Back to the Heart of Asia
As the cold wind blows across Europe and the unusually long summer finally fades away, I head south-east for Taiwan, the island that promotes itself as the ‘Heart of Asia’. Arguably it is more on the edge of the continent than at its core but it does kind of look like a heart shape (more organ than Valentine) and the people are lovely.
It’s almost exactly 2 years since my first visit and now I am back to make ‘Night Market Theatre’ with the company Prototype Paradise and 8 diversely talented Taiwanese performers. The idea germinated on the last night my previous trip, in a Taipei restaurant after a few drinks with the curatorial team.
‘Night Market Theatre’ is being made in the city of Hualien on the beautiful east coast of Taiwan but a mini lecture tour has meant I have also spent a few days in the capital Taipei as well. My work schedule is pretty intensive but I have had a few days where I have managed some sightseeing, often due to the generous hospitality of the Prototype Paradise team.
Wulai is a small resort town in the mountains, 27 km to the east of Taipei city. It is very popular with urbanites looking for a quick injection of country air. There are many hot springs that you can visit (and I visited one lovely one) and be back in the city for dinner.
Making your way through the narrow streets, along pathways, and up steps, you get to the bottom of a cable car that takes you to the Yun Hsien mountain top resort.
The 2 minute ride takes you over the Wulai waterfall.
The resort at the top is pretty commercialised and not really so interesting as the mountain that it nestles in but there is a very cute coin operated machine. People take it seriously.
In the little temple stands a priestess.
You put in your coin…
…and ask a question to the Gods…
…while the priestess walks from the garden to the alter. The doors open to let her in and shut once she is inside.
Moments later the doors open again and out comes the priestess, holding a miniature yellow scroll on her tray…
…which she deposits into the well at the bottom of the garden. (Look! Some have missed the well. That must have been very frustrating for the supplicants concerned!)
Out pops the divine proclamation below.
Here is River Lin (artist and part of the Prototype Paradise team) looking a bit confused as he tries to understand the answer to his question. Yes, of course I did it too. The response seemed to be OK but it was all a bit inconclusive.
When I arrived in Hualien with my colleagues, the first thing that we did was to visit a grown-up temple. At 福安廟 Fu An Miao (Fu An Temple) we prayed to the God of the Earth to watch over our endeavours for ‘Night Market Theatre’ and to ask for his blessing.
We also burnt a bunch of paper money (large ones first and each sheet must have a fold in it) in order to get his attention and win him over.
And then we started rehearsals. The premise of ‘Night Market Theatre’ is that we set up stall alongside the food vendors in the largest night market in Hualien and that we offer bite-sized performances for the soul, next to those offering sustenance for the body. The ‘holding form’ for the concept is the traditional mobile booth used in night markets across Taiwan. Here is our (as yet to be refurbished) booth that formerly sold bubble tea. In it Moses (Yuan-Shang Chiang) is experimenting with a concept where he will try to persuade night market visitors to take out advertising space on his body. The paper sheet he is wearing indicates the price of each of his limbs.
Here Jimmy Chang is listening to An-Yuan’s (Yuan-Liang An) heartbeat, a playful interpretation of the Chinese word ‘heartfelt’ which literally translates as ‘heart voice’. Performances can be a maximum of 5 minutes long with most intended to be much shorter.
One stop of my mini lecture tour took me National Dong Hua University, about 20 minutes drive from the centre of Hualien and already right in the countryside. It is surrounded by the most beautiful landscape.
Here it was that I fulfilled a long standing ambition: I learnt to drive a scooter. Well, in truth the lesson was about 3 minutes long. Here Professor Chin instructs me how to, erm, get the motor running.
I know it is pretty childish to post pictures of yourself at 42 learning to do what every Taiwanese has done since they were teething but it was something I have not had the opportunity to try before. It would have been pretty difficult for me to get around without a scooter and even if it were easier, I really wanted to get one.
And at the risk of over embellishment, here is video evidence of my maiden voyage.
