Bo Pi Liao Street in Monga and Its Taiwanese Ghosts

Bo Pi Liao (剝皮寮) Street, some 300 years old, has got to rank in the top ten for oldest streets in Taiwan. Once the main artery in Monga (艋舺), one of Taipei's two oldest communities, the name Bo Pi Liao expresses the chip or skin-the-bark-back process that went on in lumber production a long time ago. The name is based on what was happening in Monga construction at the turn of the eighteenth century, when construction outfits were still importing wood from China to build here in Taiwan. The wood for Bo Pi Liao Street's construction, especially the big timber for its rafters, came from Fu-chou (福州) in Fuchien province, China. When looking at Taiwan's natural resources, especially wood, one could be a little confused about why quality studs had to come from China. The wood was here in Taiwan, in abundance in comparison to the environmentally-degraded "mother land" - there were some beautiful specimens too. But the Taiwanese were afraid to harvest it on the account of the Aboriginal headhunters that lurked in the mountainside forests where the good stuff came from. More costly and inferior in quality, Chinese wood still seemed like the safest bet.
What I find intriguing about Bo Pi Liao Street is the direction or route it takes. Notice it curves at the end, that it tails off to the left (east). There is both a practical and superstitious reason for this. On the practical level, communities with curving streets were easier to defend against pirates and bandits, both of which Taiwan was awash with 300 years ago. For the trespasser, pirate or bandit, they could not see what was waiting ahead. Ambushes became easier to set for the defender; the element of surprise was on their side.
On the superstitious front, the bending street also made sense. First off, I need to explain the nature of the Taiwanese ghost. The Taiwanese, more than many other cultures, have believed in ghosts. The Taiwanese version of the ghost is anything but Casper-like and cute. Ghosts in the Taiwanese imagination are not restless and forlorn spirits to be pitied. In Taiwanese mythology, the ghost is a mean, petty, cruel, terrible (恐怖) little bad-ass that has to be bought off with money and gifts of food and drink. Unappeased ghosts can cause all kinds of mischief, such as drownings, miscarriages, car or motorcycle accidents, stove-gas explosions and rabid dog bites. Ghosts in Taiwan do not respond to common sense or good deeds. It's better to bribe them with gifts and then get out of their way.
In avoiding a Taiwanese ghost, you should always remember the following: they hover in straight lines. Taiwanese ghosts do not turn corners or respond well to zig-zags of motion. That is another reason Bo Pi Liao Street curves. Ghosts, who are normally required to fly straight ahead, cannot get down it. They get log-jammed at the first turn. I remember reading an introduction to Taiwan article a couple of years back. The author was trying to explain to newcomers why Taiwanese do not walk straight, why they meander (which makes them hard to get by on a sidewalk). It seems they picked up the habit from their parents who picked it up from their parents, who picked it up from their parents. This generation believed that meandering was the safest bet to warding off ghosts. Bo Pi Liao Street lends itself to this sort of passage. It was not built for fast walkers. 


Anonymous said...

Taiwanese ghosts well explained.
The timber is from Fu-Chou hence called Fok-Chiu Sam 福州杉.
It is true the head hunting happened often, called 出草.
Are you going to tell us the 蕃藷市
han-chû-chhī next, Patrick? Waiting.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe they finally finished restoring that street. I have been watching the progress for several years.

I think this is a photo of the same street, taken from the window of one of the row-houses on 廣州街(looking west) that were restored about three years ago.


I would have loved to have been able to get some photos before the restoration process had begun.

A couple of other things Taiwanese have told me about ghosts...

If I am unconsciously whistling a tune through my teeth, they tell me it will bring ghosts.

Ghosts can't speak English.

Also, don't leave a temple by the same door you enetered, or else the same ghosts that followed you there, will follow you home.


Anonymous said...

Since you've talked a lot of ghost's history and story concerning Bo Pi Liao Street, you'll know why Taiwanese worship to those wild ghost during lunar July? As a western people, do you agree with above worship should be followed up by next generation, or be treated as a local mythology? I think you might have your own idea about this.

Patrick Cowsill said...

Scott, it's the same. Do not make any comments in a graveyard, such as "He died so early" etc. If you do, the ghosts will hear you and follow you home. Does leaving from another door confuse them?

They are closing the ghost door (gates of hell) this Friday, so we won't have ghosts wandering all over the place. It'll be safe to swim once again.

Patrick Cowsill said...


