More Than One Great Wall

The Chiang Kai-Shek memorial occupies several city blocks of space in the center of Taipei. Only a short walk from the presidential palace from which Chiang ran the nationalist Chinese government, it is easily the most striking feature of the city which many still hold to be the legitimate capital of all China.

His face fixed in a bronze smile, Chiang sits on a throne framed with famous quotations from his fabled life and surveys his memorial, his city, his island nation. His throne is on a great stone block; the block is in a large rectangular building with a purple pagoda-styled tile roof. The building sits atop a huge white-stone pyramid full of Chiang memorabilia--his letters, his glasses, his clothing, his medals. There are no servants for the afterlife; only a military honor guard to protect the bronze.

The imposing, almost muscular pyramid squats in the middle of a vast flat white-stone plaza which stretches for blocks in every direction from it, broken only occasionally by gardens. Each of its four sides is walled in white stone, roofed with the same purple tile. Massive gates of white pillars and purple roofing allow access to the memorial from any side.

The gates, the walls, the plaza, the pyramids are all superhuman in scale, built with intent to awe. But not everyone appreciates the sheer physical feat of building the thing--some people remember instead the blocks of inner-city residences that were torn down to make space for it, the families displaced by the construction. And some are embarrassed by its size. There is a joke among Taiwanese students that when a young man from the southern city of Kaohsiung came to Taipei for the first time, he walked all the way around the memorial wall to see the designs of the windows which decorate it, no two of which are alike. At the end of his walk, he could comment only: "There is more than one Great Wall in China."

Dean Hsieh laughs when I tell him my boss in the textbook sales company still does bai bai. "No one does that anymore," he says. "In some ways, Michael Yang is very old-fashioned."

Bai bai is a sort of ritual offering to the gods--the gods, that is, of prosperity and business success. Cups of rice and wine, bowls of fruit, sweet incense are all left in the newly occupied office building to please the gods who dwell there; if they are pleased, the business in their office will prosper. Michael Yang, American-educated in journalism and in sales, waves incense and prays to the gods of money. He burns ritual money on the floor of the new office; the false gold bills fill the room with smoke until the fire is doused with wine. All the salesmen join in the praying, one at a time walking through the smoke to the makeshift incense-and-fruit altar and bowing to whomever might be on its other side. I hold incense and bow awkwardly. Michael earnestly thanks me for my participation.

Later, when he is scouting out a new office for the sales branch in Chung Li, he takes me along on a trip with a master of feng shui, literally, "wind and water." The feng shui master enters the proposed office space, and holds a compass covered with ancient inscriptions against each wall. He checks to see which way the building is facing; where the nearest hills are, through which window the sun shines first. He pauses, as if calculating, and then announces. "This place is good. You will do good business here." The wind and water say so. Michael is pleased.

The master gives a few more instructions about what to do with the office space. No desks by this window. Cover this wall. Do not do any counting of money in the side room. The wind and water say so.

After we have dropped the master off at a suit cleaners. I turn to Michael and ask him whether he hires the feng shui master to approve every office he opens up. Michael is one of the wealthier men in Taiwan, and his various companies have offices all over the island.

"Yes," he replies. "I always hire him. He is very good. Whenever he approves of a building, the business does well in it. I don't understand it, but I do believe it. He can tell by looking at the layout of a place how the business will be." We drive for a little while as I mull over this statement of conviction.

After a while, Michael says, "You see, in America I have no superstition. My business in America is run just the way you might expect. But here-there are maybe only 100 businessmen in Taiwan who still use feng shui, but I think it's best to do everything you can to make sure your business goes well. So I hire him. I believe him. And his father, he's even better. I hired him once before, but now he's getting too old to go around. It's strange--it's a family secret, passed down for years in that family, but I think I can feel some of it. When we went into this building today, I knew--I knew he would like the place. I could feel it. In America I feel nothing. But in Taiwan, when I enter the room, right away I know--this is good, this is bad. I feel it."

Dean Hsieh laughs again when I tell him Michael uses feng shui. "Maybe that is why he makes so much money! But I think--it's silly! He pays the feng shui, the geologist, so much money for each visit! But maybe it helps him because his older customers trust him more if he does it. Maybe he does it for them."

I tell Dean, who owns a small musical instrument factory in south Taiwan, that Michael has told me himself he believes in feng shui, that feels it. "I never feel anything. It's silly," Dean replies. Dean and Michael often gamble together, playing Mah Jong, which is technically illegal but extremely popular, the Chinese poker. Michael usually wins, Dean usually loses.

The monument honor guard comes from a different branch of the military service each day. Wednesday the Navy, Thursday, Air Force. They stand, two of them, stiff to the point of being inhuman--not simply stationary like a British guardsman to the Queen, but stationary in an uncomfortable position. Summers in Taiwan can be unbearably hot and muggy, with the temperature hovering around the low nineties, the humidity 70 per cent. The guard moves every hour, the two men exchanging weapons and positions at the opening to the rectangular memorial building. They begin motion when the bell in the President's Palace rings; within two minutes they are still again, eyes locked on each other.

On one particularly uncomfortable day, a day of water rationing necessitated by the water's insistence upon staying in the air, the Army is guarding the bronze. The two soldiers stand, staring each other into trances, polished bayonets and helmets gleaming in the midday sun. Their faces are covered with sweat. A civilian strides up to the soldiers from the crowd and pulls a wet washcloth from his pocket. He begins to dab the faces of the two men, methodically. They do not move, speak, blink, but they allow him to shift their chin straps slightly to wipe their lips. He asks them repeatedly if they are comfortable, and though they do not reply, he seems satisfied that they are. The crowd smiles to see his humane act; small children mock the soldiers' stiff stance but are only able to hold still for a few seconds. A troop of soldiers arrives at the memorial; each man takes his hat off to the bronze. Their leader sees the young man with the washcloth, and walks up to him happily to thank him for his service to his fellow nationalist Chinese.