April 12, 2024

Photographs from Taiwan

“Click! “”Welcome to Taiwan!”” The sign greeting Richie, Steve and myself at Taipei airport as we disembark from the plain. Taiwan, an oval shaped island roughly the size of Holland, hanging off the south east coast of China and bathing in the waters of the Pacific. Relative to it’s size Taiwan houses an inordinate 20 million people most of whom are squeezed on to the west coast by a uninhabitable mountain range which traverses the island like a colossus north to south. Taiwan’s two biggest cities are Steve’s home town of Kaoishung, a metropolis of some 1.5 million people located in the south and Taipei, the capital, located in the north.

Click! Richie in the backseat and myself in the front passenger seat, both shouting “”Fuck me!”” as we look out at the impinging traffic, fearing for our lives. Steve our host, is in the driver’s seat and having driven through a red light is in the process of pulling off a contemptuous U-turn to the opposite side of an inner city freeway, causing a stampede of oncoming motorists to break in deference. The cars at the front of this herd came within a hairsbreadth of crashing into my side door. Or so it seemed. Steve would have disagreed. Despite my protestations to him to ‘take it easy tiger’ there was little ruffling of his emotional feathers following this audacious manoeuvre. He was simply getting back into the groove of things in his home town of Kaoshiung. Neither did this event seem anything more than an inconvenience to the countless motorists whose path had been illegitimately blocked by this maniac housemate of mine. The busy approach to driving employed by Taiwanese motorists was tainted with a tentativeness betraying the fact that they were inured to this kind of thing and a stealth indicating they were responsible for it being a quotidian occurrence. I soon learned that driving with total indifference to traffic lights and oncoming traffic is an everyday thing in Taiwan. People in Taiwan expect it, they prepare for it and they don’t blink twice at it. For rule bound people like myself and Richie, both used to the civilities of the British highways (if you ignore the occasional road rage murder), each moment of contempt for the law represented a palpitation inducing, near death experience.

Click! Steve is tapping the dashboard and staring over the many car roofs lined up in front of him. It’s like being in a car warehouse. I’m looking in a similar direction, frozen stiff in case I accidentally catch a glimpse of the reflection in the rear view mirror. Richie is looking worried. We’re actually in a giant traffic jam on the road from Taipei to Kaoshiung. By plane it takes about forty minutes to travel between these cities. By car it can take up to ten hours! This is because with only a limited amount of space to put a motorway system and 20 million people, Taiwan’s roads are often choked with commuters. The interminable traffic jams are often joked about in Taiwan. Joke? We’d been sat in the traffic for about fours hours, having made only one hundred and fifty miles and the call of nature was forcing Richie into a ‘Krypton Factor’ like challenge to empty his bladder into an ill-shaped plastic bottle on the backseat. At least the wait gave Steve the time to expound on Taiwan’s geography, social history and culture. In between Steve’s anecdotes Richie and myself were left to contemplate the endless feed of Mandarin and Phil Collins songs broadcast by the nation’s radio stations. Occasionally the radio signal suffered bouts of interference. ‘You know when there’s a military base in the mountains’, said Steve, ‘because the radio signal is blocked out by the army who want to use the frequency for their own purposes.’ Steve explained that some of Taiwan’s mountains had been completely hollowed out and used as massive underground bases by the military. Information about these mountain bases had only recently been made public following demands made on the government to be accountable for their defence budgets. Apparently the government had wanted to make these bunkers a military secret hence the unaccountable gaps in the government’s balance sheet.

Click! The closed metal gates signify the end of the road. The soldier with the machine gun standing behind the gates signifies that we have found an army base! The photograph is bordered by the parameters of the windscreen of Steven’s car. We were travelling along a mountain road when we inadvertently stumbled across this military base. This is not a hard thing to do. The Taiwanese army is half a million strong. There are soldiers and military bases everywhere. Security is a big issue in Taiwan primarily because it’s very existence is under threat from China. Taiwan, not to be confused with Thailand, is not just another country in South East Asia. Although it regards itself as an independent state most of the world’s nation states regard it as a renegade province of China. This dispute stems back to the 1940s when China was the venue for a civil war between Mao’s Communists and the incumbent government. To cut a long story short, the Communists kicked ass and the government and it’s supporters, uprooted from it’s home in Beijing and legged it to Taiwan. You might have expected the Communists to have hopped over the Taiwanese Straits and extirpate their enemies but for whatever reason they never bothered. Left to their own devices and loaded to the teeth with weapons, the exiled government known as the Kao Min Tang, flattened any resistance to their presence in Taiwan and imposed their rule. They subsequently called their territory the Republic of China from where they demanded that the Communists in mainland China return the territory that was rightfully theirs. Meanwhile the Communists were setting up the People’s Republic of China on the other side of the Taiwanese Straits and making similar demands of Taiwan. Not surprisingly, hostile relations ensued and continue up to this date. Nowadays, with the might of China dwarfing that of Taiwan, the latter’s claims to China seem a little ridiculous. There’s a growing demand in Taiwan to drop claims on China’s territory and to opt for independence. However, this idea is equally anathema to China and were Taiwan to declare independence it would perhaps lead to an all out war were it not for the fact that Taiwan share a significant ally in the United States. Taiwan is precious to the States for various reasons. Taiwan is an excellent source of well skilled and cheap labour for American companies. In addition to this, it’s geographical juxtaposition to Indonesia, Japan and especially China makes it an important asset to the USA in military terms. Taiwan is thus a political interface, a piece of no man’s land that divides one great power from another.

