Taiwanese entertain their homeless ghosts

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      Supermarkets can offer a surprising window into culture. Exploring one in the Taiwanese city of Tainan, I came across a section draped in festive red and gold banners. Chinese characters marked the floor-to-ceiling display of instant noodles, dried pork floss, chocolate bars, and more. Turning to my guide, Samson Wu—who seemed slightly confused as to why I was so fascinated by groceries—I asked what the signs were promoting.

      “It’s all food for ghosts,” he replied matter-of-factly. “It’s what the ghosts eat.”

      Ghosts eat potato chips? Indeed, I discovered as I travelled around Taiwan, food is such a celebrated part of life that even the afterlife includes feasting.

      Wu explained that people buy the items for Ghost Month, the seventh month of the lunar calendar—August 20 to September 18 on this year’s western calendar. During this time, ancestors and “homeless ghosts” are invited to visit the living for a feast.

      According to Wu, it’s Chinese tradition to pay your respects to your ancestors by offering them food on the anniversary of their deaths. But those who pass on without relatives to tend to them or who haven’t quite made it to their final destination get left out.

      “If a ghost is homeless and nobody offers it food during the year, this is a good chance for it to eat,” Wu said. The Taiwanese make the offerings out of a mix of respect for and fear of these spirits, which if not appeased might make trouble.

      Wu explained that at the beginning of the month, a “ghost gate” to the underworld is opened at a temple in Keelung, a northern city near Taipei. Buddhist and Taoist festivals are held throughout the island to welcome the spirits to Earth, encouraging them to eat and enjoy themselves. At the end of the month, the ghost gate is closed and the spirits are sent back in the hope that they’ll leave the living in peace.

      Driving through a narrow lane in the southern city of Kaohsiung that afternoon, we happened upon a small temple that was having a festival in an adjacent empty lot. Baskets of nonperishable food, rice, fruit, and even beer were piled up as offerings, each bundle flagged with a family name. Two whole slaughtered pigs, snouts dripping blood, lay on a table in front of a grandstand where elaborately costumed officials chanted enthusiastically as a noisy puppet show blared in the background to entertain the lost souls.

      “They’re reading out the names of those who brought offerings,” Wu explained. “This person has offered food, so please don’t bother him.”¦That person has offered food, so please don’t bother her.”

      Curiously, few spectators were present. Wu noted that most people drop off their offering and pick it up later in the day. After paying their respects with a prayer and burning incense or paper money for ghosts to use in the afterlife, templegoers take the food back home, where it’s unceremoniously consumed.

      These offerings are just one way that Ghost Month touches modern Taiwanese life. According to Wu, many people are still quite superstitious and won’t make major life changes during this period. “People won’t get married or move house,” he explained. “And they won’t swim in rivers or the ocean.”

      Ghost Festival, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

      Wu delivered the latter news as we were on a hiking path in Taroko Gorge, sweating in 36-degree heat while gazing down at the enticing aqua pools of the Shakadang River.

      Located near Hualien in eastern Taiwan, the gorge is part of a stunning national park featuring towering marble rocks cut by rivers and waterfalls. Hikers often indulge in a dip along the Shakadang Trail, but this time of year one has to be wary.

      “According to our legend, people who die in water will become ghosts in water,” Wu said. “When people die, they are reborn. But if they are a water ghost, they need to find a person to replace them before they can be reborn. You don’t want to be that replacement.”

      We decided against the swim, but I later found that ghosts lurking on Earth don’t stop the fun on land. Taipei’s Shilin Night Market certainly didn’t seem subdued.

      Puppet show at Kaohsiung Ghost Festival.

      The city’s largest such market is a monster party, with a huge covered food building, plus a maze of alleyways heaving with vendors and shoppers. The sheer scale of the place and the variety of culinary offerings—from links of Taiwanese sausage to steamed dumplings to “stinky” fermented tofu—made it one of the most impressive I’ve seen in Asia.

      What struck me was the creativity of the street food. “People are always looking for something new,” Wu said. “So entrepreneurs are always coming up with the unexpected.” That includes dishes usually seen in restaurants—like steak served sizzling on a cast-iron pan, or personalized hot pots—served for a fraction of the price.

      In order to compete, restaurants are also constantly innovating. The most extreme—and debatably distasteful—example I encountered was Modern Toilet. This café in the Shilin district seats patrons on colourful thrones and serves food like curry and ice-cream sundaes in toilet-shaped porcelain dishes. Unbelievably, it manages to come across as cute rather than disgusting, and the concept has proven popular enough to support a chain of over a dozen restaurants. (Click for videos of the Taipei’s Shilin Night Market and Modern Toilet.)

      In the end, however, it’s great noshing, rather than novelty, that keeps people coming back. At the night market, there are Frisbee-sized deep-fried chicken cutlets, spicy-crispy scallion pancakes, juicy dumplings piping hot from the steamer”¦ These little snacks add up to a big feast.

      Who can blame the ghosts for coming out to play?

      Access: For information on Taiwan, see www.eng.taiwan.net.tw/. The writer travelled as a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau.




      Dec 10, 2009 at 10:06am

      That was a good article. I lived in Taiwan for almost 3 years, in Taipei and in Tainan, and it is an amazing country. Even now, almost 6 years later, I still feel homesick for Taiwan.