A few blocks northwest of the Botanical Gardens, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, or Chua Phuoc Hai, was built by the city’s Cantonese community at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you visit just one temple in town, make it this one, with its exquisite panels of carved gilt woodwork, and its panoply of weird and wonderful deities, both Taoist and Buddhist, beneath a roof that groans under the weight of dragons, birds and animals.
To the right of the tree-lined courtyard out front is a grubby pond whose occupants have earned the temple its alternative moniker of Tortoise Pagoda. Once over the threshold, look up and you’ll see Chinese characters announcing: “the only enlightenment is in Heaven” – though only after your eyes have adjusted to the fug of joss-stick smoke. A statue of the Jade Emperor lords it over the main hall’s central altar, sporting an impressive moustache, and he’s surrounded by a retinue of similarly moustached followers.
A rickety flight of steps in the chamber to the right of the main hall runs up to a balcony looking out over the pagoda’s elaborate roof. Set behind the balcony, a neon-haloed statue of Quan Am stands on an altar. Left out of the main hall, meanwhile, you’re confronted by Kim Hua, to whom women pray for fertility; judging by the number of babies weighing down the female statues around her, her success rate is high. The Chief of Hell resides in the larger chamber behind Kim Hua’s niche. Given his job description, he doesn’t look particularly demonic, though his attendants, in sinister black garb, are certainly equipped to administer the sorts of punishments depicted in the ten dark-wood reliefs on the walls before them.