Temples

Longgang Mosque (龍岡清真寺)

This post is the second part of a long-planned three part series on Longgang (龍岡), a culturally and historically significant area of Zhongli, the city I’ve called home for the past decade.

In the first post I introduced and listed the reasons  why it stands apart from your average Taiwanese community. 

This post will focus on the beautiful and historic mosque that serves the people of that unique community.  

If you missed the first post, which focuses more on the history of the area and more importantly answers the question as to why the area has a mosque, I’d recommend taking some time to go back and read that one before moving on with this one.

When I first arrived in Taiwan over a decade ago, an expat sighting around town was still something that was considered a rare experience.

Whenever someone saw myself or my friends, they were likely to stare for a bit and then suddenly shout “American!” or “so handsome!”.

Neither are actually true statements.

Over the years however I’ve come to accept these kinds of things as part of the friendly and welcoming nature of the people of Taiwan.

In recent years though, there has been a noticeable shift in the way some people, especially the younger generation react to the sight of a foreigner.

While most are still quite hospitable and friendly, it is becoming common to hear the experiences of some expats who are randomly approached on the streets and told to “go back to America”.

There are of course a myriad of reasons for this.

That being said, a group of foul-mouthed kids was probably just what the doctor ordered to ease a bit of the ‘weirdness’ I felt while visiting the local Mosque.

I had known about the Longgang mosque for a while and that it was an important cultural and historic building here in Zhongli - But I truthfully always felt a bit apprehensive to visit (especially with my camera) as I’ve leanred in my travels that mosques aren’t the easiest places to photograph. 

Normally in Taiwan I walk around temples and take photos and have never once felt unwelcome or that I was doing something wrong. Taiwanese people love sharing their culture with foreigners and no matter what you believe in, you are free to walk around and appreciate all the art and culture that is put on display.

I feel like churches and mosques are a bit different. When in Taiwan though, do as the Taiwanese do! 

When I approached the mosque I took quite a few photos of the beautiful gate and the exterior (trying not to be noticed) and saw a bunch of young boys hanging out on a picnic table in the shade nearby.

They were having a loud conversation with a woman in a hijab and the conversation seemed lighthearted - save for the fact that the kids had a penchant for using foul language. 

I decided that the lightheartedness and lack of formality was probably evidence that while I was visiting a mosque, it was a mosque in Taiwan and probably very much like every other temple or religious place I’ve visited. 

After a few minutes of banter between the teenage boys, the lady walked over to me and said very plainly in Mandarin: “Hey handsome, what brings you here?” I replied that I was studying the history of the area and learned that the mosque had quite a bit of historic significance to the area.

That was enough to earn myself a guided tour!

The Longgang Mosque dates back to the 1960s and shares an interesting history that coincides with the political and military history of the Republic of China Armed Forces.

With this blog I won’t be focusing on the religious aspects of the mosque but will instead spend more time on its historical importance and the reason why it exists in a country with a very small Muslim population.

Islam in Taiwan

You’d probably also be surprised to find out that the history of Islam in Taiwan dates back to 1683. Walking around the streets of Taiwan, you’re not likely to ever notice anything Islamic in nature. 

Even though there is a three century history of Islam in Taiwan, the Islamic population makes up only 0.2 percent of the total population today. 

These days the Taiwanese government does a pretty good job promoting religious freedoms and over the past few years has done quite a bit to ensure that Taiwan is a safe and inclusive place for Islamic tourists to visit.

Taipei City in particular has done quite a bit to identify and promote Halal-friendly restaurants and has committed to constructing more Mosques and prayer rooms in public spaces. 

It is probably safe to say though that when most locals think about Islam, they are likely to associate the religion with foreign labourers from Indonesia.

I’m sure few people really have no idea how, where or when Muslims worship. It just isn’t something that people notice in their everyday life. 

  1. Islam in Taiwan: Lost in Tradition (Al Jazeera) 
  2. Taiwanese Muslim: The History of Islam in Taiwan 
  3. The Future Faces South (New Bloom)

There are currently seven large mosques in Taiwan that serve not only the religious needs of the foreign labourer population (and tourists) but also the people who came to Taiwan from the Yunnan-Burma region in the 1950s and 1960s.

Prior to the 1950s it was unlikely that you’d find many Muslims in Taiwan. When the Kuomintang was forced to relocate thousands of guerrillas and their dependents from the Yunnan-Burma border region in the 1950s-1960s, the nation was suddenly faced with a population of Muslims who had no place to worship.

To solve that problem the government and religious organizations worked together to construct five mosques between 1947 and 1967 in Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung and Zhongli.

Longgang Mosque (龍岡清真寺)

In 1967, the Zhongli Mosque was built in the Longgang area of the city where there was not only a high population of evacuees from the Yunnan-Burma region but also several military bases and military villages. 

The Mosque that we see today is the result of several periods of construction, expansion and renovation throughout the fifty years of its existence.

