Well, over here in Taipei we are wiping our brows for two reasons. The first is because of the ridiculous heat and humidity, about which I have already griped sufficiently. The second reason is relief. We have all successfully survived another Ghost Month. Ghost Month is a lunar holiday kept once a year and as its name suggests, it is a 30 day observance that culminates with one massive celebration on the last day.
Taiwanese culture is extremely superstitious and involves a lot of ancestor worship. It is the duty of the oldest child (or the favorite child) in a family to worship his or her parents after they die. Ghosts frequent the living world and can either bring prosperity or curses on whomever they choose. It is believed that ghosts live inside umbrellas and so if you open one indoors, all the ghosts are released into the room. Instead of an “it” in games of tag, there is a “ghost”. Children refuse to go swimming during Ghost Month because the ghosts live in the water (actually, there is a pond close to our apartment that is so foul, I’m pretty sure that it is a passage to the Netherworld).
All throughout the year, you will see small metal buckets outside of businesses in which shopkeepers burn fake money to appease the ghosts. In fact, there was one occasion last year when we had to vacate our apartment building due to a ghost money incident gone awry. People burn money and incense to make sure that the ghosts are happy and bring them prosperity. If they do not burn money, it is believed that the ghosts will curse the business because of the owners’ stinginess. These beliefs are so widely held that even major American businesses like IBM who have set up shop here in Taiwan burn giant stacks of fake money. I was especially tickled when I learned that some people, instead of fake money, burn paper credit cards for their ghosts. Here’s a Visa so you can accumulate a giant ghost debt? I don’t know.
Anyway, during Ghost Month, these phantoms are supposedly out in full force and therefore people are especially vigilant about their cash combustion and altar making. On the last day of the month, groups set up giant rainbow tents all over town so that people can set up altars to their deceased relatives. In addition, they form giant cylinders out of chicken wire to hold all of the ghost money that will be burned. For the altars, they take all of the relatives’ favorite foods and set them out on the table for the ghosts to come and feed off of the essence (I guess ol' Uncle Pete really liked Doritos here). Don’t worry, though. After the essence has been consumed, the families take this food home for a living person feast. If you are familiar with Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), this celebration is similar – except with a slightly darker twist. In Mexico, it is more of a celebration of that person’s life. In Taiwan, it is more so that you must appease the ancestors or else they will curse you. So, happy Ghost Day and let's hope people do all of their honoring of their ancestors outside this year.