Riding around the city on my (borrowed) scooter, I get to see all kinds of interesting things. The man standing outside Starbucks is Mr Tzi-Hai Ko. He is famous in Taiwan. An electoral candidate for the third time this year (though yet to be elected) he is running for the city council as an Independent. His strategy is simple. Stand at a busy intersection where lots of people can see you and hold up signs that say you want Hualien to be a better place. The thing is he stands there everyday for hours at a time. He must have very very strong arms. He has become something of a media celebrity and people think that this year, he really might make it into government. He is resolute and dedicated, you have to give him that at the very least.
A different strategy is that of Mr Chi-Ta Tsai. He has had a four-storey painting (yes, yes, I really mean painting) of his hand-clasping-self mounted on the facade of his campaign headquarters. He is running for Mayor. It’s difficult to get a sense of scale from this photograph but just look at the tiny table and chairs underneath his left foot. His head is larger than the set of double doors.
His image is everywhere in the city. Chi-Ta Tsai is a survivor of mouth cancer. A section of his jaw has clearly had to be removed. The words on this poster read: See the courage / Learn the courage. (And on the other side: Be brave together with us.) I can’t help wondering if a survivor from mouth cancer would see their image writ so large on hoardings across towns in England.
I do not know anything of the detail of his medical treatment but I presume that Chi-Ta Tsai opted not to have reconstructive surgery, or at least to allow the history of this trauma to remain visible on his face. Whether a forthright champion for difference or a cynical ploy to garner popular sympathy, I salute the decision.
If ever evidence were needed for the beauty a scar can leave, then look no further than Treasure Hill Artist Village in Taipei. Formerly a small gathering of residential properties that became largely uninhabited, the city gave it over to artists and artisans for studios, exhibition spaces and some temporary accommodation.
Remnants of kitchens and bathrooms ghost floors that have now become pathways. You can see where a toilet once stood on honeycomb tiles.
Here are some giant fortune cookies sitting in the remains of a small house.
It is very self-consciously beautiful in the way that the ‘natural’ decay has been allowed to co-exist with the practical requirements of a public space. At times it does become a bit cloying but generally speaking the spaces are lovely.
There is an interesting outdoor theatre space as well.
One nice touch is that it has its own Post Office. Here artists have worked alongside the national postal service to create their own commemorative editions. I like this idea very much.
On my first trip to Taiwan in 2012 I took a day bus trip into the famous Toroko Gorge. Now was my opportunity to do it at my own pace on scooter and without the pressure to return to the bus after 15 minutes at each stop. The Eternal Spring Shrine was built to commemorate the 212 who died building the Central Cross-Island Highway, the road that navigates the gorge. The road was built in the late 1950s predominantly for military purposes. It is an engineering feat. The shrine itself has been rebuilt twice due to its previous incarnations having been destroyed by landslides.
As on my first visit, I walked up to the shrine complex and crossed the bridge which spans the water flowing from deep inside the mountain.
Easy to miss, a little further on is a staircase built into the rock. You climb…
…and climb up a series of very steep steps…
…until you meet a little temple room carved into the rock.
Inside a mountain goddess awaits you.
As does some safety apparatus and cleaning equipment.
And there on this high path up the mountain is a bloke sweeping.
At key points you see notices like this. You have to get used to these signs and not dawdle. The irony is that you have to stop to read the sign!
Eventually you come to the bell tower.
There are amazing views from the veranda across the mountains.
You also get an intriguing aerial view of the river bed below.
The Eternal Spring Shrine commemorates the workers who died building the road that you have to take in order to get to the shrine. The shrine itself has been destroyed by the moving landscape. Indeed Taroko is always changing shape due to natural and manmade phenomena. Works on the road are still very necessary. Both on the way into the gorge and back towards the town, there were huge tailbacks of traffic, as we waited for the painstaking process of moving the mountain from one side of the road to the other. Frequently subject to landslides, engineers try to secure the route by taking loose or dangerous rocks to where the effect of gravity will not risk the lives of travellers.
Gustav Flaubert once wrote, ‘In order for a thing to be interesting you only need look at it for a long time.’ Stuck on the road waiting for the mountain to be moved I had this sensation. The interruption was irritating, boring and then suddenly compelling.
