There aren’t many places in the world where scantily clad young women entertain the pious with a bit of pole dancing, but Taiwan is one of them.
Coming across a convoy of jeeps atop which the girls do their thing as techno blasts out across the rice paddies, an outsider might be forgiven for suspecting the worst, but these women are dancing for the gods, in a ritual called “miào huì”, or “temple gathering”. Miào huì is associated with both the Buddhist and Taoist religions, which have become highly intermixed on the island.
“People who haven’t seen this may think there is more to our work aside from dancing,” says 21-year-old Li Yi-ting, a dancer who freelances at miào huì. “But usually, if people watch us, they know what our work is. It is definitely not sexual.”
Li picks up jobs on Line, a South Korean chat app that is popular in Taiwan, and posts her profile in groups for clients to browse. She generally earns between NT$2,000 (HK$490) and NT$3,000 per gig. When she’s hired, she meets a driver at a specified location to make her rounds with a small group of other dancers.
The general public see this type of entertainment as being part of the Buddhist/Taoist religious culture, a way of giving thanks to the gods, who are no doubt as partial to the young female form as their human counterparts.
Converted vehicles known as “diànzi huache” (“electric flower cars”) have long provided platforms from which women have entertained at temple gatherings and funerals, singing and even performing stripteases (although full nudity was outlawed in the 1980s).
“There were [once] probably 150 groups, and the business was booming,” says Chu Yuan-horng, a professor of cultural studies at National Chiao Tung University, in Hsinchu, who has devoted his career to studying Taiwanese culture. Government disapproval, however, means they are now increasingly rare.
Despite what the authorities might think about Li’s profession, “to me, dancing is a really happy thing”, she says. “Because when you are dancing, you won’t think about all your problems.”
Words by Paul Ratje