The call came through last week. Old Mama Neihu was on her last legs. So, I jumped into the jalopy and sped down to Nantou County to try and catch a final glimpse of the Neihu clan’s matriarch before she expired.
I got there in just under two hours — a personal best, but only after saving valuable minutes by speeding through the ETC freeway toll gates instead of paying. Always wondered if you could get away with it.
Anyway, by the time I arrived, 91-year-old Mom was wheezing like an asthmatic pit pony (must have been all those smuggled Chicom “Great Wall” cigarettes over the decades).
Turns out she had a bit more fight in her than my siblings had initially thought (she’s a tough old boot) and held out for a few days longer than expected, which gave me ample time to get out and about and sample something I hadn’t experienced in a while: life in the present-day countryside of Taiwan.
While there, I had the chance to visit one of my childhood stamping grounds, Jhongsing New Village (中興新村), for my early morning constitutional on the gravel exercise track near the buildings that housed the former “provincial” capital.
Old habits formed during the authoritarian era die hard, you see.
The “village” also happens to be one of my favorite spots in Taiwan. Don’t know if any of you have ever visited, but Jhongsing is the jewel in the turd that is Taiwanese urban planning. Arriving in the village along Hushan Road (虎山路) from neighboring Tsaotun (草屯) is literally like stumbling upon an oasis after 15 years crawling through a desert.
Wide tree-lined avenues, single story houses with gardens, plenty of parkland and open space and not a house-cum-store or neon sign in sight. It’s hard to believe such a place exists in my beloved homeland.
Jhongsing was the first and only village (as far as I know) of its kind to be built after the Kleptocrat Mainland Thugs (KMT) decamped to Taiwan, apparently inspired by the early 20th century “garden city” movement of British architect Ebenezer Howard.
But that’s enough history. Arriving at the track, I found the usual mixture of elderly and middle-aged folks doing their own particular brand of exercise: jogging, badminton, wushu, tai chi, ballroom dancing. You name it, it was all on show.
But these days, instead of stretching their rusty limbs to jazzed-up Chinese classics, there were lines of 60-year-old amahs strutting their stuff to those infuriatingly annoying Korean tunes, Super Junior’s Sorry, Sorry and the Wonder Girls’ Nobody But You.
Matsu, I hate those songs with a passion. I grabbed a spare pair of nunchuks and was just about to go over and smash the living hell out of the radio when a familiar, sweat-covered, rotund face from my youth lumbered around the running track.
It was Fatty Yang.
“Fancy seeing you here, Johnny,” he said. “What brings you back to this shithole?”
I told him about Mom. Then we sat down to reminisce before he launched into a tirade about how the government’s plan to sign the economic capitulation fraudulent agreement (ECFA) would lead to the unraveling of his family’s sock-making business.
“They don’t care about us small fry,” he said. “They’re only interested in brown-nosing the likes of Terry Gou (郭台銘). Oh, and Wang Yung-ching (王永慶), even though he’s dead.”
Just as Yang had finished venting his spleen, I spied another former classmate, Big-Nosed Lu, who came over expressing similar grievances. His towel business would dry up with the expected flood of Chicom imports, he said, again because of ECFA.
“We’re all doomed, Johnny,” he said.
While listening to my two old friends, I glanced around and couldn’t help think that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite the best efforts and personal tragedies suffered over the decades by the likes of Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), Lin Yi-hsiung (林義雄), my own personal hero Deng Nan-jung (鄭南榕) and, hell, even Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), Taiwan’s future was still as bleak as ever.
I mean, just 100m from where I was sitting there was a statue of ol’ Peanut, standing there in all his unpunished glory. At least a passing pigeon had the decency to shit on his head. And this is just one of thousands of his statues and images still dotted throughout this island’s verdant valleys and towering mountains.
What progress have we made, I thought? Sixty years on and we have a deluded, asexual, effeminate-sounding Mainlander in the Presidential Office. The KMT is in control of the military, the media and the judiciary. And once again the government is obsessed with China to the point that it is neglecting its own people. In fact, the only thing that’s changed in these six decades is that instead of lining up to kick Chicom ass, the KMT is now lining up to lick it.
Where did it all go wrong?
I’m utterly depressed. I’m so down, in fact, that I’ve decided to come clean and let you in on a little secret. Sit down, as this may come as a shock.
Us Neihus weren’t always called Neihu.
Our roots are firmly embedded in Nantou County. We only picked up the name Neihu after Mom got a step up on the career ladder in the 1950s and left behind a life of farmland drudgery to become a night soil collector in Taipei.
Patrolling the city by twilight while emptying the septic tanks of rich city dwellers before carting it back to Neihu, where she deposited the at-the-time valuable commodity in the surrounding fish farms and other farmland. She would crash out in our newly built wooden shack as the sun came up, utterly exhausted.
Believe it or not, Neihu was still a pretty rural place up until the 1980s. But you would never know that now, especially after our incumbent commander-in-chief decided to pour 60 million tonnes of concrete over it a few years ago and create the Neihu we all know and hate today.
Mom moved back to Nantou in the mid-1980s after the expansion of the sewer system and the implementation of hygiene laws resulted in the supply of shit drying up, leaving her grown-up offspring to fend for ourselves in the big city.
She retired, and lived the next 25 years trawling the bins of Nantou for recyclables to supplement her meager monthly payments from the Retired Neihu Night Soil Collectors Pension Fund.
That’s the story of Mom, a remarkable woman who lived an unremarkable life. But she still managed to bring up the 12 of us Neihus single-handedly after my father ran off with a failed Gezai opera leading lady from Sanchong (三重), Taipei County, shortly after I was born.
Now, here we were gathered around her bed as she took her last breaths in this world, her chest rising and falling to the sound of a rasping metronome (I swear she would have lasted a few hours longer if my sister hadn’t insisted on burning that cheap-ass poisonous Chinese incense when the Daoist monk came around).
As the rhythm began to get slower and slower, she opened her eyes, spied me and beckoned me toward the bed with a wrinkled index finger.
“I’m glad you could make it, little Johnny,” she coughed, a smile slowly filling her haggard face.
“I just want to tell you. Don’t let them bastards win. I didn’t spend 25 years shoveling their shit for us to lose,” she wheezed.
“As Neil Young and Kurt Cobain said,” she said, gasping one last breath. “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”
The wheezing ceased.
Next week will be my final column, dear reader. It’s been a trip over these four years, and I am profoundly grateful for all the letters you sent and the suggestions you made. Can you join me one more time? It’ll be a blast — that I promise.
Got something to tell Johnny? Get it off your chest: Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, but put “Dear Johnny” in the subject line or he’ll mark your bouquets and brickbats as spam.
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