1995 / 4月
Ventine Tsai /photos courtesy of Hsueh Chi-kuang /tr. by Brent Heinrich
With a population of only 35,000 people, Meizhou Island welcomes about one million visitors a year, all due to the rising popularity of Matsu worship. This not only spurs on the development of Meizhou Island, but has also engendered a tourist industry for the entire Putian area.
In Putian City, completely lacking in recreational resources for tourists, the most compelling sight is the special feature which makes it unique throughout the world--the flow of humanity traveling there because of their faith in Matsu. In 1988 reforms in Taiwan were extended to allow visits to the mainland, which simultaneously made pilgrimages to Matsu temples all the rage. In the same year Meizhou Island was consequently designated by Fujian Province as a "Foreign Tourism Economic Zone." Three years ago, it was officially upgraded by the PRC's State Council as the eleventh National Tourism and Recreation Area. The potency of Matsu's magnetism is undeniable.
Of the million travelers that visit each year, one tenth arrive in pilgrimage groups from Taiwan, the single largest source of guests for Putian's tourist industry. In order to facilitate communication with guests, especially the predominantly elderly group tourists that take part in pilgrimages, Meizhou Island Travel Company of Putian City specially trained two-thirds of its guide ladies, so that visitors "can talk in Taiwanese."
Though commonly referred to as tourist groups, they are in fact companies of religious pilgrims. When the group members ride in their tour buses, they listen to biographical sketches and legends of Matsu or descriptions of the architectural evolution of the temple complex. And worship is their only motivation for climbing aboard ferries and crossing to the island's shores. But from the perspective of the locals involved in the travel business, guiding this sort of tourist group that is purely interested in religious rites entails coping with more than the usual amount of unexpected dilemmas.
"The dates when pilgrimage groups come to worship is determined by the casting of lots. The time they arrive on Meizhou Island must be correct down to the minute and second. It's very nerve-wracking," says tour guide Wu Xiaoshan. As soon as they have finished making their offerings at the Mother Temple, the departure time for their return flights is already imminent. But sometimes the psychic medium conveys that it is still not Matsu's time to depart. That means that everyone who is anxious will simply have to remain anxious.
When they have returned to Putian City after worshipping on Meizhou Island, pilgrims often ask to savor the delights of a "Matsu Banquet." This feast, based on the legends of Matsu and using local ingredients, was the brainchild of local chef Wang Wenji. One exemplary dish is "Matsu birthday noodles," in which peanuts, seaweed and egg bits are arranged over noodles in the shape of the Yin and Yang symbol. Other dishes include "Smooth Sailing," made from Putian seafood, and "Worshipping the Myriad Spirits." Mr. Wang reveals that the 12 course menu was first approved by Matsu herself on Meizhou Island before being formalized.
To eat the full Matsu banquet costs around RMB 1000, far beyond the means of the local consumer. Nevertheless, Taiwan's pilgrims not only fail to balk at the price, some are willing to pay double, requesting Mr. Wang to first offer the ingredients in front of a Matsu altar before cooking them. Toward this end, the Matsu Restaurant not only serves Matsu meals, but also provides a sacred Matsu statue to worship on the premises. Chef Wang avers, "This is what you might call assembly-line management."
In the last two years the Matsu craze has slowly died down. The number of religious pilgrims is not as high as when travel to the mainland was first opened up. In order to keep attracting more tourists, Meizhou Island Travel Company General Manager Cai Wanxi plans to promote a specialized travel agenda. Not only will tour group members be able to worship at the Mother Temple; they will be able to don Matsu costumes and have their hair done up in "Matsu dos." He further plans to cooperate with the Mother Temple to let guests listen to the chanting of Matsu scriptures and participate in Matsu rituals. In the evening will be held the "Chamber of Dreams." Everyone will sleep together fully clothed in the main court, absorbing the dreams conveyed by Matsu. The following dawn they will rush to have the auspicious privilege of placing the first joss stick in the day's fresh incense vessel.
Seven years ago, after Meizhou Island opened up as a "Foreign Tourism Economic Zone," large-scale construction began on the island. At the time when local residents espied a motorized tractor, they took it to be a monster from the spirit world. Such was the complete insularity that originally possessed Meizhou Island. In those days, the island had no public roads, running water or electricity. Three-star hotels and public toilets were simply unimagined. Aboard the wooden ferryboats, all that could be seen were fish and livestock. Cai Wanxi recalls that many of the Taiwan pilgrims who came in the early days described Meizhou Island as a place they "wouldn't have missed for the world, but would never come back to."
In less than a decade, more than 20 hotels have appeared on previously undeveloped land around the island. There are even karaokes and discos. And most of the land on the island that can be developed has already been sold to the Lippo Group of Indonesia, to be developed as a vacation recreation area, which will include a large-scale shopping center, a subdivision of holiday villas and a golf course. It is principally designed to attract vacationing employees of the many foreign-invested concerns that are clustered throughout Fujian and Guangdong. Besides this, Meizhou Island and Taiwan are separated by only 80 nautical miles at the closest point, and many investors are betting that Taiwan and mainland China will open up direct transport links.
By making the most of the special features of Meizhou, the National Tourism and Recreation Area's major intent is to expand the island's focus from religious pilgrimages to recreational tourism. The local government continues to promote a series of Matsu-oriented events.
The first reverberating shots of this campaign were heard five years ago with the tremendous success of the "Millennial Celebration of Matsu's Ascension to Heaven." At the time a pilgrimage group from the Chenlan Temple in Taiwan's Tachia attended the event, making a detour through Japan to circumvent travel prohibitions. All along their journey, the group progressed in a great crowd, making sacrificial bows with incense. The hosts put on a Matsu art exhibition, a Matsu conference, a commemorative Matsu postage stamp. . . . Last year's Matsu Cultural Festival sponsored a string of massive sacrificial services in honor of Matsu, sending out printed invitations to more than 200 Matsu temples in Taiwan.
"Culture raises the stage; economics sings the opera," Putian City Literary and Historical Society assistant supervisor Jiang Weitan observes. In recent years regional culture has been given a great deal of attention in mainland China. Every local government desires to stoke up the reputation of their own locale, in order to solicit tourists and foreign investment. It is hardly out of the ordinary, then, that the Putian municipal government, the ministry of tourism, and office of industry consider Meizhou Island to be very important.
In recent years, because Matsu has helped facilitate the flow across the Taiwan Strait, a new sobriquet has been added to the 64 titles she has received throughout history: "Goddess of Cross-Strait Peace." Today it appears that Matsu's role is changing from an envoy of peace to an "emissary of fortune" for the benefit of civic organizations.
To visit and worship on Meizhou Island is a lifelong aspiration of many Matsu believers from Taiwan. These pilgrimage groups have become the largest clientele for the local tourist agencies.
From the expansive vantage point of Meizhou's Mother Temple, large-scale construction seems omnipresent on this little island made famous by Matsu.
Dazzling and colorful folk entertainment groups not only champion the deities but also stimulate hometown fame, which can attract a wave of tourists. Their performances are truly a great method to "please both the gods and mankind."
Having one's hair set in the sail-shaped "Matsu do" is a way of asking for protection for the fishermen in one's family. Matsu dos, Matsu costumes and Matsu banquets all count among the special tourist resources of Meizhou Island.