Chen Ching-ho's (陳慶和) gold teeth shine nearly as bright as the new gold wall behind him. Sitting in the middle of the temple he's looked after for decades, he offers cigarettes to anyone who comes within arm's reach. He's excited; in just six weeks the goddess Matsu will return to her seat after having been knocked from it in the September 1999 earthquake that killed over 2,000 people in Nantou County and left 100,000 homeless. For Chen, the completion of this new temple is the end of an almost four-year wait. And for many of Chichi's (often romanized as Jiji) residents, it's symbolic of a spiritual rebirth.
Kuangsheng Temple (廣盛宮) has stood on Chichi Township's eponymous street since 1789, shortly after settlers from China's Fujian Province first arrived there. Like so many temples in Taiwan, it was built to enshrine Matsu, the goddess of the sea, who the settlers believed had protected them on their journey across the Strait.
What's more, as Chichi began to thrive economically during the 19th century (the area was one of the world's foremost exporters of mothballs), the local community began seeing Matsu as the guardian of their financial well-being.
"Anyone who gives to Matsu is given to in return," Chen said. "Long ago, if you didn't have anything to eat, you came to the temple and you would be fed."
Not just a center of worship, the temple has also become something of an economic indicator of how the community has fared over the past two centuries and how it has recovered from the 921 quake. In the 214 years since it was first consecrated, it's been rebuilt or repaired at least six times. Forty-four years after it was completed, locals decided it should be moved to accommodate an increased number of worshippers. Thirty-four years later, it was moved back. It was repaired and saved from dilapidation again in 1894, 1917, 1935 and 1969, when its design was altered to match the style of temples in southern Fujian Province -- an expensive effort that would have been impossible prior to Taiwan's "economic miracle." Most of the money for repairs came from community businesses and local benefactors.
The same is true of the NT$20 million restoration currently underway. Chang Yu-hsiang (張玉香) is one such benefactor. She donated one of two stone lions that guard the front entrance to the temple, each worth NT$250,000 -- no small amount for the owner of a local beauty parlor.
"I grew up in Chichi and have prayed at this temple for almost 60 years. The temple has always protected me and my ancestors," Chang said. "Now the lion will protect the temple. With him here, we won't need to worry about another earthquake."
Right now Chang is worried about the inscription on the lion's pedestal. Prominent gold characters carved on its front inform passersby of Chang's generosity, but the middle character of her name (玉, jade) has been poorly carved and isn't easily recognizable. "What is your name?" one of the paint crew asks. "Yu-hsiang!" she says irritably. "It's supposed to be yu but it looks like wang (王, king)."
"Don't worry," the crewman tells her, "no one is called fragrant king."
The problem could be easily fixed were it not for the fact that the lion and its pedestal -- along with the intricate ceiling, four carved stone pillars and a number of other features -- were imported from China; a fact which itself is an economic indicator.