More Than One Great Wall

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.