Similarities in Faraway Places
It is a rare wintry sunny morning in the oft rainy port town of Keelung. I ascend the rooftop of Keelung For A Walk, sticky aromas of coffee and cigarettes clinging around me as I gaze upon the hills that cradle the town and welcome in the sea air. The morning sun graces us with her presence like an old friend, a feeling I am familiar with coming from the city of Glasgow, Scotland, a place similarly proud and indignant in its strained friendship with the rain, one of a few similarities that I have found between my city and Taiwan attraction Keelung. It may be that as a mere outsider here I am inclined to over-magnify the similarities, but it is hard to ignore them when the whole backdrop of the city is one of heavy industry and general greyness. But this is far from a cautionary statement. In my experience, the ostensible gloom of a city is often the lasting note in a symphony of strange spaces, among them the weird and wonderful alleyways which weave in and out of a past rich with comings and goings, wealth and inequity, ecstasy and despondency.
Rich History in Mining and Industry
Glasgow, once described as the ‘second city of the empire’, was the booming home of European industrialisation, a centre for shipbuilding with many mining towns surrounding it. Keelung similarly saw its moment of prosperity arise from heavy industries; with its strategic port location it peaked as the 7th largest container harbour in the world, while several of what were Taiwan’s 400 coal mines by the 80s operated around Keelung. When experiencing the industrial decline that inevitably follows these industrial explosions, those past times are often referred to as the ‘glory days’. And so now, the old mines lie embedded in weeds that threaten to erase their history. For the new generations, the wild flowers that wind themselves around old mining carts are the reference point for stories that exist only abstractly, transmitted via the nostalgia of their parents and grandparents, who along with the city government bemoan what their city has lost. In Glasgow, the two old geezers at the bar talking about how Margaret Thatcher came and destroyed our industries and “tore the heart out of our communities”, has become a cliche in itself. Of course, with all cliches, there is a significant truth within them; the decline of heavy industry led to joblessness and ushered in an era of mass apathy and disillusionment which continues to shape the political and social landscape of today. Though the great beaming truth in a cliche often neglects any other reading of history; that industry was declining in Scotland because it was becoming cheaper to produce in newer economies (Asia), where they were freshly discovering the kind of ecstatic and neurotic industrial growth that Scotland benefited from during the early 20th century.
Ruifang Mine. photo credit:https://reurl.cc/rlqglO
The Importance of small but not forgotten communities
For those that lived through the decline, who saw their livelihoods and communities become fractured and poor, of course they experienced something destructive and rotten. But what of today? As Glasgow continues to build new soulless housing projects, and the Keelung city board muses over how it can brand its city to attract investment, there still lives a city whose past life beats into the present. The soul of these cities is not in their tallest buildings (which is in both Glasgow and Keelung their only cinema, cities which in the past had numerous cinemas) but in the corridors and backstreets of communities.
The Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray wrote a book entitled Lanark, which is widely praised as heralding a literary reimagination of the city. The character Duncan Thaw, a university student talks with his classmate McAlpin, about why people don’t appreciate Glasgow: “Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?” “Because nobody imagines living here…. think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.” We could say then that in many respects good art is local. This is not say that it is provincial however, for it captures the spirit of a people first, and their place second. During the booming coal years in Keelung, the prosperous Ruei Fang coal mine was set up. Hong Reui Ling was financed to go to Japan to study art, and when he returned, he and Jiang Ruei Keng worked with iron spade and paints, creating works of art which brought the coal miners into the imaginative realm of Keelung. We might say that Hou- Hsiao-Hsien’s film ‘Millennium Mambo’ has a similar function for the modern generation, depicting a girl somewhat lost, without focus, but living day by day, dipping in and out of brief moments of freedom - a long way away from the toil of a coal miner.
Hou- Hsiao-Hsien’s film ‘Millennium Mambo’. photo from the internet
Although I say the art captures place second, this is not to negate its importance, for it is space and place that cradles the imagination, that gives it its significant boundaries and makes it vibrant and meaningful. And when you are in a place that people have built, that hasn’t been built by faraway town planners, in a place with winding alleyways and little communities built from the ground up, you get the sense that this place as a whole has a vibrant imagination. Even when you are here as a visitor and your engagements with the city are limited by language and culture, this vibrancy clings to you as you wander the disappearing coal mines and tunnels and wander over the Zhongshan bridge where Hou-Hsiao-Hsien’s Vicky skipped in the shadow of whimsical freedom.
Of course any urban environment presents itself for the wonderful play that is the dérive, but there is something about Keelung which makes it all the more beautiful and uncanny, whether it is the hills that cradle or encage the city, or the series of abandonments in its past, from the occupations to the industry, all leaving their mark, strangely present in their absence.