Following the Gods: Taiwan's Fong Pow Festival
January 6, 2020
Get ready. Tape up. Put on your helmet. Grab your towel and some extra duct tape. It will be chaos. You will need all of it.
What is Feng Pow?
Taiwan’s Yan Shui Feng Pow Festival is one of the five most dangerous festivals in the world. It only happens here, in an otherwise sleepy town, Yan Shui, South Taiwan. Celebrated on the first day of Lantern Festival, Feng Pow draws in locals and visitors alike to honor the gods and cast some good luck into the future. If you want to see (and feel) something that you can’t find anywhere else in the world, travel here to Taiwan. Did I mention people want to get hit by fireworks?
A Little History to Know About Taiwan’s Feng Pow
In the 1800’s, a twenty year cholera epidemic had been afflicting Yan Shui. At the time, medicine was scarce, and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight. With the help of local temple priests, the towns people pleaded to Guan Gong, the God of War, to put an end to the mass graves. It’s believed that Guan Gong answered their calls and agreed to help them…on account that his spirit be welcomed with fireworks. A lot of them.
What is superstition to one, is religion to another. So, depending on if you believe the sulfer and loud bangs from the fireworks killed the bacteria and chased the rats away, or if Guan Gong really did drive off the evil spirits, something happened, and it worked.
What to Expect
We dove in from the East side with a super moon in the sky and a fire on the horizon. As we got closer, a veil of smoke thickened the air and the smell of sulfur turned the atmosphere. Reality shifted. Just a bit.
The narrow streets leading into the festival bend and burst with, well…everything. From fried food to baby shoes to succulents. Really. And if you happened to forget that helmet, or towel there are plenty of vendors for that too.
A man with a cigarette in his mouth set a long streak of firecrackers on fire and tossed them into the middle of the street. He stepped in between it, as if it were a snake and he was avoiding the fangs, grabbed the body and began to swing it around confidently. People at the festival did not hesitate to move closer.
Each hive is carefully orchestrated to create a nights show. The big ones go off first displaying a signal into the air as an initial warning. Then the whistlers spin off into the periphery. Then the wait.
Some people move in anticipation, some laugh, some meditate with low hums. This was one of the most interesting parts; the times between the display above to the chaos erupting below. People were smiling. A happy war.
The firing begins the festival, participants turn their backs and the caged gods shake up and down, alive with some confined fury. Onlookers take distance from the scene (in a 7-11 if possible…).
“Just Follow the Gods”
We met Eason while duct taping ourselves on a 7-11 stoop. “I live here. I come every year. It’s just what my family does,” he told us. There are about seven or eight different gangs of gods that move around throughout the night. Throughout the night the gangs place out ‘hives’ along their route. The best way to describe these ‘hives’ would be to imagine a large bakery rack, each rail wrapped with a string of bottle rockets.
On top a display of the big ones, the kind of fireworks that shoot high into the air and burst in light and sound. Each hive is owned by a family. Each trying to outdo each other to see who can have the best, the biggest, the loudest display. “They work for about two months for each one, sometimes more. All for sixty seconds of, well this.”
It’s difficult to explain. You can’t really know until you go. But, when the night is over, the car alarms echo the stories of the night, you’re ankle deep in used bottle rockets, and the battle wounds are scored (we counted 9 ambulances), you have experienced a festival so unique, something that only happens here in this town, in these streets, on the island of Taiwan.
“How do you find the hives?”
“Just follow the of gods,” Eason said.
“But, when will you find the gods?”