Mystical welcoming of a god into his Taipei temple
Behind the warren of a late-night Taipei market, a moving ritual took place
Liaoning Street night market isn’t Taipei’s largest, not by a long shot. But one night recently, it was surely the most interesting.
The Taiwan capital’s night markets are a magnet, and not just for tourists. When the sun sets, everyone seems to head to one of the city’s night markets, of which there are about a dozen. The largest is Shinlin, in the north of the city – a mass of retail outlets and restaurants (some no more than one-man – or one-woman – stalls on the pavement). The food outlets alone exceed 500 and the clothes and trinket shops inhabit a warren of streets and alleyways in which it would be very easy to get lost.
Liaoning is altogether smaller, more manageable then Shinlin and it is almost exclusively devoted to food.
Walking along the couple of hundred metres of the street that constitutes the market, one is assaulted by colour, smell and noise and bustle. The street, cars and scooters all still tootling along in the hubbub, merges seamlessly into the pavement, which in turn merges seamlessly into each restaurant interior along the strip.
Several of the food outlets really don’t have interiors at all, just a canopy or lean-to providing all the cover deemed necessary. Seats and tables spill on to the footpath and road.
Boiling, bubbling water
Most of the outlets display what’s on offer — usually a large tray of seafood, tilted upward for easy viewing. Behind this, someone will be cooking on a hotplate or by dipping food rapidly into a cauldron of boiling, bubbling water. This frenetic activity is accompanied by a great noise of work – orders are shouted, plates banged down on hard surfaces, restaurant workers scurry to and fro under the great pressure of trying to please everyone at once. And, for the most part, they do.
It’s all a terrific spectacle but what caught my eye – or rather my ear – was what was going on around the corner: the sound of chanting, together with the rhythmic tapping of a hollow coconut-like object and the sound of bells and symbols.
Behind a restaurant and down a little lane is a very so-whatish modern, concrete and tile structure with a room, 50ft by 50ft, opening on to the street. Immediately inside what is clearly a small temple, there are two large, stainless-steel tables. Placed on each are gifts – bananas, breadfruits, mangos, apples and oranges, a duck and some pork belly and sweets. And there’s a brass vase containing a deep-purple orchid.
Dragons on a triptych
Ten women clad in long black gowns are standing around the next table, a rectangle on which there are books, a large bowl in which people have placed lighted joss-sticks and a group of statues, one larger than the others. The woman are face forward, looking at the statues and, beyond them, to another table, more like an altar, completely covered with statues. Behind these, there’s a triptych with three dragons.
The chanting women emit a sort of psalm-like atonal dirge, reading from texts and looking at the statues, the faces of which are covered with red crepe paper. As they sing, an elderly dog wanders about scratching herself, people from the market come and go, pausing occasionally to plant a joss stick, say a prayer and burn special prayer papers in a beautiful furnace in the corner.