Sacred Places of San Francisco Explotation #1

The Hua Zang Si Temple (formerly the St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1903)

My wife and I started on a new venture: an exploration — one per week is our goal — of the cathedrals, churches, and temples of San Francisco.

We started with this one:

A red gothic cathedral with red doors is something of a shock to someone steeped in the European tradition; but red means something entirely different to the Chinese culture (our daughter-in-law attended all of her wedding parties and receptions in a red dress).

Very little of German gothic sensibility remains in the Hua Zang Si. the altar has been completely redone, the arches of the nave plastered over into a flat ceiling, etc. I wish I could report that a cultural blending has taken place, but it hasn’t. It’s still a sacred place; but the European component has been almost completely replaced or covered up.


One of the images in the temple that started me thinking was an oversize representation of a jolly, laughing Buddha:

I’ve never seen a picture of Christ, or Mohammed, or Moses laughing — have you? I was reminded of Nietzsche’s comparison of Christianity, which he characterized as a “struggle against sin,” with Buddhism’s “struggle against suffering.”

Accordingly, the big areas of red on and within the Hua Zang Si temple seem meant to nurture a feeling of good luck. To Western eyes, the large areas of red appear garish and detract from the architectural unity of the whole. But the church’s original color (or lack of it) probably came across as counterspiritual to the Buddhists who now own and occupy the building.