Greg marvels at water lanterns during Keelung Ghost Festival

Members of each kinship association tend to their water lanterns before sending it off into the sea. (The China Post)

TAIPEI (The China Post) — The sea has always played a central feature in the mythology and identity of island nations, and Taiwan is no exception.

More so in the northeastern port town of Keelung, where on the highlight of its month-long Ghost Festival is the setting ablaze of hand-made water lanterns on the seashore.

Though the name might conjure an idea in our minds of a small, traditional paper lantern, these water lanterns a large enough to be carted off by two or three participants until reaching the shoreline.

Built by the local kinship associations, each water lantern is a personally customized model of a temple’s façade propped up by a wooden frame, and whose sides and rear are marked with the surname(s) belonging to that specific association.

Elaborate details are added to these paper temples, with dragons curling up its columns, countless images of flowers, birds and other Buddhist and Taoist iconography, as well as small light bulbs stringed throughout the structure to bring out its yellow, red, and green hues.

The same kinship association that lead the afternoon parade has its own lanterns – one for Bai (白) households, another for the Tong (童) – which are then placed into a large wooden boat.

Traditionally, it was believed that the day ends at 11 p.m. rather than at midnight.

In order for the water lantern’s flames to successfully invite the spirits within the sea for festivities, this final ceremony of the day must begin no later than 9 p.m., which takes place at a spacious parking lot facing a rough, rocky coast.

As the water lanterns are being brought over from the city center, they form a queue facing the billowing waves below the stone wall.

The same kinship association that leads the afternoon parade has its own lanterns — one for Bai (白) households, another for the Tong (童) — which are then placed into a large wooden boat.

The entire day of festivities has culminated into this moment, as the Bai and Tongs’ lanterns are set on fire and their boat is rested onto the choppy waters. Onlookers’ eyes glow with the flames consuming not only the water lanterns but the ship itself, now wrestling with the incessant waves.

The fireworks set off on a pier nearby provide an exciting backdrop to the crashing and crunching of wood against the parking lot’s stone wall.

The ship and sea lanterns are no more, but there are still dozens more to be set off into the sea, all of it done in an attempt to attract spirits from below and join Keelung residents in their carnivalesque reverence.