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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
Leftover Nature by Pinti Zheng
Text: Nick Coulson
Connectedness to the chaos of nature, or lack of it, is inextricably linked to the modern human condition. The flow of water is a stream of consciousness running through the human psyche and a basis for spontaneous action. Yet, the modern city has tried to overcome nature, pushing it to its margins. However, nature is always rediscovering, reoccupying the human city. The flow of water is ceaseless, through, around, over and under, seamless in its passage through streams, springs, rivers, canals, lakes, reservoirs, a dancing brush swiping its calligraphy throughout the human city, leaving dynamic traces of natural and human history along its way. Like the creative flow, it can be diverted, guided, hidden, buried, yet it is always there flowing underneath and ready to emerge like a stream of consciousness.
Taipei, Water City, a new book by local author Shu Guo-zhi's, gives a historical topography of the transition of Taipei from water city to land city. It follows the alleys and lanes of the city on a journey back through time, re-exploring the canals, ditches and other stretches of water that used to cover much of the Taipei basin. Nowadays the twists and turns of Taipei's lanes and alleys mark the former routes of the canals and streams, which have been buried under tarmac and concrete. Signposts indicating former dykes, natural reservoirs and mounds are clues to tracing Taipei's forgotten heritage (The 'po' from Zhongpo for example indicated that there was once a natural reservoir there). The loss of water from the face of the city is a spatial manifestation of a city in transition, one that went from being a water-world, to a concrete industrial and commercial city.
The frolicking children and old men fishing have been removed from the river cityscape. When we see that most children in Taipei don't even know how to swim, we realize there is a general amnesia about the former water city. Taipei children may know the words to the idyllic children's song "In front of my home is a stream, behind are mountain slopes" (我家門前有小河，後面有山坡), but it is unlikely to mirror their own experience of Taipei. The Liugong Canal, gradually buried under the city in the 1970's, is perhaps the best example of this amnesia. Though there seems to have been a rupture between the generations who knew and who never knew the water city, there are still lucid memories left over amongst the older generations. For some people the name of the Liugong Canal strikes fear into their hearts as they remember it as the site of a dismembered body in a murder case, or the site where collectors of wild animals would dump their oversized crocodiles. While delivering a speech at an international Chinese literature conference, Cheng Tsun-Shing (陳傳興), an author with a background in psychoanalysis and head of the Flaneur publishing house, recounted, without further explanation and to the gasps of the audience, that when he walked along the Liugong Canal to school in the mornings, he would see people prodding fetuses with sticks to check if they were alive. At the time abortion was illegal. Sometimes he would smell bodies burning at night as he lived near the funeral parlour and would be left wondering if the stench was the fetuses. For others, the memory was slightly less extreme but encapsulated their fear of the filth and sewage of the hidden underworld. However, for many who lived in the age of the water city, it reminded them of their youth bathing and playing in the river, catching clams; of older men fishing, working men washing themselves at the end of the day and mothers washing the clothes in the river. It reminded them of a lost community space.
From these memories, we began shooting a short documentary, edited by Pinti Zheng, first exploring the recollections of various residents before looking at ways to reconnect this memory to contemporary Taipei, by bringing water back into the city.
Leftover Architecture by Pinti Zheng
The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and one of the longest rivers in the world. The Yellow River is the second biggest river in Asia and the sixth biggest in the world. Both are the most important rivers in the history, culture and economy of China.
Ever since the early history of China, the water of the Yangzi was used for sanitation, irrigation and industry. The vastness of the river meant it was often used to mark borders and was an important consideration in war tactics.
The Yellow river is seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The most prosperous civilizations in the history of China were mostly situated along this river. Therefore, it is not surprising that images of water are apparent in ancient Chinese culture and particularly in Chinese poetry.
The stream of the Danshui river was bringing me a peaceful melody, waves were biting the shore softly, but, stream inside the stream, slightly blurring the mirror of the water, I could hear a confusing tumult, news from the world struggling in the distance to spill a shot of truth at me:
"When the soldier was being interrogated, all 16 surveillance cameras stopped working. This is absolutely normal. It happens all the time in the army, the cameras are old. This is a banal accident"
Wormhole Diagram (by Pinti Zheng)
In Chinese, 有山有水 'have mountains and water' is synonymous with a good natural environment, and the imagery runs through Chinese aesthetics and language. From the two natural phenomena shan (mountains) and shui (water) as starting points, eRenlai brings you two features in November and December, exploring respectively, the relationship of Taipei's waterways, and its mountains to the city's inhabitants.
