Taipei again

3 I 2020

We arrived.

Taipei is not entirely new to me. I have been there before. I once gave a talk summarizing my early impressions. My general emotion was sympathy and my predictions were cautiously optimistic. Taiwan could become a laboratory for an alternative democratic Chinese political culture.

As meanwhile the world situation became more dangerous, and certainly not conducive to democratic values, I have landed in Taipei with a sensitivity to negative signs – but so far found none.

Recently in Saigon I could feel the hidden menace of authoritarianism and censorship, next to a rawness in the battle to survive. In Taipei one is struck by its opposite, a certain relaxedness of manners.

Of course one lives in a tourist bubble.

But a small park (Yong Kang) not far from our hotel can serve as an example of the alternative Taipei offers to the Chinese diaspora, and perhaps mainland China too.

In a society where as everywhere the new is favoured over the old, here old trees are being respected. A whole world of shadow and vertical movement is created by old tree trunks that separate us for a moment from the glittering market. Children and old people loaf and play among these old trunks and there are enough benches to sit and contemplate. The statue of Chiang Kai-shek is still there, but the Generalissimo was moved from his former central position and retired to a corner. I believe the park is now dedicated to a humanistic Chinese ideal: good health.

Why is this place of well-being there? Because the residents of the neighbourhood revolted against a plan of the authorities to make the site into a road junction. The neighbourhood started a protest movement to protect old trees, and won miraculously.

Its exemplary action preserved not only these trees, but became an inspiration to a population in the grip of climate change. The story of this battle against the short-sightedness of growth evangelism is calmly told, without “pooha”, on a small placard at the fringe of the public garden.

A lonely walk, my first here, at teatime. The street of the hotel abuts the Da-an Forest Park. A major green trapezium on the local map. It is accessed by its corners. I entered by the North East, walked South, turned and left by the North West.

The most memorable occurrence was a circle of some 50 mostly middle-aged men and women, busy slapping their left feet. I did not wait till they shifted to the right foot, as some rhythmic radio voice was commanding them to continue with the left. I suppose this exercise improves their health.

As this foot-slapping took place under the gaze of the setting sun it may also have a less selfish aim. The ritual seemed to give the participants a peaceful feeling of collectively doing the right thing. Outside the circle in some side lanes unrelated others were sitting on benches slapping their left foot in unison.

I walked on and covered most of the park-site, seeing an azalea hill, a waterfowl pond. And several public toilets. Young mothers congregated round their toddlers. And some twenty urchins were swinging round yellow plastic objects into the air. Many earnest joggers. Nobody seemed to be looking for contact.

5 I 2020

Though in the morning KS accompanied us, the day was basically spent with MC.

MC is an actress and a lifelong friend of KS. She naturally engages with anybody she encounters on the road, drivers of taxis or just people passing by, and starts a lively conversation. She leaves most people smiling – it may be a reason for her success on TV.

Yet she is not without handicaps. She has difficulty managing steps and staircases and has to be helped. What most people quite naturally do. She has appointed herself (probably after talking with KS) as a teacher to me, who still has to grasp the elementals of Chinese life. So she painstakingly introduced me to the reading of the signs in the underground, that are mainly in Mandarin. But which gradually, under her guidance, became more intelligible. If not without bewildering aspects, as they flit by electronically in a sequence of 4 languages.

We descended by stairs and escalators and lifts into the underworld of Taipei, where on this Sunday thousands of passengers were queuing to make the same narrow descent. After changing the red line for the blue into a suburb, we emerged and took a car from there to a landmark mansion built by a rich “colonial” family from China.

Hundreds of interested visitors were filling these nouveau riche relics of the past: the Lin Family Mansion and Gardens. They had been much damaged and reconstructed over two centuries. The family had once possessed most of the neighbourhood, rice-fields included. They had basically aimed to reinvent a “Suzhou” overseas. As many of the ingredients were not available on the island, especially choice rockery, some aspects had to be faked. But one does not know immediately whether by initial or recent lack of means. The overall effect is that of a Chinese dream world on barbarian shores.

