Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ghost Money

Within minutes of being in Tainan,  I knew that I wanted to stay. It's the oldest, most traditional city in Taiwan, but it's a city of the young - kids crowded the sidewalks and cafes while I searched for a hotel. There was a buzz in the air, which is probably due to it being a university town. National Cheng Kung University, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, is located there. Of course, I didn't know all this at that time; I just knew that I liked the vibe. I decided to stay and look for a job and see how it went.

The next day, as I was wandering around, I saw a wanted poster for felons and/or missing persons tacked on to a bulletin board outside a small police station. I can't read Mandarin so I didn't know what their offenses had been, but I pondered the mugshots and wondered what these people could possibly have done. Had they approached children in a park?  Attacked their relatives?  Stolen some chocolate bars?  They didn't look very dangerous, just misshapen and odd, perhaps mentally ill, but I chuckled as I remembered the Taiwanese comedic equivalent at Smoking Gun website, where mugshots of America's most ridiculous outsiders can be found.

retarded person mugshot in Tainan City Taiwaninsane person mug shot Tainan City Taiwan


I couldn't read any of the menus in the cafes and the pictures of the food were foreign.  I didn't know if I was looking at a vegetable or a fruit.  I had also not had a conversation with anyone for what seemed like weeks and I was starting to feel lonely. I have never felt so isolated while surrounded by so many, and by so many who stared at me as if I were from another planet, stares that told me I was odd - and they were so free to just look me over, cover their mouths and giggle, which is the traditional way of saying hello I suppose; however, I didn't take their laughter personally.

In my first few days in Tainan City there was little to do but reflect on my life, the nonsensical billboards, and the phenomenal abundance of skin whiteners and nipple lighteners.


Scooters were ubiquitous - parked on sidewalks, lining the street and curbs and at every corner idling and waiting for the lights to change. I thought I'd never be able to drive a scooter in Tainan what with the choking traffic, but I eventually did buy one. It was a challenge and driving became a challenge of near-death experiences. I had one accident in five years and I consider that an accomplishment. I was driving too fast and t-boned another scooter as it was turning left. It could have been worse. The scar on my right ankle from that accident now matches the scar on my left ankle, the one I picked up in Sapa, Vietnam when I crashed on a mountain road.

I thought I would get lung cancer from all the smoke, not only from the scooters, but from the joss paper that sent plumes of smoke into the air from red braziers set up outside businesses, storefronts, and apartment buildings. The Taiwanese burn 'ghost money,' which is specially manufactured paper that people buy in stacks and offer up to the gods, not only on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar calendar, but during major festivals, funerals and weddings, to ensure that their ancestors have enough 'money' to buy the things they need in the afterlife. Greed never ends.

Many temples also have large furnaces just inside their grounds in order to burn copious amounts of ghost money. Money can be bought at the temples, or in special 'money' stores. Outside the walls of the temples the roar of the fires in the furnaces can be heard, especially after midnight and the smoke billows out into the neighborhoods. Mountains of this stuff is burned at night when everyone's asleep. It's a metallic, lethal odor, and the larger the amount burned per individual, the better received it is in the netherworld.

joss paper for burning at temple in Tainan City TaiwanFolding paper money during the burning ceremony also differentiates joss paper from actual money, but burning actual money is considered unlucky. Paper is folded into specific shapes, which is also meant to bring good luck. Every fifteen days business owners in Taiwan burn ghost money in red braziers and set out offering tables on the sidewalk, which can consist of anything from fruit to flowers to packaged meat, for both Gods and ghosts. But alas, after my little tour of the city, it was time to find a job.