I am now in the University – Tainan National University of the Arts to provide its full title. The University is sited in the countryside, which is both wonderful in terms of focus and peace, and a little bit of a problem, as any desire to buy something or explore the city of Tainan involves a journey by bus and then by train. But transport is cheap, efficient, and the landscape around the University contains many surprises. Of these more in the future, but first the University.
The University at dusk
There is a lake in the centre of the University grounds, and this becomes a canal between the houses provided for the Visiting Professors. Over this are a series of bridges, the one nearest to my accommodation fairly unremarkable, but there are also three stone bridges. These are rather beautiful, and they date back to between the 13th and 16th century. Crossing over one of these bridges is to be transported from the contemporary surroundings of the University housing to an unspecified time past, and the marks of many feet over the years, together with the designs still visible carved into the stones, connect you to the users and makers of these structures. They exert a fascination, and even though they are dislocated from their original contexts, for each came from a different place, this in no way diminishes their impact. Surrounded by the architecture of the University they stand out, but if this is because of some intrinsic quality of their craftsmanship or merely a result of their age I cannot ascertain.
The three old bridges
My friend had been invited to the opening of an exhibition celebrating the cafes and small business that use – or re-use – the old buildings that still exist in Tainan, and so I set off on my first unaccompanied trip to the City to meet her and spend a day wandering. After the experience of the polished concrete and glass of both the High Speed Train station and the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport – underground) in Taipei, the normal rail stations, and the local trains, are a distinct contrast. Once over the panic of ‘is this the right train/ticket?’ I settled down to enjoy the local train journey. It being 9 in the morning, the train was of course crowded, mostly it seemed with students. Unable to find a seat I stood in the carriage entrance and read the official railway signs, with their wonderful use of English. Why the notices are written in this literate style I do not know, it feels as if a BBC Home Service announcer were asking you not to do something very politely, but no matter, for I love them. I hope they are never replaced by signs produced as the result of a report from a consultant, and displaying all the feeling for sense and the accidentally poetical that the rise of the managerial class has produced in the United Kingdom.
Shinhua Railway Station
The exhibition opening took place in the grounds of a Meteorological Centre, and speeches and music were accompanied by tea and Taiwanese snacks, which became the theme of the day as we wandered the alleyways of Tainan discovering cafes and hotels situated in old buildings. The way in which contemporary design was married to these old buildings demonstrated a sensitivity to, and a love of, these buildings and their histories. Each business used different strategies to bring these places back to life after neglect or abandonment, and as with Dorm 1928 recycled materials and fittings were used in imaginative ways. Maybe this is something that is common to the Taiwanese sensibility, for on a subsequent wander around Tainan I discovered a re-use of old doors to mark out a shop area that echoed a similar use in a recent constructed hotel. So far I have not fully explored all the cafes on the list and detailed in the map from the exhibition, but I fully intend to visit everyone of them. Café culture here is taken seriously, and all of the independent cafes are places where you can settled down with a series of notebooks, either of the electronic or paper kind, a couple of volumes of philosophy, and compose epistemological essays to your heart’s content. Which seems to me a fairly good description of the height of civilised living.
Café exterior, wooden structure on top of existing old building
Hotel interior with old window frames used for space division
While wandering down one of the alleys, this one running parallel to the course of an old canal (now filled in) that brought goods into the city, and therefore with buildings on either side that were workshop as well as accommodation, we found a workshop where they were making shrines. Although the shed the work took place in was a rather unlovely construction, similar to the type of standard industrial building that can be found anywhere, the work that went on within had obviously not changed a great deal for many years. An old man was teaching two teenagers how to put a piece together, using simple mortice and tenon joints, another was choosing wood for the poles to carry a small shrine, and over all hung the resinous perfume of the wood. As someone who has made the occasional ‘thing’ with wood I have a great respect for craftsmen who work with this material, and the skill being demonstrated in this workshop was a joy to behold. As I am still at the stage of working out where to source materials for my own work, and planning for future pieces (one of which may use an old cabinet as a starting point) this place drew me, and made me wish to begin my own work as soon as possible.
Old building interior
Café interior, Tainan
Old doors used to mark out shop space
The interior of the shrine workshop
On my second trip to Tainan I continued with the exploration of cafes, though this was somewhat disrupted by the rain. And when it rains in Taiwan, oh it rains. Opposite the café where I had my breakfast is the Confucius Temple, and I explored this trying to understand the semiotics of the place. I suspect I will need guidance with this, so this time I just settled into being a tourist, and enjoying the visual appeal, and the chance collision of temple and quotidian modern architecture. As I skirted the border of the temple on the way to find another old building I saw what I though was a bomb. And this was exactly what it was, a bomb on a plinth, placed as if it had just fallen from the sky. To add to the mystery of this unexpected encounter the sign on the plinth confirmed that, yes, this was a bomb, placed here by the Japanese, but no one was quite sure why. I suppose that all records of the bomb’s installation as a monument will have been destroyed following the Japanese surrender and the subsequent arrival of the KMT. The uncertainty of this monument stays with me, both as a symbol of the complicated history of Taiwan, and as a perfect example of the unexpected that seems paradoxically commonplace in this country.
Bomb monument and sign, Tainan