This Chinese American interface manifests culturally as well as militarily. Click! A night picture of the huge neon signs that illuminate the urban Taiwanese skies. Most of the signs are inscribed with Chinese symbols and underlined with the English names of American and Japanese firms. American influence is everywhere. Click! A couple of stationary yellow taxi cabs are parked along a busy road in Taipei while a black and white police cab speeds past heading towards the ‘Freeway’ pointed to by the sign hanging from the bridge. Click! Richie and Steve are looking around themselves in wonder as they stand in one of the many dining areas traditionally situated in the basement of Taiwan’s department stores. These dining areas typically have a centrally placed area for eating circumscribed by a range of fast food outlets all competing for business. Click! In this photograph shines the cheerful expression of Kevin, an English guy we met living in Taiwan. He used to study at Sheffield University but now he’s teaching English in Taiwan. When he took up the job he was instructed to teach in an American accent. Perhaps the most striking example of American influence is the Taiwanese national radio station which broadcasts in the finest nasal American English thanks to it’s home grown American DJs.

Click! Here you can see a busy street in a night market in Taipei. These markets can go on until midnight. In this picture there are shops all the way down this street. As this street is pedestrianised the vendors have placed an interminable isle of consumer items down it’s centre, thus squeezing the preponderance of trendy Taiwanese shoppers into two streams either side. The picture fails to register the teeny bop pop music blaring out of each shop: it’s usually either Fat Boy Slim or Five. Click! This is the night market too. In this picture you can see a guy lying prostrate on a floor. He has deformed limbs, and he’s pushing himself along the ground with his bandaged knees and ankles. He has a small tray on wheels underneath his body to ease the friction. In his left hand he holds a blaring transistor radio whose crude noises let you know he’s there. His right hand is outstretched and in it lies a small tray with a small amount of money. Most people fail to heed him. They are more interested in looking at each other and the latest fashions.

Yep! Taiwan is one hell of a thriving, consuming, greedy, insane beast of a capitalist country. Enter any city from Taipei to Taichung to Kaoishung and the first thing that you breathe is the air of free markets, deregulation and it’s associated anarchy. The energy is quick to impress. Take Steve’s metropolis of Kaoishung for example. From dawn to dusk there’s cars whizzing up and down the highways; neon lights and illuminated signs clamped like molluscs to every vantage point; mopeds of every variety, some laden with lovers gliding in and out of the traffic and some wobbling around with entire families and their shopping on board, trying to make haste through the narrow side streets made even narrower by the imposing terraces that house the many people of Taiwan. Then consider the endless number of food stalls, stationary mopeds and pieces of junk that householders regularly deposit on their pavements compelling everyone to walk on the roads. Add this to the multitude of day markets which spill on to the roads and find their perpetuity in the equally busy and aforementioned night markets; the numerous cinemas and twenty four hour leisure complexes featuring everything from internet café’s to bowling alleys; the countless number of stray dogs and cats which serenely wander the streets in a cursory and bohemian like manner; and of course the people and you have one hell of a twenty four hour city. Click! Oh this is where I was trying to use the film up. It’s a picture of West Street at two o’clock in the morning. Remember Sheffield’s a twenty-four hour city too!

Trying to escape the intensity of Taiwanese urban living is no easy task. Click! Here is a Buddhist temple. There are quite a few of them scattered around the cities. But aside from the temples there are not too many places for peaceful contemplation. Click! Here is a view of Taipei from the mountain side. You might drive into the mountains for some peace and quiet but you’re only likely to find traffic jams and countless other people who looking for escapism, end up escaping nothing.

Click! The smile from Richie’s face is showing compromise. As you’ll see, the monkey in the tree to the right of the picture is in the process of taking a swipe at him. Steve had taken Richie and myself into one of the city mountains that touched the very border of Kaoshiung city. Quite literally, one minute you’re in the city and the next minute you’re in a monkey infested mountain. Click! We’re still in the mountain and here you can see people walking along a wooden staircase. This staircase stretches and scours the entire mountain. As we climbed it we met countless monkeys, all strategically situated waiting for handouts from humans. I thought sooner or later I’m going to find one selling the Big Issue. Some monkeys were incredibly impatient and would creep up behind and snatch the bags from unsuspecting walkers. They were never much taller than your knees and looked kind of cute until you got too close to them at which point they would either delivery a swift upper cut to warn you off, or bare their three inch long teeth. If the former didn’t then the latter usually convinced you to keep your distance. Their potential ferocity was further evidenced by handless, leg-less and partially blind monkeys hobbling around in the trees and by the vicious gang fights that would occur every now and then along the mountain staircase. These fights were pure brutality and when they occurred the tension could be felt even amongst the humans who caught in the monkey crossfire would freeze with anxiety, hoping and waiting for the maelstrom to pass.

