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Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 21 October 2010
Friday, 22 October 2010 00:00

Injecting art into the veins of our youth

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How would you fit your family in a box?

Bicycle pedals coming out of the sides of the box? A tree of hanging photographs? A girl with her finger on the edge of a sharp broken mirror with her grandpa’s cigarette lit and smoking above her head? Or simply a box full of glass smashed to smithereens? These were just some of the family boxes provided by the young artists from the second season of the Gosh Foundation’s Fruit Camp.

While the organizers, major directors and officials opened the 2010 Taiwan International Documentary Festival on Friday 22 October 2010, the underlying missions of the festival had begun long before, as the organizers asked: How can the seeds of creativity and collective memory be passed onto the youth? How can these young talents be nurtured to produce marvelous works?


The self-made Taiwanese star, Sylvia Chang tried to answer these questions when she founded the Gosh Foundation, which was intended to inspire young artists to transcend the traditional artistic spectrum and keep creating. When Sylvia, a self-taught actress, singer, playwright and director, arrived in Taichung, she immediately went on a tour of the festival's installations - including the works of the ‘Family Story vs. Video Art’ installation, which were the fruits of the second Gosh Foundation ‘Fruit Camp’.

The preliminary group of young artists had to install the quintessence of their family story in one box; meanwhile, advanced students who had excelled the previous season, the original Fruit Camp, invited you into their huge boxes/makeshift homes to play with their life-size toys and view their video art works about their childhood. They had initially been asked to bring their works to be selected and refined the year previous, with the most talented receiving one on one training from top artist in a suitable artistic field.

The results of this training were astounding. In Childhood vs Childhood, Liu Ming-chieh contrasted the childhood of his grandma with his own, for example cutting between footage of his younger brother innocently playing with a paper airplane, and that of fighter jets during the Japanese colonial period, which represented how airplanes were perceived in his grandmother’s memory. Li Pei-tzu created a formidable animation video which explored her winter melon producing ‘Squash Family’- ‘squashes’ in Taiwanese can refer to short, fat people. To research these ‘family stories’ the kids had to engage their elders with questions of their youth - inheriting and developing their memories. This is a lesson that could help all youths communicate better with their elders. Finally, Yang Hsin-he visually expresses her inner struggles of a life and memory fractured between her early years in Kaohsiung and more recently in Yilan. The young artists were enthralled by the opportunity at such a young age to display their works in Taiwan’s most prestigious art museum.


See Min-chieh’s Childhood vs Childhood, Pei-tzu’s Squash Family or Hsin-he's Homesick

Images by Liu Lu-chen

Thursday, 21 October 2010 17:19

Running Backwards, Moving Forwards

Barefoot he bounces energetically down the hot riverside concrete path under a blazing midsummer sun, ball to heel, ball to heel. Sweat drips from thin, taught lines of sinewy muscle which cling to his slight frame, which just passes the five foot mark. Even at the age of 60, a full head of buzz cut jet black hair, “soft like a baby,” as he puts it, sits defiantly atop his head. His name is Tony Hsueh, and today in Xindian, Taipei County, he's showing me his technique for running marathons ...backwards.

Just days before our meeting in July, Hsueh ran in the annual Gold Coast Airport Marathon in Australia. Proudly carrying the flag of his native Taiwan along with a camera to document the experience, and running backwards the whole way, he finished the race in five hours and 26 minutes, by his razor sharp recollection. This was far from the first time he had accomplished such a feat. He's been running marathons backwards and turning heads, both his own and those in the crowd, several times a year for two decades. By his own estimation, he has to turn his head from looking over his right shoulder to glancing over the left 10,000 times during the course of a single backwards marathon.

For Hsueh, going backwards is a way of life that is not just limited to running. He cycles backwards, sitting atop the handlebars with his back to the front tire, and roller blades backwards too. He's traversed the circumference of Taiwan using a combination of all three seemingly bizarre ways of transporting himself, and has cycled backwards around the island nation off China's east coast 29 times. In 2009, he ran three ultra marathons, races of up to 100 kilometers, all facing what most people would refer to as the wrong way, completing each in just over 13 hours.

It's all part of a wide ranging philosophy of organic living that the self-proclaimed “reversexercisophist” began to cultivate as a man in his early twenties. Thanks to this way of living and exercising, he claims his weight has remained steadfast at 53.5 kilograms for 35 years.

“You have to build your body like an organic machine,” he says to me in English, one of nine languages that he speaks to varying degrees. “Everything bad goes out when you exercise. Organic is not food, it’s your life. Organic is wisdom. It’s not a bottle, it’s not a can. Once you put it in a can it’s not fresh anymore, in my opinion. So I train my body organically.”

“You have to change your life into something organic,” he continues passionately, expanding on his all-encompassing view of how life should be lived, jumping rapid-fire from one thought to the next. “Sleeping without air conditioning. Running in the fitness center is not organic. The air is not fresh. Running should be like this,” he says as he gestures to the greenery of the riverside park.

After graduating from a vocational high school and completing his compulsory military service in Taipei, the native of the small town of Miaoli, about 100 kilometers south of the capital, took a job as a bus boy at the Taipei Hilton in 1973. He would eventually work his way up to the position of hotel manager, punching the clock for many of the major hotel chains in the city along the way. He also worked part time as an aerobics instructor at a fitness center, with “up, two, three, four, back, two, three, four,” becoming his daily mantra.

For some indefinable reason, doing the “back, two, three, four,” motions during these aerobics classes made Hsueh, who also goes by the nickname “Backman Tony,” feel good, and he decided to take it several steps further. He started out on a treadmill, and after two months he could run backwards, today known as retro running, for five kilometers. After that, he took his training outdoors into the sweltering Taiwan heat and humidity. He trained at various school tracks around Taipei, drawing curious stares every time, and occasionally tripping over runners who stopped to tie their shoes. By about 1980, he could retro run 10 kilometers uninterrupted. At that point he decided to take part in a race between two Taipei landmarks, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, but only ran backwards when no one else was around. As soon as he caught sight of another runner, or a spectator, he turned around and ran like everyone else.

