Erenlai - Nick Coulson (聶克)
Nick Coulson (聶克)

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


Saturday, 08 March 2014 00:00

After the Bomb…The Next Memory

On entering the no.4 warehouse in Songshan Cultural and Creative Park for the originally named Taipei Original Festival 2013 (原創基地2013), one is informed that they are about to be taken on a journey back to ‘La Belle Époque’. La Belle Époque was a time supposedly full of optimism and joie de vivre in late 19th and early 20th Century France, when there was a relative peace between turmoil and war and the arts were brought into everyday urban life. Technological advances were numerous: automobiles, motion pictures and neon lights were invented, vaccinations were developed and radioactivity was discovered, all leaving legacies which have shaped modern life. This year’s City, Play Stage (城市‧遊‧戲台), curated by Meta Hong (洪雅純), borrowed the idea of La Belle Époque to refer to the period since democratisation in Taiwan. The songs of local rock band Mayday (五月天), love tracks such as Love, Love-ing (戀愛ing) and Peter and Mary (志明與春嬌) were chosen to represent the era, alongside the legacy of the island’s rapid advancement to become a top global exporter and science & technology hub.


Passing through to the Sound Lab, visitors are immediately hit with a sonorous stun grenade by the huge, bold and booming techno robots, designed by Akibo (李明道). After recovering your blunted senses as the inebriating loud music pauses, the visual multi-luminosity of colours on the screen wall opposite come into view in which direction the Akibo bots appear to be blasting their lasers. The multi-coloured screen is psychedelic, trippy and visually pleasing, leaving shadows of nature hidden amongst the minimalist white warehouse setting. Occasionally small shards of lightning flitter across the screen, in this work which gently nudges rather than slaps your senses, subtle enough that many of the visitors will miss the sparkles completely and move on, numbed as their senses are by the smorgasbord of sound coming from works in all directions of the warehouse.


In his work, The Next Memory, the sound mélange is something French artist Alexis Mailles is trying to convey of his observations about sound culture in Taiwan. For Mailles, Taipei exists in a constant noise barrage, “Sound is coming out of all the shops, all the time, all mixed together and everyone is really used to it, it’s quite incredible, people work 12 hours a day in that sound, which would be unthinkable in Paris, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone.”As a sound installation artist, Mailles is used to having a space where the loops he produces play in unison with the visual installation on display. Here, for the first time he did not add any sound to his installation, deciding not to go into open battle with the dominant sound forces of his surroundings, and instead adopting guerrilla warfare with the use of huge spotlights and colour glistening amongst the white noise.

“The war is to let something different exist,” Mailles claims. “Contemporary art is very distant from mainstream Taiwanese culture. There is Karaoke, there is culture but they seem to have no need for art.” At this sort of commercial event with one warehouse for exhibitions and performances and one warehouse full of shops, all creative culture is lumped together including student works, design pieces, technological displays, sound, installation and performances. Whether or not Mailles' musings on Karaoke culture fairly represent the visibility of contemporary art in Taiwan, in this setting, he feels any piece of art is going to lose its context. The work that goes on behind is forgotten and undergoes a 'recuperation’ as just another piece of culture like all the rest. This as an appropriation and commodification of culture, by commerce, from the people with whom culture belongs and a recuperation of art from the artists.

To allow art to exist in this space, rather than confronting mainstream consumer culture directly, the installation chooses to focus on lighting instead of competing and adding to the sound inebriation. Even if people can take the time to breathe, to concentrate amongst the information overload just a little, that is enough to suggest that there are different ways of doing things; a little bit of terrorism, without direct confrontation. This is a minor detournément[1], a hacking of Belle Époque linguistics to provide the vocabulary for different opinions to exist and be expressed in mainstream culture.

“Can we hack culture?” asks Mailles. With a background in computer engineering, it is perhaps not surprising that he prefers to adopt the philosophy of the hacker to that of the artist. He feels that hackers are now freer than artists, with fewer rules, and find it easier to reuse one thing for another function. “In the hacker philosophy the beauty does not come from the composition, but from its efficiency.” And nothing is more efficient than growth in nature, with branches and foliage always finding a way over, under, around and through the proceeding obstacles. While putting the installation together with land artist Chris Lee (李蕢至) they also tried to follow this principle of efficiency. Mailles points out the example of the bamboo which holds up the spotlights: rather than fixing them at level points, he fixed the nodes at the strongest point of the bamboo, the joint, leaving a pattern reminiscent of musical notation.


The hacker philosophy also emphasises transparency and openness. The process behind open source software is not hidden, instead the full workings of their creations are there for the whole world to see. Indeed, those who stay a little longer to appreciate may continue on to see the workings of the installation, behind the screen wall on which they are reflected, though some curiosity is required to venture into the hidden away room. Mailles works always make sure to include this surface aesthetic or retinal layer and colour manipulation, creating a space in which some people not yet versed in the complexity of contemporary arts might yet stay longer and reach a deeper level of contemplation (see my 2010 eRenlai’s interview about his works). Chris Lee’s trademark is the creation of natural settings in built spaces or the reconstruction of natural landscapes, always with an emphasis on the greater interconnectedness of nature (see blog for Lee’s impressive collection of works). With electricity cables laced amongst plants, lamps perched on branches, and spotlights affixed on bamboo, we feel nature’s reinvasion of the artificial city and here we feel the subversive charm of the work. With the booming robots visible through the cloth screen, you are in a living imprint of humanity after the apocalypse, where only machines and plant-life remains.


Mailles felt it rather ironic that he was invited to make an installation based on Mayday and a vague, optimistic notion of the wonderful years. He used The Noah’s Ark song which Mayday performed for a year leading up to the supposed Mayan apocalypse as a starting point for building a piece themed on “La Belle Époque”. In the lyrics of the apocalyptic No Where tour (末日版), Mayday asked:

"At last, all we can take away is the garden called memory [...] Which memories to be kept for commemoration?" (最後我們只能帶走名為回憶的花園[...] 你会装进什么回忆纪念).

With the planet still standing, Mayday immediately began to perform the optimistic play on words Now Here (明日版) version of the tour. Mailles’ work is not so optimistic. The age of crises is not over. Noah’s Ark was based on disasters dispatched by God. The disasters of the day are now manmade. Since the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 and the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the world has lived in fear of a human-caused destruction of the living planet. We are reminded of pictures of Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster, where nature now exists, aesthetically crawling over the human ruins, trees climbing up walls, and all is silent. There is still a sense of impending nuclear disaster after Fukushima, and one legacy of Taiwan’s Belle Époque is to become the most densely nuclear producing area in the world as it continues to expand its nuclear capacities. In this context, the work poses us the question, what could be left over, what might be “The Next Memory”?


But how many people will go behind the screen, appreciate the layers of work behind it, let alone be affected by it? And perhaps there lies the true irony of this cultural hack, an exasperated self-mocking of sorts, destined as the deeper meaning is to remain hidden behind a façade of colourful allure.

