Liminal Realms at the Mountains and the Margins of Taipei

by on 週日, 01 十二月 2013 評論


The Mountains and the Margins of Taipei


As the second of our two-part feature on nature and the city, Shanshui Taipei, we explore Taipei's mountains. The mountains represent the natural frontier of the city, the border between the natural jungle and the urban jungle, but also the border between a standardized modus operandi of urban living and the diverse community lifestyles on the periphery, detached as they are from the daily reliance on the mainstream structures of the urban core.

At these mountains and margins the artificial city and nature can transcend their opposition to be reconnected; unique ecologies and communities can be found, memories or socio-experimental laboratory's for alternative ways of living to the globalized and homogenous modern city. Should the city valorize these marginal areas, or devour them? Can these marginal areas also function as liminal realms, in-between spaces where experimentations and transformations infiltrate and transform the urban mainstream? From these mountain ecological guerilla bases can nature reinvade the city consciousness?

The modern city seems, like the universe, to be an ever-expanding mass. Where are its margins? Viewed from the human city's phallic centre, Taipei 101, we have a panoramic view of the city's infrastructure and architecture stretching until the mountains, the outer margins. This man-made tower stands like a watchtower gazing over the whole of human society and its natural boundaries, perhaps lulling the powers that be into a false illusion that the mountains and the city are completely visible and controlled. From this viewpoint, the mountains and the rivers are a distant cityscape background, set to be tranquil and nostalgic. The movement fomenting at the fringes, micro-actions in the edges, are invisible, swallowed up by the urban core. Taipei 101 is like the ivory tower of planners and developers from which the urban layout is dictated.

But what if we view the city from its natural and social margins? Last month we considered Taipei as a water city. Viewed from the river bed, Taipei would be a plateau of higher ground. Taipei is normally considered as a basin, by which standard the margin of its urban mass would be considered from the mountains above. Looking down on Taipei's cityscape from the mountains edge, how does the city change from this vantage point?

Mountain Cityscape

Viewed from the mountains, the cityscape is a sea of orange and red lights, vast but also calm. The city sounds become white noise as they melt together and get drowned out by the winds. Long-time pilgrims viewing from the mountain will notice the ever-changing cityscape. It is in its ever changing chaos that nature is at its most stable, and with human intrusion that the chaotic wrath of nature is known to the city: torrential rains leave mudslides crushing buildings, floods terrorize the city. Viewed from nature, the human city is pathetic in its seemingly destructive advance and vice-versa. Where humans look into mountain caves at the blood-suckling, rabies-infested upside-down supersonic listener rodents, bats look out of their caves at the mammal-eating sun-worshipping bipedal beasts. Mammals all the same. The human city leaves leftover pockets of nature, the nature-city leaves leftover pockets of architecture, ruins for our perusal.

In his article The Mountain and the City Benoit Girardot takes us on an exemplary journey of transcension between the physical and mental states captured by the mountain and the city.


Urban Border

The theme for the 2013 Shenzhen + Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale is Urban Border, described as follows:

"The phenomenon of "border" would at least include the following understandings: sociologically it can imply peripheral spaces of the city, fringe groups, marginal lifestyles; in the context of political science it can refer to regulation of how urban public resources are organized and distributed; and in urban geography it can denote borders and interstices of urban development, as well as the interrelatedness between the city and natural ecologies."

Rather than view the core and the margins as a binary or dual city, Professor Kang Min-jay (康旻杰) of NTU's Graduate Institute of Building and Planning (城鄉所) prefers to call for a more inclusive boundary concept, where nature and city overlap and interconnect. Between nature and city, between revived leftover communities and the metropolis are spaces of dialogue, where we can discuss the becoming of the future city. Old and new communities experimenting with original ways of living can be liminal realms, where individuals can advance their own journeys of becoming and from there affect change in the surrounding urban environment.

Leftover Communities

Military Dependants Villages (MDVs), are leftover communities' built by the Mainlander soldiers who came over in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war. Most of the communities were built in border spaces, the remaining pockets of land, often at the riverside or next to the mountain. These MDV mainlander communities in Taiwan are 'betwixt and between'[3], never wholly a part of or apart from, no longer local to their irretrievable communities in Mainland China, but not yet properly Taiwanese of the host island, in a permanent state of impermanence (see eRenlai's interview with Stephane Corcuff for more on Mainlander liminality and also Taiwan's liminality in the geopolitical order).

