Saturday, August 06, 2005

Ghost Month

The seventh month of the lunar calendar is traditionally the Month of Ghosts.
It is believed that the Gates of Hell open on the first day, and ghosts (also referred to as 好兄弟, or the 'good brothers') of all shapes and sizes are able to leave hell and enter the world of the living. For one month, they are able to roam the earth freely, do as they wish, and go as they will. Because the festival falls at the middle of the year, it is also called Mid-summer Festival 中元祭.

The city of Keelung 基隆 (or 雞籠, 'Bird Cage'), one hour north of Taipei, is THE place to be for the Ghost Festival. Keelung Ghost Festival Festivities begin at midnight, at the "Old VenerableTemple 老大公廟, where a symbolic metal gate (龕門 Kain-man, lower level gate; or Gate of Hell) is opened with a key by the ceremonial master. Lanterns around each and every temple around Taiwan are lit at night. With the little beams of light in the dark, hungry and lonely ghosts are able to find their ways to places of congregation and find shelter. Around ports and harbours, 'water lanterns' are releashed to guide drowned souls to dry land, and to safety.

And because of this, people have historically been wary of this month. Birth rates dramatically decline, as couples try to avoid giving birth in this 'bad' month. People try to avoid making long trip if not necessary. Wedding planners slash their prizes by more than half, in order to attract business, since traditionally getting married in the seventh month is a bad omen. Elaborate worship festivals are organised on the first, fifteenth and last day of the month. Every temple big and small, and every household would lay table-fuls of dishes, fruits, snacks, drinks, spirits and rice in front of their doors. Incense sticks and cigarettes and paper money are burnt. Even papers models of houses, Mercedes Benzs, branded clothes, credit cards, and everything one can think of that is necessary in everyday life are burnt. All these ceremonies are performed in the hope that once the ghosts have eaten, smoked, drunken, played, and been given money (paper money) they will leave the household in peace. Whether this is true or not, one thing is sure: this month is always good for business!

The mentioning of ghosts is able to scare anyone, even thouse who do not believe. Watch TV late at night, and various channels are filled with programmes about the supernatural and 'unexplained'. Video recordings, voice tapes, unexplained phenomenon, and actual sightings of ghosts... just watching those programmes will really send shivers up your spines. Especially near places where many deadly accidents have occured sightings and encounters often take place. Buddhist and doaist masters were on the scene to verify the stories, and give further explaination.

When China Airlines mysteriously disintegrated in mid-air a few years ago off the coast of Penghu archipelago, relatives received voice messages from loved ones seven days after the disaster. It is believed that the dead usually return seven days after death to bid farewell to loved ones. The messages were broadcast live on TV, and consisted of weak weeping voices begging for mercy. In one recording, the deceased repeatedly said how cold it was, and in the background watery sounds could be heard... Or, about ten years ago, a night cruise on the Sun-Moon Lake resort during the Ghost Month turned into a tragedy as the boat capsized. In total around 60 lives were lost. Despite the natural beauty, the lake is a 'favourite' spot to commit suicide, and as a result many 'innocent souls' are said to be roaming beneath the water. Here, it is said that when ones dies innocently, the ghost will stay at the scene and try to find another soul to 'take its place'. The so-called 'substitute ghost' 替代鬼. Before the boat actually overturned, the captain felt violent shaking, even though the night was clear and no tremors were recorded. One eyewitness on shore who had the ability to see 'the other world' reportedly saw dozens upon dozens of hands lift the boat from underneath.....

Believe it or not, up to you...but as they say here,

If (you) normally do not do things that makes the heart feel guilt,
(you) Are not afraid of the ghost knocking on the door at midnight.
ceremonial Gate of Hell is opened! (Formosa News TV) Posted by Picasa
the ceremonial Gate of Hell (right) is about to be opened (Formosa News TV) Posted by Picasa
despite the stormy weather, the 'lightening up the lantern' ceremony continues (TVBSNews) Posted by Picasa
Lao Da Gong Temple, dedicated to 'homeless' ghosts (TVBS NEWS)Posted by Picasa
Keelung Ghost Festival opening ceremony  (TVBSNews) Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 05, 2005

Typhoon Matsa

It was less than two weeks ago that Typhoon Haitung swept across central Taiwan. Yesterday, Typhoon Matsa 'reported in for duty', and unleashed amazing amounts of rain and wind. This medium-sized storm is around 500km wide, and blowing up to gale force 13 winds. (Imagine a large-size typhoon!) Its current location is around 200km north of Taipei, so the northern part of the country is completely within its 'storm circle'. For two days, it has been pouring and blowing ceaselessly. Normally typhoons travel quickly in one direction, but Matsa seems unable to make up his/her mind, and has been zig-zagging along the northern coast. At 14km/hr, it's moving in a north-easternly direction, and is projected to hit Shanghai by tomorrow.