The following quotation from Marcel Proust’s novel, Swann's Way, included in the work's introduction, gives a hint of the cultural hack Mailles is performing, making salient the absurdity of this memory-fest. After taking a bite into his madeleine cake, the protagonist proceeds to contemplate the memory that has been stimulated by the taste, questioning the essence of memories contained in objects:

"When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection."

(Translation by Scott Moncrieff)


“After the bomb, after the people are dead,” Mailles explains, “the vast structure of recollection is far less credible…” 


Watch a video of the installation:


Photos courtesy of the artist.

Alexis Mailles can be found at the Instant 42 studio in Luzhou, Taipei

[1] A rerouting, hijacking or hacking of the expressions of media culture and the capitalist system, pushed by the Letterists, the Situationists from the 60s and later the culture jammers.



Tuesday, 25 February 2014 00:00

Gleaning for Intimacy at the Mountains and Margins of Taipei

At the mountains and the margins of Taipei exist diverse unique ecologies, old communities and new socio-experimental laboratories. These can act as liminal spaces giving us clues to alternative ways of living in the increasingly globalised, homogenous modern city. Exploring the remnants of leftover architecture, nature and community doesn't necessarily leave us inebriated on irretrievable moments of the past, but can inspire us to creative solutions and ways of living in the future.

Huanmin Village is a unique historical and architectural gem of a community, assembled upwards from the foot of Toad Mountain, Taipei, the last mountainside military dependents' village remaining. Military dependents' villages are makeshift communities built by Mainlander soldiers and their families who came to Taiwan in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war. With a lack of space to accommodate the huge influx of immigrants, most of the communities were built in leftover pockets of land, often at the mountain or the riverside. The Toad Mountain settlement lies at the margins between the natural and urban jungle, was built with a gleaners ethic and maintains an intimate community life increasingly elusive in our cities. In 2013 the decision was taken to partly demolish the settlement to make way for campus development. This triggered an ongoing preservation movement, from which time we decided to explore, document, question and connect with the community and the movement while it still existed. 



Gleaning for Intimacy (山城台北)is a film by Pinti Zheng and Nicholas Coulson


For more information on the Toad Mountain history, preservation movement and The Hole’s urban projects, see:\

Wednesday, 02 September 2009 01:47

Gleaning in Taipei

For eRenlai’s September Focus, Benoit Vermander uses the story of Hercules and the Hydra with Seven Heads as a metaphor for the global crises. In a personal reflection, one concept which I thought attacked several of the hydra’s heads at the same time was that of ’gleaning’.

I was inspired after watching French director Agnes Varda’s film "Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse." This touching documentary which reflects on a legendary old Jean Francois Miller painting ‘Les Glaneurs’ takes us on a trip across France to follow different modes of gleaning - from traditional gleaning at the end of the harvest, to urban gleaning which recycles garbage and waste, the victims of consumption. Thus, in the film, Agnes interviews people of alternative lifestyles (whether out of necessity or choice) where she incorporates concepts of non-waste, austerity, recycling and new age living and looks into French laws in a time of impending environmental crises.

Bringing this concept close to home, one year ago, Paris’ Musée d’Orsay lent the National Museum of History in Taiwan Jean-Francois Millet’s painting, Les Glaneurs (Gleaners). The image of gleaners collecting the leftovers of a harvest in times of austerity initially came across as boring and simple to my untrained eye. However, after watching a French film directed by Agnes Varda called ‘Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse’ (The Gleaners and I) I was inspired and began to understand the depth of meaning and present-day relevance of the painting in the age of waste and triumph of consumption. Suddenly, this was a work of art which captivated and re-instilled faith in our ancestors.

In the film, Agnes briefly focuses on Alain, an urban glaneur who feeds himself from vegetables and fruits left by grocers when markets end. Despite holding a Masters in Biology, he chose to live in a refuge, teaching French to immigrants living off the market’s leftovers.

Alain’s story inspired me in my research on gleaning in Taiwan, and in my personal lifestyle. I searched around my room, after almost a year of living here, and I noticed that it is rampant with gleanings. Though not all of the collections can be considered as ’gleaning for a better world,’ even in the more modern sense, they all fit into a rather waste-less and thrift lifestyle. Certainly, gleaning for reasons of short or long term poverty is as credible as gleaning out of principle. Furthermore I felt a revelation that it’s natural human and animal activity. We are the hunter-gatherers.

Thus from this point onwards, I’ll cover a series on different manifestations of a gleaning nature in Taiwan and Asia. From gleaning in its purest form - like a farm in Pingdong, Southern Taiwan which allowed neighbours and a neighbouring villages to glean from their own fields, due to the fall of beans prices, to more modern and urban manifestations of gleaning, where we see the ’shi huang’ people (拾荒者), the ’bottle collectors’ who pick empty bottles from the parks and the sidewalks often able to make a living. For example my spiritual home in Shida park, where under the watchful eye of the squirrel of hope who is leaping towards the sky, are various bottle collectors and recyclers of different forms who are the critical link in the journey of the Taiwan Beer bottles’ journey from the last remaining local newsagent in the Shida night market, to our mouths, through the recycling plant and all the way back such is their circle of life

Such examples remind us that alternative, environmentally sustainable lifestyles are available to us, and we will search out examples that could inspire reflection and action.

Sunday, 01 December 2013 00:00

Toad Mountain Edge Effects

For students of NTU, Gongguan's café hipster youth and the high density of foreigners and government officials in the surrounding area, Toad Mountain (蟾蜍山) is merely a beautiful mountain ink landscape backdrop as one walks down Roosevelt Rd, as that painted by the traditional oil paint artist He Cong (何從):

Monday, 08 March 2010 17:53

Foreign students in Asia: From teacher to student

Please introduce yourself and what you are doing currently. What is your educational background?
My name is John Perry*. I am a Canadian who has been working as an English teacher and editor in Taiwan for more than 7 years. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Canada studying marketing and psychology.

How do you regard the quality of your courses and universities?
I was quite pleased with the quality of the education that I received in Canada, however it was quite a long time ago, when I was very young, so I believe I had a different outlook then. Finishing school and getting good grades were more the priorities when I was doing my undergrad rather than getting the best education I could get. All in all, I thought the professors generally did a good job, it was challenging and I certainly got something out of it after graduating.

I have mixed feelings with the experience as a MBA student in Taiwan. With regards to the professors, I feel that most did a good job at trying to educate us. The lectures were generally well prepared and the professors showed that they cared about their students’ performance. However, I question the way in which they held students accountable for their performance. I recall when I started my program that it was required for first year students to maintain an 80% average or otherwise students could be taken out of the program; for second year students, 70% was a passing grade. I was a bit nervous at first thinking that attaining an 80% would be challenging while holding a full time job. After the first year though it became clear that grades were given out arbitrarily and that passing was almost a given provided that I did most of the work and showed up for class. I took my studies seriously and received very high grades. Most of my grades were above 90%, some even over 95%. After a while this came to be expected on my part. This was never the case when I studied in Canada where getting over an 85% required a lot of work and was never taken as a given. I found that there were a lot of open book tests or adjusted grades in my Masters program, something that I never experienced in the past. There were even cases where it was obvious students plagiarised and they were never penalised for this.

