Ghost Month celebration in Keelung Taiwan

Unleashed Hell – The good brothers and sisters on the loose

Legend has it that anyone who passes away free of sins may enjoy reincarnation somewhen, whilst those with the evil deeds will probably suffer a ghostly afterlife. Some outraged spirits yearn for revenge and could seize any opportunity to disturb the living, causing their death in disasters or accidents.

Although the ’gates of hell’ refer only symbolically to the doors which separate the realm of the dead and the living, around midnight Keelung’s finest bureaucrats and Taoist priests gather for the Kanmen ceremony at the Lao Da Gong Temple to unlock the multidimensional gateway. The heavily attended event also attracts sincere and sustained prayers from those who fear what was leashed for eleven months. On the other hand, it appears to me that all the pseud-photographers and TV crews yet betray the taboos within the very first seconds of Ghost Month, as filming or taking pictures at night might get you something captured that you didn’t intend to have. Well, if this were true, all the spirits streaming out of that tiny door right now, would just have found a new home. The night closes in with playful dances of manned dragons, de facto the icon of Chinese culture, which supposed to bring good luck to people – Luck, which will be very likely needed in the upcoming few weeks when the ghosts enjoy temporary release and roam freely in search of food, spiritual cash, entertainment, and possibly some souls.

Suddenly, Alice slows down as we wander the sidewalks of Keelung the next morning. I’ve met her in a coffee shop before, and she offered to show me something. It was about here, where the energetic mother who works a ’nutritious sandwich bar’ at the night market had encountered the phenomena what could be best classified as a ghost. On that day, Alice was in a rush to get back home, her teenage mind at unease in regards to the uni homework which needed to be taken care of. From afar, she noticed a vigorous man about to cross her way; he appeared casually dressed, with the typical tan complexion of a Taiwanese, his facial expressions neither anxious nor unhappy. Surprisingly enough for young Alice, the person hovered straight through her. She recalls standing rooted to the spot, contemplating what just had happened, over her left shoulder, she caught another glimpse as he vanished – Alice fell mystically sick for one week, stalked by vivid dreams. Today, she giggles when tripping down memory lane; „Others are less lucky than me, they may have to deal the worst case imaginable – being haunted or manipulated! Nothing intense prayers couldn’t cure though.“ Postscriptum: Alice is a modern person up to date with the latest technology and haute culture, not the kind of rundown charlatan at the ready to read your palms. The mantra counter on her index finger reveals that she draws inner peace from the spiritual world. She indeed meditates every day, mostly by sitting cross-legged in front of her living room altar, calmed by the scent of incense, ever-shining red bulbs, and small Buddha images. „Commonly,” Alice suggests, „a person’s karma seduces wandering spirits, not unlike humans feeling lured by someone’s attractiveness.” Sadly, they have no heirs to care for them, or they haven’t enjoyed a proper burial to find the final piece. So, during our Universal Salvation rites Pudu we show them our love. They’re our good brothers and sisters, our polite term for lost souls, as opposed to ’ghosts’ which might offend them. We need to make sure that they won’t be forgotten.“

Lee Kuang-hui, a senior psychiatrist and director of Pei-Ling Guan-Si Hospital in Hsinchu County, said that based on what he has seen during his years as a clinical practitioner, he estimates that at least one in every 1,000 people in Taiwan can perceive and engage with the spiritual realm. “This means that at least 23,000 Taiwanese have a special power that enables them to see, hear and experience supernatural events most people are blind to,” Lee said.

Yang Chiu-Ying and Jason Pan (via Taipei Times)

To prevent misconceptions, the term ‘spirit’ which is frequently used in Asia to describe a dead person’s (or animal’s) not yet reincarnated soul equals the Western concept of a ‘ghost’. The presumed appearances and shapes vary, too. In occidental ghostlore, we would likely define a ghost’ as a shimmer of mist, blurred, diffused, translucent or distorted – quite like the kids next door wrapped in a bedsheet during Halloween. Asians would instead refer to more realistic, lifelike features.

