Category Archives: Taiwan

Art in Taipei

It’s been great to be in Asia and see some exciting contemporary art. My previous destinations have a paucity of this, or it is suppressed.

Opposite Flipflop is MOCA and I was dismayed to find it semi-closed on my first trip. Second time around it is open with an exhibition of painting, photography, video installation fascinating collaborative art.

Particularly good was “Male Hole” by Hou Chun Ming. The accompanying video documentary really helped make sense of the multi-layered participatory paintings hung fluttering in a darkened room. Reminiscent of the tableaux of Gilbert and George but much less mechanical, of Jim Sander’s totems, but more personal and less naive, of political banners, of tombs. The work displayed shows 17 life size interpretations or subjective portraits of gay Taiwanese men. The artist recruited his subjects through Facebook and engages them each in face to face discussion about sex, body, sexuality, and through this they reveal themselves providing the substance for the paintings: Hou draws their outline then embellishes in a provocative colourful way that reflects the psychological frame of mind, personality, foibles, characteristics of each man. A study of the diverse personalities of gay man. The paintings are given over to the subjects who are outlined again on the reverse and are asked to represent themselves. They paint naked. Like animal, Hou narrates. The finished work is thus a 2-sided portrait: self-portrait and artist portrait. The works are hung flanked by texts that, I believe are transcriptions from the conversations. For me, who can’t read this, it reassembled the pairs of slogans hung outside doors to wish happiness or the confuscius analects imparting wisdom in temples and institutions.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum is a cool white concrete jumble of blocks near the curiously European timber framed Story of Taipei museum (which I didn’t go to, and am not going to write about!). I got there after some heavy rain holed me up at the Confucius temple and subsequent vege buffet. Totally unexpected the exhibition was themed around audience participation and in many cases becoming the art. A yellow cartoon like stage is set and lit, you borrow the props and the costumes, photograph yourself, share the pictures on the growing gallery wall. The work that I found most engaging was a video installation (see below). Video in white cube spaces formalizes and codifies the viewing experience, setting the audience apart from this intangible media, like CCTV. Watching but not touching. Video can be truly mesmeric and immersive when multiple surfaces are utilised and when there is no one privileged position. This poetic work that takes you into a forest, where rain falls heavily, autumn leaves cascade down and a brilliant moon rises, and it’s a forest into which you can enter. The video animation is projected onto multiple layers of fluttering white net fabric (oh, some relationship to the Male Hole here!), and find yourself lost in the dark forest at dusk. The space is quite busy, mainly with Taiwanese teens. It’s good to see their enthusiasm for art and that they get the immersive thing. Perhaps it is second nature to them, as they belong to the generation that thrives in virtual spaces, simulations and fictional worlds. I notice around the city the Chinese trend to pose model like for one another on street corners, in front of some ivy clad wall. They adopt a persona, they perform, they construct something other. Even selfies are a parade of rehearsed and forced poses and expressions. These art works are self-photo opportunities. I think the artists are conscious of this and this makes this kind of work so relevant,

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Coping with Taiwan

Weather: be prepared to do very little slowly. Yesterday I set off to Yangmingshan to do the postponed walk from my previous stay here and di a lot quickly! The effusively helpful guy at he visitor centre pointed me out the way to Lengshuifeng for the hot springs, but I elt this as not enough as a day out and decided to take the path up to Qixing Main Peak, which is 1020m. Leaving at midday is not the best time to start walking, but if I was to get the walk done, then no choice. I was well fortified with 2 bowls of rice porridge with pickled vegetables and fried egg sandwich (little did I know that the eggs were reserved for the staff at the hostel), and armed with a 1/2 litre of isotonic electrolyte replacement water plus a bag of assorted baoza from the vege stall behind Taipei Main station. The hike weaves up the mountainside initially through wooded slopes up steps cut into the rock. The shade is welcome but the trees hide the sight of my destination, which in some ways leads to false expectations; each time I see a clear window of sky believing I was near the top. In otherways it means I dont have the daunting sight of the bigger picture of the climb. Each little flight of steps requiring a breather as 35 degrees and high humidity mean that after not very long my shirt and shorts are utterly soaked with sweat. I dont think I’ve ever been so wet without being immersed in a abth or caught in heavy rain. One thing that makes me press on is seeing others coping, but also not without duress. Many (those who I see descending) are in their 60s. There is a wirey sprightly bunch of pensioners here. It is important to ration your water and to take frequent pauses to rehydrate. I am very conscious of what the heat does to me. Copious sunblock is alos doing its magic. No repeat of arm burns from my Hualien cycling. The summit is fringed with silver grass fluttering in the breeze, circled by dragon flies and occasionally partially obscured by drifting cloud. The temperature is certaily not cool up here, but definitely the feeling of achievement, rest, lunch and the gently moving air contribute to a feeling of calmness. At the very slightly lower east Qixingshan peak, I chat to “Jimmy”. A tanned bare chested man in his late sixties at a guess with a white goatie beard. This is his second ascent today. He is doing it to improve his breathing! I summise without probing he has some medical condition which he is trating through vigorous exercise.