Click! The foreground is of an unnaturally creamy green river that points in the direction of an old factory which sits in the distance looking distinctly embarrassed as it glows coated in it’s own pink particulate. Richie and myself went for a walk around the industrial back streets of Kaoshiung. We passed through streets that had probably not felt the touch of a foreigner’s tread for years. We glanced through open doors and into the darkened rooms of many of the houses. Our presence usually stirred some kind of response from the locals. The least impressed were the many elders who whilst basking in the shade were willing to raise an eyebrow on seeing us but would not go any further less their reaction disturb their languor. In contrast, very young children would stand transfixed as we walked past and then dash indoors to fetch out even younger children to come and look at us as we disappeared into the distance. Click! A bunch of smiley faced Taiwanese teenagers are hanging out in the shade. One of them has a moped. The most emphatic response we elicited was that from the teenagers and twenty-somethings who would love to throw a few phrases of English at us, usually after we had walked by, so that as we turned around they could look away or hide their faces amongst the mirth and giggling.

Click! “”Tiger Beer only $100 a bottle”” read the banner in one of the narrow side streets in central Taipei. Being English and being on a holiday of sorts, myself and Richie with the eager assistance of Steve naturally looked for bars and places to drink. However, Taiwan generally has few places to drink. This is mainly because the government puts an extortionate tax on alcohol which makes the taxes that we face in Britain seem like an invitation to drink. Wander into a bar in Taipei and face a £4 bill for one can of Guinness. It was perhaps no surprise then that Taiwanese people spent most of their time eating instead. Taiwan had such a variety of food, with fruit and vegetables shaped and coloured in such a way that I only thought possible in Star Wars films, that it put me to shame for thinking that my knowledge of the world’s edibles had been consummated having contemplated Sommerfield’s exotic fruit section. People in Taiwan tend to eat communally. Depending on how many people are eating they’ll prepare a number of different dishes which they then place in bowls in the middle of the table. Served with your own personal bowl of rice or noodles you dip into this communal assortment as you wish. People in Taiwan tend to eat often but little. This is in stark contrast to the UK where we tend to abstain from eating until our starvation compels us to stuff in twice as much food as will naturally fit into our bodies, which in turn leaves us like beached whales. Whilst I was in Taiwan I gained this strange sense of having never really eaten and yet at the same time having never really experienced hunger.

Click! This one didn’t turn out very good. It’s totally black. It signifies the absence in Taiwan of chips, most of the food that you can buy from a traditional Chinese restaurant in England and Chinese take-aways per se. I suppose it’s like Irish pubs in Ireland – it just wouldn’t make sense. As previously mentioned, Taiwan has quite a few fast food outlets and a sprinkling of fancy restaurants. However most people there eat in simple kitchens – the Taiwanese equivalent of the greasy spoon. These kitchens were manned by a handful of people who cooked, prepared and sold a range of traditional and ridiculously cheap dishes in premises that looked like they hadn’t seen a health inspector in years. These kitchens, although profit making concerns, weren’t dressed up in consumer paraphernalia, had no visible price lists and the workers largely indifferent to your presence never wished you a nice day or asked for your return at some later date. A thoroughly nondescript and pleasant experience. In contrast to some of the jazzed up places popular with the youngsters in Taiwan, you just went in, bought a bit of food, ate it, went out and got on with life. For me, these kitchens were the treasures of Taiwanese urban culture.

There are of course an endless list of other things that I could have taken photographs off but didn’t. For example the seven foot crack in the wall of a thirteenth story apartment flat belonging to friends of Steve’s, which was the consequence of the recent earthquake in Taiwan (they were in bed when it happened!); the scantily dressed female vendors located on every street corner whose job it is to sell a kind of gum which releases a drug when chewed; the local crusty who was fishing along the pier near Kaoshiung University – he was the first person in Taiwan to call me and Richie a ‘couple of Big Noses’ the racist and yet risible term used by locals to categorise westerners; and of course the ubiquitous ‘Hallo Kitty’ logo and it’s associated products which were sold and consumed in Taiwan on the back of the popularity of a Japanese cartoon of the same name.

If I ever returned to Taiwan I’d want to take my mental camera to the rural bits and the mountains next time. The mountains house the people who inhabited Taiwan three hundred years ago, the people who were squeezed out of the mainland from the invading Han people two hundred years ago, and pushed into the mountains by the Beijing invaders when they invaded fifty years ago. In addition to the Mandarin Mandarin that was imposed on them by the Kao Min Tang these people speak Taiwanese or their own local dialects. They have their own customs, traditions and way of life that is far removed from the impositions of the two superpowers that have all but exterminated any sense of self-identity from this island. If there is such a thing as the real Taiwan, or if there ever was a real Taiwan, then it is surely in these areas that the vestiges of it hang on for dear life. “

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