When the mosque was originally constructed in 1967 it was considerably smaller than it is now and was hastily built (much like the military housing in the villages nearby) using materials and construction techniques that weren’t suitable for Taiwan’s humid environment.

After joining the Chinese Muslim Association (中國回教協會) and receiving funds from Saudi Arabia the group was able to reconstruct and renovate the existing building as well as purchase land adjacent to the mosque in order to construct dormitories, shower rooms and a kitchen.

The mosque complex we see today was completed in 1995 and consists of the main building and a larger one next to it that serves as the official residence of the Mosque’s Imam (Abdullah Liu - 柳根榮) and where the administrative staff offers classes to the public.

I’m not as well versed in the design techniques of Islamic Mosques as I am with East Asian Temple design but what I can say is that the mosque is quite a bit different than what you’re probably used to in Taiwan and is very minimalistic in design.

The exterior and interior of the building are a dark shade of green (which symbolizes freedom) with plain white walls on the inside.

As is custom, the Mosque is gender segregated with separate entrances for both men and women - Men worship on the top floor while women are relegated to the first floor.

I would typically complain that this type of segregation is a terrible thing but in the case of this mosque, I’d say the women are the winners due to the fact that the heat on the top floor of the Mosque was almost unbearable while I was touring it.

The Mosque is open every day and is available for the daily call to prayer.

The busiest day of the week is on Fridays when the Imam offers services to the public. 

The atmosphere at this mosque is quite laid back and considering the historical importance it has in the area, it is also attracts a few curious people who stop by to check it out.

Travellers shouldn’t worry that they are intruding on sacred space, that they won’t be welcome to visit or that they will have religious pushed on them - The people who run the mosque are welcoming and there are signs in Chinese, English, Arabic and a few other languages that explain the history of the mosque to visitors. 

Getting There

If you are coming from another area of the country and want to visit the Mosque, the best way to get there via public transportation is to take a train or bus into Zhongli (中壢) and then from the bus station (next to the train station) take a bus (#112) headed toward “Zhong Zheng” (忠貞) getting off at Longdong Road (龍東路).

Address: No. 216, Longdong Rd. Zhongli District, Taoyuan City. (桃園市中壢區龍東路216號)

 

Gallery / Flickr (High Res Shots)

Sanzhi Seashell Temple (三芝貝殼廟)

A few weeks back I found myself driving along the North Coast on my way to take photos of the scenic Laomei Green Reef. While driving I noticed sign on the side of the road that pointed towards the famous “Sea Shell Temple”.

The temple was one that I had been aware of for quite some time and was always on my list of places to visit, but had never found the time to visit.

It was still quite early and as I preferred to take photos at Laomei a bit later in the afternoon, I decided to visit the temple first.

I was under the assumption that as the highway was next to the ocean that the so-called Sea Shell Temple would naturally be a short detour from the main road. To my surprise however the temple was a twenty minute drive up the mountains and the ocean could only be seen from a distance.

Pulling up to the temple gave me the strange feeling that I found myself in the wrong location. There was a large, but shoddy parking lot full of pot holes which led up to the rear of a building that looked a little bit like a poorly pieced together mountain shack.

I thought to myself that this couldn’t be the famous temple that I’ve heard about. The pictures I had seen made it look like it was a glittering palace but what I was seeing from the outside were nothing of the sort.

Instead of turning around and leaving though, I figured after driving all the way up the mountain that I should at least check it out - and I’m lucky I did!

The Sanzhi Sea-Shell Temple turned out to be is one of the strangest, yet most beautiful temples that I have visited in Taiwan. I’m always in awe of the craftsmanship and artistic prowess that goes into constructing Taiwanese places of worship, but this one takes it the extra mile.

Sanzhi Sea Shell Temple (三芝貝殼廟)

Strangely, even though locals and street signs refer to the temple as the Sea Shell Temple (貝殼廟), it is actually named the “Fufuding Mountain Temple” (富福頂山寺). I’d argue that the English translation loses a bit of its lustre. Nevertheless, the Sea Shell Temple is a bit easier to remember in both languages.

Unlike most of the temples that I write about, this one is not a place of worship that attracts people for its long history - What attracts crowds of tourists is obviously unique design and thus the reason why its nickname is more widely known than its actual name.

It may seem gimmicky, but the design and art in the temple is the main attraction and even though people make sure to pay respect to the gods enshrined, its obvious that the religious aspect of it all is less important.

The temple is primarily dedicated to Buddhist monk and Ji-Gong (濟公) and the Eighteen Arhats (十八羅漢) and as is common in Taiwan is somewhat of a mixture of Buddhist and Chinese folk religion traditions.

The "Mad-Monk" Ji-Gong

The Eighteen Arhats were the original disciples of the Buddha who followed his instructions and achieved enlightenment. The Arhats are popular figures within Buddhism and Chinese folk religion and it is common to find their images in temples. The Arhats are thought to be tasked with preserving and spreading Buddhism throughout the land and each of the monks are thought to have supernatural powers.

