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Love and loneliness in Taiwan

The original article is written by a Swiss anthropologist David Signer)

taipei2 300x198 Love and loneliness in TaiwanHow is Taiwan? There is no country in the world where the people work as many working hours as in Taiwan – 2282 hours a year. Over 30% of the people work more then 62 hours a week. Taiwan is the second densest populated country in the world; Bangladesh being the number one. Although Taiwan is smaller than Switzerland it is the 20 most successful industrial countries; Taiwan is a market leader in notebooks and there is no country that has more mobile phones than Taiwan (1.14 cell phone per person). Furthermore there are only three countries that have less sex then the Taiwanese, and according to the French magazine “Elle”, Taiwanese women are the unhappiest women in the world. Taiwan has also the most near sighted people. So how does this all relate to each other?

Twenty years ago Taiwan changed from a dictatorial country to a democracy and speeded up the modernization in a fast pace. And now we see the strong Confucian working-moral besides gay-clubs and piercing studios. Colourful Taoist temples along side big glass skyscrapers and supermarkets that are open 24 hours a day. Since Chang Kai-shek, the rival of Mao, fled to Taiwan in 1948, Taiwan was seen as a rebellious province. Taipei as the capital city, with all direct surrounded sub cities, has a population of around 8 million people and is in a sense a post modern version of Beijing.

In many households the man and woman both have jobs. They work in long working hours, and in many cases, in different cities. They only see each other on weekends. The children are often raised by the grandparents whose view point of the world represents anything but the current reality. For Taiwanese there is almost nothing more important than good education for their kids; therefore the kids are overloaded with courses and extra classes after regular school hours often till late in the evenings.

In Taipei I visited a surgeon at his home. His 6-year-old daughter studies English at school, and has extra English classes in the evenings besides painting, dancing and piano lessons. With pride she plays classic music on her piano without reading the music notes. Every August the whole family goes to the USA to improve her English at a summer camp. I ask the father if he is not afraid that the pressure on the kids might be too high. From Japan more and more stories are heard of children who commit suicide because of the shame of failing an exam. “Yes, sometimes all the effort is for nothing,” says the surgeon. “Sometimes the musical wonder kids play virtuously when they are 14, but when they become 25 the difference fades between the kids who started only at the age of 10”. The father also mentions the competition between the parents that cannot be avoided. In Taiwan, having only one child in the family is quite common, so of course parents will put all the effort, money and energy to raise the child.

The emphasis upon education and performance of the kids is characteristic for all Confucian countries like China, Japan, Korea and Singapore. But in Taiwan, people want to present Taiwan to the world as a “better China”. From 1895 ’till 1945, Taiwan was occupied by Japan. Then China soon took over after Japan lost the war. After the Second World War when Mao’s army defeated the nationalistic army of Chang Kai Shek, they fled with 1,5 million citizens (most of them were highly educated), 500.000 soldiers, and the national treasure to Taiwan. Mao and Chang Kai Shek both saw themselves as the one and only representation of China. The official name of Taiwan was “Republic of China”. The USA armed Taiwan as a buffer against communistic China, and Chang Kai Shek never gave up his goal to conquer China again until his death in 1975. Taiwan nowadays has a population of 24 million people, China 1,3 billion. The island country is economically a world power but politically isolated. Taiwan does not even have the status as an “observer” in the UN and is only recognized as a country by 27 other countries like Palau, Kiribati and Swaziland. This is because China refuses any political relations with countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent country, and considers those who see Taiwan as a country an enemy

Continuously Taiwan experiences the presence of China like a controlling big brother you want to keep a distance from. Taiwan always believes in human rights, nobody will die from starvation, and freedom of thought and speech. Taiwan is progressive, democratic, liberal, cosmopolitan, post-industrial and post modern; the better China. But it seems like the citizens of Taiwan situate themselves in a jumbo jet: if the pace slows down below a certain speed, then it will crash.

Sheena Chang is editor at the China Times. Her daughter of four is having extra courses in English. Sheena is keen on getting her daughter to a national University. These are better then the private universities and even cheaper. This leads to the fact that especially children born from highly educated and rich parents, who can afford the extra courses, can enter the ‘better’ Universities. The fee is low there and children of the lower class have to pay extra for the ‘lesser” Universities.

Sheena Chang comes with another Taiwan-record: nowhere in the world kids sleep less then in Taiwan. She calls people like her ‘pm-people’, coming from post meridian. ‘I am going to work at 2 pm (14:00) and return at 10 pm (22:00)’. Most people working in the IT business work at night, because their customers in Europe and the USA are then in their daytime. The children of these ‘pm-people’ stay up till midnight with them: they eat together, watch TV and play computer games. But the kids in contrary to their parents have to get up at 7 am to get to school.