The decent to Lengshuifeng is steeper and less shaded. I am passed by some admittedly younger Taiwanese climbing this way, and secretly feel like alerting them to the arduousness. When I get to the centre at Lengshifeng I am surprised to see that all in all I have only been walking (and resting for 3 hours). This gives me plenty of time to check out the hot springs down the road from the carpark. Up the steps past the little orangey pool where tourists dangle and bathe tired feet in 38 degrees sulphurous thermal water is a little house with separate gendered entrances through shabby curtains. I am a little taken aback by how low-key and local the place is (Im the only westerner). There is ¬†alittle bench and some open shelves for depositing your clothes. Nakedness is a must and fastidious preparation before entering the small milky bath is strictly adhered to. I use the provided red bowl cum scoops to rinse myself first with cold water and then water from the hot pool in which linger the white shrivelled bodies of around 8 or 9 Chinese men in their 60s or more. I make a number of faux pas and am scolded for trying to enter the water without scrubbling my body. Use borrow some soap from a large guy with a tiny cock squatting on one of the tiny plastic stools lathering his body. I am then scolded for washing myself whilst sitting on the low wall that rims the pool. A younger (40s?) fleshy guy explains I am “polluting” the water. I go off to thee corner by the cold tap and try and get myself clean enough to be accepted. I am reluctant to get in the pool for fear of losing even more face, but eventually, it seems they tacitly approve of me and an almost emaciated balding guy with as sanguine face, the one who scolded me earlier, calls over and waves me in. Another guy points out that I shouldnt drink the water (I think), by pointing at his mouth. Once in, I relax a little, but dont feel completely blissful. This bath seems to be utilitarian rather than pleasurable. The guys are all strangers who round off a walk, like me, by performing these precious ablutions. After 15-20 minutes each one gets out, washes down with old water from the trough, gets dressed and shuffles off anonymously. What have I learnt? I dont think they were being aggressive, rather preserving the purity of the water. Funnily I think this is the same water that empties into the outside tourist foot soaking pool. Kind of secondhand water from pickled old men. Language would be very helpful here, to understand etiquette. Old Chinese men are very unattractive naked, white flabby skin on skinny frames and mirthless. Hard to reconcile that the firm, well proportioned young Chinese guys with their taught skin and understated beauty may well end up like this. Outside the bathhouse I see such a guy. I wonder if he is going to enter, but it seems not. We make eye contact. I womder what his thoughts are on growing old. I wonder how he sees me.

There is  curious system for waiting for the mini-buses that link the park with civilisation. I didnt undertstand the significance of the row of neatly lined assorted umbrellas on the pavement in front of the bus shelter at first then all becomes apparent when I see a man count them before laying his bag at the end of this line before disappearing to he cool veranda behind the information centre. As it turns out this line is redundant as the shuttle bus turns up first and there is a bundle to get on this bus instead. As the sun sets over Taipei, with glimpses of the towering 101, the bus winds down the mountain and I drift in and out of a dozing state.

Ruisui

The slow local train takes me through the Eastern Rift Valley to Ruisui, where at 1pm there is no-one but lazy dogs to be seen. My air B’n’b place is next to a storehouse piled high with a mountain of pomelo, the local crop here in the valley.

My host is Zola, a jolly little guy from Hunan now settled with 4 month old baby, Taiwanese wife and dog in this little town of 12000. He is radically different from any Chinese I have met before and has a laudable mission in life. Zola is developing a platform which enables the archiving of posts and pages deleted from the internet. He is particularly focussed on China where 404 errors (page not available) are the bane of the researcher on the net. He sees his work as preserving history and providing the knowledge that will facilitate informed discussions i.e. a crucial research tool.

We talk about public sphere, we talk about the Chinese govt attempting now to block VPNs. He began this line of work by blogging sensitive news, and of course ended up being censored. He tells me he never saw himself as an activist or involved in human rights until a film was made about him. I have to track this down. I would like my students to check out what he is doing. It seems he is doing something very important which could contribute to a greater sense of “truth” and transparency in China.

