DOWNLOAD the latest issue


  • An Imperial Edifice Born of the Xinhai Revolution
    Sep 20, 2023 / By Lin Tzung-Kuei ∥ Translated by Mike Fu

    Designed by Yang Cho-cheng of Hemu Architects, the Yuanshan Grand Hotel is a classic example of postwar architecture in Taiwan that is often cited for its symbolism and historical significance in the annals of architectural discourse. Scholars including Fan Ming-ju and Joseph R. Allen have analyzed the hotel using political, cinematic, and other frameworks. Given that most academic texts focus on the yellow glazed tiles of the hotel’s roof, the title The Red Mansion feels like a rediscovery that compels the reader to consider the overwhelming presence of red in the building, rather than simply gaze at the rooftop, where one’s attention may naturally be drawn when beholding antique palaces. This title uncovers the stories that take place within the walls of the hotel, and that exist beneath the contours of the building’s silhouette that remains so dominant in architectural history. Through a cast of colorful characters, the reader gets to know the fascinating history that this edifice contains.

    Why was the yellow roof such a striking feature during the era of authoritarian rule? To answer this question, we must return to Taiwan before World War II, when it was still a Japanese colony. By 1929, the 34th year of Japanese governance, Ide Kaoru had already long served as chief architect of the Taiwan Government-General’s Building and Repairs Section. In this capacity, he’d made many observations and formed insights into the architecture of the island. Ide believed that every metropolis had representative colors and palettes, such as the hazy hues of London, the vivid light of Paris, the earth tones of Rome, and so on. It was the task of the architectural designer to harmonize with the environment, rather than try to bend it to his will. In addition, the urban palette was created by not only static buildings, but the replaceable signage of shops and the dynamic movements of carriages and motor vehicles. Buses traveling back and forth on the streets were among the important elements that influenced one’s overall impression of a city, as well.

    Taihoku, as Taipei was then known, needed a long-term plan in order to create its own urban palette. Situated at a relatively low latitude compared to the Japanese mainland, Taihoku was well-suited for brick buildings in colors that would be enlivened by the bright sun. These facades would convey a sense of modernity and create a unique style for the city; they would also be easy to clean and maintain in such a humid climate. The brick buildings that were planned and designed under Ide Kaoru’s guidance included the pale green Taihoku Civic Hall (today’s Zhongshan Hall) and the High Court of the Taiwan Government-General (today’s Judicial Building); the tawny-colored Taiwan Education Hall (today’s National 228 Memorial Hall) and Taihoku Imperial University campus (today’s National Taiwan University); and the red ochre of the Taihoku High School campus (today’s National Taiwan Normal University). These structures have a cohesive style when viewed together, while each building also boasts its own colorful details.

    After World War II, Taipei’s landscape was shaped by architects who were well-versed in European and American modernism. They seemed to be on the verge of developing a unique urban palette for Taipei, but ultimately still fell short of Ide Kaoru’s ideal, which called for a blending of colors that could express calm and restraint while retaining a sense of vigor. Taipei’s postwar style instead deployed white tiles on building exteriors in order to convey a sense of spaciousness. The rapid economic development of this period produced mass quantities of buildings with uniform interiors and a limited range of exterior colors. The architects of the Republic of China were quite obsessed with white facades that emphasized volume, a modernist principle embodied most visibly by the New York Five in the 1980s. This group of star architects, also known as the Whites, was idolized and imitated around the world. We all know how the rest of the story went. In the rainy climes of Taipei, the white brick exteriors were not cleaned as regularly as the mighty building management committees had envisioned. They quickly became stained by exhaust and grime in the era of the automobile and no longer highlighted the spatial or structural features of the buildings as originally intended. The tiles were successively removed and restored, but no longer did they convey the modernist ideal of the city of white. In this city of pale hues filled with people of all social strata, how could the Republic of China’s blue bloods show off their elite status during an era of authoritarian rule? Landmarks with yellow glazed roof tiles thus became the symbol of a ruling class pining for their lost homeland.

    According to Professor Yang Hongxun of the architecture department of Tsinghua University in Beijing, Confucian temples and the habitations of the highest classes of the imperial family were the only structures allowed to use yellow glazed tiles during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Even the households of other nobles, including princes and lords, were limited to green or black tiles. The Kuomintang government took credit for overthrowing the Manchu Qing empire and leading the Xinhai Revolution. After relocating to Taiwan, the KMT used public resources to successively construct places like the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ Shrine, the National Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, and the National Theater and Concert Hall. In a twist of historical irony, these buildings all proudly make use of yellow glazed tiles, that most potent symbol of the imperial power toppled by the Xinhai Revolution. In the so-called Republic of China, the ruling party was essentially creating symbols to demonstrate they were the successors to the imperial palace. That the KMT inherited this mentality from dynastic times is absurd and paradoxical, a fact that has largely been overlooked beyond the communities of architectural researchers.

