Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chinese Fire Drill

Months ago I had read about an event that happens every three years in the Autumn in Southern Taiwan-- the burning of the Wang Yeh boats. Wang Yeh was a scholar who was swept out to sea and became a deity.
Wikipedia says
The customary belief is that Wang Ye, or Wang Yeh ( wángyé: "royal lord"), are divine emissaries who tour the world of the living on behalf of the celestial realm, expelling disease and evil from those who worship them. A temple that houses a Wang Ye is generally called (daitian fu: "palace representing heaven") and the Wang Yeh's visit is known as (dai tian xunshou: "hunting tour on behalf of heaven"), the object of the "hunting" being disease and bad luck. Such "inspection tours" take place on a regular cycle of a set number of years.

Whatever. Anyway, I read that the festival is held only every three years and that it was to happen this year. I had been meaning to ask my Taiwanese friends at work about it, but when we had that rare time in between classes, most of us just chose to stare blankly at the wall and hope that some reserve of enthusiastic energy could be summoned from our inner being to the top of our parched throats so that we may survive another bad Asian kindergarten rendition of "The Yellow Submarine." I didn't get around to asking for a long time, and when I finally did ask, they had the unfortunate response of "it's tonight." This was unfortunate because as it was on the far south end of the island, I was 6 hours away by car, and I got off work at 7. I had a bad cold and I hadn't slept in awhile. It sounded like such a bad idea. It was time for a a truly fuck-it list decision-- honestly, I would tell myself, was I going to lie on my death bed and regret taking the expensive high speed train down to the south of the island to see a once in a lifetime event? This is the rhetoric I often use with myself when I am making a foolish decision-- I'll say, am I going to say on my death bed that I wish I hadn't gone to the Himalaya and spent all that money trying to kill myself on Pumori? The answer will be no of course, but the rebuttal would be that many of these decisions could lead to an early death bed. Also, what will I regret on my death bed? Probably some woman. Possibly having never put my energy into a career. I hoped that the Wang Yeh ceremony would be eventful, but abstractly I knew that it would be forgettable enough not to be mentioned in the death bed regrets and that a responsible decision for wellness and health would be to stay home. I sat there on the fence for a long time until my friend from Work, who would accompany me and act as my Chinese translator for the excursion, said "This only happens every three years. It's just like buying a pair of shoes when it's the last pair. Then you have to buy them." Yeah, it's just like that.

Talking about the event at work, I expressed my opinion that the 200,000 US dollars that was spent on the event could probably be better directed towards improving the living conditions of the residents. Burning a boat to rid the world of demons seemed draconian, superstitious, primitive. I made some smart ass remark to that effect. My senior at work, a man who had recently obtained a PHD from a British University and was working at the Buxiban,married to a Taiwanese lady, said something along the lines of "don't mock these people John" which sounded unnecessarily harsh until I thought about the cultures that he straddled, one believed in rule of law and logic, and the other was dictated ceaselessly by the past--ancestor worship, traditional medicine. He related a story of some friends who were cursed by a local medicine woman and lost their voices for a week. He said he had seen it with his own eyes.

What I remembered of course from British society was mostly gleaned from Lord Of the Flies. "There is no Beastie" said Piggy and Simon explained that "the beast is us." Surely. The whole premise of that novel, that logic is the way to a civilized society and when logic disappears in the wake of fear tyranny creeps in, depends upon the audience's rejection of the concept of a "beastie" or a ghost. We must side with Piggy and Ralph that "the beastie is only us" in order for us to embrace this point. Teaching this novel to a group of Mexicans was difficult because when prompted to raise their hands if they believed in ghosts, over half raised their hands. This marked the point where I knew Lord Of The Flies would be lost on them. You can't teach logic to a culture that still celebrates the Day of the Dead. Straddling the culture of logic and trying to reconcile this upbringing with his new environment must have been difficult for my coworker. His admonition "don't mock these people" was something that stuck with me.

We got on the high speed train at around 9. The two South Africans, colleagues from work, and my Chinese interpreter dozed on and off during the train ride. I tried to interview my Chinese interpreter to glean the story of the event.

"Where are we going?" I asked.
"I thought you knew." said the girl.
"No, tell me about the event."
"Oh, you like a reporter right?"
"Yes, I would like to record this story."
"Well, down in the donggang, they live by fiction."
"Fishing. The boat can be burn, and burn one boat can save a real boat and the life of the fishermen."
"So is it like burning ghost money in the fall for your ancestors to use the money in the spirit world?"
"No, it's like luck. Taiwan if someone die we burn house or car to give them in the other."