Your class is 1/5th foreigners. How do Taiwanese students differ from foreigner students? Are there areas where they could learn from the foreigners? Do you think the Taiwanese system provides a good academic setting for foreign students?
A major difference between Taiwanese students and foreign students (western) I found, was that Taiwanese students were not willing to participate in class, even if the professor specifically expressed that participating was part of the grade. Participating here means voluntarily sharing ideas, asking questions or debating with the professors or other students. I think part of this is due to the fact that the program that I studied was in English and some students were reluctant to speak out, fearing that their English was not good enough but I also feel that the teaching method in Taiwan is didactic; where the teacher tells students what is what and students do not question it, or it is seen as disrespectful to do so. In fact, in some courses that I studied even though participation was part of the grade on the syllabus, professors seemed frustrated with the way that western students would speak out, but this is the way that we learn. It is accepted, and expected in our culture to learn this way. There also seems to be a lot more comradery among Taiwanese classmates than the foreign students. Foreign students seemed to have no problems debating with each other out in the open when they disagreed with comments made. I never saw this happen with the Taiwanese students. Taiwanese students seemed more willing to help each other out with assignments, be it individual or group, and develop a social network more easily simply because they were classmates.

I do feel that Taiwanese students would benefit more from more open participation or dialogue in class. Lectures at times seemed very passive. Many students were busy using their notebook computers rather than listening or interacting with the professor. But again, I believe that this kind of ‘listening’ has been encouraged from earlier education. There is so much emphasis on getting high scores on exams and students find ways to do that, and if listening in class does not contribute to attaining a high score then students probably won’t do it.

I think that there are pros and cons about the Taiwanese system and some things about it I found beneficial as a foreign national. Primarily, I felt that getting the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment was a definite advantage. Even though Canada is a country with people of different ethnicities, it sort of is a melting pot. Working in a classroom setting in groups with people from different nationalities provided me with the opportunity to get a real understanding of what working in a global environment would be like. It was challenging and even frustrating at times, but I definitely think that it was a positive experience that foreigners could definitely benefit from.

hub_kilian_fujen_uni_03_2010From your experiences and knowledge, how do you evaluate the Taiwanese education system? Do you think there are any areas for improvement and how do you think they could be improved on?
I have had quite a bit of experience with the Taiwan education system both as a teacher as well as a student. The education system in Taiwan certainly is different from what I experienced in Canada. I think it is well documented that in Taiwan generally there is an emphasis on rote memory learning. As a teacher of primary and secondary school age children I have found that in comparison to Canada, Taiwanese get an overwhelming amount of homework, spend more time in class both in compulsory schools and private cram schools and there is an overemphasis on testing. There also seems to be more pressure on students to achieve higher grades. One of the first surprises I encountered as a teacher was that students were expected to get grades higher than 90 or 95% and anything less was unacceptable to parents. This is far different from what I experienced in Canada where getting an 80-85% was considered a reasonable score. That being said, the testing in Taiwan seems to be designed so students can easily achieve high grades if they memorize bits and pieces of information (there is much more reliance on multiple choice-questions where the answer is provided and does not require the student to reflect on what they have learned and express themselves). When I started teaching English I would often ask open-ended questions giving the students a chance to use what they have learned and explain themselves. This did not go over well. A lot of the times the students thought I was being unfair, complaining that I did not teach them the answer or often asked me how many sentences they need to write to answer the question and when I gave them a minimum number, that is exactly what I got. When I gave scores of 80 – 90% and complimented them for good performance, students, school administrators and parents were less than pleased. This I believe is a disadvantage and results in students either lacking the confidence or ability to express themselves or make any attempt at deviating from what the teacher or texts have taught. Some call this “thinking outside the box.”

I do admire Taiwanese students’ dedication to their studies and the seriousness with which they do study. I am amazed at how some students, as young as 4 or 5 are able to speak sometimes more than 2 languages and the knowledge they have at that age. What is also amazing is that they enjoy learning. I have seen this with the young kindergarten and grade school age children but this enthusiasm seems to change once they get into secondary school. In my opinion I really don’t see the need for so many cram schools (math, science, English etc.) but it seems that it is the norm here. As an English teacher I was quick to realize that ‘cram’ schools are exactly what they are. The curricula at most schools involve numerous books and teachers are told to pile on homework, even though students often don’t have the time to finish or do it correctly. Accountability again is an issue here because how often does a student get held back for not performing up to standard and completing the expected work? There are problems but at the end of the day students usually learn English and progress as they continue which I guess is the goal. It just seems strange with all the bells and whistles that go with it that make it look like more than what it is.

Do you think the Taiwanese education system does enough to produce well rounded members of society; tools for a strong democracy; the creativity, hard work and enterprise to progress civil society and develop the country in an equal, fair manner?
As mentioned already, I feel that the education system should emphasize more open expression rather than right or wrong. This would encourage students to be more willing to deviate from the norm and contribute to more creative thinking. I am not saying that the western style of educating is the right way. I admire Taiwanese students’ work ethic and diligence, but I think an education system that was not so fixated on quantifying and measuring (test scores) would promote more willingness to come up with individual ideas. With my experience working in Taiwan in both schools and in an office environment, although limited, I found that organisations are very centralised and managers are not as willing, compared to western organisations, to delegate responsibility. Employees work long and hard hours, much like students, but do as they are told and deviating is not an option even if going off the path would be beneficial. Taiwan certainly has prospered and companies are doing well, especially in the IT industry but I feel that if company policies encouraged their staff to contribute more and gave them more discretion, the situation could be even better and the work environment would be better for many. This of course is coming from western eyes, and how I would prefer things to be. In the end, I think that the education system should do more to encourage individual creativity starting at a young age.

*John Perry is not the interviewee's real name

(Photos provided courtesy of Hubert Kilian, taken at Fu Jen University, Taipei county, 2010)

Sunday, 01 December 2013 00:00

Liminal Realms at the Mountains and the Margins of Taipei


The Mountains and the Margins of Taipei


As the second of our two-part feature on nature and the city, Shanshui Taipei, we explore Taipei's mountains. The mountains represent the natural frontier of the city, the border between the natural jungle and the urban jungle, but also the border between a standardized modus operandi of urban living and the diverse community lifestyles on the periphery, detached as they are from the daily reliance on the mainstream structures of the urban core.

Friday, 01 November 2013 16:10

In Search of the Source: Sunlighting the Liugong Canal

Dr Chun-E Kan, a retired professor of the Department of Agricultural Engineering, NTU, has been working in hydraulics and sustainability most of his life. The completion of his lifework would be the 'Sunlighting' or the re-opening of Liugong Canal, an irrigation channel running through Taipei, which is now buried underneath asphalt or concrete. However, his magnum opus is not yet complete. It has been 12 years since he submitted a proposal for a sustainable, economically inexpensive and romantic plan to bring clean rainwater back into Taipei City, starting off with the reopening of the stretch of the Liugong Canal which flows through National Taiwan University's campus. While it had been largely accepted at the time, Dr Kan has already seen a decade of retirement pass without any real action being taken to implement the plan. Negotiating the complex city and university bureaucracies make it extremely difficult to put a large scale engineering plan into action. We met with Dr Kan in the company of Professor Elijah Chang of NTU's Department of Building and Planning and her doctoral student Wu Chen-Ting who have also conducted research projects relating to the Liugong Canal.

