Friday, May 1, 2009

Reason #6 to Love (?) Taiwan

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

Today I only had Chinese class, which meant I could wear jeans and a t-shirt covered in Engrish ("Hot Space Station Justice") and ride my bike to Shi-da at my leisure instead of donning work clothes and taking the bus or MRT. I tried an alternate route and took the riverside park trail up to Guting, then rode up Tong An street to Heping Road, which I took over to Shida. I didn't like hauling my bike up the ramp, though, so I took my usual route home (Wenzhou Street - NTU - lanes to the west of Roosevelt Road - Jingmei).

The weather was also unbelievably gorgeous. Clear skies, light wind, warm sun, I even got a bit of a sunburn on my arms. It was so nice that on my way back, I decided that I couldn't possibly just disembark at home and go inside. So I turned my bike around and went out exploring the lanes and back-alleys in my neighborhood.

That's what brings me to my next "reason to love Taipei". While the reason isn't Jingmei specifically, it is neighborhoods and backstreets in general. Mine are Jingmei, but I mean your neighborhood and your backstreets.

I love how riding or walking from a major road into a lane-filled neighborhood brings about a palpable difference in sound levels. Once you make that turn you leave behind most of the cars and other noise, and it's replaced mostly by silence on weekdays, especially in late morning and mid-afternoon. That silence isn't diminished by the sounds that punctuate it - if anything, it's augmented. Quiet, except for someone dumping out a bucket of water, or a restaurant laoban chopping up pig parts, or a housewife hanging up wet clothes on a balcony, or one lone scooter meandering along.

South of Keelung Road, the lanes leading down to Jingmei are blessed with lengths of long, tree-lined parks. Starting south from the Broadway movie theater, I ride past the Shi-da branch and turn into the lane (past one of my favorite Hakka noodle joints and a place called Eco Coffee which I haven't tried yet). Greeting me immediately is the faint whoosh of leaves in the breeze, as large old gnarlies with Spanish moss hanging from the branches sway back and forth. The only people I generally encounter down there are the occasional children with parents, or pensioners with dogs.

After enjoying a leisurely ride home past the parks - I think there are three in all and all of them are very long and narrow - I kept going past my own door and stopped to talk to Auntie Wu.

My post earlier in the week on obasan was modeled somewhat on Auntie Wu and Posse? Crew? Gaggle? Homeys? Sistahs? Social Club? She lives on the second floor of an old-style apartment building with her ancient dog, Mao Mao ("Fur-fur"), who has more fur than he has body mass and who is covered in several benign I guess his name is appropriate. There are five or six old chairs in the covered area in front of the apartment, and at any given time Auntie Wu is sitting there with Mao Mao and up to five other women of equally advanced age. They've sort of welcomed me into their gang, with the initiation rites being when Mao Mao decided he liked me. Not as much as the beef noodle laoban next door who gives him leftover cow chunks, mind you, but he likes me well enough even though I don't come bearing hunks of fatty beef for him to eat. The ladies are kind enough to speak Chinese when I am around, but it's obvious that they are more comfortable in the more expressive twangs of Taiwanese. Auntie Wu also used to speak Japanese (having been educated in it - she's that old) and Hakka (from having a family relation who is Hakka, though she herself is not), but says she's since forgotten both.

Besides being a lovely older woman to chat with, a way to get to know the goings-on in my neighborhood (old women know everything - if you haven't already figured this out you don't belong in Asia), and a way to improve my Chinese, Auntie Wu is also one of a dying breed. Sadly, I mean that just as literally as I do metaphorically. There aren't too many people left who remember the Japanese colonial years well enough to have been educated in Japanese, and they are a trove of stories and first-person history that Taiwan is slowly, inevitably losing. She remembers years where most women wore kimonos and nobody spoke Mandarin. She remembers the tumultuous decades between the Japanese ceding Taiwan and the economic miracle, when she was afraid for her life under the White Terror. She remembers when Jingmei's name didn't mean "Scenery Beautiful" but was Taiwanese - Ging Mbi - for "End of the River" and was its own little self-contained settlement, though technically a part of Taipei by that time.

Aside from genuinely being her friend, I feel grateful to have this chance to learn about the history of my neighborhood from someone who saw it with her own eyes, and someone who, frankly speaking, won't be around much longer...and neither will her friends, who flock - well, who walk slowly - to the chairs under her awning each day.

