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Gods, fireworks and plague: Taiwan folk festival takes aim at Covid

Helen Davidson Taipei
·3-min read

The fuse was lit. Dozens of helmeted worshippers and adrenaline seekers stood stoic if they could, or ran from the flaming projectiles and paper shrapnel, the thousands of explosions ringing ears a block away. In the final days of the lunar new year celebrations and as part of the lantern festival, this notorious Taiwan folk event was much scaled down but no less dramatic, and in the current global climate, newly significant.

The Yanshui beehive fireworks festival was almost cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But then it was revived, for the same reason.

On the one hand, Taiwan recently had a Covid scare, and the thought of allowing people to crush together in the streets of Yanshui seemed inconceivable. But on the other hand, this century-and-a-half-old tradition was about warding off plagues.

And so, “in order to show respect to the gods”, Tainan city council and Yanshui Wu Miao temple decided to keep it going, scaled down.

Stories of the festival’s origins vary slightly, but in the late 19th century Yanshui was ravaged by a cholera epidemic.

“The townspeople were helpless and the doctors could not solve the problem, so they had to seek the god Guan Gong’s help,” said Lu Junyi, the temple’s secretary. “He demanded townspeople set off fireworks wherever he goes as a ceremony. After it was done the plague gradually disappeared.”

Individual processions began in the mid afternoon. Firecracker smoke mingled with the day’s heavy air pollution. Steven, Eason, Subaru and Wei, all in their mid-30s, had come from Taichung for their 10th year at the festival. The four friends in matching orange jumpsuits sat by the roadside and shared tins of beer as the sun went down.

Firecrackers went off in nearby neighbourhoods. Authorities had told people not to set off their own, but such rules quickly fall by the wayside amid the intoxicating sense of rebellion produced by mild explosives.

Once the “beehives” were brought to the square outside the temple, piles of ceremonial money were burned on the ground. People rocked back and forth the holy sedans carrying bronzed deities, sometimes draping streamers of firecrackers over them.

The participants – mostly young men, but also women and some brave small children – braced themselves in front of a beehive, a huge wooden structure the size of a minivan, storing thousands of bottle rockets, mostly pointing at their bodies. They were dressed for protection from head to toe, looking like astronaut beekeepers who stopped to fight a bushfire on the way.

Where usually there are hundreds of beehives shooting hundreds of thousands of bottle rockets as they are paraded through the crowded streets, this year had fewer and the parade was cancelled. Instead the beehives were lit one after the other outside the temple, restricted to locals who had already built their pyrotechnics. For everyone else the event was streamed online.

But Lu hoped it was enough to appease the gods. “This year, we are hoping that Covid-19 could end soon.”

Taiwan has produced one of the world’s most successful Covid responses, keeping its death toll to single figures and its overall infection tally to under 1,000, the vast majority of them international arrivals kept safely inside quarantine rooms. But the pandemic is far from over, killing millions around the world as countries race to vaccinate their populations. Taiwan is lagging in that regard, exacerbating the risk of another outbreak like last month’s in Taoyuan or worse.

And so while continuing with strict border closures and quarantine, vigilant hygiene and mask wearing, the people of Yanshui also looked to Guan Gong, just in case.