Charlogy Online

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Haunted Houses of Keelung

Belief in ghosts in widespread in Taiwan. While we in the West have our traditions of campfire stories and haunted castles, not many people really believe in them, do they? I mean, really take them seriously. Put it this way, here in Taiwan you’re much more likely to meet someone who claims they’ve actually seen a ghost themselves, and not just the friend of a friend. I used to tutor a young man who confided in me that he occasionally saw spirits of the departed walking around near his home. How do you know they are ghosts? I asked him. Because, he said, as they walked towards me, from the waist down there was nothing there!

We’re in the middle of Ghost Month here in Taiwan, the seventh month in the lunar calendar, where it is believed ghosts and spirits emerge from the nether world. Especially on Ghost Day, the thirteenth day of the month, which fell on Monday last week. On Tomb Sweeping Day, which occurs in the spring, it is traditional to pay your respects to your deceased ancestors. But on Ghost Day, your ancestors repay the visit. So everywhere you go on Ghost Day, you’ll see the tables that people have set in front of their homes and businesses, laden down with fruits and cookies and various goodies for their ravenous old relatives. It’s common enough in Taiwan to see people burning ghost money at various times of the year. These are printed paper notes for your ancestors to use in the afterlife, and people burn them in metal buckets outside their homes. The act is a spiritual bank transfer if you like with the facsimile cash passing over by means of fire. And I’ve never seen so many people burning ghost money as on Ghost Day itself -or so much of it. In fact, your biggest danger on Ghost Day came not from the spirits, but from the smoke – not to mention the drifting fragments of still burning ash. Many an item of clothing was later reported to have small holes singed in it as a result.

But I wasn’t sure how I could mark Ghost Day Occidental Tourist style. That is, until one of my colleagues suggested I might like to visit one of Taiwan’s four big haunted houses. I was not aware of Taiwan’s four big haunted houses, so I embarked on a quest. It was in this search which took me through many a darkened library store room and cobwebbed archive that I uncovered a curious and ancient parchment. And this, once I had deciphered the runes, did indeed speak of four ghostly locations. Actually that’s not true. I just looked on the Internet. And it did seem to be the case that of all the notable haunted houses around the island, there is a consensus on the big four. Taiwan’s four most spooky dwellings for the visitor brave - or foolish - enough to visit.

Of the so-called big four, one is in Minhsiung, near Chiayi in southern central Taiwan. It’s also the location of RTI’s National Radio Museum. And it’s too far away. So that one was out. The second was in Hsinchu in northern Taiwan. That was closer, but still further than I wanted to go. But numbers three and four on the list were located in the northern port city of Keelung. Perfect. Two of Taiwan’s top haunted houses in one town, only about half an hour out of Taipei.

So it was time to head out for a spot of ghost hunting. And there’s nothing like catching the train at Taipei Main Station to put you in the mood. The underground platforms always feel dismal and enclosed like a waiting room to the underworld. Spectral lights then pierce the gloom as the train screeches into the station like a banshee. Trish has come with me today – I’ll be honest enough to say I didn’t fancy going it alone on this one. And like me she also had various horror movie scenarios going on in her mind.

Trish: What happens if we go in to the haunted house and then we disappear? And then all they find is your recorder.
Me: Oh, you mean like the Blair Witch Project or one of those movies.
Trish: Yeah.
Me: Well I hope they’ll at least do a better job on the editing.

But while we travel, let me tell you about the first place we are going to. One of my guides to the haunted houses is an anonymous blogger who visited all four sites. Here’s what he or she had to say:

The results of my observations were that the Minhsiung ghost house is not as fearsome as you might imagine. And the house in Hsinchu is about as scary as an ornamental garden. But the house in downtown Keelung – there is something truly disturbing about that one. Why is it scary? If it is haunted you can’t tell from the outside. And no-one has come to harm by it. But it scares me because here is a place, right in downtown Keelung – prime real estate – and yet no-one dares to rebuild on it. Is that not strange?

This house – number three on the list – is a three-storey European-style town house, built about seventy years ago by a local merchant. Located on the corner of two of the city’s busiest streets with views over the harbour. The merchant and his family lived there for a time. Then after the war, with US troops stationed in Taiwan, the house became a bar frequented by the GIs. Then at some point the bar closed and the house gradually fell into disrepair. And stories began to circulate about the deserted house, as stories do. Some said a lovelorn girl had hanged herself there. Others said it was the site where a spurned suitor had murdered the object of his desire. But one thing is certain – the building has been empty for at least thirty years, probably longer.