Thanks for the tip. I'd never heard of Sweet Potato Road before. There's an interesting article on it and also Manka and how it got it's name (it's a transliteration of a Ketalagan 凱達格蘭 word for canoe). When people from China first arrived in Manka, they lived in simple huts and lived on sweet potatoes: http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.95cc.com/200_5_17/hs3a.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.95cc.com/200_5_17/3.htm&usg=__y4YQ57Kne84GDpPvWwBtsmVa4L8=&h=321&w=540&sz=19&hl=en&start=27&sig2=GYZBuAS-uQg5NIytdterVg&um=1&tbnid=DRRUWkrftD6mrM:&tbnh=78&tbnw=132&prev=/images%3Fq%3D%25E8%2595%2583%25E8%2597%25B7%25E5%25B8%2582%26ndsp%3D20%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26channel%3Ds%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26sa%3DN%26start%3D20%26um%3D1&ei=g6mwSuK5JcWWkQXyyoD7DQ

Anonymous said...

About confusing the ghosts--

I have been told that ghosts cannot follow a person into a temple, past the temple gates. They will wait at that same gate for you to come out again. If you leave by a different gate, then you might be able to 'give them the slip'.

To Annon,
If you ask me, I don't see any harm in continuing those customs (except maybe burning all of that paper). But of course it's not my culture, so I don't feel any need to form any opinions about it one way or another.

Where I'm from, we still have Christmas and Easter holiday, Thanksgiving, etc. so I think it basically the same thing. As long as religion and politics is kept separate, it's fine with me.

I would say that I hope those customs continue a long time, and I respect people I know (in Taiwan) who help their parents and grandparents prepare the offerings, burn the prayers, make trips to the temple, etc. It's good for the family, a good excure to get together with family, it makes the old folks feel happier to see the young people doing things in the "right way" . Every culture has those kinds of family-bonding rituals. I would respect young parents who want to teach their children to do all of that, too. But I would also respect them if they choose not to.

What do y'all think?


Patrick Cowsill said...


I think Taiwanese are more tolerant when it comes to religion than Americans, and people in other countries as well. The only thing that I don't like about ancestor worship is, like you, the pollution caused by the burning of ghost money. Isn't there some way that it can be symbolically burnt? Oh yeah, I know someone who was burning it and a note blew out of the cage and burnt his daughter's cheek.

I also don't like the mixing of religion and politics, or religion getting into schools and messing with curriculum, like in the States with these retarded ideas of Creationism, or abstinence in sex ed classes.

Interestingly, religion and politics seem to get mixed up here in Taiwan in the churches. A colleague of mine who is a Christian was complaining about it to me. She's a KMT supporter, but the church she goes to (her husband's) likes to preach on politics, and the ministers there actually tell the people to vote green or DPP.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the question of how customs and traditions should be passed down to the kids could be a very large topic.

Because I was just thinking...I don't have Taiwanese children, but If I DID...I would want them to learn traditions, local dialect, local cooking, etc. from the grandparents, and I would teach them to respect the old folks and the old ways, because that would all be part of thier own background and family roots. But I don't think I would want them to actually BELIEVE any of the old superstitions!

Learning the traditions, the songs, the folklore, etc. is ONE thing...actually believing it all is something else. For those of you raising kids in Taiwan (or considering it), I'm sure you would have to do some thinking about all of that.

My own child was raised in a secular Scandinavian culture, and is also a confirmed communist....which pretty much takes care of any problems related to religion or superstition :)

.......but which leaves a whole range of problems related to dogmatic political ideology :(

Interesting example about the pro-DPP congregation annoying KMT supporters. Are there also pro-KMT churches?

Generally-speaking politics SHOULD be kept seperate from religion, but there are some situations where I respect churches who become involved out of a moral obligation when there are pressing issues regarding human rights, refugees, war, erosion of democacy, etc.


Patrick Cowsill said...

I'm just taking a wild guess. Methodist = KMT (the religion of the Chiangs, free China, etc.); Presbyterian = DPP (Lee Tung-hui, etc.)

It's funny how people who claim they don't believe in God or religion often find something to believe in. I've heard people from Russia say communism is a religion. I don't see the use of being superstitious either (ghosts, ghost money, etc.). If it makes other people happy / comfortable (and they're not throwing virgins in old man river), then I suppose they should go ahead and continue.

Are you in Manka? I've found out Manka is not Wanhua, but rather the area around Lungshan Temple only, one region of Wanhua. I live in Ga La-king, Wanhua.

Anonymous said...

Now, I'm back in south Texas, but in Taipei I lived in 士林.

Sounds like you know more than I do about that area, but the way it was explained to me, was that 艋舺/MengJia/ManKa was simply the name that the Han settlement near the river there was known by from the mid 1700s. Just as the town north of today's Taipei was known as 大稻埕.

Of course, until the 1900s, the urban areas of both those towns was much smaller then.

Then along came Japanese city planners and administrators, wanting to map out the city and gives names to each separate district. Often the names they assigned to certain districts were based on the sound of the place, either in Chinese or Taiwanese. So they called that part of town Wan Hua, but the district (as they designated it) included the old Manka area, but also other areas that locals clearly did not consider Manka-- going almost to 小南門, including 西門町, and almost to the train station.

