Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tomb Sweeping Day

Qing Ming Jie, Tomb Sweeping Day, is the day when Chinese families honor their deceased ancestors by tending to their graves. It occurs every year on the 15th day after the vernal equinox, approximately April 5th, although individual families may celebrate during the weeks slightly before or after this date according to their preference or family tradition.

I have been hearing a lot about this lately, so I decided to trouble my friend Sandra for the inside scoop:

Qing Ming is an important time for traditional families because it brings extended family together physically from all over Taiwan and sometimes beyond. It also unites the family in purpose as they celebrate their common heritage and xiao, or filial piety.

The ritual is comprised of the cleaning of gravestones and surrounding area, followed by the presentation of flowers and food offerings like fruit, meat, and Mijiu, a kind of rice wine. They additionally make offerings by burning ghost money, the paper money stand-in that allows their forbears to have lots of spending cash in the life yonder.

All the dearly departed are fair game, but people rarely go beyond their great-grandfathers. Apparently this is because most families either can not trace or have not traced genealogy records past this point.

The on-site festivities last for a couple of hours, after which the family cleans up the offerings and reconvenes elsewhere for a reunion-style get-together. The food that had just been presented as an offering may be later consumed by living family members.

This is a nationally recognized holiday in Taiwan, so most people get a three day weekend to aid with the travel that may be necessary to complete their responsibilities. I’m informed that most families are still traditional enough to honor this celebration, while some of the new and progressive generation are tempted to shirk their duty in favor of a nice, lazy spring day.

A Return to Knitting

Last summer I was a knitting fiend! I worked diligently as we drove around the country and planned for our trip to Taiwan - I was working on a pair of gloves that were to be a Christmas gift for my mother-in-law. They were finished just days before we boarded the plane to Taiwan. Packaged in a nice Christmas bag, they waited in amidst our boxes and bags of belongings packed away in my in-laws house. After arriving in Taiwan I thought little of knitting for many months. The heat and humidity didn't encourage me to wear anything made of wool, let alone knit with it.

It wasn't until the weather started to get cold that I picked up the needles and whipped up a quick hat for Dan. We began looking for some yarn shops, thinking we'd have a plethora to
choose from but were lucky to find one. Unfortunately, this experience led me to hibernate my needles again - what's the point in knitting if you don't have good supplies? But when I found this sweater tee, I began to think I might be able to find some summer tops that I could knit and add to my slim wardrobe here in Taiwan and got motivated! I printed the pattern and headed to the yarn shop near our usual Saturday lunch - “Mr.Toast”, and was able to find this beautiful green yarn and the needles I needed. They weren’t the exact size, but I’m finding that they work just fine.

Day 1: I started knitting on the bus ride to Taipei - the bus ride is an hour each way, so I got a good hour and half of knitting out of it (due to lack of light on the return trip, I didn't get much knitting done!).

Day 3: I’m quite impressed with the progress I’ve made in just 3 days!

After a few days of hardcore knitting, I took a break and did some reading. I needed to put it aside for a bit so that I didn't get bored. When I picked it up again, I worked like a racehorse, it grew so quickly.

Day 8: It's starting to look more like a sweater.

And just two days later...


I have a special "package" arriving in a few weeks that will bring my next knitting project! Until then, I'll enjoy my sweater in what little cool weather we have left for me to wear it; luckily it's short sleeved!!

Philippines Part 3 (Finally)

It's taken me a while to sift through the many photos we took while on vacation and to motivated myself to write this post. After returning from the Philippines, we were thrust back into the daily grind and finding time to catch up on the blog hasn't happened until now.

After leaving the island of Bohol, we headed to the small island of Siquijor. Our visit to Siquijor was intended to be our first diving experience, however our resort didn't realize that we had never been diving before and did not have a dive instructor on hand. Despite this setback, we had a wonderful time exploring the island by motorcycle and walking the beach.

Here are some highlights...(click on the slide show to see full captions and larger photos)

Our final stop was Manila for the weekend before heading back to Taiwan. We arrived around mid-day and took advantage of the daylight to explore the city. We wondered around to the various cultural sites and through the parks listed in our Lonely Planet guide. The best find was this beautiful cathedral that had been rebuilt 7 or 8 times due to various burnings, bombings, and other disasters, however the front of the church is the original structure - it remained intact throughout each of the disasters and they were able to salvage it during each rebuild.

Dan's only request of our trip to the Philippines was that he got to see a volcano. So on our last day in Manila, we headed south to the Taal Volcano. The ride took about an hour and a half and upon arrival it was nearly noon - the sun high in the sky, not a cloud in sight and no wind to speak of - it was HOT! We took a boat from the main land over to the island where the volcano is then chartered two horses with guides to take us up to the top of the volcano. Throughout the trail, there were numerous openings in the ground releasing steam - adding to our heat. The view from the top was magnificent, the mouth of the volcano is a lake - apparently sulfuric and deep enough that some SCUBA dive in it. While it's an active volcano, it has not had any activity in recent years.

