Ghost Month is here! Or, as it is also commonly known, the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival (雞籠中元祭). It begins on the 1st day of the 7th lunar month (which varies from year to year), and continues for the duration of the month. This year it falls on August 19th and ends on September 16th. During this time, the doorway to hell is open and the spirits are free to roam the streets. Families will make offerings to their ancestors, and provide offerings to other ghosts as well (who may be lost, or who don’t have families giving offerings) to avoid any trouble. The festival is celebrated all over Asia in different forms. If you want to know more about the background of the festival, I recommend reading my last post, Ghost Month: Where Did It Come From? In Taiwan, the most famous celebrations take place right here in Keelung.
According to the Keelung City Government website, the celebrations go back over 160 years. They began as a means of building harmony between squabbling clans. After years of enduring crippling fights, all parties agreed to bury their dead in a common temple; they further agreed to institute an offering ritual to honor their ancestors, and to rotate responsibility for hosting the celebrations. To this day the clans still take turns putting on the elaborate ceremonies that take place throughout the month. Below I chronicle the main events of the month; although some minor events are missing (consult the government program for a full list of ceremonies).
Gates of Hell Open,
1st day of 7th lunar month (Wednesday, August 19th, 2020), 2PM
Celebrations began today, with the Gates of Hell opening ceremony. I was all geared up to make my way to Lao Da Gong Temple (老大公廟) to watch, only to find out that because of COVID-19, attendance is very restricted. Alas, I was not one of the privy few. I will, however make a trip another day to procure some photos! I don’t think that the opening of the hell-gates is, in reality, all that eventful… then again, I kind of imagine it to be like the scene in Spirited Away where all of the spirits arrive on the boats just after sunset (if you know what I’m talking about). Not to worry, as there are plenty more sights and events to behold in the coming weeks. Update: Check my Gates of Hell Close section for pictures!
Lighting of the Lanterns at the Zhupu Altar (主普壇),
12th day of the 7th lunar month (Sunday, August 30th, 2020), 6:30 PM
the lighting of the lanterns helps to literally light the way for the ghosts.
Luke and I were able to attend the lantern lighting ceremony, which was far more spectacular than I anticipated! According to the government website, after a Taoist priest has cleaned the altar, recited scripture and offered up prayers, the burner master along with a clan representative and local leaders will ‘press the button’ to turn on the lights. So that’s what I imagined in my head, a simple button-push and voila! But it turned out to be much more elaborate, celebratory and dramatic than that, complete with a light show and fireworks. It was pretty magical, and Luke and I exchanged looks of astonishment, like we’d stumbled upon one of Keelung’s hidden secrets.
Seeing this temple so lit up at night is beautiful. It’s definitely an event worth watching if you’re in the area during Ghost Festival! 10/10 would recommend. Bring insect repellent and an umbrella, as Keelung weather is often unpredictable during the summer and it did, in fact, briefly pour rain. The cicadas were going crazy!
A little history:
The Zhupu Altar was built in the 1970s, and boasts a beautiful view over the Keelung harbourfront. It used to be the case that the clans would take turns constructing a new altar for the Pudu ceremony each year, always competing with one another to make the most intricate and beautiful designs. Eventually they decided that it was not the most worthwhile use of resources, and opted instead to build a permanent altar for annual use, which is the temple you can see below. Now each year instead of making a new altar from scratch, the hosting family is responsible for its beautiful decorations.
During the other roughly ten months of the year when it’s not a center for festivities, it functions as a museum dedicated to the history of the Ghost Festival in Keelung. It’s worth paying a visit, and the temple is also beautiful when not decorated for Ghost Month. Opening hours are Tuesday – Sunday, 9AM-5PM.
You may notice that on either side of the temple there are three tall bamboo shoots. The ones on the left-hand side hold lanterns which are lit and raised at sunset for the ghosts – they will stay up through the night. The shoots on the right-hand side hold lanterns for the gods, which remain raised throughout the day. The higher the lanterns go, the more exquisite the offerings must be. As my friend and local tour guide told me, bamboo is used as it contains spiritual material which allows the messages to reach the heavenly realm. This is why they must use only the best bamboo from Nantou in Taiwan. (There is also a ceremony when the bamboo is erected that one can attend. It takes place at 9 AM on the 11th day of the lunar month, at this location.)