As Dr Kan explained to us, the problem with water in the Taipei basin is that ever since dense urbanisation of the whole basin began in the Japanese era, what the government has feared the most was the crippling inundations during Typhoons, thus governments have aimed to get the rainwater out of the city and into the river as quickly as possible. For example, underneath the wide Keelung road, there was a huge underground passageway taking all the rainwater water straight down to the polluted Songshan River - a natural resource wasted. The Chinese idiom 'bamboo sprouts spring after rainfall' (雨後春筍) is commonly used to signify things springing up everywhere. Yet if all your rainfall is immediately flushed from the city, what can grow? You are left with an urban desert, where sand is replaced by concrete, and only shrubbery breaks through. In fact almost all the ponds in Taipei, despite perhaps bringing classical Chinese teachers to a emphatic sigh of contentness and harmony, are actually connected to the city waterworks using a hugely energy consuming pump system; meanwhile, the underground canals are now mostly polluted water. Essentially after more than 200 years of using a very sustainable engineering facility, the Liugong Canal, we no longer have any natural clean water sources fertilizing the lands and communities of Taipei. 

"The question we are facing today is how we can make the water stay a little bit longer in our living environment," said Professor Chang. "In fact this is the same question as 270 years ago, except then it was irrigation canals for farming purposes. Now we are trying to irrigate our communities." She felt that any project that started from the premise that we need to reopen a long defunct canal, for nostalgic or post-modern design purposes, was no different from any other costly beautification project. "The key is finding where the water is."

The spirit of the Liugong Canal was that of searching out the source, and for Professor Chang any project which did not first solve the problem of bringing in clean rainwater to the city rather than using reservoir water, defeated the purpose. Nowadays all the clean water in the city comes down from the huge reservoir in Pinglin. But as Prof. Chang explains, with the unpredictability of changing global weather patterns it is feasible that the reservoir could at times dry up, if that happened, how would Taipei's communities acquire there daily living water needs.

It was based on this premise that Professor Kan has always worked on his 'sunlighting' project. His Liugong dream is to first bring clean rainwater back to the NTU campus, restoring the NTU section of the Liugong Canal (Fig 1). His new even more cost effective plan is to channel natural rainwater flows from the nearby Toad Mountain. By researching various other rainwater canal systems in places with far less rainfall than Taipei, such as Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK, he has determined it is not only feasible but also economically thrifty to channel Toad Mountains rainflow. This lower starting cost of the plan makes the project less daunting to politicians, the university and other possible sponsors such as the Liugong Irrigation Association. Most importantly it is environmentally sustainable, saving much energy in the long run as it operates largely without using energy. The plan also incorporates water cleaning facilities, inside a mound of debris which comes from the extra stretch of canal to be dug up in the process of linking the pre-existing canal route to NTU's infamous Drunken Moon Lake. The cherry on top of this project is the drum tower built on top of the mound (Fig 3). The drum tower is a historical reference to the original drum tower (guting), which was constructed to serve as a guard tower warning for attacks by the local indigenous population on the Liugong Canal construction workers and farmers. It is also the namesake of the Guting area of Taipei, though the 'gu' character has since been simplified from 'drum' (鼔) to 'ancient' (古). The rain coillecting waterway which would descend Toad Mountain like a spiralling slide, also has a walking path fixed on top which both controls the amount of water to avoid flooding the campus during Typhoons, and also brings the mountain back to the community. One major difficulty with this part of the plan is that the intended mountainside is owned by the airforce, and as yet off limits to the public. Finally, the plan appeals to the imagery of a canal campus like that of Cambridge University, UK, which has been a romantic ideal for many top Chinese students since the Qing Dynasty poet Xu Zhimo referenced Cambridge in his poem "farewell once again Cambridge" while studying there in 1928. Eventually becoming a pinnacle for aspiring Chinese academics. Cambridge University also erected a stone tablet with the first and last two sentences of Xu Zhimo's poem, immortalising the poet in ROC history.

Reading the poem, one imagines Xu Zhimo spending hours staring at the River Cam and dreaming. The shadows of the trees, the duckweed and the gentle rippling of the river seemed to set off his imagination. In the second line of this stanza Xu Zhimo says "is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow" Ironically Cambridge, despite its rainfall of only 700mm, compared to Taipei's 2800, is surrounded by natural rainwater canals. If Cambridge can find enough rainwater for a 15-metre river, then so can NTU. In the stanza of the poem below he talks of a rainbow of dreams that are hidden amongst the floating grass in the springwater:

That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.


See here for original and full translation by Hugh Grigg

If the world beating success of Cambridge is anything to go by, a canal campus can inspire dreams in future leaders and visionaries. Creating even better study conditions for the academic elite is perhaps a dream for nobles, but if it was just a starting point for the re-irrigation of community life, it could be a noble dream nonetheless. If Dr Kan's plan was put into action it would be an important starting point for bringing water from natural sources back into different parts of the city, starting from the particularly visible and influential base of the NTU campus. It would be a huge life achievement for Dr Kan, but also a step forward in making Taipei a more sustainable water city.

taida map1Fig 1: The preexisting underground canal route and extension to Drunken Moon Lake on the NTU campus 

taida map2Fig 2: Possible alternative waterway routes on the NTU campus

 mountain liugongFig 3: The water cleaning mountain at NTU, with the drum tower on top.


Wednesday, 30 October 2013 21:40

Reopening the Liugong Canal. Sustainable Synergies?

Despite having spent hours on end frequenting a café which bordered one of the few remaining open sections of the 250-year old Liugong Canal, it was years after my arrival in Taipei before I began to understand its significance. While conducting eRenlai's May 2011 feature, Beyond the Pale, exploring marginal architecture in Taiwan, I came across and began exploring the works of the Ruin Academy where I was greatly intrigued by architect Marco Casagrande's mission of returning Taipei's citizens to nature and reality, including his vision for Taipei river urbanism. Casagrande went on to win the 2013 European Prize for Architecture, particularly for his ideas such as systematically including the 'local knowledge' of community and environment in urban planning and design, or healing the city with urban acupuncture, ideas explained in the following short documentary:

finish students liugong taipeiLater I gave some minor assistance with pre-arrival research and communication to a group of students from Aalto University's Sustainable Global Technologies Studio, under Casagrande's direction. They were building a multifaceted proposal for the reopening of the now underground Liugong Canal, with the idea of bringing people back to water and water back to the city. Just exploring above the old flow of the canal was a de-alienating experience, as I described and reported to them in the fullest detail what I saw along the way. It was foreplay with the land, getting to know Taipei as I ran my feet along the Liugong Canal, my first topography of Taipei's curves and quirks, searching, sniffing, seeing and feeling. These explorations formed the basis for a long term relationship with the Liugong Canal, which has only grown in intensity with time.

