Lost Tribe: Where are the Ketagalan in Taipei’s Ketagalan Center?

The following article appeared in Guanxi magazine

The gatekeeper Ksitgarbha.

From the top of a hill in Beitou District, Guanyin’s benevolent eye cuts through the sulfurous fug. The Goddess of Mercy is a ubiquitous presence at places of worship in Taiwan, but her role as the resident deity of Puji Temple – one of Taipei’s finest colonial relics – is a little less run-of-the-mill. Inquisitive tourists will learn that she serves as the guardian of Beitou’s hot springs. Dig a little deeper and you might discover that she has been saddled with a more onerous responsibility – one that remains a lurid testament to the intersection of sex and purgatory in colonial Taiwan.

Despite an official ban on such services in 1979, as Taipei’s premier red light district, Beitou continued to offer carnal delights until the early ’90s. It might seem strange that the advent of democracy coincided with a crackdown on prostitution but, while the motivation was more about cleaning up the city’s image than any human rights considerations, it was probably the right decision. Under Japanese rule, sex workers were essentially slaves and, right up to the end, there was little in the way of choice that exists in countries with properly regulated industries.

As the goddess of mercy, Guanyin was historically a compassionate guardian of socials outcasts, including sex workers. So the goddess in the Puji Temple served a dual function as protector of the springs and the women who used to ply their trade at the resorts there. More interesting, though, is the presence of another, less common semi-deity, housed in a small pavilion to the right of the temple.

This chunky granite statue is a representation of the Dizhangwang Pusa (地藏王菩薩), literally the “Earth store”or “Earth womb.”Better known in the West by his Sanskrit name Ksitigarbha, he is revered in Japan as the guardian of lost souls, particularly stillborn and miscarried babies or aborted fetuses. For this reason, in the Japanese tradition, he is commonly depicted holding children in his right hand or sometimes wrapped in his robe, to hide them from the demons who would condemn them to perpetual hard labor as punishment for failing to accumulate sufficient beneficence in their fleeting existences. On his forehead, there is often a small dot that might be mistaken for a bindi. In fact, it’s a third eye that bespeaks a perspicacity that transcends darkness and light. His left hand clasps a staff for prising open the gates to the underworld, a most appropriate utensil at Beitou, given his proximity to a popular tourist attraction nearby, the literal hotspot known as “Hell’s Valley.”

In Taiwan, in the rare instances he is encountered – at Sun Moon Lake’s Hsiangde Temple, for example – he invariably clutches an orb or gem of some sort in his right hand, in lieu of an infant. This is said to light up the darkness of the Dantean neither-here-nor-there netherworld he inhabits. Yet, overlooking the former den of iniquity at Beitou, he is once more depicted cradling a baby in the crook of his arm. Of course, as Puji is a Japanese temple, the reversion to this more orthodox representation might not seem that surprising. But there’s actually a more sombre reason at play: Here, Ksitigarbha is watching over the souls of the uncounted aborted fetuses, unwanted by-products of the century-long flesh trade.

From the days when they were serving military men – kamikaze pilotsbefore their last fateful sortieand, later, U.S. servicemen enjoying a little R&R– to the tail-end of the martial law era, when a much more quotidianclientele made up the bulk of their custom, most of the girls working in the Beitou red light district were aborigine. Although many of these were from “raw”, high-mountain tribes, quite a few would have been of Pingpu descent.

These were the plains aborigines with whom Taiwan’s colonizers – Dutch, Spanish and Chinese – historically enjoyed relatively stable interaction. Because of their propensity for Sinicization, they became know as the “ripened” or “cooked” (as it is more commonly rendered in English) aborigines. The Pingpu of Beitou were one of the various groups that have been lumped under the general designation Ketagalan (凱達格蘭).

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