Most of these communities have now been demolished and forgotten in the name of economic development, cleaning up the squalor of these supposed unsafe or blighty neighbourhoods to comfort the middle class angst. Yet, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and some groups fight to keep these MDVs that are so unique to the Taiwan cityscape. For example the Good Toad Mountain group of residents, activists and artists are fighting to preserve Huanmin Village, spread out on the slopes of Toad Mountain[4] through community events, cultural lobbying and artistic happenings. This unique community may yet be demolished before the year is over. Should the MDV be demolished, some have made last moment attempts to preserve the memory of the Toad Mountain community in film form. In Tian Tian's moving documentary "Will my friends come out today?", she follows a few community elders, who have been gathering every day at the same spot for decades, a spot potentially to be destroyed, which ended up being the focal point of spatial rejuvenation as part of neighbourhood arts festival held there in September 2013. A few more films were captured, edited and shown during the 10-days on a widescreen, with the iconic radar system of Toad Mountain as its backdrop. eRenlai had also been filming throughout the process for which Pinti Zheng completed the editing of our own short film of the Toad Mountain action. Urban edge spaces like Toad Mountain still remain on the periphery of the vertically expanding city and in these heretic spaces between the legitimate and the illegitimate, we can bring into question the whole development ideal of the city. (Oil painting below by He Cong)

Fig-2--alternative景觀氛圍小時候常來蟾蜍山的藝術家何從得知蟾蜍山的保存行動後主動繪製2.5米長的蟾蜍山水墨長軸 截圖

New Communities

The mountains have always been a refuge for practitioners, pilgrims, drug addicts or others in need of religious or spiritual retreat. In various traditional societies the mountain wilderness is a space for a rite of passage, liminal realms where individuals go to meditate and reach an outer-worldly experience. In the modern city, these rites in search of great interconnectedness between humans and nature have largely been forgotten in the rush to get ahead in the struggle for money and material resources. The mountains surrounding Taipei are dotted with temples devoted to various deities; communities closer to the mountains maintain this harmonious religious energy. In the Four Beasts mountain range (Tiger, Lion, Leopard, Elephant) bordering Taipei's Xinyi business district, there are well over 100 temples. Known as 'the lungs of Taipei', the luscious green intersections and pious communities of the Four Beasts allow different lifestyles to breathe on the urban border. "Known will the mountains be if deities dwell, no matter how high; charmed will the waters be if dragons reside, no matter how deep" This saying which originated from the poem Humble Abode Inscription by Liu Yuxi is a testament to the virtues of contently living a simple life and resonates with the pious residents and pilgrims. In Journey to the Karaoke Temples Paul cycles us from the city through to the temple culture and community surrounding on Tiger Mountain, visually displaying the salient contrast between the city's core and its karaoke margins, on his superb DIY camera bicycle, the Conor 3000. He finishes his stimulating ride at the interstice between the mountains and the city, Weiyuan Hushan (微遠虎山), where the Miculture Foundation has begun converting a temple into both an ecological classroom and performing arts space, combining the religious energies of the past with new ideas to face up to and educate on the current and future challenges of the city. 

The fledgling Eco-cooperative Association, at the same Miculture Foundation space on Tiger Mountain, is another such place providing empowering ideas for urban sustainability. Daniel translates In Search of Utopia where in their search for self-sufficiency, The Eco-cooperative of Tiger Mountain uses diverse experiments in permaculture and communal living. For example even human feces and urine have valuable recycling use through ecological toilets. The DIY ethic of these communities can prepare us for a future where industrial building materials become ever more scarce or costly. Beyond diverse experiments in planting different types of crops, this eco-village is a new addition to the global ecovillage movement exploring different ways of living together, communally and sustainably.

Liminal Realms

A diverse ecology is a healthy one, and the same goes for the urban ecology. The communities we explore are blessed with a higher state of connectedness to nature and reality, a respect for memory and local knowledge, strong community ties and the DIY spirit.

We search out these holes in the urban fabric, temporarily appropriating and rejuvenating spaces, mapping and apping these zones as alternative experimental labs. If the concrete city is bursting at the seams, we can be the needles piercing these seams. Scaling the tunnels and caves, penetrating holes in the urban fabric, these liminal realms can be rites of passage for individuals and societies to reconnect with community and nature. These socio-ecological laboratories at the mountain and the margins can be de-alienating spaces of opportunity and transformation, in which the future of the city can be re-imagined.

Photos by Pinti Zheng

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.






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