Showing posts with label public_space. Show all posts
Showing posts with label public_space. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

An Incomplete Taiwanese History of Cyan

Perimeter wall of the Jingmei Human Rights Museum

Several months ago, I went to the Jingmei Human Rights Museum and noticed that a cyan or light teal color featured prominently on many of the buildings, especially on doors, bars and outdoor perimeter walls. I've seen this color frequently in Taiwan and if it hadn't been so predominant, I might not have even noticed it here. But it was everywhere, in a place meant to be a prison toward the end of the White Terror era.

I asked a few people who worked there, who said it was just a popular (and therefore possibly inexpensive) color at the time, and the builders perhaps wanted to bring a little bit of a 'sky' color to otherwise dank, gray, unforgiving cell blocks. I found the desire to make living quarters nicer suspicious - after all, the guards would engage in soul-crushing cruelties in other ways, so why would they care about the cells looking brighter? But that the paint was perhaps inexpensive and readily available made more sense.

I find it hard to believe that the people who built and ran this hellhole would care one bit about
making the inmates feel more comfortable by painting some things bright colors. 

Another worker there told me that one name for this color, which I would call 藍綠色 lán lǜsè or 青色 qīngsè (though you have to clarify which 青 you mean, as it just denotes 'nature's color' - think new plants, a view across blue mountains, that sort of thing - and is also a way to describe rice liquor) was 防空色 fángkōng sè, or "air defense camouflage". Googling that, however, I found most things labeled 防空色 were brown, khaki or dun-colored, meant to blend into the earth from the sky. I suppose you'd really only use a bright teal or cyan as 'air defense camouflage' if the thing you were trying to obscure stuck out into the sky - but that's just conjecture.

I wanted to know more, but being both busy with graduate school and not exactly a great investigative reporter, I didn't get very far. Tatung (大同) famously made electric fans in that color - fans which have become one of the traditional products that form a sort of iconography or semiotic imagery of Taiwanese history and identity, alongside rice cookers from the same company, small Taiwan Beer glasses, those three-color plastic shopping bags and more. They still make those fans: I would know - I have one. The color is even called "classic green". 

I hate calling people, so I dropped Tatung a Facebook message to ask why these fans were traditionally that green-blue color (it seems like it might be possible to email through their website but the only avenue seemed to require a lot of information about the product purchased, meaning it's probably not the best avenue for finding out what I want to know). I haven't received a response but I'll update here if they ever reply.

My own Tatung retro fan in "classic green"

At that point I considered that these fans had been around since the mid-20th century, and that turquoisey greeny blue was quite popular in the 1950s in the US, which was the country that Taiwan was most looking toward as it cut off contact with China and was a strong ally to the United States. Maybe it was just, well, popular. Popular things tend to be easy to come by, and cheap, so that might be a simple explanation that goes a long way.

In any case, I Googled "air defense camouflage" in Chinese and came up with this fascinating article on the use of color and tile on Taiwanese buildings during the Japanese era (link in Chinese, by a professor at NTU).

It's a lot to sift through, but essentially there is no specific color called "air defense camouflage",  and the term has been typically used for all of the yellowy browns, cement, dirt and khaki colors you might imagine. In fact, a quick look at this traditional Japanese color chart lists a bland dun-yellow-brown as "national defense color" (國防色 guófáng sè). That said, according to Horigome in the Chinese-language link above, "light green", "bright blue green" and "green-green", are colors described as 'air defense camouflage' by a the Kaohsiung City Museum and Kaohsiung City Culture Bureau. He then goes on to note that it's not at all clear that the purpose of such colors was actually to help camouflage buildings from aerial assault, but that such colors might simply have been considered pleasing or fashionable and might have been chosen for a number of reasons: performatively (to display how patriotic one was by using national defense colors); aesthetically (they just liked it), or because it was thought to fit in with the surrounding area or other colors. 

A building in Kinmen, Taiwan (Kinmen was never Japanese so I doubt it would have become popular here as a result
of Japanese influence)

Looking more at that color chart again, the colors most similar to the cyans and teals seen in Taiwan seem to be either 'new bridge' or "Shinbashi" color (新橋色), clear blue-green (青綠色), fresh bamboo (青竹色), celadon (青磁色), 'ancient' green-blue (青色). Of all of these, I think 'new bridge' is the closest match, and this helpful website in Japanese explains that it was a popular color in the late Meiji era, especially among the geishas of the Shinbashi neighborhood of Tokyo. 

The late Meiji is right around the time that Japan was consolidating its rule of Taiwan, so if the popularity of teal came from Though it seems like quite a stretch to say that a color popular in Japan during the colonial era would influence, say, the color that prison bars were painted during the White Terror, or the color of electric fans in the mid-twentieth century. 

Screen Shot 2019-07-09 at 9.25.35 PM
The history of "Shinbashi" blue

The color remains popular in Japan

A Japanese-era wooden building in Chiayi city
(Yeah, I went to Chiayi for a bit and never told y'all)

My guess is that perhaps the color may have become widely used in Taiwan during the Japanese era, possibly for 'air defense' reasons or possibly simply because it was also popular in Japan. It sure does appear on the window frames and casements of a lot of Japanese-era buildings, especially brick or wood ones. Then I'd guess it simply stayed popular because it's a nice color and offers a striking and pleasing contrast with the brick and dun shades of Taiwanese buildings.

Another pet theory that I can't prove at all is that it's a popular color for window casements and bars because it is similar to sky blue - with blue window bars, you might be able to look outside on a clear day and feel like the bars (which are unsightly but considered "necessary" for safety reasons) were perhaps not there at all. 

