Ghost Month celebration in Keelung Taiwan

Master Du and the floating lanterns – Keeping the spirits at bay

Ghost Month has reached halftime, so far I’d say it’s a draw, the ghosts seem to be appeased, and I couldn’t make out anyone being cursed or possessed yet. Master Du Zhen Hao is in high spirits, although slightly more fidgety than yesterday when I paid him the first visit. Fair enough, it’s his most important day of the year, and he shoulders a lot of responsibility. Not only has he committed himself to preserve Keelung’s folk art of ‘floating lanterns’, but he also needs to ensure, that his clan, the spectators, and eventually the ghosts are pleased. Soon the afternoon activities are lining up, and his clan’s flower car will be reaching here to pick him up. So, it’s the very last chance to arrange some minor details on the artwork he had crafted from scratch over the past few weeks.

The longer I’m scanning the kaleidoscopic theme of Master Du’s paper artwork, the imitation of a temple, the more hidden stories unfold. At close range, various ancient motifs reveal rich Chinese mythology. Embedded are koi fish-dragons which refer to a revival, and the majestic phoenix-like bird Fenghuang representing virtue and grace. Rainbowed stripes parallelling down the roof indicate Taiwan’s recent achievement of implementing same-sex marriage. Above the troop of traditional dancers which the artist has dressed in glittering paper foil, a pair of snarling Chiwen dragons twines around the roof’s canopy, embodying power, strength, and ferocity. By now, one of the most profound features is no longer visible – it lies in the sealed interiors of the lantern which has already been crammed with spiritual cash. Inside, Du Zhen Hao has arranged a bedroom and a living room, including a tiny TV set so to guarantee a royal ambiance for the ghosts.

If he wasn’t that zippy with his scissors, I’d doubt his daily job as a hairdresser. But he indeed lives a dual life – one as Master Du, the acclaimed paper artist, and the other as Du Zhen Hao the skilled Figaro. Master Du’s enthusiasm for local culture and the arts might be best defined as – extraordinary. At only 29 years old, Du Zhen Hao is Taiwan’s youngest designer of cultural assets, and meantime a role model for many other young artists across the country who currently shape their artistic careers. Most astonishing, instead of drawing knowledge from any Uni education, he preferred to study history books by himself, then he gained further insights from Keelung’s senior citizens. Until he was finally able to develop a unique style by fusing old and new trends into one. These days, his artworks are considered the most exquisite in town.

Keelung has already outmaneuvered many other Taiwanese cities as ’the place to be’ during Ghost Month, and one reason for this claim is what happens tonight. Thousands of onlookers of all generations have meanwhile gathered downtown to enjoy the inching flower cars equipped with blaring speakers and nervously flickering lights, followed by parades, jogglers, and of course the much-adored folk art of the seven clans. But the jumble of the fair doesn’t really speak of the cultural highlight yet. Close to midnight, Du Zhen Hao announces that we’re now all set to proceed to the beach in Keelung’s outskirts, where the lanterns will be sent off. But firstly, the clans will display their lanterns, so that the crowd can, after all, appreciate the artists’ work properly. Telling by the sheer number of cameras and important people focusing on Master Du and his artwork (compared to the lanterns of neighboring clans) it’s safe to say that he did a brilliant job.

Some extra hell money finds it’s way into the lanterns, and shortly after the collective bowing everyone seems ready. This significant moment pays tribute to the fallen ancestors, who fought each other over territorial supremacy offshore. With first burning lanterns disappearing in the tides, Master Du hurls the sacred bamboo pole over the lantern and points seawards; his gift is ready to be taken. May it keep the spirits at bay.