Unmaking history in my hometown

A window into hometown history
A window into hometown history.

This summer I went out in search of old, abandoned places in my hometown, Mississauga, a typically ahistorical Canadian suburb. I figured there must be something of interest in historic Streetsville, a 19th century settlement now embedded in the sprawling webwork of strip malls and sub-developments that define the suburban landscape. After finding nothing remarkable along the main stretch I headed south along Mississauga Road and chanced upon the Leslie Log House, originally built in 1826. It was moved to its current location on the grounds of the old Pinchin Farm in 1994 and later renovated and modernized. Nowadays it is both a museum and the home of the Streetsville Historical Society.

That’s all well and good—but such buildings seldom exude the quality of age I watch for in my wanderings. And so I set out down a short trail to investigate another building not far from the log house, a crumbling ruin for which there was no sign or plaque, only a poorly maintained chain-link fence that had collapsed in on itself. This barrier indicated that this particular building had not been sanitized for human consumption. Here was the secret history I had been seeking—something genuinely old, unrestored, and neglected. Finally, a storied place that had been left to the elements!

From what little I have been able to glean from online sources the Pinchin Farm was a commercial apple orchard, the last of its kind in Mississauga, and was home to a farmhouse and a barn (the foundation of which is pictured above). Unsurprisingly, both heritage structures were demolished in late 2009 due to the advanced deterioration of the buildings. I say “unsurprisingly” because this is altogether too common in Canada—we destroy what little scraps of history we have on the off-chance someone might step on a rusty nail and sue. This creates a safe yet bland society, for danger is ameliorated at the expense of adventure and discovery.

The craggy peaks of Pingxi

Into the mountain crags
The view from the top of one of the Pingxi crags.

This is the stunning view from near the top of Címǔfēng 慈母峰, one of the “Pingxi crags” (as they are known in English) in Píngxī 平溪, a mountainous district about an hour outside of Taipei 台北. Xiàozǐshān 孝子山, another crag, is visible up ahead, and you can faintly make out some buildings in the small towns in the valley below.

These craggy peaks, tamed by metal stakes, rope, and stairways carved into the rock face, are dangerously steep in parts but absolutely exhilarating to climb. I had a blast getting lost in the crags on a hot subtropical afternoon in late July, 2013, not long after moving to Taiwan 台灣.

Toronto skyline from Regent Park

The downtown core from Regent Park
The downtown core from the edge of Regent Park.

I seldom post many photos from Canada so you’d be forgiven for thinking I still reside in Taiwan 台灣! But, in fact, I have been living not far Toronto for nearly three months now. In that time I haven’t been taking that many photos—not like in Asia, anyway—which has given me time to catch up. I was many months behind when I first arrived here and only this week did I manage to dispense with the very last of my photos from overseas.

Anyhow, now that I am on to processing some more recent work I thought I might skip ahead a bit and share something lovely from my hometown. I captured this simple skyline shot from a high rise on the edge of Regent Park on a pleasant mid-summer’s afternoon.

An old rice mill on Dihua street

Rice depot in Datong district
An old rice depot in Datong district.

I often find myself intrigued by traditional shops in Taiwan 台灣, the sort of businesses that most people take for granted and seldom mention or even notice. Many of these businesses are slowly disappearing due to competition from big chains and industrial operations with greater economies of scale. For example, consider the humble rice mill, a business that processes “rough” harvested rice into an edible product for wholesale distribution and consumption. My understanding is that small-scale, family-run rice mills are a dying breed, outcompeted by exurban factories owned by large corporations.

Even so, you’re still likely to find traditional rice mills in older neighbourhoods now and then. On my last walk down Díhuà street 迪化街 in Taipei 台北 I happened to notice one hidden under an awning on the northern end of the strip. I snapped a photograph and thought nothing of it until, while post-processing, curiosity got the better of me and I went to look up information about it.

Turns out the New Qingli rice mill 新慶利碾米廠 has been passed down through four generations and has been in continuous operation for something like 50 or 60 years. Apparently it is one of the only rice mills still operating in western Taipei, though I swear I’ve seen a few more in Wanhua district 萬華區. Perhaps those other places are merely wholesale dealerships and not actual rice mills? At any rate, better catch a glimpse before it’s gone—the sun is surely setting on small-scale shops like this one.

GeoGuessr sighting

My work in Geoguessr
One of my photos in a popular web game.

GeoGuessr is a web game based on Google Maps. Each round deposits you into some random location leaving you to puzzle out where you are by clicking around and examining what you find in the area. When it’s time to make a guess you pick a point on a map and you’re scored for distance. It’s a lot of fun for geography geeks like myself.