The natural environmental potential of Taipei is plentiful, it was founded in a basin, water was omnipresent, and the city is surrounded by rich mountains to the north, east and west. By these standards it should easily qualify for the Chinese proverb 'has mountains and water'. Yet the city now seems both intertwined and distant from its natural settings, at some point it seem to become 'poor mountains, filthy rivers' (窮山惡水) synonymous for poor ecological surroundings. In the pursuit of modernity, the city organism encroached ever further on the mountains, diminishing jungles and dotting Taipei's mountain cityscape with high-rises that seem so insecure, with the unpredictable bipolar rage of this regions winds and earthquakes. The rivers which brought settlers to this basin and made the city have been shut out by 10-metre high walls and the irrigation canals which fed the land were pushed underground. Expensive high rises of Taipei often name themselves after idyllic natural settings from ancient Chinese literature and provide breathtaking views overlooking mountains and rivers, yet seem to distance the residents from actually breathing the mountain humidity and the stench of the polluted rivers. Under the pressure of rapid population growth, there was a rupture of most city dwellers from the natural surroundings that previously fed them. Someone brought up in Taipei in the 70's returning to the city 30 years later to the site of family photo taken by a river, may find it replaced by a wider road. The distancing from the rivers also diminished community space and strong neighborly ties. Children used to play naked in their community section of the river, safely overlooked by fishing adults, perhaps collecting clams to sell in the markets, a seamless part of the nature-city montage. Now the Taipei residents in search of water are more likely to visit the crowded tourist destinations along the river - Xindian and Danshui - to stare at the river alone in a sea of strangers, or head to a public swimming pool to share in the sweat of a hundred bodies. With the sacrificing of much community space over the last 40 years, it seems that while idyllic natural settings and history from thousands of miles and years ago are remembered, there is amnesia for recent history, buried and forgotten underneath the concrete city along with the irrigation canal. Finally the distance from nature and community in the modern city has led to a reliance on the great conveniences of the metropolis, be that 7-11, food availability or the Internet, alienating us from our own physical work, and numbing the senses and instincts which allow us to act spontaneously and survive out of necessity.
The otherness of nature in its absence from city life, indirectly leads us to three other disenfranchisements: it alienates us from our own work, killing the DIY spirit and the ability to survive and provide for oneself by forcing reliance on pedantic bureaucracies and commercial networks; it further disconnects us from our human surroundings as community space and ties are weakened; finally the inhabitants are left in a state of amnesia as natural and human traces are constantly destroyed in the temporary city, people are alienated from their own history and memory.
These are the conditions under which we ask: in what type of city do we wish to live? Can we reduce urban and environmental alienation, bringing nature and community back into the city through actions and artistic happenings? In the spirit of ecological connectedness, spontaneous action and community participation, we explore and initiate micro-ecological and artistic actions aimed at liberating both ourselves and wider society, bringing agency back to the individual and the community. In acting from below, we attempt to restore our autonomy, paving the way for a more democratic, involved and connected society.
Despite the one-size-fits-all dominant urban model, where bigger is always better, Taipei is also rich in marginal communities surviving on the urban border, physical traces reminding us that there are diverse ways of existing in the modern city. In our attempt to excavate the memories of alternative living communities, in order to imagine alternative futures, a focal project of our nomadic arts and action space, The Hole, has been the spontaneous action to try and preserve the Toad Mountain military dependents' community which we will be looking into in our December focus in time for the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Architecture Biennale and its focus of "Urban Border". Toad Mountain is also the spot that of this month's interviewees, Professor Kan of National Taiwan University, suggests as the water source to bring natural rainwater back into the Taipei City basin, and consequently turn NTU into a water campus to rival Cambridge University. This brings us to this month's focus on Taipei's waterways.
Taipei, Water City
"Taipei, at that time, was a dense network of canals, with paddy fields at every turn"
Taipei, Water City, Shu Guozhi.
As local author Shu Guozhi reveals in his latest book, until recently Taipei had been a city of water. Symbolically, this November, the same month in which our feature is published, Taipei's latest metro line, the Xinyi line will have been opened to the public. While Taipei City celebrates this latest engineering feat, we have been re-exploring an irrigation channel of old, the Liugong Canal, the great engineering feat completed 250 years ago, which first sought out and brought a water source to irrigate the Taipei Basin , turning Taipei into a city of water. For the last 40 years, however, the Liugong Canal and most of Taipei's water channels have been removed from the community, gradually covered with asphalt and concrete to make way for the residential and commercial space; buried underground, to make way for economic development.
