What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Houston landmarks? Is it the Space Center, the Museum of Natural Science or the Houston Zoo? Or, if you’ve been here a while, you might think of your favorite coffee shops or the best parks for a picnic.
But, I guarantee you would never in a million years imagine Houston as the home of an abandoned Taoist Palace crowned with a massive golden orb.
If that sentence seemed surprising to you, too, then you’re not alone. There’s a lot to unpack here with this funky quirk of Houston’s, so let’s dive right into it!
Houston’s Palace of Golden Orbs
In the center of a very normal suburb in west Houston, not too far from George Bush Park, is the Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace. It sticks out like a sore thumb, for sure. Other than the palace, there’s a gas station, a strip mall and a few apartment complexes in the neighborhood, so it’s not the first place you’d think to look for a Taoist holy temple.
The Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace looks a little like it could be an observatory. Two sets of stairs run up sloped walls that act as the sides of the building, ending at the large wall that acts as the back of this white, box-shaped structure. In the center, most visible from the front of the palace, is a massive golden orb that rises high above the structure itself. It could easily be passed off as an observatory, were it not completely sealed, aside from a single door in the front.
The palace is completely abandoned, and curious tourists are kept out by a large fence surrounding the 11-acre property. Although the white and gold palace looks completely out of place in the quiet suburban area, the property was envisioned to be home to many other structures such as retail stores and community buildings. Alas, the great building sits empty and unfinished, untouched since 2001.
The story all starts with a man named Master Cheung, the founder and spiritual leader of Tien Tao, a universalist religion based on the idea that all religions hold truth. Tien Tao, which has its roots in Buddhism, was founded around the end of World War II in China and has since spread all over the world. In 1996, the Tien Tao Association of Houston claimed that over 2,000 members lived in the Texas city.
Master Cheung moved to Houston from Hong Kong around 1986, according to an article by the Houston Press. After setting up the Tien Tao Association of Houston, Cheung’s organization grew rapidly and prompted the leader to find a new location, other than his living room, to host his followers.
In 1996, the Tien Tao Association purchased an 11-acre property on Ashford Point Drive to use as the grounds for their new temple. The structure, a five-story, white temple covering nearly 40,000 square feet of space, was priced at over $6 million for the construction costs alone. The main attraction, a giant golden orb intended to be the main holy area, was placed in the very center of the palace, standing nearly three stories high. In addition to the main orb, two smaller orbs were placed on white pillars on either side of the large one. Now, however, only the center one remains.
Construction is halted
In 1999, while the palace was still in the process of construction, Master Cheung passed away. His protegee, Kwai Fun Yong, took over leadership of the association and continued work on the palace. It was Kwai Fun Yong who planned for the complex to host multiple additional structures, such as a daycare and residential buildings.
Unfortunately, Kwai Fun Yong was arrested and deported from the United States in 1999 shortly after visiting Hong Kong for Master Cheung’s funeral. She had overstayed her visa and had not properly secured permanent residency, so she was promptly sent back to Hong Kong. Construction on the Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace ground to a halt, and the building has sat unfinished and empty ever since.
Twenty years later, the Palace of the Golden Orbs is nothing more than a curious neighborhood landmark. The six-million-dollar structure is completely closed off to the public and is likely to remain empty until it is eventually demolished, or perhaps until it is bought by another orb-obsessed (orb-sessed?) association. If anything, it’s a great talking point and one of the more unusual pieces of Houston’s more recent history.
Make a trip out of it
If you’re looking to do a little sightseeing in that part of town, you may be a little disappointed to learn that there aren’t any other orb-embellished temples aside from the Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace. Other local attractions include Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza Park, The Houston Funplex, a Chick-fil-A and a Target. Honestly, there’s not a whole lot that’s nearly as unique as the palace out there, but the quirkiness of it is worth the short drive out to see the abandoned temple.
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