Sunday, 19 February 2012

10,000 Buddhas. 80,000 Gamblers.

Sunday in Hong Kong and I headed back to Sha Tin. The town itself is one of the largest in the New Territories, with almost a million people packed into its tower blocks. I left the station, crossed a busy road and following the signs, began to climb up to the town's main attraction the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery - a kind of pseudo Disney land temple perched high above the smog.

The climb was long, but the way enlightened by a guard of life size golden Buddhas. Each made of fibreglass and pulling a different pose and attitude. It felt like a talent show.

The monastery was founded in 1951 by the teacher Yeut Kai, who carried most of the materials up the hill himself and although you never quiet escape the feeling that the whole complex is surrounded by corrugated iron and barbed wire, wafts of incense, trickling water features and crowd of local worshipers, just about save it from falling into the snap happy hands of the tourists. In a quiet pool, a family of turtles contemplate the comings and goings, whilst we crowded into the main temple, where nearly 13,000 Oscar size Buddhas line the wall.

Back down the hill I hopped on the MTR and headed a couple of miles north to the Penfold Park to catch another Hong Kong ritual in action. Every Sunday a crowd 80,000 converge on the race track, many coming over the border form mainland China for the day to get their weekly fix of the gee gees.

Horse racing is given the same level of analysis, gossip and debate as football is in the UK and for many of the punters who sit working through complex mathematical equations to select the permutations that will outsmart probability its clear that this is a way of life. Perhaps it can be explained by the simple fact that gambling plays on importance the Chinese attach to the twin concepts of pattern and fortune. There are few moral victories here - just the triumph of arithmetic and sequencing over chaos. Each defeat adds a little more statistical evidence which in time will lead to a bigger victory. Wisely the Jockey Club maximise the betting revenue by only charging a quid to get in.

I paid a little more and ended up in the members enclosure watching the protocols of the parade ring and the ceremonies of victory as each winning horse was photographed with its owner and trainer. This part of the paddock fondly remembers the colonial past. It's blazers, button holes and binoculars all the way and a sense of Sunday afternoon slipping gently by. Some races are won, some are lost, what's important is the maintenance of the distant memory of life far beyond the South China Sea.

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