I thought this was an interesting phrase-- "the other." To them, the world of the unseen and unprovable was just as tangible and real as the one we lived in. Living by fiction--"the other"-- just another world, said casually, as if it's existence could not be denied. Using a definite article "the" to signify it's existence as concrete. This as opposed to the lofty and imaginative term "heaven" or perhaps one of the more mocking monikers used by myself in the office earlier that afternoon in front of my British friend. "5million NT to appease the space Gods!" I had said. "John. Don't mock these people" I heard him say again in memory his voice echoing the story of some friends of his who had lost their voices after having mocked ancient Chinese medicine in front of a healer who then became a thief to their health. "They didn't their voices back for a week" he said. They don't have the Hippocratic Oath here I suppose. I was not a believer quite yet.

All this side-thought filling my brain, I completed the interview.
"So, why are you coming here?" I queried, my voice echoing down the hallway of the empty train.
"Because you asked me to."
"What is it you hope to see?"
"Does the ceremony help the fisherman?" I asked her.
"Makes feel comfortable. Don't have guilty."

This was a loaded answer, one that spoke to the complexity of a culture that was driven by the concept of shame. I gave up, not having obtained a quote that fit neatly into my story. I read of a few pages of my book and tried to sleep as the train slid on grease into the future.

We arrived in about an hour and a half In Kaohsiung, the port town at the south of the island, the fourth largest port in the world. We got in a taxi and my South African Co-workers and I dozed in the back while the cabbie and my Chinese interpreter gabbed at high volume in the front. Soon the windows lit up with a bright orange color and I opened my eyes to see the streets lined with paper lamps for miles down the road, alongside what must have been rice paddies out in the darkness. Driving down that highway was like swimming toward the light at the end of some mysterious tunnel, like the cliche description of what it's like to die and go toward the light. The lamps were for the festival and had been placed there weeks in advance like Christmas lights promptly following Thanksgiving, living life perpetually in preparation for the next celebration. But this was no celebration. We were the only drunken assholes there, the rest of the onlookers were locked into a solemn staring contest with the proceedings. The coffee I mixed with whiskey caused a situation in which several ceremonial this or that guys asked me to be quiet.
Whisky coffees in hand, we filed through the throng past street food stalls selling sweet sausages, barbecued corn coated in some sort of MSG substance, betel nut vendors, and every sort of trinket you could imagine, many of them displaying sponge bob square pants likenesses. In the main part of the temple, people were kneeling before gods that were represented by these sort of portable pagoda things atop which would sit an electric LED display housing the spirit of some deity, each accompanied by it's own noisy generator which powered the ethereal LED display. Don't mock these people John. It was vaguely reminiscent to me of the Dylan line of "they sell everything form toy guns that spark to flesh colored Christs that glow in the dark and it's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred." But no one seemed alarmed by the anachronism of having a invisible being with infinite spiritual powers and cosmic wisdom be represented by the ultimate symbol of man made invention--the LED light, so I supposed I too must do as the Romans do.

We milled about for quite some time and gazed at the boat itself due to be loaded with the LED Space Gods and stacks of ghost money and various handmade items representing the plagues. The boat was stunning. It was painted with ornate designs and decorated with carved figurines of warriors standing vigilantly on the gunwales. There is a video I took where I sweep around in a 360 degree panorama of the event, briefly noting the comments of my friends. The South Africans were like me, drunkenly mocking--cynical and enjoying the pretty lights. The Chinese interpreter milled about introspectively. She was clearly in a different kind of mood and this meant something entirely different to her. The barrier of understanding stood between us like a Great Wall, deteriorating after the centuries in places, but still mostly intact, preventing us from really knowing one another's minds-- The Great Wall of China, constructed to keep foreigners out. She didn't smile in any of the photos, but Chinese rarely smile in photos. In the video she wanders over to the side, away from Cedric who proclaims that the figurines on the boat represent everyone he hates in his life-- "and I hate them proper" he adds. The camera pans around past the boat and comes to rest on a bouquet of flowers discarded unceremoniously, neglected on the ground.

