Focus: The Mountains and the Margins
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:
The old men at Huanmin Village have lived there all their life. Every day, they meet to chat about things, as old friends often do. Their peaceful existence, however, is being threatened by the plans to demolish the houses which hold so many memories for them.
The Mountain is looking at the City spreading. The City tries to rise but just spreads. Building after building, a forest of concrete, steel and glass; how small it looks when you take altitude and see it from above- from the height of a peak!
In Taipei the mountains are never far away. How easy it is to escape from the city and discover a different pace of life. Human voices rise above the roar of the traffic, and in the safety of the mountains people form communities and express themselves in ways that could not happen in an urban setting, for all its apparent conveniences and freedoms. Filmed around Tiger Mountain, 2013.
Overlooking the Xinyi district, home of Taipei 101 and Taipei's financial and commercial hub, are the Four Beasts Mountains (四獸山) : Elephant, Leopard, Lion and Tiger. The image of four wild animals-embodying raw nature- dominating the urban metropolis below is a powerful one. Elephant Mountain has largely been tamed-it is now a must-see on the Taipei tourist trail and also popular with photographers wanting to get the perfect night-time shot of Taipei 101- but Tiger mountain is more elusive.
As observed in the mass media and our own personal experience, the Earth's habitat is facing an unprecedented crisis. We clearly realize that the problems and disasters caused by global warming cannot be avoided by any country: one infectious disease after another quickly spreads across national borders, acid rain floats over the seas, even China's sandstorms affect Taiwan. When humankind causes an imbalance in the natural order created by other species, the retribution always ends up coming back and affecting humankind. Never in human history has humankind realised, the way we do today, just how inextricably connected all life on this planet is, forming one big symbiotic entity.
Text by Nicholas Coulson
The Toad Mountain Community Action (蟾蜍行動 鄰里起哄 藝術節)
One Autumn night in August 2013, a group of our friends had been invited to a local café-bar, Faust (孓孓). Coincidentally the Good Toad Club, consisting of documentary filmmaker and local Td Mountain resident Lin Ding-chieh (林鼎杰) and NTU Building and Planning (B&T) student Ah Bang (城邦) were inviting film producer and curator Angelika Wang (王亙瑜) to curate a spontaneous community arts festival. As default coordinators of the preservation action, Ding-chieh and the B&P students began to solicit filmmakers, other creative nostalgics and cultural circles with the aim of galvanizing residents and sympathizers to help defend against the imminent demolition of the cultural and social artifact that is the Toad Mountain community. Through Wang came the support of Taiwan’s most highly acclaimed director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) who agreed to show his 1987 film, Daughter of the Nile (尼羅河的女兒) in the Toad Mountain community square, where it had been originally shot.
It was agreed that the spontaneous 10-day 'happening' or action would be held immediately at the beginning of September. Film students or others wishing to make their own short films about Toad Mountain were given one week to shoot and edit them. At the end of the week they could then show these films to the residents and assembled supporters of toad mountain and anyone else interested to accompany the screening of Daughter of the Nile.
Loosely affiliated members of our informal arts and action group, The Hole also took up the Good Toad Club’s invitation to volunteers to release their creative energies in any way that felt fit to revitalize a street from which residents had recently been removed in preparation for the demolition. It fit well with our spirit of DIY and spontaneous direct action, and from this time on we began making our own documentary of the process, edited by Pinti Zheng:
With talk of demolition beginning that month, time was of the essence. By the next morning certain sympathizers had begun the rejuvenation of the vacant houses in the spirit of spontaneity and non-organized direct action. The middle of the street was cleared out to make it safe for residents walking through. Then trash was given new life. More than just a middle class nostalgia for all things old and pretty objects, the vacated houses were cleaned with a spirit of recycling, re-usage and DIY - the original buildings were themselves makeshift, using whatever leftover materials they could get their hands on. With this spirit the volunteers tried to address the contemporary problems of waste and scarce resources. As time went on, the vacant street seemed increasingly reinvigorated, fit for residents and flaneurs, half-works sprouted up everywhere, individually and as groups we were empowered as we reconnected to the fruits of our labour. Abandoned red lanterns were hung up on both sides of the street. Mini-paper toads stuck everywhere. Abandoned motorbikes were turned into installations. A dozen broomstick heads and a century of lightbulbs had similar reorganisations. A street artist and professional recycler, Uncle Bird (鳥伯), had added his own collections from years of gleaning in Taipei, he was by far the most experienced at finding the functional or aesthetic value of waste. One architecture student gathered together glass shards and forged them into the shape of Toad Mountain, adding a Bodhisattva statue she'd found to give it symbolic protection. A recovered board and chalks was used to make the main billboard for the Community Arts Festival.
