9/21/2009

Teenagers on the Playground, No Seriously



This is the scene I've been describing in recent posts: teenagers who actually play on the playgrounds. I took this film on my cell phone a couple weeks ago in Monga's (艋舺) Youth Park. It's all guys; the girlie voice is actually "Pig Boy", a pre-pubescent 14-year-old. There's a sign about five feet from the play apparatus clearly stating that nobody over six years old or 30 kilograms is allowed to play on the stuff. (These guys were playing tag.) The main reason it bugs me is that other parents are afraid to take their kids on the equipment.

The teenagers have told me that they don't have anywhere to go, which is nonsense. Youth Park has badminton, basketball and tennis courts, a beautiful in-line skating rink, a swimming pool, driving range and track. But it does seem I am getting through to the teenagers with my constant whingeing. I know a lot of them now by name, and they seem to stay clear of the playgrounds out of respect. They know it gets on my nerves. Or perhaps they're starting to figure out how goofy, not cool, they're being.


9/09/2009

Bo Pi Liao Street in Monga and Its Taiwanese Ghosts


Bo Pi Liao (剝皮寮) Street, some 300 years old, has got to rank in the top ten for oldest streets in Taiwan. Once the main artery in Monga (艋舺), one of Taipei's two oldest communities, the name Bo Pi Liao expresses the chip or skin-the-bark-back process that went on in lumber production a long time ago. The name is based on what was happening in Monga construction at the turn of the eighteenth century, when construction outfits were still importing wood from China to build here in Taiwan. The wood for Bo Pi Liao Street's construction, especially the big timber for its rafters, came from Fu-chou (福州) in Fuchien province, China. When looking at Taiwan's natural resources, especially wood, one could be a little confused about why quality studs had to come from China. The wood was here in Taiwan, in abundance in comparison to the environmentally-degraded "mother land" - there were some beautiful specimens too. But the Taiwanese were afraid to harvest it on the account of the Aboriginal headhunters that lurked in the mountainside forests where the good stuff came from. More costly and inferior in quality, Chinese wood still seemed like the safest bet.
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What I find intriguing about Bo Pi Liao Street is the direction or route it takes. Notice it curves at the end, that it tails off to the left (east). There is both a practical and superstitious reason for this. On the practical level, communities with curving streets were easier to defend against pirates and bandits, both of which Taiwan was awash with 300 years ago. For the trespasser, pirate or bandit, they could not see what was waiting ahead. Ambushes became easier to set for the defender; the element of surprise was on their side.
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On the superstitious front, the bending street also made sense. First off, I need to explain the nature of the Taiwanese ghost. The Taiwanese, more than many other cultures, have believed in ghosts. The Taiwanese version of the ghost is anything but Casper-like and cute. Ghosts in the Taiwanese imagination are not restless and forlorn spirits to be pitied. In Taiwanese mythology, the ghost is a mean, petty, cruel, terrible (恐怖) little bad-ass that has to be bought off with money and gifts of food and drink. Unappeased ghosts can cause all kinds of mischief, such as drownings, miscarriages, car or motorcycle accidents, stove-gas explosions and rabid dog bites. Ghosts in Taiwan do not respond to common sense or good deeds. It's better to bribe them with gifts and then get out of their way.
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In avoiding a Taiwanese ghost, you should always remember the following: they hover in straight lines. Taiwanese ghosts do not turn corners or respond well to zig-zags of motion. That is another reason Bo Pi Liao Street curves. Ghosts, who are normally required to fly straight ahead, cannot get down it. They get log-jammed at the first turn. I remember reading an introduction to Taiwan article a couple of years back. The author was trying to explain to newcomers why Taiwanese do not walk straight, why they meander (which makes them hard to get by on a sidewalk). It seems they picked up the habit from their parents who picked it up from their parents, who picked it up from their parents. This generation believed that meandering was the safest bet to warding off ghosts. Bo Pi Liao Street lends itself to this sort of passage. It was not built for fast walkers. 

9/06/2009

Qingshui Temple in Wanhua, Taiwan

 
The roof of Qingshui Temple. Inside, it's a bit gloomy, the detail around the outside like this is cool.

This god was above the back entrance to Qingshui Temple. I don't recognize him.


According to a temple inscription, Qingshui Temple (清水巖) was built in 1787, 50 years after Wanhua or Monga's (艋舺) best-known temple Lungshan. I think there are only three of this style of ancestor temple in Taiwan: there's one in Danshui and another in San-xia. This temple was burnt down during the Ding-Xia Clan Feud (頂下郊拼) in 1853 but rebuilt by the culprits in 1867.
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Until the Japanese arrived, Taiwan was pretty much a lawless frontier, with different areas under the control of local warlords and clans, and Wanhua certainly was not the exception. Writes John Shepherd in The Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier: "[Qing Dynasty] anti-colonization policies had many unintended consequences. Most important, they left the frontier to rowdy gangs of sojourning Chinese laborers that readily participated in rebel movements and communal strife and destabilized frontier society" (Shepherd, 16). The anti-colonization policies that Shepherd is describing go right back to 1683, with the arrival of a Qing government in Taiwan. From the start, China did not want Taiwan. The Emperor Kangxi actually contemplated emptying the island of people, forcing all of the settlers to go back to China, and washing his hands of Taiwan once and for all. His advisers talked him out of it, arguing that without a Chinese presence in Taiwan, it would become a hideout for bandits and pirates. The Emperor grudgingly accepted this advice, but enforced anti-colonization policies so that the population would not grow. One of first things the Qing did was to forbid the immigration of women. The "unintended consequences" were young free men roaming about the countryside, drinking, gambling and carrying on. They didn't have wives to keep them at home and in line. Or, and this is what a lot of Chinese did do, they married Aboriginal women, which then infuriated the Aboriginal men, leading to more rebel movements and destabilization.
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In a land of headhunters, pirates, bandits and ship wreckers, without police, order or competent governance, one needed to get connected to survive. This seems to have taken place regularly as seasonal workers who were supposed to have returned to China instead wandered into communities and attached themselves to others on the coincidence of a same last name. They often went as far as to adopt family trees. (I imagine this must have led to scuffles and fist fights on the other side in the spirit world, especially when it came time to accept ghost money, food and drink.)
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Clan struggles are what also what led to the burning of Qingshui Temple in 1853. This is how the story goes, I think. A clan made up with individuals claiming to be from three towns in Fujian province in China, Nan-an (南安), Huei-an (惠安) and Jing-an (晉安), controlled shipping in Meng-jia (also known as Manka), the neighborhood around Lungshan Temple in Wanhua today. At that time, Meng-jia was the largest and most prosperous town in northern Taiwan. This clan constituted the "Ding" in the Ding-Xia Clan Feud. Another clan, made up people claiming to be from Tong-an (同安) and Xia-men or Amoy (廈門) was starting to gain traction just to the east. Naturally, this clan, the "Xia" in the Ding-Xia Clan Feud was looking to get in more on shipping, only the Ding was having no part of it. According to what I've read, they asked the clan living between them and the Xia, and in possession of Qingshui Temple, if they could burn it down so they had a direct line to the Xia. They claimed it was blocking the road.
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The Xia clan was eventually forced up the Danshui River, to Dadoacheng, about a 20-minute bike ride from Meng-jia. But this turned out in their favor, as the river was beginning to silt up. Within a few years, boats would no longer be able to dock there. I suppose I should empathize with the Xia. My wife is a Cheng (鄭). She thinks that some of her ancestors came from just beyond Tong-an. They came to Meng-jia (Monga/艋舺) in the 18th century.