Monday, October 29, 2012

The Boat. The Boat. The Boat is ON FIRE

I apologize for not having written my boat burning post sooner. That day of staying up all night segued into a high-powered presentation seminar, and I didn't really have a chance to recover until late last week. Then I got sick - I'm still fighting it, so here's hoping I'm fine by tomorrow. Just a bad cold/mild flu, you know, the usual "I feel like crap" crap.

I also started on Christmas gifts - handmade, this year, mostly - and applied for my open work permit with my shiny new APRC, so I've been busy.

I've actually got to head to class now, so here are the photos, and I'll fill it in with text and put them in order later tonight, so stop back in!


Sorry I took so long to update this post - that "mild flu" I had earlier in the week, while it didn't get worse, per se, also didn't get better and knocked me out for the better part of the week, even though my courseload was relatively light. I just didn't have the energy to jump back in and finish this post.

I still feel like crap but have decided I'm just going to go ahead and get it done already. So, here's everything you ever wanted to know about the grand BURN-TACULAR finale of King Boat.

First, this whole shebang is not just for one god - although there is one major/most important deity (well, more of a spirit than a deity, he's not a 神(god), he's a 王爺 (god-like spirit people pray to for protection, generally much more fickle than gods, often can even be downright bad guys, generally based on real people who died, and whose ghosts, when prayed to, have seemed to provide good fortune). His name is Qian Sui Ye (千歲爺) or Thousand Years Grandfather, and he died, so it's told, on a boat that caught fire out to sea.

The King Boat is built mostly for him, but his ship had a crew, and when the spirit mediums converge on the beach at Donggang to bring him in from the sea, they're also bringing in the other crew members along with plenty of other local spirits, gods and ghosts. The whole lot of 'em then tour the Donggang countryside for a week, bringing their blessing for a prosperous three years to come. People set off fireworks as they go by - as people are wont to do in Taiwan. People also buy ghost money - both gold for gods and silver for ghosts, and make wishes on wooden plaques:

I blurred out my address and birthday - but there's one small mistake in my Chinese that wasn't due to purposely blurring. Can you find it?

These plaques are for personal wishes - most are for marriage, passing tests, good jobs, children, health, nice houses and cars and general happiness. Mine was a little more political, but few in Donggang would mind such a sentiment. Qian Sui Ye was a Fujianese figure, not a Taiwanese one, as far as I can tell (correct me if I'm wrong, oh experts), so I am not sure he'll be so sympathetic to my plea. Hence the "thank you". Even pirates - Qian Sui Ye was a pirate - probably appreciate a little courtesy.

However, the general wish of the populace for the festival as a whole is prosperity for the town and its rural outlying areas: specifically in the fishing trade. Specifically, the endangered, overfished local delicacy - bluefin tuna. That golden gate didn't build itself: tuna money built it.

People make donations and add ghost money to the King Boat pile on their own, before it gets stacked around the boat - this is how the temple and the hosting family recoup their costs (also, at the parade, lots of donation baskets). The NT$100 for each wish plaque doesn't hurt either.

The King Boat is built over the course of several months leading up to the festival, and housed in a building in front of the temple (to the left as you enter through the golden gate). There need to be "guards" to protect it, who wear traditional hats: these guards have drums (one was photographed above) and they cannot be women - because Chinese culture is totally sexist in many ways.

A lot of things down here are more traditional than up north. Every temple in the visiting parade has a spirit medium to represent their god, not just an idol, and every temple visited has one, too. The two mediums, while possessed, communicate as the two deities or spirits. The temple folks wear traditional hat and costume far more often. The dance-like steps at the parades are more elaborate. The whole thing is imbued with traditions mostly ignored in the Taipei area.

The day before the boat burns, they take it out of it's storage facility and put it on display in Donglong Temple's grand courtyard. You can see how crowded it gets, and beyond that you can see the golden gate of Donglong Temple.

