Cycling around Chiayi has become a must every time I am there. Though I may look unappealing with my basket and lady’s bike, and though old ladies and betel nut-chewing ‘uncles’ speed by on their 125cc motorcycles, I feel free. Cycling from place to place, from places of memories to places of new discoveries, I connect with the city I never really lived in, but somehow feel closely connected to.
It may be those childhood days, the long summer and winter vacations, that I spent there which gives this place much meaning in my life. Certainly, as someone attached to people and that ‘human connection’, the fact that most of my relatives on either side live in Chiayi makes me feel at home, and at ease. And in Chiayi, down in the more ‘Taiwanese’ and pro-independence south, unlike in Taipei, is where the local language Taiwanese is spoken and heard on a daily basis. It is here that you really get that feeling of how kind and warm Taiwanese people can be.
This time down happened to coincide with the twentieth memorial day of my grandpa’s (dad’s side) death. I have no real memory of my grandpa, since he passed away when I was just two. I hear he was a hard-working man, who repaired and sold bikes, and managed to raise six children, out of whom all except one went to university. The house they lived, which was also his workshop, was no more than 10 square metre. He spoke Taiwanese and Japanese, and managed to learn bits and pieces of Mandarin when the Chinese regime arrived after the War. He loved to gamble too, and used to play ‘sibala’ (dice rolling) at the temple and sometimes won sausages to bring home to add to the meager food they had. But he was also an angry man, and often threw fits of temper and scolded everyone…or so I heard. He worked literally to his death. One night he complained of stomach aches, and when he reached the hospital the doctors discovered his liver had almost failed. Through eating rough and a life of toil to see ends meet, grandpa had neglected his own health and wellbeing for the sake of his family. The conditions grandpa had are hereditary.
I do have a fond memory of my grandma. A really kind, compassionate lady, who could only speak Taiwanese, but could not write. She had a clear memory, and still fretted about the well-being of her children (especially about my youngest bachelor uncle) until the moment she passed away. She often spoke to me and told me ‘adult’ things as if I were the only other person who would listen to her. And perhaps at times she felt I was really the only one who spent time with her, as my uncles and aunts were all busy. I remember sitting at my grandma’s place as a child, and whenever someone approached, she would greet the passer-by with a friendly smile and beckon him/her inside for tea and a sit. And I remember those moments when, me being not older than ten or so, I took grandma by the hand and lead her across the busy street for her daily check-up at the hospital. She walked slow, and wobbled from side to side, but I patiently lead her and we withstood the impatient roar of engines on the main road. In her final years, everything that could go wrong with her health went wrong; kidney failure, heart disease, bone fracture, memory loss, liver disease… the last time I saw her I waved goodbye, thinking I would see her again the next summer.
Today, grandpa and grandma’s black and white portraits hang on the top floor of the newly constructed five-storey apartment. It’s the same piece of land where many summers ago I sat together with grandma in that dark and poorly furnished bicycle workshop-cum-house. But the worktools, and the people most dear have since disappeared. The first floor has been rented to a lottery shop. Where once customers came with their broken bikes, today customers flock to the same place with dreams of striking it rich. Only my bachelor uncle lives there now, whenever he goes back to Chiayi from his work at the fertiliser plant.
The usual meet and greet at a relative's plaace, a few episodes of chatting, photo album viewing, and connecting. More relatives joined in the get together, as we sang the night away in our own karaoke booth. Songs, old and new, Mandarin and Taiwanese, oldies and goodies, brought back memories, emotions, and brought us back togetherl.. Though, at timees the singing was crude and out of tune (and according to someone I should 'let go' when I sing), karaoke is probably the most enjoyable way to get together and cherish those few momentts of liberation and extasy.
