Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sauntering Around Beigang (

In many ways, Beigang is a typical Taiwanese town. It functions as a marketplace and religious center for the surrounding countryside; there are factories, auto-repair businesses and clinics. However, in terms of jobs and excitement, there is not enough here to stop young people from relocating to Taiwan's major cities. As a result the town's population (currently 42,000) has been shrinking and aging since the early 1980s.

If the prospect of living in Beigang excites few people, spending half a day in the town is a popular thing to do, especially around the time of Mazu's birthday (the 23rd day of the third lunar month; in 2014 it falls on April 22).

Beigang's best-known place of worship is Chaotian Temple. This folk shrine, founded in 1694, is one of the five most important in Taiwan devoted to the worship of Mazu, the sea goddess who has long been the island's most popular deity. Until the 1980s, Chaotian Temple was a stopover on the annual nine-day, 300-kilometer pilgrimage that honors Mazu before her birthday. But since a dispute between Chaotian Temple and Dajia Jenn Lann Temple - the starting point and organizer of the pilgrimage - the former has played no role in what is now officially called the Taichung International Mazu Festival.
Chaotian Temple is sacred in the eyes of its supporters, but no place for quiet contemplation. The faithful burn so much incense inside, and let off so many firecrackers in the grounds, that you may well cut your visit short without seeing the temple's oddest curiosity: An old iron nail embedded in a granite step...

The entire article can be read here. The photo shows Shunfenger (one of Mazu's retainers) inside Chaotian Temple.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival (Travel in Taiwan)

These days, Zuoying is a Kaohsiung suburb best known for Lotus Pond and the colorful temples that surround this pretty body of water. But back in the 17th century, just after Koxinga expelled the Dutch East India Company from Taiwan, it was the military and administrative headquarters of Wannian County and thus a place of considerable importance. Today the toponym lives on in the annual Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival. 

There are times when people on this island put their smartphones down and their 21st-century concerns and ambitions aside, and a much older Taiwan bursts into the foreground. The final day of the Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival was one such occasion. 

My friends and I were positioned in front of Zuoying's Cheng Huang Temple, enjoying a form of entertainment that's hardly changed in hundreds of years. Lion dancers, accompanied by drum-beating and gong-thumping musicians, teased children, snapped their jaws shut inches from spectators' faces, and threw candies into the crowd. But the professional and amateur zhentou troupes who perform these and other stunts aren't slavish in their adherence to tradition. Modern twists on old forms include Techno San Taizi or Techno Prince performances. Another example followed the lion dancers. Five young men dressed to resemble the key characters of Journey To The West danced disco-style to pop music. Even if you've never heard of this classic Chinese novel, you may well know the story (based on the adventures of a seventh-century Chinese monk who traveled to India to study Buddhist scriptures) because it inspired a Japanese TV series shown throughout the English-speaking world under the title Monkey. 

A few minutes later we turned our attention to the real star of the show – the Great Wannian Fire Lion. This effigy, cute yet dignified, is far larger than a real lion. But for a yellow underbelly, it was covered with red tinsel “fur.” Red, of course, is an auspicious color in Chinese culture. 

The lion is set ablaze at the very end of the festival so as to carry the wishes of the faithful up to heaven. Therefore it's designed to burn well. There's a very real risk of premature destruction, however, because thousands of firecrackers are detonated beneath and around it as it parades through Zuoying's streets prior to its sacrifice. I wasn't surprised to see a man following with a small tank of water and a hand-held sprayer, ready to put out any fires...

The complete article appears in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan, a magazine sponsored by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


With my permission, MataTaiwan has republished my recent article on efforts to revive the language of the Sirayan lowland aboriginal tribe on their website. MataTaiwan is an indigenous-themed website mostly in Chinese, and I'm very glad they want to bring my article to more readers.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Two of my articles translated into French

Taiwan aujourd'hui, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' French-language color monthly, translated two of my articles and published them in their September and November editions. The first piece, Le saumon formosan sur le fil, is about Taiwan's endangered Formosan landlocked salmon; the original English-language version is here. The second, Le Reveil du Siraya, hasn't yet appeared on the magazine's website.