I remember turning on the television one January morning in 1997 to find, instead of the usual program, a live news broadcast from the tarmac of CKS international airport. Hitting the channel button showed all three channels had the same broadcast. Behind the excited news reporter was a plane, just landed, and groups of dignitaries, monks, dancers, and musicians churning out a cacophony with their drums, horns, and gongs. What was happening? Who was visiting? Obviously someone very important to get this kind of red carpet treatment, but who would dare visit Taiwan and provoke the ire of Beijing? It did turn out to be an important figure -- none other than an 800-year-old wooden statue from China of the Goddess Matsu, Protector of Seafarers.
Legend says that Matsu lived on Meizhou Island, in Fujian province, during the tenth century. One day her father and two brothers were caught in a typhoon while fishing. She was asleep at this time but left her body to travel to them. She took her two brothers in her hands and her father in her teeth. Meanwhile, back at home the mother induced the sleeping girl to talk, and in opening her mouth lost her father. The girl died when she was twenty, and a Matsu cult spread along the southern coast and into South-east Asia, evolving from the patron saint of fishermen and sailors to an all-purpose goddess.
Temples in Taiwan have Matsu statues that are several hundred years old but the Meizhou Matsu is the oldest and most sacred. It went on a hundred-day tour of Taiwan, drawing millions of followers and a fortune in donations. But of course any exchange between Taiwan and the mainland has political overtones, and this goodwill gesture from Beijing was no exception. The statue was escorted by Chinese politicians who stressed how Matsu was a symbol of cross-straits unity and unification. It was also good business. Worshippers gave generously, not deterred by the accusations that it was a fake -- indeed the statue was in unbelievably good condition for its age, perhaps a sign of its power!
A few years later, when I'd gotten used to the noise of the local Matsu temple and no longer cursed it from between pillow earmuffs on Sunday mornings, I actually went looking for more of the same, and joined a Matsu procession winding its way around central Taiwan. From Chiayi, my Taiwanese friend Maria and I drove northwest along a road lined with scantily-clad betel nut girls that led us into a messy semi-rural landscape of rice fields, poultry and pig farms, vegetable plots, and factories. It was early in the morning, well, too early for me anyway, and a sharp reminder to myself that I'd done the right thing in giving up on the hope of making a living from photography. As I explained to Maria we were up early because the early bird gets the best pictures: the lovely warm tones of morning, the clear skies, and the sun's low angle to bring out the relief. My words had a hollow ring to them because the heavens hadn't complied -- it was the same damn suffocating weather we'd had for months, the same overcast sky sweating grease that gave the landscape a dull flat sheen which is the photographic kiss of death.
Every spring a procession of Matsu devotees travels about 300 kilometres through central Taiwan on an eight-day pilgrimage that starts and finishes in the town of Tachia near Taichung, goes down to Hsingang near Chiayi then turns around and heads back to Tachia. The newspaper's times for the route I'd read were wrong and when we arrived in Hsingang the pilgrimage was long gone, having started on its homeward leg ten hours before. Maria asked for directions but nobody knew the exact route. With the pilgrimage zigzagging its way through obscure back roads we were going to have problems finding it. We soon realized our fears were unwarranted when we found a massive tidal mark of garbage lining the road leading out of town -- plastic cups, containers, and sheets of unburnt ghost money -- which continued into the countryside, and it was just a case of following the trash. We slowed down at intersections to see what road had the most trash.
"Ghost money -- this way, turn right," I instructed.
"You should be grateful that Taiwanese are so messy -- otherwise we would be stopping all the time."
"A holy sign from above!"
"Don't say that!" Maria cautioned me. She was in her own words "not superstitious" but didn't think it wise to tempt fate.
Five, ten, twenty kilometres! On we went following kilometre after kilometre of religious debris, until the trash petered out to a few pieces of ghost money every twenty metres or so, then after another ten kilometres dried up. We had gone too far, somehow had shot past the pilgrims by mistakenly following the old trail the procession had used travelling south, and we realized that they must be using a slightly different route to go north.
"I knew that was too clean for Taiwanese," I quipped.
We doubled back and rejoined the fresh trail of ghost money, then took a short cut to a small village awaiting Matsu's arrival. Residents, standing outside their homes next to tables with food offerings and incense, piles of fireworks at the ready, were busy feeding paper money into burners. We drove out to some fields for a nice backdrop and waited.