Today marks the first day of Ghost Month, and with dusk breaking in, many elderly prefer to retire home – it’s considered unsafe to take to the streets at night once hell is unleashed and the good brothers and sisters are on the loose! Let’s be frank, even though vagabond spirits spook older folks into sheltering indoors, the youth seems more blase about it. Instead of an abandoned ghost town, I observe bustling night market stalls with Alice mass-producing ‚nutritous sandwiches’ and shopping strips until late – The era of consumerism apparently buried even the most delicate of old fashion superstitions! Meanwhile, social media posts are reviving some ruins to get the clicks. It comes as no surprise that all read similar to ’the top 10 things to avoid during Ghost Month’. Redundant background info would mean that you’ll lose your reader, you’re just one swipe apart from the cute puppy. You don’t get them hooked, you’re fired, and replaced by the next millennial who neither gives a damn about Ghost Month tales. However, dodging these taboos goes way beyond superstitional curfews, and it tells a great story about the fading nuances of oriental superstition. Neither should you hang out near coastal areas nor in forests at night, because the ghosts crowding the waters or the woods scout for someone to replace them in order to reincarnate into the living world. Especially here in the bay area of Keelung with its rich history of harboring Chinese pirates, sunken warships and executed Japanese colonialists, there must be hordes of soggy, furious souls lurking. And indeed have the aging fishermen rumored they’d often hear Japanese murmuring at night – as the saying goes, the spirits of those who perished at sea are sure to possess you as they are wont to do. So beware! Moreover, it’s advisable to postpone grandpa’s burial to the following month, disregard will be avenged with a fair dose of bad luck. Well, better to hold off anyway from any creepy places like crematoriums, graves or crypts where the Yin energy is particularly strong – I had this later fact-checked with the mortician of a local funeral parlor who has currently a lot of time on his hands compared to other months. There are some rather queer warnings in regards to clothing, too, such as „don’t wear anything red, because ghosts are attracted to red colors,” or „don’t you dare drying your laundry outside (especially not the red stuff), ghosts could eventually slip in and try them on!“ As for financial ventures, it’s supposedly inauspicious to invest in new cars or property during Ghost Month, leaving the car dealers and real estate agents with empty showrooms. According to a survey by the Straits Times, those braving the superstition and buying a house anyway during the seventh lunar month may enjoy an estimated 10 % discount relative to other months. Taiwanese like to consult with knowledgable advisors to find suitable days for weddings, business relationships, and investments. Whereas the big business comes to an overall standstill in Ghost Month, there’s undoubtedly one industry multiplying its revenue – the ghost money stores. Unreliable sources reckon the Taiwanese cremate roughly 220,000 tons of spiritual currency each year, with the lion’s share being bought during Ghost Month. That’s like the weight of Belgium’s annual chocolate production, or (based on my pers survey) a third of Taiwan’s yearly bubble tea consumption. Yes, the Taiwanese do like their bubble tea.

Keelung’s French cemetery, on the fourth morning in Ghost Month – an easily overlooked narrow place where some 600 colonial troopers had been buried after France invaded Taiwan in 1884-85, angry with the Ching-dynasty rulers over a Vietnamese territorial dispute. Today, the annual Pudu Universal Salvation ceremony honors those who have lost their lives to the conflict and sicknesses like malaria, cholera, or dysentery. Many of them have been buried nameless. In order to close the credibility gap of the tribute’s authenticity, a pair of lipsticked pseud-naval soldiers stands by, surveilling all the ghostly offerings including fruits, stacks of spiritual currency, and to the joy of the delegation from the French embassy which came over from Taipei to strengthen political ties, there’s even some bottles of Bordeaux and French baguettes. Aside from ghost money, two fake battleships crafted with paper mâché (each one imitating the respective nation’s navy) will be burned after formal speeches and the head monk’s blessings. A bystander suggests that „burning stuff is like an ancient email to the spirits,” I acknowledge his joke with a causal nod, I’m too excited to grasp what’s going on here. Whilst the flames eat up the papery gifts, it struck my mind that this is my first time witnessing a politically backed ghost honoring.

On my way back to the only shabby place I could afford, I’m passing Keelungs red-light district which neatly adjoins my hotel’s backyard and the train tracks. Those prostitutes not peeking out of their steel cage-like compartments or flattering with potential customers are busy laying out paranormal offerings too. I’m astonished but too shy to ask about their ulterior motives; our language barrier might land me into an awkward situation – given the fact that the only English words they seem to speak are „hey handsome“. However, to understand the exact deal between sex workers and wandering spirits, I drop a message to my culturally knowledgeable friend in Taipei. Quoting her answer: „Yes, you may also observe exclusive Pudu held by special private clubs (with hostesses/sex services). They burn out a lot of joss paper bcz their business is underground so they need to feed the ghosts to bring safety and fortune to their business.“