That brings us to the modern era - the color has seen a bit of a resurgence in political activism. All of those "I support Taiwanese independence" stickers, flags, towels and t-shirts use it. It's been around since at least 2014 and the Sunflower Movement, and (so I was told anyway) a well-known activist who runs a coffeeshop in Taichung designed the current popular crop of designs.

Screen Shot 2019-07-09 at 9.13.24 PM
A screenshot of the designs popular today
Even I have the t-shirt! 

I asked around - including the person who I was told had created the designs (who wasn't too forthcoming) and didn't get any clear answers. One activist friend said he'd heard the use of the color was meant to symbolize "the mixing of green and blue, because we are all Taiwanese regardless", but expressed doubt that that was the actual intent behind the color choice. I noted the historical roots of the color, but neither of us is sure if that plays any role. Perhaps it was chosen simply because it is an attractive color that happens to be popular right now, but color symbolism in Taiwanese politics is far too complex and just inextricably intertwined with parties, ideas and movements here that I do believe it was chosen for a reason. However, I'm still unsure of what that reason is.

You might also notice that many candidates of another political party have been using that same color - the DPP. Were they using it to try and identify more closely with social movement activists? Were they trying to tap into it as a historically symbolic color of Taiwan? Why was it popping up everywhere in DPP campaigns too, as late as this last spate of elections in 2018?

See? (Lime green is popular too now)

I asked a friend of mine who campaigned in 2018 (and won!) and who had used this color in his campaign and his answer was much more pragmatic: first, he (and perhaps other) DPP candidates felt that the party's traditional deep green was too old-fashioned - "very 1980s". The other was that since everyone was using it, it was cheaper to order campaign materials in that color.

Well, so much for trying to tie current political trends to historic notions of Taiwanese identity through color symbolism - avoiding the usual suspects of red, blue and green. Perhaps someday I'll get to the bottom of teal/cyan/"new bridge color"/"air defense camouflage", and I'll keep you updated if so.

Whether or not the color just happened to be popular in the past, there's no question that its use in political imagery is somehow intentional. It was chosen for a reason; I just don't know what that reason is. For DPP candidates, it may just be that it's inexpensive and popular but also modern, and doesn't scream "old guard DPP" while still retaining a callback to the party's traditional colors. (You'll notice that in an attempt at feminization, some female KMT candidates have been using shades of pink - this seems less popular among the DPP.)

Another building in Chiayi city, probably built in the 1940s (?), but that paint is pretty new.
It must be a contemporary and purposeful choice. 

If you were wondering, by the way, whether my choice to use a color very similar to this on Lao Ren Cha was was. I've associated this color with modern Taiwan and Taiwanese identity for years. It also happens to be one of my favorite colors. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

No, those MRT station codes are not useful

Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 6.40.29 PM

An article ran in CommonWealth Magazine recently about the usefulness of Taipei MRT's use of Hanyu Pinyin, and the letter/number coding system for the stations, pointing out that some visitors were "still getting lost" in Taipei, because they didn't speak Chinese and therefore didn't know how to pronounce station names like Da'an, Qilian, Xindian etc etc.

Now, in the past 5 years or so I've encountered exactly one lost person. It's not that hard, the maps are quite clear (the exits in relation to where one wants to go above-ground are less clear, however). But CommonWealth says it's a thing:

Donna is a Canadian studying Chinese in Taiwan. She chose to live near the Da’an MRT station for its convenient location. Yet the first time she met with her landlord, she was an hour late because she was unable to find Da’an Station on an English-language map, which indicated the station name as “Daan”. They way she pronounced the name, it sounded like the single character da (“big” or “great” in Mandarin), rather than the compound name Da’an (da + an), the standard Romanization rendering.

Yeah, okay, I get that it can be difficult to pronounce the station names if you are not familiar with Pinyin, and I'm sympathetic to non-Mandarin speaking visitors who get confused. But as some folks have pointed out:

I'm not defending it, but part of life in Taiwan is understanding that the competing and often incorrectly-applied Romanization systems are pure chaos, and there can be no order arising from them. This is most likely because there is a lot less agreement on the trajectory of Taiwanese culture, and it shows in battles over Romanization, which often act as symbolic battlegrounds for the minority in Taiwan who want the country to remain as close to China as possible (if not integrate completely), and the majority who don't. Contrast this to, say, Seoul, where my husband lived just as the old Romanization system for Korean was on its way out as a new one was implemented, and the transition went much more smoothly, with far less chaos and overall entropy.

It would be better if we could standardize. It would be great if we didn't spell 中和 as Zhonghe, Chungho, Jhonghe, Jhongho, Zeüngho, Zongh1983q, Jh0ñg0, Zheungheau, JZH*YFEJK¯\_(ツ)_/¯@)(jfh!!!  or whatever.

I don't even care how we do it anymore, though I have a personal preference for Pinyin despite it being from China (hey even a broken clock is right twice a day). I would prefer that whichever system we use be implemented correctly - for Pinyin, that means apostrophes and perhaps even tone markers. If we use the deeply annoying and old-timey looking Wade-Giles, then the apostrophes are necessary. Otherwise, how am I supposed to know whether, say, someone named Cheng Chi-chong pronounces their name Zheng Ji-chong, Cheng Chi-zhong, Zheng Zhi-chong, Cheng Zhi-zhong, Zheng Qi-zhong or whatever combination of these it might be?

