The seventh lunar month has come around once again, the Gates of Hell have been reopened, and believers all over the Far East are burning small mountains of ‘ghost’ money, and making sacrificial offerings of fruit, cookies, beer and whatnot at local temples, where they light sticks of incense and pay their respects to those who’ve passed into the Beyond. Swimming, getting married, making important financial decisions and even hanging washing out at night are all big no-nos at this time of year, and it’s very inappropriate to even utter the word ‘ghost’ this month. The correct term to use at present is ‘good brother’ (好兄弟; hao shong-dee) if you must refer to them at all.
Ghost Month (or the Ghost Festival) is observed annually throughout much of the Far East and southeast Asia, but in Taiwan, and particularly the port of Keelung on the northeast coast of the island (a short zip by train or bus from Taipei) observing it and paying the necessary respects is especially important. This is because in its earlier years Taiwan attracted many emigres, who came to work as farmers, fishermen, in the coal and gold mines, and engaged in various other often dangerous jobs. Many died from accidents, diseases such as malaria, or even foul play, and had no family members to carry out essential funeral rites after their passing. Thus they’re forced to wander the underworld, and for one month each year (during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which varies, but usually falls in August and September) the Gates of the Underworld open and the restless souls roam the earth. Although this might sound a bit alarming, it’s a great time to be in Taiwan, with countless colorful and intriguing things going on.
Ghost Month observances come to a vivid climax in Keelung City tomorrow night (Tuesday, August 16th 2016), on which the 14th day of the seventh lunar calendar falls this year. On this day is held the Parade and Procession of the Water Lanterns, one of Taiwan’s most fascinating and colorful folk festivals. The parade that starts off after darkness falls over the city isn’t ghostly or creepy at all, but more like a carnival, as the streets of the city are thronged with thousands of spectators who come to see the procession of floats, bands, dancing troops etc. At the heart of the procession are the eleven rival clans of Keelung, each preceeded by a large banner bearing their family surname, and large, colorful, elaborately decorated ‘houses’ made of paper stretched over a framework of balsa wood.
After being paraded through the streets of central Keelung for everyone to see and admire, these arresting construction are later carried nine kilometers east to a small seaside port area where, at 11pm, they’re blessed by a Daoist priest, carried down to the water’s edge, pushed out into the ocean, and set alight. The succession of blazing paper houses floating out to sea is one of traditional Taiwan’s most magical sights, but it’s all over in about fifteen minutes. Before the last paper house can sink into the water, extinguishing the last remaining flames, the crowd has risen, intent on getting back to Keelung in time for the last train.
There’s a lot to see in Taiwan during Ghost Month, and the story of its history (especially in Keelung) is a fascinating one, explained in detail (along with descriptions of all the main events of the festival, plus where and how to see them) in chapter 50 of Taiwan 101, book one.