The Keelung Night Parade takes place two weeks after the end of the Ghost Month. When the time comes, huge dancing figures take over the streets of Keelung. The entire city gets wrapped by the smoke from firecrackers and the smell of incense. The usual noise of the motorcycles is replaced by melodies from trumpets and drums. And people of all ages fervently participate in one of the most important parades of the city.
The parade starts at Chenguang Temple, by the city harbor. Then strolls through the famous night market and meander the streets of the city center as it slowly makes its way into the suburbs. It’s easy to come and witness this event, as Keelung is located only 30 kilometers away from Taiwan’s capital: Taipei.
This celebration is deeply intertwined with the Ghost Month festivities. For this reason, it’s important to explain it first and get a grasp on how people live their religion in Taiwan.
Taiwan: modern and traditional
Taiwan combines two sides that might seem incompatible. Technologically advanced and modern, it still keeps its religious beliefs and traditions very much alive. Taiwanese people live their spirituality every day and participate actively in the different ceremonies that take place along the year.
It is unusual for a society to follow two religions at the same time. Taiwan surprises travelers with its mix of Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Taiwanese turn to Taoist gods for day-to-day problems, such as those related to studies or work. This polytheistic religion seems to have a specific god for every earthly problem. When it comes to spiritual matters, such as the death of a relative, they turn to Buddhist temples.
Keelung organizes the most important Ghost Month Festival in Taiwan. It is the first Taiwanese celebration to be part of the national cultural heritage list. This blend of Taoist and Buddhist traditions has been celebrated since the mid-19th century, when Chinese immigrants imported the celebration. Traditionally, a different clan organizes the parade each year.
The Ghost Month is one of the most important religious celebrations in Taiwan and takes place during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It is believed that on the first day of the month the gates of the underworld open, allowing ghosts and spirits to visit the living. At the end of the month, the spirits return to the afterlife and the doors that separate the two worlds are closed again.
During this time, believers make offerings to their ancestors in various ways. The most common is to place food and drinks on the small family altars in homes or businesses. It is also easy to see people on the street burning offerings made out of paper such as money or representations of objects. Taoists believe that the burned offerings travel to the underworld and the spirits can enjoy them.
You can easily witness theatrical plays, concerts, parades, and even film screenings in squares or streets. These events are organized for the spirits. Note that the first rows are always empty. The reason is that the best seats are reserved for the spirits. No one can sit up front and there is normally a snack and a drink placed on each seat for the ghosts.
Why is the parade so important?
The Keelung Night Parade takes place two weeks after the end of the Ghost Month. It is believed that, once the gates of the underworld are closed, some specters stay behind, roaming the world of the living. The goal of the parade is to appease the ghosts and bring them back into their world. The ceremony begins in the evening, when, supposedly, the spirits are most active.
In order to send all ghosts back to the underworld, the parade combs the entire city. It goes from the harbor to the suburbs passing through the centre of Keelung. The parade stops in front of each temple along the route, where attendees leave offerings and perform small shows.
Witnessing the parade makes you feel that the entire city is taking part of it. The tireless vendors of the night market take a break, for once, and watch the parade. Entire families wait on the streets to make their offerings as the parade passes by. Taiwanese believe that, by joining the parade, they will be blessed and get rid of bad luck, something that no one in Keelung wants to miss out on.
A noisy celebration
One way to drive away the spirits is with loud noises. The sound of drums and trumpets doesn’t seem to stop. Groups of musicians play a traditional Taiwanese music called Beiguan. This folkloric music can be heard at every religious celebration on the island.
The melodies are only interrupted by firecrackers whenever the parade reaches the entrance of a temple. The objective is, on the one hand, to drive away the spirits with noise and at the same time to greet the patron god of each temple.
Among the many musicians, dancers and floats, the presence of huge figures stands out. They are representations of the god Chenghuang, protector of cities in Chinese culture. These huge carvings dance nonstop, giving small performances at each temple where they pay respects to the gods. Different participants take turns carrying these tall and heavy figures. The god is escorted by his guards, who, armed with brooms, sweep the spirits back to the afterlife.
Only a handful of tourists attend this parade. By doing so, they have the privilege of discovering some Taiwanese customs and traditions from the front row. The figures and music grab all the attention. However, many other important rituals take place in the background, always with the double objective of scaring the ghosts and bringing good fortune.
Some men wear an angry expression painted on their faces and a necklace with pieces of bread around their necks. The paint is, of course, to drive the spirits away.
Many followers approach these men to get a piece of bread. The popular belief is that eating it will bless you. Those who manage to get a piece will keep it with care and share it later at home with their family and loved ones.
Throughout the city, people would go outside their homes and businesses to burn incense and offer food and drinks to the spirits and parade participants. You can see this more clearly as the parade moves away from the Keelung Night Market and into residential neighborhoods.
Outside the city center the atmosphere becomes calmer. You can see more families with their offerings out on the street. The parade makes less noise until, at the end of the tour, the music suddenly stops. Here takes place the last ritual of the parade. The followers kneel and wait for the relics of the local temples to arrive. The bearers then pass these relics over the followers who will get blessed and cleansed of bad luck.
A unique experience
Although Taiwan is slowly gaining a reputation as an attractive tourist destination, still very few foreigners visit the island. Those who travel to Taiwan will find themselves in a beautiful country that hasn’t been spoiled by mass tourism, with friendly and welcoming people and beautiful natural wonders to discover.
Taiwanese are extremely hospitable and often rejoice when foreigners show curiosity about their traditions and culture. Everyone is welcome and the best way to witness this parade is by joining and following the journey with the figures.
Travel tip: Even though Taiwanese people are really friendly, many of them don’t speak English, especially in smaller cities. If you are interested in local culture, you should consider finding a local guide who can explain you what is going on. I was lucky enough to join the Night Parade with Mila, from Keelung for a Walk. She explained me every small detail of this wonderful celebration and helped me understand Taiwanese culture better. Here you can read an interview with her about the parade.