(click on the slide show to see full captions and larger photos)

After about an hour exploring, we headed back to the mainland where we enjoyed some Tilapia - they live and breed quite well in the sulfuric water and because of this are quite healthy for you. Once we had finished our lunch, we made the trek back to Manila via tricycle, jeepney, bus, and subway, not to mention a short walk back to our hostel. That evening we relaxed in the hostel talking with other travelers wishing that our vacation wasn't ending.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pili Dynasty Puppets

Here's something uniquely Taiwanese:

Look again. They’re puppets.

Traditionally, these are cloth and wooden puppets used to tell traditional Chinese folklore. The Huang family’s famous PiLi Dynasty hand puppet theatre gives a new twist to the traditional Chinese palm shows of yore:

Puppet masters, utilizing their unique one-man-multiple-voice talent, enacted stories and legends, with a mix of rich Chinese customs, culture, historical tales of chivalry and stories of passion, brought to life each puppet character. They captured the hearts of audiences and skillfully guided them into the story.” (

Currently, for their TV audience, the Huang family has reinvented the traditional puppet art with elaborate production. (Elaborate production-- as in watching might make you a little motion sick.)

The PiLi puppets made a brief appearance in the U.S. on Cartoon Network a few years ago as a show entitled Wulin Warriors. Although it didn’t last there for more than a couple of episodes, this company has maintained a famed TV presence in Taiwan since 1985. Students tell me it’s extremely popular.

Episodes are in Taiwanese with Mandarin subtitles. Luckily, there are some clips on YouTube with English subs so we don’t have to miss one action-packed minute of dialogue!

Ever seen a puppet bleed?

A little history here, and some info about the Huang family’s current interpretation here (also linked above with the quote). (embedded above)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival

This weekend we headed to Taipei for the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. We met up with our friend Susannah and a couple visiting Taiwan on a three month rock climbing tour of Southeast Asia. While we knew the festival attracted many people, we were unprepared for the actual turnout.

The Sky Lantern Festival is an annual event held in various locations around the country. Depending on the location, lanterns are decorated with written wishes and either released into a river or into the air.

Here's how it works...
Step 1 : Decorate a lantern with your New Year's wishes

Step 2: Insert paper money soaked in lighter fluid into the wire support at the base of the lantern. Light and use your foot to hold the lantern to the ground and hands to hold the "corners" away from the flame until the lantern fills with hot air.

Step 3 : Once the lantern is filled with hot air, the paper will become tight and you can release your hands and feet.

Step 4 : Once you release your lantern, you pray that it doesn't float into a nearby tree, house, or power line.

Step 5 : Watch as your lantern floats higher and higher...

In addition to individuals setting off lanterns throughout the night, the festival scheduled the release of some 8,000 lanterns. They would release hundreds at a time, creating a beautiful image in the sky.

We even took some time and decorated our own lanterns to release...

Around 8pm we decided to make our way back to the buses...however ended up spending 2 hours in a mass of people waiting to board. They corralled people into two lines, one for sitting and the other for standing, however with the mass of people, there was confusion on which line was which. Luckily we were in the standing line which moved faster. We spent another hour standing/sitting on the floor of the bus and arrived back to the train station just in time to catch one of the last trains at 11:45. We finally arrived at the bus station around 12:45 where we caught the last bus back to Hsinchu and were in bed by 2:15am.

After sharing with our co-workers on Monday, we learned that it was broadcast on television not to go on the first day due to the expectation of such large crowds and that the crowds exceeded any previous years attendance. It was worth it, but, like Times Square on New Year's Eve, I don't ever want to go back!

Mouse Trap.

This morning we woke to a wretched smell in our apartment. Upon further investigation we discovered this....

A few weeks ago, before vacation, I was awakened in the night by a rustling sound in our bedroom. I woke Dan and he began searching the room, following the sound to the underside of the refrigerator. There he found a cute little mouse enjoying a piece of candy that had fallen off the nearby shelf. The movement of the fridge scared the mouse and he fled for cover under our bed! There was no lack of shrieks and shrills from me, so Dan escorted me to the bathroom and said to wait in there while he tried to get it out. A few minutes later he opened the door to hand me all of our sheets and blankets and I saw that he'd turned the bedroom and living room into a massive furniture chute...he had taken clothes and blocked the spaces below our wardrobes and used other furniture to create a path to the door. Unfortunately, the little rascal out-witted him and found the one and only crack in his path, darting directly for cover in our beautiful mound of furniture storage.

When we returned from our vacation, we found that our friendly rodent had chewed through a rug and part of the door in one of the other rooms we have turned into a "den." Being that we live in such a large space, there was no use in trying to find the thing, but we decided that we'd buy a trap and try to catch him. Procrastinators that we are, we've been back a week and have yet to buy a mouse trap. Although, with today's discovery, it seems the mouse trap will not be needed any longer. It's unclear exactly how the mouse died and just how long it's been dead. It was under the couch and had chewed through (and most likely eaten) part of a blanket used as a slipcover so this may have been the cause. Luckily, he didn't find the supply of snacks on the coffee table next to the couch - he must not have been a great climber!

After sharing this story with a few co-workers and our boss, it seems there are some family members hiding out in the school side of our building. There have been droppings found in the teachers lounge and one even ran down the stairs during a parent open house.