Sunday, April 12, 2015

Riding the Elevator--Some Boyhood Reminiscences of Tainan, Taiwan, in the 1920's & 1930's

It's been a while since I posted anything. In any case, I'm back from a trip to a place I love, Taiwan, with something to share, some memories of life in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945), provided by my beloved father-in-law, Mr. Fang of Tainan. To me, he is and will always be BaBa, which is also what my wife and my brothers-in-law call him.

Now 90 years young, BaBa sat down with me a week ago to have tea. I asked him some questions in Mandarin about his childhood. My wife translated my words into Taiwanese, and BaBa happily recalled some favorite memories of a simpler time.

(1) Riding the Elevator
BaBa told me he used to walk two hours from the Tainan countryside to the city of Tainan to ride the elevator of the five-story Hayashi Department Store (林百貨), then the tallest building in Tainan and the only one with an elevator. He couldn't ride the elevator for free; he had to pay the lowest denomination of coin, something like a US penny, for each ride. All this probably occurred after the store opened in 1932. With glee in his eyes, BaBa told me the store still exists. Sure enough, I visited the newly refurbished and reopened store the very next day. If you find yourself in Tainan, you might visit the Hayashi Department Store and use your imagination to visualize a young farm boy entranced by the modern technological advancement of the elevator. (

(2) The Medicine Show & Other Forms of Entertainment
Back in the countryside of Tainan County, there wasn't much in the way of entertainment. Cloth puppet shows and outdoor storytelling were discouraged by the Japanese authorities as such entertainment wasn't deemed Japanese enough. Medicine shows were tolerated, however. A company would present some individuals singing for just a few minutes, followed by sales pitches for whatever the company sold. A crowd would always gather to hear the singing. Another permitted diversion was Japanese movies shown outdoors on big makeshift screens.

(3) Favorite Childhood Games
BaBa and friends loved spinning tops, perhaps those of the large Chinese variety. They also enjoyed hide-and-seek, swimming and splashing each other with water in the river, and staging sword fights with homemade wooden swords.

(4) Japanese Cops & the Gamblers
BaBa remembers a local Japanese policeman with a fierce reputation. He used to instill fear by going on his rounds with a metal nightstick, which would make a clanging sound. The mere sound of that nightstick would send gamblers and hoodlums fleeing in all directions. This policeman would head out into farm fields, somehow alerted to the location of clandestine gambling sessions. The gamblers would be so frightened that they would take off, leaving behind all their money. The policeman would then scoop up all the money for himself and leave the scene. Not only gamblers and local thugs would run at the sound of the nightstick. BaBa recalls a tang-ki (乩童), a medium who would commune with the dead for those who needed to placate displeased spirits, and this medium once went into a trance, mumbling, muttering, shaking, rolling his eyes and so on. (Bear in mind that this would certainly be an occupation frowned on by the Japanese.) But when he heard the clank, clank, clank of the nightstick, he stood straight up, opened his eyes, and, trance or no trance, rushed off in the opposite direction of the approaching policeman. (The best book I know of in English on these mediums is David K. Jordan's Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village.)

(5) The Exploits of the Criminal Ong Sa Zai
Ong Sa Zai (Wang Sancai 王三财, or "Three Treasures Wang") was a local hoodlum in Tainan City and County. Among his various crimes was poaching. He would rustle local cattle, butcher the animals and sell the meat. One one occasion remembered by BaBa, Ong had butchered someone's cow or bull, swaddled the meat up as if he were carrying a child, and hired a rickshaw man to take him into Tainan City to sell the meat on a street corner. As soon as he alighted from the rickshaw, though, he was immediately approached by a policeman. (BaBa didn't specify if the policeman was a Taiwanese or a Japanese.) Suspicious, the policeman began aggressively questioning Ong. All of a sudden, Ong hit the cop with both right and left crosses, flooring him. Ong then took off and disappeared down one of the many alleys that exist in Tainan. When the policeman came to, he discovered the rickshaw man was dutifully standing by. Then, despite the rickshaw man's protests, the policeman arrested the innocent man as an accessory to a crime. On another occasion, after the Japanese period had ended, Ong made it known he was supporting one of the two candidates for mayor of Tainan. The other candidate, incensed,  got wind of this and sent several thugs of his own to pay Ong a little visit in the hotel Ong had made his home. Ong, with the second sight for survival many people like him seem to possess, somehow found out he was in store for a major beating or worse. Before the thugs reached his doorstep, Ong had wrapped himself up in a thick quilt or two, burst out the door past the astounded hoodlums, and rolled himself down the long, hard stairway, all the way to the first floor, whereupon he discarded the quilts and disappeared into the night, to live again for yet another day. BaBa relates that Ong Sa Zai ended up living to a ripe old age.

BaBa, may you live well and be healthy and happy for many, many more years to come!