In search for a spirit – Where is Taiwan’s once-famous Anti-Nuclear Mazu now?

Picture of the opening of the nine-day cultural festival at Aodi Renhe gong, taken from http://news.ltn.com.tw/photo/local/paper/560474.

When I first visited Aodi 澳底 in Gongliao district 貢寮區 in March 2014, it did not strike me as an enjoyable place. Basically a line of unaesthetic houses thronging along a highway that was bulging with trucks thundering past, Aodi used to be a fishing village (hence the name „Harbor ground“) and thus falls under the protection of Mazu, the goddess of seafarers and fishermen. Home to perhaps a couple of hundred people, Aodi is more well-known for its local Mazu, who famously defied the central government’s (and the Taipower company’s) plans to build a fourth national nuclear power plant (commonly known as 核四) just next door. Beneath the dust swirled up by all the trucks, however, Aodi and its Mazu temple called Renhe gong 仁和宮 did not strike me as a very hospitable environment.[1]

When I got there one year ago, there were three older men in the Yuanchen Palace 元辰殿[2] adjacent and belonging to the Mazu temple. I entered the hall and approached them with a question on Mazu’s role in the protests against the building of the power plant, but was given a rather rash answer in a heavily-accented Mandarin that I could barely understand. After a couple more questions and the counsel that I could read in the newspapers about all that happened, I sensed that I was not exactly welcome in this place. In itself, this was an extremely strange feeling; I am used to people taking great pride in their local temples and being very interested in introducing and discussing them with foreigners. But I decided to come back and give Aodi another try later.

Later turned out to be today, more than one year after my initial visit. This time, I did not go alone, but in the company of a student of Anthropology at NTU who is also interested in local religion in Taiwan, to help with conversations in Taiwanese and as a general boost to confidence.

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The main temple, next to the street. Photo taken by author on May 19, 2015.

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Yuanchen Palace. Picture taken by author on May 19, 2015.

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Temple gate, Seven 11, and meeting hall. Picture taken by author on May 19, 2015.

The place still evaporated the same depressing roadside charm. After getting off the minibus, whose only passengers we had been, we did not concern ourselves with anything else but went straight into the temple to announce our visit to the resident Mazu and ask for her blessings for our interview. (That, at least, was what I was praying for.) The temple structure is quite regular, nothing exciting, although one notes that the temple has been refurbished with smooth marble. As for the deity images, I noticed two very nice Mazu statues in natural ochre colors, a refreshing contrast to the otherwise almost always black(ened) images you find in Taiwan.

The remnants of protest

The temple premises are quite big. Except for the temple itself, there is also a worn-down three-story office building for temple management 管委員會 and some sort of meeting room on top of a Seven11 (see pictures). In front of the temple stretches a big concrete open space that looks like a parking lot, but probably serves to accommodate additional tents, stages, and rows of chairs during temple festivals. As what looked like an office lay directly next to the entrance of the Yuanchen Palace dedicated to the God of The Year, we first entered the latter hall. And there they were, the same three gentlemen whom I had met a year ago.

It turned out to be a very good decision to bring someone with me who could speak Taiwanese. In the beginning, when introducing myself and my work, I had the same sense of discomfort as before because I could not understand clearly everything “Mister C” was saying in Chinese (I am not using real names here). This problem got solved rather quickly, as the rest of the conversation was mostly held in Taiwanese after my associate had followed up my question with a few more. The other two men left as soon as we had started talking, leaving Mister C to represent the temple’s perspectives. In the background, the TV kept running and was showing one of those awesome Glove Puppetry shows (Budaixi in Chinese, Pootehi in Taiwanese) that still feature hand-made special effects. Mister C is between 50 and 60 years of age and a caretaker at the temple. (I have heard that the more influential board managers of the temple live in places like Keelung and do not stay around for day-to-day affairs in the temple.) We talked with him for almost an hour, from 9 to 10 in the morning.

Mister C’s testimony was rather disillusioned. He himself had not actively participated in the temple’s phase of active protest in the 1980s and 1990s. He gave the impression that there was no use in fighting anymore. The old people, who had defended their community against the nuclear encroachment more passionately, had mostly died, and the young ones have moved to the cities to look for work. He emphasized that of course was he an opponent to nuclear power, but that the local people do not see much use in protesting anymore (“沒有用”), as long as there is not a “strongman” who can succeed in inciting the fire in everyone (“缺乏有力人”). He was very critical of the (Kuomintang) government and President Ma especially, and their strategy in dealing with the power plant – Aodi is known to be a very “green” place, and the temple and other activists had worked closely with the DPP administration when Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌 served as magistrate 縣長 in Taipei County between 1997 and 2004. Because of ongoing nation-wide protests that intensified after the Fukushima incident in 2011, the almost finished nuclear power plant never went online. The government and Taipower company also gave in to public pressure in claiming that the plant would be “sealed up” (封存) in 2014.

