There are two roads I used to ride when I was in Taiwan 4 years ago. I rode them again this past weekend. They slip out from under the gaze of Science Park’s smooth monumental structures and wriggle their way across the fractured, wooded, landscape. ShuiXian (Water Spirit) Road branches off to the left, and passes a small reservoir where I was wont to go with friends. I lay there with Sara listening to the mechanical “boing” of frogs in the water one night. I talked with Brian about having a party there on a suspended foot-bridge, voices ringing out over the water as we pleased, raising no ire in no neighbors. We never got around to that party.
Water Spirit Road twisted and writhed through gulleys and over hills, all heavily wooded. I had my favorite spots – a ridge where one could stop and gaze out of the trees over the choppy waves of the county’s green hills to Duckhead Mountain. There was a sharp, in another spot, followed by a long glide downhill through a hollow of fairyland trees. Eventually one passed small fields, a stream shrouded in leaning bamboo, and a small temple burrowing into a hillside. It was built on a site where a hard-luck woman had met an old stranger who promised her all she had been unable to find. His words came true, and unable to find his identity, local people figured he must be a god and built a temple to him: Grampa Water Spirit Temple. My second date with Sara, I stopped the scooter at that place, overcome by her arms sweetly circling me from behind. We sat there on the scooter and heard bird sounds in the sunlight. There was the hollow with the 2 houses, and barking dogs; there was the steep hill that seemed to never end.
This time the hilltop where I was wont to stop and look out was being cut apart. Workers looked at us weave past over the broken, dusty surface. A detour kept us away from the fairyland downhill. Sometimes I would cut my engine and drift down in silence. It, too, no doubt, was being worked on. The house with the mean dogs was empty. The detour led us to a big wide strip of asphalt. We hardly recognized the Grampa Water Spirit Temple tucked away behind it. We stopped there a while, and saw a man with red betel nut lips sitting at a table telling 3 women about their fortunes, and saw the temple dogs patrolling about officiously. The stream still flowed there, precariously, clouded by nearby construction.
The temple’s cover had been blown. The big road dominated one third of the landscape and yet revoked 100% the place’s magical seclusion, the sense one had of being another kind of human, one content with no more than birds and gods and sounds of water. Riding the winding little road that made its way to the place played out the path of historical culture, metaphorically: a slow process and a finding; a blooming of a natural place into a place of humans and spirits. The new road eradicates this sense of gradual finding, replacing one’s nosing along hill and dale with a flat rate of speed that recognizes no element of geography or human stories. This is an anti-historical culture, seeking to transcend difference and so eradicate it along with variety and nuance.
Modernity may have given way within philosophy and art to something more forgiving, but in economic planning bureaus it could hardly be hardier, fed by money and fantasies of “globalization” into a colossus with no time for the intricacies of particular times or places. Of course, old places like Grampa Water Spirit Temple still exist within sight of the road. The structures are the same, the offerings of fruits are the same, the gold-thread banners are the same. But with the old slow progression down the winding road removed, the temple is made into a point, a punctuation along a flat line, a piece of scenery, a point in a series of sights. The unfolding and slow appearance are gone. The temple flashes by, the temple becomes a flash. The journey, that was a kind of narrative movement, is replaced by a dream of speed, and the imminence of destination. In this way the story of the place is deflated. The structure, the banners, the lanterns, the offerings look the same but in fact are radically altered. They become preserved objects. They remain in place but the place itself is cut away from around them. This loss of experience of place is what transforms the organic synergy of history and nature into a collection of buildings. From the new landscape of the road, this place is made into a postcard. And sure enough, next to the temple we found a wooden placard explaining the place for tourists. Old Man Temple is museumized.
It can be argued that I glorify my own first experience of the place into an absolute value, when in fact change has wrought and rewrought the place continually. Am I not overlooking the violence inherent in all cultural change, by seeming to separate time into time before the road and after the road, that before being organic, connected, narrative, and that after being modern, abstract, terrible? Viewed from an old person’s experience of 40 years ago, is not my own first experience of the place in 2000 a joke, a betrayal of earlier experiences? For what had once been an entirely local tradition of walking several hours to the place, had become a paved road where curious foreigners with no knowledge could stumble across it on a scooter. There is no doubt that my scooter ride there was a far cry from the days of walking down the path, and indeed, the big road I consider such a blasphemy might look better once a new form of transportation, even more removed from the geography, takes shape.
