As a second-generation Chinese immigrant living in the Netherlands, Mr. Hu knows how difficult it can be to establish roots in a new country. For the many Chinese immigrants who end up in the restaurant industry, life tends to revolve around work and little else. But Mr. Hu is determined to change that. With the dream of bringing connection and peace to the lives of his fellow Dutch Chinese, Mr. Hu undertakes a monumental task: to build the first Chinese Buddhist temple in the Netherlands.
Thanks to the support of the Chinese community, Mr. Hu is able to acquire all the necessary funding for the building. He even gets in touch with a head monk at Mount Putuo, an established monastery on an island southwest of Shanghai, who agrees to sponsor the new temple because he senses they have yin yuan, or joint destiny. The 2015 documentary Mr. Hu and the Temple begins here, when everything starts to fall into place for Mr. Hu. Scenes jump between the cloudy suburbs of Utrecht and the misty monastery grounds at Mount Putuo. But the future of the temple is put at risk when unexpected tensions arise around property rights, planting seeds of doubt in both parties.
To find out how Mr. Hu and the temple are faring six years later, Tricycle got in touch with director Yan Ting Yuen and producer Jia Zhao. Read the interview below to learn about the documentary’s conception, the life of Chinese immigrants in the Netherlands, and the unfolding friction between the two temples.
Mr. Hu and the Temple is Tricycle’s Film Club selection for the month of August. To avoid any potential spoilers, watch the film here anytime before September 3.
How did the documentary come about?
Jia Zhao (JZ): It’s a long story, but the short version is that a friend from Wenzhou, China—where Mr. Hu is also from—wanted to introduce the two of us. So we met over dinner, and at that point, there was no film yet. We also didn’t necessarily meet with the intention of making a film with him. All we knew was that Mr. Hu was taking the initiative to build a Buddhist temple in Utrecht, Netherlands, which is quite something. This would be the first Chinese Buddhist temple in the Netherlands, as well as an opportunity to focus on the life of the Chinese living in the Netherlands, who aren’t that visible in Dutch society. That’s how it all started.
Yan Ting Yuen (YTY): After Jia and Mr. Hu got in touch, Jia approached me about directing this documentary. I’ve done a couple of documentaries on Asian topics, so Jia knew that I would be the right person to really understand the specificities of the Chinese community. Then, when I got in contact with Mr. Hu, I immediately knew he would make a great subject and main character. Building this temple was Mr. Hu’s lifelong dream, and it was really coming together.
What motivated a businessman like Mr. Hu to establish a Buddhist temple in the Netherlands?
YTY: Some of the first generation of overseas Chinese people feel like they’ve lived their life in a materialistic and pragmatic way. They needed to survive. There was little room or opportunity for spiritual experiences. And there was also no guidance in that matter. It was only work, work, work. I think Mr. Hu got to this point where he wanted to do more with his life.
JZ: I think especially when you stay in the Netherlands for many years and work really hard to earn a living, there can be a feeling of loss when you look back upon your life. That’s probably true for a lot of Chinese people who came to the Netherlands several decades ago but are still not quite rooted in the country. I think Mr. Hu had this dream to build something that connects. So the temple would be more than just a temple; it would be a space for spiritual and cultural connection.
Is Mr. Hu a Buddhist himself?
YTY: He doesn’t say that he is, because he’s not a total practicing Buddhist. He still eats meat and whatever he wants.
JZ: Yes, he does not practice very strictly. But he is definitely connected to Buddhism.
An investor of the temple states that, for the first time, the Chinese community in the Netherlands was able to purchase a property financed entirely by their own people. How was Mr. Hu able to coordinate such a feat?
YTY: Mr. Hu is very connected—he’s the motor of the entire Wenzhou community in Utrecht. Many Wenzhou immigrants arrived in the Netherlands during the 1980s and 1990s and started different businesses, such as restaurants or traditional medicine practices. I believe Mr. Hu was the head of a restaurant owner society, and most of the temple’s investors were restaurant owners. These business owners have been doing very well financially, so, often, one person will help another in the community. They never need to go to the bank for loans. Instead, they borrow money from each other.
JZ: And Mr. Hu is a charismatic leader, but not in an aggressive way. He’s actually quite soft-spoken, which was mysterious to me. As the documentary progressed, we learned that Mr. Hu is well respected in the Chinese and Buddhist communities. I think that’s how he managed to get so many sponsors to help build the temple.
