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Independent Travel

Mountain High

Finding Spiritual Space at Hong Kong’s Tao Fong Shan

Hong Kong Chapel
Tao Fong Shan’s Lutheran chapel
Photo by David Van Tassel

John Lemond is waiting for me by a large mural on the quiet campus of Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre, which overlooks Hong Kong’s New Territories. The mural depicts a peak dotted with buildings, a large cross, clouds, water, and grass—illustrating what the heat and humidity don’t: that we are on a mountain.

Wearing kurta pajamas, John, a Lutheran minister, writer, editor, and interfaith dialogue pointman, looks cooler than I feel.

“Made in China,” he says, then adds, “custom-made.” Certainly, it makes more sense than the cleric’s collar.

All of Tao Fong Shan’s buildings, including the eight-sided chapel, are pagoda-shaped, with white walls, blue roof beams, and red columns. John directs me through the courtyard to a cool, cedar-scented conference room filled with icons, magazines, books, and Chinese artwork.

Watching this American pastor in Indian garb make his way through a Christian retreat center that looks like a Buddhist temple reminds me of the multicultural ease that struck me when I first visited Tao Fong Shan 16 years ago. It’s the artistic and spiritual equivalent of World Fusion music.

In this sense, Tao Fong Shan is a microcosm of Hong Kong itself: a city where Beijing political power must negotiate Cantonese language and culture, a former British colony with a large expat community of North Americans, Europeans, Indians, and Filipinos.

But Tao Fong Shan feels much different than the rest of Hong Kong. In a dense city of seven million, where the crush of humanity is a constant reality, Tao Fong Shan’s hidden grounds offer space—physical and psychic—that one cannot find just 10 minutes down the mountain.

Tao Fong Shan is more than a retreat center. It also hosts a seminary, peopled primarily with mainland Chinese students, and a youth hostel, targeting backpackers. John teaches in the seminary, oversees the interns who run the hostel, leads chapel services throughout the week, and networks with leaders of many religious faiths, from Jewish and Muslim to Sikh and Hindu.

As its Chinese name implies, alluding to the Buddhist notion of flowing and floating from place to place in search of spiritual understanding, Tao Fong Shan welcomes all pilgrims.

Tao Fong Shan was founded in 1929 by Karl Ludvig Reichelt, a Norwegian Lutheran missionary, whose encounter with Buddhism in China ignited what would become a life-long fascination. Moved by Buddhism’s strong ethical base, Reichelt wanted to create a place where Christians and Buddhists might come together to study scriptures and learn from each other. Although Reichelt remained loyal to his Christian theology, believing God had called Buddhists to greater fulfillment in Christianity, his interest in Buddhism for his own sake was genuine, and it profoundly shaped his thinking and life’s work, as demonstrated in everything from Tao Fong Shan’s architecture, to the Buddhist-style chants and vocabulary incorporated into worship services, to the interwoven lotus and cross chosen as Tao Fong Shan’s symbol.

“Reichelt’s ideas about Buddhism were radical at the time,” John says. “He was held at arm’s length by other Christians.”

When Reichelt bought the land on which Tao Fong Shan was built, Hong Kong’s urban life remained at a considerable distance. The city has since engulfed the mountain, but Tao Fong Shan remains much the same: a restful place for study, reflection, and spiritual dialogue.

Of particular interest to independent travelers is the hostel, Ascension House, located on the edge of Tao Fong Shan’s campus. Initiated twenty years ago by several young Scandinavians in order to provide hospitality to Western backpackers passing through Hong Kong, many of them on spiritual treks to India, Ascension House is more like a home than a hostel. In addition to providing lodging, meals, clothes washing, and internet access for roughly $16 a night, Ascension House hosts offer regular cookouts, lead meal-time singing, and arrange optional outings to the city every Saturday. This warm atmosphere continues Tao Fong Shan’s aim to facilitate meaningful cross-cultural interaction and spiritual inquiry.

“There’s no requirement to discuss faith, but this is always an option,” John explains.

“The Ascension House provides a safe, caring atmosphere for travelers. It’s refuge from the stress of being abroad,” says Christina, who works at Ascension House. “Business is not our main focus.”

Christina is one of four twenty-something Danish and Norwegian “team members” who live at Ascension House and carry out the tasks necessary to make it welcoming. Team members make a year-long commitment to their work at the hostel, with new teams beginning every July.

“I joined the Ascension House team because it felt right. I wanted do work I believe is valuable and meet lots of people.” She pauses and smiles, “I also like to travel.”

While nearly half of Ascension House visitors are young Europeans, Scandinavians in particular, Christina says she’s met people of all ages from across the world.

“Our guests are not necessarily seeking the spiritual, but we hear many life stories,” she tells me. “People like to share.”

For More Info

How to get there: From Tsim Tsa Tsui (just across the harbor from Hong Kong Island), take the train (KCR) to either Tai Wai or Sha Tin station. A taxi ride from the Tai Wai KCR station to Tao Fong Shan costs $20HK ($2.50 U.S.) and takes about 7-10 minutes. Or, walk up to Tao Fong Shan in 15-20 minutes by taking the Sha Tin Trail from the bottom of the Sha Tin KCR station ramp.

Ascension House:

  • $125 HK per night (roughly $16 U.S.), includes meals, laundry service, and internet access
  • Dorm-style lodging, co-ed, 11 cap-acity/1 bathroom, 3-week maximum stay
  • No pets, alcohol, television, or radio
  • Outside smoking allowed

January/February and summer months are the busiest time

Tao Fong Shan Retreat Center:

For groups or individuals, can house 40 people at a time, costs vary.