Hanging from the eaves of many a storefront throughout the city of Taichung are red lanterns. As part of our office here at the airport facility, we wanted to create a lounge environment where we could have inter-department meetings or maybe just as a place to sit during break time. The first order of business, though, was to acquire some red lanterns for some appropriate mood lighting during the evenings.
"Arnold, where can we get those lanterns I see hanging all over town?" "Uuuuuh, I'm not sure." I could give his responses numbers by now, because he usually uses either number 1, "Hm, let me think about that," or number 2, "Uuuuh, I'm not sure."
"Don't they have party stores around here?" "A party store?" he replied, flummoxed. I know they don't have Michael's here, but there must be some store where people go to get the red lanterns for their businesses or for parties. We stopped in a lighting store. No luck. We went to a hardware store. Not there, either. "Hey, let's pull over at the next place we see, and ask them where they get their lanterns." "Good idea," Arnold quipped. I pulled over at the place with the duck heads displayed proudly in the window and asked if he'd mind going in to find out where one might acquire a few of those red lanterns.
After a very long-winded conversation that included much back and forth, he strolled back to the truck with great news. "Well, those lanterns you see are actually given to the store owners by their temple. If you make a donation, they will give you the lanterns to show their appreciation and to offer blessings from the temple in protecting your business from spirits that may harm you." "Perfect. So, we go to the temple gift shop, just like at home. Where's the nearest temple?"
"I know the perfect place," Arnold replied. "You're going to love this. At the next, next cross-section, make a right turn." I was thrilled to pieces. I knew an adventure laid before us. A ten minute drive through town, and there it was, the oldest temple in Taichung, dating back to the 1600's.
We walked through the courtyard to the inner sanctum. Inside, the heavy aroma from burning incense wafted through the air. Red columns highlighted in gilded gold paint housed hundreds of little illuminated windows behind which sat family memorial plaques for the deceased. Bowls of root and fresh fruit lined a table in the corner, ready to be claimed and placed before the altar of the gods as offerings -- all of it pretty amazing. "So, where's the gift shop? " I finally asked. "I don't know. I don't think they have one." I wasn't giving up that easily. "Ask that woman cutting up the fruit where the gift shop is."
"She says that we must go across the street to the church office and ask them there." Taking my humble place behind Arnold, I followed him into the room. Envisioning a gathering of bald men in gowns sitting cross-legged in neat rows, deep in meditation, I kept my distance before heading through the door. Behind a desk sat an unassuming man in regular clothes, speaking into the phone. What a relief. After a brief conversation, The man stood up and walked back across the street. "What's happening?" "He says that the lanterns are not for sale but he will give them to us. A donation is appreciated but not, um, how do you say, required." I pulled out a thousand NTD -- $30.00. "How's this for six lanterns?" Arnold nodded his approval.
The characters on one side mean "Heavenly mother." The other side is the name of the temple, "Thousand Harmonies."
The exchange went smoothly. About to head out the door, we were stopped by an older woman who sat listening at a nearby desk. She handed us two golden tassels.
The face is a representation of the god of the ocean -- aptly chosen for our job.
Before leaving, we were instructed to walk back into the temple, stand before the urn of burning incense and wave the tassel clockwise three times. That way we were sure the blessings of the temple would travel with us back to our job site, and we would be protected. "Why not?"
Arnold waved his icon like a seasoned veteran. Stepping back, he offered me my place before the giant urn. In fear of insulting anyone who may be watching, I hesitated briefly, carefully planning my next move. I didn't want to whack one of the burning embers of incense, so I leaned a little closer. As I swung my arm over the top of the giant cauldron, Arnold snapped in a panic. "No, no, no!" The blood rushed from my face as I was certain I had just accidentally altered forever the sacred union of the sun and moon, conjuring up Yu-Huang, the Jade Emperor, who would teach me a thing or two about what I just did. But no, I was merely facing the wrong way. "Always face the altar." "Oh."
The lights are up and the lounge is ready to receive guests.
The two tables were hanging signs that directed people through the now defunct airport terminal. We couldn't resist placing them in our lounge and illuminating them with 60 watt light bulbs. I'm feeling a downtown after hours club. I may have to take one home. They're the coolest things, ever.