Meanwhile, the valley is beautiful and we check out the view with Zola’s drone.

At night I am the only bather in the murky yellow hot springs at the coco hotel. Not really the same calibre as budapest in terms of atmosphere. This is more like a designed resort. The water of my shower afterwards is red as it washes off the minerals from my body. I roll all the way down the hill for a couple of miles, keen not to break a sweat and ruin the lovely glow that my body is feeling. A full moon is climbing high above the mountains.

Human rights

It seems to be an issue all over the world. Discrimination, false imprisonment, torture, lack of or distorted media coverage.

Travel makes me more aware of some of the more localised issues that we don’t hear about in uk. Should we care? Of course. Homosexuality has been legal in uk for 50 years now but there is social inequality among rich and poor. In Taiwan there has been democracy for 30 years yet still the aboriginal peoples are having their land stolen from them by big business.

In Ximen, Taipei, a few hundred metres from the little gay epicentre: several bars, fetish shops etc behind the Red House there is a silent demonstration of Falun Gong technique. In Taiwan gay marriage has now been legalised. In China, gay men still undertake electro shock treatment to “normalise” them. In Taiwan the Falun Gong exercise their beliefs overtly and with impunity. In China they would be heavy handed ly arrested and imprisoned. There are corroborated stories of organ harvesting too.

In Hong Kong the FG have a presence and are monitored by the police and most probably their Chinese masters. I meet Joyce a FG member near the Shrine of the eternal spring in Taroko Gorge. She is delighted I know of their persecution and I sign their petition, just as I signed it at Ximen.

The Peace Park in Taipei has a corner given over entirely to a commemoration of the 228 Incident and its fallout. The museum occupies the former broadcast station from which transmissions were made in 1947 calling for democratic reform. The brutal response of the govt led to the period of White Terror and 38 years of martial law. The museum is painstakingly detailed in the documentation of this most important period of history.

Although the Taiwanese pride themselves on their freedom of speech, peaceful and democratic society and recognition of human rights, there is still not universal equality. Close to the museum is a small cluster of tents. The gateway to the park is festooned with banners and draped with aboriginal geometric paintings, the ground nearby covered with hundred of individually hand painted pebbles, some with slogans. I am told by Iris, a volunteer manning the stall in the gateway, that the stones are both visually and linguistically symbolic, having connotations of pledge and permanence; each stone representing the aboriginal supporters of the cause that this occupation movement are campaigning for. This is namely to be heard and to have a say in the illegal annexation of aboriginal lands by the authorities. This is happening thoughout the island, including hualien and below. Joyce, the FG member from Taroko Gorge, is also an aborigine. Many where brightly coloured embroidered hats or tunics. At the Peace Park in a wheelchair sat the figurehead of the 192 movement: they are occupying the park for 192 days. A fierce looking proud woman with thick wavy hair. As Iris gave me the lowdown, this woman dressed a young friend in traditional indigo leggings and tunic, lacing them tight. They have an all inclusive message and one that we should also take on board when we consider the status and role of migrants and deliberate what kind of culture we want in the UK.

Confucius temple

On a very rainy morning in Taipei to avoid a drenching I explore Confucianism. There are 6 noble arts and I witness a scholar repeatedly honing his calligraphy writing out greetings and wishes. I choose some poignant ones.

The second skill is chariot riding, (yu) and I sit in a little wooden one facing a video screen of the road ahead. I fail the 3 challenges in spearing boar, navigating a zhushuiqu (high speed waterway) and the guojubiao (slaloming between banners). Later on in hualien I realise these skills are essential for riding a scooter. I get it instinctively. Thunder crashes around and low flying passenger jets roar over as the approach the nearby airport. In a third chamber I learn the techniques of she, or archery, through the help of 3D specs and a video screen. I try my strength by pulling on a bow, but there is no opportunity to actually shoot. These skills are also useful in winning cuddly toys in hualien night market. Confucius lives on! I feel a little short changed as I don’t find anywhere to learn the remaining 3 skills: rites, music and arts.

I get a stamp to prove my competence of the skills I did try out.

As the rain hammers down I collect some analects, some more wisdom.

Hualien at night

An eerie cycle along the Pacific boardwalk after a vege buffet. Nightime is less hot. I wouldn’t say cool. Sporadic lightning flashes light up the ocean. Dim silhouettes of parked scooters, their owners having a nightime fish or a romantic tryst. Mysterious crenelated lines of concrete shore defences give way to sand and brush and deeper gloom. Black dogs linger by the wayside. Others chase me barking threateningly as I coast through a somnambulant hamlet. Indifferent locals in dimly lit doorways.