Thus we begin our explorations of the water city. First, we present a brief cartographic history of the Liugong Canal. Then, we began to dig up Taipei residents' memories of the Liugong Canal, shooting a documentary film, Taipei, Water City, traversing through the time-travel wormhole to be reconnected to the memories which were buried along with the canal. The documentary teaser goes on to explore plans to bring the Liugong Canal back into the city and introduces the ideas and actions of our own nomadic arts space, The Hole, as it explores and re-appropriates the now underground network of canals.
Since the late 90's academics and community groups and even politicians began to explore the idea of reopening some sections of the Liugong Canal and bringing water back into the everyday life of the city. These plans have differing economic, environmental, cultural and social aims and standpoints. Water expert, Dr Chun-E Kan shows how we can return clean natural rainwater to the city, starting by 'sunlighting' (reopening) the section of the Liugong Canal which runs through the NTU campus. We then introduce another comprehensive proposal for a larger scale reopening of the Liugong Canal with a community aesthetic and interest in social innovation. Taipei's interdisciplinary architectural research hub, the Ruin Academy have advanced on European Architect of the Year 2013 Marco Casagrande's vision for Taipei River Urbanism with their proposal for Sustainable Synergies.
Meanwhile, rivers also have a fleeting creative value. Daphna Salpeter, long term sinophile and Taiwan Literature graduate student, explores the significance of water imagery in classical Chinese literature and poetry. And merely watching the flow of the rivers, can inspire a flâneur to a poetic gest; photographer-explorer Benoit Girardot, who sees poetry wherever he may roam, tells us what it inspires in him.
With this month's focus as a starting point, The Hole will continue to provide a public forum on bringing water back into the community. Asides from artistic actions, we will further explore the memory of the Liugong Canal as we develop a full length documentary. We are in discussions with a school and institutes, trying to make the Liugong Canal and Taipei rivers' as outdoor ecological classrooms. We look to extend the idea of ecological classrooms, perhaps by building an ecological raft, and taking ecological tours around the farm allotment island near in the middle of the Danshui River, helping Taipei's youth to better get to know their river, their nature and their agricultural heritage. We are also looking at ways of stimulating community participation in any future plans to bring the water back into the city, empowering the people to take part spontaneously in making Taipei's environment cleaner and more sustainable.
Text: Nicholas Coulson
 瑠 公 Liu Gong (pinyin), Liu Kung, Leo Kong. Named after Kuo Hsi-liu (郭錫瑠), the 公 'gong' was posthumously affixed as a term of respect for accomplished older man. '圳' Usually pronounced "jun" but can be confused with the Taiwanese and often Taiwan Guoyu pronunciation of 'zun' and the most common Mainland China pronunciation of 'zhen' as in Shenzhen. The 'jun' can be translated into English as ditch, dyke, channel or canal. Based on a mix of common usage, definitional logic and the recent adoption of Pinyin in Taipei, I will standardize as the Liugong Canal, though it should be noted that it's primary function was as an irrigation waterway and not as a transportation canal. When referring to the individual I use Liu Gong with the space.
 蟾蜍山 (chanchushan) Toad Mt or Toad Hill, a community tucked away on a mountainside near Gongguan, Taipei City. It is Taipei's last remaining mountainside Military Dependants' Village, these villages were constructed as temporary accomadation by soldiers who came over landless from the mainland following their defeat in the Chinese Civil war. There were several of these communities along the Liugong Canal originally.
 Referring to the space of land that lies between the Danshui, Xindian, Songshan and Jingmei rivers, and enclosed by mountains in the east.
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.
Photo by 廖培恩
Two years ago, our colleagues Nick and Zijie led a focus on the social activist scenes that were starting to revive after decades of silence. Things had changed a lot since 2011. The number of anti-nuclear protest participants has quadrupled from 50,000 in the April 30, 2011 demonstration to 200,000 in March 9 this year. Many subculture-oriented groups are forming at this moment to protest, through music and visual art, Taiwan's decision to build the 4th nuclear power plant, such as the the rave-oriented collective P.L.U.R.S. Thus, this month eRenlai decided to do a recap focus on what has been happening in the anti-nuclear moment, specifically on the March 9th demonstration earlier this year and the P.L.U.R.S. kids that organized the DJ truck in the parade.