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.
I stand there for about an hour, intrigued and mystified, when the chanting ends and one of the women comes over. It is about 9pm. You must come back at 11pm, she manages to say using a mix of English and pointing at my watch.
The God Tu Di Gong
It is later that I learn I am in a Daoist, or Taoist, temple to the god Tu Di Gong, perhaps the most ubiquitous of the gods in Taiwan. My sources are Ning and Elaine (both aged 27), who tell me things as they incinerate offerings to him. Ning has said prayers for her family, beseeching Tu Di Gong that they may have a long life. Elaine is hoping he will assist her cause for promotion in the travel agency where she works.
Tu Di Gong is the Earth Lord, the most lowly god in the Taoist pantheon and so ubiquitous in homes, shops, factories and fields that he even pops up regularly in temples dedicated to other gods. Tu Di Gong protects and guards, and is a benevolent god, very accessible to ordinary people and a good entre to the higher gods.
In Tu Di Gong’s temple by the Liaoning food market when I call back at 11pm, an event of major importance is taking place. Gone are the crepe facial wrappings: the plump little pink-faced seated god with his long beard of whispy-white hair is visible for all to see. He wears a gold crown and carries a sycee, or gold-coloured ingot in his left hand, and a sceptre, a ruyi, in his right, the symbol of power and good fortune.
Clouds of incense are belching from a pot in front of him. A priest rubs his fingers through the smoke. He moves about the statue, brushing dust from it and caressing it with his smoky hands, stroking its head and shoulders. At times, the priest emits a rasping noise, seeming to clear his throat, but it is apparent he is performing a rite.
He takes a cup of water and a pen-like stick. He dips the pen into the smoke and then into the water. And then, with precise movements and as though touching up a masterpiece, he approaches Tu Di Gong and delicately tip-touches his eyes, ears, mouth, shoulders and other parts of his body up and down. He does this several times. And after each movement, he retreats, leans back with his hands on his hips and inspects his work.
When he is satisfied that anything that could interfere with Tu Di Gong has been dealt with and that he has been properly welcomed into the temple, the little god is carried to the top altar and placed centre-stage.
A cup of tea
The women bang a great drum and a large suspended bell. It is done. Afterwards – a good two hours later – the friendly woman asks me to join her and the priest for some tea.
And we sat there for maybe 20 minutes, him babbling away, warm and friendly and clearly delighted at the oddity visiting his temple. I understood not a word; he perhaps understood no more from me than the little map of Europe with Ireland in the top-left corner.
The women resumed their chanting, as valid and mysterious a religious observance as you will find anywhere.