Nuclear paradise

A nuclear power plant in a national park
Ma’anshan Nuclear Power Plant in the midst of Kenting National Park.

This is the view from Guānshān 關山, a coral outcrop on the southwestern tip of Hengchun Peninsula 恆春半島 in historic Héngchūn 恆春, Pingtung 屏東. Everything in sight is found within Kenting National Park 墾丁國家公園, a major tourist attraction and home to some of the finest beaches in Taiwan 台灣. The distinctive rocky outcrop on the left is Dàjiānshíshān 大尖石山 (literally Big Sharp Stone Mountain), the infamous Kenting Street 墾丁大街 can be discerned as a cluster of buildings just to the left of the wind turbine, and the vivid waters intruding from the right are those of South Bay 南灣.

The function of the twin buildings in the middle of the photograph may surprise you. This is the heart of the Mǎ’ānshān Nuclear Power Plant 馬鞍山核能發電廠, Taiwan’s third. The others are located along the northern shore of the island, dangerously close to the dense population centers of Taipei 台北 and Keelung 基隆. Here, at least, the nuclear power plant is away from the burgeoning metropolises of the western plains, but I have my doubts about how well things would be handled in the event of a catastrophe. Ma’anshan has already weathered a series of strong earthquakes in 2006 without mishap so that’s heartening at least. I’m not an anti-nuclear ideologue but I remain skeptical about the safety of nuclear power in disaster-prone Taiwan. And, in the abstract, I find it kind of hilarious that the nation’s most notorious beach resort town is next to a nuclear power plant, all of which is located in a national park.

Yangmingshan in the fog

Ghostly trees in the endless fog on Yangmingshan
Ghostly trees in the endless fog on Yangmingshan.

These photographs were taken in early October 2013 while hiking around Yángmíngshān National Park 陽明山國家公園. After meeting up with a friend we took a bus from Jiantan Station 劍潭站 in Shìlín District 士林區 to Lěngshuǐkēng with the intention of checking out Milk Lake 牛奶湖 (pinyin: Niúnǎichí). Racing up the meandering mountainside roads we soon found ourselves immersed in an interminable fog. Debarking at the bus stop, with hardly another soul around, we decided to wander around and see what we could make of our time in Yangmingshan.

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On the edge of suburbia

Edge of Suburbia I
Where suburbia comes to an abrupt end.

I came of age on the edge of suburbia, where cookie-cutter housing projects end and the surrounding countryside begins. Decades later, again I find myself perched on the edge, further west than when I was young but still at the very end of one little patch of suburban sprawl. Today, lost in the wind-whipped fog, I set out into the cold to briefly inspect this misty borderland. On one side of the development highly manicured lawns and a stillborn sidewalk abruptly end at the property line. Beyond lies a jumbled landscape of broken concrete, cast-off construction material, and untamed weeds. On another side the road ends with a warning, the skeletal outline of a copse of trees fading out into the fog.

The edge of suburbia II
End of the road.

The Birdman of Taipei Station

The World in Aves’ Eyes
A bizarre work of public art in the bowels of Taipei Station.

This bizarre installation is one of the more iconic and well-known works of public art in Taipei 台北. Created by artists Hé Cǎiróu 何采柔 and Guō Wéntài 郭文泰 in 2009, it is entitled The World in Aves’ Eyes 愛維思看世界 (alternately Birdman 鳥人 or Daydreams 夢遊) and can be found somewhere in the labyrinthine passageways beneath Taipei Railway Station 臺北火車站. Apart from the obvious, the immature, androgynous figure holds a pencil in its right hand (never to write a word), water continuously seeps from its neck, and its feet show the signs of a mild case of pigeon toe, a condition that should be familiar to anyone who has seen young Taiwanese posing for photographs. Here is the original creative statement that accompanies the piece:

「愛維思看世界」以稚嫩的身體、怪誕逗趣的鳥頭以及輕輕淺淺的流水,表現出E世代對世界的困惑,身體的稚嫩感彷彿要告訴世界,還不急著要長大,而側著的鳥頭以不成比例的尺寸,誇張的標明著自我的異化感,猶如一位誤闖地球的外星人,在幽浮般的蛋殼中孵化而出。

愛維思(Aves)搖搖晃晃的嘗試著適應這難以理解的世界,那漾漾清水則是一般腦傾洩而出的困惑,沒有黑暗、邪惡、憂傷或者種種成人世界裡的光怪色彩,愛維思(Aves)的苦惱是屬於孩童一般的天真困惑,在陽光的照耀下甚至會散射出七彩的光暈、迷霧而迷人。

My ability to translate Chinese remains limited, particularly when it comes to the sort of conceptual language employed above, but I’ll do my best to provide the gist. From what I can tell this piece is about the confusion and innocence of youth, of an entity in no hurry to grow up and face the challenges of the adult world. The grotesque bird’s head, disproportionate to the slender, prepubescent body, is meant to represent an exaggerated sense of alienation. There’s more—but I’ll leave it at that for now. You can find out more about this work on Facebook. Stay weird, Taiwan!

Guohua Theater 國華戲院

Guohua Theater from the streets of Puli
The historic Guohua Theater from the streets of Puli.

Guóhuá Theater 國華戲院 is one of hundreds of scattered around Taiwan 台灣. Located in Pǔlǐ 埔里, a town of approximately 80,000 in the heart of Nántóu 南投, this particular theater was likely built in the late 1950s and—if this post by Wáng Hénglù 王亨祿 is any guide—seems to have specialized in showing western films on its single screen before meeting its inevitable demise.

