Today’s excursion out into the city is a solo one. Though my dad is still busy teaching and couldn’t meet us in Taipei, I’m curious to know where he grew up so I sent him the question via email. He responded with a snapshot of Google Maps containing a rough-drawn circle over a bit of Yonghe District. “I lived at “#30 Baofu Road Section 2. […] No physical trace of my house or the neighborhood remained. The only tangible thing left is the Baofu temple. I fell into the pond in front of the temple when i tried to pick some lotus flowers. Still remember the underwater image, green water and a lot of straight underwater stems.” So today I’m going out, alone, to try and find Baofu Temple and what remains of #30 Baofu Road.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know much of my family’s life in China before the Communist Party took power or here in Taiwan after they fled, and what little I do know is gleaned from secondhand sources. I only really know my grandmother’s side, the Hu Family, because they were the most numerous among the survivors and the relatives that lived nearby in Southern California. I know that once my grandmother’s family was once wealthy and lived in Suzhou, a city about two hours outside of Shanghai. I know that the family house still stands there, an immense traditional family compound enclosing an inner garden, used when I last visited as excess storage space for a nearby hotel. And I know that to escape the Chinese Civil War and communist revolution, my grandmother and her husband (of the Ma Family) fled with my uncle and aunt here to Taiwan sometime in the early fifties, where my dad was born. They lived here until my grandfather died, when my grandmother decided to emigrate to the Albequerque, New Mexico, bringing my dad to the United States somewhere during his high school years. But that’s where the facts end, and beyond them lie is a series of nebulous, achronistic anecdotes and stories.
Back in the real world, I’ve found my way to Ren’Ai Road and turned right, in the direction of Baofu Road, navigating busy traffic stops and dodging people, equipment, and motorbikes planted on the sidewalks. When my dad described his childhood, it sounded like he grew up more in the countryside or in a sparse suburb. He told me about catching frogs and bugs, and to this day he doesn’t like the smell of cinnamon because it reminds him of the stinkbugs found here in the summertime. But any semblance of nature has long been paved over in this district. As people flocked here to live and commute to Taipei City across the river, the buildings here were flattened and then-new apartment complexes rose more steeply and densely in their place. The population continued to grow. In 1979, before being swallowed up into the New Taipei City municipality, Yonghe City was one of the most densely-populated places in the world.
I make a final turn onto Baofu Road, Section 2 and take a look around. There are no visible numbers on the apartments here, although again any building around here was built after my father left. But Baofu Temple still stands, a brilliantly-painted building with traditional curved roofing and an open front façade leading to the altars indoors. To my dismay, there’s no sign of the pond my dad mentioned, likely a casualty of the construction process of what is now a parking lot in front of the temple building. There’s also no one else around to ask, although what would I ask them? “Did you know a kid back in the early 60’s who went by the name Ma Tzen and once fell into the pond here that no longer exists?” I could ask something akin to with my rudimentary Chinese and Google Translate, but then what? Would I understand the response? And would anyone here now have even lived here back then?
I walk around inside the temple, where decades and a few renovations ago my family would have visited for festivals and prayers and offerings to the deceased. I can’t read much on the walls, for things are often not only in traditional characters, but also in “grass writing”, a stylistic form of Chinese characters akin to cursive for us English speakers and unintelligible for those who can barely read to begin with. In one corner, though, I find a stack of incense sticks wrapped with gold foil-inlaid papers and a price written above them on a shelf. I’ve visited temples and gravesites of family members enough to know that these are offerings for the dead, to be burned so they reach the deceased on the other side. I drop Taiwanese dollars into a nearby lockbox, grab a packet, and head outside.
Knowledge about is less powerful than knowledge of, and I find myself fumbling with what to do next with this packet of goods for my deceased family members. I decide to light the incense first, and though I have no lighter, someone has thankfully just finished burning offerings in the nearby oven. I hold the tips of the incense sticks over the remnants of their offerings to catch the twisting orange tongues, and in a few seconds the sticks catch fire. After shaking them to put the flame out, I carry them over to the altar, bow three times, and push the incense sticks into the altar’s sand.
The gold-foil papers are a bit more more difficult to burn, and it takes me a few minutes of piling them into the oven and turning over the remnants of the still-smoking previous offerings to get them to light. Then I add the remaining sheets slowly, pausing to step back and out of the stinging smoke. Bit by bit, the sheets disappear into the flames, transmuted from paper into smoke and ash, disappearing into the atmosphere.