A brand new day.
When I wake up it�s already past 11. My dad tells me that he bought me a box of pudding ice-cream, which I absolutely love. I decide to be stupid and I take a couple of pictures of the ice-cream, then a couple of pictures of me eating it, just to spite my brother (he adores the ice-cream too). The ice-cream is awesome.
After lunch my dad and I take off for the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. We take the Metro to 圆山 (Yuanshan) station. The very second I get off the train, I see the top of Taipei 101 towering over the rest of the city above the sports stadium that is barely one kilometre away from the Metro station. Taipei 101 is an interesting new addition to the Taipei landscape, one that I don�t quite know what to make of sometimes. I deplore its blatant commercialism and yet I�m awed by its sheer height, proud of the fact that it�s the tallest building in the world (last I checked anyway), and am fascinated by it, for whatever strange reason. Above all else, I find it quite amusing, somehow, that Taipei 101 is so ubiquitous that you can�t seem to get away from seeing it, no matter where in Taipei you are.
It�s quite a distance from the Metro station to the museum. The summer heat is only bearable because I�m thinking of the air-conditioning that�s waiting for me in the museum. We pass by a park on the way there. I slow down to take a picture of a large, majestic tree, because I don�t see many of those in Singapore. It looks comfortable too, the area beneath its branches, the shade it provides.
We pass by a Democratic Progressive Party election van and I take a picture of that too. I�m surprised by the number of trees that line the sidewalks, and the greenery of this part of Taipei in general. We�re not too far from town area, judging by how prominent Taipei 101 is. I�m not just talking about trees that are there for the sake of being there, but trees with roots that split apart concrete pavement; trees with leaves so green and bright that they are reminiscent of pictures out of children�s fairy tales; and trees that spread their branches wide enough to provide real shade to those who walk beneath them. If it weren't for the noise from motorcycles that zoom past every other nanosecond, it would be enough to con a person into thinking that he's been transported to another realm.
The museum itself is a pretty non-descript white, rectangular building. There�s supposed to be more to its exterior, but a part of it is under renovation. We take some photos outside and then the air-conditioning takes me in its comforting embrace. Ah, finally, some reprieve from the bastard summer heat!
My dad buys tickets and finds out that anyone who produces a student card � any student card � gets to go in for free, because it�s a Saturday. It just so happens that I have my NUS matriculation card with me.
The museum consists of three storeys, with each storey housing different types of art works. The first storey is dedicated to its new media collection � namely, works by foreign (mostly European) artists in five categories: imaginary television, quests for identity, from videotape to installation, post-cinema and contemporary perspectives. My dad and I walk through the many, many different rooms and I must say that I�ve never seen anything quite as different and just plain odd as the works here. My dad detects a balloon stashed in a corner, between two sofas, and a small projector that projects the image of a woman�s face onto the balloon. A red dress is placed at the end of the balloon, channeling a woman lying on the floor, speaking in what I gather is French and making the occasional orgasmic noise. Needless to say I haven�t the slightest clue what the artist is trying to portray.
We go into a room screening a short film but I�m more interested in the storyboard and the script on display on the walls outside the room than the film itself. My dad tells me that he doesn�t see the merit of all these things, and generally I kind of feel the same way. The thing about modern art is that it�s easy to put together something and call it art, even easier to pull �meaning� of your something from thin air and accuse the people who don�t get it of, well, not getting it. I think I just don�t get it, but my interest here is more curiosity than fascination, let alone epiphany. But all these videos and films are still so interesting, mainly because I don�t freaking get it. You know how it is with things that perplex you, don�t you? Instead of staying away you�re drawn into them even more, like a grotesque accident that repels and strangely fascinates you simultaneously.
Second level. My dad is infinitely more interested here � it houses paintings of landscapes, both traditional and modern. Needless to say it exclusively features Taiwanese artists. It surprises me because I honestly did not know that Taiwan had artists this talented. Unsurprisingly, my dad is critical of the more abstract landscapes painted by younger, more modern artists. Personally, they are, well, interesting, but to be quite honest I don�t really �get� art. If it�s aesthetically-pleasing on the most superficial level, I�d say �that�s nice� and move on. Yeah okay, so I�m a philistine. Um, sue me, or something.
We�re on the third level and I�m excited because it�s Hyper Reality. Also known as: Really Cool and Weird-Ass Shit. We take a look at the black-and-white photographs on display outside the hyper reality galleries first, and my dad makes comments again about their dubious artistic value. We first see a few very, very dated photographs of random people, to which my dad snarks, I can just donate my photograph to the museum for it to display!
Sure, whatever you say, Dad!
