Travelogue excerpt / taipei

26 October 2017

I’ve accepted an invitation from Yi-hsuan, a young Taiwanese artist, to view her first exhibition in a dusty, upstairs artist-run-initiative. She has made her paintings under the influence of Georgia O’Keefe. Gaping petals, starved of irony. My mind wanders. It’s dim and humid in the narrow loft that functions as gallery, and I suggest that we walk to a quiet coffee-and-book-shop a couple of blocks away, a place I know to be immaculately spare and also air-conditioned; a frequent refuge from the colour, heat and roiling disorder of the city. We spend the afternoon together drinking black filter coffee, idling through magazines, watching the regular twilight downpour come and go, and by night we have taken aimlessly to the warm, wet streets. By 2am, we find ourselves sitting between monuments, on the stairs of the vast Chiang Kai-Shek memorial plaza. Yi-hsuan is rolling a joint and claiming not to hold political opinions, so I steer the conversation towards religion: I’m fascinated by Taipei's temples.

She asks me to promise not to visit small temples in the mountains. Big temples in the city are good. But not small, hidden temples. You never know who they might be praying to.

Who might they be praying to, I ask. For example?

Bad spirits, for example. Or ghosts. You can't know. Just promise.

But its too late for promises. I’ve been visiting mountainside temples by motorbike for a number of weeks now. Temples of all sizes. Some palatial, multi-level institutions; some barely larger than wardrobes. Towering Daoist temples; sprawling Buddhist monastaries; small cultish temples, folk shrines, animist reliquaries, wall-mounted sanctums; ornate grottos carved deep into escarpments; votive spaces revealed in alleyways, tucked into convenient concrete cavities beneath bridges or encountered accidentally along barely perceptible mountain trails.

I’m beginning to recognise some familiar, recurrent faces amongst each separate multitude of sculpted figures. There are bearded ancestors, smoke-blackened Buddhas; Guanyins, Matzus and curvilinear dragons; an endless pantheon of deities and semi-mortal protagonists; animals of malicious, benign or transcendent purpose. Occasionally, incongruously, there is a Mary with Child or other such Catholic residue. Also, neatly stacked offerings of crimson dragonfruit to feed the gods, packet biscuits to distract the ghosts and pale pomelos to placate temperamental intermediaries.

The shrines house both an unending array of characters and dizzying complexity of ornamentation. Of vast and convoluting narratives told in stone relief or carved wood. Embroidered fabric, gold paint, cast metal, plastic; neon flashing pink and green; rows upon rows of ceramic vessels; the accumulated wax of countless candles; the sweet dense fog of incense. And above, the deep red of a low-hung hundred-lantern canopy.

In larger temples there will be a handful of languorous old men in attendance, brown and shirtless in the heat. I’m frequently invited to join them for tea in the shade, where they share with their heavy-eyed dogs an admirable economy of movement. I carefully deliver a fat dragonfruit from my bag as a contribution to the table. We communicate briefly with gestures and with the few words we possess in each other’s language, before settling into a comfortable silence. 

My cup is refilled, and refilled again. I make a few half-hearted drawings in my sketchbook and the old men nod approval. When I slowly rise to leave, I exchange smiles and small bows of the head with my hosts. I'm offered packet biscuits for my onward journey, or perhaps a can of tepid Taiwan Beer. These I decline with much gratitude and deference. Finally, the dragonfruit is returned to me intact and, with appreciative hand-shaking, the social transaction is complete.

In smaller temples, I am occasionally met by a single caretaker, who may or may not offer tea. More often, I find that small temples are empty. Some are crumbling, bowed, in various states of collapse, and I would assume them to be long abandoned but for the fresh-laid offering of a single pomelo, the waning light of a candle, a half-burnt stick of incense still smoking at the entrance. 

The smoke meanders upwards in a thin grey arabesque. A fragile medium stretching to heaven. A divine traffic. The transmission of unseen things to earth. 

Many of these temples have been partially reclaimed by the mountain’s vegetation. Here, the forest is green and wet; thick, robust and combative. Having laid siege to the city, it is reclaiming some old lost territory. Here, on Taipei’s threshold, the forest leans heavily against rooftops, sprouts from gutters, climbs walls, swallows stone, lives on graves.

But I don’t tell Yi-hsuan any of this. I’m beginning to enjoy her company and I don’t want her to think that I’ve contracted any spiritual disorder in the wrong kind of temple.