I recently had the privilege of joining a very special walking tour with Keelung For A Walk: The Ghost Festival Tour. Despite the fact that there are currently no English tours happening (and likely won’t be for some time as COVID-19 has meant such restrictive travel measures), I was able to accompany the group for a Chinese tour, of which Mila kindly offered to translate as much as possible. The group was a mix of local Keelungers and Taiwanese people from other parts of the island, all interested in exploring the fascinating and rich history of the Keelung Ghost Festival.
As the tour began we walked towards Maritime Plaza, one of downtown Keelung’s most popular hang-outs. We stopped on the pedestrian bridge to take in the sight of the canal, which I learned was constructed by the Japanese. Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, ceded by China in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (Hays).
Japan had a strong hold in Keelung, the unlucky northern port city which received virtually all of Taiwan’s invaders over the centuries. The Japanese developed the area around Keelung’s harbor, and settled there. They built a canal flowing under buildings to the west of the harbor, and during the time of occupation there were two bands of traditional Beiguan (北管) musicians on either side of the canal who would compete with each other to see who could perform the loudest. If you’ve heard Beiguan music, which is traditionally played in temples and religious ceremonies, you can imagine how noisy it must have been!
We learned about the origin of the famous Keelung Ghost Festival celebrations. In 1851 there was fighting between antagonistic immigrant communities, namely those from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou. After one particularly nasty clash and with some mediation, the groups decided to put aside their differences in favor of peace. In true commitment to this peace, all of the family clans in the area agreed to join together to celebrate Ghost Month each year, and to rotate responsibility for hosting the festivities.
This local history has contributed significantly to Keelung’s continued commitment to the Ghost Month Festival each year, and is the reason why Keelung boasts the most abundant and diverse cultural displays and ceremonies. While it is common to have a Pudu ceremony (in which a large offering is presented for the ghosts, for their liberation and appeasement), it is more rare to see such detailed traditional events specifically catered towards different gods and ghosts.
At the Qing An Temple (慶安宮), each clan stores their precious dipper lantern. They are beautifully crafted wooden lanterns, carved with intricate detail. They are used in ceremonies to bring good fortune, and each year during Ghost Month they are brought out for the Dipper Lantern Parade, in which each clan shows off their lantern atop a magnificent float.
Once returned to the Qing An Temple they are carefully placed and lit for the remainder of the month. Offerings are made, incense lit and prayers offered to the gods for good fortune throughout the year. Common offerings are fragrant flowers, various fruits and snacks. Inside the temple we can hear the Beiguan musicians playing, and follow the sounds to see them practicing for the upcoming ceremonies.
Outside the temple there are three stalks of bamboo standing on either side. On the left, there are lanterns hoisted at night for the ghosts. On the right there are lanterns hoisted during the day for the gods. Bamboo, it is said, is endowed with special spiritual qualities that allow it to reach the heavenly realm. In such contexts as this, it is auspicious to use the best quality bamboo, and so for this purpose bamboo is brought in from other areas of Taiwan.
The old traditions around the Pudu ceremony dating back to the Japanese colonial era included rotating clan responsibility for building a new Pudu Altar each year. The altar was then used for the great offering ceremony, and afterwards burned down. It became very competitive as each clan wanted to show face (‘face’ here denoting the cultural conception of respect and honor).
Ultimately they agreed that making a new altar each year was an unnecessary use of resources and built one permanent altar to be used in the ceremony every year. This led to the construction of the Zhupu Temple (the Main Altar, 主普壇) in the 1970s. Though the clans no longer need to build a new altar each year, they continue to take turns decorating the temple for Ghost Month.
The old traditional altars that the clans built were always housed at the same site. The city government opted for a new location for the Zhupu Temple that would be further from the highway entrance to the city, thus preventing excess traffic during the festival. It was decided that the old site would be demolished, however this proved a challenge. There are many spooky stories about the attempts to do so, including one concerning the deaths of the demolition crew members. It wasn’t until after a Taoist priest came to perform an exorcism that they were able to complete the project and erect a new building.
