Aye. T’aint Kirkby
It has recently become clear to us that there’s more to the Judeo-Christian story of creation than we thought.
God worked jolly hard for six days: this we already know. On the seventh day, she rested. We know this too.
But as often happens when one takes a break from hard creative labour, while resting, God came up with her best idea yet: Taiwan.
That is not well known, but as regular readers of Taiwan-Tales will have realised, we know it, and we’re making it our mission to tell the world.
There is so much that is glorious, stimulating, comforting, and enlightening about Taiwan.
These days, we often ask each other: “Does it pass the Kirkbymoorside test?”
Kirkby, in God’s own county
Kirkbymoorside is a small, traditional town in North Yorkshire, England. (It’s pronounced ‘Kirby’moorside, without the k.)
It has a church, a doctor’s surgery, a bank, and a post office. It has five or six pubs. It holds a market on Wednesdays. It has a chip shop, or at least it used to, where you can get a bag of soggy chips and some sort of British-Chinese takeaway – chicken chow mein, or something with questionable links to genuine Chinese cuisine.
The Kirkbymoorside in our minds is broadly representative of the comfort zone of those who tend to travel abroad once a year, who like a nice sous-vide duck with truffle mash and foraged vegetables every now and then, as a treat; who may have enjoyed a pretty fiery Pad Thai on a beach in Krabi a few years ago, but reckon breakfast ought to look more like crunchy-nut cornflakes than great steaming vats of soy milk.
We totally understand this, but it’s such a shame that we can’t share more widely the pleasure of a scalding hot piece of steamed and fried turnip cake – inch-thick squares of partly gelatinous, partly starchy shredded turnip, mixed with cornflour, shallots, and little bits of pork belly, drizzled over with thick dark soy sauce.
(It’s on the plate at the back of the picture, minus the sauce.)
We don’t think frequenters of the George & Dragon pub would go wild for finely sliced pigs ears, lovingly braised with star anise.
We’re pretty sure nobody will be opening a pop-up stall at the market offering deep fried stinky tofu with its trademark smell of a robustly healthy farmyard, served with lashings of ginger and chilli sauce (which is a shame – the deep fried version of this local delicacy is quite delicious).
Sushi and Shiba
What would a Kirkby’ granny make of a box of birthday cakes that look like sushi?
Or a cake that looks exactly like a severed fish head, nestled on edible-cake-ice cubes and apparently ready for the stock pot? We know it’s the best-tasting cake money can buy, but Granny Farndale might be put off by those startlingly realistic, bulging fish eyes.
Something else that Granny Farndale might raise an eyebrow at, is the presence of cartoon animals in serious public service announcements.
The dominant cartoon guide of public decorum in 2021 has been a Japanese Shiba Inu, a medium sized, short-haired dog with a slightly cat-shaped face and a tail that curls up and over its back.
Shiba is the definitive dog-du-jour in Taiwan, the darling of the new generation of pet-setters.
Depictions of these pooches are everywhere, from school notebooks to metro travel cards – and curiously, even the lightest sketches of them are always anatomically correct, with a little star just underneath the tail – attention to detail is important in Taiwan.
Given their obvious popularity, who better than a humanoid-shiba hybrid to remind commuters of civic responsibility and common sense?
This year, it has been Shiba reminding us not to push on the metro. Shiba has induced us to pay attention to staircases and escalators (see pic). Don’t keep your eyes glued to your mobile phone, or continue texting as you walk down the stairs in the metro station, or you’ll tumble to your doom, knock a tooth out, and end up in ICU, just like Shiba the cartoon dog did!
These cute inducements to social responsibility are widespread, but can be easily misunderstood by foreigners, who tend to greet images of Hello Kitty and her Little Twin Star friends adorning trains and planes, with bemused scepticism.
Aren’t cartoons a bit, well, childish?
A cartoon kitty appealing to shoppers to park considerately on Kirkby’ High Street, would be met with a frown, at best. But this is to totally miss the depth of these softly compelling little anime creatures.
In London and New York, the metro passenger is bombarded with imperatives to mind the gap, pay for tickets or face fines and police action, not to deface public property, and not to abuse staff, all written or announced via tannoys in a very in-your-face, unfriendly, shouty tone. And frankly, it makes me feel a bit stressed and offended.
It had never occurred to me to scribble on walls or poke chewing gum down the backs of Underground seats, but confronted by such hostile assumptions that I’m a minor criminal-in-waiting, the devil inside me is just a little bit tempted.
But when a moon-faced little cartoon cat named Maji Meow thanks me with melting eyes for understanding her needs, or plaintively calls out of a speech bubble ‘you’re squashing me’ to remind passengers that a carelessly-worn backpack may cause discomfort to others in a crowded carriage, I feel calm, civic-minded, and appreciated for my civilised behaviour.
None of this would be taken seriously in Kirkbymoorside, which is a shame, because this cute depiction of life somehow diffuses potential stress.
The Taiwanese have adapted this cartoon softener of life’s spikiness to the Covid era too.
When young people stroll in the park with their dogs, they now wear a mask. When taking their well-frocked rabbit for a walk (or hop), the mask is on too (the walker, not the rabbit).
Little children of five, cool dudes in super-hero anime costumes, politicians on TV, promoters of fancy new cars in shiny tailored suits (the promoters, not the cars), all wear masks without ceremony, but often with great style.
It helps that typical Taiwanese creativity has spread to mask design: during the hungry ghost festival, face masks featured multiple Hello Kitties, her consort Dear Daniel, and Little Twin Stars, emerging from the underworld with wispy spirit tails, coming to haunt the living.
We have face masks featuring chunks of Swiss cheese; spacemen floating through stars in anti-gravity suits; bright pink tropical flowers; taels of gold; lace stocking tops; and firecrackers for Lunar New Year.
There is a face mask for every occasion. Even the giant fibreglass mascots outside coffee shop chains and supermarkets cheerfully sport surgical masks.
Of course, there are many things we appreciate about normal life in Kirkbymoorside, that can’t easily be found in Taipei.
A pint of warm beer next to a roaring pub fire, for a start. Fish and chips served out of newspaper, with those soggy, floppy chips.
Easy access to cold, windswept, desolate moors, littered with sheep – not to mention lambs in springtime, skipping their little hind legs out like demented fluffy exclamation marks of undiluted joy.
But if we were transported there right now, we’d soon miss any number of things here.
Delicious food, everywhere. Convenience store attendants who bow as they hand you your coffee and newspaper. More than 200 retirees in the park, every morning and every afternoon, sitting on benches, kerbs, and low walls, thwacking themselves repeatedly, now this ankle, now that shoulder, to a recorded voice counting between 1 and 10, for an hour at a time.
And the endlessly convenient common mechanism for delivery in Taiwan, of almost anything you can think of, from a packet of dried, salted cuttlefish and a cup of bubble milk tea, to a new toilet, or a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror.
Or indeed, the new office chair we purchased at the start of the latest work-from-home episode. Like dogs, these things travel on scooters, and why shouldn’t they?
Fish-head cakes, fried turnip-cake, and toilet delivery on an electric scooter are not common in Kirkby’, but they are in Taipei, and that’s enough for us.
Images: Mike Jewell and Taiwan-Tales