Dipper Lantern Parade at Qing An Temple (慶安宮),
13th day of the 7th lunar month (Monday, August 31st, 2020), 2PM
In short: A ceremony to usher in good fortune.
During the Dipper Lantern Parade, each clan displays its own beautiful lantern on a float as they weave through normal daytime traffic in downtown Keelung. There are also two groups in the procession playing traditional peikuan (北管) folk music, which makes it quite easy to tell where they are! The parade starts at 2 PM, and finds its way back to the Qing An Temple around 4, and if you find a good spot you can watch as each float stops and a team carefully unloads a lantern to be brought into the temple. The temple itself is for worship of Matzu, the Goddess of the Sea, an especially significant figure in a port town with a lively fishing industry. After the lanterns are brought into the temple, each clan prays for good fortune for the year and makes an offering. They light the lanterns, which will remain lit throughout the rest of Ghost Month.
A little history:
Dipper lanterns are commonly used in Taoist ceremonies, and yes, dipper refers to the constellations. In Chinese culture it has long been thought that the Mother of the Dipper Stars, or Dou Mu Yuan Jun (斗母元君), rules over life and death as well as the other deities of the constellation. Honoring the dipper stars through offerings can erase one’s bad karma, protect one from disaster, and prolong one’s life. The dipper lanterns are made from intricately carved wood, depicting myriad stories and scenes. According to taiwangods, each clan in Keelung has one specially commissioned by talented folk artists. They are brought out to be shown off during this festival, but are otherwise kept safely in the Qing An Temple.
14th day of the 7th lunar month (Tuesday, September 1st, 2020), 9AM
Early in the morning is one of the best times to visit the Zhupu Altar, as the views are beautiful in the morning light and it’s probably about 10 degrees cooler than it will be in two hours. If you’re up early enough on this particular day, it’s worth a visit to the temple, where a fascinating ceremony is going on. The Taoist priests make an appearance to perform a ritual prayer seeking prosperity and peace for all of the clans. They invite the spirits and make an offering. Additionally this is when the effigies of gods are set up to oversee the behavior of the ghost visitors throughout the month, to make sure that they don’t try to escape or hurt the human folk. It is a much smaller event than the rest, mostly attended by interested photographers or members of the local press, but the intimacy of it makes it that much more special to be there.
In short: This parade begins in downtown Keelung and ends at the Badouzi harbor; it’s a chance for each clan to display their water lantern before sending it off aflame in the ocean.
*This year, due to COVID-19, the government has said that there won’t be the usual array of performers alongside the floats to minimize crowd size, however the floats themselves are something to behold.
I managed to mostly miss the parade this year. It was quite different as the city did not shut down the roads and did not include performers. The parade floats drove around and I only managed to catch the tail end of their journey. Typically this parade is the height of Ghost Month celebrations, a time when the busiest downtown streets are closed and one can roam around taking in the spectacular sights. Alas, life in pandemic times is not normal. Despite that, there was still a lot of life at Keelung’s Maritime Plaza and we stopped to soak it in.
We did manage to witness the lantern send-off at Badouzi Lookout for the first time, which was incredible (we missed it last year because we didn’t realize we had to go to a different location!). It’s easy to hop in a cab, as it’s about a 15-20 minute ride away from downtown Keelung. During this part of the festivities, everyone gathers to watch as the lanterns made by the clans are set on fire and pushed out into the ocean. Hosting clans start off the ceremony with the biggest lantern, shaped like a ship. The hope is that they will attract the lost ghosts at sea to come and take part in the offerings. It is also thought that the farther out one’s lantern floats, the greater one’s good fortune. This year the seas proved to be quite rough due to a nearby typhoon – we didn’t see a single lantern make it out past the first two waves! Hopefully this doesn’t signify too much misfortune in the coming year, but at least everyone is in it together!
