Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Taiwan 101

There are many different calendars in the world. Different cultures and religions each have their own, preferred watershed dates from which to start reckoning the beginning of time. For most Christians it's 2012, for most Muslims it's 1433, for Jews it's 5772, it's 1132 for Nepalis, 1390 for Persian Muslims and 2004 for Copts and Ethiopians. As you can see there's plenty of diversity out there and the Republic of China doesn't want to feel outdone, so they count their years from the demise of imperial China and the foundation of the Republic in 1911. This year is 101. Although the official year is based upon the Western, Gregorian, calendar, for celebrations and festivals it is still the traditional Chinese calendar that rules the roost. And that is why I have stayed in Taiwan so long.

A dragon dance, but with a difference, in Maoli. The dragons head is garlanded with firecrackers and during the dance  people throw more firecrackers at the dragon. It's very loud and smoky.

This year Chinese new year came early and I thought it would be a great shame to miss the festivities in what is perhaps the best place to experience them in the world. For new year itself I was invited by my friend Steven to have dinner with him and his family. New year's eve is a rather sedate affair, with families gathering together for a meal. It's an opportunity for renewing family bonds and is especially important for family members who live far apart. In mainland China this results in the largest annual migration in the world (3.2 billion individual passenger trips according to The China Post). Taiwan's population, luckily, is far smaller and the distances more manageable so the inevitable chaos of the mainland is avoided. Dinner was in a large banquet hall where individual families were each sat at round tables with Lazy Susans in the middle. Chinese food is best eaten in groups where you are free to taste at will from the multitude of courses that are brought before you. And so it was here, with over a dozen different dishes. Though I couldn't eat the traditional fish (the word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for wealth and so is always found on the new year's menu) but I did try the shark fin soup. I did have some ethical qualms about eating it but seeing as it was already prepared and in front of me I decided that I should at least taste what all the fuss is about. Disappointingly the shark fin itself is totally bland and tasteless, which makes the decimation of shark populations even sadder as they are being killed at alarming rates so that a small part of their bodies may be used for food of questionable medical benefit that doesn't even taste good. The inertia of tradition is one that is hard to fight against.

But Chinese new year's eve and day are relatively quiet, family occasions that do not really lend themselves to outsider participation; just like Christmas in the West. But just as we have Hogmanay, the external revelry that makes up for the family angst of Christmas, the Chinese have the Lantern Festival two weeks after their new year. The festival officially ends the Chinese new year celebrations. Many regions have their own variations on the Lantern Festival and even within Taiwan there is quite a gamut, from the aesthetically uplifting (in both senses of the word) to the downright suicidal. I decided to experience as many of them as I could given that I have one body and can only be in one place at any given time.

The most famous of the Lantern Festival incarnations is the one in Pingxi, in the hills not far from Taipei. It also has the added bonus of actually involving lanterns. People flock to the bijou town to set off sky lanterns: balloons made of waxed paper containing a wad of paper (usually in the form of spirit money) soaked in viscous oil. These wads are lit, filling the balloons with hot air and sending them up into the sky. For the Lantern Festival people will also write their wishes for the coming year on them in the hope that they will come true. Sky lanterns are pretty at any time, but when set off at night and in great numbers the spectacle has a balletic quality to it as the glowing globes ascend gently and soundlessly into the darkness.

About 100 sky lanterns being released simultaneously in Pingxi.

The sky lanterns of Pingxi are a great place to take small kids, who can doodle on the heaven-bound missives, play with fire (on a small scale) and then aww in wonder at the prettiness. Yanshui, on the other hand, is no place for little children. Or the elderly. Or people with heart problems; those afraid of fire, loud noises, uncontrollable crowds or people who get fits from bright flashing lights. And people who are highly flammable should definitely steer well clear! In the hierarchy of crazy and potentially dangerous mass events open to all the Yanshui Fireworks Festival must rank quite highly.

About to rob a bank? no, just getting properly kitted out with protective gear for the Yanshui Fireworks Festival.

The festival has its origins in the supplication of a god to free the town of a cholera epidemic over a century ago (apparently gods don't listen to you unless you make a lot of noise and preferably blow stuff up). The religious aspect is lost on most people today, although various statues of deities are paraded around in wheeled carts and placed in front of so-called "beehive" fireworks, which are basically giant racks that stretch across the town's streets and contain thousands upon thousands of little rockets that are set off in one enormous volley that can last several minutes. The "fun" of the festival consists of trying to get as close as possible to the aforementioned rockets and seeing how many times you can get hit. Great throngs of people cluster round, jumping up and down (not that it helps any if you want to dodge the rockets), with the front rows standing only a metre or two from the projectiles as they whizz deafeningly through the air in explosive arcs. Getting hit isn't a matter of if, but of how many. And the little bleeders certainly sting. Of course people are not completely reckless and go suitably prepared. In this case preparation usually consists of a full-face motorcycle helmet, thick jacket, gloves and a towel wrapped around the neck to prevent any stray missiles going down your back and exploding somewhere unpleasant (although I hadn't invested in a pair earplugs are also worth bringing along). Certainly not something that would be approved by our domestic Health and Safety Executive.

People huddling round one of the smaller beehive fireworks before it's set alight. And honestly, that's how close people would get to the fireworks as they would fly from the racks.

After getting into the thick of the melee on several occasions I quickly became blase about rockets whizzing past my head and explosions of all manner. People would throw garlands of fireworks at crowds of people and I would walk blithely on even as firework shrapnel bounced of my legs and body. I managed to lull myself into a false sense of security and managed to find myself in the front row at the lighting of one of the largest beehive complexes of the night. I quickly realised my error when a couple of rockets zinged off my visor in the first few seconds (along with a couple that hit my shins) and decided that running away was the better part of valour making a tactical retreat to the back of the crowd, accompanied by another few rockets to my back, one of which burnt a small hole in my jumper. If nothing else it certainly got the adrenaline flowing! Apart from the minor bruises the greatest damage done by the fireworks was to dampen my enthusiasm for seeing fireworks ever again.Nothing will ever come close to the excitement, cacophony, scale, confusion, euphoria, and general mayhem of Yanshui and Guy Fawkes Night will be nothing more than a damp squib from now on.

If you want to know what being in the middle of a war zone feels like then Yanshui's fireworks festival is a good primer. Here people are crowding round a beehive fireworks ensemble as it sends rockets out in all directions.

Tired, and a little bit hurt, Steve and I made our way to the bus station where we caught a late coach back to Taipei where I had the day to pack and sort myself out before catching the late bus to the airport for my flight to Manila. Of course that didn't go according to plan either, but that's another story...

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