No sugarplums for me this year, thanks. I’m into the salty pickled plums, Chinese-style -- or any other delight that’s unfamiliar.
Halfway through my personal century, it’s new experiences I seek, not the same old stuff. I’ve already had a heckuva holiday season, compliments of a terrific gig that took me last week to Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan. It made me terribly greedy for more.
I had never been anywhere in Asia, so this last-minute opportunity was un-turn-downable. The interesting work aspect had to do with the Taiwanese performers who’ll be coming to Vancouver January through March, for Lunarfest and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, but there was leisure time, too. And after he heard my description of the experience, Stanley described it as “Blade Runner meets Mrs. Doubtfire.”
The Mrs. Doubtfire reference you’ll get just from looking at the photograph that tops this column. I’m a slightly younger version of Robin Williams’ cross-dressing nanny -- call me Mrs. D. Taipei.
Have you been to the Chinese Republic, Santa? Maybe not, as Christmas isn’t traditional there. It’s totally out of this world. Blade Runner, the Ridley Scott film that takes place in a dark, dense, futuristic Asian city, crowded and glowing neon, is not that far off.
One of Taipei’s most startling aspects is the prevalence of scooters. These grimy grey vehicles look like motorcycles, and act like motorcycles, but supposedly aren’t as powerful. Nevertheless, when they unexpectedly veer off the road and onto the sidewalk where you, the ignorant tourist, are idly window shopping, they might as well be Harley Davidsons bearing assassins.
On the roadways, they come at you in vast herds, milling together expectantly at stoplights like buzzing sci-fi insect robots bent on world domination. Adding to the spooky feeling, their drivers wear helmets with visors and, often, anti-disease face masks, as well. There are no malevolent intentions from this giant traffic jam, whose members are simply going about the business of living. Still, this Mrs. Doubtfire was made a little nervous. Santa, it’s obvious that I need to get out way, way more.
The “bikes” – and there are lots of people-powered ones, too -- make perfect sense. Taipei is a city of nooks and crannies. Down every dark alleyway lie treasures – vendors of everything from stylish stockings and cheap accessories to ramshackle restaurants, their proprietors wreathed in steam or smoke as they toil over bubbling pots of steaming dumplings or spicy soups or grills full of meat. You’re a foodie, Santa – I can tell just by looking at you. You and your reindeer would have a blast in these alleys.
Such vendors must make a reasonable living, too – thousands upon thousands of people converge on downtown streets, especially on weekends, to have a bite and shop with friends until close to midnight.
With crowds like these, no wonder public transit is so popular. For practicality, it beats the pants off your sled. Taiwan’s MRT system is fantastically efficient, fast, cheap and clean. Eating, drinking or chewing gum in the subway area are prohibited and subject to fines, so there’s no garbage strewn about. People are extremely well-behaved, lining up to get on the trains, despite the fact that once on, they are often crammed together.
My guess is that when you live and work in crowded quarters, you guard your privacy and respect the privacy of others. The views I had of downtown life in Taipei, as I whizzed past apartment buildings on transit that cost about eight cents, reinforced the impression that space there is at a premium, and that the 600 sq. foot condos of our own West End would seem luxurious there. As for the vast plains of the North Pole … well!
Of course, Taipei’s cramped space has its benefits, as it does in other big cities where living quarters are limited. When home isn’t all that comfortable, you wind up going out, which results in a rich street culture.
One afternoon in Taipei I went to visit its oldest temple, Longshan. Its construction began in 1738. Unlike Christian churches, which have a sort of cone of reverence around them and eschew a carnival atmosphere, even the block adjoining the Temple was alive with people, puppet shows and rows of stalls, with merchants selling everything from flowers and fruit for the gods to dried fish, nuts and pastries to snack on before or after paying homage.
The temple itself was enormous, its architecture spilling over with elaborate carved dragons and other embellishments. Some 165 Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities are apparently represented there. The scents of incense and burning candles wafted through the air as hundreds of people sang together in a courtyard, and others, like me, milled around.
Santa, you might have seen some of this kind of thing on your Christmas night flyovers, but I had no idea what was going on. In fact, there seemed to be all kinds of different activities happening at Longshan, as individuals stood by the shrines of various gods, making offerings or saying prayers, tourists clicked cameras, and painters touched up the lavish trim on the interior, which, like Disneyland, is probably forever in the process of being improved.
I didn’t know quite what to pray for, so I just observed and moved on. But I do know about Christmas lists. And I think you’ll agree, Santa, that this year I’m not being subtle on mine.
I once met a famous New York dance critic who was in her 50s – you’d expect such a person to live a comfortable, middle class life. She mentioned in passing that for decades, she’d been living in an apartment that only had a hotplate. What, for me, was the stuff of a seedy rooming house was a comfortable middle-class life for her. Most likely, she ate in restaurants most nights and, when she didn’t, was happy to heat up some soup. She got to live among artists and intellectuals in New York. Who needed a car, a yard, a homemade roast beef dinner?
Which brings me back to my plea for less stuff, more travel, Santa. I’m too old not to have encountered these challenges to my bourgeois assumptions until now. All I need in my stocking this year is a plane ticket. And the more exotic you can make my trip, the better.