When the Finnish team of Virva Kajamaa, Kätlin Kangur, Riikka Koponen, Niklas Saramäki, Kristina Sedlerova and Sanna Söderlind arrived in Taipei, I also joined them in their explorations of an island of farming allotments surviving in the middle of the Danshui River, hidden and protected from the development of the metropolis. These explorations of alternative city lifestyles were empowering in themselves, as free running or parkour is to traceurs. It was an exercise in what social philosopher and Jesuit, Michel de Certeau[1] would call 'walking in the city', the practice of everyday resistance, where the people use everyday 'tactics' to survive and make consumer choices based on adapting to the constraints of city, yet never being fully controlled by them. This 'walking in the city' is a symbiosis between memory and action, creating the opportunity to change the existing spatial power relations. Indeed it was this social opportunism which interested me the most about the project. Behind these spatial aesthetics, there was an anarchic attempt to re-empower the community, strengthen social relations and release individuals from the excesses of the legal state, government power and market conformity.

Before they completed their field trip and returned to Finland I invited the Ruin Academy to a forum at our nomadic arts and action space, The Hole, to explain their ideas for bringing the people back to the river and the river back to the people. Novelist and curator Roan Ching-yue questioned the soundness of Casagrande's theoretical construction in the second part of the discussion and in particular the discrepancy between the ideas of urban farmers and a nomadic city. This led to an interesting discussion which touches the heart of the urban planning problem here - the psyche inherited from the KMT that Taipei is just a temporary home.

The final work of the Aalto University students was completed in 2012 under the name of Sustainable Synergies: The Leo Kong Canal (full pdf available). The plan included wetlands, parks, recreational canal streets, water cleaning facilities and far more ideas. The commitment to social innovation was particularly interesting:

Social innovation is often considered difficult to recognize since it is out of our sights and habits. The crux of the social part of the work became a search for a creative "hidden potential" so that the resource of our ideas and plans come from existing actions, traditions and memories, which are left unattended and can be illegal but as an integral part of the design process will enhance our attempt to create more sustainable solutions and raise the overall well-being.

Under social innovation we mean to:
- Improve social cohesion;
- Involve and improve the conditions of marginalized people;
- Promote systems enabling social integration between different generations;
- Enhance peculiar local cultural characteristics;
- Develop systems to encourage and foster local communities and network-structured initiatives;
- Adapt participatory approach and collective use of infrastructure. (p24)

The above are guiding principles by which to de-alienate the city from its memory (inter-generational dialogue), from other humans (community activity) and from our own agency (to act without permission). Throughout his work with the Ruin Academy, Casagrande emphasizes the need for cross-disciplinary research, and has tried to involve NTU sociologists and sociology students into their urban planning projects. Furthermore he has stated his will to bring further community participation into the design of the Liugong Canal project.

That said, while there were some interesting design suggestions put forward, one member of the proposal team, Kristina, questioned the social validity of the housing side of the project, which it was claimed would not really bring people closer to the river as it constructed 3 to 5 mega-expensive buildings "for some privileged people, who have the money to buy apartments there...". Others criticize the willingness of the Ruin Academy to collaborate with big development companies of the status quo, whilst claiming to be focused on social innovation. This criticism however is also related to one of the Ruin Academy team's greatest strengths. They are dreamers who believe that nothing is impossible and will find a way to make things happen, using the system when it suits them to further a project, yet never really giving up their autonomy and right to action.

In terms of sociological rigor and social fairness, these proposals may still need some research; nevertheless, further cross-disciplinary research with a focus on local knowledge can only help to create a more durable, fairer urban planning, which is more respectful to the community and individual agency. Furthermore, the holistic view that the sociological imagination provides and the rigor of the field of sociology can help bring into check carelessness and short-sightedness of urban planning and reducing the negative social effects of plans built on a whim. Therefore the development of this cross-disciplinary collaboration should be encouraged.


All photos courtesy of the Ruin Academy

[1] de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984

Tuesday, 29 October 2013 10:29

A Cartographic History of the Liugong Canal

The course of Liugong Canal is a calligraphy brush carving Taipei's human history into its natural history. The collection of maps gathered at Academia Sinica, along with more recent maps made for various purposes, are useful guides to explain the history of Taipei from the view of the Liugong Canal.

(Googlemaps screenshot of Taipei)

In 1736 Kuo Hsi-liu, originally of Fujian province, came to Zhonglun in Taipei from Changhua and began the settling and development of a small farming community by the name of Xingyazhuang. Before long he found that the water resources for the village were drying up and were insufficient to maintain the community in the long term. By the time of his death in 1765, the farming plateaus of Taipei were well on their way to being fully supplied by an intricate and vast system of irrigation channels now known as the Liugong Canal, fed from the Xindian River, where water was diverted through the tunnels and trenches they dug to form the canal. While the original canal was completed in 1762, the Liugong Canal (公 'gong' is a respectful name affixed to great men, 'Liu' is derived from the individuals name) now refers to a grand network which spreads and branches out through Taipei City.

liugong map1(A map of the system of channels around the time of Liugong's death in 1765
See the whole map :

As the story goes, Kuo Hsi-liu dedicated his life to the construction and development of his farming community. He borrowed money to start the village, became a topographer in order to search for new water sources as natural reservoirs dried up and farms suffered droughts, and sold all he owned to fund the construction of the canal. Beyond that, he married an indigenous woman from a local tribe in order to stop the persistent raids on the workers and the destruction of their engineering works. He organized a great collaboration with the five villages of Dapinglin which lay along the path of his great plan. However, in the end he died distraught after watching his life’s work shattered by a typhoon which destroyed the critical Snakes Cage Dam, but not before handing down responsibility for the continuation of his magnum opus to his son.

This documentary commissioned by the Kuo Hsi-liu Foundation tells Liugong’s story, depicting him with all the aspects of a conscientious Chinese hero; self-sacrifice, piety, and lasting historical contribution to Chinese culture. As with many historical accounts, and great development projects, it is slightly oversimplified and perhaps glorified. Many other important individuals contributed to the construction of the channels and the road to agricultural security was paved with dead construction workers, who were regularly attacked by indigenous peoples angry that there lands were being encroached on by the Han settlers as there water resources grew. Though it was perhaps a the most peaceful solution, the act of bequeathing an indigenous woman, was a common tactic of the Han settlers to appropriate indigenous lands and ultimately become the new stewards of the Taipei basin. Nevertheless the project is an important part of Taipei’s heritage had lasting implications, helping secure the foundations for Taipei to become a major city in Taiwan. Kuo Hsi-liu was honored posthumously for his contributions with the respectful ‘Gong’ title by the contemporary Qing emperor. The following map shows the extent the canals had reached towards the end of the Qing Dynasty period over a century after Liu Gong’s death. At the time the canal systems were still divided into the Dapinglin, Wulixue and Liugong (originally Qingxi) canals

 liugong map2

By the Japanese era all the different names of the canal systems had been merged to create one single Liugong Canal. In order to solve their drainage and flooding problems, the Japanese constructed the huge Horikawa Drain (堀川) in 1933, which overlapped and rebuilt part of the Liugong Canal, thus bringing part of the canal into the sewage system, this trend continued as the drainage network expanded.

