回 | An Alley (Return) | Jessica J. Lee | Granta

回 | An Alley (Return)

Jessica J. Lee

Unnamed Alley, Lane 286, Section 5, Nanjing East Road

When I thought about returning, it was only ever in my mother’s language, specifically in the Chinese character I love the most: 回 (huí). It means ‘to return’, but also: to circle, to turn round or to answer, its ancient root in a spiral. The word was on my mind when I first found myself in Taiwan, trying to wind a way through a city I didn’t know at all.

In a jet-lagged haze, I led my mother out of the rental apartment, across the ten lanes of Nanjing East Road, and down a quiet path lined with scooters. Her hand was clammy in mine; even in December, Taipei pulsed with humidity.

‘We need to keep moving,’ I insisted. ‘We stay awake until double-digits.’ I glanced down at my phone, tracing our route to the red pin on my map. A Carrefour hypermarket. Quite what that quest would entail – beyond instant coffee, bottled water and snacks – I wasn’t yet sure. It was my first time back in twenty-six years. I was twenty-eight years old.

Halfway along the lane, my mother stopped.

‘Jess, look!’ She pointed up towards two apartment buildings cut through by a narrow alley. It seemed like entire trees hung heavy from the balconies. Dappling the walkway were clay pots planted with shrubs and vines leaning low. There was no one there – no trace of scooters or laundry or other human interruptions – but still the alley had a cadence to it. A swelling of leaf. I had never known an alley to be so green.

Standing in the gap, I smiled and flashed a peace sign with my fingers while my mother snapped a photo for Instagram. Me in a vignette-filtered square, wearing burgundy jeans and a drapey black top. The alley behind me disappears into white.

Later that week my mother would tell me that the boulevards – shaded by trees – were the thing she missed most about Taipei. That they felt, somehow, Parisian to her. She had visited Paris twice in her life and held it as the measure of sophistication. I knew what she meant. Tidy, imposing, with nature in ordered rows.

But it was there in that rainbow-paved passage that I first counted the plants overgrowing: bamboos, dwarf papayas, bougainvilleas, potted magnolias, zamioculcas and orchids all stretching for light between the green awnings.

It seems melodramatic to write this, but I will write it anyway: it was there, in the space between two tenement blocks, that I knew I loved my mother’s home town.

 

The hierarchy of Taiwan streets is fairly straightforward: alleys (弄 lòng) branch from lanes (巷 xiàng), which take root from the larger roads (路 lù) or streets (街 jiē). Of course, I’ve listed this hierarchy backwards; which road or street you need is certainly most important if you’re looking for something specific. But on foot in Taipei, it is the alleyways that mark out the quickest course, darting between buildings or shooting diagonally from a busy road to the metro. Tiny temple altars and roving street vendors find their places between the gridded streets. Foot traffic is given priority. Between the buildings, where signage and sky grow scarce, landmarks become the only reliable means of navigation.

Should you find yourself online, you can walk the lanes, so to speak: hold the yellow stick figure above the map and many of the lines turn blue. Zoom out and most of the country is twined in veins: Street View cameras have documented almost every lane; outside the cities, they’ve hiked many of the mountain trails. But the narrower paths, forgotten between buildings, do not exist in this mirror world.

And not all of them are so easy to follow. In the western Yonghe District, the alleys spin veinlike from every direction. The tangle of pathways means that this pocket of the city has the second-highest population density in the world. In 2010, when these parts of Taipei county were incorporated as New Taipei City, residents asked officials to streamline the naming and signage of their alleys, as constant building development had until then severed smaller alleys from their main roads, quite literally hiding them from view. Emergency services kept getting lost, and residents found themselves having to go out into the main road to flag police and paramedics down. Fire trucks, of course, stood no chance of squeezing in.

The day we went to Carrefour, I showed my mother how to use Google Maps on her iPhone. She had never really read maps before – as kids we used to joke about the time she’d held a paper map in front of her and said that north lay wherever the top of the map pointed, regardless of which way she was facing. She hadn’t tried to navigate since and had resigned herself to getting lost. It felt strange to me – a kind of authority I did not want – having to navigate my mother around her own home town, a place I hardly knew at all. A Chinese-school dropout, I couldn’t read half of the street names and felt more reliant than ever on my phone. I toggled between maps and translation apps, finding well-reviewed breakfast stalls and restaurants my mother remembered from the 1980s.

So that day, before we set out into the streets of Songshan District, I showed her the blue pulse that moved with her along the streets, how she only needed to follow the dotted path to the red pin. I wanted her to move as freely as I did. To feel used to travelling alone. I told her she could trust the map.

But a map cannot be faithful to the territory it represents. If you look at maps made in Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Taiwan appears to metamorphose: Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 map shows a fragmentary place of many small islands. Given the width of Taiwan’s rivers, this misunderstanding seems plausible for a cartographer passing along the coastline by sea. But then, as if caught in an eddy, these smaller islands cluster and re-emerge in Johannes Vingboons’s 1625 rendering: Taiwan, tipped on its side, whole at last. The useful ports are marked in ink. The island, by then, had been colonised by the Spanish and the Dutch. Within decades, they were ousted.

Early-eighteenth-century maps by Qing cartographers show Taiwan from the perspective of Chinese colonists, keen to enrol the island in their empire: in a Kangxi-era map from 1704, the humps of the mountains form the horizon – a ‘wilderness’ beyond which nothing was known – with towns and settlements laid before them, easy at hand, like fruit on a table. Taiwan’s original inhabitants – who lived on these lands for many thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish, or the Dutch, or the Chinese – were relegated to these mountains. The maps show much of the cultural preconceptions that created them, but little of the land itself.