Having earlier visited the National Palace Museum to see the life of mainly Suzhou literati presented in the exhibition: “The Literati’s Ordinances – a proposal of life from the 17th century”, this ideal was easy to recognize. It made the un-worldliness more understandable and its failures more visible.

Suzhou meant old money, and links to the past. Rapid success and quick results were seen as vulgar. Seriousness exiled laughter. Even Peking had an upstart flavour. Taiwan had all these non-U effects.

Yet a memorable visit. Also because of MC. As we were discovering an open-air theatre that extended over a pond, with a few steps leading from the inside to the proscenium, MC remembered her vocation. She made a charming entry from behind the screen, like a classical dancer, with a fan. It stopped the conversation of two old ladies sitting in a balcony above the water and earned applause.

I must not forget to mention a small room with miniature mock-ups of libraries, with bookshelves out of which by electronic or mechanical devices books would jump forward, open and close themselves. It was timeless. Only Chinese would have the naïve joy to create these gadgets.

It reminded me of a flower-market near the hotel. This market is held every Sunday under a long wide viaduct. It is enormous. The pleasure Chinese take in the intricate and the unexpected was very present there. One could find a myriad of multicoloured orchids, but also dead trees with red lacquer fruits, or plants that seemed covered with animal fur.

And of course pen-tsai, plants in plates, twisted up and down by wiring.

These bonsai-like little sculptures impressed me. Several were centuries old and had a solemn gravity. I spoke to the seller. He told me about the mountains where they had been originally marked, and after a few years gathered to a nursery, where they could stay for some twenty years to acquire the proper shape. Till they were bought and brought into a family for a long life, to be inherited by the next generations. There were only a few of these noble hobby patches, in this colourful market.

I imagined the literati would have snubbed most of it. They would not have been amused. They would have disdained multicoloured cacti or other foreign plants. They would have feigned no interest in varieties that delighted the masses.

The same could be stated in even stronger terms about the gem or jade market. It accosted the flower market, which bathed in natural light, the gem market in unnatural darkness. There gleamed and glistened a sea of pebbles, stones, ornaments, beads, even religious forms. Netsuke could be found.

There was too much to investigate and it was getting late. But perhaps next time around I will spot the one stone in a thousand that will appeal to my possessiveness.

Corner Hotel, 7 I 2020

We have, or rather KS has, changed rooms. The present one is ample, with an superfluous second TV set, but also with a special writing desk, which suits me.

Yet, in these comfortable circumstances I woke up with a fever, a persistent cough, and during breakfast I developed a nausea that made me rush up – to vomit.

Two hours later the situation presents itself as uncritical. I feel calm and fine, physically. I am only wondering what may have caused the trouble. It reminds me of a similar nuisance at Sociëteit de Witte, in The Hague, the day before I left for Asia in December. When I had to leave my lunch companions to go and vomit in the bathroom. And could eat no more.

Aggravating is the tension KS develops between us, infecting me with his anxieties as an artist. He is here to bring together an incredible selection of talents, to a venture that has not yet been. A kind of hidden history of post-war Taiwan.

Once alone, I went out to buy the NYT. Found the shop closed – but after an hour they had opened up. The new assistant tried to sell me yesterday’s paper. The situation was saved by yesterday’s seller, who rushed in, seeing me, with today’s issue. Much laughter.

Meanwhile I had taken a walk around the “Old Trees Park” (as I called it) and observed it for a while from a bench. Tried to guess the height of a palm-tree, next to a lavatory. Every time my calculation reached almost 100 meters. Perhaps some delusion thwarted accuracy. I went away with an baseless feeling that the trunk must at least measure 70 meters.

Among the modern high-rises some old-time wooden cabin was preserved. It might have had a special function. Wires and tubes were wriggling out of it on every side. I decided to come back to photograph the many wild plants, especially ferns, that had taken foothold among the embroiled snakelike heavy duty wires.

As a God of Small Things (KS dixit) I noticed a shop selling traditional Taiwanese food, that on closer inspection was all hamburgers.

I also noticed a Buddhist street shrine, where a four-faced rotating golden image was dispensing to the believers either a good career, a good marriage, or wealth or health, in exchange for financial contributions. There were supplicants or buyers, but sporadic. You could donate money and buy flowers. All was fully automated.

