This spring, visual artists Daniel Zhu and Jennifer Whalen ventured from San Francisco to Taiwan, and they produced a video about the trip that tried to capture the peacefulness of the country as they ventured from Taipei to Tainan and Taichung, and even into the country’s rural areas.
Capturing the peace seems something of an oxymoron; this is an island nation with one of the highest population densities in the world. Motorcycles buzz by constantly (there are more than 15 million motorcycles in the country; there are almost 7 motorcycles for every 10 people. The sixth-tallest building in the world is in Taiwan’s northernmost city, Taipei (following its completion in 2004, the Taipei 101 was the tallest building in the world for six years), and the cities are understandably busy. But in spite of all that thrum of humanity, Zhu and Whalen said there’s an inner peacefulness and playfulness that’s easy to spot. Their interview, video and a gallery of their images follow:
Besides the overall exploration, was there a focus for the trip?
Daniel: We were there for the nation’s big event, which was held this year in Taichung; it’s called the Lantern Festival. It’s the nicest and largest lantern festival in the world. It was a three- or four-day festival, and it was in the spirit of a really, really big fair. At any given moment, there were about 70,000 to 80,000 people in attendance. It was located right next to the high-speed train system, so there were a lot of people coming in from around the country.
What’s the first thing you realized about Taiwan?
Jennifer: I just remember the people being extremely welcoming and very friendly. Taiwan really prides itself on is that they have a friendly, welcoming culture.
Daniel: I was born in China, and in China we have so many people and they are just minding their own business. In Taiwan, if they see a traveler, they are very hospitable. They love to chat, we had mothers with young kids walking by and just waving “Hi.” With the shopkeepers there’s no pressure to buy anything; they’re just happy to have your company.
It was my first trip to Taiwan, but I have a lot of Taiwanese friends in the states, and after going, I can tell my friends that I understand where their friendliness comes from. I can say, “Your entire country seems that way."
Is there a particular moment etched in your memory?
Jennifer: I took a picture of a woman and her tiny little 2-year-old who were passing by on a bike. They waved, and it was just a fun picture. Then we went to eat a café down the block, and somehow they found us. She walked into the café with the kid and they wanted to say “hi” again. So I shook the little boy's hand, and it was all very cute. They were really intrigued we were there, but I don’t know how they tracked us down in that little café.
The peacefulness of spirituality plays a big part in your video. On a sensory level, what stood out?
Jennifer: One of the most memorable things were the temples [Editor’s note: The nation has a mix of religions, but is largely comprised of Buddhism and Taoism].
When you’re walking around the city [of Taipei], there’s not a lot of sun; it’s not super clean, and you can see the pollution. But when you walk past these temples, they’re bright and colorful and super ornate, and they really stand out as you’re walking through the city. You just feel compelled to go inside of them. In the temples, it’s very quiet; there is incense burning creating a hazy smoke and people are praying, and then you step back outside and you’re in the hustle and bustle of the city where you’re wowed by all the motorbikes.
Daniel: These are really large temples. You see the front and you walk in and there are layers upon and layers of entryways. It’s kind of like walking through a Russian doll where you keep going through each layer, and each layer in the temple had its own history that seemed like it was going back thousands of years. I was in awe, peeling back the layers of history.
Jennifer: The temples are set up so that it’s easy-in and easy-out access. You come in, say your prayers, and then you go on with your day. It’s not this formal, get dressed really nice and do this two-hour commitment once a week that Christianity and other religions have. Temples seem to become a daily thing for a lot of the people, maybe even multiple times a day.
What was the vibe in Taipei?
Jennifer: Taipei was very busy, very urban, thousands of people on their motorbikes.
Daniel: The motorbikes in Taipei are something else. You look back in the 1980s and even the 1990s in big Asian cities, and it was all bicycles. Now they are all being replaced by mopeds. So there were so many mopeds. It was cute, though. There’s a mother on the moped with a daughter in the front seat wearing her small helmet, and sometimes there’s a little dog in the basket.
Taipei is also really well known for its night markets, the street markets, which we included in the video.
You also captured the nation's rural areas.
Daniel: Taiwan isn’t 100 percent developed. Sometimes you go into the rural areas and they’re using waterwheels to pump water. They’re still using buckets to gather things. It resembles what you might see in the countryside of China in the 1930s, and that contrasts to Taipei, where there’s one of the tallest buildings in the world.
You even have Taiwanese business people on their vacation that go to the rural areas to see that people see people that live this way. Those business people are on their smart phones, carrying around 21st century technology, and in the rural areas, it would sometimes seem like it was still the 19th century.
There’s a Hello Kitty tour bus in the video. Was that the bus you were riding?
Jennifer: [Laughs]. No, that was just a bus we found. Hello Kitty is popular there like you wouldn’t believe. I was so fascinated by their love of Hello Kitty and all of these cutesy little characters. They had a cartoon character for everything; it was part of every logo, and they make statues and trinkets out of them, too. I thought that was interesting in terns of branding and graphic design. They create a cartoon character for their logo, even for a dim sum restaurant.
Daniel: Even at the lantern festival where you have an official event with the president, you have kids on stage dancing around with a bunch of character mascots.
Daniel: We even saw a Hello Kitty donut shop.
Jennifer: It’s all very light-hearted, cute, bright and colorful. And that comes up against these cities that are overpopulated and kind of oppressed. You’d see thousands of people in the morning rushing on their motorbikes to get to work. They were clearly overpopulated. People have to cram into small apartments just to survive. But yet they’re wearing these really colorful and cute backpacks, and these cartoon characters lift the mood and spirit.
Daniel: Sometimes even in what you might not think was a peaceful area, like in their version of a Times Square, if you keep your eyes open, you do see things that happen that are very peaceful.
The cameras: Canon 5D Mark III, BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera with a Metabones Speedbooster; the lenses: 24-70mm Canon, 100mm Canon, 11-14mm Tokina, 50mm/f1.2 Canon
Gallery: The 2015 Taiwan Lantern Festival, held in Taichung
(All photos ©Jennifer Whalen)