We all know that Taiwan is huge on ghosts, ghost mythology and general superstition about how to deal with (and escape the clutches of) said supernatural powers. Don't swim during Ghost Month, never stand in the corner of a hospital room, avoid the fourth floor of any building, sweep your ancestors' tombs once a year, if you're male, never pick up a red envelope you find on the street, buy a tiger suit for children of a certain age to scare ghosts away, never look behind you when someone taps you on the shoulder, never say anyone's real name after dark during ghost month, etc. etc..
As a result of this belief in ghosts, there are quite a few places in Taiwan believed by locals to be 'haunted'.
I'm not a big believer in the paranormal - the closest I can say that I've come to really wondering about this stuff is in my own home. I grew up in an old, creaky farmhouse in upstate New York that my mother insists is haunted. She's got a point: if there's any house in that town (no, not Sleepy Hollow, though not too far from it) with ghosts, it's ours. But that's an entirely different blog post.
I've known for awhile about a local belief in the haunting of a certain large hotel in Xinyi District. Apparently the site of this hotel was once a cemetery that was razed before construction began. Typical creepy story, probably not true, right? Well, true or not, from what I hear a lot of business travelers from other parts of Taiwan or even other parts of "Greater China" (pfft) won't stay there. That apparently, if you walk into the lobby you'll see two very large pieces of calligraphy on either side, but the calligraphy itself is not of any discernable Chinese characters - and was written by a fa shi (not sure how to translate this term, but something between a priest and an exorcist) hired by the hotel as a talisman specifically to keep those ghosts at bay. From what I've been told, only fa shi and dangki (self-injuring spirit diviners) can write such talismans.
I intend to take a look for myself inside that very lobby in a few days. Until then, this is really only something I've heard.
I've also heard about the supposed haunting of the old building of a very well-known hospital in Taipei (the new one is big and shiny, the old building is still in use and was built by the Japanese. I've worked inside it. It's beautiful on the outside, not so much on the inside). I can see why stories like this would abound in an old building, and a hospital at that. But being inside, it looked so much like a typical hospital that the place just didn't feel, well, haunted.
Another part of Taipei, however, has always felt quite ghastly to me. Until today, I didn't know why. Not being a believer in ghosts, I'm still not entirely willing to concede that "It's haunted" is the reason. But anyway.
I haven't posted about it on here yet, but I've recently acquired a new bicycle from a friend who moved home. It's a typical city-dweller's gearless bike, red and shiny. Living in Jingmei, I'm literally a one-minute ride from the entrance to Jingmei Riverside Park, a small park with a bike trail, sitting areas and basketball/tennis courts. It connects to the much longer Huazhong Riverside Park, with a bike trail that heads all the way to the coast.
Afraid as I was at first to cycle in Taipei proper, I've spent a lot of time whizzing up and down that narrow little path, which for the most part is well-maintained. At Jingmei, a haven for older folks (many of whom are in their 90s and still fluent in Japanese, more so than they ever were in Mandarin), the path is strewn with old ladies walking and clapping their hands to promote blood circulation, and old men riding equally old bikes while playing their favorite Taiwanese old-skool music on little transistor radios. That park runs past Gongguan and spills into Guting Riverside Park, which at the moment is a-bloom with daisies in various shades of pink.
Sometime after Guting, something happens to the park. The grass begins to look wilted and the expanse seems more desolate than family-oriented. There's a very ominous hill - obviously manmade - away from the river a bit. In the distance to the left are mist-covered mountain peaks. The river before you looks sad and weepy.
This is the part where you enter Machangding Memorial Park.
I'd heard of Machangding before, but not with that Romanization. A long time ago, I began reading Death in a Cornfield, an excellent compilation of short stories in English by Taiwanese writers, critiquing and disassembling the bits and pieces of Taiwanese society in the 1980s (for anyone with even a rough knowledge of the history of Taiwan, you'll recognize that decade as being a turning point both politically and economically). In the first story, Mountain Path, a place called Ma ch'ang ting is mentioned. It was an execution ground under the Japanese and again during the White Terror.
Because I'm obviously not a very keen observer , I didn't really realize until I re-read the story today that Mach'angting and Machangding are the same place, and that this place where thousands of people were executed less than 70 years ago is not some abstract geographic location in the whorls and folds of Taiwan's topography. It's not a disembodied place-name that has nothing to do with my Taiwan experience. It's the place where I've been swinging back and forth on my bike and the place that I've found, until just now, to be inexplicably creepy.
Many people believe that this place - Machangding - is haunted, and deeply so. That the restless ghosts of those executed there, whom many would say have still not had their fair piece heard, still wander the place and that the hill, where the killings took place, is especially saturated with anger. The area is quite open, allowing the gray days of Taipei to settle in unhidden, the moldering expanse of sky to stretch unbroken and the wind to hiss through unobstructed - this minimal topography only enhances one's feeling that something, to be frank, just ain't quite right about the place.
Now, as I said - I'm not a big believer in ghosts. It's possible - even likely - that Machangding Memorial Park is only chill-inducing insofar as the poor planning of some not-so-aesthetically-inclined city councilman got lazy in designing it.
It could be that Taipei weather is really quite gloomy, and the days I've been there have been the sorts of days where any quiet park is going to look, by default, haunted.
In any case, I'm not sure what to make of my initial chill at cycling through that area, and subsequent discovery of what it used to be.