In the same spot the week before was the firewalking ceremony - three years ago women were allowed to participate. This year they were not. No reason: it's true that often public/group firewalking is restricted to men, but that's mostly changed. The difference this year was that the host family was the Geng family (耿), who are apparently far more traditional than last year's hosting family.

You can tell who hosts by the little circular plaque on the boat - it's hard to see in this image, but if you look at that circle closely, it bears the Geng family name. 

The families chosen are large, important local families with ties to the temple (as is true with the hosting families of all major festivals: Keelung's Ghost Month festivities have a similar family lot-drawing process). The family pays for everything while the temple helps coordinate and organize, and together they put the whole thing on. The family that will host the 2015 King Boat was decided right after this King Boat finished. I don't know who it'll be, but whoever it is, they already know.

One student told me that to find out the details of these festivals, the county or town government can help but will more often than not give you the temple's phone number (which is what Donggang did to me). The temple will probably know, but if they don't, they will send you along to the patriarch (possibly matriarch) of the hosting family - so you could find yourself calling to ask about a local festival and talking to Old Mr. Chen, some random local guy who happens to represent that year's hosting family.

I think that's kinda cool - I don't see it going down that way in the USA. At least not where I'm from. "Cantine Field administrative office speaking. Mmm hmm. Yeah, we don't know what time the fireworks will start, why don't you call Linda Smith, her family donated the money for most of the fireworks, her number is..." - not likely.

Then, at midnight on the designated day, they start to throw fortune blocks to ask the god when the boat can be transported to the beach. The day chosen for this is theoretically based on the lunar calendar, but this is such a big deal for Donggang that they tend to massage it a bit so it always happens on a weekend night. It's their big night for tourism after all. 

In theory it could take forever to get the boat down there, or it could happen immediately. In practice, the boat usually starts making its way down between 1 and 2am - in 2009 it was on the late side, in 2012 it was on the early side. It crosses the bridge on the main road to the beach at about 2am, generally. Grab a seat - a small foldable camping chair is a GREAT idea and you should definitely bring one - and wait for the boat to come by. A small parade of dragon dancers, lion dancers and a performer in full makeup in a sedan chair representing the god generally precede it.

Then, make your way to the beach. It's worth it to get as close to the boat as possible - if you can't, though, don't fret (and if you just can't handle the crowd and want to go off somewhere to rest, you'll be able to get back to the boat, don't worry - it just won't be immediately). Hanging around by the front or back of the piles of ghost money is your best bet. Once they start piling those around the boat more room opens up and you can worm your way closer. DO NOT climb or sit on the ghost money - locals will do it, but it is considered extremely rude.

If you are going with friends, HOLD HANDS until you are on the beach. The crowd is massive and there's a bottleneck - you WILL get separated otherwise. We did.

Don't fret that masses of people made it there before you - this thing burns big, and you'll get a good view. Trust me.

Idols in LED-covered sedan chairs then tend to block the entrance to the beach. You can get around them, but it's best to just stay on the beach. Try not to have to go to the bathroom. If you do, try asking around on the road to the beach for a toilet. Go before you hit the beach - trust me.

What happens then is that some temple officials bring some possessed rods (they are possessed, as are the rods, from what I understood) to the boat - I couldn't figure out what they were for, but there's a lot of grunting and screaming as they're hauled, arms shaking as though they're trying to hold it with an angry spirit inside - up to the boat. I suspect they are the rods that hold the three masts in place, but am not sure.

Then, when the fortune blocks give the go-ahead, ghost money is piled around the boat in a wave formation - this is done by passing bags and piles of it to the boat to be set up by temple officials. 

Although women are generally allowed to touch ghost money, they're not supposed to if they're menstruating (ah, sexism in traditional cultures). The Geng family decided no women should touch the money at all, as they'd have no way of knowing who was menstruating and who wasn't. I don't recall this being a rule last time, or maybe I just didn't pick up on it.