But I also daresay that a part of "studying Chinese", especially in Taiwan, is understanding that tHeRe CaN bE nO oRdEr FrOm ChAoS. Welcome to Taiwan, m'loves. Get used to it?

The CommonWealth article then goes on to talk about the coding system:

As for the station coding system embarked on this month, TRTC relates that it is responsible only for adding codes on this project, and not for revisions to the Romanization of metro system names.

With a sizable sum of NT$30 million having been spent on the project, domestic traveler Ms. Kuo remarked that the addition of station codes has absolutely no impact on her, except perhaps for making everything a little more complicated.

However, in the effort to gain more overseas visitors, rather than spending a lot of money to codify the metro system, the money would be better spent on an overall rectification of MRT station names, Hanyu Pinyin, and signage, as helping visitors understand and spell the words properly is the most user-friendly international practice.

On this I agree. The coding system is completely useless.

The reason why? Nobody local uses them, nobody local knows them, and that's probably not going to change.

So if you need to ask directions, you'll probably be asking someone local, and they won't know because they don't know the codes. They're not helpful at all for getting information from others. And if you are just trying to read a map, you don't need to know how a station's name is pronounced, you just need to match the letters of the station name on the LED scroll on the train or on the platform to the one on the map you are using.

With that in mind, let me tell you about that one lost person I met. I was with a friend (who happens to be Taiwanese and speaks excellent English, having gotten her PhD in the US) entering Da'an station, and a lost looking foreign woman approached my friend while I was adding money to my card. She asked my friend - who, again, is local - whether the station we were at was "R2".

My friend looked at her blankly, like, "huh?"

"R2? Is this R2? I was supposed to get off at R2 which is the terminus, but the train stopped here but this doesn't seem right. Is it R2? I think the map says it's R5? I'm so confused!"

My friend: "R....2? R...5?"

I walked up to them to see what the deal was just as my friend figured out what on earth she was talking about. We all walked over to a map and showed her that she'd boarded a train terminating at Da'an, not her destination of Xiangshan, so she needed to get back on the red line train in the same direction.

She kind of rushed off as I tried to advise her not to use the codes to ask directions, because nobody local knows them so they actually create confusion when trying to ask directions.

I really hope she figured it out on her own.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Muppet Hao!

Now that everyone seems to have forgotten about the Wang family - as I am sure those in power had hoped - this story on the famous A-Tsai (阿才) restaurant as Taipei's next urban renewal victim is worth reading.

Here's my take on Taipei city politics.

I really think this says it all. Derp derp derp.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Public Transit Conundrum

This editorial on public transit in Taiwan is something I really agree with. It's quite timely for me, having just returned from the USA, to talk briefly about public transit in Taipei. Taishun Street has a number of articulate posts on the topic, so take a look over there if you want another pro-public-transit perspective.

When we lived in the Washington, DC area, and when we returned in our early Taiwan years to DC to visit friends and some of my extended family, we relied heavily on public transit there. This trip was different: now almost all of our friends own cars and since we are mainly in town to see them, they're usually kind enough to give us rides - and when we go "sightseeing" (more like revisiting old favorite places, seeing new monuments) we no longer take Metro or Metrobus: one person drives - usually our friend M who is a bold city driver and has great luck with street parking - and we all pile in.

I used to think that public transit in DC was great - after all it's widely believed to be the best public transit system in the USA. I would contest that: it beats out the L, the T, BART and whatever Philadelphia has. Sure, unlike New York it's air-conditioned, trains are generally clean and it doesn't smell like urine and homeless people. That said, it's not nearly as extensive as it needs to be (only New York can claim that mantle, of all American transit systems), the waiting time for trains is really unacceptable, especially on the outer ends of the lines that double up in the city, the stations are dark and creepy (one book calls them "attractive and well-lit". I want to know what that guy is smoking!) and the buses are unreliable and inconvenient to use on the outskirts of the Metro area.

In Taipei we regularly use public transit to get to trailheads for hiking or go on day trips. You can go far on the MRT, bus network and buses leaving Taipei, although once you leave the area around Taipei City, you may have to fill in the gaps with taxis - fortunately, taxis are cheap. The DC equivalent would be using public transit to take day trips to Baltimore, Ocean City, Annapolis or Richmond, hike the Billy Goat Trail, go down to Shenandoah or up to Harper's Ferry. Well, you can't do any of those things. Technically you can take a bus to Baltimore or Richmond but once there you can't really go anywhere, and you can take a train to Harper's Ferry but due to departure/arrival times, you can't do it in a day trip. You're looking at at least a full day and two nights.

So yeah, now that I live in Taipei, I've long since stopped thinking that public transit in DC is great, or even good. In fact, now I think it kind of sucks. It has its defenders, but I say: its defenders haven't been to Taipei where the stations are clean and bright, the escalators always work, there are restrooms (and they're generally quite good!), trains come an average of every five minutes and signs will tell you down to five seconds when the next one is coming. Come to Taipei, take a few day trips or flit around the city on public transit, and then go back to DC and tell me if it's any good. You can throw me an e-mail from your bus stop after your bus arrives 20 minutes late if at all, or while you're waiting 14 minutes for a train, or the Red Line is on fire (again), or you're huffing and puffing up a long, out-of-service escalator.

