Held every three years, Donggang’s Wangyeh Festival is famous for the burning of the wooden King Boat — but the temple that hosts the festival is unable to attract any new shipbuilders to replace the old craftsmen, who are now in their 60s and 70s
By Han Cheung / Staff reporter
The King Boat （王船） has company this year. A smaller replica sits in a concrete building across the plaza at Donglong Temple （東隆宮）, where it will remain on display long after the real deal is burnt in November.
“We will keep this one permanently so future generations will know what we once had,” temple director Tsai Tsai-an （蔡財安） says.
The burning of the wooden boat, which is over 13-meters long and functional, is the highlight of a week of events in Pingtung County’s Donggang （東港） to celebrate the arrival of five deities known as the Wangyeh （王爺, or Royal Lords） from across the sea. In the name of the Jade Emperor, these lords will rid the land of diseases and evil spirits while punishing the bad and rewarding the good. Held every three years, the next one will take place in late October.
The boat was completed in August last year, however, as it is customary for the temple to display it for about a year for visitors to worship. It takes a rotating crew of 70 to 80 people three to four months to complete the ship, but Tsai says the skill is being lost as the youngest craftsman is in his 60s. They were still able to replace chief shipbuilder and designer Hsieh Chun-cheng （謝春成） after his death shortly before the boat’s completion, but the future seems murky.
“We used to have hundreds of traditional boat builders here in Donggang,” Tsai says. “But why would young people learn this skill? They can’t use it to make a living,” noting that today’s fishing boats are made from fiberglass reinforced plastic using completely different methods.
Lin Shu-shan （林樹山）, 70, has been building fishing vessels since his teens. He’s taken part in every King Boat construction after the ceremony switched from paper ships to wooden ones in 1973.
“All our boats were made out of wood, so we thought, ‘Why can’t our ceremonial boat be wooden as well?’” Tsai says. “So we had a meeting and decided to do that.”
While the boat is colorful and contains wooden carvings of sailors, livestock and other offerings, Lin says the structural process is more or less the same as a functional fishing boat, although they are styled after traditional Chinese boats from the Ming Dynasty.
“We used to do this every day,” Lin says. “But now it’s every three years. Some people get old and start forgetting.”
Tsai is part of the group that makes the sails for the boat, which is also a lost art, he says.
“Even I never used sails during my career as a fisherman. I had to learn from my father, as we started switching to engines in the 1930s and 1940s,” he says.
Tsai says there is yet to be a solution to pass on the skill. They could pay young people a salary to serve as apprentices, but he says that it’s not something that can be learned in a short period.
“Our apprenticeships were more than three years long,” he says. “And when they’re done, they still can’t use what they learned to further their career. Plus, it’s hard work. Young people don’t want to do that these days.”
Tsai says if this goes on, the temple may have to revert to paper or plywood boats in order to continue.
Lin laughs when asked his opinion on what should be done.
“I’ll leave it up to the Wangyeh,” he says.
The King Boat is set on fire at the end of the previous Wangyeh Festival in 2015. Photo: Perry Svensson, Taipei Times
The King Boat is completed a year before the ceremony so visitors can worship it. Photo: Perry Svensson, Taipei Times
A massive golden arch serves as the entrance to Donglong Temple. Photo: Perry Svensson, Taipei Times