She tells the story so business-like that I carefully ask if that does not hurt the health of the kids. ‘Maybe so’, she says, ‘but it makes them also stronger. This way it makes them stronger to cope with pressure later. The biggest concern is the grandmothers who spoil the kids. They only stuff them with food, but don’t teach them anything.’

One evening I meet a psychiatrist in a hot spring spa ( besides visiting karaoke bars one of the favourite free time fun activities for Taiwanese). At 10 pm he says he has to go home to help his daughter with her homework. ‘At this hour?’ I ask surprised. ‘Sure, tomorrow she will have chemistry exam, and I will take over the theory with her once more.’

A Swiss woman who lived in Taiwan for a long time says: ‘the only thing that counts for these people is food and making money. Love and sex are not important. If somebody says ‘I love you’, then it means nothing, but if he gives you a big piece of his meat then you know you are important for him.’

The Taiwanese eroticism is not easy to understand. The people are prude; besides the city centre of Taipei you hardly see any couples hold their hand or exchange other tender behaviour. But at the other hand if you look at the sales girls of betel nuts, they sit in their bikini in a glass box, which you can recognize easy by the green neon-star along side the road. You stop your car, she comes out, bends over in front of the window so you can have a good look at her décolleté, she walks wiggling her bum to the get the order and gives you the nuts with a tempting smile. The euphoric feeling and the sweating that comes after chewing the betel nuts, makes the happiness complete. These nuts cost two times as much when bought from these girls then normal, but especially the taxi and truck drivers don’t care to pay the difference. These sales girls are mostly found in the countryside; the mayor of liberal Taipei tries to ban them from the city centre.

Also traditional healers sell their wonder medicines accompanied by sparsely clothed girls. But the most funny is the performance of these ‘sexy girls’ at weddings and even funerals. You can see a long row of cars and trucks; on one of them is the coffin with the deceased, on another there are the hired mourners, and on a third you see the dancing ‘sexy girls’. It seems that the audience, including children, experiences no conflict between the table-dance atmosphere and the mourning about the deceased. ‘The surviving dependents pay a lot of money for such performances in order to have a lot of people attend and honour the deceased’, so people tell me.

By the official prude it is hard for love couples, and even spouses, to find a private space. One of the favourite places to get some intimacy was the MTV, cabins where you can watch movies. But at a certain moment the police intervened, the cabins could not be closed anymore and a guard could at any moment intrude the cabin. So the love couples changed to the parks and the KTV’s: buildings with lot of rooms where you can sing karaoke as a couple or as a group. But also here a waiter could enter any time. At least each room has a surprising big closable toilet. Nowadays the motels are doing good business, they are quite cheap, 20 euros for three hours. But there is one disadvantage, they are mostly situated outside the centre, so you need a car.

It’s easier to find a nice restaurant. In Taipei there are thousands of food facilities. Even on the top of the chimney of the garbage burning installation you can find a rotating restaurant, called ‘star tower’. Apparently there is a close relation between food and sex according to the Taiwanese. Continuously you hear what good the different dishes will do for, in general, men. Especially local dishes like: cow eyes, bee larvae, swallow nests (the spittle of birds), grasshoppers, dried elk penis, shark fin, sea cucumber, mushrooms, dried human afterbirth, unborn chicken from the egg (raw), ginseng, bear bone, duck tongue, sea horse, but above all snake. On the Huaxi night market a market salesman hangs a still living snake on a rope and cuts it open in full length, he catches the blood in a glass and offers the audience to have a taste. After that he also removes the gall bladder and squeezes it out in a glass. The gel slimy substance is said to work extensively on the libido, as the salesman demonstrates by moving up and down chopsticks between his legs.

The women however will not get happier by it. For instance take Chang Mei-Ling. She is in her mid thirties, studied French literature and works for a French company. She is single. Everything that would be in man’s favour is in her disadvantage, a good education, good job, high income, all in her disadvantage. And besides that she is taller then average. A man in Taiwan wants to be better educated then his wife, have a better income, and to be at least one head taller. She herself would like to have a husband like that. But there are not many that will meet these criteria, besides the fact that she has hardly time for a relation.

Chang Mei-Ling has been married before. She wanted children, he did not. He said that he wanted to earn a million first. They hardly saw each other. When she noticed he had a love affair with a colleague she divorced. ‘Everything you do here is for the purpose of making a career’ she says. ‘Most Taiwanese men are like that. Some try to change for their woman, but after a while they get fed up by her because they have the feeling that the woman has taken away something from them.’ Her parents were always out for business when she was a kid. Mostly the oldest daughter took the responsibility for the younger kids. ‘That is why we are so clever and independent’, says Chang Mei-Ling. ‘Because we grew up alone’.