I noticed a lot of contrasting shots between the activities at the temple in Mount Putuo and the temple in Utrecht. What was the intention behind these juxtapositions?
YTY: The two worlds are so different, and I wanted to show that through an image rather than simply talking about it. At the beginning of the documentary, you have to wonder, How could these people in a Chinese restaurant in Utrecht ever get to that higher point of Mount Putuo? The monastery at Mount Putuo is so beautiful. It’s in the mountains surrounded by mist, beaches, and forests. It’s exactly what you would like a monastery to be. But at the same time, tourism has increased greatly in the last few decades. There’s a scene in the film where a group of tourists offer up money to the Buddha with the hope to receive something in return, so it became transactional. And this increase in tourism over the last few decades seems to be endangering the quiet way of living that the monks would like to have.
There are lots of juxtapositions in this film that I enjoyed exploring, and I still don’t really know what the best solutions are. Should one always be clean and not talk about money, or is that not possible? Do the monks need to be open to society and therefore also inevitably be influenced by money? By worldliness? The film raises a lot of questions, and there are no clear answers. No one is wrong. No one is right. It was my hope that by the end of the film, both Utrecht and Mount Putuo would be on the same level. Maybe by the end, Mr. Hu is less materialistic than you may have thought, and the monastery more so. In the end, they are two entities trying to live their lives, one way or another.
A lot of tension arises around property rights between the new temple in the Netherlands and the established temple in Mount Putuo, China. How did this unfold during filming?
YTY: I had no idea the documentary was going to develop how it did. I initially thought that the business mentality or the materialistic view of the Wenzhou Chinese would somehow collide with the spiritual, higher morale of the monks. But as the story unfolded, it totally flipped around. It made me think, wow, these business owners are quite sincere. All they want is to be pure and invest in this temple. It’s not about money for them, they really want to build something nice. And it seemed like the monks were actually more money-driven.
There was also some reluctance to being filmed from the Chinese community, who didn’t want to show all the difficulties of the process. But we would tell them that it’s not bad to acknowledge that something went wrong. We had a breakthrough in filming when we were present at a meeting among the business owners where people became very angry with each other. It was rare that they let the cameras film that. It was not typical of first-generation Chinese, who tend to keep things to themselves, to let the cameras film that. So I was happy that they allowed us to be present for that meeting.
The concept of yin yuan—joint destiny—comes up a lot in the film. Can you tell me more about the role yin yuan played between the two temples?
YTY: Yin yuan is a Chinese concept used to describe relationships. I would liken it to destiny in English. I grew up understanding yin yuan as a sign of whether people have met their destined partner and should get married or not. But Master Xin Guang [a head monk at Mount Putuo] expanded the concept of yin yuan beyond just lovers to include all relationships. For friendships, partnerships, or businesses to live in harmony, there must be yin yuan.
Master Xin Guang taught me a lot about being able to let things go. When things were falling apart between the two temples, Master Xin Guang said, “We didn’t have any yin yuan, so it wasn’t meant to be. If it’s not meant to be, why cling on to it? And if it’s not meant to be, then you will find another yin yuan. Everything is going to be okay.” Yin yuan is not a Buddhist concept, but somehow he made it Buddhist!
How are Mr. Hu and the temple faring today?
JZ: Obviously, Mr. Hu and Mount Putuo did not manage to reach an agreement in the end. But Mr. Hu got into contact with another temple called Longquan Monastery, which is located just outside of Beijing, and they agreed to serve as the mother temple. It wasn’t shown in the film, but approximately eight nuns were sent from Longquan to look after the new temple and to connect with the local people.
The Utrecht temple [now called the Longquan Great Compassion Monastery] was completed a few months after the documentary finished, and they held a beautiful opening ceremony in February 2016. The head of the Longquan Monastery joined the ceremony, along with local Buddhist organizations and people from both the Chinese and Dutch communities. It was really special.
What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
JZ: It’s a modest wish for me to share the story of this Chinese community, which is not that well known in the West. I hope that people from the Netherlands, from Europe, or elsewhere can get to know them a little bit more. Such as what they are busy with, what their dilemmas are, and even their mysteries.
YTY: Besides gaining a look into the life of the overseas Chinese in the Netherlands, and also the life of these monks, I would hope that viewers can learn the value of being more gentle with one another. For example, Mr. Hu exudes gentleness. He always tries to be the harmonizer among everyone. I think gentleness would have helped both sides. If we are all just a little bit more gentle toward each other, then it might help.
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