We come across a photograph of a Taiwanese artist whose fifteen minutes were rather cruelly snatched away from him. The artist is holding one of his drawings/paintings (I can�t tell) in the photograph, and to me, it looks like something a kindergarten kid would draw. My dad tells me that his paintings were in hot demand for a few months and travelled all the way to France to be displayed. The artist, though, refused to sell his paintings for whatever reason (arrogance?) and after those few months were over, his paintings literally became worthless. Apparently he was very, very broke after that brief hoo-ha. So, you know, poor thing, and everything.
The hyper reality stuff are amazing. It�s like Kafka�s brand of absurdism on display for you to gawk at in concrete terms. This gallery is by far my favourite because the artworks on display drip with symbolism and I go crazy trying to figure out the artist�s intention by looking for contrasts between subject and background for a single photo, or significant differences between photos in a series of photographs. One picture jumps out at me and I stare at it for a very, very long time. It�s of a man standing in the middle of what looks like a church or chapel in ruins. What is captivating about this picture is that the man isn�t really a man; he�s both bride and groom, because his left is decked in a wedding dress, and his right, a tuxedo. Of course, it goes without saying that I don�t quite �get� it.
I come across a big advisory sign next to a very, very big photograph that takes up two-thirds of one whole wall. Explicit content, the sign says. Unsuitable for people below the age of 18. I think I will be forever haunted by this photograph because it is explicit and it hits you in the face, and it�s like that grotesque accident that you can�t take your eyes away from. It�s repulsive and therefore fascinating; it makes you uncomfortable and therefore you can�t take your eyes off it. It�s a mass and mess of contorted bodies and anguished faces, all piled haphazardly atop one another, a graveyard of people who haven�t quite died. But this isn�t what is most striking about this photograph; what is most striking (to borrow a practical criticism phrase, a striking feature) about it are the soldiers wearing what looks to me like Chinese army hats standing on these people. They are all naked. One of them is holding his penis dangerously close to a random person�s mouth; two of them stand in front of each other, holding each other�s dicks; and the last one is holding something which I can�t really make out (I think it�s a butcher knife but I�m very prone to misreading) over his penis. All the soldiers are grinning from ear-to-ear. Below the image is one very simple caption: 1934-1997.
You will never see something like that in a Singapore art museum. This is another reason, out of many, why I love Taipei. Like a proper city should, it respects its citizens� intelligence and trusts them to make their own judgement calls when it comes to explicit contents such as that photograph I just (badly) described. And the irony is, Taipei isn�t unique in this; Singapore, as a city that aspires to be �world-class� (a phrase which I�m fucking sick of) is probably unique in not doing so. But the difference between Taipei and other liberal, democratic cities is the fact that Taipei is Chinese. And that, to me, makes a lot of difference.
I have to find out the significance of the period 1934-1997. I ask my dad but he doesn�t really know either. I will have to Google it then. The first thing that comes to mind when I see the caption is that the British �returned� Hong Kong to China in 1997, but I�m not sure what that has to do with anything. My brochure tells me that the picture is titled 失声图, its English translation �Lostto Voice II��which doesn�t really make sense. A picture of lost voices, I guess. Very interesting. My brochure also tells me that it�s a computer print-out, not quite a photograph. That explains a lot. And it�s done by a Taiwanese. I have research to do when I get back.
We spend at least two hours in the museum and I leave feeling enriched and, to some degree, enlightened. It�s almost 4 in the afternoon and it�s drizzling a little now. I wanted to buy a t-shirt from the souvenir store but the damn thing apparently cost almost fifty Singapore dollars. Damn.
We take another route back to the Metro station and pass by a broadcast station on the way. My dad wants to take me to the Confucius temple, which is about ten minutes away from the Metro station on foot. I don�t mind going but I�m tired from all the walking and we decide not to.
Next stop: 士林. It�s one of Taipei�s most famous tourist attractions and its most famous night market. My dad doesn�t want to go at night (too crowded, he says) and so we get off at 剑潭 (Jiantan) station (one stop away) and proceed to visit the night market at 4-something in the afternoon. Good going, Dad. But deep down inside I�m very appreciative that he�s even bothered to bring me here. I�ve heard a lot about this night market but I�ve never been there before; at least, not as far as I can remember. Even if I had gone as a child it doesn�t mean anything if I can�t remember it, does it?
