The humble shopping bag might seem like an unlikely topic for an exhibition, but the Taipei Story House (台北故事館) has turned this ordinary object into a symbol of Taiwan’s cultural and economic development.
The Story of Carrier Bags, which opened on July 7 and runs until Oct 28, takes its inspiration from the Taiwanese custom of carrying a shopping bag or reusable canvas tote along with a purse or satchel.
“We worried at first that people wouldn’t understand why we wanted to do an exhibit devoted to carrier bags, but we found that a lot of people actually enjoy collecting them,” says Jasmine Lee (李揵葳) of the Taipei Story House’s exhibition department. “They might spend a lot of money on a leather bag for holding valuable items, but they reuse shopping bags to carry things like their lunch.”
The exhibit starts with bags woven from the broad leaves of the shell-flower plant or fragrant rushes, with some on loan from the Yuanli Township Triangle Rush Exhibition Hall (苑裡鎮藺草文化館). Weavers incorporated stylish motifs into their totes, including floral patterns and checks. Though the bags are still popular as a fashion accessory, the rush-weaving industry in Taiwan is quickly disappearing as production is outsourced to China.
As Taiwan modernized, more people began to favor bags made from plastic instead of natural materials. Farmers carried seeds and tools in sturdy red, green and blue striped totes called ka-ji a (茄芷) in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese). Ka-ji a have since become emblematic of working class Taiwanese culture. Events like the T.K. Rock Festival (台客搖滾嘉年華) sell small versions of the bags as souvenirs.
Plastic shopping bags with jaunty red and transparent stripes are ubiquitous in night markets and stores, and have also become a symbol of Taiwanese daily life — but at a cost to the environment. The impact of consumerism on the environment is explored in a section of the exhibit featuring bags created by artists and designers.
WHAT: The Story of Carrier Bags at Taipei Story House
WHERE: 181-1, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市中山北路三段181-1號)
TEL: (02) 2587-5565
OPEN: 10am to 5:30pm, closed Mondays. Until Oct 28
ADMISSION: Adult tickets are NT$50. Groups of four or more are NT$40 per person; students and groups of 10 or more are NT$30
ON THE NET: www.storyhouse.com.tw
Some are more conceptual, like 25togo’s bags that have an eyeglass-shaped cutout on one side and can be flipped upside-down and worn as masks. They are a cheeky nod to the bags used by alleged criminals to shield their faces during perp walks.
Other bags were created for practical reasons. The Taoyuan County Fire Bureau commissioned a playful trompe l’oeil bag that makes the person carrying it look as if he or she is hauling along a fire extinguisher. Instructions for the device are printed on the side of the bag, which is made from durable coated paper.
An interactive touchscreen display features photos of pedestrians on the streets of Taipei with carrier bags in tow.
“We’ll pick an attractive bag to use, even if it’s just to hold our lunch,” says Lee. “In that small way, we show how design and aesthetics have influenced our day-to-day lives.”
Taiwanese companies quickly realized the potential bags offered for free advertising. Shopping bags used in Taiwan during the 1960s and 1970s were covered in colorful, eye-catching graphics. Several are on display in Taipei Story House, including a bag from Far Eastern department store, now known as FE21 (遠東百貨). Hardware stores created sturdy canvas workbags printed with their name and phone number to hand out to customers.
As Taiwan became more prosperous, bags grew increasingly elaborate. The Story of Carrier Bags looks at how different companies use shopping bags to reinforce their brand identity.