Monday, August 1, 2011

To a Local Goddess

In 1981, I moved to Hong Kong to teach English for two years at Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University). My Cantonese instructor arranged a trip for his students to go into the Canton (Guangdong) Province of China. It had been just five years since the Cultural Revolution had ended in China with the death of Mao Zedong and arrest of the "Gang of Four" in 1976. Under Deng Xiaoping the country was beginning to open up, but entry by foreign travelers was still limited.

That first afternoon, we stopped at a hotel that had recently been built to accommodate tourists. We noticed a new Chinese temple that had been constructed up on a ridge above the hotel. We wondered about it, since we had read so much about Chairman Mao cracking down on religious practices. One of the people in our group who spoke better Cantonese than I (I had only been studying for a few months) asked about the structure atop the hill. With the Chinese man's limited English and our limited Cantonese, we learned that indeed it was a temple erected to a local goddess. It must be another sign of things opening up in that country, we thought. At any rate, some of us decided to make the trek up the mountainside to visit the temple. The pictures you see here are photos that I took that day. The poem that follows is one that I wrote after returning to Hong Kong as I recalled the experience.

To a Local Goddess

At a little crossroads
Not far from Sheik Keih
In the Guangdong Province
At the foot of Chung Shan,
   the Middle Mountain,
We spent the night.
Hard working men in cloth shoes
Had labored to build stone steps
All the way up the mountain.

Someone said that she had been
A local maiden
Whose loyal and heroic deed
Earned her a place with the gods.
"And the government doesn't mind that
They built a new temple for her?"
I wondered aloud as we climbed the steps.
Apparently not.
Perhaps this little village is far enough away from Beijing.
I suppose I'd be proud too,
If she were from my hometown.

I did not know her at all                            
(Unless I had mistaken her for
   a sister or a cousin, a friend or a lover
   somewhere along the way),
But after six months of crowded streets
Hot sidewalks
And tall buildings,
My first trip to the countryside
Was like taking off cheap shoes
   at the end of the day.

I went back to a time
That had been years neglected,
As a bright moon rose
Above newly planted rice fields
And I looked down from Middle Mountain.
Somehow I was renewed
And free.

Photos by Charles Kinnaird


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