士林 makes me want to stay in Taipei and never leave. It�s full of things to buy. If you�re looking for food, there are about a million road-side stalls that sells Taiwanese snacks, restaurants offering Chinese and Western cuisine, and stalls that sell good coffee at an affordable price. If you�re looking for clothes, there are really cheap stuff and more expensive (hence better quality?) ones. Walk down a wider road and there are people selling everything from belts to shirts to socks to hats in the middle of the road, their stall a makeshift table. Oh my god, I feel like I�m in heaven. There is such amazing vitality here, so typical of Taipei as a city, that I can�t imagine Singapore ever measuring up. Sure we have Bugis Village and the Heeren Shops and Marina Square, but how can they possibly compare to the range of the stuff here at 士林? And it�d probably be the end of the world before you can ever see roadside food stalls in Singapore. And I mean, literally roadside, such that you can buy a cup of 玉花冰 without getting off your motorcycle.
I buy one t-shirt from a higher-end boutique called Y.A.P (�higher-end� meaning relative to the smaller, cheaper stores there) because it has the word �punk� on it, black velvety letterings on red. It�s also 50% off. Apart from that I leave empty-handed. Somehow, the clothes that I�m more attracted to usually cost more than I can afford, and the really cheap stuff don�t do much for me. What gives, really? There�s a boutique called Naturally Jojo that sells this killer short denim skirt that costs over NT$2000.
That, and when I enter a shop to look at clothes/other stuff my dad relegates himself to waiting outside for me to be done. He pretty much hates shopping and he�s only doing 士林 because there�s no one else to do it for him; I can also tell that he�s pretty tired. Therefore, I try not to take too long to look at clothes and so hardly try anything on. Of course, my dad tells me to take my time, but how can I possibly do that when he�s waiting outside? And to be quite honest, I don�t mind at all. How often do I get to go shopping � or just go out � with just my dad? Answer: Pretty Much Never. I like father/daughter bonding time.
It�s five p.m. My dad saw a queue earlier on at a 超大鸡排 (XXX chicken chop or whatever, a famous Taiwanese snack) roadside stall. We�re both not very hungry and so we decide to get snacks for dinner. He�s thinking of buying the 超大鸡排 from that stall, just to see what the fuss is, and so we go back there�only to see that the queue is snaking around the stall (because it can�t extend onto the roads, since people don�t really like getting hit by cars/motorcycles). What craziness! My dad doesn�t want to queue up and so he gets his chicken chop from another stall. His verdict: Much better than the one in Singapore, but why are there bones?
I buy a deep-fried 葱油饼 (um, spring onion and uh, fried flour?) and it�s fucking delicious. I usually have it pan-fried so this deep-fried business is new for me. And it�s yummy yummy yummy, especially so because of the sauce that comes along with it (it�s salty). I opt for non-chilli because Taiwanese spicy stuff are usually too spicy for my Singaporean taste buds. Sad, but true. I totally love Taipei.
We stop by the food centre before going back to the Metro station. To my surprise, my dad expresses surprise at discovering the food centre, and he�s all, We should have eaten here! Oh well. We take a spin around the food centre inside. It�s crammed, congested, crowded, and super hot. Stalls line up next to each other in haphazard rows and there�s barely anywhere for people to sit and eat. It�s not a very big place, just slightly smaller than a neighbourhood shopping mall food court, but the sheer amount of food available boggles the mind. It�s as if every Taiwanese snack ever willed into existence is crammed into this space, plus Taiwanese supposed delicacies like, you know, animal intestines and other really lovely things along those lines. More importantly, I have my first cup of 玉花冰 (literal translation: jade flower ice. Hahaha. It�s brown, rather tasteless, jelly and lime/lemon juice) which I have certainly missed. I spy a couple of bubble tea stands and I buy a huge-ass cup of milk tea plus pearls and pudding. It�s one-and-a-half times the size of a normal cup of bubble tea, and guess how much it costs? NT$30. That�s S$1.50. Like OH MY GOD, I love Taipei and I don�t wanna leave, ever, because such a huge cup of bubble/pudding tea is so cheap and tastes so good! I�m convinced that I can totally survive on bubble tea for the rest of my life if I stayed in Taipei. But that�s another brand of wishful thinking for another day.
On the way back to the Metro station, we see the same super large chicken chops stall from the roadside that had people queuing up all around it. The queue at the food centre�s is even longer.
My dad wants to visit his high school pal who lives in 石牌 (Shipai), which is a few stops away from 剑潭 (side note: you don�t actually go to 士林 station to go to 士林; hence). It�s a five-minute walk from the 石牌 Metro station to the friend�s house, and my dad stops at a fruits store along the way to buy fruits for his friend�s mother. The thing about Taipei is that there is virtually no urban planning. Unlike Singapore where the residential, the commercial and the industrial are clearly segregated, in Taipei they are all meshed together. This is why a very good haircut is only a three-minute walk away for me in Yonghe. 石牌 isn�t nearly half as populated and happening as Yonghe, which is why I pass by small provision stores and 7-Eleven and its derivatives en route to my dad�s friend�s place, instead of really cool things like, oh, I don�t know, Levi�s and Esprit (well, before it closed down anyway) and Starbucks on the way to 顶溪 Metro station from my grandparents� apartment. Nevertheless, because of the non-existent urban planning, life in Taipei seems pretty convenient. If you want a fruit, all you have to do is to go downstairs, walk a few steps and you�d get your fruit. If you want a nice hair-cut, just go downstairs, make a left turn, walk a few steps, cross the road, make a right, walk a few more steps and you�d get your nice hair-cut. I try to get a nice hair-cut in Singapore and I have to go all the way to Bugis, which is in the bloody East while I live in the West.