The so-called “Mad-Monk” Ji-Gong, whom the temple is primarily dedicated to is a figure who is commonly associated with the Eighteen Arhats in Chinese folk religion. Ji-Gong was a 12th Century Chinese monk who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋朝). Thought to have possessed supernatural powers, Ji-Gong spent quite a bit of his time helping the poor and standing up to injustice.

The Main Shrine

Known also for his wild and eccentric behaviour, Ji-Gong is said to have performed miracles and spread Buddhism while at the same time violating his monastic vows by consuming meat and alcohol and enjoying some alone time with women. By the time of his death he was given the title “Living Buddha” (活佛) and also thought to be the reincarnation of the Arhat Nantimitolo (慶友尊者) as well as being deified as a Chinese folk-hero deity.

The main shrine of the temple is dedicated to Ji-Gong, but there are also a number of other Chinese-folk religion deities most notably including images of the Earth God (福德正神) at the entrance and exit of the cave that leads visitors behind the main shrine.

The main attraction of the temple is its “Eighteen Arhat Cave” (十八羅漢洞) which is a man-made cave dedicated to the Arhats. The walls are lined with spiky white coral and there are several beautifully designed enclosures where shrines are set up.

Shrine to the Earth God (福德正神)

A walk through the cave doesn’t take that long, but you need to be very careful not to hit your head which would probably be quite painful. Before you enter the cave and when you exit you are asked to take a sniff of a large kettle of hot rice wine. I was a bit confused as to why they’d ask guests to smell the wine, but considering the temple is dedicated to Ji-Gong, a notorious alcoholic, it makes a bit of sense.

The small temple, which was completed in 1996 is said to be home to over 60,000 sea shells and its construction took over two years to complete. The design of the temple is similar to other temples in Taiwan but has a very ocean-like appearance thanks to the sea-shells and marine-related imagery making it seem almost as if you were visiting a temple under the water.

The front facade of a Taiwanese temple typically features beautiful stone carvings of lions and dragons but at this temple the stone carvings are replaced by sea-shell dragons pillars and sea dragon door guardians. The rest of the facade includes sea-shell lanterns and a sea-shell incense urn as well as having images of marine life on the walls.

Like most Taiwanese places of worship, the artistic design and the attention to detail put on display here is beautiful, but this one takes it to the next level. You could easily spend an hour looking at all of the artistic detail of the front facade of the temple alone.

Like all of Taiwan’s temples, entrance is free of charge and you won’t be hassled for donations. You will be asked though to burn some incense and pay respect at the main shrine if you want to enter the cave. While the rules may not exactly apply to foreigners like myself, if you are Taiwanese, they will request you first pay respect before entering. 

Environmental Concerns?

Watch your head in the cave! 

One thing I don’t like to do too much when introducing religious stuff in Taiwan is criticize. I’m a guest in this country and even though I’ve lived here for over a decade, there are still a lot of things, especially culturally that I don’t fully understand.

What I do understand however is that the world’s supply of healthy coral reefs is decreasing at a catastrophic rate. If you are unaware of the importance of coral, let me explain: Earth’s coral reefs are home the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Reefs are found all over the world in tropical and subtropical oceans and are home to at least a third of the planets marine life all the while taking up less than one percent of the total area of Earth’s oceans.

Currently more than 75% of the coral reef on the planet are considered threatened and unfortunately many have already been lost. Factors that include the warming of the oceans, ocean acidification, overfishing, sewage and the collection of reefs as ornaments (among others) are putting massive strain on the livelihood of the remaining coral environments. 

Coral everywhere. 

Having spent quite a bit of time scuba diving and snorkelling here in Taiwan, it is easy to observe the year-by-year degradation of the reefs which are extremely important eco-systems for aquatic life.

The amount of reef that it took to build this temple is not insignificant and as they are currently in the process of building a second and even larger branch, I think its only natural to question where the coral reef is coming from and whether or not it was dead before being taken out of the water.

When it comes to the environment, the Taiwanese government boasts that its on the ball, but in most cases it is easy to see that environmental sustainability and punishing polluters is not really high on their list of things to do.  

The people who run the temple insist that the coral used in its construction has all been imported, that the coral used was of the variety that isn’t considered to be “protected” and that it was already dead before taking it out of the ocean.

I sincerely hope that they are telling the truth, however it is also a good idea to remain skeptical and ask lots of questions.  

Getting There

 

Getting to the temple is a bit difficult if you don’t have your own method of transportation. The temple is on top of a mountain a short distance from the Sanzhi (三芝). If you are intent on visiting you could take a bus to the village and walk up the mountain, but that would be a long walk. The easiest way to get to the temple is by car or scooter and all you’ll have to do is follow the map provided above!

There is no denying the beauty of this temple - It is one of the coolest temples that I have visited in Taiwan. The attention to detail and the craftsmanship required to successfully design and build something like this are remarkable. I just question whether it is necessary to contribute so much destruction to the oceans for something like this.

Ultimately that is not for me to decide. I hope you enjoyed the photos.