The gods gave them very little time to get the money in place, so all the men on the beach were asked to help (NO DIRTY WOMENZ!) For anyone who thinks Taiwanese men are weaklings (racism - sigh), they hauled huge garbage bags of paper and wood and giant stacks of money to the boat for at least a few hours, with little to no break. I wouldn't say that's the sign of a weakling. 

In the rush, lots of it was dropped - here you can see the men then picking it up to send over to the boat.

During and after that, they announce how much was given to the gods (it's always a "GREAT YEAR!" but apparently this year really was great - what with the economy and overfishing of bluefin tuna, I guess the people of Donggang needed all the help they could get. The announcements are all in Taiwanese - they don't deign to change to Mandarin for foreigners (which includes people from Taipei)  but are general welcome messages, accounts of how much was donated, that sort of thing.

Then, the god gives the go-ahead at about 4:30 in the morning, maybe 5, and there's a ceremony on the boat. A suona (that reedy oboe-like instrument that large groups of old people play during temple parades) is played and the life-size anchors on either end of the boat are lifted, to represent Qian Sui Ye and the other gods returning to the sea - but this time with their bounty of ghost money to ensure that they'll be good to the locals for the next three years.

A little while after that, fireworks are draped all around the money (not on the boat itself as far as I could tell) and lit with blowtorches.

Three years ago temple guys kept us well away from the popping firecrackers - the Geng family didn't. Super-traditional - our only defense was our own sense of caution. This proved to be enough - nobody wants to be too close to thousands of firecrackers going off and setting a ten-foot-high mount of money and offerings aflame.

In theory this could start anytime - in practice, it always happens between 5 and 5:30am, and the main part of the burning happens just at sunrise. It's quite poetic, really, the boat going up in flames as the sun tilts its head above the horizon, as Qian Sui Ye symbolically sails back out to sea on his burning vessel.

Most people leave not long after - I try to stay until all three masts have fallen. This year it took longer and we stayed until about 7am, when all but one mast had collapsed. The crowd thins as the skies get lighter, generally.

I took tons of photos with different filters:

It really is something of a transformative experience - you get super tired, jostled by people, sweaty and sandy, totally ready to collapse, and then as morning comes you're blinded by a great ball of fire, representing the amalgamated folk beliefs of an entire region, all their hopes, all their worries for the coming year, sent off on a fiery sea - it's like a kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve, with the promise of new chances and new discoveries. It's something right in front of your face that is connected, cycle after cycle, through the depths of history.

And some other poetic crap.

It's more fun to watch things burn, so let's do that:

The boat itself is a real boat, as in, I do believe it could set sail (it's obviously not a modern design, however). It's built out of a fragrant wood - the whole beach smells of sweet, smoky wood as it burns - but I don't know which kind.

Generally speaking, it continues all through the day and well into the next night, if not the second day after that.

This is the "I Love Taiwan" guy. You know who I mean.

Afterwards, we stumbled back to our hotel, took showers and slept until about 2pm. Then we got up, washed up again briefly, and went out to eat (there was an excellent Vietnamese place near our hotel with nourishing food). We felt almost jetlagged, and very lazily wandered Donggang until the sun set again.

I have said before and maintain my belief: Taiwan may have many ugly buildings, but Taiwan is not ugly. Plenty of its architecture is interesting, lovely, quirky, attractive, worth a second look. Donggang, being a fairly wealthy little town with a compact town center (be prepared to walk a lot, but things aren't that far apart), has a fair number of these interesting little gems:

And a large-breasted cow:

She's advertising milk powder.

We returned to Donglong Temple at dusk:

It was still active - we were tired, so we rested a bit, didn't really exert ourselves too much.

At Donglong Temple, we picked up some lucky rice - limit of 6 per person. You actually empty these into your regular rice, cook them and eat them with dinner to ingest the good luck.

They're emblazoned with good luck sayings and the name of Qian Sui Ye.

We also saw this fat dog.

Anyone who says Taiwa is straight-up ugly hasn't looked closely enough.

Then we headed back to the beach to see the fire blaze on.

We ran into a spirit medium for Ji Gong (濟公) who was not possessed: he was taking photos of the blaze, in fact.