Pudu – A Feast of Offerings for the Spirits,
15th day of the 7th lunar month (Wednesday, September 2nd, 2020), 7 PM
In short: altars are laid out and covered with offerings for the other-worldly guests to partake. Once the ghosts are done eating, the living are allowed to help themselves to the feast’s leftovers. After the ceremony there is a performance by the legendary Zhong Kui (鍾馗), ghost vanquisher, intended to usher the last of the ghosts back to the underworld.
The 15th day of the lunar month is a full moon, the day which is chosen to perform the climactic Pudu ceremony of ghost month. Many people stay at home to do perform their own offerings, but there are also gatherings hosted at many temples. In Keelung perhaps the biggest of these takes place at the Zhupu Altar (主普壇). The ghosts are offered a variety of different foods, joss paper goods (items made out of paper that can be burned and received as gifts in the afterlife – they can be as ornate as mansions or BMWs), commonly a sacrificial pig and a deliverance ceremony performed by the Taoist priest. The ceremony is especially for the liberation of hungry ghosts. It is a great feast for the ghosts, alongside which they are provided entertainment, in the form of mechanized plays put on for the ghosts (and only the ghosts, don’t get caught watching or you’ll be followed home!).
The first thing that might catch one’s eye is the longstanding tradition of the pig carcass (this year accompanied by a goat) posed for offering, fruit in mouth, an inviting treat for the spirits. Then, looking around, it appears like you might expect a large banquet to look, long rows of tables are lined with food and gifts. They stretch out under the full moon and before a magnificently glowing temple. Looking more closely, you notice that there are incense sticks attached to each offering plate on the table. The smoke from the incense is a hope, prayer, blessing being carried up to the heavens. All around the tables are effigies of gods made out of paper, their presence a warning to the ghosts to behave. One particularly prominent figure is that of Da Shi Ye (大士爷), the guardian god of the ghosts, with his characteristic red robes, blue face and flaming eyebrows.
There is a Taoist priest standing at the altar bestowing guidance to the spirits in a mesmerizing chant. It is the ceremony of universal salvation. Eventually some of the offerings are dismantled, and the priests begin to throw the treats into the crowd, who rally and jostle to catch them. A local told me that during this part the food is multiplying to feed all the ghosts (think Naruto Shadow Clone technique or Jesus with the loaves and fishes), though its not visible to the human eye. It is festive, and fun, and easy to forget all about the ghosts milling around as you compete with your neighbors to catch the snacks, or kindly decide to gift them to one another. At the closing of the ceremony, the ghosts have finished eating and the priest signals permission for the living to partake in the feast. It is amazing to watch what happens next. Almost instantaneously the two cases of whiskey that were sitting at the head of the table in front of you are disappeared by two older gentlemen, who it seems had been strategically positioned. Trays of fish and whole cooked chickens are engulfed by large plastic bags that must’ve been brought along. Before your very eyes the ‘leftovers’ of the feast are consumed, leaving the tables gradually more sparse until they are completely naked. The crowd shrinks as merry attendees set off for home, full bags in hand.
This is when it gets quiet for a while. Most of the living guests have left, and few remain except those who are lingering for photographs, and those working to clean up, or to watch as the pig and goat carcasses are butchered for transportation. The smell of incense, of firecrackers, and pig hang in the air. If you didn’t know there was more to come you’d see no more reason to stick around. But if you wait it out there are more sights to be seen. It’s good to take a break, to sit down for a moment, or to take in the views of the Keelung harbor. Around ten the Taoist priests begin chanting once more; there is a ritual dance involving a chicken, a duck, a sword. The clan members stand before the priest with offerings of incense. In this way they signal to the ghosts that it is time to go.
On the stage behind you preparations begin for the next part of the ceremony, to start at eleven. A man is dressed as Zhong Kui, the legendary demon chaser. He is getting his face painted. As the Taoist priests finish, everyone makes their way to the next stop, prime positions staked out and cameras at the ready. Everyone waits patiently as the time approaches, as the finishing touches of the costume and makeup are made. If there are any ghosts left loitering around, they are about to be chased off. His performance is very similar to that of the Taoist priest, including the chicken, and the duck. He is more forceful, demanding and threatening that the ghosts leave. By the end, all of the ghosts should have made their departure, and everyone can go home with peace of mind, reflecting on the dancing image of Zhong Kui.
