city of sadness

Abandoned Sheng Pin Theatre with the poster from HHH's movie Dust in the Wind - image by J

Thanks to radiohate's tip on 九份 Jiu Fen, J and I took a day trip to this Gold-mining town.

Jiu Fen's a little town made up of maybe 10 winding alleyways of low houses, built against a steep slope by the beautiful northern coast. The town got its second lease of life after Hou Hsiao Hsien shot his seminal film <悲情城市> City of Sadness (1989) there. But as if this town was never meant to be, it is most certainly on its way down.

halfBuilt longGoneShop
Beautiful desolation. Images by J - click for a larger view

In the last 5 years or so, the tourist flow has died down. Today, other than one crowded alleyway of foodstalls and sourvenir stalls, the rest of the town is pretty much a ghost town. More than half of the buildings are failed hostels and teahouses, and abandoned, fallen shells. We spent most of the time exploring these quieter streets, staring through the dusty windows (if they still had glass panes) and taking photos of the their layers of paint on the crumbling walls. J and I joked that if this was Singapore, Jiu Fen would never escape the zealous STB's efforts. In Taiwan, things are pretty much left as they are.

Sketch from inside Babka Cafe

After several hours walking, we finally found a beautifully designed cafe that had retained an old stone wall in its interior. Fortunately for us, the cafe had a chatty owner (hmm, alright, so we were the only 2 in the cafe) whom we could quiz. By now, we were really puzzled about the fate of this town.

J: I guess most people come here because of Hou Hsiao Hsien.
Bossman: Ah, yes, he shot a movie -
J:: 悲情城市.
Bossman: Yes yes.
J: There's that cinema here, but it's empty -
Bossman: That cinema? Hou Hsiao Hsien beautified everything here. That cinema's not been used for a long time. You know what that cinema is actually famous for? No? It's Taiwan's first porn cinema!
J&Y: Wow, no kidding?!
Bossman: That cinema, Hou Hsiao Hsien beautified it [Bossman repeats, rather happy with this bit of knowledge]. You know lah, this place was a goldmine. And you know lah, like all workers, after a hard day's work...they all like to watch some porn.

Bossman enjoys chatting, so however hard we tried leaving, he made it seem rude to do so. He tells us that he would much prefer living in Singapore, where the government makes sure things work and crime rates are lower. According to him, Taiwan's policies and politics have gotten so liberal that the crooks don't get punished. In Jiu Fen, some 15 robberies of the shops take place a month by a growing group of drug addicts that have settled there. He continues and tells us that on bad days and closer to winter, the wind and the cold make it impossible to be outdoor.

Perhaps Bossman is right. If J and I weren't tourists with only 3 hours on these streets, the reality is that this town is rather desolate. When Hou Hsiao Hsien first chose to shoot his City of Sadnesshere, he might have made the struggles of his characters seem "beautiful" against this landscape. Yet his film also showed the persistent reality of this town, which maybe makes fruitless the efforts of its inhabitants.


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