You can still see the shadow - the vague charcoal tracing - of Ging Mbi if you look closely enough. Don't stare at the front of the buildings you pass, look at the sides. Old brick or cement building lines - the kind you still see at the edges of the Old Streets of more touristy areas, are still there. Old walls with capstones on either side of the roof. Curved corner buildings reminiscent of earlier times. Two-level shophouses obscured now by advertisements and store signs. Most people who drive through never notice, but if you turn into the lanes you can still see plenty of century-old brick walls traditional tiled roofs. There are even a few farmhouse-type buildings still around, tucked into corners, surviving because the families who built them still have descendants who live there. There's one with a small but distinct courtyard just north of Sanfu Street and another hidden by low trees on the edge of the hard-to-find Wanqing Park. Look more closely at some of the stores and it'll become quickly clear that many of them have been around a lot longer than their present incarnations give away, from a time when Ging Mbi had its own little 'downtown'.

At about 5:30pm Auntie Wu decided to retire for the evening ("I've also got to pee," she said in her mix of Taiwanese-Chinese , before heading up) and I hopped on my bike to explore some new areas.

I rode down past the Wellcome and to the area where Jingfu Street hits the elevated highway. Stopping at Wanqing Park, I noticed for the first time that the little old house on the edge of it also attracts its own group of old folks who sit outside and chat. One of them had a daschund who crawled into my lap and napped there while I sat.

"You're that girl who spends time with Old Wu and her group, aren't you?"
"That's me. I didn't know you knew Auntie Wu."
"Everyone knows Old Wu. She's been here for longer than many of us have been alive. She has seven kids, you know."
"I know. Her daughter brings her to the doctor and I know she has at least two sons living up by Xingnan Street."
"I know you know Old Wu because Dou Dou" (the aforementioned daschund, whose name translates into 'Bean-bean' or 'Pimple') "can smell Mao Mao very clearly. He's so nice to you because he can tell you were petting Mao Mao."

As the sun began to set I bade the new group of retirees farewell and set off towards a temple roof I'd seen in the distance, which I believe I'd seen from Jingfu Street before but had never been able to get to. Starting from Wanqing Park, I finally found out where the entrance was after weaving through a little colony of single-story houses with old brick walls out front.

The temple was a good metaphor for Jingmei itself. The building was clearly new, with the signature ugly metal awning out front and bathroom tiles on the inside. My guess was that it had been built in the '80s. Looking inside, however, the artifacts within weren't immediately apparent to the eye but once noted, were clearly far older. The temple was to Qingshui Zhuce, whose name I can pronounce but can't spell in Pinyin, and whom I can only remember because it sounds like "Clearwater Registration" in Chinese. There were several da sen - tal god costumes - and quite a few shorter costumes with odd faces. I found one of the only female 'tall gods' that I've ever seen, and she looks like a transvestite. Don't worry, I'll come back and post photos. The bathroom-tile walls were punctuated by strips of wooden sculpture that were clearly over a century old and the shrines themselves were carved in the old Fujian style, dark wood (these were painted) with lots of dragons and such. I asked the Temple Guy (every temple has one) what the deal was, and found that the temple had been on its current site for at least 200 years, but the building was deemed too small and was expanded in the '80s, as I'd guessed.

There'll be a processional with their own tall gods - including the transvestite one - on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month (that's Saturday, May 9) if anyone wishes to go.

On the way home, I took a spin back through the riverside park - the road from the temple heads straight to one of the entrances - and stopped at a bakery I like. The owner and I got into a discussion about the large shrine above the cash register and she explained to me in some detail how one can go about getting those idols - just like the kind in temples - carved for your personal shrine. There are still people, one of whom is in Jingmei, who do that for a living, and next time she goes to get one made, she promised, she'd give me a call so I could arrange to watch some of the carving. Awesome!

Anyway, I hope this post has made you think about your own neighborhood and backstreets, who lives there, what's hidden in the corners and in the faded outlines of streetscapes and how you can better understand its history. I feel privileged to live here as more than a passing traveler, to learn more about one tiny corner of a city beyond how to get from a hotel room to a point on a map, to chat with people as more than just a passing acquaintance and to know that when (if) I ever leave, I'll miss it as though it were my own home town, even though where I was really born is about as far from Ging Mbi as one can get.

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