Liu Siu-mei had a very special art teacher in her first year at Jen Ai Junior High School-oil painter Hsi Muren. Hsi, who was quite wealthy, used to take a bicycle taxi from her home in Danshui to the school in eastern Taipei every day, often filling it with canvas and paint for her students. Hsi not only introduced them to oil painting at an early age, she even held free classes for them on Sundays.
Liu, who had placed first in the school's fine arts competition, would have liked to attend, but had no money for materials and didn't dare say so. "Ms. Hsi may have thought I was too arrogant to attend her class."
The truth was quite different. She became a stealth student who for a whole semester hurried to school early on Sunday so she could climb to the fourth floor and watch-hanging upside down with her feet hooked over the parapet-as Ms. Hsi taught painting in her third-floor classroom. When class had finished and the other students gone, she'd quietly let herself down again and head home, where she'd cut a bit of hair, bind it to the bare handle of calligraphy brush, and practice what she'd seen using thick, undiluted Osama watercolors instead of oils.
Asked why she loves painting, Liu laughs and says, "Because painting is cheap!" She also enjoys ballet. Many years ago, when a wealthy aunt rented a place on Zhongshan North Road, Liu used to secrete herself outside Tsai Jui-yueh's dance studio to watch a male Japanese dancer teach class. Young and ignorant about ballet, she had no idea that many of the beautiful poses required the support of the hardened enclosure in the toe of pointe shoes. Determined to learn, she held her poses and spun in bare feet, completely unconcerned about losing her balance and going over backwards. But the long hours of practicing through the pain ultimately left her with deformed toes.
Liu also had a passion for an even more highbrow pursuit-playing the piano. Though she carved herself a set of wooden keys to practice on, she couldn't bear their wooden silence and ultimately gave it up. Liu also has literary talent. Everyone who has read Liu's The Lives along the Tamshui River, a collection of her writings and illustrations, praises her poetic prose. She herself says that her greatest ambition is to live an "artistic and literary life." Viewed from an aesthetic distance, even life's most bitter moments can be beautiful.