For grandpa’s memorial more relatives joined in. The usual fruits, sweets, and drinks offerings were laid out on a table, while everyone held incense and stood in front of the ancestral plaque. People prayed for this and that wish to be fulfilled, prayed that the deceased would look after the descendents…but it seemed like a selfish thing to do. Deep inside, I ‘spoke’ to grandpa. Though I did not know him well, I wished him well, and thanked him for providing this big family with the building blocks on which it branched out further. The saying goes, “when eat fruit, worship the tree trunk”(Taiwanese: 吃水果，拜樹頭). Every success and prosperity today comes from the toil and sweat of so many before us. And this I remember.
It’s been a while since the whole extended family on dad’s side was last united at one table. And it happened this time, more or less, when we had dinner that evening. I looked around the table…some have grown to resemble the portraits of my grandparents on the wall; some have grown tufts of gray hair and wrinkles; others have become almost as tall as I am; and some have become married. Everyone in the past few years, since the time I left this country, changed so much, and it was a special feeling that we were sitting together, eating together. Though conversation was restricted to small-talk and asking questions asked so many times before, the fact that we could be together was something.
Later that night, another one of Taiwanese local culture of worship and celebrations was ushered with firecrackers and the blaring of temple instruments. On the eighth day of the first lunar month, the Lord of Heaven, the highest deity of all who oversees heaven and earth and all that goes in and on between them, celebrates his birthday. The tradition is to make the usual offerings of fruits, foods, and drinks at 11pm. Incense sticks are burnt three times; each time when the previous set of incense reaches half their original length, the next set is lit and fixed on a cup containing rice grains. Then, after the third round, paper money is offered by burning them. Altogether the ceremony takes about two hours to complete.
While performing the rituals, the old auntie from next door came around and we chatted a bit. She was surprised that I, someone who practically grew up abroad, am still so much into all these traditions. It’s true, really. Many youngsters around my age don’t know when and how to perform the rituals of worship to the ancestors and deities. More and more, people find it a hassle and simple superstition, and some stop practicing these rituals altogether. Somehow, I’m just fascinated by these rituals and their origins. It’s not really the performance of the rituals and the hope of a better life, more prosperity etc, etc that interests me. I don’t think terrible things will befall me if I stop performing the worships. And I don’t see it as a religious ceremonies, which requires blind faith and observance, either. It’s the fact that this is part of my heritage, my culture and part of who I am that makes me feel it’s necessary to do all these things.
In the midst of all the busy to-and-fro, meetings and greetings, there was time for a little touring. Together with a cousin and his wife, we went to Fencihu, a place halfway up the Alishan recreational area. The area is probably one of the most well-known in Taiwan. As it is often said, once you’ve seen the sea of clouds, the ancient forests, the abundant wildlife and impressive mountain ranges of the area, you’ll realise why Taiwan is also called “Beautiful Island”.
It was years ago when I last went up Alishan. Despite the cold and thin air, the sunrise over a vast expanse of clouds with mountains tops protruding like islands here and there was simply stunning. The hikes climbs through dense, unspoiled forest, standing in the shadow of green giants and surrounded by a carpet of green midget shrubs and plants, were exciting and refreshing. This time, there were glimpses of blossoming plum flowers, mist-covered mountain ridges and dense green forests, but because of lack of time, we had to be content walking around the narrow streets of the old town.
Shops, souvenirs, foods and vendors beckoning you to visit and to buy seem to have become the attractions at every touristy attraction in this country. Sort of disappointing and kills the spirit of a relaxing holiday in the open countryside. And then there are those obnoxious and loud tour groups, the eye-sore of plastic bottles and bags, cans and cigarette buds which lie around everywhere. Visitors seem to know what souvenir and scenic pictures to take home with them, but somehow forget that the rubbish they create should also be taken away as well. That urge to start picking up what others have left behind surfaced time and again.
No matter. Like always, and like wherever I go, I take with me impressions and moments which I hope may stay with me always. It’s not how far I’ve traveled or what spectacular experiences I’ve come across…it’s the stories, the people, and the life behind every step that makes each trip worth visiting and revisiting.