At the traffic lights, waiting to cross, I observed a truckload of political propagandists, in red attire, chanting “TAIWAN TEETEE! TAIWAN TEETEE!:”. On the 11th there will be a vote.

On the evening of the 6th we went to a recording studio. It was a plain wooden structure built inside a former cinema. There a traditional Chinese orchestra was rehearsing with Ms. Wei, the protagonist of KS’s new work: a thousand stages and no life. The traditional heavy percussion ensemble played in a separate room, with an open door. Its loud noise would obliterate the more modest classical instruments, not to mention Ms. Wei’s singing.

It is instead remarkable that the rhythmic and intense sound of drums and cymbals would still remain focused on the human voice. Which surprisingly happened. After the noise there was a moment of silence. And then the musicians applauded the singer.

Yesterday MC joined me and later us for the day. She brought kumquat and guava with leaves attached – which still ornate the black low table in a green bowl – till they will have ripened.

8 I 2020

After a while (she had come walking) we called a taxi and went to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). It is positioned within the old headquarters of CK-S. A two-storied widespread brick building. Its rooms were not big and only a few had been enlarged. So we went from one school class- size room to the next.

‘Co/Inspiration in catastrophes’ was the narrative thread binding very diverse matters together. But the idea was interesting. I give a few notes.

Ai Wei Wei had made a documentary of refugee camps in Greece. On the walls ran a paper frieze of both ancient and contemporary refugees and warriors, called ‘Odyssey’. Over three millennia cruelty had remained the same: an impersonal fate of mankind. The disaster was clear enough- but what is the lesson? Perhaps awareness is all Ai Wei Wei hopes to provoke.

Just as one can have an awareness of natural disasters.

An inevitable natural catastrophe had been the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, that triggered a human one. It was here represented by a boat that afterwards had drifted for 3 years at sea, from Japan to Taiwan. I was struck by the weeds that had grown on the stern of the sampan during these years.

Then there was a man-made upheaval; which was not yet a man-made disaster. A long wall was reserved for the recent Hong Kong popular protests against the extradition bill. The walls were plastered with documents assembled by youngsters now studying in Taiwan from HK. To me it was another proof that urgent emotion creates a wish to communicate and indeed stimulates creativity. Hundreds of flyers and posters covered 3 walls.

 I learnt from one of the posters that the demonstrators had developed a sign language to quickly warn, shift and guide the leaderless crowd. Some twenty hand positions indicated to disperse, go to another place, listen to certain speakers, beware of a gas attack and so on.

A continuity of expression seemed to flow from Tian An Men, Peking, 1989. Hong Kong linked itself to the youth revolt in Peking, both in the use of a wall for communication and its content. Bruce Lee was quoted with his poem ‘Be Water’. Perhaps because the fluidity of water can conquer rocks. As the catalogue put it: “Social movements are like rivers carrying all lives in an ever-flowing journey.”

A Japanese collective ChimPom has created the yellow “Super Rat” as a symbol of resilience of people against manmade disasters. The destruction of parts of Taipei by urban development is indicated by symbolic yellow rats.

A different artist is female, Sachiko Kazama (1972). She continues the woodprint tradition of the Taisho Era. She selects iconic historical events and mixes them with present knowledge. For instance: the famous print of the landing of the conquistadores in America and their first reception by the Indians is shown with a McDonald’s emblem among the Christian banners.

I found her work refreshing, for instance a game-board about the sixty years after WW II. Each year is represented for what it may be remembered. The year gets its own woodcut icon such as the Mushroom Bomb or the Portrait of Mao. If I would have an opportunity to buy, I would like to have this summary of my period on the wall – in the bathroom. To remember.

Another artistic reworking of reality came from Vietnam. Tuan Mami (1981) comes from the mountains of the Muong people, which have a creation epic called ‘the Birth of Soil and Water’. This traditional world view is now destroyed by mindless development, capitalist or otherwise. The long film suffocates the viewer with its smoky mists from which there is no escape.

