1987 / 6月
Jack Chang /photos courtesy of Ch'iu Sheng-wang /tr. by Peter Eberly
Some time ago the Tamsui River began to change color. The painter no longer has any use for his palette, because "black has become it's only hue."
Before transportation to Taipei became developed on land, it was mainly by sea. From the 17th century on, several villages along the banks of the Tamsui grew into thriving commercial harbors, and countless steamships and sailing vessels plied the river's busy waters.
Ninety-three-year old Mrs. Kao stands on a dyke near the town of Tamsui at sunset and describes the prosperous scene she used to see as a child: "At that time Tamsui was a 'real' harbor," and several hundred boats a day would sail in and out. Not until the Japanese opened up the harbor at Keelung did the number begin to fall off. "Young people today think of Tamsui as a fishing village, but seventy or eighty years ago people here were so busy doing business they had no time to catch fish!" she says rather proudly.
Kueiteh Street in Tataocheng used to be lined with tea shops, the tea was carried down from Pinglin by oxcart and loaded onto ships there for export. The owner of one of the few remaining shops, in his seventies, points to his door and says, "You used to be able to see the river from here. The big ships went as far as Hsin-chuang, and the small ones all the way to Tahsi." The view now is one of high-rise after high-rise.
Ah Po, a shrimp roll seller at the Tamsui ferry, remembers quite clearly the day in 1974 when he first saw a school of fish floating bellies up down the river. He felt then that the river was facing its doom. "Before that my friends and I used to catch fish there and take them home to cook. Now, even if you could catch one, you'd be afraid to eat it."
The scene shifts to the park at the river's sluice gate number nine. The old-timers sitting there sipping tea, chatting, and crunching melon seeds become as animated as children when the subject turns to the Tamsui.
"There were no movies or television back then. After dinner, everybody would run down to the riverside to go for a walk or drink tea and chat."
"One the Mid-Autumn Festival, you'd look out and see the clear river under a full moon that filled the sky."
"Boys and girls weren't supposed to choose their own fiances back then, it wasn't like now. After dark, the place was full of twosomes taking strolls together; it was a pretty amorous place," says one old lady, her eyes crinkling with mirth, and nudges the old man beside her.
"That's right, isn't it?" she asks him and the crowd breaks into laughter.
Their memories seem to have nothing to do with the garbage and stench so close at hand.
The 73-year-old painter Lu Chi-cheng lived on Huanho South Road for over thirty years. "You could see Kuanyin Mountain and the Tamsui out the window. . . . Sunset over the Tamsui was considered one of Taiwan's eight great scenes, and painters were sure to give it a try."
Somewhere along the line, the river's "torquoise green" turned to a "murky black," and the view from the window began to display a procession of garbage, plastic bags, and dead animals floating downstream. Lu moved away.
The river kept on flowing to the sea.
Every once in a while, it would hear the voices of people promising to return it to its former splendor, but the promises vanished with the wind.
Until the voices of concern grew louder.
A million people signed a petition to "save the Tamsui"; scholars conducted a series of seminars to discuss measures of action, and painters held an exhibition called "The Tamsui's Years of Joy and Sorrow" to arouse public concern.
The artist Wang Nan-hsiung, who has done a number of paintings of the Tamsui, says that he finds himself caught in a struggle between "idealism" and the "reality." He remembers the river as green, but what he sees before him is black. "If they're talking about reclamation, they should get the river back to its original color."
Painters pay attention to the color. What kind of river do other old friends of the Tamsui hope to see return?
The elderly owner of a seafood store near Tamsui's Lungshan Temple puts it this way: "Twenty or more years ago, fish and shrimp from the Tamsui were famous far and wide for their flavor and freshness. Now the stuff in the stores all comes from offshore or down south, and it doesn't taste as good.
"So if they can catch fresh fish and shrimp there again, then I'll say there's no more problem."
A passenger on the ferryboat at Pali points to the slimy water and remarks: "A river's like the human body; it needs metabolic action. If a person doesn't go to the bathroom for a few days, he'll feel uncomfortable. This stuff just sits there on the bottom, so naturally the river stinks." He thinks that reclamation should first mean eliminating the odor.
Architect Li Ch'ien-lang has lived all his life near the Tamsui and has a deep feeling for the river. He believes that the most important thing is concepts. "People have got to understand that a river is a living thing, not a sewer! Until we learn the concept of returning to Nature's bounty what we take from it, reclamation will be nothing more than prolonging a dying flame."
A middle-aged Tamsui native looks at the visitors crowding the river's banks on a holiday and remarks: "The people here used to run into Taipei on weekends; now it's the other way round. There are all kinds of places they could go to along the river without bringing their noise and exhaust fumes here."
Lin Heng-tao, an elderly historian, agrees. In his view, the banks of the Tamsui contain countless relics from an earlier age. "If they were made use of properly, they could increase the Tamsui's tourist value and help young people appreciate our intimate historical ties with the river."
If the river heard all this, it would naturally be pleased. But are people ready to act? The river is quietly waiting.
The Tamsui at sunset is clothed in gold. Shouldn't this river be treasured?
The Tamsui of an earlier time was broad and deep, and many boats plied i ts water. (photo courtesy of Liu Huan-yueh)
Mouth of the Tamsui by Cheng Shan-hsi. (photo courtesy of Nature magazine)
Ch'en Ying-huei's A Tamsui Scene (photo courtesy of Nature magazine)
When will the clear, blue waters return? This picture was taken on the Tamsui's upper reaches.
Man's close relationship to the river is illustrated in this clothes washing scene. (photo courtesy of Liu Huan-yueh )
"When can we get away from this dirty, dark place?" Can an answer be found to their problem? (cartoon courtesy of the Environmental Quality Foundation)
Kuanyin Mountain and the blue sky are set off against a river full of trash.
Tough Formosan kandelia hold on in the muck waiting for a better day.
Can one be indifferent toward heaps of trash? Pictured is an art group's performance in front of the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts. (photo by Arthur Jeng)
The response to the movement "I support cleaning up the Tamsui" was enthusiastic. (photo by Chung Yung-ho)
The close interrelationship of Taipei and the Tamsui is apparent from this overview.