    If you looked out over the cityscape of postwar Taipei, you’d see glimmers of golden roofs in the midst of endless rows of white buildings, a brazen imposition of the shadow of the ancient Chinese capitals of Luoyang, Chang’an, Nanjing, and Beiping upon the Taipei Basin. The tallest of these buildings with yellow rooftops was none other than the Yuanshan Grand Hotel, the protagonist of the book in question.

    Ultimately, neither white nor yellow became a representative color of Taipei or the urban style of Taiwanese architecture. All that remains is the massive red mansion that still towers on Yuanshan, a location chosen for its excellent feng shui to house a shrine during the Japanese colonial era. The Yuanshan Grand Hotel has borne witness to tumultuous events like the establishment of the Democratic People’s Party, a great fire on its roof, the hiring of “lion-hearted” general manager Stanley Yen, and the controversy over the national flag during a Chinese delegation’s visit in 2008. The elite pretensions that the authoritarian government-in-exile vehemently maintained have faded away over time. A palace that once wielded immense power has ultimately reverted to the competition of the free market. Thanks to the stories recorded by T.H. Lee, we are able to glimpse Taiwanese history in the hotel. As for Taipei’s future and the question of how to create a national style, we’ll leave this in the hands of generations to come.

  • Helping a Beloved Mother Achieve an Autonomous Life Decision: A Combination of “Truth, Courage, and Wisdom”
    Sep 20, 2023 / By Lai Chi-Wan, MD ∥ Translated by Mary King Bradley

    This is a superb and truly remarkable book. It offers a meticulous record of how the author and her family fulfilled a beloved mother’s wish to hasten her end, a request that stemmed from the impaired movement and inability to care for herself brought about by a progressive atrophy of the brain.

    A specialist in rehabilitation medicine of many years’ standing, the author’s expertise in the field of life and death studies as well as in international laws and regulations on death have contributed to her wealth of writing experience in these areas. Only after looking through the entire text did I realize just how many aspects of life the book touches upon and thus come to understand the inner world of this mother. As fate would have it, she had a marvelous life in her later years despite the hardships of her youth. I applaud her from the bottom of my heart for the manner in which she voluntarily ended her eighty-three years of life.

    The author opens with the chapter “Genetic Screening for Cerebellar Atrophy”. Several of the author’s maternal relatives developed impaired mobility in middle age as a symptom of this disease. A cousin died by suicide, unable to bear its torture. Eventually, her mother was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia. The author then writes matter-of-factly about her own torment from the worry that she, too, had inherited the gene. To rid herself of this emotional and mental shroud, she finally resolved to undergo genetic screening to determine if she had in fact inherited the relevant gene mutation. As a result of her own experience, she could better understand her mother’s unwillingness to face the purgatory of the lingering death experienced by other family members, and could empathize with her wish to bring her life to a timelier close.

    The next few chapters describe the ups and downs of the mother’s life, including her lack of opportunity to obtain higher education due to the family’s financial circumstances and the disrespect she suffered throughout her life because of an unfortunate marriage. Despite these difficulties, she demonstrated diligence and self-discipline, never forgetting the practice of generosity and always showing care for the environment. Although she later had many opportunities to visit and spend time with her children after her husband’s death, by her sixties the cerebellar atrophy that ran in the family had gradually begun to worsen, affecting her coordination. Unable to walk normally, she fell frequently and required supervised personal care. Ultimately, she chose the autonomy of “a good death”.

    After this warm-up to the book’s subject matter, the next chapter, “The Ultimate Love Is to Let Go”, details the mother’s understanding of the meaning of life and the fasting process. The information the author shares with her mother about Dr. Nakamura Jinichi’s views on “dying of natural causes” and his methods for accomplishing this are also shared with the reader. Both valuable and difficult to come by, this is knowledge that helps readers understand how to communicate with older members of their family about this inevitable and difficult final hurdle of life.

    The last few chapters describe the family’s highly creative approach to bringing this woman’s life to a perfect, sorrow-free end with a “farewell ceremony” that gave the entire family an opportunity to bid her a warm farewell. Her grandson compiled the many stories his grandmother had told him about her life, then shared them with her and the rest of the family. The ceremony also gave her the opportunity to share with all of them her perspective on life. “The Fasting Process”, which includes the family’s observations and the mother’s reactions to this final step, provides a detailed record of her last few days of life. It also explains the possible side effects of fasting and the care required.