But I digress.
We reach the apartment. Like almost all apartments in Taipei, the fa�ade is downright fugly and the flight of stairs you have to climb to reach the apartment is narrow, scary and bathed in rather poor lighting. It doesn�t have a HDB-styled void deck, it doesn�t have walls erected around its premises a la a condominium, and it doesn�t even have any sort of, well, downstairs � save for the space between the main doors and whatever floor area isn�t taken up by the staircase. People usually park things like motorcycles and bicycles in that puny area. And if you didn�t know any better, you may not even think that people lived here because the main doors are so non-descript that they blend into their surroundings and fool you into thinking that there�s nothing there. The apartments are also located along a very, very long line of shops and things like that, so that if you�re too used to Singapore�s housing, you may forget that people live and do business in pretty much the same place in Taipei.
Taipei housing. You can�t get any more derelict and minimalist than that. Why would I want to trade my nice, comfy condominium for a crappy-ass apartment?
Because it�s just a fa�ade which doesn�t matter as long as the apartment�s interiors are presentable. My dad�s friend�s apartment itself is more than presentable. It�s actually even smaller than my condominium (and there I was, thinking no apartment in the world can get smaller than mine) but he has a kick-ass very big LCD/Plasma, nice sofas, and a functioning air-conditioner in his living room. I step in, put on slippers (slippers are customary in Taiwan; I think they got it from Japan, but don�t quote me on that), and get the strangest sense of d�j� vu. I later learn that I was in this very same apartment before when I was still in primary school.
The friend is a Chinese tea connoisseur. He has a shelf full of teapots, he has this small stove for boiling water to make tea in a corner next to his arm chair, and he takes longer than my dad to make three cups of tea. I don�t quite know what he�s doing because the news is on and we all know that Taiwanese news is like unscripted soap opera, but I see him pouring boiled water over a teapot which I assume already contains tea leaves and water. He makes us two types of tea and I like the second one because it tastes different. I don�t know what it�s called but it smells vaguely plum-like and tastes vaguely plum-like too. Nice.
My dad and the friend bitch about Taiwanese politics, especially the bloody incompetent president Chen Shui-bian. The friend bitches about life in Taipei and I chime in occasionally to bitch about life in Singapore, and my dad bitches about both life in Taipei and Singapore, having significantly experienced both. Mostly, though, I sip my tea and watch the news and feel like sleeping because it�s been a very, very long day and the air-conditioning feels comfortable against my skin, as does the nice, soft sofa.
When my dad and I leave, it�s already 8.30 p.m. I surprise myself by having enough energy to walk back to 石牌 station. We are back at the apartment and it�s past 9 p.m. I�m all tired and worn out, but amidst the exhaustion is also a huge dose of satisfaction. I have a new shirt, I drank a huge-ass cup of bubble tea, I ate deep-fried 葱油饼, I visited 士林 after about ten million years, I went to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum; above all else, I spent one entire day with my dad, and I haven�t done that in a really, really long time.
It feels nice. And that is all.
1. 圆山 (Yuanshan) Metro station.
2. The park with the huge tree en route to the museum.
3. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and me squinting at the camera.
4. The entrance (temporary? Not sure of this) to the museum, and the museum itself. Its non-descript exterior is bloody misleading.
5. Some structure outside the musuem.
6. Along the way to the museum.
7. That faint pointy thing you see in the distance is Taipei 101. This picture was taken from the Metro station while I was waiting for the MRT to arrive.
8. Some building we came across when we took the alternative route back to the Metro station from the museum. I think it's a broadcasting station. Or not.
9. My only picture taken in 士林 (Shilin). This is inside the food centre.
10. This is what typical two-in-one housing/commercial estate in Taipei looks like. This was taken in 石牌 (Shipai), on the way to my dad's friend's apartment.
11. MRT tracks at 圆山 (Yuanshan).
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(PS. I'm currently craving for deep-fried cong you bing. I find myself craving for it all the time. Damn you, cheap Taiwanese street snacks that taste fantastic and are vegetarian.)