By Jintana Panyaarvudh
EVERY YEAR as the first full moon of the Chinese New Year makes its appearance, the sky above Taiwan is set ablaze by glittering lanterns and fireworks. For visitors, it is a wonderful sight to behold while for the Taiwanese, it marks the beginning of happiness and dreams.
This year, the last day of the lunar new year fell on February 19, marking the beginning of Lantern Festival Day – the collective name for a series of festivals. These are the Pingxi Sky Lantern festival, the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks festival and the Taiwan Lantern festival, which is held in a different city each year.
People release sky lanterns during the annual Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, in New Taipei City, Taiwan. /EPAEFE
The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is one of the most colourful and draws tens of thousands of Taiwanese and foreign tourists to witness the glowing lanterns as they float upwards to the ink black sky above the small hillside village of Shifen in Pingxi District, northern Taiwan.
Pingxi, about one hour east of Taipei, is the only area in Taiwan to release sky lanterns legally. That’s because it is surrounded by mountains and water thus allowing the lanterns to fall back to earth without hurting anyone.
A remote hillside town, Pingxi was a dangerous place in days of old with those working or farming in the mountains facing the risk of being robbed or killed. And so they used lanterns as signals to inform their families they were safe, Yen Chia Chun, the owner of Six Door Tea, a local teahouse in Pingxi Old Street, explained.
The lanterns do not function as signals anymore, but are now used as symbols of peace and good fortune.
Held at Shifen Sky Lantern Square, the organisers this year created a lively and cute pig-shaped main lantern called “Blissful Pig” to celebrate the Year of the Pig.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Tainan, the Yanshui Beehive fireworks festival attracts huge numbers of onlookers every year and is paired with the Pingxi festival in describing Lantern Festival activities as “Sky lanterns in the north, beehive fireworks in the south.”
Participants are advised to wear a protective suit and helmet for safety reasons.
Ranked the third largest folk celebration in the world, the beehive fireworks display at the Emperor Guan Temple in Yanshui District starts one day before the Lantern Festival, when the deity tours the town in his sedan chair, accompanied by the setting off of firecrackers and bottle rockets.
The noise, lights, and rituals that follow the god continue well into the following morning.
“It is called beehive because of the noise the firecrackers make when they are set off at the same time. This is compared to hundreds of thousands of bees streaming out of their hives,” our tour guide Esther explained, as we hide from the war below on the roof of the temple.
The main firework rack is set off in front of the Emperor Guan Temple in Yanshui District, Tainan City.
Photo by Jintana Panyaarvudh
Legend has it that the fireworks originated near the end of the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty. Back then there was a plague, and due to the lack of knowledge about medicine and treatment, the death toll increased every day.
The terrified locals prayed to Guan Yu, or the Holy Ruler Deity Guan, and asked him for help. Guan replied that on the night of Lantern Festival Day, the deity would parade through the streets of Yanshui, and followers must set off firecrackers and fireworks as they trailed behind the deity’s holy sedan chair.
The procession lasted until dawn, and the plague was no more.
It is a custom that has stuck, as generation after generation of Taiwanese believe that by running through the flying fireworks, you can get rid of bad luck and have a prosperous and wonderful New Year.
Even further south is Dapeng Bay in the southern town of Donggang, Pingtung County, where the road has become home to more than 700 brilliant lanterns to celebrate the 2019 Taiwan Lantern Festival.
Traditionally, the festival was celebrated by carrying hand lanterns but today it features large, hi-tech lanterns that mix pop culture with traditional Taiwanese icons and Chinese zodiac signs, and also includes folk arts and performances.The Dapeng Bay venue, located entirely along a coastal lagoon, has broken away from the traditional practice of basing the main lantern on the Chinese zodiac, and instead features Donggang’s bluefin tuna to symbolise abundance and wealth year after year.
To give this year’s festival an even deeper resonance amongst visitors, several well-known artists were invited to display their work at the festival. One of the highlights is “Integration for You and Me”, a 15-metre figure of a new immigrant built by international artist Wang Wen-Tzu with the help of migrants living in the county, among them Thais, Vietnamese, Indonesians and people from Myanmar.
“Integration for You and Me” /Photo courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Bureau
Wang says his artwork was inspired by migrant people who come to Pingtung, marry Taiwanese and live their lives here with family and children.
The artwork has an intertwined steel architecture and 300,000 oyster shells strung together to display the power and beauty of cultural diversity from new immigrants just like the Goddess of the Sea.
“We use iron to present the feeling of a strong woman. And connecting the shells symbolises how every migrant in every corner of Taiwan is connected,” Wang explained.
Both the giant tuna and the goddess of the sea remain in place after the festival forming a new landmark for Dapeng Bay.
The festival officially ran until March 3 but the lanterns can still be enjoyed until the end of April.