    The book does more than share with us how the author’s family helped a beloved relative realize her desire to make an autonomous life decision with sincerity, courage, and wisdom. It also provides us with an introduction to several excellent books that assisted them in doing so. Among these is If You Want a Peaceful Death, Don’t Have Anything to Do with Medical Care: Recommendations for Dying of Natural Causes, by Dr. Nakamura Jinichi, the book that made them aware of “fasting to achieve a peaceful death”. In it, Doctor Nakamura explains how the peaceful death of an aged relative at home is far better and more humane than an urgent trip to the hospital for a “medically assisted death” involving defibrillation, emergency medical procedures, intubation, and long-term hospitalization after your loved one has become critically ill. The author also introduces Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing. In this book, Nearing talks about her husband, Scout Nearing (1883–1983). She explains how shortly before his one-hundredth birthday, the retired professor and activist, who was a liberal and a naturalist thinker, announced at a meal with friends, “I think I won’t eat anymore.” From that point on, he no longer ate solid food, making a conscious choice regarding when and how he would depart this earth, using fasting to free himself from his body.

    Thanks to the real-life examples in this book as well as the material taken from two of the books that inspired the author to help her mother die well, I realized that a good book is the result of an author’s ability to share what she has read and personally experienced with readers. In doing so, the writer helps the reader to gain richer life experiences and mature in their thinking about the future.

  • Book Report: Man-Made Gods
    Sep 20, 2023 / By Joel Martinsen

    Imagine a role-playing game that uses weaponized Kantian metaphysics to tackle the legacy of Taiwan’s colonial past. Make the main character a gaming-obsessed student haunted by the death of a dear mentor, and you get a coming-of-age story told as a historically informed urban fantasy – where the stakes are terrifyingly real.

    Cheng Yi-hao is a college student majoring in literature who spends his free time playing tabletop RPGs, attending kendo exercises with his best friend Hui, and hanging out at the local game shop. When he receives an invitation to be one of twenty trial users of the “Deity Series”, an intriguing new product from Kuang-Shih Technology offering supernatural powers via a god-like personal assistant, he only hesitates a moment before signing the NDA. The device turns out to establish a link between his mind and a keepsake of his choice (dubbed an “Offering” in the instructions) and projects an AI avatar – the god, whom he names Diaolong.

    While Yi-hao is still familiarizing himself with Diaolong’s capabilities, he receives a warning that he’s in grave danger. Testers are being stalked, attacked, and kidnapped, and rumors of a beast man rampaging through Taipei may have something to do with it. At a hastily called meeting, he meets other testers whose gods have a wide range of capabilities, some more obviously useful than others, from invisibility, spatial duplication, and material fabrication to divination, spirit communication, and music. Although the testers don’t quite trust each other, they decide after a heated debate that cooperation is their only option – and that attack is the best form of defense.

    When the meeting concludes, Kagami Shizuka, a student from Japan whose father is in Taiwan on business, pulls Yi-hao aside and informs him that the true power of her god isn’t music but teleportation, a revelation that proves valuable when one group member is abducted during the group botched attack on company HQ. Shizuka teleports Yi-hao into the copy world the enemy has created where, as telegraphed by the prologue and the unusual interactions between the two earlier in the book, he discovers that his friend Hui has been tracking down and defeating other testers with the aid of his god of fighting. The two duel in the copy world, a deserted downtown commercial center, in a sequence that involves gods stolen from other captured testers: powers of telekinesis, hallucination, and rampant plant growth. It’s a spectacular battle that Hui doesn’t want to win (he’s not fighting of his own free will), so he engineers a situation that allows Yi-hao and Shizuka to flee the copy world with his god’s Offering, his treasured kendo sword.

    After this first battle, as the question of who is to blame – and who might be a mole – threatens to tear the group apart, the danger is no longer an abstract fear: their opponents have the ability to extract gods and render their former masters comatose. A second attempt fares no better than the first. Yi-hao falls into enemy hands and is rescued just in the nick of time by Shizuka and her bodyguard Mizukami Toyoya. Snippets of intel gained from these raids mean they haven’t been a total loss, but the contradictory information leaves the bigger picture frustratingly opaque. From Mizukami they learn that the technology, which enables thoughts to directly alter the fabric of reality via Kantian things-in-themselves, was stolen from JMM, a private mining company whose largest shareholder is Shizuka’s family. But info from Kuang-Shih tells a different story: an attempt two decades earlier to create an omniscient homunculus based on medieval alchemical principles left behind twenty fragments that can bestow supernatural powers on human subjects.

