What you need to know
Writers Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman on a tranquil Sun Moon Lake holiday.
By Joshua Samuel Brown
The sound of gongs and chanting were already pronounced as we turned the corner and approached our hotel at the alley’s end. Though we’d come to Sun Moon Lake for its legendary peace and quiet, so had Shi Ah-gong though in a markedly different way. Grandfather Shi had passed away at the age of 97, and his relatives had booked the entire street in the normally sedate village of Ita Thao to hold his three-day funeral.
Taiwanese funerals are in many ways the opposite of their Western counterparts. Both are solemn affairs, but the Taiwanese have a different take on what constitutes solemn. A Taiwanese funeral will sometimes employ the services of paid mourners, women hired to behave as if they’re torn with grief at the deceased’s passing (despite never having actually met the person).
Electric Flower Cars are another distinctly Taiwanese funeral custom. In addition to being a great name for a 1970’s prog rock band, Electric Flower Cars are covered flatbed trucks bedecked with flowers on which comely young ladies dance, sing, gyrate libidinously – and occasionally pole-dance – to honor the passing of the deceased. Though still seen occasionally, this type of overtly risqué funeral ceremony seems to be going the way of betel nut girls in Taiwan – that is to say, still found on occasion but considered mostly passé.
Grandfather Shi must have loved Ita Thao. His relatives were certainly making his last hours there memorable ones. Though the ceremony did not have strippers (at least none that we saw), there was no shortage of other elements designed to produce the hot noise that’s an indispensable feature of any Taiwanese funeral. Designed both to celebrate the life of the deceased and ensure their smooth passing into the next world, Grandfather Shi’s hot noise included gongs mixed with rigorous Buddhist chanting, pop music, karaoke, and later a live band complete with drummers and an accordion. All of this was taking place under a covered tent set up in the alleyway next to the Cherry Feast Hotel, where we’d booked a three-day stay in advance.
The manager was sympathetic. This was the second day of the funeral, and she was aware that guests at the otherwise serene hotel might not appreciate the ceremony as the sincere and somber affair it was meant to be. She moved us to a room on the other side of the hotel, giving us an upgrade in the process. The new room was quieter, though the gongs and chanting still filtered in softly beneath the white noise of the room’s air conditioning.
Having slept poorly the night before and in desperate need of an afternoon nap, I initially fumed about “our rotten luck to have booked a hotel next to a Taiwanese funeral.” But after a long bath and a short nap, what had initially seemed bad luck transformed into epiphany.
Taiwan’s rhythm is peculiar, marching to its own beat, its own particular ebbing and flowing, and to the uninitiated this can seem peculiar, unpredictable even. The tourist says: But I paid for three days of peace and quiet, and peace and quiet is what I expect!
To this, Taiwan replies: Grandfather Shi so loved Sun Moon Lake that his family chose this very spot, fifteen feet away from your hotel, to throw a raucous party with which to simultaneously mourn and celebrate him. As a guest, surely you understand this?
Getting the joke, the traveler responds: Fair enough. But I was told there’d be strippers.
To which Taiwan replies gently: You were misinformed.
Taiwan is kind – to its native born, adopted children, and short-term guests alike. But Taiwan doesn’t change its tempo for you. Instead, you must change your tempo to adapt to Taiwan. And this will make all the difference.
By Stephanie Huffman
The funeral services quieted down after dark and our air conditioning drowned out most of the music. It was hard to ignore the humor of our situation. The next morning Josh and I had our coffee on the garden balcony. The haze we’d awoken to yesterday in Nantou City had not come to Sun Moon Lake, and the sky was bright blue. We’d just started our breakfast, enjoying the majestic view of boats floating out on the peaceful waters of the lake when the funeral band appeared next door. Loud drumming, and an impossibly jarring accordion quashed the tranquility I’d felt just a moment before. Was no place on this island quiet?
But my annoyance gave way to something more philosophical as I found myself wondering about the people attending the funeral next door. The world wasn’t stopping for them to grieve. Why should their grieving stop for us?
This part of our journey was offering a peculiar mingling of love and death. We’d booked this lovely hotel for a romantic getaway, while at the same time the family ten stories below had booked the alley to mourn the loss of their grandfather. Romance and mortality are normally kept apart, but isn’t this distance merely an illusion? I was finding the juxtaposition between the two more and more poignant.
Our plans for Sun Moon Lake kept getting changed by outside forces. Josh’s hope of getting me to bike around the lake got canceled by rain, so we bought boat passes instead and went to the crowded side filled with restaurants and tourists before making our way to the more tranquil Qinglong Mountain Trail.
This was exactly what I’d been craving – a quiet hiking trail with beautiful views. We passed only a few other people as we climbed past clustered bamboo clacking together peacefully in the breeze. The view of Sun Moon Lake was beautiful, and the trail led us to Xuanzang Temple (玄奘寺), a temple that seemed profoundly spiritual to me. I’ve sensed that other holy sites in Taiwan were sacred, but hadn’t been personally moved. The monk honored at this temple was a traveler: perhaps his backpacker persona resonated with me?
Whatever the reason, the Xuanzang Temple felt like a place where I could pray. A monk invited us to take some Buddhist texts. I chose Taming the Monkey Mind, hoping it would help quiet my own inner chatter. She then invited us to write a wish on a prayer card.
At first I didn’t know what to wish for. Grandfather Shi’s funeral had reminded me to be grateful to be alive. I had just graduated college and was traveling abroad with a loving partner. What more did I dare ask for? I remembered my anxiety about taking this leap of faith, leaving home and the world that I knew. Change may be healthy, but it is rarely easy.
“I wish for the tranquility that comes with enlightenment,” I wrote.
Afterwards we hitchhiked back to our hotel, finding the funeral still in progress, though thankfully at a softer volume. But the vibe of Sun Moon Lake was sinking in. My insect bites and overall stress level had faded. We were getting writing done, and so decided to stay another day on the quieter side of the lake. Fewer hotel and restaurant choices meant fewer tourists and gave the area more of a small town feel. I found the people quite friendly.
The next day Grandpa Shi’s funeral ended and the street emptied, the mourners taking any evidence of the event with them. After another day Josh and I would check out of our temporary love nest and housekeeping would clear out our room, resetting it for the next occupants. As I watched workers sweeping up the last evidence of the funeral, I reflected on how everything is impermanent. These lifecycles begin and end, sometimes paralleling each other. Life leads to death; death leads to life. Perhaps I was mellowing with middle age.
— Excerpted from the newly published book Formosa Moon by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, available through Amazon.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS. (Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.)
TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall