The legend goes: Over a hundred years ago, a boat containing the bodies of 17 fisherman washed ashore after a storm. In the boat was a dog, who somehow survived. The dog guarded the remains of the fisherman until people a nearby village arrived. Funeral rites were performed and the fishermen were buried. The dog was offered food, but refused to eat it. Instead he jumped into the open grave “committing suicide,” i.e. was buried alive with the fisherman. In this way, the dog showed his undying loyalty to his masters (ironic word choice deliberate).
I couldn’t resist a temple dedicated to the memory of a faithful dog. And there was this intriguing sentence in the Lonely Planet guidebook: “[The temple is] associated with Taiwan’s underworld and it’s not uncommon to see tattooed gangsters and prostitutes about at night.”
We didn’t see any gangsters or prostitutes lurking about. We didn’t see anyone other than a couple of construction workers taking a nap during their lunch break.
The temple was dingy, dark, and spare, more or less deserted. There wasn’t much there, other than a 30ft dog statue in the parking lot (which was worth seeing).
It turns out we visited the “new” Temple of the Eighteen Lords, which was built to capitalize on the popularity of the original (making it a sort of copycat or counterfeit). We passed right by the old one without even knowing it. It was sandwiched between the wall of a nuclear power plant and the main highway. I’m not even sure it was open.
The original temple has an interesting history. It began as a shrine built atop the resting place of the fishermen, and their dog. In the early 1970s, the shrine faced an existential threat when the Taiwan Power Company built a nuclear reactor next door. Rather than be bulldozed, the spirits of the shrine fought back. Rumors circulated that construction equipment mysteriously failed whenever it came near the shrine. The builders were ultimately forced to change their original plans. The shrine was left untouched, and a what was a local tradition suddenly went viral. Soon busloads of tourists were visiting the shrine, which was upgraded to a temple in 1975.
The Temple of the Eighteen Lords was a popular pilgrimage site in the 80s and early 90s, attracting large crowds late at night, allegedly when the spirits are at the height of their powers. The temple had a reputation of attracting gamblers, gangsters, and prostitutes—and other marginal peoples. The temple spirits purportedly granted any wish—they were apparently unbound by moral conviction, unlike the traditional gods of Taiwanese folk religion. Interestingly, the spirits of the fishermen accepted lit cigarettes as offerings, rather than incense. (But what about the dog spirit, I wonder. He was one of the eighteen lords, after all. Was he a smoker too?)
Not many people go to the original temple anymore. So I read. Reasons are given, but they seem (to me) inadequate to explain the temple’s decline. Then again, why was the temple so popular in the first place? It attracted busloads of tourists, caused traffic jams late in the evening. The temple legend inspired a TV serial and a movie. Why exactly? What unseen, dark forces conspired to produce this cultural phenomenon?
I’d like to see it the Temple of the Eighteen Lords, the real one, in the wee hours of the morning this time. I’d like to know whether it still attracts tattooed gangsters and other archetypes of the criminal underworld. Does any remnant of that seedy, carnival funhouse atmosphere still exist? Regardless, I would like to offer the temple spirits a cigarette, if they still smoke. I will bring some kibble or a dog bone for their faithful companion.