Money burns on island of the dead
Taiwan's people have united to help those who survived the earthquake - and those who didn't, writes David Usborne
Friday was one of the most precious days in the Taiwanese calendar - the Mid-Autumn Festival, when the nation takes a holiday to celebrate what is regarded as the fullest moon of the entire year - and this temple, on the eastern fringe of Taipei, should have been thronging with joyous disciples. It was not. Neither the date nor the extravagance of the temple's architecture could dispel a quite different atmosphere: one of sadness.
Four days after Taiwan suffered its most powerful earthquake this century, the scheduled full-moon celebrations were cancelled. Instead, a stream of people approached the brightly-decorated stone oven that stands in front of the temple. They each carried a wad of yellowed paper - fake money thrown into the fire to help the dead pay their way when they arrive in heaven.
The money-burning ceremonies, observed by both Buddhists and Taoists, will carry on all across Taiwan for many days to come. Official estimates put the numbers killed by last Tuesday's tremor at over 2,100, but aid workers think the final toll could go higher. Indeed, only now are rescue teams reaching some of the remotest areas in the central mountains where the earthquake was strongest. More collapsed buildings are being found; so are whole villages devastated by rock and mud slides, which have buried homes or swept them away.
It may be that Taiwan has reason to feel lucky. True, the destruction in towns like Puli and Taichung, both of which I visited, is shocking. Twenty-storey buildings now lie on their sides. From the air, some look almost like creatures that have succumbed to pestilence and keeled over and died. From ground level, you see how so many other buildings, seemingly intact, have in fact shrunk downwards, their lower storeys pancaked into dense rubble. And you know that in that rubble there are bodies waiting to be found.
Even in Puli, however, which was virtually at the earthquake's epicentre, you are also struck by how much of the town is still standing. There are no scenes of the kind witnessed in the Turkey earthquake last month, when entire streets and neighbourhoods were levelled. Inevitably, you ask the question: if this had been just a little more powerful, if it had been triggered five miles beneath the earth's surface instead of 25 miles, what might have happened? What if it had happened directly under the capital, Taipei?
Taiwan's suffering is already immense, however. In Taichung, which sits on the western plain, the bodies are coming down from the mountains faster than the authorities can cope with them. Ice has now become one of the commodities that all Taiwanese are being asked to donate. In other towns, bodies are being laid out in rows under Buddhist saffron robes in schools and community centres. And, everywhere, the landscape of central Taiwan is blotched by the bright colours of tents erected by the tens of thousands who are now homeless.
Those without proper shelter will surely receive help soon. In a coming together of a nation that only disasters can produce, the people of Taiwan have been rushing to aid those worst hit, and displaying all the vigour that transformed this island from a rural backwater into one of the world's richest economies in a couple of generations.
The scene outside City Hall in Taipei, designated as a collection point for privately donated goods, has been one of organised chaos for days. In a raucous human relay chain, volunteers pull donations from cars that draw up. As fast as they can, they cram whatever they receive into dustbin bags and cardboard boxes - batteries, blankets, baby carriers, generators, everything you can imagine. Within minutes, the boxes and bags are hurled on to the backs of lorries that leave in a steady convoy for the journey south.
"We are trying to pack everything we can and get it to the people who are suffering as fast as we can," Shan Reishu, a city civil servant who has given her time to help supervise the collection, explained on Friday. "You see how many people there are here, many of them students. Everybody knows that they have to give their help."
Help is flowing also from the religious communities. The director of the Tsue Huei Temple, Kuo Yishou, said 200 of its regular worshippers had already left Taipei to volunteer in the regions worst affected. On Wednesday, hundreds came to the temple for a special ceremony of mourning, held under the gaze of Grandmother. "It was for two purposes," Mrs Kuo explained. "To pray that the victims enjoy their new lives in heaven and to pray that the injured are quickly released from pain."
Similar gestures have been made by the slightly smaller Sungshan Fengtien Temple, further down Elephant Mountain. Its director, Wong Jun Siang, displayed the official receipts for the pounds 250,000 he had given to the government's disaster relief effort. "The earthquake is the most terrible disaster in Taiwan this century, and almost all the people of Taiwan are giving whatever they can to help the people who are suffering still," he said.
The spirit of solidarity in Taiwan is not completely free of anger, however. People are beginning to ask whether the government responded too slowly to the earthquake and if it did enough to enforce codes that were meant to protect modern buildings against tremors even as big as this one, which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. One contractor has already been arrested on charges that he cut corners in putting up one of the buildings that collapsed. Scores of others are reported to be under investigation by the government for similar cowboy practices.
Attending a memorial service on Friday at still another temple, this one in central Taipei, Tsai Chia-ching expressed his own dissatisfaction, his voice raised above the chanting of Buddhist monks. "The government reacted too slowly," he said. "It was many hours before they sent in troops to rescue victims, and many hours before they sent in helicopters".
While rescue teams pulled a six-year-old boy from one collapsed building on Friday, hopes of finding any more survivors must by now be forlorn. For the dead there is no remedy for what the earth wrought on Tuesday. There is only prayer and the burning of pieces of paper.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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