Taiwan Report – Kung Fu’s Endless Summer comes to an End?

Take a mixture of egg and wheat.
Pour it on a big hot grill.
Then smother it with 1 1/2 inches of fresh cabbage.
Make a big cake of it.
Cut into five inch squares.
Stick in box. Now the fun begins.
Brush with soy.
Top with tuna – squid – corn and pineapple!
Squeeze a cross-hatch of mayo counter-hatched with chili sauce
! add wasabi !!
Top with shaved, dried tuna flakes.

Check it out, baby! You’re eating Taiwan.

Hot and humid doesn’t come close to describing it. But the food section at ShihLin Market in Taipei is an astounding combination of cheap furniture, human sandwiches and strange foods cooked on open flat grills.

I don’t mean exotic, I mean strange. Don’t fool yourself that the taste treat above is some classic dish. This is a place where the concept of faddish can’t exist. To “do” fads you must have at least a short term memory.

There’s a culture war here, and Kung Fu may be one of the casualties.

What makes Kung Fu distinctive? The Chinese actually have an unusual phrase for that subtle essence differentiating styles, energies, even individuals. Hsiang-Wei. Fragrance-Flavor. The hsiang-wei of BaJi Fist should not be the same as that of Shaolin, for example.

How is Kung Fu to maintain its flavor in the cultural soup that is Taiwan? (And, in case you haven’t already figured it out, Taiwan is the world. If not now, soon.) There’s so much clashing, so much competition, so much just plain lying.

Taipei: case in point.

The old architecture melts in tropical rain, running into the newer images of McDonald’s, all-night 7-11’s, 2-story Kentucky-Fried Chickens, towering department stores and Starbucks. And the Taiwanese practice fewer and fewer traditional arts in this new granite world, more like a stage setting than a city. Scooters lined domino-style become rows upon endless rows of theater seats where people flop, watching. The theater of transformation. In this quicksilver and neon screen image personal change can barely be retarded, the idea of encouragement, of salvational transformation spins away, a dust devil across the plaza.

No one wins a culture war. Brashness alters, like pollution, on the surface and underneath. When you’ve chromed and shined any flat face toxins still eat away. Fashion frames one slinky young woman but makeup is more than fashion. Makeup here is truly cosmetic, the skin never lies. The sores break out on the subway – between stops- in arcades while the lights flash in your face, through the skin.

Concurrences no longer exist. Pick any street in Taipei. Everything goes, everything moves, night storms race across the sky, there is no stopping for moments to exist. Street vendors hawk cabbage buns beside luggage stores, lottery sellers squat before the T-shirt shops. Step up past the bike shop to the Taoist temple crammed between mirror-skyscrapers. The bowing women with their fruit offerings leave the temple to sit in the shaved ice stalls and munch on frosty peanuts and corn. SONY-ah, Love-yeh You-ah; Lancombe-ni; Chinese words now. This Babel piling on top of itself like a tower of misty impressions.

The landscape is still peopled, true, but with the ambiguity of a terrible scenarist struggling with a cutting edge film editor. The legless supplicant at the Buddhist altar cross-wipes to the kitten-cute youth like a doll assembled by a girl’s hand. Smoke still fills the temples wired with miniature Buddhas -at least a thousand a temple, a temple every few blocks. Drop a coin in the serve-yourself box and take some incense. Outside the traffic roars.

At Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Park, where Kung Fu people traditionally work out, the huge buildings – monuments in scale and preposterous historical referencing of style – are centered with giant sized doors. There they converge, the cuddly cute girls, to watch themselves practice dance routines of their own editing from images recorded deep already. Every night the boom boxes are set on wide concrete verandas and the gyrations begin. The mix of break dance, hip hop, and just plain Vogueing, as they watch their every move, record its every nuance. Pose for themselves posing. The whipped fists, the canted hips, the shoulder grinding, the hair swept across one eye. There’s more intensity in the way they look at themselves than in any action they perform. Taiwannabes.

The innocence of fantasy, without the experience to create eroticism. The huge-eyed hunger starved only for lights and a glimpse of itself in the chrome, on a TV. Cut Cut Cut Every night, and I mean every, standing in front of the big glass theater doors, the cheap equivalent to instant replay TV. Thin arms-tight skirts- no hips- long hair- brushed lids- blank stares- kitten sexy- ankles barely balanced on platforms of clear plastic – nothing dirty, just the intent, the real flesh up on the flanks of buildings, blown up a hundred times the icon of an Asian girl-woman with short-short Levi cutoffs holding one hand gun style at you. Bang you! Sassy bullets. If not now, someday, World, some day.

Kung Fu next door on the skirted concrete porch looks like motion underwater. Slow methodical concentration. This is the problem. The nature of concentration has changed. Posing and dancing threaten, the music blares establishing the youths’ territory in sound. Silence and concentration are almost scary and definitely vulnerable in this new world of push and noise and images. Anything not milling through a subway stall is in the way. The press is everything. It sets the pace — and the punishments. Students wearing traditional black pants and white T-shirts. How could these anachronistic sleepwalkers capture the imagination of the bare shouldered teens, glassy-eyed for Western fashion regurgitated by Japanese designers? the confrontational sexuality flipped to girl-group laughing power and kittenish body chat?

Hope Enjoy You Day

There are signs of hope. One woman here in Taipei, Jade by name, produces shows based on traditional indigenous arts such as dance, song and Wushu: the presentation of martial arts displayed with a penchant for modern dance theater, but elements of real Kung Fu are preserved. There is a great concern ( as in the States and elsewhere) for lineage but very little cross-checking on the facts.

And, oddly enough, one might get the idea that though the ride will be bumpy, it may be a round trip. The typical Westerner has to wonder how long the Taiwanese can be amused by this superficial resemblance – this so called 51st state- before resuming the search for real roots.

The only problem is the nature of Kung Fu ( along with most important human experiences). The difference between now, and the era Robert Smith spent here, is huge. But even the change in the last ten years is phenomenal. It would not be easy to visit Taiwan now and find a Kung Fu instructor, much less a good one. Hardly anyone, even in three-million-plus Capitol, can even afford a location from which to teach. Meanwhile the quackery and lying – especially centered on T’ai Chi and “medical” Ch’i Kung – grows faster than a tropical weed. Taiwan is on the edge – no doubt about it. And people who walk on the edge often have bleeding feet. Let’s hope they make the crossing before falling.

Ted Mancuso is the head instructor of the Academy of Martial Arts, Santa Cruz, CA and the Publisher-Owner of Plum Publications. This does not mean, however, that the opinions expressed in his pieces are anyone’s, much less Plums’.



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