When she goes out she only attends business dinners and karaoke nights with her customers. She does not care about shopping nor expensive brands of clothes; she spends her money on travelling — last year she went with her mother to a 5 star hotel on an island in the pacific ocean –and her collection of plushy pigs. She says ‘you think that our society is so colourful and free but it looks like that because we don’t have roots. Our parents were immigrants, they were lost when they came here and nowadays they don’t understand anything anymore. We are all orphans, and our children will be like that as well.’ She also says ‘Many people don’t work till 10 pm because they have to, but because of inner emptiness. They dream to have earned to retire at the age of 50, and when they reached it they die of boredom.’

Compared to the hypermodern state of Taiwan, Europe looks ancient. Half of Taipei has a wireless Internet zone; even in the MRT you can check your email. The mayor of Taipei wants to make Taipei the first wireless city in the world. Many people have a GPS system on their mobile; they might feel lost but they can at least localise themselves geographically. In many taxis you will find screens in the headrest of the front chairs, so you can follow the news during your trip. This efficiency you experience everywhere. A Taiwanese lady told me that she was once at a German wedding. She experienced it as awful, it took ages. Even a wedding is supposed to happen fast.

There are restaurants where every table has a screen where you can watch hundreds of programs while eating, and in a lot of hotels there are rooms where the room and bathroom are split by a glass wall. Not to watch your spouse taking a shower but the other way around, so you can even watch television from the bath.

Another technical wonder is the 508-meter high skyscraper “Taipei 101”; it has the fastest elevator in the world; at 60 kilometres an hour you are taken up to the 80th floor in a few seconds. But you hardly notice it; the cabins are under regulated pressure.

The ‘Taipei 101’ is constructed according the Feng-Shui principles; that is the traditional knowledge of architecture that adjusts to the invisible flows and ghosts at a certain place. According to this knowledge it is forbidden to have the entrance exactly facing the exit; otherwise you take the risk that the visitor of the building will enter it and immediately will exit it. According to the Feng-Shui principles it is bad for the inhabitants of a building if a street directly points at your apartment block. To deflect these bad influences an 8-cornered mirror will avoid the bad influence. It will reflect back the negative.

‘Taipei 101’ is built up from 8 segments, and each of them consists of 8 floors; 8 is the lucky Chinese number. Four is the unlucky number that is why there is no 4th floor. The 101 looks like a piece of segmented bamboo. Bamboo – flexible and easy to bend, but still strong – is an old symbol for resistance and fortune. ‘Taipei 101’ is build with a 660 tons steel sphere as a damper within, so that in the case of an earthquake the building will not break but swing only, like a bamboo stick in the wind.

Another surprise you can see in this hyper capitalistic society – more and more I hear ‘Only the one who is too lazy or has too many children is poor’ – is the burning of money. However it is not real money, but ‘money papers’ that are specially made for ritual offerings, produced and sold for that purpose. The owners burn it in metal cans in front of their stores and pray for good business. For environmental reasons nowadays there is also “money” available that does not smoke that much, but it is somewhat more expensive.

In the middle of the IT city of Taipei you can find an overload of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist temples that serve as oracle places. For example there is the City of God temple; in large numbers, young women with Gucci or Louis Vuitton handbags put flowers and fiancée cookies on the altars on Saturday morning before shopping. Here the god of marriage is residing, and the young women use oracle sticks to ask questions about their upcoming spouse.

One night I visited a temple. In front of it there is a movable shrine on wheels. ‘God can be placed in there and moved around, for example on someone’s birthday’, people tell me. ‘Now God is in China, but tomorrow he will be back and there will be a procession.’ The procession is a big spectacle with lots of firecrackers, red bangle torches, riding light organs, fireworks, drums and screeching loudspeakers. The ‘God’ is a colourful painted wooden figure in a chair with long bars that is carried around the neighbourhood rocking up and down on the shoulders of the bearers. And all this in an atmosphere of bright neon light. The stars in the procession are Hsie and Fan who are normally the guards of the temple annex statues. Hsie has a black face, Fan has a down hanging tongue as long as the man who wears the costume, and he looks through a hole in his shirt. Everything from the torso up the performer wears on his head. The appearance can be explained by a legend. Hsie and Fan once wanted to meet on a bridge, Hsie was somewhat early and was watching the water below the bridge and fell over in the water when he lost his balance. When Fan arrived he found his friend dead and Fan strangled himself with his bare hands. That is why his tongue is so far out of his mouth, while Hsie became black in the water. In Taipei people say that the spirits of the two roam the Manka region with heavy chains and eat the tramps and thieves. And yes in the Manka neighbourhood there is less crime then in the other regions of the city.