Anyway, back to Taiwan. Taipei has excellent public transit - and it'll be even better once the MRT reaches its planned network size, but let's be honest: the rest of the country doesn't. From what I hear, it used to: buses would travel far more extensive networks and depart more often and you could get to a lot of places that you now need a car to reach. Only Kaohsiung and the High Speed Rail have been improvements (my only complaints about the HSR is that it doesn't go down to Kending and that the stations are too far from city centers. Otherwise, I love it and use it often for work: of course, since it's mostly for work I don't have to pay for it).

I agree with 鄧志忠's editorial in this case: Taipei has done an excellent job of building a fantastic MRT from scratch in an astoundingly short time, but the rest of Taiwan is really lacking good public transit - if anything, it's gotten worse.
This is a huge problem: Taiwan shouldn't be going in the direction of postwar America, where suburbs created a greater need for cars (encouraged, of course, by auto manufacturers and oil companies), public transit in many urban centers was dismantled or never built at all, and when it was built it wasn't nearly extensive enough. Only New York, which was ahead of the curve, managed to build something useful - because it did so mostly pre-war. If it had waited to start building subways, it too would be woefully inadequate. So what did Americans do? They all bought cars, they spewed and continue to spew pollution into the atmosphere, and they've all convinced themselves that they need, need, need their Earth-killing, congestion-inducing cars - so when public transit is introduced, nobody takes it ("but I need my car! Waaaaah!"). Do we really want that in Taiwan? I don't think so, but that's the direction we're headed in. Convince people that they need cars and they'll, well, they'll need cars. Show people how great life can be if a public transit network is extensive enough to suit their needs, and they'll take public transit.

Instead of building more highways - although that needs to be done to some degree, as well - there should be more investment in buses on rural routes, especially mountain routes where people unused to mountain driving would probably be better off not nervously swinging around high-altitude switchbacks for hours on end. Taichung really, truly needs a public transit system that doesn't suck: a lot of people say that Taichung is a fine place to live. Some go so far as to say that it's the best city to settle in for expats. I disagree: it will never be good enough without public transit. If you need to buy a scooter to get around, it's not ideal. This is one way in which I believe Taipei is really the better place to live, even if the weather sucks and I disagree with its political bent. Build an MRT and I'll consider Taichung as a place worth living in.

Because, really, public transit is good for everyone: it relieves road congestion and chaos for those who must or should drive (couriers, salespeople who make several daily client calls, people giving elderly relatives a ride etc.), it's more environmentally friendly, it reduces smog and pollution and it encourages more walking and reduces isolation. It's also good for people who: hate driving; who can drive but hate city, open highway and mountain driving (me); are legally blind or otherwise can't drive (a friend of mine as well as a friend of my mother's fall into this category); the elderly who are too infirm or blind to drive; and those who are simply bad drivers. Having to drive to get anywhere is extremely limiting for those people. 

So, in the end, we want to be going in the opposite direction of the USA. Taiwan should be encouraging public transit, not opposing it and definitely not shrinking it - which is a real concern, as bus routes are, in fact, shrinking island-wide. Taichung, Hualien, Taidong, Taoyuan, Yilan, Luodong and Hsinchu all need improved networks (even if it's just buses - though Taichung is big enough to warrant an actual MRT). We need to encourage the public to use public transit, reminding them that no, you don't need a car. Of course, first, we need to build networks extensive enough to serve people's needs so they're not actually right when they say they need a car. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Taipei Graffiti

加油!Graffiti extolling the virtues of both being awesome and reggae music. I didn't know there were Rastafarians (or Rastafarian wannabes) in Taipei.

If you ride the Taipei MRT with any frequency, you're certain to come across backlit billboards on station platforms or mezzanines that have a big "slash" sign through some ugly amateur graffiti and the phrase "Graffiti is bad for the city's image".

I suppose for the ugly kid-with-one-spray-can-and-no-talent-writing-his-name graffiti, I'd agree, but I have to admit, there is some guerrilla street art (as I like to call graffiti) that is done with an artist's precision and knack for size, form and color.

While I'd be fine with doing away with the scrawled signatures in black or white spray paint, it would be a shame to group these vibrant works with run of the mill tags, and an even bigger shame to whitewash them.

I find that well-done graffiti, which many American cities are starting to embrace and even fund (for real graffiti artists) as a form of beautification, doesn't hurt the city's image - it colorizes it. Kaohsiung has started to allow mural-style wall art at Pier 2, and I do think that the Taipei government quietly tolerates the artistic graffiti along the bike trails.

I'd like to see Taipei throw its graying cement and tile arms around the idea of graffiti - we might get some really cool stuff going on, like this building - which was once clearly quite ugly - on Wooster Street in New York:

...and I honestly think that could improve how much of Taipei looks. Sure, we might get some political graffiti as one can find all over Central America:

Bus stop graffiti in Nicaragua urging people to re-elect Sandinista president Daniel Ortega.

...but that might not be the end of the world. It might get the Taiwanese youth more politically engaged, if anything.

I support any kind of artistic talent, whether it's on metal pull-down doors...

...or it's along the walls that separate the riverside bike trails from the rest of the city.

I have noticed that while Central America goes for political messages and the USA is concerned partially with art and partially with tagging and gang politics (something I absolutely do not support - I'm about art, not hate), Taipei graffiti tends to be picture-oriented - sometimes with an almost existential feel like the above, or sometimes with a clearly anime/modern Japanese aesthetics bent, as below:

I'm a fan of the anime-influenced guerrilla street art, in particular - it lends Taipei graffiti its own ineffable quality (I don't think I've ever seen graffiti in Japan, so generally you'd see it here, not there) and brings out the more "yes, we are in Asia, we're not just imitating New York" aspects of the art.

