies.
Since 2006 she has been Assistant Professor at the School of Design, Kyushu University, Japan. 
She has done in-depth research into planning, the design and construction of Churches in Hong Kong
during varied periods in the history of the Church.
Her latest work, Building Catholic Churches in Hong Kong is scheduled to hit the stands in September.