Thursday, April 25, 2013
Drum Majorettes and the Goddess of the Sea
I sincerely apologize for my extended absence - work has been ridiculous, I've had a lot to do, and something had to give. I hope, though, that I'm baaack now that I have a little breathing room during the week. At least for the next few weeks.
About 2 weeks ago (maybe it was 3? Who even knows) I went to Dajia and Lugang for Tomb Sweeping. In Dajia, Tomb Sweeping happened to also be the day that the Matsu Pilgrimage kicked off, thanks to a coincidence in lunar calendar calculations and the results of the ceremony to ask Matsu, via fortune blocks, on which day she'd like her pilgrimage to be (no joke). So we went down to see the pilgrims off, rather luckily catching a ride with a student of mine from Dajia who was heading down to sweep a tomb with his family. It saved us having to figure out how to get there in the ridiculous traffic on Thursday. The festival really doesn't get going until Friday afternoon and night, and it poured most of the time, but we had fun anyway, and briefly met up with some of the wanderers and short-cut takers joining them in Zhanghua the next day.
The pilgrimage starts at Jenn Lann Temple in Dajia - there isn't much info in English but they post pilgrimage information in Chinese here (if you can't read Chinese, get a friend to help you). The dates are decided on Lantern Festival, 15 days after Chinese New Year. This is also the time, if you want to go, to book hotels as they sell out quickly. Try to stay downtown. We stayed here: Dajia Hotel － old, but clean and friendly, very central, and not skeevy at all. Try the taro pastries that come out fresh in the afternoon from the coffeeshop two doors down (next to the fabric shop).
You can spend two nights in Dajia (get there a night early because on the day the pilgrimage starts, traffic is congested and highly restricted - trust me. Spend your time checking out the temples, eating, drinking coffee, whatever - there's not a lot to do in Dajia but you'll be fine. There is a Starbucks, oddly enough). Or, after the pilgrims leave you can go with them, but be warned: they walk for most of the first night and don't rest much until they get to the outskirts of Zhanghua City. You could easily sleep in Dajia, then catch a local train to Zhanghua the next morning, putter around there and meet up with them when they arrive later.
Schedules pop up online of the plans for the Matsu idol, which is carried around central Taiwan, stopping at various temples, for 9 days - but you won't know what it is until just after Lantern Festival. That said, once the schedule is up it's fairly easy to head to where you can intercept the pilgrimage and take part in it, even for just a short while.
Noah Buchan has already written plenty on this event, so I won't repeat it here. You can read about it here, and read his own account of participating here.
The night before many festivals, a Taiwanese opera will be put on in the open air for the public (Baosheng Dadi's birthday includes this aspect, as well). These guys, who wear more comfortable clothing and do impressive acrobatics, are basically inserted into the plot as something to entertain the masses.
The chairman of Djen Lann Temple (Zhenlan Temple?) is currently in jail for using government money to visit a brothel. The temple itself is one of the oldest and most influential in Taiwan, and is very deeply connected to the old gangs and brotherhoods not unlike the ones explored in Monga, the film about Wanhua gangs in the 80s that came out several years ago. As old as it is, and as deeply tied to community life as it is, I was afraid of violating some cultural or religious taboo akin to wearing one's hat in church or eating a ham&cheese sandwich in the foyer of a synagogue.
Then I saw this guy on his phone up by the idol and behind Thousand Mile Eyes (Matsu's green demon attendant) and realized I was probably projecting Western taboos and could relax.
Marching bands are really popular in west-central Taiwan for such occasions. They usually have a few "sexy" (if that's your taste) bandleaders or drum majorettes.
I am a big fan of old buildings.
Then we wandered over to the Wenchang Shrine (built 1886 in a breezier, less ornate, more provincial Qing Dynasty style - Wenchang Dijun is the god of literature and culture) a little ways out of the most crowded part of the town center, where a pilgrimage group was about to set off and getting a pep talk about the journey. There had been a lantern-painting contest not long ago.
Then back to downtown Dajia where god costumes and fireworks took over the streets and a night-market like carnival atmosphere kept things interesting. It rained a lot, and hard, so we escaped to a nearby coffeeshop several times, running out for food and photos.
I think this is Jigong, but I decided to call him Guido God. He clearly approves of the smoking.
Things didn't really get started until nightfall (and the rain also got worse). The temple filled with people and there were so many firecrackers going off that the streets were covered, in many places, with a thick layer of red paper and ash. We had to truck, in the rain, 2km out of town on foot (no taxis would take us although the road was not clogged) to get to our hotel for the 2nd night as everything downtown was booked, including our first hotel (which was just called "Dajia Hotel" and is friendly and has great wifi and cable, and despite its looks is old, but is not a love hotel at all).
Our second hotel was a love hotel. Very much so.
Another thing they love at festivals? Glitter cannons. No joke.
Lion dances are common - this one is notable for the sheer number of lions.
And every god loves an LED-bedecked palanquin.
Flags (which pilgrims carry to various temples on the 9-day route) covered in talismans (acquired at each temple) started to appear, this one at a betel nut stand.
Also, GLITTER CANNONS!
Sadly, we did not get any good photos of Matsu coming out of the temple, but I did get a video. There were so many people and I was pushed so far back with rain and umbrellas everywhere that the shots are pointlessly unclear. But as she passed to set out on her 9-day journey, people did begin to pray:
All in all, the Matsu Pilgrimage is different from other temple festivals - it attracts more people, it's not done when the parade departs, it starts officially around midnight (but all the interesting stuff around the temple starts up well before that), and things like marching bands not commonly seen in Taipei and the larger, crazier, more LED-tastic floats make it worthwhile.