And you know, if someone with one spray can and no talent wants to write something worth reading ("Ming-de wuz here" need not apply) that makes you smile, not cringe, well, I'm all for that, too.


Another thing I'd like to see? More graffiti in Chinese (or Taiwanese) - you see a lot of scrawlings in English, but rarely do you come across big, colorful Chinese characters saying something interesting. Heck, even if they don't say anything interesting, I do think that graffiti'd Chinese would be cool - think about it, a language associated with delicate calligraphy and Confucius bending over a book millenia ago, all associated with erudition and rarefied precision, now used as modern and often illegal street art in a different and fascinating sort of contemporary public calligraphy. The youth of Taiwan, taking over this whole "ancient inheritance of Chinese characters" and using them for their own artistic purposes. I've never thought of Chinese characters as something indie or individualistic, but they could be in this context.

That would blow my mind. That would kill. At the risk of sounding too "naughts", that would pwn. Or own. Or whatever the young'ins are saying these days.

Finally, I'm not sure this counts as "graffiti" per se, but it is a kind of art and it probably was not sanctioned - in my book, it counts, and it's super cool.

Bonus points if you can identify where in Taipei I took this picture:

So as far as I see it, long live Taipei Graffiti! Bring on the bug-eyed anime creatures.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reason #11 to Love Taiwan

Decent public infrastructure.

We were walking through MRT Jingmei and one escalator was out of service. Reasonable predictions based on experience could be made that it would remain out of service for one day, two at most while being visibly repaired.

"If we were in DC," Brendan said, "and this were the Metro, that escalator would be in that condition for several months."

"No," I replied, "it would look like that, but have more random stairs missing for no reason, with nobody working on it, and it would emit a creepy smell."

"We're talking about the USA as though it's a Third World country."

"Yeah, well, for the most prosperous nation on Earth, I sometimes look at the infrastructure, especially for public transit, and I think 'Really. Really? Is that the best you can do?'"

Of course Taiwan doesn't get off scot-free. Taipei has awesome public transit (sorry, Taizhong) but its sidewalks leave me scratching my head.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Bunun (I think...please correct me if I'm wrong) dance in Kaohsiung's Central Park MRT Station

While we were in Kaohsiung a few weeks ago, we happened upon this aboriginal dance show taking place in the Central Park MRT Station. We'd stopped in the aboriginal goods stores opened - so we were told - partially thanks to the efforts of Chen Chu - to buy Taiwanese coffee and other small items as the show was about to start. This was not the first time we've seen aboriginal dancing - sometimes in the context of actual festivals where the dancing has some sort of cultural meaning, and sometimes...not.

If you've spent any amount of time in Taiwan at all, you've surely encountered these dance shows - you can see them every weekend evening at the Naruwan Indigenous People's Market at the intersection of Huanhe and Guangzhou Roads not far from Longshan Temple (and practically across the street from the historic Xuehai Academy, the first "university" in Taiwan - now a family shrine - also mentioned in the post linked to above). On certain days they're held in Kaohsiung's Central Park station, and there are other venues in which to see them, as well. Both Taipei City Hall and Kaohsiung Central Park MRT Stations have aboriginal stores, but only Kaohsiung's also has dances.

It's rare to have the knowledge and chance to attend many of the more authentic festivals (Pasta'ai is the easiest to get to, and even that takes some work if you want to go to Wufeng, not Nanzhuang), and you're about as likely to encounter the everyday use of traditional dress as you are to come across a Taiwanese woman walking down the street in a full qipao ("qipao-inspired" doesn't count, nor does a tiny dog in a qipao costume - a labrador in a qipao might count)...but seeing these dance shows is dead easy if you are so inclined.

Amis Tribe dance in Taipei's Naruwan Market

I'm not sure what to make of them, honestly. It is absolutely true that many (most? all?) of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan incorporate dancing into festivals and rituals, to the point where non-aboriginal Taiwanese can often imitate the basic moves of common dances.

Dancing at Pasta'ai 2010 in Wufeng

They certainly help spread at least basic knowledge of these tribal cultures, little-known outside Taiwan. They help bring to the public eye more recognition that there is more to Taiwanese culture than that which came from China (or Japan) - more so than museums that, while important (and however excellent), are simply not as active, interactive or in the public eye.

And yet, I can't help but also watch them and feel like one adjective that could be used to describe these dances is "exploitative". Maybe. I'm not sure about that, but the thought has stayed with me long enough to spur me to blog about it. These dances, taken out of context and set down in a subway station or food court - do they really accomplish more than a fleeting thought of "yeah, aboriginal stuff is pretty cool" in the minds of the audience? Does it convey any lasting knowledge or encourage more in-depth learning about aboriginal affairs?

I guess I just don't know what to think, and yes, I realize sometimes it's OK not to have a strong opinion, and to instead muse on possible points of view.

On one hand, many people would never be exposed to this important cultural element of Taiwan if it weren't for such dance shows. That goes for locals, many (not all!) of whom wouldn't actively seek out such facets of their own national history, as well as foreigners, especially those who don't stay long enough to gain such exposure otherwise (click on the "seven hellish months" link). These dances are also generally related in some way to aboriginal stores and eateries - I love millet wine so I find myself in the stores a lot - which I am sure helps boost exposure, and therefore revenue. For what it's worth, the performers seem to enjoy themselves, and the shows do attract a reasonably sized audience, and the shows seem to be organized by the dancers themselves and not by some outside force being all "show us your quaint Native Dances!" (If that were the case I'd be disgusted).