The real star of Toroko however, remains the steep rocky walls of the narrow valley and the shallow river which coils and zigzags down to the sea.
When I came to Taiwan in 2012 is was with surprise that I discovered a culture more obsessed with food than even Japan. The culture in Taiwan is food culture to a large degree. It is that desire to discover and taste food that has in many ways been a driving force for ‘Night Market Theatre’. We are borrowing the holding form (and stealing the audience) from the parades of food that are the night markets here.
The night markets themselves are full of art and theatre. Here the food stall looks like a packed museum display case.
One new discovery for me: water chestnuts. Also known as water caltrop, buffalo nut, bat nut, devil pod, ling nut amongst other names. They have a fascinating cultivation history stretching back at least 3,000 years.
Delicious, the ornately shaped fruit also make a very good fake moustache.
I was really interested to note the drama unfolding at the back of this couple’s stall.
During the planning and rehearsals in ‘our’ Zhiqiang Night Market in Hualien, I have also discovered some new foods. Here rice is steamed in the stalk of the bamboo. It develops a sweet nutty taste as a result. You have to crack open to the bamboo to get at the rice.
One of my favourite foods at Zhiqiang Night Market is Mr Gu’s Beef Noodles. You can have them dry…
…or in soup. A delicious paradox: the noodles are chewy and the beef melts in your mouth. Either bowl, above or below costs NT$100, which is about UK£2.
Of course most food in Taiwan is not consumed in night markets. For breakfast I often visit the very popular 山東豆漿大王 Shan Dong Soybean Milk King. Always busy, this bun factory produces tray upon tray of different breakfast treats.
Although I am getting a bit better at ordering, generally I just point and pray because there is absolutely no English in most places. Here I got a kind of brown sugar filled hot baked pastry (think Danish Pastry Taiwanese style).
These soft buns are filled with vegetables. I think mostly a kind of Chinese leek. They are salty and delicious.
For a more formal setting I have been 3 times already to 阿之寶 A Zhi Bao a very cute shop and cafe. The sets are pretty similar with the exception of the main dish. Here it was steamed fish.
Here it was Magaw Salted Pork, an aboriginal Taiwanese recipe.
Here it was Chicken Thigh with Monascus purpureus sauce. I was surprised to find out that Monascus purpureus is a kind of mould. It is delicious. It has the taste and texture of a piquant bean.
Other food highlights include these very fat noodles.
This fish ball and clam soup.
The very Taiwanese oyster omelette.
Nobody could tell me for sure if this was goat or mutton. The picture outside the restaurant was of a goat. The restaurant name says mutton. 下港吔羊肉專賣店 Xia Kang Eh Mutton. In Chinese they share the same character. Goat/mutton hotpot:
Barbecued goat/mutton with ginger:
Cold goat/mutton salad served Thai style:
This is a tasty thing; bitter melon with tiny little fish. The melon is bitter (as the name would, erm, suggest) and the fish are salty, so there is a real disco on the tongue.
This is a Taiwanese hamburger: 掛包 Gua Bao or 割包 Ge Bao. Soft white roll with sliced pork herbs and ground peanuts. Really very delicious.
Now for one I didn’t try. Pork intestine soup. I just can’t get over the fact that the poo has traveled down this tube. “But it’s delicious,” Yoyo Kung, Prototype Paradise co-curator tells me. “They clean it really, really well.” Hmmm.
And finally, on the subject of poo, I thought I would leave you with a ‘themed’ restaurant that I haven’t eaten in but am nevertheless fascinated by. At Modern Toilet the menu is À la crap. It’s what exits your body rather than what enters it that is the substance here. In case you are in any doubt: Modern Toilet do not serve shit, even if their menu is a bit crappy. Poo, according to Modern Toilet, is cute.
Waiving the flag for the type of sitting down you would normally do a few hours after your lunch or dinner, Modern Toilet is capitalising on the trend across Asia for all things dinky. I need to pay a visit before I leave.
Crap decorations adorn the walls. Poo Superman. The perfect combination. May I offer, Pooperman?