Southwest District Sponsors Parade and “Public Worship” for Taiwanese Sea Goddess

Southwest District Sponsors Parade and “Public Worship” for Taiwanese Sea Goddess
Southwest Management District board members and TAA members hold up the banner that the SW District plans to carry in Sunday's Mazu parade. Image credit: Katlyn McGrath

The Southwest Management District is co-sponsoring a parade and “public worship” event for the Taiwanese sea goddess Mazu in Chinatown on Sunday morning, 5/19/24, according to a press release and conference hosted by the district.

Houston is one of only three American cities being visited by a statue of Mazu this month on its first “pilgrimage” to the U.S. (The others are San Francisco and New York.)

When the Chinatown parade begins at Taipei Culture Center (10303 Westoffice Dr) at 8:30 AM, eight people will carry the statue in a “carriage.” The full procession will include Mazu devotees, interested attendees, representatives of the Southwest Management District, and any local businesses that wish to carry their banners in the parade.

At the Welcome Food Center (9100 Bellaire Blvd), the procession will stop and the organizers will host “Mazu worship” from 9:30-11:00 AM. The carriage-bearers will carry Mazu over the bowing heads of attendees so that the goddess will “bless” them, according to Elaine Tao of the Taiwan Association of America of Houston. Then, attendees can ask Mazu “yes” or “no” questions and supposedly receive answers through divination using Taiwanese bwa bwei (also called poe or “moon blocks”).

The celebration will also include lion dance and dragon dance performances.

Who Is Mazu?

According to legend, Mazu was once a Chinese woman named Lin Moniang, hailing from Meizhou Island just across the sea from Taiwan. Credited with saving sailors, she was revered as a goddess after she died in the late AD 900s in her late twenties. Often called the “Empress of Heaven,” she is considered by many to be the patron goddess of Taiwan, where she is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

This particular statue comes from a 330-year-old temple in Beigang, Taiwan, and is being personally carried to America by the temple’s president. This is the first time that Beigang Mazu has come on a “pilgrimage” to America. According to Tao, Mazu selected Houston as the city she most wanted to visit out of four options. (The statue is also visiting San Francisco and New York.)

Tao, who's organizing the event, said that even though her family had a Mazu shrine when she was young, she didn't believe until now:

"I was just being ignorant and saying 'I want a carriage,' and the carriage actually showed up. 'I can't pay for the carriage,' and then Eva Air actually paid for the shipping.... I may not be a believer before, but I am a believer of her now."

What Is the Southwest Management District?

If you own a business in Sharpstown, chances are good you pay a small property tax each year to the Southwest District: 0.0008% of your property’s value, or 8% of 1%.

The Southwest District, one of dozens of management districts across Texas, is a special local government entity empowered by the Texas Legislature to collect extra property taxes from businesses and spend them to “promote the health, safety, and general welfare of residents, employers, employees, visitors, and consumers in the district, and of the public.”

Created in 2005, the Southwest District is run by a board of directors appointed by Houston’s mayor. The long-running chair, Kenneth Li, born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, is a broker for Southwest Realty Group who’s been called the “unofficial mayor of Chinatown.”

Why Is the Southwest District Sponsoring a Worship Event for a Goddess?

It is rather unusual for governments in America today to sponsor events dedicated to the worship of a particular deity. Is Mazu getting special treatment? Would the Southwest Management District sponsor a parade and public worship for, say, Jesus? The Sharpener asked chair Kenneth Li and board member Dawn Lin.

At first, Li said "Of course," although he seemed to qualify that later.

In her reply, Lin distinguished between religion and culture: "We promote this parade more from the culture aspect of it.... This is culture that we want to promote because we are so diverse."

But is it possible to separate religion from culture when part of the event is called "Mazu Worship"?

Tao, the event organizer, didn't sound very non-religious earlier when she said: "This actually is everybody's goddess. It's not just a Taiwanese goddess. I think it's just a good experience for everybody to join together and worship the same that we we can unite all this diversity culture together."

Chairman Li said that in the future, "We may have a main parade on Bellaire, and we'll welcome all religions. Because every religion displays the diversity of our residents."

But what if Hispanic Roman Catholics asked Li to specifically sponsor a parade for Jesus? Li didn't answer directly, but he said that attending the Mazu parade may "inspire" Catholics.

The Southwest District is spending $2,500 on the event, a fraction of its cost. Li said the sponsorship is "symbolic."