There's also the fact that live performances, to a far greater extent than in contemporary America, are more ingrained in the public psyche. Back home you'd be hard-pressed to find a local band or singing group playing under the town square gazebo anymore, and sadly, the tradition of holiday caroling has almost died out (I'm a fan of the old-school tradition, which involves lots of wassail or a suitably alcoholic substitute, and is much more "rowdy kids demanding treats" than "family oriented").

And yet here, there's super-loud karaoke - seriously, who here hasn't started a hike up a mountain only to come across a temple and associated public complex in which someone was atonally screaming their favorite classic songs? You know you have. Don't even pretend. There are seemingly-randomly staged budaixi puppet shows (I regularly come across them in Jingmei Night Market, put on for no discernible reason).

Budaixi - Taiwanes puppetry - puppet (without body) sporting an unusual number of heads

There are free-to-the-public showings of Taiwanese opera (gezaixi) outside temples as well as in the square around Yongle Market on Dihua Street...just because the people want opera.

Taiwanese opera - gexaixi - free to the public outside Bao'an Temple

Troupes of kids practice Michael Jackson moves to Jamiroquai hits - yeah, I don't know either - or communally engage in urban dance moves - in the esplanades of sports centers and underground malls in Taipei. Finally, what is a temple fair if not a series of live performances, from lion dancers to dragon dancers to bajiajiang?

Ba jia jiang outside of Qingshan Gong during a temple fair on Guiyang St., Taipei

Practically everywhere you turn there's a live show of some sort - some of them transcendent and others amateur-but-charming.

I can see how aboriginal dance shows would fit into that sort of culture.

The second part of the show in MRT Central Park

On the other hand, taking these dances out of context, putting the dancers in costumes they otherwise never wear, that likely haven't been worn commonly since their grandparents' generation, and sticking it in a subway station does make me wonder. Is it Culture Lite? Is it selling out something that would otherwise be authentic?

I don't have the answers, but I have to admit that I've been gnawing on the questions.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Let's See The City's Ripped Backside

I just watched this older TED Talk on the catastrophe of "community space" in the USA and couldn't help but think that much of it could be applied to Taipei, as compared to some of the older towns and old streets scattered across Taiwan.

I'll cover farther down how this relates to Taipei - at least from my perspective. With photos!

I've always felt that space is a manifestation of the mind: that the spaces we inhabit shine a light on our subconscious, whether individual or collective. An example of the more individual level of this manifestation can be seen in where a person chooses to live: an urban area, the suburbs, a small town, the countryside, and what neighborhood they live in. I don't mean in a "she likes to shop so she lives near the shops" way, but in a "her mind is uncluttered and fairly organized, and so she lives in a more open, cleanly delineated area" or "he tends toward meandering thinking processes so he lives in a building in a spiderweb of small lanes" or "she likes to observe everything going on around her from a detached perspective, so she lives on a hill/on a high floor" or "he likes to know what's happening at each market stall and under each building awning so he lives right at street level".

On a more public level, our public squares - their size, their aesthetic, what they're bordered by (is it a Crate&Barrel, or a 1,000 year old church, or City Hall?), how quiet or chaotic they are - and in the USA, our streets - say a lot about who we are as people in a community.

And James Kuntsler is exactly right: the suburban space we've created in the USA is a catastrophe, because there is no arena for that public consciousness. There is no manifestation of self or of community.

Older "small cities" that are now the size of suburbs and genuine small towns aren't a part of this: my parents' town, though I have no strong desire to live there again, is fairly pleasant with country roads and a Main Street downtown. Bangor, ME is the size of most suburbs and has a lovely old red brick downtown that is extremely inviting (the big box stores down the road not so much, but the two are entirely separate - which most suburbs can't claim). Arlington, VA is more of a city than a suburb, but for the most part it's pleasant, easily walkable and is home to many inviting spaces.

Our lizard brains, the instinctive, primitive and unevolved bit of us that still lurks back there, only to come out to save us from imminent danger, to rob, murder and steal (for a few people), and to comment on the Internet (warning: strong language) are there, too - they're in those desolate edges of suburbia where there are wasted fields, maybe an old warehouse, a few scraggy trees, a broken chain-length fence and a space that makes our conscious selves profoundly uncomfortable. They exist in cities, too (note the Iggy Pop reference in the title about the backside of the city) - think of the unappealing parts of Gotham that superheroes and cops find themselves in: old docks at night, barely-used warehouses, stretches of street with abandoned facades in front and looming buildings far behind. The parts you drive through and never stop to look at.

And yes, I do think the part of our brain that causes some people to think it's OK to point a gun at another person in order to take possession of the $10 and a subway card in their wallet is the same part that helps us intuit danger and prompts us to say horrifically rude things that we'd never say to someone's face. After all, the Internet is a kind of city, too.

These "subconscious" spaces will never be eradicated, because they crop up as the underside to our conscious planning. That said, having better public spaces, Kuntsler implies, will lower depression, anxiety and even crime (especially in children).

This exists in office spaces, as well. Good office spaces generate conversations, relationships and ideas in the way that good public spaces do. So it's a triple travesty: cube farms stultify our creative thought at work. Poorly planned "communities" (in quotes) don't allow relationships to take seed, and Starbucks has not brought cafe culture to America: it's destroyed any chance of it growing. Have you ever gone to a Starbucks to socialize and converse the way one might have done in an old style cafe?

