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Cho Lon’s greatest architectural treasures are its temples and pagodas, many of which stand on or around Nguyen Trai, whose four-kilometre sweep northeast to Pham Ngu Lao starts just north of Cha Tam Church. North of Nguyen Trai’s junction with Chau Van Liem, on tiny Lao Tu, Quan Am Pagoda is the pick of the bunch in this part of town. Set back from the bustle of Cho Lon, it has an almost tangible air of antiquity, enhanced by the film of dust left by the incense spirals hanging from its rafters. Don’t be too quick to dive inside, though: the pagoda’s ridged roofs are impressive enough from the outside, their colourful crust of “glove-puppet” figurines, teetering houses and temples from a distance creating the illusion of a gingerbread house. Framing the two door gods and the pair of stone lions assigned to keeping out evil spirits are gilt panels depicting petrified scenes from traditional Chinese court life – dancers, musicians, noblemen in sedan chairs, a game of chequers being played.
When Cho Lon’s Fukien congregation established this pagoda well over a century ago, they dedicated it to the Goddess of Mercy, but it’s A Pho, the Queen of Heaven, who stands in the centre of the main hall, beyond an altar tiled like a mortuary slab. A pantheon of deities throngs the open courtyard behind her, decked out in sumptuous apparel and attracting a steady traffic of worshippers. Twin ovens, flanking the main chamber, burn a steady supply of fake money offerings and incense sticks.