He took a liking to us, and let us wear his costume!


I make a better Ji Gong than Brendan. I think. I've got the eccentricity and gregariousness to pull it off.

Then we walked slowly to Donutes, Donggang's only Taipei-style coffeeshop (it's like an Ikari mixed with a Cafe 85 plus gelato). They're all over Taiwan, just not Taipei, and offer an indoor seating space - the only coffee/cake shop in Donggang to do that.

Some helpful info:

Transport: Kaohsiung Bus Company (高雄客運) from Kaohsiung Main Station (from the only MRT exit, turn left and it's down the side road on the left. Buses every 20 minutes, takes about 1 hour. Last bus at 10:30pm or so.

Bus drops you off near Guangfu Road in Donggang - get off the bus, walk straight ahead until the Cafe 85 and then turn right. That's Zhongshan, the main thoroughfare of Donggang. If you hadn't turned you'd eventually have come upon Donglong Temple on your left.

Many hotels partner with a van service that can pick you up at the door of your hotel once an hour (when in that hour depends on the hotel) to head back to Kaohsiung - inquire about this and you won't have to walk to the bus stop (where you got dropped off, across the street by the 7-11).

A taxi from Kaohsiung Airport will cost about NT$700. The buses do stop at the airport.

Hotels: Always book in advance because you're not going to get a room that night if you show up without a reservation.

Donggang doesn't have many downtown hotels - we stayed at the Dai Que Hotel (代卻大旅社) which is serviceable and clean, but very, very basic. NT$700/night for a double, $1200-$1500 for a 4-person room (2 double beds). TV, air conditioning, drinking water, toiletries, private bathroom included but it's NOT fancy. Bring your own towel. Trust me. Run by a gaggle of obasans - one will break your knuckles, one has teeth destroyed by betel nut and one dresses like a hooker despite being in her 60s and will talk your ear off in Taiwanese (she's my favorite). It's central - close to the beach, harbor and temple.

Dapeng Bay Hotel (大鵬灣大飯店) - nicer, but far more expensive option on Zhongshan Road.

Near Dai Que Hotel in the lanes around Bo'ai street we came across a few more homestays that I can't find information for.

Food and Coffee: You can eat at the night-market like area around the temple or the beach, but my recommendation if you are not a vegetarian is to go to Huaqiao Harbor, which will be in all the guidebooks. My top pick restaurant is Yu Nong (魚農), the first restaurant on the right after the bathrooms once past the main harbor gate. The "you buy we cook" places before the gate are also good.  Try the fried tuna belly, the fish balls, the other local specialty - cherry blossom shrimp rice (櫻花炒飯). Or keep going past the first clutch of restaurants to the BBQ guy with a truck - get the oysters (NT$100 a portion), the handmade tempura sticks, or the snails.

Donutes, Donggang's only real coffeeshop, is at the far end of Zhongshan Road, just south of Bo'ai Street (about as far from the bus stop/Donglong Temple as you can get, but in Donggang that's not very far), near the bridge at the other end of town. 24-hours a day and has all the caffeine options a hardened Taipei'ite will need to weather a few days outside the city. It's very close to Dai Que Hotel, another bonus.

What to bring:

- insect repellent
- money (plenty of ATMs in Donggang, none by the beach)
- a small folding chair that you can easily carry
- a small towel to wipe off sweat
- water - try to drink it slowly so you never have to pee, because, uh, good luck with that if you do
- wet wipes (trust me - you'll feel so grungy, these will be so welcome)
- either some alcohol if you want to daze around pleasantly buzzed, or some Red Bull if you want to stay awake
- extra camera batteries
- Panadol/ibuprofen/Tiger Balm (the crowd gives some people headaches or you might get stuck next to Mr. Stinky)
- a few snacks
- sandals you can stand in for awhile (you won't want to get sand in trainers or boots)
- good walking shoes (Donggang doesn't have buses, but it's very compact. You'll walk a lot).

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