And yet the old paved road at least preserved the old walking route. It did not radically alter the landscape, cut away hilltops, raze the canopy of trees above. It did not remove one from the forest and allow one to skim along above and outside it. The scooter or car sped up one’s movement through it, but one was still compelled to go through the trees, up and over the hills and down the dales. Plus one had to choose that road and none other. One would go to the temple because one wanted to go there, or by accident, but there was an intention and a fixed result, whereas with the new road people will view it not even by accident, but incidentally, as a feature embedded in a planned route. I found it by accident, but the new road raises “destination” to the level of absolute importance. For me, the process of moving and finding was more important than destination, and the road allowed that kind of finding. The big road is violent by another order of magnitude. The big road’s violence is the violence of removing one from geography and history by simply tearing apart the landscape and flattening it out. Geography is flattened, and so is one’s experience. One is set free from nature, and forced to devote oneself – freely, of course – to exclusively rational ends.
Perhaps something else will become of the place that I have not anticipated. Perhaps in being turned into a margin of the highway, a postcard on a rack of similar looking temples, Old Man Water Spirit temple will retain an unforeseen power. After all, even an old building with its roof blown off and windows broken by missiles is still eloquent. This temple’s story continues, telling not only of how people made this place magic, but how people in chasing other gods stripped it of its enchantment. Standing there forlorn beneath the absent-minded gaze of the highway, its narrative experience reduced, the temple is a tragic fragment, like a postcard removed from its environment. Leftover, it will gain another kind of eloquence. It will become a new kind of standpoint from which to see the road. For after all, the new road is still part of history, though it fantasizes of transcending time and leaving it behind in its grand aura of permanence. The temple will itself become part of the new story, a hidden story of the underside of globalization and the melding of state and corporate investment. The road, too, will one day be a fragment. That globalization story is a composite of fragments cast aside, and they tell of modernity’s explosive violence. They convey too a poignant flavor of what once was: a place where I was once, embraced by a fairy-woman from behind, on a Freeway 150 scooter. I took off my helmet and lay back into her embrace.
A sign was posted next to the temple: this road does not go through. Jesus, I said, how do we know if this road is really closed? I rode out around the corner to see and ran into deep sand and mud 200 yards out. I just didn’t want to accept that that pretty old road was gone, but it was; we got on the big road into a wasteland of earthmovers and cement trucks. Part of the old road was still used as a temporary detour. We stopped by some fields just short of Beipu and enjoyed the bamboo and rice stalks.
Baoshan Road was also changed, the clay walls of the tiny river valley scraped further back on one side; on the other side, vegetation that had once screened the creek below was torn away. There were still glimpses of the older scenery – a certain curve in the creek overhung with bamboo – but they were isolated spots, crowded on all sides by the work of tearing down and building up. The closer we got to the Science Park the more pocked was the land. It was pocked, ironically, by housing developments touting nature as a luxury feature. The nature remaining was an adornment, a planter full of flowers next to the security gate, a symbolic left-over, a mark of status, no longer imaginable as an environment, no longer a slow development. What was offered for sale was a piece of the already gone and the long defeated. Billboards promised a leafy refuge of civilized pursuits, a place where poets would dream and look at clouds. But it was all a fraud, a scam! For what was already appearing were cement complexes where parents watch TV shows about the breast sizes of certain lucky stars and kids hunt down video game ghouls and barbarians for slaughter.
Treasure Mountain Road, Treasure Mountain Road. Where has your treasure gone, where your mountains? What is left now to your name but Road?
We rode down south toward E-Mei, looking for a town that would not disappoint. We missed E-mei and kept going. We passed Lion Head Mountain, full of temples, and kept going, and the further we got from the Science Park the more mellow it all was; we passed a golf course and kept going, and that was it. The golf course was the last colony of the Hsinchu hi-tech rich. And we kept on going, and towns were towns, and hills were just hills, not produced by anyone, and the stores were full of people. We got as far as Nanchuang before dark. It was surrounded by palatial tea houses. We found a noodle house and got one of each kind, with tea eggs and pig guts on the side. Later we passed a place that had been featured on a TV show for city people who get away on the weekends. It was a culvert flowing with clean mountain water. The mothers of the place went there with laundry, and scrubbed it on rough stone slabs placed over the channel. It was said to flow uphill. We stopped and looked at it; I ran my fingers over one of the slabs, and the women washing there looked up at us.