24.4.13

Never let me go - Taipei 2013 part 1


City as palimpsest - all images in this post by J

It has been almost 3 years since J and I were last together in Taipei - or any foreign city, for that matter. (Click on the Taiwan label on the sidebar to read about our trips/recommendations in 2006, 2008 and 2010)

And I am glad that Taipei has remained largely unchanged in the last 3 years, which is unusual to citizens on our small tropical island... And with all the recent discussion on our island about heritage preservation, nostalgia, identity and displacement, here are three spots we visited this time in Taipei that offer this city's take -

(1) Ri Xing Type Foundry


The narrow streets in the area between the Zhongshan and Taipei Main Stations are a little like Balestier and Jalan Besar in Singapore. The stores specialise in machine parts, tools and other hardware. In Lane 97 of Tai Yuan Road is just another of such stores with its iron grills, fluorescent tube lights, and the glint of metal. But its not just any other store specializing in machine parts, it is Ri Xing/日星 supposedly the last Chinese letterpress type foundry with the complete set of lead type.

How could we resist a visit?

Level 1 and the basement just has shelves of Chinese lead type in various sizes. English alphabets are sold by their weight, but the Chinese type is sold per piece and priced according to its size. When we were there, the lady boss was making out an invoice to a middle-aged man, while the boss was watching tv in the basement. He did look up to smile, but promptly went back to his tele, leaving J to take photographs.



We gave the lady boss our request for "安普乐设计工坊" and in under 1 minute, she managed to find all these characters. We chatted a little and complimented her for preserving this important bit of print heritage.

LB: 哎呀, 笨蛋的人才会这样做。aiyah, only stupid people will do this.
J: 哈哈,楼下的那位笨蛋吗? the stupid guy downstairs?
LB: 对啊, 对啊。哈哈。 correct, correct.... 不然早就把这里租出去,不用在等钱赚啊。we could have rented this place out, instead of waiting here and making so little.

As with any city, I am sure Taipei has its share of greed and ruthless enterprise, but it also has more than its fair share of 笨蛋的人/stupid people.

(2) Si Si Nan Village 

In the Xinyi District, or more specifically, in the shadow of the Taipei101 building, is a cluster of  small houses for mililtary dependents known as 四四南村 (literally 44 South Village). The residents had moved out in 1999, but persuaded by members of the "cultural circle", the city government preserved the buildings.

It now houses a small museum, a gallery space and Good Cho's/好丘, a cafe and shop. On Sunday afternoons, the courtyard hosts Simple Living, a tiny market featuring local produce and creative products.


The buildings are repaired insofar as new roofs are installed, unsafe fixtures fixed, and a new coat of bright red/sky blue/green paint is layered on the wooden window frames and doors. But the grime, battered cement, rusty wire fences and verdant moss remain.

In some ways it is still prettified. And Taipei's contemporary lifestyle business in the form of the charming Good Cho's cafe and the Simple Living market are adaptive re-uses that have come to define the buildings for tourists and the young. But I like how the place is allowed to continue to age - and dirt is an inevitable part of aging. 

(3) Ping Xi 

After so many visits to Taipei, we thought we had run out of possible day trips. But I chanced upon a write up of Ping Xi, a tiny coal mining town on the Ping Xi train line (there are stops for the cat village/Houtong and Shifen as well). It was probably made popular by the movie 那些年我们一起追过的女孩/Apple of my eye, where the couple had a date at Ping Xi involving ice cream and the lighting of a sky lantern.

If you are the sort who needs things to "do", then there really is not much to do at Ping Xi except walk down the old street and buy a sky lantern to send your wishes to the clouds. We didn't do that - I figured it was pollutive. Instead, we wandered into a strange warren of tunnels beside a temple, scrambled down some stairs to the river bank, took silly photographs of the many murals scattered, and waited one whole hour for the next train to arrive at the small, narrow platform built during the Japanese colonial era.



On the train back, we chatted with an old man in his late 60s or 70s  (let's call him Z) who volunteered to help us get on a faster train route back to Taipei. Z has a small plot of land in Jing Tong (the last stop on the Ping Xi line) left to him by his ancestors, which he now tills and grows vegetables on in his retirement. When the weather is good, he takes the train from Keelung where he lives to Jing Tong to work on the land. He used to ride his scooter but he is now not able to take the 1hour drive. The Ping Xi line, he remembered, used to be quiet. And Ping Xi, he said, was completely dead.

On the train, we met also a young man who has brought his toddler to visit her grandpa at Ping Xi. 

Honestly, Ping Xi still looks like and smells of decay. It is a dying town, kept alive by a fickle tourism. There are many of such tiny sleepy towns in Taiwan. The grandpas and grandmas of Taiwan continue to live by and cultivate the land today. And when they die, creepers or condominiums will overtake them. For this, it is not about heritage or its preservation. It mirrors instead the daily realities or rhythms of a community and society, and starts from living together as a family.

2 comments:

wallfleur said...

I've always liked how Taipei/Taiwan has no qualms about leaving some imperfections of age on old structures made for new use.

ampulets said...

Yes, that's a good way of putting it! imperfections.

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