So. What does this have to do with Taipei? Well, crime is not really a problem - of course it happens, but it's hardly the screaming issue it is back home - I can walk down the street at 3am in Taipei and know that I am fairly safe. I can't do that in any American city. Public space, however, is. While Taipei has retained its own unique style of streetscape that fits fairly well into the generally-known mold of Asian streetscapes, it's also clearly been influenced by the American and Canadian chucking in the garbage of old-style urban planning and methodology.

That's not to say that Taipei is unappealing. It is filled with gorgeous, inviting public spaces. Dihua Street - a slender street lined with attractive buildings, first-floor shops, a temple, a market area with an open square that has a coffeeshop and ringed with places to eat. Red House and Ximending - pedestrian lanes filled with mid-size buildings, first-floor shopping and a lot to look at both in terms of people and shopfronts (Ximending could be improved with a few more benches and sitting areas and better food - which is honestly not that good) with a more open space for socializing, strolling or shopping around Red House, which has been restored admirably to a place of public interest.

Red House Theater is a prime example of good community space - look at those citizens congregating and conversing, the umbrella-covered tables, the street level accessibility and the inviting building materials and facade.

The area between Longshan Temple MRT, the temple itself and the newly-restored Japanese shophouses by Guangzhou Street and Huaxi Night Market is inviting - you can sit and play mahjong in the park, wander the temple, go shopping, take a stroll, have a peek (or even sit for awhile) in the old Mackay Clinic which has been converted into a small museum about Mackay and the history of medicine in Taiwan - and it's free! All the area needs is a coffeeshop like the one that was replaced so tragically by a Cafe 85 with no seating. The bike trail that starts on the Jingmei River and winds its way up to Danshui is filled with inviting spots for sitting or general outdoor activity. The Wenzhou-Xinsheng-Heping area between Shi-da and Tai-da is quite lovely.

A totally different view from the Ximending area: more modern, but still inviting.

Notice, though, that every place I've mentioned is in the western part of Taipei - the pre-WWII section of town. Even the Japanese colonists knew a thing or two about good urban planning, and considering the extent to which they imitated Western pre-war architecture, I would guess that they extended their architectural mimicry to the delineation of urban space (I'm curious about that, actually, because I'm not sure: what a great thesis topic if I could afford graduate school!).

A few views of Dihua Street - in general a relaxing place to linger. People come here because they want to - the space makes them feel comfortable.

Now let's train our eye on eastern Taipei - Xinyi was clearly designed with public space in mind and in its own way, it's somewhat inviting. You can sit or stroll in the areas around Shinkong Mitsukoshi and there are comfortable outdoor areas around Taipei 101. The tree-lined Songren Road is pleasant enough, there are a few small parks, and that awesome chess set sculpture.

However, something about it just doesn't capture the loveliness of the western part of town. The buildings are too big, and too sterile. The area around SYS Memorial Hall is the one winner - well-planned trees, smaller shops and inviting (albeit expensive) cafes. The Shinkong Mitsukoshi plaza doesn't have floor-level shops; or rather, it does, but they're all behind glass, inaccessible, and once you enter the department store it's rather cold and antisocial. No great conversations are going to start between the glass doors and the Fendi shop, and the Starbucks is a sad little scar of tables right on the concourse. It doesn't invite you to linger the way the old-school coffee stand right in front of Yongle Market or the benches that line the square do. The "border" is impermeable: you can only go there to walk, or shop. You can't linger; you can't socialize. Nothing meaningful can happen when the walking area and the shopping area are separated by plates of glass.

Same for City Hall: you do see locals out and about, but generally it's about as habitable as Boston City Hall - barren, cemented over, no good for anything but skateboarding. The Hall itself is a Brutalist nightmare, a giant wound on the skyline that sears the eye.

Xinyi really tried, but in the end, let's face it, what was created is a bit hollow, steel-and-glass soulless. It needs, if not smaller buildings made of more attractive materials, at least street-level shops and more open cafes. It needs more permeable boundaries. It needs crossings on Keelung Road so you don't have to walk so far to get farther west.

See, Xinyi's not all bad. While this space doesn't invite one to stay long, it is visually appealing and breaks from the scraggy urban sprawl of central Taipei.

Here's the part where I'm going to get all KMT-blasting. Wanhua and Xinyi both have public areas - one showcasing the old school of urban planning, one displaying its somewhat eyebrow-raising renewal. Let's look now at central Taipei: the part of town bordered on one side by Zhongshan Road, Minzu in the north, Heping or Xinyi in the south and Guangfu Road in the east. This is the part of town that mostly developed post-war, though pre-war buildings do exist. That means it was mostly built up by the KMT, and to an extent in living memory. What do we see?

We see very uncomfortable streetscapes. Is there anything less pleasant than walking down Nanjing Road between Linsen and Fuxing? Forget the MRT construction: that's necessary and temporary. I mean the sidewalks, or lack thereof. If you walk on the flat area, you're likely to get run down by a scooter who is not going to stop for you. If you walk in the "pedestrian" (HA!) area, you're going up and down and up and down and "oh look, I would have to jump to keep going but there are no stairs", "let's pave this one in marble so everyone will slip on it when it rains", you never know when there will be an awning above you or you'll get rained on, and you can't see the shops clearly from the street thanks to the combined mask of parked scooters and awnings. This is due to the fact that the businesses lining these halfhearted sidewalks are individually responsible for building and maintaining them: that means they can decide height, material, awning-or-no, steps or slopes - whatever they want. Gotta love the individualism, but what it leads to is an uneven mishmash that is nearly impossible to deal with in a crowd or in the rain.

