Tue, May 16, 2017 - Page 8 News List

The organic functioning of Taiwan

By William Stimson

We are down in Yuanlin, Shuyuan’s hometown in central Taiwan. Fifteen years after returning with her New York University doctorate and only a few blocks from the house where she grew up, she has just finished constructing a beautiful retreat center on a traditional street.

To me, Yuanlin is a big, busy town with streets without sidewalks. Motorbikes and cars speed by perilously close as Shuyuan and I make our way down the side of the street, hugging as close as possible to the parked car sticking out into traffic.

Unlike me, she knows the place on the inside. She leads me into a maze of internal passageways — the marketplace where she used to come as a little girl with her mother. We still have to move aside repeatedly as motorbikes come up from behind.

The place is a hive of narrow alleyways, lined up and down with all manner of stalls, stands and little postage-stamp stores where tradespeople of all sorts ply their wares and do their work.

Shuyuan came here the day before and found a seamstress specializing in pocketbooks who was willing to take on the task of sewing together the Zen meditation pillows and BackJack covers needed for the new retreat center. The woman showed us her work and it was good. Shuyuan gave her the project.

Back in New York City, the Zen pillows were filled with buckwheat hulls. We had no idea where to get anything like that here.

However, as we dodged the speeding motorbikes on our way back to the retreat center, we came upon a tiny rice shop. Shuyuan inquired. The rice shop man told her the name of a nearby town where buckwheat is grown.

Shuyuan’s nephew went on the Internet and contacted a supplier. The next day, he dropped off a big plastic pack of clean buckwheat hulls.

We filled the two sample Zen cushions the seamstress had made us. The end result was as good as anything you would find at a Zen center in New York City.

It turns out the same nephew manages an iron factory just outside town and said he could easily make the BackJack frames there. He has begun work on them. The retreat center will be up and running in a few weeks.

How different from New York City, where two summers ago, I hunted up and down for the cushions and BackJacks. In the end, we were told there would be no way for us to obtain either, except by ordering from the manufacturers, paying top dollar plus pricey shipping fees, and waiting for delivery. Then there would be the cost of shipping them all to Taiwan.

There is something to be said for a place like Taiwan, where business modernization has proceeded alongside and even sustained the traditional and age-old networks of skilled craftspeople and artisans, instead of demolishing and replacing them as has happened in New York City and perhaps all across the US.

There are so many reasons like this why it is imperative that other nations not follow in the direction the US has gone — which everyone can see more clearly every day — leads to nowhere worth going.

This has come home to me again and again over the years as I watched the construction of the top-quality retreat center in as unlikely a place as Yuanlin — but never did it hit me so powerfully just how natural and organically everything here works as it did in the marketplace and on the streets of the town when the whole dreaded complication of the Zen cushions and BackJacks resolved itself so quickly.

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