One of their games is Taiwan, which is how I initially found out about it. After playing a round I glanced at the thumbnail and thought, hmm, that looks awfully familiar. Sure enough, it’s one of my photos from Tainan 台南! Not bad, though I can’t help but notice they failed to credit me in any way, which means I have an email to write… after the next game. High score: 23,744!

An eclectic house in Taipei

A funky old house near Shida
A funky old house near Shida in Daan district.

The urban landscape of Taipei 台北, like most Taiwanese cities, is dominated by concrete, metal, glass, tile, and asphalt, but there are occasional exceptions that add some much-needed colour. Take this funky old house fronting onto Gǔzhuāng park 古莊公園 in Daan district 大安區, for instance. So what’s the story? An eccentric old man (kindly referred to as bóbo 伯伯, or uncle) lives here, decorating his home with all sorts of kitschy junk: musical instruments, wood-carvings, poems, paintings, statues, spinners, and various other ornamental gewgaws, knickknacks, baubles, and charms. He’s quite friendly and apparently invites people into his home to look around, if this story is to be believed. Were I more proficient in one of the local languages I’d take the time to hang out and see what happens. Maybe some day!

Peanut brittle ice cream rolls

Peanut brittle and taro ice cream treat
Peanut brittle and taro ice cream treat.

Pictured here is one of my favourite Taiwanese snacks, an ice cream and peanut brittle spring roll, commonly known as huāshēng juǎn bīngqílín 花生捲冰淇淋 (literally “peanut roll ice cream”). Apparently it originated in Yílán 宜蘭 but you can now find these treats served at night markets and street vendors all around Taiwan 台灣. Each roll consists of freshly shaved peanut brittle, two or three scoops of various flavours of ice cream, and a bunch of chopped cilantro in a thin popiah skin 薄餅皮.

Since I absolutely detest cilantro (which isn’t just me being picky—it’s genetic, thank you very much) I always order this snack herb-free by saying bùyào xiāngcài 不要香菜 (literally “not want aromatic vegetable”). I have also become somewhat more selective of the type of ice cream used. Taro, pineapple, and red bean are common but there’s also one that tastes like bubble gum, yuck. All taro is fine by me.

Anyhow, this dessert is so common that I have no specific recommendation of where to find it. This particular image was captured in Jiǔfèn 九份, where several vendors serve it, but I’ve not found any huge difference in quality. Try it if you see it! And if you don’t like it, well, you’re out about a dollar.

From the rooftops of Taipei

Ximenting rooftop scene
On the rooftop of Shinjuku Plaza, Taipei.

It is seldom very hard to gain rooftop access in Taiwan 台灣. Stairwells are seldom locked and security is often lax, especially in older buildings. Residents take advantage of the situation by planting gardens or storing junk on rooftops. Illegal apartments are also exceedingly common, creating hidden networks in the sky instead of underground.

Pictured here is the rooftop of Shinjuku Plaza 西門新宿 in Xīméntīng 西門町, a busy part of downtown Taipei 台北 known for nightlife and youth culture. I stayed here the last few days I was in Taiwan 台灣 and wandered upstairs to see the view at some point or another. True to form, someone had built a home off camera to the right, in amidst the boilers and pressure gauges that litter the concrete rooftop.

A trip into the misty mountains of Lugu

Collected here are a series of dreamlike photos from a road trip into the misty mountains of Lùgǔ 鹿谷 in Nántóu 南投, central Taiwan 台灣. I undertook this trip with a friend in July 2014. Our goal was the Lotus Forest 忘憂森林 (pinyin: Wàngyōu sēnlín), also known as the Misty Forest 迷霧森林, a high mountain bog formed in the aftermath of the catastrophic 921 earthquake when a landslide altered drainage patterns, forming a small lake and drowning part of the existing forest. At an elevation somewhere close to 2,000 meters, the Lotus Forest is often shrouded in thick fog, imbuing it with an eerie mystique that attracts Taiwanese people from all over the island.

Into the misty mountains
Into the misty mountains we go…

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Keelung passageway

A secret passageway in Keelung

I found myself in the seedy port town of Keelung 基隆 near the end of my round-the-island bicycle tour of Taiwan 台灣 in 2013. Late at night, after dinner was done, I went out wandering the labyrinth of night—and, on the far side of the railway line, I noticed the entrance to a small tunnel punched into the hillside.

Curious, I hunched down and made my way through. To give a sense of scale, standing upright my head just grazed the ceiling. A minute later I emerged on the other side, somewhat lost, though I quickly gained my bearings. Evidently the tunnel was built to connect two hillside neighbourhoods, though I’d have to return by daylight to know more. Part of me suspects that this tunnel runs under the highway—but from looking at the map I can’t be sure.