Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.
“Why Taiwan?” my friends asked when I told them where Dad and I were headed. I told them we were going to see a man about a dog. Perhaps a dog about a man may have been more accurate…
My father is Howard Marks, former international drug smuggler. He had up to 43 different aliases as he exported tons of marijuana and hashish from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines and South America. The one you may know him by is Mr. Nice.
After his arrest by the DEA in 1988, and subsequent seven year incarceration, my little sister and I paid homage to a gold dog on the end of a red string that sat on all fours surrounded by mysterious mandarin symbols. We built a special shrine for the dog in the hope it might send our father home to us.
The memory of dad’s excitement on returning from Taiwan having discovered ‘The Dog Temple’ was fresh in our minds when the police took him away. He’d showed us, aged 10 and seven, the magic charm, and told us the story behind it.
There had been a shipwreck during the reign of the Tongzhi Emperor (1862-1874) of the Qing Dynasty, in which 17 people had perished, and the sole survivor was a dog. The 17 human victims were all to be buried in a single grave, and at the funeral the grieving dog leapt into it and refused to come out. In the end, the dog was buried alive along with its masters.
The Eighteen Kings Temple, Shiba Wang Gong Miao (十八王公廟) as it is officially known, was built on the spot, with a two-meter-tall dog statue as a religious icon and paragon of loyalty. Loyalty is very important to criminals, and it is they who visit the place for prayer and petition.
The Eighteen Kings Temple as it looked in the 1980s
Back in 1980s, with drug agents on his tail, my father was on the run in Taiwan, who had no extradition agreement with the US. Missing his family, he went to the dog to ask whether he should go home to his children, or stay in Taiwan. The answer that came back was to return home.
Some 25 years later, I asked my dad where he would most like to go in the world. His answer was Taiwan. He wanted us to visit the dog temple, and find out why the dog had instructed him to return home to Mallorca, only to be arrested days later.
First, though, we head to Sun Moon Lake and the Lalu Hotel for some relaxation. I sip lemon black tea on the stillness of our private balcony, the scent of lemongrass thick in the air, wrapping a protective film between the mountainside terrace and myriad insects that inhabit the surrounding forests of ferns, cypresses, pines, bamboos and camphor trees.
Sun Moon Lake
Huge mountains shape shift with the clouds and take on yet more forms in the still water of the lake. The gold rooftop of Xuanzang Temple is just visible on one of the many foothills across the turquoise water. It houses the remains of seventh century Chinese monk Xuanzang, whose 17-year travels round India collecting Buddhist scriptures provided the inspiration for the classical novel Journey to the West.
Before lunch I have my third eye opened during an ayurvedic massage. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what I saw with it – I slept through the massage, having spent the morning in an infinity pool performing water yoga with a 20-year-old Japanese gymnast and her 80-year-old father, under the careful instruction of world renowned yoga teacher Dr. Rajesh Mishra.
Amber and Howard Marks with Dr. Rajesh Mishra
Angry heads of gods leap out of densely forested hilltops and leer at me through the windows of the raucous karaoke carriage of the train to Taipei. I head into the city as the warm winds of a typhoon threaten to sweep the streets. The Tapei 101 commands the skyline as dark green mountains, filled with natural hot springs, encircle the city and blue, black and red butterflies speckle the sidewalk.
I brave a night out with Ivy, a woman I meet whilst having my feet kneaded in a blind massage and offered to show me around the city. I ask her what the options are. “Everything from dub-step to a Friday Man Club,” she laughs.
A Friday Man Club? Hostess bars – only host bars – as here it is the men who are paid for their company, she explains. Friday Man Clubs started out as a service for prostitutes, a place to go to achieve a kind of balance – to be treated well by men.
They have since become popular with businesswomen and the mistresses of rich men. Their legal status is controversial and one of the training centers for men aspiring to work in the clubs had recently been raided by the police.
As we get out of a taxi, the prevalence of betel nut kiosks suggests we’re in a red-light district, A number of bars strike her as possible candidates, but all to no avail. After half an hour we call of the search, and opt instead for the less salacious option of shrimping – late night fishing in an artificially murky indoor pool where you catch shrimp and drink beer.
From there she takes me on to her favourite bar, Roxy 99. Down in a dingily lit basement, Ivy orders a bottle of sake as I begin to make my way through the thousands of records alphabetically catalogued on the shelves that line every wall of several rooms. We spend the night drinking and dancing to Otis Redding and Etta James after passing our picks to the pretty female DJ.
I’m more than a little hung-over when we overtake a convoy of trucks on the cliff-faced coastal road to the temple the next morning. I glimpse men, in ceremonial clothes, strumming guitars and clashing cymbals in the back of one. “It’s a funeral procession,” explains David, a journalist for Tapei Times and our driver for the day. “They often include strippers these days, but I guess we’re out of luck.”
Ivy, who’s come along for the ride, is nervous. She’s heard tales of The Dog Temple, of its association with dark forces, Taiwan’s criminals and prostitutes. We turn off the highway into a dirt-track road. Gold dogs sit on pillars demarking parking spots. David parks between two Mercedes with tinted windows and gets out of the car.
“The dogs are waiting for you,” says David. The original big dog has been replaced by two smaller ones. Dad lights a cigarette and makes his way through a throng of charm laden ladies with smiling, deeply wrinkled faces.
Under an ornately tiled roof sit two golden Alsatians surrounded by smoke. Dad rolls a another cigarette, takes a couple drags, and sticks it into the ash. Fag butts are as commonplace as incense sticks in this altar.
Howard Marks comes face to face with the celestial canine
Behind the altar, climbing a hidden stairwell to a small, dark room above the temple, we discovered a cabinet full of small pink paper slips bearing fortunes. He opens the third and last drawer and hands the piece of paper to Ivy.
“It says you should go home to your family,” she says “It seems it is the same fortune you received on your last visit.” He pulls out another draw and hands Ivy another pink slip. “You should go home to your family,” reads the advice. And another slip… “You should go home to your family.”
“Can I suggest we go to Longshan Temple tomorrow?” says Ivy “There are over a hundred different fortunes available there.”
Howard and Amber Marks at The Eighteen Kings Temple
This article first appeared in the December 2012 edition of That's Shanghai and has been edited and republished on June 25, 2020. For more Throwback Thursdays click here. Amber Marks is the author of Headspace.