Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 18 News List

A living testament to Taiwan's past

The sidewalks of Dadaocheng are again filled with the red shrapnel of exploded firecrackers, but unlike past years, Mr Tsao has not been there to sweep up

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER


Long after the shop lights have dimmed in Taipei's Dadaocheng District and sacks of dried goods have been hauled in from the storefronts, Mr Tsao would rise from his evening nap, pull a tie around the collar of a crumpled shirt, and slip on his suit jacket.

He has for several years spent the small hours of the morning sweeping the streets of a part of town most Taipei denizens decades ago relegated to the dustbin. That he does so dressed in a suit and tie is a testament to the fact that he does not think so poorly of the neighborhood he calls home.

This space in the newspaper is usually given over to local artists, entertainers and cultural figures who make news. Tsao is none of those, but he is an inspiration. We often hear people say that any job worth doing is worth doing right, even if it's sweeping the floor. Tsao is likely unfamiliar with that expression, but he embodies it nonetheless.

"Sweeping the streets is good exercise," he said. "And it's good for the city. A clean city is a good city."

It's a simple sentiment, but one that often seems lost on Tsao's neighbors. Residents fill the street corners with trash that didn't make it to the rubbish truck. Stray animals pick through table scraps and recyclers rummage through larger pieces. The wind blows the flotsam down the street and Tsao and his pushcart come trundling after it.

After Chinese New Year last year, as in years past, he was out sweeping up the red paper from exploded fireworks. By the time he'd swept the paper into a pile the wind would have sent half the pile scurrying along the curb. He'd diligently chase after, sweeping his way down the street until the pile he'd started with was in his trashcan.

He works slowly -- he's in his 80s -- and methodically. Occasionally he sings. In the hip pocket of his suit jacket he collects butts of cigarettes he's deemed still worth smoking. And he's happy to strike up a conversation with anyone who offers one from a fresh pack.

I've gotten to know a bit about Tsao from late night conversations in the years I've lived in Dadaocheng. He was born in Pingtung but has lived in Taipei since first coming to the city in his teens looking for work. He's had mixed luck, spending over half a century at odd jobs. He married and was widowed, had a home and now doesn't, but remains buoyant.

Our conversations allowed me to practice my Mandarin, and as he mainly spoke Taiwanese, I believe they allowed him to practice his as well. I provided him answers to questions he's long had about Westerners: No, we don't have hamburgers at every meal; yes, Christians believe Mary was a virgin. And he's provided me insight into a side of Taiwan that is rapidly disappearing.

Few people's assessment of Taipei is that it's a clean or orderly city, and this is particularly true of the antiquated west side, but Tsao remembers a time when that wasn't the case.

"When I first came here these buildings were not new but they were well-kept," he said. "The economy [in Dadaocheng] was better then."

The Taiwan in which Tsao came of age was part of the Empire of the Sun. But the sun would soon set on Japanese rule of the island and create uncertainty for Taiwanese like Tsao, who were taught to speak Japanese and think of themselves as lieges of the emperor.

To read accounts of that time in today's history books -- accounts written by the KMT government that assumed control of the island -- the end of Japan's Draconian rule over Taiwan in 1945 was greeted with euphoria by Taiwanese and the nation's economy grew at an unprecedented rate.

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