(Ably made realistic portraits of villagers of a typhoon stricken region of Taiwan failed to move me. Ikong Hacii)

(A pleasant project of righting a wooden light-tower by collective action was sympathetic, but as far as I could see, not art.)

‘The Turner Archives’ is an installation mimicking the hideout of a fictional racist. It is based on the novel ‘The Turner Diaries’ (by William Luther Pierce) which describes the conquest of the state of California by supremacists and the elimination of all diversity. Taiwan is sensitive to what happens in California. (Chen Yin-Ju and James T. Hong).

Zhou Tao’s North of the Mountain evokes the impossibility of life in 70 minutes.

Pakuvulay is based on the crafts of the Taiwanese indigenous people and means in the Puyama language ‘to make things beautiful’. Or simply ‘wonderful’. With local materials and craftsmanship two Taiwanese artists created a colossal heart, very convincing, or a paper pail shedding paper water, also very convincing. (Malay Makazuwan/Huang Jin-Cheng.)

The works are related to a tendency, also noticeable in Saigon, to return to “un-modern” folk traditions and give them new meaning. Another Taiwanese artist, Eleng Luluan, weaves imposing totemic sculptures – that she considers healing the wounds suffered by Mother Earth.

‘The Desolation Trilogy’ by Wu Chi Tao carries no such hope.

The exhibition also had two non-Asian contributors. The Lebanese poet Adonis, with a poem about the world we are leaving behind, and Pierre Huyghe with a photograph of a skeleton in a moonscape desert.*in*Catastrophes

After this dip in dystopia we went to eat some soup in a restaurant frequented mainly by schoolchildren. And got somewhat uplifted afterwards by visiting the polished Estate Coffee Bar, where every cup was first tasted by the headwaiter – an ambivalent royal prerogative.

9 I 2020

As KS is working, I took time for a second look at the Da-an Forest Park. It had now become familiar enough to notice details. It is well kept. A compilation of areas for recreation. There is a theatre, as well as an ecological pond.

At the edge of the aforementioned I spent most of my time, watching squirrels leaving their trees to be fed and turtles climb to sun on a concrete tube. Some turtles were swimming amidst blue or orange carps. All were catching titbits thrown into the water by a handful of Chinese visitors. A heron would land. The squirrels would get bored, or tired or fed. Mothers would come and go with their toddlers and grandfathers with their grandsons.

In the big, but sparingly used park, this feeding site (where all kind of furry, feathered, scaled and shelled animals would meet mankind) was the busiest point. It was not planned.

As the wind was blowing in gusts and the temperature moderate, I found protection on a bench behind a thick mass of white lilies, to read my newspaper. This was opposite a public toilet. It seemed at this early hour not frequented at all. People were more busy crossing the park – which is easy – than enjoying it.

A woman was sunbathing on a hilly protuberance, in full sun, but when I passed her, was lying flat on her face, with her limbs seemingly dissociated from the rump. Nearby a young couple was posing for marriage photographs, seconded by a man carrying an outsize flower bouquet. Near the exit, at an enormous statue of a standing Buddha, a single man was praying.

I have now been ill for most of my trip. First because of a sudden food poisoning when leaving for Saigon. This could be retraced to spoiled milk, which curdled when mixed with coffee.

Afterwards I had a heavy infection of the bronchi, perhaps even the beginning of a lung infection. My stomach got involved and my belly became hard and inflated. It is possible that SL, coming back from Nepal from a gathering of Buddhists, with similar symptoms, infected me with her heavy cold.

Even today, when the fever and cough have gone, there were moments of sudden unease and slime.

9 I 2020

Regarding world news I depend completely on American servers. Or rather Anglo-American sources, because the BBC is adding some regular news coverage to the systematic breaking news perspective of CNN.

The One Topic focus of CNN at least gave me some insight in the Ghosn affair. Amanpour’s considered reporting was cruelly interrupted, and for no less than one hour we suddenly were in the Lebanon where the industrialist had fled to from Japan.

He gave an impressive press conference. It made us witness the global world from the top, where as in feudal times conspiracies can topple the mighty but also reveal the hidden workings of power. Here spoke the global tycoon who once thought it normal to rent Versailles.

