Zhou the Millionaire

By Joe Hung, The China Post

Taipei Metro has a station called Guting (古亭), where passengers can change subway trains to go to Nanshijiao (南勢角). It means Old Pavilion, but the place used to be called Koting in Hoklo and Guting in Mandarin (鼓亭). Ko or Gu, a homophone of the Chinese word old (古), means drum. This small area was so called because a watchtower was erected there while Taipei was still a frontier town known as Banka, which Hoklo immigrants founded in the eighteenth century. Atop the watchtower was a large drum, which guards would beat to warn residents in the neighborhood of raids by head-hunter Atayal braves from Ulai, a hot spring resort in suburban Taipei now.

Settlers in Guting came from Anxi (安溪), a county in the prefecture of Quanzhou in Fujian Province. One of the most influential families in the newly created settlement was that of Zhou. Its founding father was Zhou Tingbu (周廷部), better known as Zhou Baiwan or Zhou the Millionaire (周百萬). Legend has it that he found a cache of silver by luck and wisely used it to become a millionaire but killed a lamprey spirit by mistake to doom his family. A son of a peasant in Anxi, Zhou left his home village alone for Taiwan in 1803.

He was a tenant farmer at Guting at first. Having saved some money, he opened a small grocery store and sent for his wife back at home in Anxi. She came and they built a good, though small, grocery business. On a summer day years later, Zhou went to Banka, present-day Wanhua in Taipei, to stock up his grocery store for the Mid-Year Festival (中元節), which is commonly referred to as the Ghost Festival, celebrated on and around the fifteenth day of the seventh moon on the Chinese lunar calendar. The seventh moon is commonly known as the Month of Ghosts, for it is time the dead are released from Hell to visit relatives on earth. It was after sunset when he was able to return home with a cartful of victuals necessary for the celebration. “Let’s have supper and retire tonight,” Zhou suggested to his wife. “We’ll make a full inventory the first thing in the morning.” “Oh, no. Do it right away,” the clever wife said. “Tomorrow is the Birthday of Qiniuma (七娘媽). Many customers will come to make a special purchase.” Qiniuma is Star Weaver or Vega. She is believed to meet her husband Altair once a year on the seventh day of the seventh moon. The birthday of the Weaver is still observed often by parents to mark their offspring’s coming of age at sixteen sui. (According to the Chinese way of counting age, a person is one sui or one year old the day he or she is born.) Lovers would make wishes on the occasion, just as the Tang emperor Xuanzhong did with his imperial concubine Yang Guihui, or at least so said by Bai Juyi, one of the greatest Chinese poets (772-846) in his “Song of Eternal Sorrow.”