Municipal shrine maintenance rituals

Walk down pretty much any street in Hong Kong and, if you scan the sidewalk at foot-level, you’ll soon chance upon a shrine dedicated to “Tudishen” (土地神 or “God of the Soil and the Ground”).

These small shrines are a ubiquitous feature of street-level Hong Kong – so much so that Michael Wolf, the late photographer, created an amazing photobook about them (which I’ve never fully read, but was fortunate enough to have looked through once).

These particular Tudishen shrines don’t stand out from others so much in how they look. Instead, what sparked my curiousity for these shrines were structures to which they were attached; as I was wandering around confused the other day near Hong Kong’s Central Pier, in search of the correct public bus to hop aboard, I came across several small sheds with small service windows, upon which were displayed various timetables and updates about the status of the public buses that service the adjacent stops. While neither shed was occupied by anyone who could help answer my questions, I did notice that each structure came with its own Earth God shrine built into the exterior, despite these buildings only being large enough to contain one or two (not particularly large) people at a time.

This started me wondering: who is in charge of tending the shrines that are attached to municipal buildings?

For the shrines in private residences there is no ambiguity about whose responsibility it is to maintain the shrine for that home, but is there a similar level of clarity for when the structure the shrine is connected to is occupied by rotating shifts of civil servants? Thinking deeper, is there a formal line-item in the Hong Kong Metropolitan Transit System City Bus budget for fresh oranges and joss sticks (“spiritual maintenance material costs”)? 

Connected to materials, what about the time and care needed to actually perform this crucial bit of spiritual maintenance? Is it assigned by rank, or do employees rotate the responsibility, with whoever arrives first each morning acknowledging the shared benefit for all of the day’s occupants that stems from their tending of the shed’s shrine? 

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