Day after day, the most important thing I do in Taipei is head off to the archives. Unlike the US or the UK, there is no centrally located archive that houses all the documents generated by the various branches of government. The Academia Historica (in Xindian) – which is a bizzare latin translation of Chinese that actually means “National History Center” – houses a fair amount of stuff, but with some odd exceptions. For example, half of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) records are there, whereas the other half are up in Beitou at MOFA’s own archive center. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the divisions; I have one file, for example, for which part one is in Beitou and part two is in Xindian. What annoys me about this is not the travel or separate locations – after all, that’s just a pleasant change of scenery – but the fact that I’m allowed to copy anything I want in Xindian and nothing at all in Beitou. Argh.
Actually, I’m discovering that the Academia Historica is really not at all well known around Taipei. I was approached at random on the street by a retired man hoping to speak some English (a not uncommon occurence), and he asked me what I was doing in Taipei. I explained about going down to Xindian everyday – and again in Chinese when he seemed skeptical – and watched him think this over. Finally he turned to me and said, “No, I’m quite certain there is no such place, and certainly not in Xindian.” He offered to help me figure out where the archives actually are, since they are clearly not in Xindian, and looked at me like I was nuts as I reiterated that not only did the Academia Historica exist, but that I was quite certain it was in Xindian, having just come from there. He finally walked away, shaking his head, as if to say, “This poor crazy American, traveling out to Xindian everyday, when we all know there’s nothing there….” Of course, even my friend Yuwen had to be convinced – she knew of the branch museum in Ximen ding, but was shocked to learn of the main location. I suppose one could make the comparison that not everyone in the world knows where the US National Archvies are, but at least I suspect that they believe that yes, Virginia, there really is an Archive.
Really, though, it is not a terribly popular destination. I have had more than one bus driver become concerned on my account – the Academia Historica is actually the very last stop of the 647 and 650 buses out of the city, and as such I’m usually the only one on the bus for the last ten minutes before we get there. I find that the bus driver is usually looking nervously in the mirror back at me, no doubt thinking, “Where is she going? When was she supposed to get off? And what do I do with her when I reach the end and have to go put the bus in the garage???”
In Beitou, the work of my day is to sort through the files and hand copy anything that is important or potentially relevant. This is a pretty slow business – I sometimes spend all day on a single file or – a few times – on a single document, if it is long and hand-written. In the 1950s, typing Chinese was not really an option – things were either printed using press-style movable type (which any Chinese person will tell you, they invented long before Guttenberg), or handwritten. If they are handwritten, they might be scrawled with a pen, or created using a maobi (brush and ink). If the latter, they could be running script – at which point I just give up all hope of ever knowing what they say – or they could be painted in a standard calligraphy that is so lovely and readable, that I become tempted to copy things just because they are pretty. Handcopying such documents involves a certain level of guess work and – let’s face it – artistry, as I try to copy the form of characters I can’t recognize and can’t locate in my dictionary to ask people later. The secretary in charge of researchers in Beitou (i.e. usually just me) does very little except read the newspaper, doze and, oddly, study his Chinese-Spanish dictionary, so sometimes I carrry files out to him and ask him to guess what the character in question is. Once I managed to stump not only him, but the whole office as well, which made me feel better – it’s not just me, nobody can read this stuff.
In Xindian, of course, if I suspect something is important and I can’t read it, I just head to the copy machine. The down side of Xindian is that unlike Beitou, all researchers must wear surgical masks and latex gloves while handling files. It is ridiculously hot in the research room – so far their claims to being air-conditioned appear to be purely hypothetical – and I find this ridiculously uncomfortable. Plus, if I want to take a little break, it can take forever to get the gloves peeled off my sweaty hands and then, worse yet, reapplied. Of course, on the bright side, when flipping through my copies, I don’t have to worry about getting paper cuts.
Research is, of course, not without its entertaining moments. The Hong Kong refugee crisis in the 1950s and early 1960s has been unexpectedly fruitful in this respect. It started in London’s Public Record Office, where I read dozens upon dozens of files on the refugees and what the Hong Kong and British colonial government can do besides send them back to China. It was a Real Crisis, everyone agreed, as the population swelled to many times its original number, and (as time wore on), it was acknowledged that a certain percentage of these people were destitute and starving. Some sort of definite action was needed. At this point, the British Defense (well, defence) Department stepped up to the plate, and wrote to the Governor of Hong Kong to say (paraphrased), “Look, we want to help. Here we have some 40,000 pairs of women’s woollen underwear left over from World War II. We’ll send them to you.” Now, aside from the obvious question of what exactly would lead the British army to stock women’s woollen underwear in such quantities, there is the minor point that such things might not be terribly useful in a sub-tropical climate where the temperature rarely falls below 60 degrees. This is, perhaps, evidence that it is NOT always merely the thought that counts.
Not that things are only amusing from the western angle, though. Radio Free China worked up a popular radio program for the refugees in Hong Kong and the people of Southeast Asia which consisted mostly of Elvis tunes (whose name is for unknown reasons – maybe the sideburns? – translated into Chinese as “maowang” or “Cat King”) and anti-communist jokes. An example:
One day in the Canton People’s Collective Prison three detainees chatted about what they did to get arrested.
“I came to work late,” said the first, “and they accused me of absenteeism.”
“I came to work early,” explained the second, “And they accused me of spying.”
The third looked on sadly. “I came to work on time,” he said, “and they accused me of having a capitalist watch!” (ba dum ching!)
