Last month, a very special event happened in my street: my neighbor, the god San Wang Ye (三王爺), decided to travel back home for his birthday!
The god San Wang Ye is originally from Tainan, a city around 300km south of Taipei, and he had arrived in Taipei a long time ago, so long ago that I don't remember!
I had been wondering for a long time what the temple in my street was all about: this small, unassuming, but well taken care of temple, that you can hardly see by day, but is always shining and often holds events at night. Some lanterns are usually hanging, a vague reminder that a god lives there. Day after day, I had made up stories of mafia and gangsters, of witches and weird spirits, stories of everything that could happen in this mysterious temple.
But I was wrong. When I met the people who take care of 三王爺 (San Wang Ye), I could immediately see that this god is a good god as he protects people around in exchange of some attention, and doesn’t ask much, only to go back and see his family once a year. I was also told by the disciples that he likes to be talked to. I could see that he smokes cigarettes, not only incense; he also likes to drink milk tea, and dresses rather conservative. He has a good relationship to its neighbors, too: in front of his temple, a very old japanese house, dimly lit, is shelter to an old man who lives in peace with the God. When there is a ceremony, it is probably the only time a year he opens his house, in a mark of recognition.
The ceremony for departure of the god lasts 2 days. On Saturday everyone travels to Tainan, spends there the evening celebrating, eating, and they all go back on Sunday. 三王爺 (San Wang Ye) has about 10.000 followers: among them, around 400 made the trip to Tainan, this is already quite impressive. More people were to join in Tainan, where he is popular.
Having heard about the event the night before, and together with a friend, we decided to go and attend the departure ceremony. From 4.30am to 7.00am, the main followers prepare the Gods, and double check the organization. The gods are brought out; it seems like the main God has invited some fellows from his family to join. Dancers and fighters repeat their moves, the encense is burning, the drums start to play. Waking up at night, entering this somehow different world, is a strange feeling. At this time, people start to leave a nearby disco, adding to the feeling; they watch incredulously the world of Gods as alcohol seems to make all things look plausible to them. They seem to be satisfied and they resume their path in the wide night.
Then, suddenly, at dusk, the ceremony starts. The ceremony master is a strong robust lady who directs the participants. She sets a fire on the road, then waits for the long queue of dignitaries to come and bend before it, then jump above the fire, and turn back normal again. During the procession most people seem possessed, it is an impressive demonstration. The lady-ceremony master also beats herself with some kind of axe. The drums are playing heavily, there are firecrackers and smoke everywhere. After everyone has come, it is the God’s turn to cross the fire, and I could almost see him smile, delighted to leave soon for the South, and to have so many friends.
There is a market nearby, a typical old place that will probably be destroyed soon, God knows why. It has been deemed too old by the municipality, and this is only one step in the fight that opposes the day forces such as business and money, to the Gods of the night and the ancient culture of Taipei. Alas, I think I know who’s gonna win this one…
First published on Litanies.net.
Click here to see the complete set of photos.
All photos by B. Girardot
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|Written by : Benoît Girardot
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