Arriving in Keelung, we took a taxi to the address I’d obtained. Only to find that it was all of three hundred yards away from the station. But it was worth it, as I was able to quiz the taxi driver on what he knew of the house. No one dares live there, he said. And if anyone goes in, they come out again pretty quickly. Some of them have even fallen sick. Yes, I said, but has anyone ever seen anything? He didn’t know.

Me: Well, here I am on site at the first of Keelung’s famous haunted houses. We’re right in place where the center of Keelung meets the harbour. And it is a strange feeling, because Keelung town centre is just right here and it continues either side of what is just a derelict European-style town house on the corner of a street. It’s like a 1930s period gap in the middle of a modern street. What do you think, Trish?
Trish: I think it just looks like a derelict old building… with severe damp problems.
Me: There’s many strange stories about this house. Late at night maybe there would be strange ghostly lights coming from behind the windows upstairs. Or even occasionally a face…
Trish: Maybe there’s squatters inside.
Me: We’re looking up, it’s three storeys tall, it’s actually got trees and shrubs growing up on the roof, it’s been vacant so long. It’s all blackened with neglect, decades of grime and dirt from the streets has accumulated on it. Looking at the windows now, is any face going to-
Trish: Ooh, there’s a ghost!
Me: Don’t do that.

We both felt a little underwhelmed by this one. Admittedly the house does look starkly out of place. But it seems the real reason no one has rebuilt on the site is that the original owner’s children have yet to divide their inheritance. In any case, we decided to move on to Keelung’s second haunted location, or number four on the list. Our mystery blogger was fairly cool about this one however:

The fourth house is not really a haunted house in my view. It’s just that the lay of the land gives it a strong yin factor which creates a certain ‘miasma.’ So the place’s yin can make you feel uncomfortable as you pass by it. But it’s not because it’s haunted.

In other words, any spookiness was an effect of the location’s feng shui, the traditional way of identifying good or bad places based on their location relative to mountains and water. And when we arrived we felt sure we’d come to the wrong place. Haunted house number four looked more like a novelty castle. And worse, it wasn’t even abandoned – it was a bar restaurant.

Me: Hmm, well this doesn’t look right, does it? I mean, this building looks like sort of a gloomy mock castle building, but it’s…
Trish: It seems to be a fully-functioning bar.
Me: Yeah, it’s like a restaurant where they do-
Trish: Karaoke.
Me: They do karaoke and fried prawns. This can’t be right at all. Ghosts don’t like fried prawns, do they? Let’s ask around here somewhere.

But enquiring of a nearby shopkeeper, we were assured that this was indeed the place. The shopkeeper said that when she was small she had also heard the place was haunted.

Me: But it doesn’t really look that scary, does it? I mean, it looks like a place that’s built to look a bit like a spooky castle.
Trish: But it doesn’t.
Me: I mean, if you’re going to say a building is haunted just because it’s got a slightly different design… Well, this is as close as we can get I think, we can’t go through a metal gate… but it all looks in order, doesn’t it? It’s not the cleanest place… but we’re looking here onto a small terrace balcony where there’s some tables out… and it just looks like – well, maybe not the funnest place to come for a meal, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary, is it? Now our mystery blogger said that he or she didn’t consider this a haunted place either but reckoned the qi of the place was just bad. That it had too heavy a yin factor because of the lie of the land, and I guess it’s down at the bottom of a hill and next to the road, so whether that gives it bad feng shui I don’t know, I’m not an expert. But the blogger seemed to reckon this created a misma of qi which would drain your energy and leave you feeling uncomfortable as you walked by. Do you feel uncomfortable?
Trish: No, but it smells kind of funny and I wouldn’t want to eat here.
Me: Ah, well that’ll be the miasma then I guess.
Trish: To be honest, all in all I’m fairly disappointed with these haunted houses.
Me: Yeah, there’s not much really going on, is there? No, er… oh, there was a big black butterfly! Which looked a little bit like a bat… no, even that’s straining it a bit, isn’t it?

Trish then said she wanted to leave as she was being pestered by numerous flies.

Trish: Urgh! The flies keep landing on me!
Me: Infested with flies? Then you mean this could be the dwelling place of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies?
Trish: Er, no.

So those were the results of my ghost hunting this week. A little disappointing I’ll admit. And I must confess that I can’t quite make out just how these two locations in Keelung made it into Taiwan’s top four. But on the other hand, would I rather have seen a ghost? Er, on the whole, no. Funny how to see a ghost must be a horrible thing, yet to not see one leaves you feeling disappointed. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – as the ghosts themselves might say. Til next time, for the Occidental Tourist, I’m Charlie Horror. I mean, Storrar.

The Occidental Tourist originally broadcast on RTI on 2nd September, 2007.



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