Tuesday, May 12, 2015

BeiGang's Mazu Festival 北港朝天宫

For most of the year BeiGang (北港) is a sleepy little town tucked away at the southern end of YunLin County (雲林縣). Residents live a simpler life than their big city countrymen and the pace of daily life is slower and far more relaxed. Built around a small urban center the town proper opens out to large expanses of farmland and eventually into the ocean. Yet this place is anything but a has-been or never-was city in the Taiwanese cultural landscape.

Once a year BeiGang welcomes a massive party for Mazu (媽祖 also spelled Matsu), the goddess of the sea, at the city's ChaoTian Temple (朝天宮). Pilgrims arrive from all over Taiwan with their local temple's Mazu in tow, and the city swarms with gangs of temple devotees detonating fireworks, preparing epic feasts, and just taking in the incredible show.

The city's traditional downtown is roughly bounded by HuaNan Road (also called ZhongYang Highway), DaTong Road, and the river. The temple itself creates what is essentially an enormous traffic circle in the middle of town. Every street leading towards the temple gets packed with pilgrims' caravans and spectators. ZhongShan Road, leading southward away from the temple, is the primary approach for temples to bring their Mazu to enter the temple proper.

We were invited down from Taipei to stay with a family in ChiaYi county, just across the river from BeiGang township itself. Their home was not far from the BeiGang tourist bridge which is a pedestrian crossing over the river, and walking to the festivities took only a few minutes. The bridge itself is painted a memorably bright red and the BeiGang end features two enormous statues of Mazu's guardians. The green one can see over 10,000 miles while the red one has massive ears and can hear everything over that same monster distance.


We had driven through the night to arrive early on the big party day, and despite showing up at six am we were greeted by the houses kids who were bubbling over with excitement. They were like a group of little kids waiting for an Easter egg hunt, or the ones who can't sit still moments before fireworks start on the fourth of July. Here's the view from the car when we arrived at our friend's house.





After breakfast and a short nap we hit the streets to take in the festivities. We walked across the river on the route 19 bridge and before we even got over the water were met with a swarm of temple people dressed in tiger print uniforms who were unleashing box fulls of fire crackers and toting a massive palanquin with Mazu inside. There was a line up of people who were running over the still-smoldering firecrackers and under the shoulder height carriage.

Be sure to do this if you go to BeiGang or see people doing it during any other festival. It's considered extremely good luck to go through the smoldering ashes and under Mazu. While it may just be a coincidence, I experienced a string of positive happenings after this trip to BeiGang. I ran under as many palanquins as I could hoping to reverse a string of bad luck which followed a visit to Taipei's XingTian Temple.

After crossing the bridge we roamed the town taking it is limited offerings as far as open restaurants and enjoying the spectacle around town. If you are visiting here without a local friend, be sure to eat a good breakfast before venturing out. Like during most festivals many places are closed or busy preparing special meals for touring pilgrims. Considering that this is a small town with limited choice on a regular day, add in that we were on foot, it's not entirely unreasonable that this town had nothing to eat on this visit. We all did a bowl of clear broth noodles at the only local restaurant that was open.

Back on our feet we headed to the main event. The ChaoTian Temple in the middle of town is the best place to see the spectacle by day. The best way to enjoy this place is to jostle your way into the main square in front of the temple and bathe yourself in the smoke and fire wrought upon you by zealous temple men. Each temple will do a performance before their Mazu goes inside, and the more....modern? Taiwanese?...ones will have pickup trucks with giant speakers, steel poles, and gogo dancers. One had a stage on hydraulic arms that raised up as the girls were supposedly getting into the music. We stuck around until it got too hard to breathe through our surgical masks and headed into the temple to catch a breather.


The front of the temple




A mural inside




The walls all look beautiful




Taiwanese style roof with decorations


After stuffing ourselves through the entrance the main courtyard was a welcome relief and we grabbed a shady spot and watched people rushing around inside praying and positioning their Mazu statues. There are many beautiful wall murals and the buildings are kept in exquisite condition. Smoke pours from the censors which are stuffed to the full with incense and the low sounds of bells and drums mixes with the pandemonium outside. We took about ten minutes to walk around the temple and get into all of its smallest corners, hit the (much needed) bathroom, and then launched back into the fray.





We made our way down ZhongShan road, unexpected and repeatedly getting pelted with firecracker papers as we went. The carnival atmosphere as groups wait to get inside is infectious, and there are so many dragons, floats, costumes, and decorations that we took our time gawking. Add in the necessary cowering from fireworks – we had forgotten to bring hats, earplugs, and a towels to protect our neck – and it took us at least half an hour to make it four blocks to the end of the street.




Temple Float



Bridge from ChiaYi, totally packed


Exhausted, covered in smoke and red paper, we crossed the pedestrian bridge and headed to our friends house. Showers, snacks, and another little nap ensued and we drove around the countryside and took the kids to play in a park by the ocean. Fruit and tea rounded out the afternoon when we got back.



At dinner time we pushed out yet again, this time with our hosts in tow, to take in the night time fireworks spectacle and yet another parade. The city was lit up near-constantly by massive mortar-sized fireworks going off over the rooftops and the clatter of firecrackers was everywhere. The streets were filling up with revelers and gawkers, and literally everywhere we looked and went in the entire town there was something blowing up. The highlight of this extremely loud tour around town was watching a group of college aged temple guys raking handful upon handful of firecrackers over a burner and then letting them explode all over each others' bodies.


We repaired back to a bank with an awning where an alfresco dinner had been reserved and we were greeted with at least ten courses of delicious food and a healthy serving of drinks. There was a lot of discussion about not drinking too much so we wouldn't have to stop and pee all the way back to Taipei, but our host kept refilling our cups and I for one just couldn't say no. Seafood, delicious chicken soup, more seafood, roasted pork, bbq pork, more seafood, and then tons of fruit rounded out the meal. We sat around a 12-person Formica table with steel legs and ate off of paper plates and bowls and drank from plastic cups. The restaurateurs were serving three massive parties at once and after the meal everything got thrown away and recycled and the table beside ours had been completely cleaned and packed up by the time we left our seats.




Before we went back to start the drive home we got to see the float parade going through the city. Schools and temples prepare floats which are usually filled with children dressed in garishly designed costumes designed to depict legendary creatures. Neon lights cover every available surface making the entire thing more than a little surreal as floats approach and turn night back into day. The lingering question I have to this day is how did they find enough batteries to power those lights, because we couldn't find one float with a generator and a car couldn't support that much madness.

In summary, it was an incredibly hot and fun day and we got covered in (auspicious) smoke and debris. If you're in Taiwan and you have a chance to come to this festival – it often happens on weekdays – get down here and let yourself get swept away in the moment. This one day in BeiGang is perhaps your best chance to experience the sort of festival day you've seen in drawings and stories about Chinese culture. It's like a massive picnic, fireworks display, and religious festival wrapped into one. Hopefully you can turn it into a bigger trek through the much ignored YunLin and ChiaYi counties.


Practically speaking you'll need to book a hotel far in advance, likely in some other town, and then drive here in the morning. Public transit is limited and the festival is best explored on foot. You'll end up eating a fair amount of simple foods unless you can get yourself invited to one of the monster banquets that people will be eating come night time. Bring a hat, a surgical mask, some type of glasses, and a towel to protect your neck from falling embers and don't wear your best clothes. It's nowhere near as intense as the Tainan YanShui firework festival (臺南鹽水蜂炮)so a helmet is not necessary. Finally, carry enough water with you and enjoy the day, and with so many people in such a festive mood, you're bound to make some new friends and have an amazing time.

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