Sunday, 13 January 2013

Rainy Day in Bopiliao Old Street

Bopiliao Old Street is a real treat on a rainy day, especially for those who would like to see Taipei as it was pre-skyscrapers.  We were enticed there by a friend's blog. This small street of well-preserved shops tells the tale of Monga, now known as Wanhua, one of the first areas of Taipei to undergo development and portrayed in this eponymous film.

Originally settled by Polynesian aboriginal tribes, Taiwan later became home to colonies of farming and trading families from southern mainland China. These people remained loosely under the jurisdiction of the Qing dynasty, but from as early as the sixteenth century, Japan had its eye on Taiwan as a place to fulfil its expansionist ambitions. In 1895 they finally achieved their goal, settling many Japanese citizens and taking over governmental control, only relinquishing Taiwan after suffering defeat in World War II.

As a guilty-by-association descendant of British imperialists I've been surprised by many Taiwanese attitudes to Japan and the years of occupation. Where I would have expected resentment and dislike I've met instead with a pragmatic acceptance and even nostalgia for the 'good old days'. Some Taiwanese friends love the Japanese sense of order and work ethic. They appreciate the level of development that Japan brought to Taiwan, building roads and railways, and improving education. This is despite the fact that Japan implemented the usual imperialist policies, such as restricting governmental jobs to Japanese citizens and banning the use of Taiwanese in schools.

The story of Bopiliao Old Street and Japan's impact on Taiwan is told on the walls of the Heritage and Culture Education Centre at 101 Guangzhou St, Wanhua, near Longshan Temple MRT station. Photos of Taiwanese children sitting at ranks of tiny desks testify to the efforts of the Japanese to improve punctuality and discipline. Other areas are devoted to the history of medicine, including information on the Victorian missionary clinics and a simulated traditional Chinese Medicine shop, complete with ingredients.

The toys of now ancient former children  are there for present-day youngsters to enjoy, and I was interested to see some of the same games still played in schools today, such as trying to stand a bottle up using a string.  A Chinese version of the three-legged-race is also popular.

My son had great fun playing a very early pinball with marbles instead of metal balls, a piece of wood for flipping instead of a spring and no electricity.

I was interested in the exhibits. They might not appeal to everyone, but I like unusual bottles and bits of old rope!

From the days before hemp became a dirty word.
The centre had the obligatory children's sheet of paper to collect stamps on as we toured around the various exhibits, with an origami spinning top as a prize at the end.

By a strange synchronicity Taiwan's political heritage burst in on us while we were there. The sound of protest chants brought us to the window to witness a political march. 
The few hundred marchers passed by, leaving us unsure as to exactly what the protest was about, except that it was clearly political, as some of the signs were calling for the release of the former president from prison, while other protested the monopolisation of the media by politically interested parties. 

Then on the way home, we encountered the protest again. By then, the numbers of protestors had swollen to the tens of thousands.
Today's newspapers made it all clear.

Politics is always a sensitive subject but particularly so in Taiwan with its long-standing delicate position as an object of mainland Chinese ownership, and while experiences with Japan have the soft-focus of past history, Chiang Kai-Shek's military rule is still fresh in the hearts of many Taiwanese people.

The two current political parties can be roughly divided into mainland China appeasers, and a more nationalistic 'Taiwan for the Taiwanese' attitude. The protesters we saw fall into the latter camp. Friends who don't support the ruling party tell me they don't tend to advertise the fact, so it was heartening to see so many  - 150,000 the newspapers say - enjoying their right to lawful protest.

Maybe one day people will be visiting Old Bopiliao Street and reminiscing about the 'good old days' of Ma's presidency. Only time will tell.

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