Its the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which means during this time the gates are open so the spirits and souls of the underworld are free to roam and mingle among us living folk.
Just think Hallows eve and imagine doing that for 30 days of costumes, temples, incense, parades and did I mention festivities!
I had been given a basic lesson about its history and what it meant to Taiwan's people. To get a feel for it, some of my students parents had invited me to join in on some of the local goings-on happening around Taipei.
Throughout the city, outside peoples homes and businesses are tables brimming with all kinds of delightful goodies and edible goodness! People join forces with others in the neighbourhood, all chipping in food for the banquet-like feast to appease the hungry spirits. After the ghosts have had there fill the food is then distributed to the living. Everyone seems to get involved! Its interesting to walk past a McDonald's and see a bunch of burgers covered in incense sticks.
To advance the wealth and fortune for the spirits in there next life paper money is set alight(gold labelled for the gods & silver for the ghosts) If you don't Bai-Bai(offer worship to the ghosts) then the spirits will find you, and curse you with bad luck!
Also it is said during the month you should not start up a business, go swimming(for fear of being drowned by the ghosts living in the waters) not to get married or have babies and not to have funerals. So that's the basics of what goes on during these 30 days of mingling with the deceased!
I was a lucky fella back then, having made some very dear friends who had family residing in the port city of Keelung. I was in for a massive night full of people, colour, noise, dancing and plenty of rain!
Of the many festivals held around Taiwan during the month, Keelung's ghost festival is one of the most spectacular!
Its the 15th day and finishing up at the cram school brother Vanson decides I should join him and some pals for a "wee night out" in Keelung. The mention of Keelung spreads a big grin on my face. I spent time there a few weeks back with my local friend Usher and his family when I was taken in,as the most deadliest typhoon(Morakot was her name) to hit Taiwan in recorded history wrought destruction across the island.
(I remember getting told off by the elders because a couple of us ventured out into the eye of the storm and went walking through the local school grounds while the winds around us were reaching above the 100km/h mark. Yes it was stupid and yes it was worth it!)
Half and hour later we arrive in the sleepy port city of Keelung, with mountains on all sides and the ocean to its north it is a relatively quiet city but during this month its transformed into a ghost town!
Thanks to Typhoon Morakot, weeks later and it is still raining quite heavy but it seems the spirits are pleased and have pushed the clouds away....for now.
We pick up a few friends to join in on the shenanigans and make our way down to the harbour, its a stark contrast from the last time I was here! the city is alive with natives from all over the country and many other keenbean cats from around the world! It is noisy and it is wonderful! there are smiles, dancing and positive vibes in the air and all the ghosts who are mucking around are loving it to!
Over the din is a even louder sound, its the start of the famous float parade!
But as it begins to make its way down to the port, The heavens suddenly open up and my goodness it pours!
Which makes it all the more exciting! It doesn't seem to faze many and the parade passes by in a myriad of colours, lights and groovy floats of all shapes and sizes! there are dancers and actors and massive drums being smashed upon. Its all too much and my feet take control and take me out from our meagre cover to start dancing along with the rambling spectacle! One of the drummers lets me have a good ole bang! People start to laugh and clap and before I know it like minded souls join with me! so much for a quiet night!
The rain hit fast and it ceased faster, now we were a bunch of soaked animals jumping and jiving to the atmosphere around us!
All this excitement had made us turn into hungry ghosts ourselves so the next mission was to raid the alley markets! on the way we came across a bunch of local fellows all wearing orange, I was told they were part of the festival and in charge of the fireworks and safety department. They beckoned me over as they were all interested in having a chat with a tall lanky white guy and wondering what his thoughts were on the festivities! All of a sudden the "leader" offers me a roman candle and lights the end without any warning! 'PEEEEW!' off it shoots into the night sky.
Before I know it I have two more in each hand! how the heck am I meant to aim if I got no hands free!? then two more a lit 'ZZZZIP!' 'PZZZZZ!' they shoot through my fingers and rocket off into the masses of people! ohhh shiiiit! They offer me round 3 but I politely refuse, so instead these "safety" staff send off a few more into the crowd themselves!
Do these guys actually work here? this is hilarious! next thing I know we are approached by a couple of cops, they start having a little chat with the boys then fingers are pointing at me! one of the officers tells me in english have I ever set off a firework before? I tell her 'yes many times back home' she then laughs and tells me I should learn to aim better!
Man how I love the Taiwanese!
We say our farewells I and thank them for the "safety" lesson! Now lets get some grub!
We have reached the mouth of Miaokou Night Market, personally this is one the best markets in Taiwan I've had the pleasure of experiencing. Most of the fare is from the nearby ocean and is a seafood lovers wet dream! I'm in heaven! As usual I have a mini panic attack from all the heavenly goodies on offer! The Miaokou (which translates to 'temple front') Night Market is extremely large and covers a number of big streets with alleys and lanes snaking off the main thoroughfare. Big yellow glowing lanterns perch high above the sea of bobbing heads its all so exciting!
During the food rollercoaster, we delightfully devoured our way through buttered crab, Taiwan tempura, one bite sausage, oyster omelette and my all time favourite The "Nutritious Sandwich" I'm quite positive this is the single most popular stand in all of Keelung! They first fry the bread, then cut it open and place tomatoes, pickled cucumbers, ham, stewed eggs and lastly the key ingredient! lots and lots of mayonnaise! I cant really explain how amazing it is but I'm sure the locals standing around would tell you 'it was like he was having sex with himself!" very very "nutritious"......
To top the walking feast off we had to have desert! so went for the candied fruits, a skewer of your choice of fruit/s coated in a honey/maple syrup. The outside is hardened and crunchy and when you bite into it the juices burst all through your mouth! a perfect 'cherry on the cake' to round dinner off.
Taking a stroll away from the hustle and bustle we came across a bunch of the floats from the parade lighting up the night sky. All kinds of child hood characters and religious icons (from well known to locally recognised) are on display for the public to look, touch and in our case "molest"
Yes Mini Mouse was there and we couldn't keep our hands off her! so with a number of eyes beginning to stare at the attention we were causing we decided to end the night on a more spiritual note.
We took a drive up to Chung Cheng Park which has three levels which the third has stunning views overlooking the port city. The goddess of mercy statue is gorgeous and standing over 23 meters she really is a sight to behold! especially it being dark and her guarded by her massive lion creatures!
Flipped a coin over the shoulder into the well, Paid my respects at the Buddhist temple, found a lonesome food vendor selling tasty treats and we all just sat taking in the views of Keelung's nightlife below us..( I didn't realise until we got home that I had missed out on the water lanterns being released out to sea!)
It was early hours of the morning when we got back to Taipei, I said farewell to the cool cats who had made my evening all the merrier, walked up to the cram schools doors (which served as my home while in Taiwan) grabbed my finger width mattress from the basement(it works wonders!) parked myself in the reception area next to the fish tank, said a wee thank you to whoever was listening and with a smile on my face I was away with the fishies....
So peeps If you plan on making a journey to Taiwan, and it happens to fall on the seventh month be sure to join in on the ghostly festivities this country has to offer!