Rainbow market at the centre of hualien is a bemusing low-key carefree criss cross of cheap snack stalls and busking singers; aboriginal Taiwanese and disabled in wheelchairs. The spirit of the noble art of archery lives on confirming Confucian teaching: couples chancing their eye and luck at bursting balloons pinned to boards a couple of metres range. If there is a prize, a cuddly toy nobody is winning. The rifle range and pistol shoot are the same set up. To the south of the square perform locals – and mainly those taking a break from serving snacks, still in their aprons and caps – with gusto, emotion and passion to karaoke local pop songs, their stage being the plinth on which stands a retired mig fighter jet. A small appreciative crowd clap along and wiggle their bodies. A father reads to a child sitting in the aimer’s seat of an anti-aircraft gun; more dogs lollop around and doze underneath the couple of tanks to the left of the jet. An eerie cycle along the Pacific boardwalk after a vege buffet. Nightime is less hot. I wouldn’t say cool. Sporadic lightning flashes light up the ocean. Dim silhouettes of parked scooters, their owners having a nightime fish or a romantic tryst. Mysterious crenelated lines of concrete shore defences give way to sand and brush and deeper gloom. Black dogs linger by the wayside. Others chase me barking threateningly as I coast through a somnambulant hamlet. Indifferent locals in dimly lit doorways.

Rainbow market at the centre of hualien is a bemusing low-key carefree criss cross of cheap snack stalls and busking singers; aboriginal Taiwanese and disabled in wheelchairs. The spirit of the noble art of archery lives on confirming Confucian teaching: couples chancing their eye and luck at bursting balloons pinned to boards a couple of metres range. If there is a prize, a cuddly toy nobody is winning. The rifle range and pistol shoot are the same set up. To the south of the square perform locals – and mainly those taking a break from serving snacks, still in their aprons and caps – with gusto, emotion and passion to karaoke local pop songs, their stage being the plinth on which stands a retired mig fighter jet. They hurry back to their stalls after their cameos. A small appreciative crowd clap along and wiggle their bodies. An elderly man dances gracefully trancelike his moves evidently rooted in tai chi. A father reads to a child sitting in the aimer’s seat of an anti-aircraft gun; more dogs lollop around and doze underneath the couple of tanks to the left of the jet. It’s nice to be in a place where people have fun without having to get pissed up.

Thankfully there is no repeat of last night’s torrential rain.

Classical Chinese

Taiwan Provincial City God Temple, No. 14, Section 1, Wuchang St, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100

Saturday afternoon is the busiest time in this traditional Taoist temple. This buzzing place is a colourful spectacle of layers of gold, red, smoke. Smart old men making offers of fruit, young women bow with smoking incense sticks clasped to their brow. I watch a strange ritual dropping of pairs of orange segment shaped red wooden pieces. A deep in prayer and concerned looking 20 year old girl does this several times. I can't even guess what this all means. Older people are sitting filling red envelopes with stacks of yellow prayers. Another woman is building a large ornamental boat and covering it with yellow pieces of paper printed with the red backwards swastika symbolising love. There is a long glass window similar to that of a bank at which some kinds of transactions are being made.

A short man of about 40 in a green shirt approaches me and begins to tell me about the temple. He then hits upon inviting me to a class of Classical Chinese. Why not, I say. He leads me though a sliding door, through a kitchen and up some stairs into a hushed classroom where around 40 men and women in their 50s and above are following pages of printed Chinese characters and repeating them rite fashion as the teacher calls them out and indicates them on a video screen. I am compelled to join in with the chorus, though have no idea what I am saying. My friend, Charles is marking the sheet in pinyin and indicating the tones. He attempts to whisper and explain to me by drawing a c clef and musical notation to explain the relativity of the tones. This works differently from mandarin pronunciation. The drill then becomes harder as the class now read the characters as phrases, and this is where the tones descend to create a flowing music. We are reading classical tang poetry. Charles is a teacher of Classical Chinese, like some of the others here. For him it is essential for the Taiwanese culture to perpetuate this form of the language. I suggest that this is like learning Shakespearean English. He expresses disdain of the simplified Chinese of the mainland. The group is serious and committed. They are excited by a short visit by the director of the temple who shakes my hand warmly then makes a little speech in Classical Chinese. I have to say that the whole experience was quite eye-opening and in spite of Charles eager coaching and explanations that this is worlds away and something that has no function or relationship with anything I could ever do!