Tiger Mountain and the Miculture Foundation: Transforming Spaces

by on Sunday, 01 December 2013 Comments

 


Overlooking the Xinyi district, home of Taipei 101 and Taipei's financial and commercial hub, are the Four Beasts Mountains (四獸山) : Elephant, Leopard, Lion and Tiger. The image of four wild animals-embodying raw nature- dominating the urban metropolis below is a powerful one. Elephant Mountain has largely been tamed-it is now a must-see on the Taipei tourist trail and also popular with photographers wanting to get the perfect night-time shot of Taipei 101- but Tiger mountain is more elusive.

For decades Tiger Mountain has been a spiritual centre, and today contains over one hundred temples dotted around its steep slopes, most of them built without any kind of license. (See Journey to the Karaoke Temples). Despite being so close to "the city" it feels like a different world altogether with a much older rhythm, abiding by a different set of rules. However, one temple, Yuansheng Temple 元聖宮, has moved in a very different direction to the others.

To comprehend exactly what is going on in this temple we must have some background:
The whole of Tiger Mountain is closely linked to a company called Market Leader (日光生活), which makes kitchen utensils and other household items. Market Leader owns over 60,000m² of virgin forest land on Tiger Mountain, one of the very few areas in Taipei where protected forest land cannot be developed is in private hands. Unsure what to do with the land, for many years the company turned a blind eye to the proliferation of temples on Tiger Mountain. The history of Yuansheng Temple (Original Mountain Temple), presumably one of the first to be built on Tiger Mountain, is typical of others in the area. Around thirty years ago a family built an illegal settlement on the site, which became a shrine and slowly grew to become a very large temple. Last year however, Market Leader decided that the time had come to put an end to these developments, and the people were paid to leave the site.

At this point Andy and Mei came in. Andy works as an agent for a German company selling energy-efficient door, window and facade systems in Taiwan. Mei worked for another department of Market Leader, selling green technology for use in cooling systems. They both have a background in sustainability and environmentally friendly practices, and in fact met at a conference about sustainability in Taipei. Frustrated by the theoretical nature of these conferences, the pair wanted to do something genuine, with their own hands, to put their beliefs into practice.

The President of Market Leader founded the MiCulture Foundation, or Weiyuan, (微遠文化藝術基金會) in 2012.  Their vision was to provide an education distinctly separate from that which is found in schools, but without a physical space to call its own, it was more dream than reality. Just as Market Leader was changing its policy with regards to the land at Tiger Mountain, Mei, with her backround in environmental issues, was offered the chance to begin developing the now-empty Yuansheng Temple into an educational space for the foundation. On the 1st of May 2013, Market Leader officially handed the keys to the site over to Andy and Mei to begin the transformation of the temple into the educational space they envisaged and the project that has become known simply as "Tiger Mountain" was begun.

When they left the temple, the previous occupants took very little with them, and when Andy and Mei opened the temple doors they found over twenty wooden statues and stone door gods still in place. They felt that as a sign of respect to the temple and those who had until recently worshipped there they wanted to conduct some sort of peaceful transformation from a sacred space, a cleansing of the area to accommodate its new direction and function. They were introduced to a young Taoist master, who deals with exactly these kinds of ceremonies. Taoists believe that the gods are physically present inside each idol and so over three days the Taoist priest presided over many rites and rituals, asking the god living within each temple idol to leave and also to make sure that bad spirits did not come in their place. The Taoist priest is now a volunteer at Tiger Mountain, and for Andy this whole process encapsulates the "transformation architecture" they have been working on in Tiger Mountain, and the creative and cultural exchange they wish to create.  Spiritual matters aside, the physical efforts of turning a Taoist Temple and the surrounding dank, run-down outbuildings into a cultural centre were immense. In the hot summer, the volunteers sorted through the thirty years of accumulated rubbish, trying to find a use for every piece, doing as much as they could by themselves, using as little money as possible.

frontview

When I came to visit I found the temple divided into three light and airy sections: an office for the foundation, a kitchen, and the temple itself, with the brightly painted wall murals, sculpted dragon columns and door gods still in place. The space was full of volunteers doing various tasks, and the all about us were the mountain sounds of birds, buzzing insects and trees blowing in the light breeze. When I met Andy and Mei they had just come out of a board-meeting with representatives of Market Leader and so were well dressed, and in good spirits. The sight of Andy dressed in a suit, surrounded by power tools and sheets of plywood he was working on earlier in the day really captured the collision of two worlds that is going on at Tiger Mountain.
At first, the officials from Market Leader came only rarely to check on the work of the project they had founded. But once they became better acquainted with this world so distant from the milieu in which they move in the city, and better understood what the volunteers were doing there, they now pay regular visits.

