The Giant Fish That Sees All

by on Thursday, 11 April 2013 Comments

This article was written after we spent one night in the Fish Market in Keelung, North Taiwan. It left a strong impression on me, and although it was almost one year ago, I can still remember every minute, every impression; the magic of this night will stay with me for a long time.

It was raining outside, and the sound of fine water drops hitting the metal quietly echoed the roaring noise of the train through the night, en route to the coast of North Taiwan, to Keelung.
Trapped in the old fashioned, humid wagon behind foggy windows, I wondered if I was not indeed in a bizarre aquarium, a rusty steel cage where, who knows, some Giant Big Fish hidden in the dark could very well observe me, detail each of my moves and expressions and draw upon me some aqueous fantastic conclusions unknown to mankind. I started persuading myself that it was possible, and then: what would such an ubiquitous fish have seen in this wagon anyway?

Isolated from the students and other older people on their way home, we sat at the back of the wagon, a group of silent journalists. I was looking through the window, vaguely aware of that Giant Big fish that might be looking at me, trying to see through the darkness, trying to listen through the noise and the rain for a confirmation we were going the right way, nervously playing some forgotten ocarina tune on the windowsill with my fingers.


We were all often looking down at our cameras, our material, cleaning lenses and testing parameters of light and image compression, lost in a world of batteries, tissues, glass, metal, dust cleaner, memory cards, filters, tiny details that could spoil a picture, maybe the picture each of us had been dreaming about.


But ironically all of this material, brutally real, couldn't capture anything from the Giant Big Fish peeping at us through the window of the train. I was pressing my face against the window, as kids do, but I was still unable to understand this cold sensation that was the breath of the God Fish, a giant animal looking at me with his paternal, slightly-surprised-almost-amused-air. Fishes generally have expressive features, and gain to be better known. They are of difficult access though, and few people have ever spent time talking to them, or asking about their lives.

Keelung-Fish-Market-311ONLINE

Some time passed and we arrived, as if by chance, in Keelung; a whistle blow welcomed us, and the rain. All was silent; the lights were dim, the air slightly salted.

The fish market is a well-organized geometrical place, revolving around a long rectangular building. It is strategically located near the train station, the harbor, and the main street in Keelung. The low-rise building is around 200 to 300 m in length and 50 m in width. The upper floors are occupied by harbor administration and local trading companies' offices – this is a privately held market – while the ground floor is packed with small warehouses, storage rooms, and a network of lanes to let staff members maneuver from one side to another, or hide for a minute and light a cigarette. The overall appearance is unassuming: it looks like any other old brick and concrete building in Taiwan, though just a bit more rusty, betraying the sea nearby, or maybe, who knows, the toll the Giant Big Fish slowly takes, year on year. During the day, you probably wouldn't know it had anything to do with fish: streets are empty, steel curtains closed with just a few hieroglyph-like boards hinting of fisheries.


Circulation around the building is polarized; one long length of the rectangle is used as an open-air parking space for the large trucks coming from all over the country, while the other long length serves as the main alley where customers stroll on the side. In addition, smaller "trucks", ownership of the market, keep circulating in the middle of the lane, loading and unloading polystyrene boxes of fish for each shop, precious treasures that will, soon, end up in plates all over the island.


This market has existed for many years and time has taken its tribute on buildings, but the organization remains the same, living proof of the strong organization of the past Taiwanese society. When discovering this place, we were all puzzled: such a time-resistant place, unchanged and proud, and still delivering a massive number of fish to all the Taiwanese North Coast... who the heck is behind all this? We thought about this as we watched the fresh meat being cut, eviscerated, truncated, polished, brushed, hooked, carried, thrown away on the floor, concatenated in large boxes, weighed; all this heavy, heavy flesh, meat already, having lost any parcel of life.

So there we were, three reporters in another world, a world of hard work and repetition, a world of trust and families, a world of hopes and delusions, too. What struck me first was... the light, the lights shining through the night, the light on the dead fish, a yellow/orange light, my photographer eye recognized, around 4000 Kelvin, a light also more powerful than the one we usually see in traditional markets, a powerful and aggressive light, literally piercing the autumn night, spreading sharp shadows, a light not human, a shiny sign that the god of business lived here too, we were after all really in Taiwan, a place where business is fast, efficient, convenient, omnipresent.

We were there, scurrying through those dark, humid streets, thousands of miles away from our homes, all senses open, our eyes like a film ready to capture life, as if the veil of our personality had finally been lifted, the thin veil what kept us together, shy, self-conscious, partial and finally oblivious to the real big picture, the link that binds us all together, which I could summarize rather simply: we are all gonna die. In this regard, I almost had a compassionate feeling towards those bodies lying beneath me. There was some beauty in it, some dignity in their eyes; they were not refusing death. They were simply refusing to understand it.

But, in Taiwan, here on the streets we love so much, we were so close to the ground, we were so nothing in the universe, free and lost in our photographic world, that, for a short instant, I almost felt that we were spending the night among genuine heroes, people moved by their passion, their work, their responsibilities.

Keelung-Fish-Market-511ONLINEThe people were the real thing, not because they were extraordinarily clever, even if I could tell their eyes were smart; not because they were enthusiastic, they couldn't recall how many days they had done this job, some of them were sleeping on the side, exhausted; not even because this whole scene made sense to them: life was going on, its load of stories, networking, like any other day, small drama and negotiations – yes, everywhere negotiations, and dollars – no, it was all business as usual, and everyone, at first, just thought we were from the police.