Basically I believed the culprit to be right. He had been framed. He thought he had been successful and admired, but had underestimated his enemies, who he thought were his friends. Japanese prejudices had been simmering out of sight. Once he had been thrown into the hands of the Japanese justice system, he discovered he could not rely on it. It was there not to find truth and do justice, but to persecute and condemn. Once in the hands of the local system, and without powerful local protectors, he felt doomed. For him it was clear that the only road to survival was to escape in a box.

I recently noticed that the country executes several hundred convicted persons a year.

A spring-like day. The “ecological pond” shows no human visitors. But about 20 turtles are climbing up the concrete tube and on each other’s backs. They are lifting their necks vertically into the sunlight and enjoying the experience. Shoals of carps are lying in wait. As I stood there one squirrel after another came out of the tree: jumping with elegant precision, to look for snacks.

By taxi we went to the posh Ambassador Hotel (Michelin). And ate a hasty lunch. Ninety percent of the customers were both young and rich – and female. They had been shopping.

As I was mostly ill during the stay in Taipei I have not seen much of the city. I lived a hotel life, walked somewhat in the neighbourhood, visited a few events. This gave me a certain distance to the workings of society, but also made these workings more visible.

This Chinese hybrid of democracy and secret organisations, of power and neighbourhood nurseries, of superrich living in palace-like monstrosities, of beggars falling flat on their faces among pedestrians, this whole machinery nevertheless seems to hang together and work.

The result is a population that basically keeps to its own agenda, has its own small issues and aims, does not communicate very much, but is also quite ready to engage when spoken to. Perhaps one could say a society not so much of citizens but of limited shareholders. It has one great advantage: it seems to have rid itself of terror. This is a great advance compared to the Chinese or Russian alternatives available.

10 I 2020

A happy morning at last.

We walk together to the Da-an Forest Park to look at my now habitual haunts. First of all the ecological pond with its population of fishes, turtles and waterfowl. Then to the azalea hill where the rhododendrons are opening their flowers. Gardeners are repairing the poor patches. We pass the statue of Kwan Yin, where KS prays to the bodhisattva for his sister and perhaps our health and togetherness. Afterwards we return to the hotel and enjoy the good news that we do not have to change rooms on our last day.

In the afternoon KS worked for hours and I became fed up with reading and looking at American TV (not being able to understand Mandarin). We walk out and find a kind of gentleman’s coffee-bar with a club-like atmosphere. Like a leisure place for working journalists. We have a snack of European food. They don’t do anything else. Just tapas. With good coffee, a Japanese cult. A foreigners’ place for Taiwanese.

11 I 2020 Taipei

A postscript

We took a taxi to the airport. We were warned to take extra time because of the elections. The old-fashioned voting system made people return to their place of birth or to vote in their own clan. Anyway, the prediction was that the roads between the cities would be clogged. Better be early. Indeed the traffic that morning was already dense.

This was a good indication. People were ready to leave their homes to express their political desires. It was also comforting to know that the people had not been distracted by propaganda coming from the mainland. For months they had been bombarded by negative stories about the progressive and independent course the present government was pursuing. China did not appreciate independence or even difference. Moreover the old guard of the anti-communist Kuo Min Tang had already changed colour or coat and become fiercely nationalist. Both from the inside and the outside the predictions had been dire. The mainlanders would win.

The night before, the company of theatre makers had a farewell party for their international guests. All the old friends of KS were there, the composer, the sound and light specialists. Though all energies had been turned towards the new production, it could not be ignored that the relevance of the play was much linked to the way Taiwan was moving forward. The story of the now celebrated singer of Chinese classical opera, Ms. Wei, one thousand stages and no life, could well be the story of Taiwan itself. Taiwan had also lived through dramatic times and survived. But the future was uncertain.

So thoughts turned to the upcoming elections. That very night the last demonstrations were being held. Should not we go and see? After eating it was late and we rushed with taxis to the main assembly place. But when we arrived the paraphernalia, the banners and tents, were still there, but only surrounded by cleaners and some volunteers. Had the attendance been low? No, but everybody had gone home early to get ready for the next day.