Monday, January 01, 2007

Beginnings of a sketch of how Taipei came to be the way it is

I hope you are all ready for it; here is the first stroke on the page. Since March, I have been wondering (sitting with my head hunched forward, propped up by my hand bent backwards, like a great sculpture I know you have seen)--I have been wondering about this: How has Taipei developed into the metropolis that it is?

It is not a city like Beijing or Xi'an with an imperial plan radiating outward from a numinous center. It is not one of those grid-like American cities or an urban European landscape with medieval roots stemming from a network of multiple gilds, but in some ways, perhaps more like the latter. And yet, also in the same vein as Los Angeles modernity, though more rustic and run down and gritty and oozing history that seems to splash out all over and from the myriad consciousnesses that inhabit the city--each an immigrant in its own way at its own time. The question is when and how many can say they are truly original inhabitants? That person I would like to meet.

So, I was wondering how Taipei came to be the way it is. Until recently, I haven't been able to find many good books on the subject. There are substantial sections in many local bookstores on the history of Taiwan, but little on the history of neighborhoods in Taipei, really, separate towns, and how they merged into to this one big, magnificent urban wonder. Yes, there are some books in Chinese, though mostly with little detail, or at least with little of the kind of detail I have been looking for.

In English, there is even less, though Culture Taipei! A Guidebook for Thinking Travelers by Christopher Logan and Teresa Hsu is one exception; it includes an excellent overview of Taipei's history. It is from this book that I first got the idea of Taipei as several towns:

Taipei reached its full growth only recently. In its infancy, the city was a cluster of small towns, which were gradually absorbed by the growing metropolis after World War II. Modernization has been quite thorough, but for a few streets and buildings.

Recently, I also discovered this article by Joseph R. Allen via Michael Turton's site. Entitled "Reading Taipei: Cultural Traces in a Cityscape," it seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. I should post on it in the near future.

So far, I have just set up the frame. Now for the first stroke. Today, I walked out of the Shuanglian Metro Station in search of a topic for my show on different professions in Taiwan. I walked across the street from the number 1 exit towards the traditional market that bustles all along the modern metro construction. My md player was recording sounds as I walked aimlessly on the scent of a fascinating profession.

After making a circular pilgrimage through the market, I found my way back to Minsheng West Road. Behind me was Chungshan North Road, which the Japanese built to lead travelers to the shinto shrine that once stood in the place of the Grand Hotel.

I walked away from that imperial avenue towards Tihua Street, in the heart of Tataocheng. Tihua Street is one of those streets--reminders of the past--that still survive.

I stopped by a store on Minsheng selling all sorts of religious images (statues, posters, lanterns, etc.) After lurking in front of the shop for several moments, I finally discovered the courage that propelled me forward into the shop; I told the shopkeeper where I work, and asked her if she would grant me an interview. She said she only sold this stuff, but it would be better to go to go to a shop on Tihua Street, called Lao Mien Cheng, where they make the lanterns.

So, I hovered westward on Minsheng with my md player recording most of the sounds along the way. Finally, I arrived at the shop highlighted in the previous paragraph and sat down on a little chair for a chat with the shop's owner, Chang Mei-mei. Her family has lived in the area for generations. The conversation got even more interesting when her brother, Chang Ming-hsiung (he has an excellent website if you read Chinese), a historian of Taipei, happened to show up.

I learned a lot today. Like many on the beautiful island, the Chang family came to Taiwan from Fujian a few hundred years ago. They were fisherman, but became rice farmers after crossing the strait. They were in San-chung, not far from Taipei, and then moved to Wanhua--Taipei's first port--and finally settled in Tataocheng, when that replaced Wanhua in the 19th century.

During their great grandparent's generation, one side of the family were tea farmers and the other side made paper packaging for the tea. In 1915, they set up the present shop to sell ghost money to people in the south. The paper came from China. Then, about 50 years ago, they began to also manufacture paper lanterns.

Tataocheng大稻埕: This was originally an aboriginal settlement with a much smaller radius, near what is now Kuei-sui Street. Chinese people started filtering into the area, and if I understood correctly, people from Keelung and from Wanhua competed for control (this fact might need to be revised). Around the time of the American Civil War, Tataocheng became Taipei's inner port when the Danshui River started to silt up near Wanhua, making it difficult for ships to enter. The town of Danshui remained the outer port where the big ships to set anchor.

The other towns (Chang Ming-hsiung said they were more like old streets): Wanhua (Lungshan Temple), Sungshan, Talungtong (near the Yuanshan Metro Station, the Confucius Temple, Pao-an Temple), Shilin, and Peitou (where I live).

Quote of the day

Hunter on Saddam:

The hanging of Saddam Hussein seems one of those things that people are almost obligated to comment on, even though the real-world impact seems destined to be basically nil, or nil with footnotes attached, anyway. Saddam became irrelevant the moment he was booted from power; the rest of his story was denouement. Though, one can imagine, not to him....

I can safely say that I have no pity for Saddam. But I have a great deal of pity for us, and I will regret his death only because of the unambiguous moral superiority it would have shown to keep the cretin alive and imprisoned -- a moral superiority that is above us, and will apparently forever remain so.

Saddam is dead. Another tin-cup Ozymandias, another man in history unworthy of the sand that covers him. Truly and without remorse, good riddance. He follows hundreds of thousands of better souls who, unlike him, deserved none of it. Let his requiem be a brief verbal farting of Fox News pundits, followed by the silence of eternity.

May the rest of us deserve better fates.