Led by what sounds like distant artillery fire, I advance down a dark street, red sticks and paper from spent rockets and other fireworks crunching underfoot. The explosions die down and I quicken my pace, hoping to encounter the next salvo. I turn a corner next to another quiet, white-tiled terraced house, and there in front of me is a nearly impenetrable wall of smiling faces, each beneath a scooter helmet.
Slowly pushing their way along the narrow alley, the helmet heads clot around something in the distance. My thick jacket, jeans and gloves feel awkward in the mild, tropical February weather. A small panic quickens my heart as I think about replacing the sweaty helmet I took off two blocks back – but it hasn’t begun yet. It’ll be obvious when it does.
Pushing deeper into the crowd, I crane my neck to see a cluster of three god statues bobbing up and down on litters as heavily clad volunteers shoulder their poles. Sooty leather is riveted to the helmets of the gods’ entourage, giving each member an air of hardened experience. The gods playfully wheel around, make a series of false starts then pause as the crowd eddies around them. It’s hard to see the little colourful statues because they are protected by mesh screens flecked with red paper and sticks – the shrapnel of previous assaults.
I assume the higher ranking gods sit on the larger, wheeled litters, but I don’t have much time to make sure as other spectators jostle for position. Looking like shoddy spacemen in their protective clothes and helmets, they are trying to guess where the next “beehive” will appear from.
As the procession inches past a house, two excited children and their smiling grandmother roll up the shutters to reveal what looks like an oversized wardrobe on wheels, nearly the width of the house it emerges from. This beehive is a long, rectangular box with two broad sides of red-paper-covered metal shelving, packed with rockets. It is a large specimen for this side street; the more substantial bee-hives – armoured ones with rockets protruding from all four sides or with zodiac animal sculptures placed on top or designed to look like Spongebob Squarepants – tend to be deployed as the pilgrimage passes along the wider avenues.
The old woman burns incense and prays, then gazes at the quivering crowd. The tension is palpable as the gods are positioned a few metres in front of the beehive. The paper is removed from both sides to reveal row upon row of rockets, tens of thousands, perhaps, tightly packed like honeycomb cells.
Boys and middle-aged men hop onto the rack to prepare the fuses. Others use the discarded paper to build a ceremonial fire in front of the rack. The crowd first shies away from the flames, then the more courageous close in and take up position next to the flanks of the beehive.
As the flames die down, helmet visors snap into place. I nervously check to make sure there are no gaps in the towel a friendly street vendor helped me secure. The litter carriers begin to rock their loads; it’s as if the gods cannot contain their anticipation: the onslaught is imminent ...
THE FENG PAO FESTIVAL takes place in the Yanshui district of Tainan City, in Taiwan, on the 15th day of each Lunar New Year, with a smaller procession the day before (on February 10 and 11, this year).
According to Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, the festival began in the late 1800s, as a request to the gods to spare Yanshui from a cholera outbreak that was making its way through the island’s villages. Many people must have been hurt as the festival evolved into the controlled mayhem seen today, but casualty figures are very hard to come by.
On the west coast, to the north of Kaohsiung, Tainan is an old, traditional city with colonial Dutch fortifications, elaborate Taoist temples and a wealth of justly famous street food. Yanshui, on the other hand, is typical of Taiwanese suburbs in which rural merges with urban; a little police station and a few restaurants serving noodles and dumplings are surrounded by rice paddies. The tile and cement walls of the terraced houses are clustered together and metal shutters cover the glass windows of ground floors, giving Yanshui a quiet, small-town feel – an impression that is shattered when the district literally explodes.
AS THE ROCKETS BEGIN TO FLY, the crowd, huddling to let their backs bear the brunt of the barrage, begin a peculiar dance involving a quick stamping motion. I’m soon dancing, too, as rockets hiss forth in all directions, exploding between our feet.
Missiles ping off my helmet, sounding like the beginnings of a hailstorm. To have one hit your back feels like being shot at close range with a paintball bearing an explosive aftertaste. You can almost feel the skin darkening. Fortunately, every bruise brings more good luck for the coming year.
It feels as though I’ve been plunged into a gun battle, thick smoke and dazzling bursts of light playing havoc with my vision. Golden trails spiral in all directions as colourful mortars blossom from the top of the beehive. People scramble and bump around in their blind rocket dance, a comforting feeling of joyful shared helplessness enveloping the melee.
The “battle” rages on and on, and then, suddenly, all is quiet. As the smoke begins to clear, visors are cautiously lifted away from sweaty faces as people begin to laugh and whoop in a group release of excitement.
It takes me a moment to realise my towel has caught fire. A dozen hands reach out to pat down the flames as a resident sprays me with a hose from his house. Heart still pounding, I breathlessly thank them and rejoin a crowd already wondering where the next beehive will emerge from.