Another focus of this 'happening' was the relationship between the natural ecology and the city, considering that this community was right at the mountain border and there was a much higher level of interaction between the people and their mountain. Rather than the urban jungle ever encroaching on the natural jungle, we saw this as a base from which nature was re-invading the city: trees were growing through the ruins, smashing through the roofs. During the Toad Mountain action, these roofless buildings were re-appropriated, turned into experimental urban gardens, most of the rubbish was cleared out and the space filled with various types of compost. One of the garden volunteers even held a workshop one morning to teach residents and students how to look after the composts, further strengthening the links between the remaining residents and their natural surroundings. The old trees which had prevented the early demolition were also draped in string connected to the buildings representing the inextricable life force existing there between the tree and the land but also the community and the land. Fallen leaves return to the roots (落葉歸根) goes the Chinese proverb, meaning that the elderly return to their homes to die. Was it to be that the elders of this mainlander community were twice denied that fate?
The works also focused on the community and its participation. Red string, gleaned from one of the ruins, ran through all the houses on the street, linking the overlooking balconies which previously would have been the focal points of daily communication, something lost in the detachment of high-rise life, a source of modern urban alienation. Indeed it seemed to represent the previous connectedness, the inseparability of the community and how if one part was cut the whole community would fall. In a time transcending reply to a barely comprehensible poem that had been discovered behind a removed mirror, one of the foreign volunteers read a poem about the joy of people gathering, which he transposed onto another wall space with a paler shade from which another mirror or poster had likely been removed. Who knew who might rediscover it in the future. The B&T students such as Naijia, Yuwen and A Pei presented their interviews and mappings of the residents houses, along with old photographs, showing how each family had a worthy story which should not be overlooked in the pursuit of rapid development. At the last moment Chenggong University students Dong Yuci (董玉慈) and Liu Chunjun (劉純峻) also rushed over from their anti-nuclear protest to offer their support, having sewed together several bandages and transposing prints of objects leftover in the abandoned buildings, to show that life was full of pain, but that they had always been able to patch it up again, fitting the fix-it-yourself ethic of these impermanent communities.
Perhaps most successfully of all, the community square was full of residents and sympathisers for the final weekend of performances. For the noise performance "The city's memory is disappearing, we cannot stay silent" by One Night Band, Yu Jun re-jumbled the words of memory which they had collected from resident interviews in A Ming's mobile community recording studio. This video by Sky Lee summed up the weekend feeling:
On the final Sunday, each household brought a pot-luck dish and there was a full house for the music performances and the film showings, which overlooked the mountain and its iconic radar. The Daughter of the Nile brought the evening to life and following that the filmworks which had been made about the community were displayed on the huge screen against the backdrop of the mountain. It kicked off with the documentary film "Will my friends come out today?" which has since been instrumental in bringing attention to the movement:
It kicked off with the documentary film "Will my friends come out today?" which had been instrumental for bringing attention to the movement. It was then followed by these films.
It had been a blissful temperate night overlooking the mountain, but as they say in England, it ain't over till the fat lady sings. That moment arrived as Lin Ding-chieh's requested that Toad Mountain Marching Forward, the festival theme tune, a cover of Lim Giong's Marching Forward, be sung with its new lyrics. Despite the handing out of lyrics, the rendition nevertheless left the crowds vocally unimpressed and slightly confused. A black dog howled half way through the rendition and the night came to an abrupt, but timely end. For better or for worse, the visibility of the issue at hand had been raised by this ten-day 'happening' and perhaps Toad Mountain was marching to a different future.
Photos provided by Good Toad Club, Sharon Liu, Pinti Zheng, Nick Coulson
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.
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):