Taiwan: Lanterns Are Lit in Lukang
Lanterns Are Lit in Lukang
By Cindy Bigras
Lukang, Taiwan– February, 2012
I weave through a collage of foreign faces in the narrow, cobblestone alleys of Lukang, Taiwan. Thousands of excited revelers, we’re sardined against one another, moving in opposite directions at a snail’s pace. I’m close enough to kiss the guy next to me.
But I don’t. Instead, we smile and I hear “Where are you from?” and “Do you like Taiwan?” I answer “USA” and “Yes” before the ebb of the crowd presses me forward a few meters. I encounter new bodies, new faces. “Hello, do you like the Lantern Festival?” My answer: “Yes, the lanterns are wonderful!”
A playground of colorful lantern characters lines the wide avenues leading into the center of Lukang. Dolls dance next to smiling vegetables which in turn wave to the animals of the Chinese zodiac – all have been crafted with rice paper stretched over delicate bamboo frames. Dragons prevail - this is, after all, the Year of the Dragon. These bold beasts represent power and success, rather than danger and evil as in western fairy tales.
School groups and business organizations made some lanterns while others were designed and crafted by professional lantern makers who maintain studios here.
Lukang is home to 200 temples which, in this historic town of 85,000 means they’re everywhere. Buddhist and Taoist are the most common and there isn’t a lot of distinction for many Taiwanese who pray in both.
Stepping inside is to be enveloped by a sensory carnival: courtyards filled with visitors, lanterns and red tassels dangle overhead, the unmistakable scent of incense stinging my nose.
In some, I am struck by the gold surfaces and ornate frames holding serious looking deities. From a side room I hear the repeated echo of wood divining blocks tossed onto a cobblestone floor in a practice used by worshipers seeking answers to life’s questions.
Other devotees have placed three sticks of incense at the courtyard altar, and now pause with head bowed, hands folded, eyes closed in prayer. Their focus in the midst of so much activity is impressive.
Back outside, the crowd moves slowly forward. We approach a stinky tofu vendor. Now would be the moment to break away, if only I could. Gasping for fresh air, I notice that the Taiwanese cover their noses so I do the same. Believe me, stinky tofu is aptly named. It reeks.
How it can possibly be edible? I eat vegetarian food, steamed dumplings, seafood, and drink my first cup of bubble tea, an Asian specialty made by dropping pearls of cooked tapioca into tea. There is also plenty of Tangyuan, little balls of glutinous rice flour typically made during lantern festival. I want to sample everything but can’t bring myself to approach the stinky tofu.
My friend and I duck into a shop. The proprietor looks up from his newspaper, startled to have visitors. He nods when I greet him in Mandarin: “Ni hao”. His smile grants us permission to look around the small dark space.
Not that there’s much to see…. a few orchids, some crates of incense, and high stacks of yellow paper stamped with red, indecipherable Chinese characters. They could be the Taiwanese yellow pages but I recognize them as fake money used as offerings in temples.
The shopkeeper must wholesale religious supplies but I can’t ask because I lack the vocabulary and he is one of the few Taiwanese I’ve met who doesn’t speak English.
With a slight bow I prepare to exit, able to use my only other word of Mandarin: “xie xie” (thank you). He leans back and inhales his cigarette as we exit.
Fire In The Sky
That evening, we make it to our seats in the sports arena as the opening ceremony is about to ignite. And I do mean ignite. Dance performances and musicians in bright colors and sequins have been entertaining the growing crowd all afternoon. Mickey and Minnie Mouse, international charmers, elicit roars and cheers from children and adults alike. Cartoon characters are everywhere in Taiwan. They beckon from billboards, jiggle on bus exteriors, and brighten ticket stubs and packaging of just about every product I’ve seen.
A large metal dragon lurks in darkness on the far side of the stadium. It’s now dusk. To rhythmic drum beats, clashing cymbals, distant muffled laughter and suspended conversations, the countdown begins. The crowd shifts in anticipation. Finally the dragon rears its head, colors pulsating from every scale of his twenty meter frame. Blinking blue. Then pink. Then yellow.
Smoke pours from his nostrils and he rotates round and round, now vibrating purple and green. Green lasers slice the sky in all directions and synchronized fireworks burst overhead. I hear crackles and sizzles but keep my eyes fixed on the colors popping in the night sky. I don’t even like fireworks but these have mesmerized me!
We sway to the beat of loud music, lyrics screaming out “Taiwan, Formosa, Heart of Asia.” It could easily be Taiwanese rock music but is actually a compilation of traditional and folk music developed for the festival.
Heading back to our bus, we witness the rebirth of the lanterns along the avenues. With the flip of a switch they’ve been animated by electric warmth and softness. The crowds are thinning out, we move freely, able to examine up close the chipper creatures and merry maidens that welcomed us to Lukang earlier today.
Lantern festivals date back a thousand years in China. Here in Taiwan, numerous festivals will be observed over the next two weeks. Whereas the national celebration relies on high tech, the local ones consist of rural customs brought by immigrants from the Chinese mainland over the last four hundred years.
Other Lantern Festivals in Taiwan
The small northern hill town of Pingxi carries on a charming 200-year-old tradition in which sky lanterns, using the same principle as mini hot air balloons, are released into the sky en masse.
Visitors scribble wishes on the rice paper before mini torches are lit and the sky fills with hundreds of the vessels in a magical display of light and dark. It is believed that the farther the lantern rises, the more likely the wishes are to come true.
China Airlines Business Class Comfortable and Entertaining!
The flight from JFK to Taipei lasts almost 20 hours but there was no groaning about that on my part, thanks to China Airlines. With an array of movies and music at the touch of a button I cherished the time relaxing in their wide, business class seats.Foreign airlines do a great job with cuisine making meals a treat; China Air didn’t disappoint with a menu of choices and a dessert tray like no other. My laptop plugged in and was available for work; when it was time to sleep the seat turned into a comfy bed. The airline, based in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, is part of the SkyTeam network.
Yanshui’s Beehive Rocket tradition is nothing short of wild! Firecrackers bound together in the shape of beehives explode in noisy commotion, sparklers and smoke filling the sky as explosives careen out from the center like angry bees fleeing the hive. It can be dangerous so organizers wisely recommend heavy clothing, helmets, and goggles.
In Taitung a frenzied practice involves a young man wearing nothing other than red shorts and a yellow face mask carried through town standing on a palanquin. He represents Master Han Dan, god of wealth. As he goes by, participants bombard him with firecrackers, hoping to achieve success and wealth by scoring a direct hit. Success and wealth are common themes in these festivals. I find myself wondering why it works to anger the god of wealth!
Later in the week, walking through a night market in Kaohsiung, I recognize a foul odor emanating from a vendor’s stand. Yup - stinky tofu. I cover my nose and quicken my pace before stopping. I turn and head straight towards the vendor’s stands.
Within two minutes I’m handed my stinky tofu. How will I gracefully discard it after the first chew? Surprisingly, the flavor is delicate, almost bland. I reach for a second one. Stinky tofu isn’t that different from the tofu I’ve had elsewhere.
But it’s stinky- there’s no denying it!
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.