We heard it before we saw it, the fireworks, chanting and singing. Before we’d even left the highway tunnel marking where the jungle-filled mountains between Taipei city abruptly becomes the bustling harbor city of Keelung we were being greeted by cacophony.
It was well past sundown, but the festival was only starting to heat up as we walked the crowded sidewalks. Floats from various temples and neighborhood associations paraded through the streets. It was crowded despite the fact that we were still several blocks from the Keelung Miaokou Night Market (which is, even on a slow night, crowded by Western standards).
My partner Stephanie and I were traveling with Chelsea Pearl, a blogger from San Francisco on assignment in Taiwan. MyTaiwanTour had arranged most of her tour around the island, but having not experienced the Keelung Ghost Festival before, Stephanie and I decided to tag along.
Some background on the ghost festival is in order.
In a nutshell, the 7th lunar month is Ghost Month in Taiwan. This is when the boundary between material plane and netherworld grows thin and it falls upon the pious to placate restless spirits roaming the earth. Though celebrated throughout Taiwan, the holiday takes on special meaning in the harbor city of Keelung, owing to a great battle fought between various clans fought in the area during the late Qing dynasty. After elders from both sides called a truce, the fallen from both sides were honored with prayers and a parade. This local festival has since melded with the national festival, making Keelung Taiwan’s top go-to spot to celebrate ghost month.
But the biggest night of the Keelung festival is on the fifth night of the month (going by the lunar calendar, of course…just in case you aren’t sufficiently confused already). This is the night of the water lantern parade, when brightly colored floats are paraded through the city for several hours before being brought to the ocean for the ceremony’s second part. In addition to their own individual designs, each float contains a massive ceremonial paper temple, which is filled with scented ghost money. When the float reaches the coast, the temples are taken out, and, after a brief ceremony just before midnight, placed on the waves and set ablaze. This releasing of the water lanterns is meant to send prayers, blessings, and cash to the spirit world. (Read more: Getting the Most from Ghost Month in Taiwan)
With hours to kill before the midnight burning of the temples, we made our way to the Keelung Miakou Night Market, pausing briefly to purchase a handmade wooden puppet from one of the many vendors who were out in force. The market is of course, one of the finest in Taiwan, and as Chelsea is a food blogger I was eager to show her at least a few of the dishes for which the area is famous. We split a bag of sauteed crab claws, which proved to be more trouble than it was worth, especially for people needing both hands free to manage cameras and so forth. The deep fried puffed sweet potato balls were a more sensible choice, and sensible or not, the crispy pork carved directly from the carcass of a small pig laid out on a table was delicious and well worth the trouble.
After eating, we headed over to a main street to watch the procession. We counted several dozen different floats decked out in brightly colored cellophane, bedecked with lanterns and lights. Some cruised alone slowly through the parade route while others, presumably belonging to larger orders, were proceeded by groups of marchers waving flags, or followed by dancers in brightly covered outfits.
We watched the parade as it passed in front of the temple for which the Keelung Temple Mouth Night Market is named for half an hour before heading out by car to the waterfront town of Badou, about twenty minutes due east of the city. Not generally thought of as a tourist destination, Badou is best known for its maritime museum and a few waterfront cafes. But during the water lantern releasing ceremony, Badou was packed with thousands of celebrants and spectators. As the former group prepared the paper temples for immolation, the latter crowded along the shore waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Whereas the mood in Keelung had been almost carnival like, the vibe in Badou was more solemn. The colorful floats remained parked in the lot or along the road, and their main payload, the ceremonial paper temples, sat side by side on a long wooden table taking up nearly the entire length of the waterfront. As a Taoist priest chanted over the public address system, worshipers prayed with incense and made offerings of food and rice wine to the paper temples of their own communities.
I spoke briefly with one such worshiper, Mr. Lai from Keelung, who explained to me the meaning behind various facets of the ceremony. Some of these are fairly well known. The significance of the ghost money as being both a way to simultaneously show reverence for ancestors and court their benevolence in the coming year. (Even more so than most brands of spirituality, reverence in Taoism is a two-way street.) Other facets were new to me. The lengthy stalk of bamboo ending in thin leaves attached to each temple, Mr. Lai told me, served as a beacon to beckon the spirits. Even the burning time and distance of the temple is considered significant. The longer a temple burns – and further out it goes before burning completely – the more auspicious for its sender.
At midnight, firecrackers began going off around the harbor, and the procession of paper temples was carried by worshipers down to the harbor, where a large bonfire was burning. The one question I’d forgotten to ask Mr. Lai, namely what kept the burning temples from simply floating back to shore was answered by the presence of several dozen swimmers clad in orange life jackets, whose job was to swim with the temples out to the point where the currents would continue to carry them further still.
Though I lost sight of Mr. Lai’s temple in the smoke, I felt strongly that his was among the ones that burned the longest and floated the farthest. He struck me as a reverent sort, and well deserving of whatever favor his ancestors can provide in the coming year.
Until next week,
Joshua Samuel Brown
Editor in Chief, MyTaiwanTour Journal
The Water Lantern Parade is one part of the annual Keelung Ghost Festival, which you can learn more about here.
Interested in attending the Yilan Qiangu Festival on September 19th, another unique folk festival where hundreds of participants climb up massive greased poles for crowd’s adoration (and prizes)? Leave a comment!
We’ll be posting more about Taiwan’s amazing festivals at the MyTaiwanTour Journal soon. Watch this spot!