Taipei has different monuments for their country heroes like Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat-sen. One of these places is a huge memorial hall with a more then living height statue, guards in official uniform and a lot of free space around the immortals mark the distance between them and every day life. It’s amazing how the people of the city interact with these places. If you go there at 5 in the morning, when the city is still silent, you will be surprised by a grotesque carnival. From many loudspeakers you will hear all kinds of music at the same time, marching music, hip-hop, Chinese classics, country, tango, and new-age noise. Hundreds of people are gathered. Some performing tai chi, others do sword fighting, some dance in the morning mist. A man and a woman of age throw over a pink Frisbee. There are people in kimono, in cheerleader look, a rapper with oversized trousers and a shirt with hood. Many people there are of age and ask, “how old do you think I am?” Mostly they are twice as old as they look. You can also see younger people dancing Salsa. All this happens at the foot of the ‘Taipei 101’. Businessmen in suit and tie hurry through the kung fu fighters and shadow boxers. Nothing of this is organized, a lot of people come regularly, but the groups change constantly. At 7 o’clock the guards appear in parade marching steps. They raise the national flag and the national hymn starts. In a split second everybody stops with what he is doing and takes the formal pose when the national hymn is heard. It takes a few minutes and then everything goes on as nothing happened: Chinese ballet, aerobic, rock-n-roll and chi-gong. And meanwhile in the park Sun Yat-sen, ‘the father of the nation’, one time in bronze another pose in stone, looking straight forward to all the fuzz.

Peng Wu Chih is one of the most famous taichi- and kungfu masters in the country. He was the last apprentice of the famous martial arts master Liu Yun-Qiao (who was the head of security organization under Chang Kai Shek). He took care of Yun-Qiao in his last months of his life, when he was so weak that he only could lecture using his chopsticks.

One of the specialities of Peng Wu Chih is ‘rapid taichi’. He claims that taichi originally was not, as nowadays, done in a turtle slow movement but fast. In between the main course and desert at a restaurant he gives a small demonstration. It only takes a few seconds. Dr. Peng loves speed in general. Before we step into his car he says, “buckle up, because I drive like James Bond”, and he does not exaggerate. He talks about ‘chi’, the life power and says: “meditation is not to withdraw from the world environment, but being present in it. Get to your opponent in half a second where others need two seconds. Never lose your midst, not even when you are busy.’ One time he holds my wrist, not firm, but I feel an immense power. He could kill me in a split second.

One of his apprentices says: ‘during the first lesson he said to me: I will kill you, and he did. During the teachings I died inside; he destroyed my value scale. The most important in martial arts is awareness, and therefore you have to get rid of your past.’

Peng Wu Chih ends the meeting with a short anecdote: “two people die and god asks them what they wish in a next life. The first says, “I want to get lots of money”, the other one says “I want to give lots of money”, the first is reborn as a beggar, the second as a millionaire.”

On the 1st of May I am in search of demonstrating people, but in vain. Taiwan does not know of demonstrations of workers. Taiwan is the dream of every neo liberal: up to a short time ago there was nothing like income insurance (for that matter, officially there were no people out of a job), no sickness insurance, no pension insurance, no social service. Everything is insured from private arrangements or by family. Some workers even give holidays to their company as a gift. Furthermore it seems that there are no building regulations; Taipei is the dream of every architect but also a nightmare, everything is possible (highlight: a building formed like a woman’s handbag).

During the visit of the Chinese president Hu Jin Tao to the USA Falun Gong people in Taipei organised a demonstration. This spiritual movement is forbidden in China. Lately a doctor witnessed that he had been in a Chinese concentration camp. He says that tenth of thousands of Falun Gung people have to do hard labour. He also records that these people are operated on and taken away organs, while they are alive, and sold for transplantation purposes. Anti-Chinese propaganda or not, such news remind the Taiwanese over and over again that their welfare is highly vulnerable; like a small garden on an overhanging rock. Up to 10 years ago Taiwan still had higher expenses on their military defence system then China, while nowadays China is spending triple the budget of Taiwan. 600 rockets are pointed towards Taiwan, and every year another 75 are added. A politician who mentions the taboo word “formal independence” in Taipei – and in some place in Peking someone might push the red button.

Even lately China paid the small island nation of Nauru in the Pacific Ocean the amount of 150 million dollar to change their diplomatic affairs from Taipei to Beijing. Taiwan can hardly cope with this process. Taiwan can only try, behind the political scene, to keep them indispensable in economical way. But that takes a lot of energy and is a lonely task.

On the last day we drive to a “children’s recreational centre”. It looks like an Asian Walt Disney park. A luxurious place, however there were no children, not one. ‘Nowadays they prefer to play at home on their computer’, a supervisor tells us; another supervisor says “most kids have courses at night”; and the guard at the entrance says: ’The parents don’t have time to come over here with kids.’ On the way back I see a scene while driving: an empty playground where a man in suit is making a phone call while the rain starts dripping.