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A Taiwanese tradition takes on special significance this year.
XIGANG TOWNSHIP, Taiwan — Forget quarantines and Tamiflu. In southern Taiwan, the best, tried-and-true way to keep pestilence away: Burn a boat.
Not just any boat, mind you. For the best results, you need an elaborately decorated boat bearing effigies of the plague gods — a.k.a. the "Cholera Kings."
It's a folk ritual dating back at least 160 years here — much longer in southeast China — and it's performed every third spring on schedule.
But amid lingering swine flu fears, this year's "King-boat burning" took on an added timeliness.
"In 2003, there was the SARS epidemic, and in 2006, there was a pig flu in this area," said Ting Jen-chieh, an expert on Chinese folk religion at Academia Sinica. "After this ritual those diseases decreased — so people here believe it was because of the plague gods."
There haven't been any confirmed cases of swine flu in Taiwan. But with memories of SARS still fresh (it killed more than 70 people here), the island remains on edge.
The most recent scare came after Hong Kong's second confirmed case of H1N1. Seven Taiwanese passengers sat near the victim on a San Francisco to Hong Kong flight, and then traveled onward on a separate May 11 flight to Taiwan.
All were tracked down and determined to be disease-free later that week.
Not all locals here in southern Taiwan really believe boat-burning will drive away disease, of course.
But the community still embraces the ritual. On May 11 I witnessed hundreds of locals pulling the boat (on a wheeled platform) with two long ropes. Elderly, middle-aged, 20-something Taiwanese — all joined in.
Walking alongside them was James Chan, 70, visiting the boat-burning for the first time, and sporting a traditional conical farmer's hat for shade. "It's unbelievable, all these people pulling together," Chan said. "It's powerful."
Chan had just returned from overseas, stopping in Japan. He said airport controls were tight there, amid the swine flu scare. Inbound flights waited on the tarmac, as biohazard-suit-clad Japanese health workers checked each passenger's information and condition.
We walked with the villagers as they pulled the boat to a lot outside town. There, a mind-boggling pile of "ghost money" awaited, to serve as the boat's pyre.