Ultimately, however, such humor was thought to be, perhaps, inappropriate for refugees, whose families may have been killed or sent to far-away work camps in the anti-rightist campaigns, and the broadcasts were thereafter directed only to Southeast Asia.
Of course, most often the humor is entirely unintentional. Still on the subject of refugees, the ROC police was investigating visa applicants for the US Refugee Relief Program. They wanted to send a report on one applicant to the US embassy, but couldn’t seem to come up with the proper English phrasing. The first draft said, “subject committed a thief.” This must not have seemed right, because the writer crossed this out and wrote, “he was convicted being burglar.” This, too, must have been recognized as a bit off, as it was also crossed out and ultimately replaced with, “he had a burgle.”
One more, and then I’ll stop, I promise (perhaps not everyone finds these things as much fun as I do, but after a long day in the archives, you’d be surprised how hard you can laugh at such things!). I came across a US immigration report about a handful of Chinese seamen who jumped ship in the US and were arrested in New York for overstaying their landing visas. Upon arrest, all claimed that they had wanted to return to their ships on time, but had gotten lost on the New York subway and by the time they returned to the docks, their ships had sailed. Okay, it’s unlikely, but maybe. One sailor, however, actually jumped ship in San Francisco, made his way across the USA and then found himself hopelessly lost in the New York subway. Um, whoops.
A major challenge of reading these documents is recognizing proper nouns when they come up. Unlike Japanese, which created a romanization alphabet specifically for foreign words to help readers identify proper nouns and concepts from other languages, Chinese simply picks a set of characters that gives the closest approximation of the word’s original sound. This means one can be reading along and suddenly, in the midst of a sentence about Chinese military alliances, you get a phrase that means, “subdue the neighborhood of mother’s forest.” Is this a strange idiom from an ancient Chinese folktale? Nope – read out loud, those characters are “ke li mou lin” — i.e. the Kremlin. Of course, every now and then, just to throw you off, they translate by meaning instead of sound. I spent some quality time working on what city in New York sounds like “shui niu” before realizing that those t wo characters – literally “water cow” – referred to Buffalo.
Of course, it would be wrong to say that all I ever do is research. And since we are on the subject of water… Sunday I spent most of the afternoon and evening in Damshui with friends. Damshui is a town on the north shore with a river cutting through its center, and the last stop on the metro line out of Taipei. It is most famous as a destination for young couples, who head up there to stroll along the left bank (called the left bank in emulation of Paris, though it could not possibly look less like the left bank of the River Seine). When I took my dad there last summer, we followed my tourist guide to Damshui and went to see the Hong Mao Cheng (Red Body-Hair Fort, named for the odd-looking westerners who built it in the 17th century). Since then, many Taiwanese have informed me that the place is – though admittedly historic – mostly open to fool foreign tourists.
The real Damshui – as with much of Taipei – is found in the night life. We drove up to the Left Bank and almost immediately got in line for a boat to head to the other side of the river, where all the action is. When we got in this line, there were, oh, about 400-500 people ahead of us. It must say something about the American ability to queue that I don’t think it would ever occur to me to hop in the back of a line of 500 people. Left to my own devices, I might just get back in the car and drive across the bridge. While in line, the pastime of choice is to eat. The food stands serving the boat line would give the Minnesota State Fair a run for its money – anything you want, and all on a stick. We sampled fish balls, shrimp cake, and stinky tofu with marinated cabbage (all washed down with some cold passionfruit green tea) before reaching the front of the line. Finally arriving at our destination, I was surprised to l earn after all the snacks that the major goal was to find somewhere to eat. But as anyone who has ever lived in Asia understands very well, my friends swore that without some rice, they couldn’t possibly feel full.
The big attraction on the north coast is, of course, the seafood, so we went to a restaurant for some fresh fish. By fresh, I mean we stood outside at the line of tanks containing swimming fish, shrimp, and crabs, and picked out which ones we wanted to eat and how we wanted them cooked. We then watched as the owner reached into the tank, grabbed one of our selections by the tail, and threw it onto the floor at our feet. He picked up a big stick and wacked the fish’s head. I looked down. Yup, he was dead all right. Nothing like a “floor show” (yuk, yuk) to work up an appetite. Our meal consisted of that unfortunate fish, some battered shrimp, crab legs (the Taiwanese way to eat crab, apparently, is to hold the shell in one hand, and use your chopsticks to pick out pieces of meat with the other – tricky on the first, oh, 20 tries), and a real delicacy, spicy fried fish skin. Yuwen explained to me that we Americans waste the skin – we tend to throw it away, along with the eyes and other tasty bits – when really, it is the best part. After a quick taste I decided to maintain my wasteful American ways.
After dinner we strolled along the pier and played arcade style games until the departure of the last boat for the Left Bank. Damshui is the only place near Taipei where you can buy engagement cakes (given to friends and family when plans to marry are announced), and a few of our friends were called upon by family members to buy some (not because someone was getting married, but because they’re really really good and it’d been a long time since the family had had a wedding), so we crowded into a few stores and sampled the wares, and watched people point at me and wonder what I was doing there. One little kid actually said, “Look mom, a foreigner!” To which I replied, “Yes, a foreigner, imagine that.” And watched the shocked expressions as they realized that at least a few of us can speak Chinese.
This weekend’s destination: Zhonghe. Actually, I have no clue what is interesting about Zhonghe – as far as I know, absolutely nothing – but I’ll let you know when it proves otherwise.