Is that how you heard it?


Anonymous said...

I have lived in Taiwan for a long time and I must agree with Scott's story or rather say theory. 艋舺 and 大稻埕 are occupied by those who have different origin from China at the beginning; it is much like the birds of a feather gathering together. They even fight each other, so the history book described. By the way, the name 萬華is created after the end of war.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"Often the names they assigned to certain districts were based on the sound of the place, either in Chinese or Taiwanese."

Generally speaking, Chinese and Taiwanese names for the naming of towns were based on transliterations of the various Aboriginal languages.

About the bird of a flock theory, Taiwanese frontiersmen often came into communities and believed they were from the same area in China based on the coincidence of a namesake. They had the same last name as the people living there and were able to claim an affinity based on this point. In fact, they had an Aboriginal mom and grandma; so, where they actually came from is quite debatable.

Perhaps we should say they were from Taiwan as where Aborigines came from is still under debate - some say the Philippines, other say northern Vietnam and Laos. Unfortunately, this identity is partially lost, as Taiwanese identity is patriarchal. You take your father's last name. As a result, many (I'd venture to say most) Taiwanese do not even understand that they have Aboriginal blood.

Anonymous said...

>>>"Often the names they assigned to certain districts were based on the sound of the place, either in Chinese or Taiwanese."

"Generally speaking, Chinese and Taiwanese names for the naming of towns were based on transliterations of the various Aboriginal languages".

True in many cases, I'm sure.

But I was thinking specifically about the place names officially assigned by the Japanese colonial government, and especially in places that were fairly urbanized by that time, such as 艋舺, where there were few if any aboriginal communities left intact.

I thought I recalled reading that "萬華" was the Japanese transliteration of "艋舺" (as pronounced in Taiwanese/閩南語 dialect). But I guess I "mis-remembered" that, because ChoSan mentioned above that that area was not called 萬華 until the KMT government gave it that name. I'll check my pre-war maps of the city, and see what it was called then. Does 萬華 have some old Chinese meaning, such as 大同, 忠孝, etc? Is it a placename from China?

And...if so many Han place names were transliterations of aboriginal placenames, then my next question would be: How many placenames can you think of (off the top of your head) that have more than two characters/syllables? Not counting xx山, xx鼻, xx島, etc., or names like 南市角, etc. that are easily explained in Chinese.

Ok..Taroko, for one...which is aboriginal, I'm assuming. Or...?

Chinese morphology favors two-character names, but perhaps many Han placenames are/were transliteral approximations of the aboriginal names, made to fit into the Chinese two-character morphology.


Patrick Cowsill said...

Scott, look at the 華 character. 華人 means "Chinese living abroad". The KMT did this kind of labeling; to people such as the KMT invaders of Taiwan, the Taiwanese were simply Chinese, hoping someday to get "home". Never mind that the Taiwanese left China because they were starving to death, or that they were deserted by China to the Japanese.

The term 華人 is also attached to Americans of Chinese descent. Many of these people are happy living in the US. They consider themselves to be American as well, whether based on culture, education, language or family. I am sure that many of these individuals would be annoyed to hear that people in China (and some in Taiwan) refute the point that they are American based simply on how they look, the color of their skin, eyes, hair, etc.

Toroko is a Japanese word, but probably a transliteration for an Aboriginal (perhaps Bunan) word. I am just guessing on this latter point. I don't know.

Anonymous said...

I have lived in Karenkou 花蓮港 for many years and I know well that “Taroko” certainly is not a Japanese word hence it is spelled out by their pronunciation mark, Kana カナ文字 as タロコor Japanese would rather use Kanji 漢字 instead for the names like Yoshino吉野 or Kotobuki壽. By the way, the same letter 壽 is pronounced multi-syllable, Kotobuki コトブキ in Japanese but unit-syllable in Mandarin. Obviously Chinese cannot take it; so changed to two- letter word, 壽豊 immediately after the war.
The reason Fukkenese and Cantonese prepare their ancestors remains to bring home is that they considered it is most miserable thing to be buried in the foreign land; what they created was a special jar 黄金壷 for the bones to be taken home. However, what good is it to return to your so called home, which was once your ancestor’s foreign land? Our foreign country today will be our decedents’ motherland tomorrow. Nobody knows where we come from originally and who are we exactly. Why bother? After all, we all belong to one family, “The Family of Man,” and we are all on the same boat, “The Spaceship Named Planet Earth.”

Anonymous said...

To Scott,
After careful study, it seems that 萬華is exited before the war; not a Chinese invention after the war.
Please accept my apology.

Patrick Cowsill said...

"蕃藷市 han-chû-chhī next, Patrick? Waiting". Get me started, Cho-san. I need a bit of reference here to really understand what you're talking about.