liugong map3(Liugong Canal during the Japanese era, 1939
See the whole map:

Not long into the KMT era changes happened in waves to the Liugong Canal. Emboldened by the pervasive spirit of modernity that had now seeped through to Chinese culture, the KMT pushed rapid industrialization and urbanization. Due to population strains, political needs, comparative unprofitability of farmland and more and more pollution nature was squeezed into the margins of the city and the Liugong Canal pushed underground. With rapid economic development, the population of Taipei further exploded. Most of the remaining farmland in the Taipei basin, including that bordering the Liugong Canal, was bought up by developers to build high rises, in order to meet and multiply the needs of Taipei's urbanization. Using techniques such as reinforced steel box culvert, the canals were paved over to build residential and commercial areas on top. The following map shows the water sources left in Taipei in 1904:

liugong map4

By the late 1970's most of the water sources within the main rivers of Xindian and Songshan and the mountain ranges enclosing Taipei from the east (i.e. the Taipei city area) were underground, covered by roads, buildings or parks. By the 80s the vast majority of the Liugong Canal was cemented over and either became obsolete in terms of its original irrigation function or certain parts were merged into the existing sewage system. One can now access the maps of the sewage system and underground waterways of Taipei using sewage maps that run on the Google Earth engine.

Anyone born in Taipei since the end of the martial law-era will likely not have experienced the Liugong Canal like their previous generations, washing, playing or collecting clams. Taipei’s richer youth may shop at the SOGO megastore in Zhongxiao Fuxing, but are unlikely to know that underneath flows the Liugong Canal and that the land is owned by Taipei’s Liugong Irrigation Association. Now there are only a sprinkling of open areas along the Liugong Canal, treasures worthy of letterboxers. For example, there is a 10-metre stretch outside the Café Pick up a Cat in the Alley on Wenzhou Street, a 5 km section near the source of the canal in Bitan, and since the turn of the century the ecological pond on the NTU campus. 

By the late 1990’s the Taipei City government began pushing the idea of ‘livable cities’ and there was growing interest in beautifying the city. These trends provided an opening and encouraged politicians, academics and community groups to re-explore the idea of bringing waterways back into the everyday life of the city. In 2005 there began to be some political interest in reopening some sections of the Liugong Canal and ever since then there have been projects highlighting and promoting the rediscovery of this historical relic which still exists beneath our feet. Beyond beautification, these projects increasingly include an environmental sustainability angle while they attempt to bring the Liugong Canal back into the city and renegotiate the relationship between Taipei’s waterways and its inhabitants. For example Professor Chun-E Kan of NTU’s Department of Bioenvironmental Systems Engineering has made the ‘sunlighting’ of the Liugong Canal his life’s work and has long promoted the restoration of the NTU section of the Liugong Canal by channeling natural rainwater flows from the nearby Toad Mountain. Further proposals for reopening the Liugong Canal have also come from a group of Finnish students mentored by the recent winner of the European Architect of the Year Award, Marco Casagrande and his cross-disciplinary research hub, the Ruin Academy, who bring in an aesthetic of nature re-invading architecture, but also have a social focus on community participation. There have also been groups and organizations more focused on memory and the historical value of the canals. For example, the Daan Community College ran historical walking tours along the former path of the canals. In 2013 there were even day-event cycling tours riding along the covered canal routes. There was a cultural landscape preservation movement (非瑠不可) led by students of NTU’s Department of Building and Planning for the preservation of a marginal military dependants' community whose makeshift houses bordered the open part of the canal close to the Xindian River. Indeed, re-exploring the Liugong Canal in this feature was also partly stimulated by the participation of our nomadic arts space, The Hole, in a movement to preserve another military dependants community, that of Toad Mountain near NTU. The skeleton of the Liugong Canal borders runs along the front Toad Mountain community. Until the 80's the canal was open and used daily by the residents, but by the 1980's it was paved over and there is no longer a regular flow of clean water running through.

(A brochure map for the historical tours run in the Daan Community College.)

For the more adventurous minds, one can even descend into the underworld, for a bit of urban exploring or catacomb-like art, visible only to those who may descend into the underground passages. In fact when entering the canal from the mountain streams that flow in there is still a diverse ecosystem underneath - a paradise for turtles, watersnakes, white egrets, fish, and huge toad and frog species, before reaching cockroach territory as you go further under the city. Budding cartographers can even find ways to trace the canal from above or below and find interesting new ways to display the maps, perhaps hand-drawn by a local residents or schools to promote community participation in design, perhaps using open source mapping to aid in the decentralization and democratization of the internet. These are all activities which our group is engaged in and promoting.

Over recent years more and more plans have emerged for the reopening of parts of Liugong Canal. Some are based purely on beautification, others on green economy, environmental protection and awareness and now, certain groups have begun to bring in ideas of community restoration and participation in planning for the Liugong Canal's future. As we can see from above, different parts of civil society - academics, community organisations, individual enthusiasts and artists - are already remapping the Liugong Canal. One thing is for certain: there are still many changes to happen to these maps, and the cartographic history of the Liugong Canal is far from over.


Friday, 30 August 2013 10:19

Uniting the Sea of Islands

Epeli Hao'Ofa, the most significant Pacific scholar of his age, wrote a momentous paper Rediscovering our sea of islands, in which he laid out an indigenous vision of the Pacific, one in which the people were united by their "sea of islands" rather than constrained by the seas, the passport system implemented by the colonial powers and acquired linguistic differences. I experienced these words in all their emotional and symbolic power during the six weeks that my newly discovered siblings, Fijian Ledua Setaraki (Seta) and ethnic Samoan New Zealander Tupe Lualua, spent in Taiwan, where they had been invited to engage in exchange with Taiwanese aborigines to explore with one another their common Austronesian heritage through the mediums of dance and navigation, both revived traditional forms of indigenous wisdom which they had employed to re-engage with the contemporary world. Indeed, Seta had been a part of a navigation team which had put into practice 'uniting the sea of islands' by sailing the breadth of the Pacific using the traditional navigational methods of their forefathers.

Pacific scholar Vilsoni Hereniko once told me in this 2010 interview that the important point was that indigenous communities were empowered with 'cultural autonomy' rather than them to be perceived as 'culturally authentic'. From then on I always maintained some doubts when participating in or researching cultural projects commissioned by the government that are inevitably imbued with a self-congratulatory character and language and often have a superficial focus on supposedly authentic regalia, song and dance that seem detached from the real everyday lives and struggles of the participants, who are nonetheless often obliging due to the pride that cultural recognition furnishes them with and the jobs provided by the indigenous cultural revival industry. I often find these projects like to blow their own trumpets in terms of the diversity that they supposedly foster and their focus on praising Taiwan as the source of migration to the Pacific, a claim that is underlain with domestic political and geopolitical functions. I had heard too often indigenous peoples adopting and internalising the Han Chinese trope of the "indigenous person with the great sense of humor", or what one could term a "stage aborigine", commonly found in different media representations of the indigenous community. The tendency to focus on rediscovery of lost cultural traditions I feel often clouds contemporary social justice issues between the ethnicities in Taiwan and within the individual tribal groups. For example no cultural exchange group has ever received government funding to come and see the urban indigenous communities such as the Sanying tribal village or the Sao'wac Amis who suffered the full violence of the state machinery with the demolition of their riverside communities.

