An Unusual Sight in Houston

Just off the Westpark Tollway, in the outer suburbs of Houston, there is a rough-looking residential neighborhood. The streets are filled with giant potholes and lined with overgrown sidewalks. The stores in the nearby strip-center do not look the least bit inviting. An overturned boat lies in an alleyway, perhaps leftover debris from Hurricane Harvey. A bayou winds around the perimeter of the neighborhood. And a giant golden orb looms above it all.

In the course of my travels, particularly in Asia, I’ve visited many interesting temples of various religions – Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, to name a few. However, I never expected to come across what I recently found in my own backyard in suburban Houston, Texas. “Interesting temple” is an understatement here. This place is just bizarre.

At first glance you might think that someone tried to take Epcot home with them and set it up in their backyard. But the real story involves a religious minority, an angry homeowners’ association, and a deportation.

This strange building is called the Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace. It was constructed in 1996 by a Hong Kong man by the name of Qian Ren (“Master Cheung”). He was the leader of a small community of practitioners of the Tien Tao faith who resided in Houston at the time. The Tien Tao faith is a religion that believes there is truth in all world religions, and therefore encourages its members study the texts of other religions such as Christianity and Islam.

The congregation originally held their services and gatherings in Qian Ren’s home in west Houston. As you might imagine, this upset some of his neighbors, and they lodged numerous complaints against him on a variety of matters: the number cars parked in the street, the extra room he added on to accommodate his followers, the flags he flew in the backyard, and even the color of his shutters. The case went to court and the Tien Taoists ultimately decided it would be best to have a dedicated temple to host their religious functions.

Qian Ren drew up a grand plan for a large temple complex including activity areas and other amenities, which would be built not far from his house. The initial phase of construction began and was nearing completion, when disaster struck…Qian Ren died. Fortunately, he had designated a successor, named Kwai Fun Wong, who was to be the new leader of the congregation and see to the completion of the new temple.

Qian Ren wished to have his funeral held in Hong Kong, so Kwai Fun Wong went there to make the arrangements. She forgot one detail, though: her visa status. By leaving the United States, she lost her right to continue living in the country. Upon her return from the funeral, she was unceremoniously deported. A contentious and multi-faceted lawsuit followed (all the legalese is available online, if you care for some light reading), but she lost her case and was not permitted to return.

So for the last twenty-six years, the Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace has sat in an unfinished state of disrepair, a head-turner amid a sea of drab strip malls and cookie-cutter apartment blocks. There are apparently still stacks of construction materials on the inside. Yet while no one seems to have taken the initiative to either complete it or demolish it, someone is still footing the bill for it – the grass is trimmed at the very least.

Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace in Houston, Texas, USA
The Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace in west Houston. Older photos show that there were originally smaller golden orbs on either side, but they have since been removed.

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