THE LONG POEM OF WALKING TAIPEI
February 2018. Originally published by The News Lens.
Describing a city is a slippery endeavor.
I have called Taipei home for five years. It wasn’t meant to be that way. I moved here in October, at the start of heartbreak, at the beginning of autumn. The rice paddies in Yilan – where I was staying on a stranger’s floor – had been harvested of their verdant green. What remained were irregular rectangles of gunmetal water reflecting a leaden sky, punctured by the occasional gray cement building. I found great comfort in those flat asymmetrical lines. The romantic in me found solace in the cold slabs of industry strewn around.
Vignette # 19
A girl crying on the MRT photographs herself, applies a filter and posts it on Instagram. She then checks it compulsively for the next three stops.
I found a job and an apartment at opposite ends of Taipei. I took trains and buses to work and back, walked between the spaces that weren’t covered by public transport, then repeated. I got a second-hand bicycle and traversed Zhongzheng bridge (中正橋) twice daily, even in the rain, to reach work in New Taipei City. Crossing that bridge confirmed how alive I was – feet pedaling furiously, breath heaving – and how near to death I could be – grazing buses with my handlebars, feeling the rumble of the bridge under my wheels.
Vignette # 2
The rotund man who paints the electricity boxes working near The Fine Art Museum.
Vignette # 45
An independently owned fruit and vegetable stand stays open late, and is lit up just for my viewing pleasure.
I have begun to see Taipei as a series of vignettes. Sometimes, the best way of describing this city is by small images without definite edges that fade into the background, quickly replaced by the next, and the one following that, as if you are cycling through the scene.
When did you last go for a walk?
In "The Practice of Everyday Life", a slim volume on how people individualize mass culture, author Michel De Certeau dedicates a chapter to the “long poem of walking” in the city and picks out how perambulating confers a specific kind of ownership of the streets. A walker constitutes a “near and a far, a here and a there” and the simple act of walking “affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects ... the trajectories it ‘speaks’”. Walking creates pockets of space and time to reassess and consolidate. It offers creative respite. It allows glimpses into lives that are not yours; vignettes of what’s happening parallel to your scheduled hours.
Vignette # 9
A delivery man slings a pig carcass over his shoulder in order to slap it onto a butcher’s table before the morning market.
Vignette # 13
Old men on bicycles balancing grandchildren and perhaps also umbrellas en route home from school.
Vignette # 38
A bare-necked teenager sits on her boyfriend’s lap in the darkest corner of the 228 Peace Park, near the small pond with the bridge.
Walking is a free pleasure, a practical means to an end, and for some, it is a way of life. Walking business meetings have become a thing. Recent studies have shown that the age-old act of walking leads to improved creative consideration. Darwin had a “thinking path” and would knock a pebble from a small pile at the completion of each circuit. Some problems took two pebbles, others four. Friedrich Nietzsche said: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”. I would walk long distances to leave myself behind. I’d stalk Taipei to get out of my head, to kill time, to reach my destination.
I’ll walk to get lost, to aimlessly wander.
There’s a term for this capricious city strolling. The word flâneur started gaining popularity in France in the early 19th century, and describes a quintessentially masculine figure of privilege and leisure who strides cities with abandon, because he can. The flâneur is separated from the city -– he observes; and yet is of the city – going by unobserved. He has it all. This freedom of movement, vehemently denied to respectable women of the time, could be used to reflect and portray the metropolis; historically mostly in writing or painting. Think Charles Baudelaire and the Impressionist painters like Gustave Caillebotteand Édouard Manet.
Vignette # 33
Closing time at the hairdresser.
Vignette # 44
Garbage trucks that trail clouds of garlic and “Für Elise”.
Vignette # 5
Three young men on scooters in sharp suits, white shirts, long shoes. A phone tucked in between cheek and helmet. One cleaning his nails, the other talking hard, the third staring absently at the traffic lights.
Susan Sontag - writer, critic, teacher - notes, in her study “On Photography” that since the advent of handheld cameras in the early 20th century, any man can become a flâneur. The pedestrian photographer is an “armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world "picturesque." While this version of the flâneur certainly shows democratic progression, it is still not all fair in ambling and observing.
Vignette # 17
A young girl in pink tucked between her mother’s legs and the scooter’s handles, while behind them both, older brother holds too-long legs out to stop his heels from dragging.
Vignette # 9
A large man working at a fried chicken stand is playfully hit on the arm by a friend. Holding a handful of string beans, he slaps her with them. They both throw their heads back and laugh.
In "Flâneuse", part memoir and part reflection on women walking in cities, writer Lauren Elkin acknowledges that there is no flâneuse – no female equivalent to the flâneur. Elkin, a walker of many mega cities, knows a good wander is liberating, and that cities offer so much creative potential because people are fascinating. Elkin’s book contains essays on women who have roamed widely and created art that is often tied to those places. Virginia Woolf wrote in a diary entry in 1928 that London “perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play & a story & a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets”. Elkin patrols Woolf’s London, mulls over Jean Rhys in Paris (author of the brilliant, much prescribed setwork book “The Wide Sargasso Sea”), and literally retraces Sophie Calle’s steps when she followed a stranger in Venice and documented the experience.
Vignette # 31
A flâneuse snaps her reflection in a pathway puddle in Da’an Park after a typhoon.
Vignette # 25
Three women gossip around a traditional medicine poster in Tonghua Night Market.
Vignette # 17
Sleep overcomes a man sitting on the steps of Exit 4 at Zhongxiao Dunhua MRT Station.
Though I still walk and cycle Taipei, it is not just to reach my destination, or to escape myself. Now I traverse with an eye to photograph the streets and scenes. Taipei is rife with rich visuals. To quote Sontag again: “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” Five years on I am still surprised by the little vignettes Taipei offers. Perhaps more so. This city is a sensory stimulant. Taxis smear past bright and buttery in the rain, garbage trucks waltz out tinny renditions of songs once familiar, and even monks have business cards.
Now, I walk for the pleasure. Environment matters; it is determinative and reflective. It helps clarify who we are, and then mirrors it back to us. I am cast in its angles as I step its streets. I am a product of this place. Walking generously allows ownership of ground gained. Open hands, both palms up, we are offered the long poem of walking Taipei.
To see more #taipeivignettes go to instagram.com/loveleorajoy.