Local people and activists, however, are extremely wary of this claim, because – as Mister C explained – unlike before, when the plant was basically open for visitors to go in and see for themselves what was happening, there is no way now of ensuring what is going on inside the large compound. (In Taiwanese media, the move was even criticized as a stalling strategy on the part of Taipower, in order to wait for political opinion to change in summer when more power shortages are expected.)

In terms of passion and activism, the place and the three old men seemed feeble. They emphasized that activism was a thing of the past and Mazu had done her part; there was nothing more one could do. They seemed to have been spared from recent developments in Taiwanese civil society, which is boasting a formidable movement that works toward getting rid off nuclear power for good. My associate put it quite aptly: Even if there were NGOs or other actors looking for local support or issues to take up, they wouldn’t find it here. The temple’s influence seems to have waned; small wonder, then, that I have not found more than hints to its role in the anti-nuclear movement in the literature. Even Mister C. constantly downplayed the temple’s significance and urged us to look for information in other places. It felt a bit as though the three gentlemen were a bit uneasy with our presence and questions. (Perhaps as uneasy as I first felt with their unease?)

Second Stage: Fulong Beach

One of the places commended to us by Mister C. was the seat of an Anti-nuclear Self-help Association 反核自救會 in neighboring Fulong village 福龍里, a place of 2000 people and a huge seaside resort for tourists, as well as Northern Taiwan’s nicest strip of sandy beach and a favorite spot with surfers. So we jumped on a local bus, which took us there in ten minutes. As we did not know anything about the association’s whereabouts, we first turned to the Visitor’s Center sitting atop a big parking lot on the way to this massive aesthetic insult of a holiday resort. This side-trip turned out to be rather useless in our quest for information, as the center’s staff – despite their neat uniforms that had “authority” written all over them – had no idea what we were talking about. They had neither heard of the name of the association nor its leader, Mister W. As we were later told by a local betel nut-seller, most people working in this place are not locals, but rather civil servants of some sort who get sent here by the government. The whole structure seems to exist side-by-side with the local people and their businesses – an example of an encroaching state structure designed to make profits from tourism without empowering the local community.[3]

The first shop-owner we approached on main street knew instantaneously what we were talking about. He told us how to walk to Mister W.’s estate, which doubles as a little café next to a bicycle path (a place that a visitor center would know about, you might think). We chatted a little bit with the man who said that everybody in town knows Mister W. and described him as a local leader (領導人), albeit without office, as Fulong does not have its own administrative unit. He, like most residents, does not approve of nuclear power plants, mainly because of the threat they pose and the burden they leave to our future generations. He further speculated that the visitor center people might not have wanted to tell us about Mister W., but to me, they had seemed rather genuine in their puzzlement at our question. More incompetence than malevolence, I suspect.

Mister W.’s abode is a 10 minute walk from Fulong train station. When we arrived there, we found a number of men busily working on the house. One of them introduced himself as Mister W., but when we asked about the nuclear issue, he smiled and said that we were probably looking for his younger brother… who happened to be in Taipei today. We called him up and set up a meeting in two days. Step by step, we are getting closer to uncovering the local issues and politics underneath a seemingly simple fact such as ”Aodi’s Mazu has been protesting the construction of the power plant for more than 20 years now.” The story will continue to unfold…

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[1] The uninviting impression was reinforced by my experience of cycling along the highway for a number of kilometers before reaching the massive plant and, just 100 meters behind it, the settlement. The far more beautiful and charming local Mazu temple, in my opinion, was in a place called “New settlement” (新社) situated amidst gentle hill slopes across the river. It is called 慈仁宮 and is noted for its prominent displays of Aboriginal characteristics in the temple architecture. The former inhabitants, however, have all left or been completely accultured into Han-Taiwanese society.

[2] In this hall, the God of The Year Taisui 太歲 is worshiped in his 60 forms.

[3] Also, when you’re in the area, do not follow the signs that send you to the beach via the resort entrance – you will be charged 40 NT and aren’t even allowed to swim in the area. A huge ripoff! Instead, take the other direction where signs lead you to a Dongxing Temple 東興宮. The beach there is perfectly fine and has the benefit of not being supervised by fat guys and their tiny but annoying whistles. The hotel is scheduled to open in July 2015. The entire place fell victim to grand developmental plans for (Chinese) tourism.

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