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More Than One Great Wall

By Stephen R. Latham

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.

Alex and I are drinking in a bar in Little Australia, a section of Taipei near the Ambassador Hotel where Australian businessmen go to drink, carouse, hire prostitutes. The bars have names like Victoria Pub. The Ploughman, the Waltzing Matilda. Alex, who is New York Chinese, looks around us at the beaming, red faces of drunken Australians and observes that there is nothing in the whole goddamn place that's written in Chinese. We decide we have to do something very Taiwanese the next day. We take a bus to White Sand Bay, one of two sandy beaches on the island.

Leaving the city is a jarring, almost violent experience. There are no suburbs. One minute you are driving past huge bank buildings and small noodle stands and city-style corrugated steel-vegetable markets and the next minute you look out the window and there is only the emerald green of rice paddies, a farmer leveling a flooded field with a pole pulled horizontally behind an ox.

We are on a major superhighway heading east, and at one point an ox blocks one gate of a tollbooth for several minutes. Alex and I note that all the collectors in the booths are women; an old man offers an explanation for our observation. The government, he tells us, decreed only women should collect tolls. Men, it had decided, cheated too much, pocketed too many of the toll receipts. Women are more honest.

When we arrive at White Sand Bay, we are overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. Rice paddies and farm land extend to within a few hundred yards of the shore; from there, rolling hills slope gently down to the beach. We are disappointed that we cannot take pictures--the presence of pillboxes and military installations along the shore prevents it. Originally built by the Japanese during, the occupation period, such installations are common along the whole shore of Taiwan. Many have been abandoned but none destroyed; once in a while an enterprising farmer will use one to house his chickens or to store his grain.

White Sand Bay public beach looks like a Bedouin encampment. The "bathers" huddle under white sheets held up on posts driven into the sand. In Taiwan, tanned skin is frowned upon; the ideal beauty is pale. If your skin is tan it means you have to work outdoors, farming or building. Even on the hottest days, workers stay covered from head to toe. Some car washers in Taipei wear detachable sleeves to keep their arms out of the sun; they remove them when they rest in the shade. So Alex and I are not surprised that many of the "bathers" are fully clothed.

We are suprised that none of them are swimming. Life lines mark out the "legal swimming area" in which the water is never more than chest deep. Only a few of the more adventurous men actually swim; most cling to floats or the lines and splash about. Our swimming draws stares; the lifeguards warn us that it is dangerous to go out too deep and then asks us if we have any Taiwanese girlfriends yet. He speaks only the native Taiwanese language and very little English so our conversation is stilted, but he does manage to tell us that native Taiwanese swim better than the Chinese, that the Chinese are for the most part displaced mainlanders at heart. Most of Taiwan's population is Taiwanese; the small percentage of Chinese run most of the businesses and control most of the government. The Taiwanese are the lifeguards, the cabbies, the construction workers, the farmers. Their skin is tanned.

Outside the largest gate to the monument in Taipei, a bridal party stops to have its picture taken against the striking white background of the plaza and the pyramid. It is something of a tradition in the city to have wedding pictures taken there.

Several peddlers of cold drinks and ice cream have set up shop, evidently without licenses, outside the huge gate. Their goods are sold from boxes tied to pedicabs and hand carts. Two uniformed soldiers walk slowly from the pyramid entrance across the plaza to the gate; as they approach, the peddlers pack their goods frantically and begin to run--actually run--down the wall outside, to another corner perhaps, to sell goods out of sight of the soldiers. One is not fast enough, or doesn't notice the soldiers until it is too late for him. He is taken by the soldiers, pedicab and all, back across the plaza to the pyramid, presumably to be questioned about his license.

A member of the wedding party is speculating about how large a step his friend the groom has taken that day.

"The ceremony is one thing," he says, "but the real life is more." He looks at the wedding party happily posing just inside the gate. The soldiers and the peddler have just reached the pyramid. "What happens in there has nothing to do with what happens outside," he concludes.

He was, of course, talking about the picture-taking.

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