    In a quiet moment, Yi-hao and Shizuka bond over loss. Shizuka grew up feeling like an outcast because her family hated her Taiwanese mother – whom she recently learned may have been murdered on her father’s orders when she was very young. Yi-hao’s mother died three years ago, robbing him not only of a beloved parent but of the person most instrumental in fostering his love of gaming. For Yi-hao, the prospect that he can’t trust Shizuka complicates his growing feelings for her, but aided by the patient counsel of his god Diaolong, he realizes that he doesn’t want to treat her merely as an asset in a game and resolves to protect her at any cost.

    The group’s third attack on the company is another failure: they arrive at the scene of a bloodbath and watch in horror as Shizuka’s father Kagami Masato execute the CEO. Now out of options, they’re relieved to make contact with the retired CEO of Kuang-Shih who vid-chats them from his home in England to lay out the back story:

    What began as an occult Axis engineering project in the Kinkaseki mines near Ruifang to gain homunculus-assisted precognition continued after WWII as part of the ROC’s civil war effort and later as a bulwark against Communism. Waning NATO support forced the company to seek out other sources of funding, leading to an alliance with the mining company’s Japanese successor. The testers are descendants of the twenty people chosen to provide DNA blueprints for the human abstraction required to interface with the essence of the cosmos, and their presence is necessary to revive the homunculus.

    Armed with this information, the group finally have a clear end goal: they must unite the homunculus fragments to revive the omniscient, omnipotent being – and prevent it from falling into Japanese hands. The lab, hidden deep within the mining facility now famous as the “Ruins of the 13 Levels”, has been sustained by the alchemical principles behind its construction and continues to be serviced by a phantom train running along the disused Shenao Line. Once again the Japanese are one step ahead of them, but Shizuka confronts her father and, having realized that she herself is her father’s Offering and the source of his power, shoots herself. Mizukami unexpectedly kills Masato, setting up a final, epic duel with Yi-hao in the bowels of the mining facility, while a healing god goes to work saving Shizuka.

    Things wrap up quickly after that. After the group briefly revive the homunculus to put everything back to normal, they received the ominous news that Kuang-Shih’s new owners are demanding they hand over their gods.

    Despite its door-stopper length, the novel moves along at a fast clip, alternating intense strategy sessions with gripping action scenes where new revelations topple seemingly sound constructions of logical inferences. A gamer’s outlook permeates the entire narrative: all choices are preceded by a thorough assessment of risks and have a distinct, quantifiable goal in mind; where information is incomplete, convincing arguments win the day; and characters explicitly name-check semi-cooperative deduction games like Shadows Over Camelot and Lupus in Tabula. In an afterword, author Xiao Xiang Shen reveals that he first ran the scenario as a role-playing game before revising it into a novel a decade later, by which point the resumption of service on the abandoned Shenao branch line of the title forced the book to be a period piece, with flip phones, BBSs, grainy video, and fax machines charmingly anchoring the narrative in 2009 Taipei.

    The inclusion of a few “interludes” in other characters’ voices gives insight into the complicated back stories they keep hidden – whether by choice or coercion – from Yi-hao and the other testers: beast-man Su Yu-lung grew up during the mine’s golden age in the ’70s and wants to prove that his life was meaningful rather than just an embarrassing relic of Cold War thinking; Wei Chih-ching used her divining god to win the lottery and save her family from ruthless loan sharks but became disillusioned by the temptations of wealth; double-agent Yan Chung-shu, weighed down by guilt, entered into a bargain that could create a universe-destroying paradox if the homunculus were revived; Kagami Masato, unable to protect his beloved wife from the machinations of his ruthless family, felt the only way to protect his daughter was to feign not caring about her at all.

    But ultimately it’s Yi-hao’s story, and as he navigates a shifting network of alliances and rivalries, he learns to appreciate people for more than just their strategic value. The evolution of his oft-stated “victory condition” to take into account the people he loves rather than simply the rules of the game subtly shifts the trajectory of the plot as well, leading to a climactic duel with a powerful rival, ostensibly for control of all of the gods, where his triumph hinges on the realization that they both share the same underlying goal – Shizuka’s safety and happiness rather than immense cosmic power.

    The eventual revival of the homunculus is a more muted affair, little more than an opportunity to reverse all of the damage suffered during the entire ordeal and restore status quo – except for Yen Chung-shu, whose very real death robbed the homunculus of an essential means of anchoring it to the human universe for more than a few brief minutes. And then there’s scarcely time to breathe before hostile forces are agitating for control of the gods, an unsettling conclusion that invites parallels to Taiwan’s unresolved position on the geopolitical stage even as it leaves the door open for another campaign.