YENSHUI, TAIWAN — The Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout Asia between late January and early February, but few places do it as spectacularly as Taiwan, which is famous for a dazzling sky lantern festival and a crazy firework display that have spawned the commonly heard phrase “fireworks in the south and sky lanterns in the north.”
The fireworks in the south refer to the beehive fireworks festival in Yenshui, an insane event where rockets are fired at spectators, and the sky lanterns in the north are part of an Instagram-favourite display seen every year in Pingxi, near the capital city of Taipei.
There is also a national lantern festival that is of more recent vintage that moves from city to city each year that could expand the phrase cited above to include “lanterns somewhere in between.”
The conundrum for visitors is that all three of these events take place on the 15th of the first month of the lunar calendar, and since it’s impossible to be in each place at once, you have to pick one or come back a few more times to experience them all, which doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
Above: Lantern makers can get very creative with their entries.
Sky lanterns in the north
The spectacular sight of hundreds of glowing lanterns rising into the night sky draws thousands of visitors each year to the small mountain town of Pingxi for the Sky Lantern Festival on the evening of the full moon that marks the end of Lunar New Year celebrations. It’s a unique event as it is the only place in Taiwan where it is still legal to release sky lanterns.
Sky lanterns originated in China as military signals and tradition has it that they were first used in Pingxi a century ago when the area was plagued by bandits. Women and children would hide in the hills when an attack was imminent and the lanterns were released to signal when it was safe to come out of hiding. Over time, the lanterns were used as a way to communicate with the gods and people would write their wishes and prayers on them before releasing them into the sky.
Visitors can purchase a sky lantern of their own to launch, not just during the festival but at any time of year. They are essentially miniature hot-air balloons made from colourful paper bags placed on a wire and bamboo frame. A bundle of oil-soaked paper sits inside the frame and when it is ignited the flame heats the air inside causing the balloon to rise. Before you launch yours, you write your wishes on it with a calligraphy brush dipped in ink.
Pingxi is about 90 minutes away from Taipei by train or car, but it’s a small town and as many as 50,000 people descend on for the festival each year, so be sure to get there early. The date for the sky lantern festival in 2020 is February 8.
Above: Fireworks and large lanterns fill the skies over Taiwan during annual festivals.
Fireworks in the south
Everyone enjoys a nice fireworks display, but in the southern Taiwanese town of Yanshui, instead of firing rockets into the sky they fire them into the crowd. It’s not an experience without danger, but safe enough if you are properly dressed and definitely one you’ll remember for a long time.
The chaotic event is known as the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival, named in part by the cylindrical shape of the towers containing the rockets and for the whistling noise they make when they blast out at the crowd.
The festival originated in the 19th century when the town was suffering from a lengthy cholera epidemic. To drive out the evil spirits causing the town’s suffering, followers of Guan Di paraded a statue of the God of War through the town on a palanquin while setting off firecrackers. The epidemic soon faded away and an annual tradition was born.
Each year on the evening of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year and on the night before, statues of gods from temples near and far are wheeled out and placed before towers of bottle rockets in the street in front of the Guan Di Temple to be blessed by rocket strikes. The faithful, along with hundreds of thrill-seekers, also stand in the way of the rockets to receive their own blessings in the way of blows from the fiery missiles that strike with enough force to leave serious bruises.
The statues of gods are encased in plexiglass boxes to keep them safe, but you aren’t. You need to rent protective gear which typically consists of a firefighter's jacket, gloves, a motorcycle helmet with visor to protect your eyes and a towel around your neck to cover your exposed skin. The towel is also stuffed into your helmet to prevent stray cinders from getting inside.
The cacophony of explosions and the dazzling display of light from the fireworks are guaranteed to set off an adrenaline rush and the first rocket strike will hurt, but the consolation is that each hit brings good fortune for the year ahead and the more you’re hit, the luckier you will be. Just make sure none of your clothing catches fire.
Lanterns in between
Colourful paper lanterns are traditionally displayed during Lunar New Year festivities throughout Taiwan, but that tradition has been turned into an annual festival created by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau that began in 1990 and has since grown to become one of the country’s biggest events.
The Taiwan Lantern Festival attracts tens of thousands of spectators from Taiwan and around the world each year to admire a sprawling display of paper lanterns that are dazzling works of art that light up the night with colour. More than just simple paper globes, these lanterns are elaborate sculptures that portray all manner of people, animals and mythical creatures.
The festival grounds are spread out over several acres and there are hundreds of towering lanterns on display, but there are also firework shows, synchronized drone flights in the night sky and a stage that is alive with pop singers and all manners of entertainers.
The fairground buzzes with crowds of people admiring the lanterns and taking turns posing for selfies in front of them. The air is perfumed with the delicious smell of the food that is sold on site by an army of vendors. The food is half of the fun of the festival.
For the first few years, the Lantern Festival was held at the grounds of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taiwan, but it has grown so large that cities across Taiwan compete to host it each year. This year it was in Pingtung, but in 2020 the festival will take place in Taichung and the 2021 edition travels to Hsinchu.