Gates of Hell Close,
1st day of 8th lunar month (Wednesday, September 16th, 2020), 5PM
I was unable to attend the closing ceremonies at Lao Da Gong Temple (老大公廟), however I did show up the day before to take some photos while festivities were still, apparently, in pretty high gear! This temple was built in remembrance of the ancestors lost in clan clashes, after the agreement to come together to celebrate Ghost Month each year. Its identity as such makes it an important site during the Festival.
Amidst a Taoist ceremony, the temple had an energetic buzz as people came and went, leaving offerings and saying prayers. In front of the temple was a performance stage set up and a play going on, with many onlookers. I myself spent a considerable amount of time there, especially given that three kind aunties took to feeding me! I had several (three… they gave me three!) bowls of sweet noodles, and they asked me all kinds of questions about myself! If I go back next year I hope I can impress them with an improvement in my Mandarin, which was pretty minimal.
It was fun to wander around the temple as there is a lot going on. On the second floor there is a furnace, where many visitors can be seen burning ghost money. The walls surrounding it are covered in incredibly beautiful stone carvings. There is also a second altar on this floor, and it’s where the aunties dish out the treats! If you go up to the top floor you can get a great view, and take in the overwhelming number of lanterns on display. It felt much like the cherry on top of my Ghost Month experience, and I would say that visiting this temple is a must.
Now that the ghosts are safely back in the underworld, we can all breathe a sigh of relief! It has been an eventful month full of honoring ancestors and assuaging lost souls, and hopefully they were all able to find what they needed.
I have learned so much from attending all of these events around Keelung. Engaging with them in an up-close and personal way has really allowed me to experience and absorb the culture in a way I hadn’t before, despite living here for two years already! I feel much more connected to my community, and like I’m becoming a real Keelunger. The kindness, generosity of spirit and hospitality of the Keelung people is so beautifully humbling, and always leaves me with a profound sense of gratitude. If you live in Taiwan, or simply come to visit, I highly recommend experiencing the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival! The local passion for it is absolutely palpable.
I hope that you found this as interesting and informative as I did! If you have any questions don’t hesitate to leave a comment or reach out. I would love to hear from you!
And now, my Bibliography:
“Da Shi Ye Cultural Festival.” Culture and Tourism Bureau of Chiayi County, Chiayi County , 5 Dec. 2017, www.tbocc.gov.tw/ActiveMsg/Active_Detail2.aspx?id=33be56a5-a324-e511-99fd-e4115b13f301.
Keelung City Government. Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival English Guide, Keelung City Cultural Bureau, 2020, www.rs-event.com.tw/2020kmsgf/download/English.pdf.
“Keelung Ghost Festival: Taiwan Events.” Lonely Planet, 30 Mar. 2020, www.lonelyplanet.com/taiwan/northern-taiwan/northeast-coast/events/keelung-ghost-festival/a/poi-fes/1437075/1327776.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan). “Thunder of the Gods.” Taiwan Today, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan), 1 Nov. 2002, taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=20,29,35,45.
“Special Events.” Special Events – Keelung City Government, www.klcg.gov.tw/en/About/SpecialEvents.
“Taiwan Religious Culture Map.” Keelung Zhongyuan Ghost Festival-Taiwan Religious Culture Map-臺灣宗教百景, www.taiwangods.com/html/landscape_en/1_0011.aspx?i=1.
“Taiwanese Culture: Discover the Keelung Ghost Festival!” KeeLung For A Walk 雨都漫步, 24 June 2020, keelung-for-a-walk.com/en/culture/1406/.
Twelli. “Keelung GHOST FESTIVAL (until September 1).” Taiwan Everything, VISION CREATIVE MARKETING & MEDIA CO., 31 July 2019, taiwaneverything.cc/2016/08/10/keelung-ghost-festival/.
Yong, Wilson. “The Prayer Offerings to the Northern Dipper Stars.” Taoist Secret, taoistsecret.com/dipper_offering.html.