"Market Leader did not invest in the project expecting a return in profit but this is perhaps something where Taiwan is very special in the Chinese world." says Andy. "More and more companies are taking some sort of social responsibility. They realise at the end of the day that it's not all just about earning money but about doing something that you really believe in. In a way we have a chance here to change reality, and in Taiwan perhaps that should be to change education. Everything here is based on brain, so perhaps it's good to have a chance to create a place where children can do something else, where they can learn to make a fire or climb a tree or do something with wood or catch some fireflies or get really dirty, something that is totally the opposite to their education system. That's what I believe the owner of Mei's company is thinking about."

firedanceropeningnight

To celebrate its official opening in August of this year, Tiger Mountain hosted a diverse range of artists and musicians featuring among other things a puppeteer from Mexico, a noise musician from Tokyo, and a Taiwanese fire-dancer. The combination of these diverse artistic endeavours, and the unique atmosphere of the temple, creates an extraordinary effect, says Mei. Indeed, as I am interviewing them, outside a huge tent is being erected for Haibizi (海筆子), a Japanese/Taiwanese travelling theatre that is soon to perform here. I ask if these continuing artistic events suggest that Tiger Mountain may be moving towards more of a cultural rather than an educational space.  "I think Tiger mountain has its own direction so I think we are more or less like a platform and this platform can cover a lot of different things, as long as it fits into the main idea." says Andy. "There is a strong feeling of anti-commercialism or of doing more yourself and consuming less so there is something in a way political about what we do here."

Amu and Komuyi, Taiwanese artists who live in tents in an abandoned out-building just across from the temple, embody this ethic. They seek to create a self-sufficient eco-village on Tiger Mountain which puts the beliefs behind the Tiger Mountain project into practice.

ecovillage r

This approach has of course caused some tensions with Market Leader. At today's board meeting for example no lunch boxes or anything brought from outside was allowed, as much as possible being grown in the site's vegetable garden and cooked in the temple kitchen, to minimise waste. For Andy this in itself is an education. "Everything we do has to fit into the mentality of: you come here and you help. You don't come here and get served. And you learn things you've never done before."

Although Andy and Mei bring their own children here, they admit that it has been difficult to generate interest for such an alternative education in Taiwan. "There's a problem with children in Taiwan," says Mei, "which is that they are extremely busy. Every day, as well as school, they have many other classes. Piano classes, English classes, and so on." "It's a challenge for children to come here" adds Andy. "Taiwanese children normally only play on playgrounds in shopping malls where all the air is filtered and they have air-conditioning. Everything is disinfected, everything is clean. They don't have a lot of nature in their curriculum!"

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For the moment, Andy and Mei may have not started to do any formal education, but Tiger Mountain has made links with Liugong Middle School, a local college. The children often come to help on the vegetable garden, and to learn the basics of woodwork and carpentry, but mainly come just to enjoy the scenery. "At the beginning when they first came here" says Mei, "they felt bored. But after the first, second, third time they started to be interested in recognising all the different types of insects, and talking to the artists about their drawings. I was very happy to see them showing an interest in those kinds of things."

In the future Andy and Mei envision doing weekend courses with the children, as well holding camps over the summer and winter vacations. "But we can't rush them." says Mei, "you really have do it gradually because for them Tiger Mountain is a totally different world."

Andy and Mei's ideas for Tiger Mountain reflect the difficulties inherent in the nature of their project:
"Most of what we do here really has nothing to do with money. It has to do with people coming here to help, but like any NGO we have to work with other organisations or government for some funding." says Andy. "Also we must have a certain level of artistic things" adds Mei, "because we must maintain a level of funding sources to keep this place going. We can rent the space to get a bit of extra money to pay for upkeep."

In some costly areas, such as the creation of a wood workshop, they will seek sponsoring. In others, they will continue to do things with as little exchange of money as possible. Andy clarifies:
"I think in the future it will become what it will become. We are not really super master-planning it. We have a lot of ideas but anybody who is interested in doing something with their own hands or wanting to teach something can come and contact us and just do it."

temple

Tiger Mountain is at once a response to and an encouragement of the recent social developments happening in Taiwan and Andy is optimistic about its future:
"Taiwan is changing now. People are starting to see that when you have money and when you have a big car it's actually much more fascinating to build your own chair! I think this place has an incredible potential because of this location, this magical place, this enormous area, and with the ideas we have and with all the ideas which come in, to be one of the elements of change in Taiwanese society. We want to give children the chance to do something other than going to an English cram school or learning accounting or something like that, something that reconnects you with yourself. So I think this place could be a very interesting place in Taipei. I think it will become one of these things you want to visit if you come to Taipei."

 

Paul Jacob Naylor

From Leeds (UK). Graduate in Arabic language and Creative Writing. Freelance writer and translator who lived in Taiwan 2013-14. Now studying for a PhD at the University of Birmingham (UK) on the spread of Islam in West Africa.

Website: pauljacobnaylor.wordpress.com

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