Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Know your traditions: Donating money for temple decoration

All of Taiwan's temples are privately funded, and many of the most famous ones are seriously wealthy. The pious, especially those who feel their prayers have been answered, donate cash or gold. Whenever a temple is redecorated or rebuilt, devotees are encouraged to pay for individual carvings or paintings. Some of these features are mass-produced, amateurish or slapdash, but many others are superb pieces of art. The donor's name is usually added to the finished piece.

Visitors to Chiayi's Cheng Huang Temple – the busiest place of worship in that city of 274,000 – will see, near the main entrance, two large panels on which are inscribed the names of those who funded the shrine's 1990 renovation. The list features nearly 3,000 names, arranged according to how much they gave. The majority forked out what must have been at least a week’s earnings.

I took these photos in a typical backstreet temple in Tainan. They show fresh wall engravings, together with red squares of paper showing who paid for them, and how much they paid. The one at the top was donated by two people surnamed Chen (the most common family name in Taiwan, incidentally). The lower picture was endowed by a person surnamed Lu. In both cases, the amount donated was NTD8,000 (about GBP160 or US$260).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Read extracts online

If you're curious about my new guidebook, click here and you can browse the contents thanks to Google Books. Text and maps are visible, but if you want to see the colour photos inside, you'll have to lay your hands on a print copy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Taipei's Museum of Drinking Water

The Museum of Drinking Water (台北自來水博物館) is one of Taipei's smaller museums. For many visitors, the attraction is not so much the information it contains about how the city was supplied with water and how that water was made fit for human consumption as the building itself. A superb Baroque structure that dates from 1908, it's one of the finest architectural legacies of the Japanese colonial era.

Taiwan's government classified the building as a national relic in 1993, several years after the pumping station inside had ceased operation. Much of the original equipment (see below) remains in place, although it's been repainted and polished up. The arc-shaped main building (see top left), which has small bronze domes at either end, was designed by Japanese architect Nomura Ichiro (野村一郎), the man also responsible for what is now National Taiwan Museum.

The station was planned by William K. Burton (1856-1899), an Edinburgh-born, Cambridge-educated engineer who worked for the Japanese colonial authorities. He risked disease and banditry in his effort to identify sources of clean water in the hills near Taipei. The dysentery and malaria he contracted in Taiwan also certainly shortened his life. Burton also planned another superb Japanese-era edifice which, unfortunately, is not open to the public: The Old Tainan Watercourse in Shanshang.

The museum is open 09.00-18.00 Tue-Sun. During the summer, opening hours are often extended. Admission, which is NTD80/60/40, also gains you access to a small network of trails and an open-air display of pipes and other water-distribution equipment. Of the latter, the most interesting is a heavy-duty pipe bucked by the September 21 Earthquake.

The museum can be reached by rapid-transit train. From Gongguan MRT Station on the Xindian Line, take exit 4, turn left at Siyuan Street and then walk a few minutes towards Tingzhou Street. Note these directions down before you set out as within the MRT station there's no English-language sign pointing the way.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Two butterflies and a temple doorway...

There's no particular point to this post, just a photo of mine which I happen to like a lot. It shows two butterflies seemingly coupling (the process can take an hour or more) outside Zhen Fushe (鎮福社) a tiny and beautifully decrepit old shrine in Kaohsiung's Zuoying district. The temple has long been closed to the public.

Zhen Fushe is a stone's throw from the 18th-century walls of Fengshan and within walking distance of the Kaohsiung Museum of Military Dependents Villages.

Taiwan's English-language newspapers

For decades, Taiwan had two English-language newspapers, the China Post and China News. Both were pro-Chinese Nationalist (KMT), as was all media until political liberalisation kicked in in the late 1980s. In 1999, the China News was bought by a local conglomerate, renamed Taiwan News, and changed its political orientation. In the same year, Taipei Times - now Taiwan's best and most popular English-language newspaper - was launched. Taipei Times has always expressed 'Taiwan First' viewpoints and so is close to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

For a decade, these three titles served a tiny pool of readers. They've suffered, like newspapers around the world, from the rise of the Internet and shrinking advertising revenues. It's no surprise that one of them has just gone under. Taiwan News recently scaled down their print operation to the point you're very unlikely to find a copy; they've revamped their website but it's slow and useless. The print edition of the China Post, which remains pro-KMT, is still available islandwide. Sometimes it carries worthwhile reports on local events. Taipei Times is the English-language newspaper you're most likely to come across.