Monday, 13 August 2012

The University and the first explorations of Tainan

 The University

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

Carriage signs

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

Café interior

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.

Alley, Tainan

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

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Arriving in Taiwan

 The flight was delayed, the train to Tainan I hoped to catch did not exist, and so I found myself in the High Speed Rail Station wondering what to do as the young woman on the ticket counter explained that the last train to Tainan had been over an hour ago.  To my surprise she then offered a number of helpful suggestions, she phoned my friend to explain the situation, and I ended up staying the first night in a Motel.  Yes, a proper Motel, just like the ones in countless films.  After the concrete, marble and glass of the station this switch was reminiscent of a temporal leap from hyper-modernity to 1960’s Americana.   

The journey to the Motel bordered on the surreal as the taxi driver, my friend’s cousin, and my friend via telephone tried to work out the address and we slowly drove around the empty roads.
These areas surrounding airports are intrinsically unsettling, with the numerous storage areas, industrial units, wide empty roads, empty hotels, and lack of any sign of habitation.  There was little indication aside from the road signs as to the location of this place, non-place, and I thought of the hinterland of Heathrow, of the areas of industrial sheds and navigation beacons set in fields that surrounded Speke Airport in Liverpool. 
The Motel was at the edge of the town and seemed to be for those driving long distances.  Or, indeed, for those who wished to drive to a place where they could be alone, for the term ‘motel’ can, I have been told, have the same connotations as the Japanese ‘love hotel’.  And it is easy to see what those are from the latter phrase.  With that in mind, I will leave you to speculate on the function of this chair.  

The journey to Tainan on the High Speed Train was wonderful.  I love these trains, their space and comfort, the sight of the landscape from this speeding machine.  I love the announcements in, I presume, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and a strange American/English.  “We will now make a brief stop at…..”, as if you will have 25 seconds to get off before the train bullets out of the station, for nothing must stand in the way of the speeding progress.  I love the fact that the trains arrive within a few seconds of the time stated, and that they stop at exactly the right place marked on the platform for the carriage door.  None of that running down the platform laden with bags to find the door here.

And so to Dorm 1828, a newly refurbished hostel.  If you ever decide to explore the mountains of Taiwan, and Taiwan has some amazing mountains so I have discovered, then come here.  The place is comfortable, friendly, run by staff who know everything about ‘extreme sports’, and with an interior décor that is imaginative.  As a dedicated non-sports person who hides in books of philosophy I was fascinated by the experiences of the boss/owner, who, over a couple of bottles of the best beer I have ever had, told me tales of climbing up ice walls, and then explained the business model behind the enterprise.  For not only does she provide accommodation, and information, and guides to the wilder areas of Taiwan, but she also searches out Taiwanese designs, furniture predominantly, and by getting them used by the heavy hands of wandering back-packers, tests their functionality.  She also has a very clear idea of quality, and we shared a love of the ‘aesthetics of the everyday’, that is the quotidian beauty of the conduit leading the power cables through the building.  Dorm 1828 will be changing its name, but as I was told the new name at the end of the third bottle of beer, it has temporarily disappeared.

Tainan has some of the best cafes I have ever been in, and my friend informs me this is but the tip of an iceberg of comfortable coffee places where one can sit and read and muse all day.  One, which I have so far only visited briefly, is next door to a second-hand bookstore.  This is of course very dangerous, as I can see my store of books will begin to increase at every visit to the café.  Which, incidentally, is owned by the same person who owns the bookshop. 

In the cafes, as in the hostel, there is the use of recycled furniture, old cabinets from shops and houses, a variety of chairs and tables.  This interests me, and I am not yet certain as to what to think of this.  My impression at the moment is that this is a valuing of the past, of objects that speak of previous use and history, that is a counterbalance to the hyper-modernity and industrialisation of the cities.  I write this in one of the Houses for the Visiting Professors in the University.  Outside there is a long lake, and over it are five small bridges.  Three of these bridges date from the 13 century.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Packing my library

2 July

In twenty days I fly out to Tainan, and I am faced with a greater version of the problem that always overwhelms me before I travel anywhere.  This is, exactly what books do I take?  From the day I went to a second-hand bookshop in central Liverpool sometime in the 1960's and bought The Lost World by Conan Doyle I have been in love with books, and they are now an important source for my work and ideas.  And so I am trying to decide which books will I need for the lectures, which books do I think will be in the University Library, and which books do I need from a personal perspective, the books that enable me to reflect upon myself.  Overall this hang the twin problems of finance and shipping, what can I afford to ship?  I know with certainty that I will unpack the boxes in a couple of months time and wonder why I chose that book, and where is the really important one I need for the work?  
Of course once I am in Taiwan I will begin to buy more books, and every trip back to the UK will also be an excuse to go book hunting, wandering through the second-hand places in Liverpool.  Even in these days of the hegemony of Amazon nothing can replace the serendipity of the second-hand bookshop, and in Liverpool the same dealers still remain.  I first strolled into these wonderful caves of volumes in 1985, and they are still there, with the same people greeting you as if you had just popped out to get a sandwich in one of the many new Tesco Express stores that litter the new shopping malls, rather than having returned after an absence of many years.
But now I must return to the present problem, and am now finding the book boxes I only unpacked seven months ago.  Ah, the life of the nomad.  Time to read Walter Benjamin on Unpacking his Library.