A Briton who has lived in Taiwan for 10 years has gained renown for drawing detailed maps of Taiwanese cities.
Artist Tom Rook gained a following in 2013 when a magazine posted an interview with him online. By the next day, the magazine’s post had been shared more than 1,000 times, and Rook’s Facebook page was inundated with comments and friend requests. The Taipei Times first reported on Rook in 2015 (“The accidental illustrator,” Sept. 9, page 12).
Rook’s drawings are so special because he looks at cities from a unique perspective, whether he is sketching a 3D streetscape as a 2D engineering drawing or recreating a scene from history, such as an abandoned sanatorium or a pre-war cityscape. Sometimes, Rook draws a section of a city that especially captures his imagination, such as New Taipei City’s Tamsui District (淡水) or Taipei’s historic Dadaocheng (大稻埕) area.
In a recent interview, Rook said people tell him that they connect with his maps on a personal level, such as recognizing on his maps the places where they grew up or got married. Rook’s maps, with their ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia, easily lend themselves to rendering Taiwan’s unique history and identity, fostering a national consciousness and claiming a beachhead among tourists.
A walk along the main streets of Taipei’s Xinyi District (信義) might not differentiate itself from a walk in any other major city, but meandering through the small alleyways of the city’s older areas reveals surroundings that are uniquely Taiwanese. Mismatched buildings, small shops selling traditional goods, tucked-away temples, weaving pathways, buildings so close they nearly touch and walls draped in hanging plants are just some of the sights that characterize Taiwanese alleys.
Arguably, these are the alleyways where Taiwanese culture takes shape, and it is the historically mismatched spaces taken as a whole that serve as a representative landmark for the nation.
Rook might not be the first or the only person to artistically invoke Taiwan’s cityscapes, but the reaction to his work demonstrates the value of commissioning and encouraging such work.
Another British artist, Amy Tams, integrates things she considers to be representative of Taiwan into caricatures of birds that are seen throughout Taiwanese cities. One is an image of a personified Taiwanese hill partridge next to a field of tea leaves — seen in the trees of Taiwan’s urban spaces. Another image shows a light-vented bulbul — seen perched on Taipei roofs — wearing glasses and a hat like those typically worn by older Taiwanese men.
Perhaps the works of such artists could tip off the Tourism Bureau. While many people want to visit Alishan, Taroko Gorge or Sun Moon Lake, what many might find most memorable as a Taiwan travel experience would be visits to the shops, parks and temples of cities’ back alleyways.
Some tour operators and community organizations are thinking along these lines, and the number of walking and bike tours along historic streets have increased. However, the government often overlooks these older spaces.
When travelers return to the skies after the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors to Asia might head to Japan to ride the bullet train or see Kyoto’s temples, or to Thailand to experience Bangkok nightlife or to relax on that nation’s majestic beaches. People might be drawn to Taiwan to see its eclectic urban spaces, its back-alley traditions and the unique living spaces that have evolved as different cultures arrived in the nation.
There is a saying in Taiwan that the nation’s most beautiful landscape is its people (台灣最美的風景是人). It makes sense then that the country’s communities — and the living spaces they share — should be emphasized when sharing Taiwan with the world.
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