So what? The question I heard most, after many months delving straight into the heart of Taiwan oldest districts was: "What are you doing here? Why do you take pictures here?" We usually answer: "it is the atmosphere", and people nod, politely unconvinced, vaguely reassured. They are right! To me at least this is not the real reason. I am here because everything around this market is simple.

Taiwan is a country with no apparent foreign political ambition, Keelung is a city whose fame peaked 30 years ago, the market running untouched all this time, people stuck to their daily work, and led a tough life indeed. Every night, they started preparing their booth at 10 pm, till roughly 1.00 am when the first, most demanding customers arrive, those who come in advance for the best deals; they want the most delicate, freshest fishes, and leave, royally abandoning the remnants to the common of the mortals after each having spent a few million Taiwan dollars on the meat. And then, from 3 am, it is rush hour: individuals disappear into a human sea that carries us all like fish into the ocean, and we become crushed together like sardines packed in a can.. It looked almost as if the Giant Big Fish had cast a spell on mankind for the night, as if humans shared, for a time, the fate of fish.


But here, in the dark hours of the night, humanity talks to me. Those people didn't know who we were, and I probably won't meet them again, they were working and we may have been annoying them, but they smiled as they moved on. They didn't ask much and displayed their raw force among the sea creatures. They submitted to necessity and they used it to their own benefit, they lived, at least partly, out of the consumerist world, because they were the ones who made it possible: they were worth more than those who belonged to it – us –, and their smile, in turn, lit the atmosphere more than the surrounding aggressive light, their smiles went straight into the heart: smiles of irony, dignity or contempt. The giant big fish can't do anything against that, this human light keeps him from winning back the fight day after day.

An auction starts. Dozens of people have gathered before two men, their wves ready in the back, the yellow light bulb even stronger than on the other stands. They look in every direction, they are waiting for the moment, the right moment to start, and suddenly that's it, they raise their hand and you can see the grapes of fish, small multicolor fish or just single, large, shiny princes in their majestic loneliness. They bring the small fish closer to the lamp, they start mumbling, like a prayer, slowly first, then faster and faster, the price, and it must go fast, 600, 600, 600, you take it you leave it, 400, 400, 400 take it take it take it, 300, 300, 300, come on come on come one, 200, 200, deal... and their bait balances in cadence with the words, until someone raises a hand and pays in cash, and then again and again while doubtfully gazing the audience to see what piece they should auction in a minute, should they go for the biggest, most unique piece...

Keelung-Fish-Market-351ONLINE

Watching them, I remained fascinated by all that I didn't see: is he the same man that has been on his boat just a few days ago? Has he been away for days looking for fish, or did he buy it just a couple hours ago? Does he enjoy a modern fishing boat, gathering a wealth of fish while doing nothing at all, or just gone painstakingly out to sea in a noble fight as Hemingway described in his novels? I can't tell and think about it in silence, maybe the part I see is only the end of a longer process I can't fully understand. I don't ask. I respect the magic of the place.

I didn't notice but the auctioneer was just staring at me, and he started to grin, a deep, jovial, tricky grin that tells me he's gonna make the show tonight, he's gonna sell the goddamn fish to those people out there, he quickly pulled another line to the bait and started over again, 600, 600, 600, c'mon c'mon, 500, 500... deal! – I guess he was using me in a way as a witness to the other buyers, to show off his power, hoping it worked. Undeterred I kept shooting and went to the second seller. His style was different, he was even faster than the first one, he looked like he wanted to close deal in as little time as possible, his voice softer but people still listened, he was standing closer to the lamp – I shoot the fish, they were the ones who jumped out of the pictures, and people kept buying, again and again, throughout the night.

The market went on like this all night.

I rushed frantically through those same streets until the day caught us, and people, slowly, started to pack the fish that hadn't been sold. Here and there, I discussed with the people working on the market, with my average Chinese, and caught a few glimpses of their lives. Someone offered me a beer. Buyers just ignored us.

Keelung-Fish-Market-131ONLINE

Floating in the dark, the Giant Big Fish was watching the market in silence from afar. Everywhere, people were chatting, arguing, negotiating, in his eyes it looked like the vast stage of an impromptu play, maybe Waiting for Godot? No one was seeing him, and he couldn't have cared less, he was the power behind it all and that was enough for him. Those men had already killed so many of his brothers that he was not paying attention anymore, he just knew that a balance had been struck, that more men in the future would come again and again to kill fish, but he had curiously won them over in a way, because this work was giving the men dignity, and it looked like they had become incorporated into this life, close to nature, and day by day they were carrying the essence of this task.

 

For more photography by Benoit Girardot, please visit his blog at http://litanies.net/blog/


Other photographs from Benoit along with those from other Taipei based photographers are currently being exhibited in Neihu, Taipei, until April 23rd. All profit made from the sale of photographs will be donated to St. Anne's home for the handicapped children. For more information on the event, please click here.

 

Benoît Girardot

I'm Benoit, a French guy, arrived in Taiwan around 5 years ago, and it's already hard to remember what I did in my old life! Maybe I lived in Germany? I used to have a weird job, selling breast implants all around Asia, but I quit and am now learning Chinese. I love Taiwan, and I don't really have any words to describe why Taipei is such a cool city... so I'm taking pictures instead.

I have a blog about Taiwan, the idea is to get a deeper understanding of Taiwan-as a foreigner, with language barrier and all kinds of pre-conceived ideas, it is not always an easy task! I post a mic of pictures, videos, articles about the cool people and things I meet on the island! You're welcome to come have a look by yourself!

Website: litanies.net/blog/

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