On Tianmu, friends and the notion of 'place'

Tuesday, June 12, 2012
by Adam Tyrsett Kuo

The Taiwanese are among some of the friendliest people I have met. I am sure that a lot has been written about the tourist attractions in Taiwan; therefore, I thought I'd write about one of my favorite neighborhoods and haunts, a few people I have been fortunate enough to meet, and some of my reflections on the concept of “place.” In Tianmu, which is at the northern end of Taipei, there is a three-story bar, cafe, gallery and restaurant called “Lili” (No. 760, Sec. 6, Zhongshan N. Rd.) owned by Lily Wen and her husband Patrick Lee. Lily happens to be the deputy general manager of “Isabelle Wen” — one of the most prominent fashion houses in Taiwan. Patrick, on the other hand, is an accomplished artist whose work can perhaps be described as pop art with Chinese elements. The establishment itself is tastefully designed. If you were to visit it, you will not fail to notice a painting entitled “Time to Have a Drink” hanging on one of its walls. It is a screen printing of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek standing together with a bottle of beer between them. It is a light-hearted piece which also functions as a political commentary. Besides serving great food and drinks, the establishment also features a fine staff — many of whom speak fluent English. A “place” is oftentimes not only a particular position in space, but also a portion of space occupied someone. You can speak of Paris by describing the Eiffel tower, which can be seen as an axis to which the city below is arranged — those who have stood upon it and looked down will understand what I mean; however, it is, needless to say, not enough to speak about Paris by describing its monuments only. Similarly, it is not enough to speak about Taipei by describing Taipei 101 or any other tourist attraction. We have a tendency to think of the word “nation” as a designation for a territory defined by geographical and political boundaries; however, the word actually refers to an aggregate of people — with a common heritage — who inhabit a territory. When I think of Taiwan, I think of the people who inhabit the island. When I think of Taipei, I think of the people who live in the city. Tianmu is a not only a place in Taipei, but also a community of people. The French term “flaneur,” which was conceptually redefined by Baudelaire in the 19th century, is a combination of two things — an observer and a participant. As a foreigner in Taipei, one is (in a sense) not only apart from the city, but also, at the same time, a part of it. It is not enough to observe it from a detached perspective; one must participate in it. Tianmu, the community, is an example of why I love Taiwan (which is better experienced than described), and “Lili,” the bar/cafe/gallery/restaurant/group of friends, is a nice introduction to the community itself. If you ever feel that it's “time to have a drink,” visit Lili and say hello to Patrick and Lily for me.

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