Yesterday, just hours before its estimated arrival, I braved rain and wind and travelled to Shinchu 新竹. About one hundred kilometers south of Taipei is the city most well-known as Taiwan's 'Sillicon Valley', a place accredited to powering the success of the American IT industry( The area around the city is also well known for its mountain beauty, and rich Hakka culture and buildings. Though it was constantly raining, I did catch a glimpse of the natural beauty.

On TV later that day, I learned the area I visited just hours before became cut off from the outside world. Last night, I tried to go out into the garden to clear leaves clogging up the drain. The moment I stepped outside, I was soaked. Such strong winds I've never experienced before. Couldn't stand still and had to literally crawl and cling onto the surrounding objects to get back to safety. Later I learned that winds were blowing up to 200km/hr. Part of our roof has been flipped open, and flapped all throughout the night, making frightening noises as if someone were trying to break in. I lay in bed, clutching my buddha necklace, and hoped the wicked typhoon will quickly go away.

As always, much havoc and choaos is reported throughout the country. In the north, central and east of the country people are on the look out for flooding and wanton destruction. Soon, the south will also bear the brunt of the typhoon as it leaves and sweeps storm clouds behind it. Rain and mudslides broke many of the roads leading into the mountains. Rivers swelled again and broke their banks, as giant boulders and brown muddied water rushed down from ahigh along many of Taiwan's short and shallow streams.

Another typhoon...much destruction and fright, and not long since the previous . What does the heavens have against this island and its people? Why unleash so much of nature's fury and ugliness here, and so often? In a couple of days, many families will again pick up the pieces left over from Matsa's deadly storm-skirt...many will rebuild their broken homes and resow their tarnished crops and ruined livestocks. For how long though? Deep in their hearts, they will pray to the heavens and hope that the heavens may have mercy.

As the Matsa wept and sighed above Taiwan, the gates of Hell opened officially this morning at midnight . It's the first day of the seventh month of the Lunar calendar, or the infamous Ghost Month 鬼月.
a stream, equally fast-flowing and dangerous Posted by Picasa
rock-filled raging river on a typhoon day Posted by Picasa
misty Posted by Picasa
the diesel express I took to go up the mountains in Neiwan Posted by Picasa
clouded mountains: another kind of sight Posted by Picasa
grey typhoon day Posted by Picasa
rain and wind and mountains Posted by Picasa
gloomy day, but still beautiful in the mountains near Shinchu Posted by Picasa
GIANT waves (Much TV) Posted by Picasa
Broken mountain trail (Much TV) Posted by Picasa
Typhoon night, but the Gates of Hell still open. While Karaoke parlours boom with business as people have nowhere to go Posted by Picasa
The situation all over the country, reporters standing in those and many more places (San Lih News)  Posted by Picasa
Dams releashing excess water (UBN News) Posted by Picasa
broken roads (TVBS News) Posted by Picasa
construction framework blown off (Formosa TV News) Posted by Picasa
Rolling rivers (ETTV News) Posted by Picasa
Stormy path (CTI News) Posted by Picasa

Typhoon Matsa: satellite map from US Joint Typhoon Warning Centre Posted by Picasa

Kenting National Park

The southern-most tip of the island was the first national park ever created. The range of mountain fauna and flora, as well as pristine beaches surrounded by rich marine life and corals is indeed a place worth a visit and protecting. In such places, one is reminded why this island is known as Formosa.

The destructive path of Typhoon Haitung the previous week had lodged mountains upon mountains of float wood and other rubbish on some of the beaches. Some of the sea in the area turned brown from the usual transparent blue. In the fiercest storm, the only bridge linking the peninsular leading into the national park was washed away. Locals and many tourists were stuck with limited water and food for days. Hotel room prices were slashed in half, and money from tourism by much more. Passing by the rubble and destruction, I tried to imagine that only days ago, a beautiful clear day like today seemed far far away.

In Kenting 墾丁, I visited the National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium 國立海洋生物館. With the pictures, I hope you can see a bit of what I saw when I snorkeled on Green Island. The treasures of the sea, all its life, colours and mysteries!

Later in the day, my cousins and I braved giant waves, devoured countless amounts of salty sea water and played the afternoon away on the soft-sanded Nanwan beach.

Behind the tree-topped hills, two cone shaped cement blocks towered into the air, looking like grim tombstones stuck on the hillside...
Taiwan's No. 3 nuclear power plant.

Nature and man are never far from one another.
beach against backdrop of nuclear power plant Posted by Picasa
giant waves Posted by Picasa