The Eighteen Kings Temple (十八王公廟) was one of Taiwan’s most popular temples during the 1980s and early 1990s. Cars would line up for several kilometers along the coastal highway (No. 2) between Tamsui (淡水) and Jinshan (金山) to visit this small roadside temple — all to pay homage to 17 fishermen and a dog.
The dog is the main attraction, as well as the center of worship. The story, as told by the temple: sometime in the last century, 17 fishermen and their canine friend were crossing the Taiwan Strait when their boat capsized. The fishermen drowned, but the dog survived. When the bodies washed ashore, the locals, in keeping with customs, prepared a collective grave and ghost temple on a cliff overlooking the shore. The dog — ever loyal to its masters — jumped into the grave with the bodies and refused to leave. The dog was buried alive, and is thus called the 18th of the Eighteen Kings.
“It’s very effective here — whatever you request [of the Eighteen Kings] — you will get it,” said Cai Huang Meixue (蔡黃美雪), who works for the temple selling jinzhi (金紙), or spirit money, the gold-colored paper used as prayer offerings.
But no one seems to visit these days. The fun, carnival-like atmosphere for which this ocean-side temple was once renowned has faded away. Sitting on the side of a cliff, adjacent to the First Nuclear Power Plant (核一), the temple looks rundown, and the outdoor food court across the road is deserted. Now only a handful of vendors sit in front of the temple, selling rice and meat dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves (肉粽) and braised snails (燒酒螺). A pack of stray dogs loiters about; one occasionally gets up to chase a passing car or motorcycle.
The temple’s main appeal was its unusual and weird practices. Ghosts are worshipped like gods, with wooden statues of fishermen and the dog placed in an altar. Instead of incense sticks, visitors light cigarettes and place them in the urn. Worshippers don’t normally touch images of deities, but here visitors come to stroke and rub two bronze statues of the dog. And the busiest time for worship at the temple is during the wee hours of the morning, when the ghost-spirits are said to be at their most powerful, and thus more likely to grant visitors their wishes.
Lian Tian-shen (練天申), 76, one of the managers of the temple, blames the decline of visitors on two things: the construction of a bridge that diverted main traffic away from the temple, and aggressive hawkers who sell trinkets outside the temple grounds.
But the decline also reflects changes in Taiwan’s economy, according to Robert Weller, professor and chairman of the anthropology department at Boston University, who has written extensively about religion and society in Taiwan.
The temple reached the height of its popularity during a period of economic uncertainty in the 1980s, according to Weller. Small, labor-intensive businesses were becoming less profitable, which increased the “feeling of competition and unpredictability of the market.”
In an email interview, he explained that “people had a lot of money but very few lines of productive investment — this was before people could invest legally on the mainland.”
Weller said this was an “unusual moment” for Taiwan’s economy, which “seemed like a gambling economy to people, instead of an economy that rewarded hard work or smart entrepreneurship.”