When the fireworks began, people dispersed in the manner of those who were truly scared. With the aid of the Chinese interpreter, we secured a position with the distinguished members of the press atop the roof of some local apartment. From there, we tried to shield ourselves from the noise of the blasts and the thick gunpowder smell that hung in the air, invading our lungs like the plagues which by then, one would hope, had been safely loaded onto the boat. As the fireworks occasionally went wrong, people would randomly scatter as in any meaningless and chaotic exercise that achieves nothing, or in what we used to call pejoratively a "Chinese Fire Drill." From our imperialist's perch though, the fireworks seem like that footage of the bombs over Baghdad-- seen from a distance it's pretty and awe inspiring.

Strangely, propelled by some invisible force, the boat begins to move. A shrill sound like bagpipes can be heard and the throngs begin to move, heedless of the incendiary power above their heads. The bagpipe sound comes from many flute-like instruments played by a parade of men and women, semi organized into a procession, as they march and blare their siren song into the night which seems haunted by the ghosts of the flashfire flames of firework paper smoke. Strangely enough, I never noticed what it was that caused the boat to glide the miles to the ocean where we eventually found ourselves elbowing through the crowd for a view. In the clamor, I lost track of the South Africans and I struggled against the crowd holding the delicate hand of the interpreter behind me, her eyes flashing the reflected fire in the skies. Overhead, paper lanterns the size of automobiles floated toward the heavens powered by a small flame held in a carriage below, like a hot air balloon and a basket beneath. They would reach a certain height and then burst into flames and plummet to the waiting sea miles below. Another one would then follow. We elbowed our way to the top of a 300 foot tall high stack of what at first appeared to be sandbags, but as we climbed we learned that they were bags of cheap paper money, ghost money to be burned alongside the boat as soon as the god all were loaded on board.

The MC began speaking to the crowd over a distorted loudspeaker. I asked my interpreter what he was saying, and she related that she didn't understand any of it because it was all in Taiwanese. My interpreter would be doing just as much guesswork as I would in determining what was actually going on.
The loading of the Gods on board the ship took hours, and it was nearly dawn before the first flame was lit. The ocean was starting to appear over the distant horizon and our surroundings were beginning to become visible in what would soon be dawn, or "bird time" as my dad used to say. As they drew the flame unto the fuse that linked the boat to it's imminent inferno death, I started to think about the concept of catharsis. I used to believe, very strongly like the ancient Greeks did, that literature and the emotional effect that was produced could literally change a person. The Greeks believed that by watching an act of drama, the audience would be purged of the associated emotions and the need to exercise them in their own lives. In Greek the word katharos meant literally "to clean." Witnessing an event of tragedy would purge the audience of their innate desire to live through it. On some level, I once believed that literature could be a purgation, could be a cure. Living by Fiction. As I pondered this, and I thought of the boat burning which would, they believed, save the lives of actual fisherman, my sore throat started to feel better, and I told the Chinese girl. She said "I loaded your plague onto the boat with the rest. It will be gone by morning." Suddunly I remembered the last lines of a poem by D.H Lawrence-- a possible use of this catharsis ceremony-- "And I have something to expiate: A pettiness."

The flames engulfed the boat and finally reached the majestic sails. Sparks spiraled up in the sky born on a thermodynamic course into the sky, eventually into the sea. Light poured over the horizon and the scene changed dramatically. Suddenly the romance of the previous night was gone and as people started to clear out, the litter they left behind left the feeling of a cheap one night stand that seemed like a good idea last night but didn't looks o good in the morning. The beach was littered with the ashes and the instruments of an all night ceremony of catharsis. Don't mock these people. I thought about the way Americans expressed an act of catharsis. We had violent movies to prevent us from our savage instincts implicit in our heart of darkness. They had an ancient ceremony which gave them hope and if it accomplished nothing for the physical world, it was a powerful reminder of the past and of a unique and vanishing culture. I thought this and I felt the pain in my throat slowly ebb away as rosy fingered dawn crested over the ocean.

The boat was still smouldering as we left to get a bus homewards. We walked past what last night had seems to mysterious, in the light of day it was all very pedestrian. I caught a coffee off the street and poured it down my throat, feeling the pain return, sure that I was to be sick, despite a momentary glimpse at true belief. Two days later, I could barely scream over the kindergarten students and medical science once again seemed like a plausible way to explain the world.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chinese Fire Drill

Some videos that have to be explained to be believed.... but I unfortunately don't have time. Happy viewing!