Another doubt I have harboured relates to the ethnic and racial historical burden. Although I generally try not to think in racial terms, having experienced being marked as a clear and obvious racial group, in a relatively racially homogenous island, being viewed sometimes in both an unfairly positive and unfairly negative light, in the context of this trip, I couldn't help having a discomforting nagging feeling that led me to question my very role in this trip. What was I, an English national, the very same English who had once been colonial masters and profiteers over both the Fijian and Samoan peoples, doing assisting in this project, translating between one colonially-received (or acquired?) language to another colonially-received (or acquired?) language forced on the local indigenous populations during their centuries of Han Chinese domination and marginalisation, for a project which was commissioned by the same ROC government (albeit from the Council of Indigenous Peoples) and being implemented by the Ricci Institute in which the main organizers were Han Chinese? Was this empowerment? 

Primarily serving as a translator and guide for the visiting Pacific guests, our entourage spent much of our time dining, drinking, singing, dancing, swimming, capsizing, crashing and generally living together as a swiftly improvised family and support network. In the host of parties and welcomings we were jovial partners in celebration. On a personal level, Seta shared with me some of his local knowledge, helping to reignite a passion for re-immersing myself in nature and all the daily survival struggles in the age of pre-convenience, as he taught me how to make my first sling spear, to ferment coconut and pineapple based alcohol which bared an uncanny resemblance in taste to indigenous Taiwan's infamous millet wines and finally to prepare and serve Kava, a tree root based powder mix, in the traditional way they drink the mix in his native island of Fiji. "Ta-kii" Seta called, and he clapped twice before I handed him the coconut half-shell cup, which he drank and clapped once more before handing the cup back to be passed on to the next person. And in that moment I felt a tingle of belonging and my own status doubts were somewhat resolved, as I realised that to live together in a globalized world, we are filled with both a need for universal fraternity in the goals of peace, love, unity and respect, and also a sense of belonging in a community of familial love and understanding.

Indeed on the trip certain doubts were assuaged, especially after seeing the reaction of the children in the schools where Tupe's energetic and inclusive singing and dancing, such as the mosquito swatting dance, brought smiles to the faces of all the school children and the tales and video footage of Seta's two year boating trip left the children staring in awe, filling the kids with a sense of adventure and a sense of their own potential to achieve their dreams. THIS was empowerment. That some of Tupe's works bring up contemporary social issues was also enlightening, and people did question to what extent Tupe's dances were similar to the dances of old, to what extent had they overturned the thorough religious, linguistic, cultural and artistic colonization and to what extent their revival had a positive effect on society. Furthermore Seta's talks and demonstrations always contained a strong environmental message, "my grandpa used to say, every second breath that you take in comes from the ocean", he went on to build awareness of the state of the ocean, with his gripping tale of his experience saving a huge sea turtle that had been dying, stranded on the masses of plastic waste irresponsibly left there from humanity's excesses. These children of Formosa, and Orchid Island, I believe will never forget that the stewardship of the oceans is one of their great missions and perhaps a generation later they will be the ones leading the fight to clean the Pacific.

I still had some doubts, however. For example, while Tupe often mentioned how some of her dance works could also function as a critical art medium to express social problems in marginalised communities, in general it seemed to draw little attention from the audience, with still too much attention on selling an 'authentic look' to improve their economic benefits. Furthermore as expected the group did not visit the controversial settlements mentioned above, and barring the unavoidable exposure to Orchid Island's nuclear waste dump, these politically sensitive aspects still tended to be glossed over in the sea of dance and cultural display. I would hope that in addition to cultural renaissance, future projects could also put more emphasis on ocean wide Austronesian land rights and community inequalities. The Pacific, must be 'united as a sea of islands' facing a common set of environmental and social struggles.

nick seta zijie

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 16:19

From self-exploration and reflection to community: The Baishatun Mazu Pilgrimage

For over a century devotees of the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu (媽祖 lit. Mother Ancestor), from the Gongtian Temple in Baishatun, Miaoli County have flocked to Beigang’s Chaotian Temple in Yunlin County for an annual 400-plus km pilgrimage in the 2nd Lunar month of the year. They participate for the blessings, protection and fortune afforded by Mother Mazu, who was said to protect the fisherman and sailors on the high seas when she was a living human, known as Lin Moniang. As I lived by the seaside growing up myself I was moved by this significance. This year, as I tracked my way back from my Chinese New Year holiday to urban life in Taipei, I decided to join the devotees on the return leg of their 9-day journey, hoping to find in the ritual space, time and an opportunity for reflection.

The Mazu Pilgrimage (媽祖進香), which literally means an offering of incense, involved more than one thousand pilgrims following by foot Mazu’s jiao(轎)or palanquin, on her journey to the sacred first Mazu temple in Taiwan. While not shunning modern technology - A GPS informs followers of where Mazu is at any point in time – the deity nonetheless has an erratic and unpredictable personality in deciding her path. No one knows which route the unpredictable goddess will take and what locations or occurrences will draw her attention along the way, in fact, the only certainty is that the goddess will arrive at the ancestral temple and will find her way back to her hometown temple. One year Mazu even guided her followers through the cold currents of the Zhuoshui River rather than taking the rather more practical Xiluo Bridge. Mazu indicates the direction she wants to go by leaning and putting more weight on a particular corner of her palanquin, which is held aloft by devotees on their shoulders. The Baishatun Mazu is also fiercely incorruptible by modern politics and etiquette. She is a chaotic force for good, oblivious to any rules that would be imposed upon her. While politics often plagues other religious processions such as the most famous Dajia Mazu, the Baishatun Mazu avoids many of these problems with her anarchical mode of existence. Mazu’s uncontrollable free spirit, nonetheless, seems to give respect to local knowledge, with considerations of geography, the cultural map and mythology of the people and prevailing conditions during the journey.

The Council of Cultural Affairs is now promoting the Baishatun pilgrimage as a distinctive peculiarity of the island's native culture and identity; arguably this may be a strategy to bring this religious activity more closely in line with the needs of the state. But this tradition and community cannot be defined and imposed upon by state ideology. This Mazu pilgrimage is a grassroots, bottom up culture which develops spontaneously in dialogue with the local land and people. It has a thousand different interpretations, and a thousand different truths.


