Ghost story

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am

Taiwanese normally say hello by asking if you have eaten. But this week, you are more likely to hear people asking each other if they have made offerings today.

That's because the full moon this week marked the culmination of the rituals and sacrifices to appease the dead that have lasted for the entire seventh month of the traditional lunar calendar known in English as 'Ghost Month'.

Ghost Month is celebrated throughout the Chinese-speaking world, and observed with special intensity in Taiwan, where traditional Chinese religions remain strong despite the society's adaptation to modern life.

I saw a classical example of this early on Monday, the peak day for the rituals, near my house. Two teenage girls made an unconventional offering - a mini Dominos pizza complete with lit joss sticks - at a tiny shrine for the lost souls of people killed in accidents at a dangerous, three-way intersection nearby.

Later, at my favourite pub, the owner and a waitress had a long debate about whether imported beer was an appropriate offering to the 'Good Brothers' - as the wandering dead are politely known in Taiwanese. Eventually, it was decided that the ghosts would take this as a token of respect, since they had probably already had their fill of the domestic stuff earlier in the day.

This is the one day of the year where, even in cosmopolitan Taipei, you will see everyone - from betel-nut girls in their skimpy outfits to investment bankers in suits - out on the street holding incense and making offerings.

In the countryside, giant pigs are slaughtered and mounted on stands at the centre of the Taiwanese equivalent of a block party. They have been fattened up like Kobe steers on a strict regimen of beer, massage and soothing music, until some are too heavy to walk. The clan that sponsors the heaviest 'God pig' is believed to win special blessings for the rest of the year.

Grumpy long-term foreign residents dread the peak day all year, because of the huge quantities of paper money burned indiscriminately in stairwells and balconies. The black smoke is acrid, and the ashes get into everything if you forget to close your windows.

Still, the festival, unmarked by any public holiday, is a pleasant reminder that the world is not yet entirely flat. Taipei at the height of Ghost Festival is a city of the living - many of whom believe that they are literally feeding the dead.

Yet, it's far from being morbid. Worshippers crowd excitedly around altars groaning with offerings of whole chickens, fish and chunks of pork. When the incense has finished burning and the dead are done eating, the faithful - as well as the sceptical - can overindulge in Falstaffian quantities of food and drink.