If you stand in a relatively open intersection (let's say Nanjing-Songjiang) it's basically a hideous sprawl of 1960s and '70s aesthetic horrors and a long, lonely look down unappealing, wide gray roads lines with unappealing buildings.

In short, there is nothing about this part of town that invites people to linger. You pretty much have to escape into a coffeeshop or restaurant for a comfortable place to sit. Could the government have promoted a worse design for urban space? I'm not sure.

Nobody actually goes to the Taipei Vegetable Market on Minzu Road because the road itself is a travesty - it's hard to get to and deeply unattractive. The only roads worth walking down without instead walking in the lanes, honestly, are Fuxing, Zhongshan at times, Dunhua at times and Heping. Civic Boulevard has to be the least interesting road in the entire city. They say that Core Pacific Mall has bad feng shui: worse than that, it's just poorly planned. There is no appealing or pleasant way to walk there, it's too far from transport hubs, and the surrounding area implies nothing but boredom and disinterest.

No wonder it's "feng shui" is off! What is urban planning, after all, than feng shui that actually works? Or, put another way, urban planning is basically feng shui with concrete (pardon the pun) methodologies behind it, rather than superstitious ones. That's why shoppers go to SOGO at Zhongxiao Fuxing - the two department stores and space around them is inviting. You want to go, even if the actual stores aren't the biggest or the best in the city. That's why the SOGO/Takashimaya/Miramar/Shinkong Mitsukoshi area is popular in Tianmu; the walk between them is pleasant; I don't even like department stores and I find myself there on occasion just because I like the space around them. (International Square is another prime example of good public space).

Truthfully, it's not all bad: Minsheng Community is so nice that every time I take a bus through it, I want to pack up and move there. It's like the good parts of Brooklyn. Guanghua Market and the surrounding area (including Huashan) is pleasant enough, some of the lanes between the major roads are nice to walk down - I rather liked the area where our friend used to live, between Jianguo and Yitong Street, north of Nanjing - the lanes are full of interesting things. Yongkang Street isn't as good for food as people say, but it is a pleasant urban street. Da'an Park is in this area and so is CKS Hall which, while I hate the man, the hall and square are quite nice.

There are things that could improve it, though: Da'an Park needs more picnic tables and better grass. CKS is fine on the inside, but just outside the gate and around the sides is rather dire (except for the hilarious Wedding Shops on Aiguo Road, which are fun to look at). Nothing is less inviting than the buildings outside the CKS Hall main gate. The area around the Presidential Building is similarly uninviting for anyone except protesters, and there are some lovely but inaccessible gates in the area.

Architecturally interesting, but I'd like to see less of the bombast:

And more of the community spaces that have sprung up within it:

I don't think I have to spend time dissecting the far south and far north of Taipei - what I've said above basically covers what I'd say about these areas. I will say that I find my neighborhood (Jingmei, near the MRT) can be quite inviting, as well as quite dissonant. I am friendly with my neighbors because the lanes around my house encourage socialization - the old women who congregate in the comfortable Y-intersection of Wanqing Street make their own social spaces, by dragging beat-up chairs under apartment awnings and making the lanes their own. Certain areas of Muzha, by contrast, are just as difficult to walk down as that blasted heath of central Taipei.

People say that Taipei residents "don't care" or "aren't concerned" about public space, but I don't believe it's true. If the old women make their own social space (and the men too: a good friend of mine famously said that "there are no bars on Nanjing West Road because the folks there, when they want a drink, grab a Taiwan Beer from 7-11 and drink it on their stoop. If their friends want to join them, they grab beers and sit, too."), clearly someone cares about it. If the old parts of Taipei have vestiges of space, and the most popular area in eastern Taipei attempts, in its own way, to create it, clearly people care. What causes them to seem as though they don't care is the space itself - the treacherous sidewalks and scooter-congested roads with no meaningful areas that have porous boundaries. The people didn't make the space, contrary to what usually happens. When the government charged ahead with development and construction in the mid 20th century, it created the space, and the space then created the people. Show them that their spaces can be better, and maybe (just maybe) they'll want to make it better, too. But what they have now? It lends itself to apathy. It creates apathy.

In short, I'd like to see more old-style urban planning return to Taipei, which would mean a return to the city as the Japanese colonists who helped build it would plan it, or at least our best approximation. I'd like to see more of this:

Daxi Old Street

A temple courtyard in Tainan

And far less of this:

Quite possibly the ugliest building in Taipei, on Xinhai Road (Muzha).

The view from my first apartment in Taipei. Super!

It's not that the government is not trying - it's that they're often, but not always, getting it right. The little marble tea-and-picnic tables and newer urban spaces are a step in the right direction for Taipei, but they need to be more open, more plentiful and more accessible. We need fewer Bella Vita shopping centers behind glass and granite, and more community shopping-and-strolling areas. We need more indoor-outdoor spaces, more trees and more places to congregate.

We need more bike trails and paths, too. The riverside bike trail that winds its way up the western part of the city to Danshui is chock full of comfortable spaces for activities, walking or chatting - more food vendors (or easier access to food outside the park) and fewer wild dogs would be nice, though.

I've always been a fan of attractive graffiti - urban outdoor art. This one can be seen on the Jingmei-Danshui bike trail, somewhere in the Jingmei or Wanlong area.

To sum it all up in one sentence: we need to undo what was done by the powers-that-be (ahem) from about 1950 to about 1995 and make Taipei a city that is appealing on a large scale, instead of being pockmarked hither-and-whither with a few appealing spots.