With her sometimes cruel sense of humour Mazu mocks state control and rules implemented by faraway experts and institutions. In this festival of passionate religious expression, all the repressions that normally apply to earthly beings are broken or sidestepped. The police seem more like spectators, sighing as Mazu decides to divert troublesomely on to the motorway, or guide her followers through private property bumbling, or a movement I could only describe as 'bianging', aggressively through whatever stands in her path. Throughout the pilgrimage local residents light a barrage of fireworks on the roads, in theory an illegal activity, leaving the pilgrims engulfed in a constant cloud of smoke and the police look on impotently as the palanquin barges on through. This freedom of religious expression and creativity is severely lacking in Mazu’s homeland of southern China, where the government’s tight policy of control of religion leaves little space for such crowd-inducing rituals which are viewed with great suspicion, cutting the local populations off from these potentially de-alienating rituals and connection with the land. What I saw on this pilgrimage showed me that a lack of central control on the body and mind stimulates colour, contrasts and distinctive flavours whilst opening the doors for creative problem solving.

What sets the incorruptible Baishatun Mazu apart from other Mazu pilgrimages is the lack of shackles placed upon the followers forcing them to follow a strict temple doctrine; the space allowed for creativity, is inspiring to its followers without being repressive. Those in good health will follow the whole journey on foot as suixiangtuan, but for those who can’t walk long distances they will follow as jinxiangtuan in their car or a coach, stopping off to pray as Mazu sets off in the early morning. By throwing divination blocks, temple representatives will ask Mazu at what time they will set off in the morning which in my experience ranged from 2am to the early afternoon. This disorganized state allows for diverse interpretations and truths and encourages creativity and innovation. All along the journey individual worshippers happily spend their time and money practically, forcing upon you endless cups of green, red and ginger tea, sports drinks, and cans of Mr Brown coffee, also rarely did an hour pass by without being served lashings of thick soup, sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf or mantou steamed bread. Many people even go extra lengths to create their own special dishes, such as one man who had been raising fish eggs which he combined with a delicious salmon sauce; each passer-by was treated to one deluxe mouth-watering bite served on a lone potato chip. Almost every house along the way seemed delighted to provide free accommodation to the pilgrims and discuss past stories and inquire as to how Mazu’s mood had been this year. Also known as the Silent Maiden, her mood could only be guessed by each devotee based on observing her interactions with the land and the people.

Each devotee’s belief in Mazu’s powers seems to stem from a different story based on their own personal experience and enlightenment, merely taking part in this year’s walk I encountered a host of different stories which is why I thoroughly recommend readers take part in the procession themselves.

I first heard about this Mazu pilgrimage due to my explorations into the world of performance arts and theatre, more specifically in the year I spent with Sannyas Meditation Theatre, which gets its inspiration from the Butoh tradition and the late Kazuo Ohno. The works of experimental theatre pioneer Jerzy Grotowski inspired a generation of performers to take part in local rituals, in order to make their performance more seamlessly connected to their inner self and local conditions, parenthesizing the alienating performance training they had received, thus making their performance more natural, truer. For me, asides from unfettered curiosity, taking part in the pilgrimage was a chance to enter a very pure state stemming directly from the connection between body and land and to explore how I would develop naturally on from this.

I kicked off my journey in a characteristically inauspicious way. As I was waiting to meet up with a fellow member of the Sannyas Theatre in the sacred Chaotiangong temple in Beigang, I was found to be leaning unawares on Mazu’s palanquin and was quickly exhorted and shuffled away by her stewards. I commenced the walk over-relishing the physical challenge and was perhaps even a little bit competitive. Jogging sections and even giving a friend a piggy back ride, left my knees and ankles suffering heavily over the last few days. I also found myself slightly overindulging in the free food offerings. Perhaps Mazu sensed that I had not yet entered a pure mind while following her as a couple of nights later Mazu appeared twice in my dreams, staring at me sternly and leaving me waking up damp and sweaty. It was not until later that I realised I had started the pilgrimage more as an observer, outsider than a full participant and seamless member of the community. I had heard a thousand different truths and meanings of peoples own experiences of the Mazu procession but I was still in the process of discovering my own, truthful only if based on the personal experience of my body and soul in dialogue with the community.

Photos by Witek Chudy

See the complete photostory by Witek

Friday, 22 April 2011 19:32

Urban Archaeologist

Chen Bo-I, aka 'The King of the ruins' doesn’t necessarily come across as glamorous as his nickname sounds. Currently, working on his PhD in Hydraulic and Ocean Engineering, a most realistic and practical trade, yet beyond his advanced studies in man-made structures on the ocean, he is also avid reader of the fascinating marks of history left on landbased structures. In the interview below he tells us how he got into this underground culture, how he works with the ruins in his photography and what he values about these decaying remains.

Hongmaogang Juancun (紅毛港眷村)

Why is this world...why is it so messed up? Because of typhoons, because of rains, those types of things, and floods, and mudslides, that's what normally causes it. But this is all caused by ships, and excavators. Why do they have to destroy our homes?

A young boy and resident of the Hongmaogang Community before it was destroyed - speaking in the documentary film Homeless (紅毛港:家變)

In 2005 Chen Po-I (Bibi) started shooting some fishing villages or military dependents’ village where intensive city regeneration was underway.
Hongmaogang community, lying off the coast of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan was perhaps the best example of a juancun or military dependants’ village, a phenomenon unique to Taiwan. These juancun are particular to Taiwan in that they were made for the families of KMT soldiers who had come over from the mainland following the civil war . They were built as temporary settlements, since the prevailing idea at the time was that Taiwan was a temporary base for re-conquering of mainland China, thus the houses were put together with great haste, there were no regulations on how they were built and as such impulsive building of extensions and additions was the norm. This allowed a very natural human feeling to develop in the area. Eventually however, juancun residents would begin recieving notice that they were too leave the buildings, the moment residents have left the excavators get demolishing. Bibi, tries to get there first - like he did to take these photographs at Hongmaogang.

In 1968, Hongmaogang was declared land for building a port. However at the time they didn't have the funds to move all the people and instead time was frozen as the government declared new building or work on their current houses was banned. This strategy was not enough to suppress the residents will to build and throughout the 1970's the residents did all their building at night, while the police were off duty, so as not to be discovered. It was often the case that on waking up in the morning, a house would expanded a metre or two. It wasn't until 1986 that this provoked a government response in which they took aerial photos and stated that from then on the residents buildings were not allowed to change from the way they were captured in the aerial photos. Eventually in 2004 the government had sufficient funds and began moving the residents. In 2008 as the government evacuated the final inhabitants of the harbour, Chen Po-I took to action to make sure that there would always remain a poetic memory of the Hongmaogang Settlement, where for him life stories were the traces engraved in the walls. He also brought these photos together as part of his exhibition 'Outlook', giving the community the chance to share in these memories.

Walking the wires

On a more sober note one of the raiders nonetheless reminds us of the dangers of visiting ruins. The majority of these buildings are uninhabited and unkempt, some of them are as the name suggests, in ruins - states of devastation, with pieces of metal, wood, glass and sometimes even needles littering the floor, others are private property and guests are unwelcome. Be careful and aware when inside and only go into ruins with unlocked doors. If you listen to this advice however, everyone can be touched by the poetry of these ruins.


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