Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

An Aussie Muslim's Taiwan Christmas


Tainan temple

Christmas is a fabulous time to spend at home. Even those of us who aren’t terribly Christian can enjoy a free holiday with friends and family. And if you like choral music, you can always come along with me and a Jewish mate to St Mary’s Cathedral. There you will see Catholics wearing all kinds of cultural costume.

Christianity isn’t just for white people, just as Islam isn’t just for Indo-Pakistanis. Though you’d have trouble convincing me of that back in primary school in the 1970’s. Christmas was always a very white affair. In passion plays at Ryde East Primary School, I inevitably played one of the three wise men from the East. The other two were played by a Chinese girl and a boy from PNG. Mary and Joseph were played by white kids, and the baby Jesus was a white doll.

Yes, it was all very white, But it was all very familiar as well. It was conducted in English, my first language. And when it was all over, we would head down to the canteen for a meat pie and paddle pop. The linguistic and cultural boundaries were a given and we fitted in quite well.

Last Christmas I found myself in the Republic of China. Most Australians would hear that name and think of a faraway place where we send all our coal. We don’t imagine an island half the size of Tasmania where most people are about as communist as Tony Abbott.

Taiwan is a place where few people speak English. At least that is the impression I had travelling there for three weeks. Street signs and shop signs are almost all in Mandarin, in complex characters (unlike the simpler ones of the People’s Republic). It isn’t easy to find someone who can provide you with directions in English.

But an ignorant Aussie traveller like me could not exactly complain about some backward place where 'no one speaks bloody English'. Taiwan is in many ways streets ahead of Australia. Taipei is much cleaner than Sydney or Melbourne. Its MRT train system is clean, safe and runs on time. Transport Ministers of NSW and Victoria should take note. Taipei is one of the gastronomical capitals of the world. Eating the street food won’t make you sick, though don’t expect it to be certified kosher or halal.

I found it almost impossible to go anywhere without Mandarin-speaking Australian friends. Taipei is very easy to navigate but it helps enormously if you can say more than just 'Xi xi' ('thank you') if following the Lonely Planet guidebook still gets you lost. When I was on my own, I spent many joyful hours exploring the colourful and gorgeous temples and shrines.

Taiwan is home to a vibrant religious culture. Traditional Taiwanese Daoist worship includes adoration of the goddess Matsui. Taiwan is littered with temples much more ancient than non-Indigenous Australia has to offer. The rituals and temple culture is unique to Taiwan which was not subjected to the anti-religious paranoia of the Cultural Revolution on the Mainland.

There are plenty of old Buddhist and Confucian temples and shrines. The best place to see temples is in the southern city of Tainan (pictured), hardly a 1.5 hour ride on the fast train that travels at upto 300 km/h. Transport Ministers of Australia take note.

Temples are a beautiful spectacle. In the heat and humidity, it was a huge relief to sit in the corner and watch devotees engage in ancient rituals. You don’t have to understand what was going on, let alone believe in it, to feel a strong sense of calm.

But this is Christmas. I needed to be in somewhat more familiar surrounds. My Aussie expat friends took me to a Catholic church run by the Salesians of Don Bosco who have been operating in Taipei since 1874.  The congregation is a rich mix of Taiwanese and foreign workers from the Philippines and India along with the odd parishioner from one of the few African countries that have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

There wasn’t enough room inside the main section of the church, and we had to join in the service outside. One of my friends giggled at the priest while he was delivering a small sermon in Mandarin.

'What’s so funny?' I asked.

'He is speaking Mandarin in a Filipino accent.'

Many of the hymns were also sung in Mandarin, though I didn’t have long to wait for words in English also delivered in a mild Filipino accent. No doubt God wouldn’t have minded which language He was being worshipped in, even if a far cry from the Aramaic of Christ’s disciples.

I felt comfortable and spiritually fulfilled despite probably being the only Muslim at that service. It certainly felt more familiar than most of what I had seen in Taiwan, even if it wasn’t exactly the kind of Christmas event I would have seen in East Ryde during the 1970’s. For a start, the kids playing Joseph in the passion play looked more like a young Jackie Chan than Shane Warne Jnr.

Merry Christmas to all!

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and blogger who spends time in Melbourne.



Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Christmas, Taiwan, Islam, travel



submit a comment

Existing comments

I remember being Joseph when I was about 12yo . . back in the 1950s . . . much to the amusement of my friends . . . 'Never knew Joseph was Chinese', they said (kindly).

glen avard | 19 December 2014  

A Mexican friend once told me that after arriving in Australia and attending Mass for the first time, seeing images of the Christ child depicted as a golden haired, rosy cheeked little European toddler was like a punch in the stomach for her. Still, others might raise their eyebrows on learning about the Virgin of Guadalupe's ability to speak Nahuatl. Ah, the charm of fairy tales.

Paul | 19 December 2014  

Great article, Irfan. The prize for Anglo-Saxon ethnic presentation of Christ would go to Holman Hunt for "The Light of the World".

Edward Fido | 19 December 2014  

When asked by one of my Year One students, "What does Mary look like?" when she was drawing a picture of the Christmas Nativity scene, I said to her, "Just draw a picture of Fadi's mum." Fadi was one of my Palestinian students.

Anne Lanyon | 19 December 2014  

Thank you. Very nice. Merry Christmas Andy Lukas

andy lukas | 20 December 2014  

A joy to read - thank you Irfan!

Mike Nelson | 27 January 2015  

Similar Articles

A messy birth and a vulnerable baby

  • Richard Leonard
  • 18 December 2014

At a Christmas party, I met the charge nurse of the maternity ward. Pleading that because I was a celibate I would never be at a birth, I enquired if I might be allowed to come and see'. … Mary and I met six hours into her labor, which was an unusual circumstance within which to meet your birthing partner.' She had very little small talk, maybe because she had no breath at all.


Joe Hockey's prize orchid

  • Marcelle Mogg
  • 17 December 2014

In his Mid Year Financial Economic Outlook statements this week, Treasurer Joe Hockey construed 'The Economy' as a rare prized orchid, requiring careful nurturing. The orchid is to be admired, and the gardener more so for the skill, expertise and craft that gives rise to such a beautiful creation. The trouble with treating The Economy like a prized bloom is that we fail to recognise that the it exists to serve people.