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First light in China

A shopping street in Chuansha New Town
A shopping street in Chuansha New Town, Shanghai.

For all that China 中国 looms large in the collective consciousness of both the west and Taiwan 台灣, where I usually reside these days, my first experiences of the Middle Kingdom were exceedingly unremarkable. I was only in the country on a layover of about fifteen hours so I didn’t get to see much apart from the airport, the metro system, and a small part of Chuānshā New Town 川沙新镇, one of countless planned communities in Pǔdōng 浦东, the newly-minted eastern district of the largest city in the world, Shànghǎi 上海. I will return in a couple of weeks for a longer layover—four full days this time, as I am taking advantage of the free 144-hour transit visa—and will have more to share later on.

This photograph is the very first I captured in China 中国 on my Nikon D3100. I would like to be able to say that it looks entirely unlike what you might see in Taiwan 台灣 but apart from the different brand names and use of simplified characters this random street scene wouldn’t look hugely out of place in, say, Táoyuán 桃園. Naturally I am quite curious about how China 中国 and Taiwan 台灣 compare given their distinct but intertwined histories. As one reader points out there is a strong táishāng 台商 (Taiwanese business) presence in the Chuansha area which may explain some of this. I am curious to observe more parallels when I return.

Yifang Old House 義芳居古厝

Yifang Old House 義芳居古厝
A traditional courtyard home in the foothills of Taipei.

Yìfāng Old House 義芳居古厝 is a traditional courtyard home, or , in the scenic foothills of southeastern Dà'ān District 大安區, Taipei 台北. It was built in 1876 during the by a wealthy branch of the Chen 陳 family. At that time it was far from the commercial centers of Monga and Dadaocheng, both near the other side of Taipei Basin, on an almost lawless frontier. Nowadays this old house is a stone’s throw away from some of the busiest streets in the city as it is located immediately behind the National Taiwan University 國立臺灣大學 campus, better known as Táidà 台大.

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Songshan Railway Residences 松山台鐵宿舍

An abandoned residence next to the Taipei Railway Workshop
The ruins of an old residence visible from the street near the Taipei Railway Workshop.

Sōngshān District 松山區 has long been a major hub for the railway industry in Taiwan 台灣. It is the location of the massive Taipei Railway Workshop complex, now closed but not completely , as the city government is planning to transform it into an attraction of some kind. I went poking around the area a few weeks ago and found no obvious way inside without being seen—but I did find a number of decaying old residences all in a row along Civic Boulevard Section 5 市民大道五段, not far from the western entrance to the rail yard. Although I haven’t found anything about them online I suspect they are dormitories for railway workers, usually referred to as Táitiě sùshè 台鐵宿舍, or TRA residences.

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Why should it be feared?

A dusky sundown at Taipei 101
A dusky sundown at Taipei 101.

I have reason to quote at length from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius but wasn’t entirely satisfied with the translations I found online. What follows is an original synthesis of Book II, Passage XV, translated by George Long (the same version I read when I was younger) and Meric Casaubon, blown apart and put back together again.

The time of a man’s life is like a singular point, the substance of it ever-flowing, the sense obscure, the whole composition of the body tending toward corruption and putrefaction. His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful. As a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a vapour, so are all that belong to the soul. Our life is a warfare, a mere pilgrimage, and fame after life is no better than oblivion.

What is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one: philosophy. And philosophy consists in keeping the spirit of man free from violence and injury and above all pains and pleasures; doing nothing without purpose, nor falsely or hypocritically; wholly depending on himself and his own proper actions; embracing and accepting all things that happen as originating from the same place from whence he himself came; and, finally, with all meekness and a calm cheerfulness, to expect death, as being nothing else but the resolution of those elements of which every creature is composed.

And if the elements themselves suffer nothing by this, their perpetual conversion of one into another—that dissolution, and alteration, which is so common unto all—why should it be feared by any man? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.

I went out riding through the mountains of Nángǎng District 南港區 yesterday. This ride was, in part, to provide some time for me to work through important decisions that need to be made. Unbeknownst to me, right around the time light was seeping through my camera lens to capture the photograph above, another kind of light was seeping out from the body of someone dear to me, someone who expressed many of the virtues described in the passage quoted above. This was not unexpected.

Having somehow survived to this age without ever feeling the brush of death has left me doubtful about how I should be feeling. I am aware of the social expectations, of course, but do not feel like conforming to any of the usual patterns of grieving and mourning. I look for sadness but find mostly acceptance and admiration. Growing up with influences from both Stoic and Buddhist philosophies seem to have equipped me for moments like these.

So: it is time to attend to matters of import, to make plans and put wheels in motion, to endure long flights and longer periods of idleness and uncertainty, to reconnect and provide support, to eulogize and celebrate a life well-lived. Please, no messages of condolences—but if I seem absent or distracted you’ll now have some idea why that might be.

A green car in the mountains of Nangang

An abandoned car on the way to Nangang
An abandoned car on the way to Nangang.

I went out cycling in the mountains behind my place today, a small reward for waking up early. Little did I know it would turn out to be the hottest day of the year thus far—so here I am, weak with heatstroke, head pounding as I strike every keystroke. Midnight passes and I realize it’s Earth Day, a fine occasion to share this broken-down, automobile I found on the mountainous backroads of Nángǎng District 南港區 earlier today. I’m calling it an environmentally-friendly car, huánbǎochē 環保車 in Chinese, but of course it is nothing of the kind. Nature is working her magic on this discarded relic of human civilization but it’ll be quite some time before she’s through with it.