On the ninth floor of a Wan Chai high-rise is a temple to the personality cult of Supreme Master Ching Hai, a Vietnamese woman whose followers claim possesses a "sublime inner light."
A devotee entered the converted office on Thomson Road, which is hung with portraits of the master alongside a collection of 700 videotapes of her world travels, on Thursday afternoon. The man, in his 20s, drew a velvet curtain around an area beside the throne-like pink sofa and table reserved for the "living saint" on her visits to Hong Kong and knelt down to pray.
He, along with a couple of thousand others in the SAR who follow the Taiwan-based 50-year-old guru, was seeking to make contact with his quan yin, or inner vibration, through a method of Buddhist-inspired meditation which is to be practised for more than two hours every day.
In an interview, spokeswoman Liza Chow outlined the benefits of meditation, describing how she felt "very happy and comfortable" after each session. She said those initiated into the movement must become vegetarians and follow other precepts prohibiting the use of alcohol or drugs, telling lies and sexual misconduct. What she did not mention, however, were controversies surrounding Ching Hai. Followers drank her bathwater believing it had curative powers, according to a 1997 US newspaper report. A devotee from New Zealand told the South China Morning Post last year that others ate her soap because anything she touched contained vibrations. Asked about the allegations, Ms Chow said: "That is nonsense. The master is very concerned about cleanliness."
While promotional literature emphasises free lectures and courses, Ching Hai "finances her mission" by selling her own "colourful artworks, exquisite fashion [some outfits cost up to US$10,000, or about HK$77,800] and fine jewellery designs", according to her Web site, the grandly titled www.godsdirect contact.org.
American cult expert Margaret Singer, a psychology professor at the University of California in Berkeley, said she had received complaints from partners of devotees who had spent "tremendous sums of money" on Ching Hai's products. Ms Chow said the centre was maintained by donations from members. Welcome to the hidden world of cults in Hong Kong. The Falun Gong, which could soon be banned in the SAR, is certainly not the only new religious movement active in the city.
Although the Falun Gong has been outlawed on the mainland and thousands of practitioners detained for re-education, the movement - based on a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist teachings developed by master Li Hongzhi - remains technically legal in Hong Kong. But official pressure on the Falun Gong is mounting in the SAR, and any local crackdown is likely to affect other cults, including the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association (also known as Guanyin Famen), which has also been outlawed and dubbed an "evil cult" by Beijing as part of its recent crackdown on unauthorised religious groups.
Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has admitted officials are studying laws of other countries on the handling of cults, fuelling speculation anti-cult legislation will soon be introduced. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa last week likened the self-immolation of alleged Falun Gong members in Tiananmen Square in January to the infamous 1978 People's Temple mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. About 900 people swallowed a fruit drink laced with cyanide at the urging of Reverend Jim Jones in the largest cult mass killing of recent times.
Mr Tung said he was shocked to see Falun Gong members willing to burn themselves. "It is eerily reminiscent of the Jonestown mass suicide . . .obviously, we are watching them very carefully here. I don't want them to do irreparable harm to Hong Kong." Falun Gong spokesmen said it was absurd and "a smear" for Mr Tung to link their movement with the Jonestown mass suicide.
Although Falun Gong practitioners are frantically lobbying against any laws targeting themselves, Ching Hai followers seem unconcerned. "We have not felt any pressure from the Government," said Ms Chow. "As long as we are behaving legally, there is nothing we should worry about." She insists followers keep a low profile in the SAR. However, 2,000 devotees filled the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai in May last year for an audience with their beloved teacher during her "Ocean of Love" Asian tour.
The movement is estimated to have 2,000 initiates in Hong Kong (four times the size of the Falun Gong's constituency), but Ms Chow was unable to provide figures, saying the group did not keep records. She said it was a registered group under the Societies Ordinance and did not have any problems in hiring government venues. The Falun Gong's use of City Hall in January for an international conference prompted criticism from pro-Beijing figures.
On the ban against the Ching Hai movement on the mainland, where there are an estimated 500,000 followers, Ms Chow said: "Each government is free to carry out their policies. Master tells us we should put our energy on self-advancement rather than involvement in politics." Six members were jailed last month for up to eight years in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province, for printing books about the movement and trying to recruit followers at local universities.
Hong Kong officials are closely studying proposed anti-cult legislation in France. Independent legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a barrister representing the legal sector in the Legislative Council, said the broad nature of the proposed French law could encompass almost any religion which wins new converts. A controversial part of the French proposals involves outlawing brainwashing methods often associated with cults.
Followers of the Ching Hai movement have been identified by a US Christian organisation - the American Family Foundation, which studies cult activities - as being subject to mind-control techniques. Ms Chow said the allegation was ridiculous. "The master always teaches us we should respect free choice, free will."
Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has said there were no current plans to legislate. But senior officials have privately expressed the hope that if anti-sect laws are introduced, they can be packaged in a way which will limit the damage to Hong Kong's international reputation.
They suggested similar tactics might be adopted to those used for the Government's highly controversial 1999 invitation for Beijing to reinterpret the Basic Law on the right of abode. This was done by stressing that the incident was a one-off, limited in scope and resulting from exceptional circumstances.
Some religious movements fear they may be caught up in any crackdown on the Falun Gong, but others remain unconcerned. Among the cults identified in a 1995 French parliamentary report is the Hare Krishna movement, known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, whose orange-clad devotees can be seen dancing on the streets of Kowloon. Temple president Ram Chandra said there was a "distinct possibility" the society's 1,000 followers in Hong Kong could be affected by any law against the Falun Gong. "It is very easy to victimise minority groups in that kind of system," he said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose members are also known as Mormons, is also listed in the French parliamentary report on cults. Elder Jay Fellows, public-affairs director for Asia, said "some places" viewed the church as a cult, but he denied it was one. "If they said 'no cults in Hong Kong', I don't think they would see us as such. We are a church, that's what we are recognised as in the United States."
In Jordan, members of Sukyo Mahikari meet every night to bathe in the divine light. Followers of this sect - which originated from Japan - wear star-shaped lockets which they believe can channel energy to cure anything from malfunctioning kidneys to haemorrhoids. The group is also named in the French report on cults and listed as having up to 15,000 members in France. Sukyo Mahikari estimates it has about 100 members in Hong Kong.
A member, who asked not to be identified, said the popularity of Sukyo Mahikari in France meant it was unlikely to be tackled by French authorities and should not face trouble in Hong Kong on that basis. "It shouldn't affect us because our movement is very strong in Paris," the member said.
A group identified by Secretary for Security Mrs Ip as evidence of cult activities in Hong Kong, the Church of Zion, remains active. It was investigated by police in 1996 after reports suggested members were drinking hydrogen peroxide as a cure for health problems. But the then-Legal Department dropped the probe and recommended no charges be laid.
One member, Li Pak-hon, said he was not sure whether other members were still using the chemical as a cure. "It's a complicated issue, so I don't want to comment about it," he said. He was unsure whether they would be affected by any new laws. "We are Christians. I am not sure how they define cult."