Saturday, April 11, 2009

Junk Collector

I finally found a local video store. It only took me three months, but there it was around the corner next to the all night fruit and vegetable stand and across the street from the animal shelter where the sad puppies in the window with dyed pink ears and matching paws go two for ten thousand NTS a pop.
That’s become my new favorite pastime, walking Taichung sidewalks. These narrow strands of covered tile with rows of parked motor bikes and shops crammed together one after another: Eye glass stores, clothing boutiques, lunch diners, kid play areas, convenience marts, stationary kiosks, photo centers, music schools, and repair stations, all about the size of an American university dorm room, one after another, lining the streets stretching out in a never ending labyrinth grid ready for me to explore.
Here also, amid all this name brand merchandizing, I can find little smatterings of Taiwanese culture. The old man hunched over a drill press cutting keys out of copper blocks in a machine shop so oily and dusty my father couldn’t even find a tool. The toothless woman in white gloves standing behind the counter in the Chinese pharmacy filled with formaldehyde jars of coiled snakes, seahorses, scorpions, bear claws, and ginseng roots. Walking inside, the ringing bell atop the door transports you back centuries. There is the wooden stamp maker with his constant stream of customers needing plaster molds of Chinese names to officially sign their bills at the post office or send money at the bank. Then there's the crowd favorite, the roasted duck cafe, with racks of orange, hairless mallards glazed and broiled and stuck on sticks ready to be served with sticky sauce and flat tortilla type bread. The lines for this ancient delicacy circle the block during lunch and especially dinner, when overstressed parents make their way home. These are the places when I feel like Taiwan is real. Where there are true objects and cultural practices of art that will survive no matter how much economic development or demolition comes to the area.
But I’m getting off track.
What I really wanted to talk about was this video store, because for the first time in months, I’m watching movies again.
Now, like most westerners, so many important moments of my life have happened while I sat wide eyed in front of a film screen. James Dean on the verge of a nervous breakdown giving his father a handful of cash in Rebel Without A Cause, or Bud Cort leaping from a flying car in Harold and Maude. We all have them, powerful cinematic images of human emotion that we carry with us. Images created and performed by others that shape and guide us.
Yet when you have children, the theater experience is exchanged for another dark room filled with singing fussy babies to sleep and fretting over 100 degree temperatures, praying that their lives are full and happy, that they grow up to experience the profound and keep the humility to try and understand it.
Lately the movies I’ve been watching have been The Little Mermaid II and Where the Wild Things Are. Pretty cool, actually, but pleasantly at the video store this week, I rented Pixar’s WALL-E. You know the story, set in the disgusting future, little cute robot is sent to clean up Earth, falls in love with hot new robot who packs heat, they save the world. It’s cute enough to make you cry, or so I’ve heard.
But mostly, it got me thinking about junk.
You know, how life is made up of objects we use up and discard, and beyond human emotions like loyalty and friendship and love, should we define ourselves by the things we keep or by those we throw away? Basically, what is our culture both collectively and personally?
This question even further intensified after visiting Lukang Historic Area. From the brochure:

“Lukang is an important town for the cultural tourism site in Taiwan. We have rare heritage, traditional handicrafts and tasty local flavor snacks. The nation’s top township in terms of friendliness, cleanness, taste, distinctive features and sense of happiness, people rated Lukang the highest by Commonwealth Magazine. Look at our hometown with your hearts keenly. Welcome to Lukang, you will realize what a charming town. Enjoy your stay in the beauty of Lukang through gorgeous temples and historical spots.” -Lukang Town Mayor, Wang Hui-Mei

Now, that is one descriptive paragraph.
So, we piled into the minivan and headed out to Lukang and were surprised to find this roughly five city block square area of historic life totally preserved. Tiny alleyways revealing tea shops next to traditional craft displays. Quaint cobblestone streets with rusted bicycles. Open doorways that lead into dusty antique shops, and temples tucked into the scenery next to wooden statues and hidden shrines. My kind of place really, reminds me a lot of myself, hoarding keepsakes, boxing up possessions from previous lives, keeping life’s forgotten items for some future scrap book that I will never create. Throwing nothing away. I always feel a tear when I do, as if the old high school track shoes or a boy scout pocket knife must never be thrown out. As if they wouldn’t forgive me for letting go because they were a part of me at one point and I still feel they are priceless.
Of course, at Lukang everything was for sale.
Colorful opera masks, wooden toys, spinning tops, and Chinese dolls. Rusted cola signs, movie posters, bamboo hats, cheap jade bracelets and trashy trinkets. And there were antiques. All kinds of dingy stuff. A bridal chariot with rice paper walls that could be carried by four men. The head of a dragon boat that could be mounted on a wall. Typewriters with circular keys, opium pipes, and finger cuffs with snake heads at either end. Box kites, Mao hats, and gowns with pearl snaps.
Junk mostly. Junk for sale.
And as we strolled the back alleys, detouring around the large condominium development that will run adjacent, with its massive displays explaining how all this culture can be had just walking distance away from the new yakisoba restaurant, 7-11 convenience mart, and Gorilla’s Gym and Fitness Center, I smiled, because I knew that was inevitable, this selling of nostalgia back to the Taiwanese. At least they were trying to preserve something important, right? An old practice here, an ancient heirloom there. Yet, who says what is worth saving? Is it anything a sucker will pay 1,000 NTS for? Is that what real culture is?
All I know is that I found something here today that I will continue searching for again and again. An attempt to sort and file away yesterday’s treasures. And people will continue to write me and say how my life sounds like I’m in a movie, like they couldn’t imagine walking in my shoes, and I’ll continue to tell them there’s junk everywhere, collect it on your own. The junky memories of life, made of objects and people and observations and passing conversations, whatever can be held onto and given meaning. Keep them. Preserve them. They might be worth something someday, or worse, they actually might be for sale.

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