| All those years I worked in Taipei, I never dropped by Wan
Hua for a casual visit. But on one of my visits with mom back
in Taichung, while we were watching TV to keep each other
company, she piped up casually, “I wonder what the place is like
now?” She was bed-ridden by then, and we saw on the news
how the slightly seedy and dusky traditional market had been
torn down and converted into the bright and tidy “Longshan
Temple Underground Mall,” which was connected to a subway
entrance. Lanterns hung high, drums and cymbals sounded, as
if to chase away the murky atmosphere of the past.
“How the times have changed!” You could hear the sadness and helplessness in her voice. The times did seem far
ahead of her; the non-stop modernization had turned the landscapes
and buildings that used to be so familiar to mom and dad
into something like the yesterdays you see in old pictures. Dad
had passed on by then, and mom was as frail as a wick that
smoldered in the wind. Tiptoeing around her sadness about the
rise and fall that occurred as time marched mercilessly on, I
raised my voice in an attempt to coax her, “Once you get better,
we’ll go back there and shop around the streets just like the
mob!” I remember how she pursed her lips, though their corners
were slightly raised.
The scene is still before my eyes. But mom never got better,
and the dream of going back to Wan Hua never materialized.
On my way to Longshan Temple by Taipei Metro,1 scenes from
the past kept flooding into my mind. I could not help envisioning
Wan Hua District, Hua Xi Street, Bao Dou Borough, and
many others, that I was about to reconnoiter with my own feet.
Names that had been crowded out of my life for years. How
different were they now? And how much was I going to be able
to recognize by my fallible childhood memory?
The Metro got there soon: “Longshan Temple Underground
Mall” on a conspicuous sign. From the entrance where I stood,
I could see the underground mall lit by radiant fluorescent tubes.
Shoppers were few and far between, and a number of shops had
closed down. You could see a soul or two strolling here and there, but on closer look they all appeared to be hobos.
I took the escalator up to the exit that said “Meng Jia Park”
in large letters. As a contrast to the air-conditioned, fluorescentlit
underground construction, first thing you saw here was a
whole expanse of concrete studded with greenery. The noon sun
poured down with intense summery passion. The dank but
crowded traditional market of my childhood had vanished, and
in its place were the open sunny skies, the artistic sculptures of
an urban park, the eaves of Longshan Temple nearby, the tiled
sidewalks, and the fountain with its regular water shows. The
new architectures of the square represented the antiquated quarters’
attempt at renovation. Razing the shops and stalls of the
traditional market to the ground, and then constructing an artistic
public square, did this guarantee an escape from the stale air
This should be the most popular spot in Taipei with older
folks and hobos. In the U-shaped corridors, they either sat in a
row or lay down on the high and low platforms. In twos and
threes, they played chess, checkers, or cards. Some strolled
back and forth wearing a poker face, some mumbled to themselves
with their lips twitching, but most of them just doubled
up, leaned back, or lay flat in each cozy, airy corner, sleeping
like any vagabond you know. I held my breath and tiptoed by
their faces as softly as I could, for fear I should disrupt someone’s
roaming dreams, or tread on the pure land where they
slumbered and respired. The old men sitting in rows in the surrounding
corridors, each with puffed bags under their eyes,
looked the passers-by up and down. Uneasy with my isolation, I
strode in the direction of the busy streets.
On the sidewalks, visitors were jostling against one another.
Magnolia vendors, joss paper vendors and massagers, all
sorts of hawkers lined up outside the walls of Longshan Temple
with their portable stalls. Everything was just as I’d remembered
them from childhood. Votaries kept pouring into the
Temple, making it even livelier than I’d known. The air was
permeated with pious incense and prayers; wisp after wisp of
smoke from the incense burners wafted up the devout wishes of
votaries who’d gathered from all corners of the land.
I lit my incense sticks among the religious who were offering
silent prayers. Several women kneeled or crouched before
the door sill, earnestly imploring the gods for an answer to their
prayers by casting crescent-shaped divination blocks on the
floor. I did not know what to say to Bodhisattva; in fact I was
probably just reviewing a sacred rite by lighting the incense
sticks, or just sending up a greeting to Bodhisattva to let him
know I was the kid who had used to come with her mother over
twenty years ago.
Mom was extremely devout; whether in the grand hall or in
the attached shrines, she made me bow to all the buddhas and
deities by holding my palms together. She could never have
enough of the gods and buddhas, so when my legs got sore waiting,
I’d crouch down and scribble in the ashes. I was often
scalded by lengths of smoking-hot ashes dropping from the devotees’
I was too little at the time, but even after I grew up, mom’s
wishes and worries were still beyond me. Now how I longed to
go back to that time and place, to listen in on mom’s whispers to
the gods. I’d like to ask Bodhisattva, what secrets had mom poured out to him? In my childhood, mom was always sparing
of words and wishes, and she kept her emotions, happy or otherwise,
mostly to herself. So now it was as if I was bowing to
Bodhisattva on her behalf. Or rather I was like mom who, all
those years before, had kindled myriads of feelings whenever
she kindled a joss stick. I wanted to say something to the gods
and buddhas, about all the little things that had happened to me,
which though insignificant had made waves in my daily life. I
wished to have a good chat with the gods, about the mom they
might still remember, and about what had become of her later.
But I had intimations that the powerful gods would know everything
and perceive everything, so wouldn’t it be redundant to
pour out all this to them?
As my confused thoughts coursed about randomly, I
stepped out of the grand hall. In front of the portals, a few photographers
in fnac uniforms were setting up their tripods to catch
the various aspects of this religious center of northern Taiwan.
Before I left the courts of the Temple,...