Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 2 News List

Pingsi festival sends lanterns toward heaven

GOOD WISHES More than 40 diplomats, the premier and a Thai singer gathered in the mountainous township to pay respects to victims of the tsunami

By Melody Chen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Spectators observe the rising of a giant lantern at Saturday's opening of the Pingsi Lantern Festival at Pingsi Middle School in Taipei County. Despite the strong winds causing some lanterns to set on fire, the festival was a success.

PHOTO: SEAN CHAO, TAIPEI TIMES

It was chilly and rainy in Pingsi, a mountainous township an hour's drive from downtown Taipei, on Saturday night. But Thai singer TAE managed to squeeze a night out of his tight schedule to sing for those who had gathered there for a special occasion.

The event, called "Light of Peace, City of Hope," was held in commemoration for the victims of the Asian tsunami. Participants wrote their wishes or blessings for those affected by the tragedy on lanterns or paper balloons, and set them aloft.

TAE was in Taiwan when the tsunami hit nations in Southeast Asia on Dec. 26. His friends called him from Thailand telling him the country was struck by huge waves.

"I thought in my heart: This is impossible. Where did the tsunami come from?' At that time, I was planning to have a vacation in Thailand and go snorkeling. I ended up joining a rescue team on the beach and snorkeling to seek bodies in the sea," TAE told participants at Saturday's event.

TAE, who has often had nightmares after searching for bodies in the sea for a few days, said he still felt the pain of tsunami victims.

"My friends' houses were swept away. When I worked with our rescue team, I saw international rescue teams from South Korea, Taiwan, the US, and other countries. I was moved," he said.

So when TAE received an invitation from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) to represent tsunami victims in Thailand by joining the activity in Pingsi, he decided to take a day off from his work because he wanted to say blessings to those suffering from the tragedy.

More than 40 foreign diplomats and their spouses attended the event, which was co-organized by the MOFA and the Taipei County Government at Pingsi Middle School.

Saturday was one of the coldest days of the winter. The temperature dropped to below 8?C. Yet the diplomats, wearing raincoats and holding umbrellas, sat in the rain quietly and watched the night's program for nearly two hours.

"Nearly 300,000 people were killed by the tsunami. More lost their families and were left homeless. It was a disaster in human history," said Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Quyang Jui-hsiung (歐陽瑞雄).

Every 20 minutes, 100 or 200 lanterns were set aloft at the same time from the playground of the middle school. Despite the rain, the lanterns, with people's wishes written all over them, rose slowly into the sky.

"It was the first time I have joined Pingsi's heavenly lantern activity. On my way here, I saw from the window of my car hundreds of lanterns floating in the dark skies. They are like stars. Suddenly my heart was filled with warmth and joy," said Premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), who came to the town to make his wishes as part of the event.

According to the elders of Pingsi, the tradition of setting off heavenly lanterns began during the Ching Dynasty. At that time, bands of outlaws frequently raided villages around Pingsi, forcing local residents to seek refuge in the mountains.

The heavenly lanterns were signals used by the village watchmen to inform the refugees that their houses were safe again. When those hiding in the mountains saw the lanterns in the sky, they knew it was time to go home.

Though the raids ceased long ago, villagers in Pingsi have still preserved the tradition of setting off heavenly lanterns, the elders said. Hsieh, who led the foreign diplomats in setting off their lanterns, said he hoped the countries' political parties can cooperate.

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