The procession resembled a medieval pageant assembled in the fashion of some ancient army. At the forefront came Matsu's messenger announcing her arrival, a rather redundant message considering the noise, and a column of standard-bearing troops dressed in brown military pajamas. Then followed more marching troops bearing inscribed wooden paddles, a convoy of religious floats, and a palanquin carrying the Matsu. The more devout of the worshippers standing at the roadside came forward and lay face-down on the road, prostrating themselves with outstretched praying hands before the palanquin so Matsu would pass over them and thus bestow her blessing. Behind the core of the procession came hundreds of pilgrims on foot, bicycles, motorbikes, and a long line of cars. We slotted into the traffic jam and crawled at walking pace through the narrow streets of a small town. Heart-pounding fireworks and the naked flames of burning piles of ghost money threatened to set the car on fire.
As we drove on, we saw several entertainment floats by the sides of roads including a puppet-show truck, and a karaoke music truck. At the back of the music truck a female singer wearing a racy version of the traditional qipao dress was going through the motions of some old love song.
"Ah, lucky. A sexy girl for you," chided Maria.
"You know, I can never understand how Taiwanese can have some hot KTV girl involved in a religious activity. And don't give me any 'it's for the Gods bullshit!'"
"That girl," she laughed, "that's nothing. Sometimes the girls are naked."
Naked! I'd heard people mention girls "with no clothes," and always thought it was an exaggeration, that the girls had stripped down to their underwear. From my experience of seeing them cruise past my house in Tounan, a very short miniskirt and tank top was as wild as it got.
"Naked? You mean in their underwear?" I checked.
"No, completely naked! I've seen them with my own eyes more than four times, at weddings and during Matsu's birthday."
I thought I'd seen enough of Taiwan not to be amazed anymore, but obviously not, and my head shook in disbelief. Now, when you think "wedding" don't imagine some wild stag night in a private club in the early hours of the morning -- think small-town wedding reception, hundreds of people having lunch outside under a large tarpaulin in broad daylight.
"The wedding was out on the street, set up in front of the family's house. The girl was up on the back of a music truck. She was wearing a bikini, but after she finished singing she took it off, and walked around to each table and toasted the people."
A naked women walking around amongst men, women, and children! I had to ask her to repeat her description, but sure enough there was no mistake.
"And how did people react?"
"The men liked it, eyes coming out of their heads -- the women felt really embarrassed."
"Nobody said anything. At that time it wasn't that unusual. It was like a craze for a while, about six or seven years ago. For two years running there were naked women in the procession for our local Matzu temple. On Matsu's birthday they take the statue from the temple and walk around in a procession. There were women wearing see-through gowns, but totally see-through, dancing on the back of a truck, and there was always a large group of ojisans (old men) following the truck."
We drove ahead and caught the pilgrimage further on. If you ignored the farcical religious element and just took it as a carnival then it was an incredible spectacle, and a lot of fun. Taiwanese normally avoid walking like the plague so it was quite moving to see the pilgrims, not a few of whom were middle-aged women and physically handicapped, struggling on. There were also a large contingent of the mentally challenged but it wasn't always easy distinguishing mad looks from fatigue.
Maria and I met up with the slowly moving pilgrimage two days later near Taichung and once again the atmosphere was good-natured. The pilgrims were in worse physical condition, footsore and numb with weariness; yet when I took advantage of a brief halt to talk to some of them they said they'd been doing it for years and would be sure to be back again next year, although perhaps on a bike. An old man on a motorcycle alongside me politely interrupted to announce that he'd been on the pilgrimage for 35 years. His bike was covered in charms and banners, luggage at the back, and a statue of Matsu from his family altar strapped to the handlebars. In fact quite a few pilgrims had brought their idols along for the ride. Seeing the little gods, the piles of ghost money being burnt and littered, and once again, the people prostrating themselves on the ground for nothing more than a wooden statue of Matsu, to a non-believer like myself, left a bad taste at the back of the mouth.
"I can't get over it," I grumbled to Maria, "Parading a piece of bloody wood around the countryside for a week -- like putting a doll in a chair and carrying it around, people following it. It's crazy."
"You're more crazy! You're following the people who are following the statue. That's worse!" came Maria's cutting reply.