The one that now stands in the old altar location is still home to the Zhupu Management Committee, on the 13th floor. It is also home to the local Keelung radio station, whose employees have reported hearing voices and other unexplained noises at night. This old site demonstrates its importance as it lingers in the minds of locals. Even after over forty years of a new location, the tour guide joked, she still had a taxi driver take her to this old location when she asked for a ride to the Pudu Altar.
Nearby this historic site, there is an entrance into the long building stretched over the aforementioned canal. Venturing inside is a bit like travelling back in time – the long corridors are filled with retro shops and karaoke bars. Among them is a famous vintage Hong Kong style cafe, known for its unique decor and authentic Cantonese dishes. It’s an area steeped in history that is definitely worth a visit. From there we ventured over to a nearby traditional bakery, famous for its Ghost Festival desserts and taro balls (that may sound strange, but trust me when I say they are incredibly melt-in-your-mouth delicious).
Our next stop was the Fude Temple (基隆福德宮), a very historic site tucked away from the downtown hustle-bustle in a narrow winding alley. You know you’re on the right track when overhead you can see dozens of pink lanterns. It was built in 1849 and the alley in which it is located belongs to part of a longer path which once stretched to the Keelung River and all the way to Taipei. This path was originally made in the Qing dynasty for horses to carry messages back and forth. Only portions of it remain, and this alley is one such section.
Interestingly, the temple sits opposite a small shop that immediately piqued my interest. It’s unassuming, and to the average Taiwanese person is hardly noticeable. But as a foreigner, it is such a curious sight. I have seen many places like this in Keelung, and have always wondered about them. They look like they could be an office, or could be a home. They could be a reception room, or a living room. Perhaps they’re both.
Again I found myself lost in this internal debate, wondering what kind of business this must be. There was a mantle with a shrine, something quite common in a local home. There were chairs, and a dining table. But there was also a man sitting behind a desk doing paperwork. When I asked Mila about it, she told me it was a fortune teller. In fact, one of the oldest and most well-known in Keelung, run by the same family for four generations! She said that it is traditional to ask a fortune teller to help choose auspicious names for newborns, and that in fact, many Keelungers have had their names picked out by this very fortune teller!
After visiting the Fude Temple, we made our way up a hill to the Xu Zi Sang Historical House (許梓桑古厝), built in the early 1930s during Japanese occupation. Xu Zi Sang was born in Keelung and filled an important role during the years of Japanese occupation. The house is now abandoned and overgrown, looking like a site out of an Indiana Jones movie. It is a great location to get a good view of Keelung.
On the way up the hill you can see the several bomb shelters tucked safely into the mountainside, built by the Japanese. There are over five hundred in Keelung, which proved useful during WWII as the U.S. bombed Japanese naval bases. During the Keelung Ghost Festival, a significant emphasis is also placed on foreign ghosts or lost ghosts, the spirits of those who died here during numerous bloody battles.
Our tour finished at the temple around which Keelung’s famous Miaokou night market was built, the Dianji Temple (奠濟宮). It is one of Keelung’s four main temples, all of which are visited during the climactic Water Lantern Parade, taking place on the 14th day of the 7th lunar month. The downtown streets are closed as beautiful floats make their way to the four temples, interspersed with groups of talented performers and musicians. Each clan displays their own water lantern which will later be taken to the Badouzi Fishing Harbor to be set on fire and sent out on the ocean.
The Water Lantern Parade is often the height of celebration during the Keelung Ghost Festival, and is not to be missed! The Dianji Temple is a perfect finishing point for this tour, from which you can explore the wonders of the Keelung night market for dinner! I had a wonderful experience and greatly deepened my respect and appreciation for this city I call home. If you find yourself in Keelung during Ghost Month, I highly recommend going on this adventure with Keelung For A Walk!
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Keelung City Government. Keelung Ghost Festival English Guide, Keelung City Cultural Bureau, 2020, www.rs-event.com.tw/2020kmsgf/download/English.pdf.
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