For his second race, Hsueh convinced himself to forget about what other people thought and run the race his way, but this time it wasn't self consciousness but race officials who denied him. They said running the race backwards was simply too dangerous, and so Hsueh was once again forced to switch back and forth when he caught the gaze of a track official. From then on, whenever he planned on joining a race, he would write to the organizers, promising that if he were to be injured as a result of his running style, he would not take legal action against them. Sometimes the organizers agreed, and other times his letters went unanswered.

It wasn't until 1995 that Hsueh's retro running ways came to be fully accepted in his homeland, and it only happened because of a trip abroad. In November of that year he ran the New York City Marathon, and his story was picked up by the New York press. The Taiwanese media, ever hungry for foreign coverage of Taiwanese nationals, also keyed on the story, and suddenly those who had written him off as crazy, a show off, or even a glory monger, considered him a national treasure. From then on, he didn't have to write any more letters. That same year he also quit the hotel business for good after over two decades, and began to focus on retro running full time, putting an end to years of damaging his body through overwork and lack of sleep.

“I was the kind of person who didn’t want to sleep. Work until two or three [a.m.], that’s why I had a problem with my liver and almost died in 1978. I was like a candle burning at both ends. My idea was if you sleep one hour less each night, you have 365 hours each year for reading, writing; that’s wrong. So after I quit my job, I went back to Miaoli, and somebody helped me, a consultant for the empress of Japan. After that I knew how to eat, how to sleep, how to do meditation.”

Today, in addition to his retro training, bicycling, and roller blading, he spends one hour per day meditating in the lotus position, focusing on his breathing, channeling his energy, or qi, as they refer to the life force in Chinese culture.

“It’s very refreshing for your memory. It makes your whole memory clean and clear,” he says between deep, relaxing breaths as he takes a moment to show me how it's done.

Though in the west, Kentucky fitness instructor “Retro” Ron Austin and Dr. Robert K. Stevenson, the author of a book on retro running that came out in 1981, often get the credit for pioneering the sport, Hsueh is actually just continuing a Chinese tradition that goes back thousands of years. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the release of Dr. Stevenson's book, simply entitled Backwards Running, that retro running began to enter the mainstream consciousness in the early eighties. In Europe, France and Italy are widely considered the flash points for the beginning of the retro movement at roughly the same time. But in the U.S., two researchers in particular have dedicated a large part of their careers to investigating the health benefits of retro walking and running.

Barry Bates and Janet Dufek, who also happen to be husband and wife, have been conducting tests and trials since the early days of the retro movement in America. Dufek has studied the effects of backward walking on the elderly, and has seen her subjects show improvements in both static and dynamic balance, findings she presented at the International Society of Biomechanics in Sport in July. She has also looked at a small group of athletes with lower back pain and put them on a three-week backward walking program. All saw decreases in pain, according to her, and their walking patterns mimicked those of the healthy, though of course back pain can subsist with time, she is quick to point out. Currently, she is looking at backward walking and its effects on children with cerebral palsy, but this particular study is in too early a phase to talk about yet.

BV_carton_running_henley2Bates, who is now officially retired but is still doing research, began investigating retro running in the early 1980s in what was then considered the running capital of America, Eugene Oregon. For him, it all started with a runner, the name of which now escapes him, who had a hip injury. This runner saw a lot of doctors, and tried everything to relieve the symptoms of his injury to no avail. One day he decided to run backwards, and was pain free. He wrote an article about it, and Bates decided it was worth looking into.

“We found out, anecdotally initially, that some orthopedists were using retro as a way of rehabbing post-surgical knees. We wanted to see if there appeared to be any scientific basis for that,” he recalls.

Bates, who today trains in retro running three times a week, also became aware of baseball pitchers who were rehabilitating hamstring injuries by walking backwards, and of another runner, Rod Dixon of New Zealand, who swore by incorporating retro running into his training, and was one of the few distance runners who was able to remain, for the most part, injury free. Over time, Bates was able to prove that the mechanics of retro running can actually be better for your knees than going forward.

“In running forward, there's always an eccentric loading of the knee—the knee initially flexes when you strike the ground,” he explains. “That's not good because eccentric loading is more severe than concentric loading. And when you walk or jog backward, what happens is for the most part you eliminate that eccentric phase. The knee maintains itself in an isometric mode from the very early phase of contact, and then goes right into concentric extension. It takes some of that stress off and still allows for dynamic activity.”

The pair has also noticed a correlation between retro running and an increase in hamstring flexibility, which can go a long way to preventing injuries to this oft-injured leg muscle. In this study, which involved young, college-aged women, Dufek says that each of the participants were able to improve their hamstring flexibility after a four-week regiment of retro training.

But the benefits of retro running and walking aren't just limited to the physical, according to yet another study conducted by Dr. Severine Koch and her Dutch team of researchers. In the May 2009 edition of Psychological Science, Dr. Koch, working out of the social and cultural psychology department at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, found that reaction times for people performing simple cognitive tests were actually faster when her test subjects were walking backwards than when they were walking forwards. And speaking purely from a layman's point of view, Hsueh swears that his uncommon linguistic ability stems from his retro training, and has allowed him to pick up languages more quickly than he could before he began running backwards. But for him, despite all the research on his chosen mode of exercise that has become his way of life, and the increasing focus on its benefits, his reason for training in this way comes down to three simple words:

“Health, wisdom, happiness.”

(Illustrations by Bendu)


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