What they do say, if you look long enough, is that Taipei was a rice paddy once. The old maps will tell you that where two busy villages met by a river, Qing colonists planned a walled town. But then, in 1895, the island changed hands (again). Japanese colonists began to measure and map Taiwan at the turn of the twentieth century, and the grammar of the land was once more reimagined: old Qing settlements were divided into prefectures, and city planning acts inspired by those of Britain were enacted. The Japanese opened grand department stores and cut through the old city with French-style boulevards lined with trees. (Mom, I want to say, there is a reason you are reminded of Paris.)

The city walls were demolished to make space for the growing population. But even without them, the old borders would not be forgotten: the Qing gates, ghost-mouths to the city, were left stranded in the middle of traffic roundabouts.

All of which is to say: I couldn’t blame my mother for her confusion, for getting lost once in a while. The city and its map had a habit of shapeshifting.

Over the two weeks we spent together that trip, I led my mother between landmarks, searching for the places she knew but could not find. One day, my skills as our navigator were no longer needed.

Auntie Laura and my mother had grown up together, just streets apart. Best friends since childhood, they’d remained close despite my mother’s emigration to Canada when they were in college. Laura had stayed, raised her family in Taipei, and though she now lived an hour away in Miaoli, she ventured into the city to see us for an afternoon.

That day, we walked in the shadows cast by rain trees. Their branches scrabbled together, an umbel of shelter, as we followed the path northwards on Dunhua South Road. Auntie Laura walked in front, pointing out landmarks for my mother.

‘Here’s our school,’ she pointed left. My mother paused at the gates while I took a photograph. ‘And here is where we would stop to buy snacks.’ Laura pointed to a street corner, where a man counted egg waffles. Taxis skidded past, the air whirling with the sound of tyres on tarmac.

Laura was leading us to a lane with no need for a map. My mother, by contrast, had no idea where she was going. She simply pointed to a Häagen-Dazs and asked if I wanted ice cream. ‘We didn’t come to Taiwan to eat Häagen-Dazs,’ I sighed, trying to catch up with Laura. But by now she had crossed Zhongxiao East Road with its billboards and bright lights, and then four lanes farther. She cut right, striding fast ahead of us.

Laura had walked here so many times before; it was a route she had memorised in girlhood. I wanted to walk this way: an arrow slung true. She moved eastwards, into the narrow lane, and stopped in front of a barbecue restaurant and a Korean clothing boutique, waving upwards.

My mother looked up now, knowing finally where she was. ‘There. That was my home.’

I craned my neck to see the apartment, tucked at the top of a three-storey concrete tenement. An air conditioner protruded between the windows, and the walls were green with algae. It looked very dark, exactly how I’d always imagined it. I wondered out loud who lived there now. But Laura and my mother, tired of standing in the street, had already ducked into a shop with a French-sounding name. I remained outside, snapping photographs of the apartment. In my mother’s stories, the end of her road took her to rice paddies, to open skies. Perhaps that explained why she could never find her way on her own. This lane she once knew now stood in the middle of a shopping district, hedged in by major arteries. Everyone on the street seemed to be just passing through: teenagers snapped photos of takeaway desserts, and shoppers jostled, their bags bumping in the press of people. It all looked expensive – salons and clothing shops and third-wave coffee.

I didn’t yet know how quickly the city had outgrown its footprint. Or that if you looked at a map from 1958, all of Da’an District would’ve still been paddy fields.

In 1945, the Nationalist government claimed a capital that had been envisioned by Japanese urban planners. Taipei by then had shopfronts and arcades (not quite facsimiles of Baudelaire’s or Benjamin’s in Paris) but a growing need for more housing. These tenements were thrown up in the decades after, city sprawl in the green of Taipei’s river basin. Roads were built along irrigation canals, and houses laid out in grids between them. The ‘superblocks’ demanded new forms of passage. So between every large building, tiny alleys cut a course. Leaks in the hard geometry of concrete.

They re-emerged from the shop, my mother carrying a too-expensive wool scarf. She wrapped it around my neck and tied it in a knot.

‘It’s winter!’ Auntie Laura chided in her quilted jacket. I pulled the wool around my bare arms, already too warm. I didn’t know how to object in Mandarin.

 

Lane 149, Chengfu Road

In Yu Chong’s 1878 map of Taiwan’s slopes, the land is veined with language: characters pressed into every mountain on the island, labelling each place, such that from a distance the labels appear like roads.

Four years after that visit with my mother, I went to Taiwan alone. During the months I stayed, my only obligation was to write, and I moved across mountains and alleys with a question in mind: could I learn this language better? And by language, in a way, I meant land.

Of course, I wanted to work on my actual Mandarin skills and learn more about my family’s past. A normal impulse for the child of immigrants. But there was something more visceral to it. The want to know a place through more than the aperture of others. The knowledge I sought was only distantly familial. It was something I’d seen in Auntie Laura that day, years before. I wanted to walk here and not get lost.

I slept and woke each day in an apartment far east of the city centre, on a lane akin to my mother’s memories, where shops and cafes had not yet come. My bedroom was perpetually dark, its walls bumped up close against the back of the neighbours’, where a husband and wife argued near constantly. Between the buildings cut an alley without name that I could just about peer down to if I pressed my forehead to the windowpane. Rusted umbrellas and takeaway containers laid splayed on the awning below.

Lane 149 was in many ways a completely ordinary road. The lane was lined with scooters, old traffic cones and potted trees. A 7-Eleven sat on the corner, as well as a restaurant stall whose mercurial opening hours I never quite ascertained in the three months I stayed there. Two doors down from mine, a neighbourhood temple occupied a shopfront. Taoist gods stared from the altar, bright lit beneath fluorescent strip lighting. The neighbours came and went at daybreak and nightfall, wheeling the metal stove into the alley, lighting incense, and playing with the dog who spent his days sleeping at the door. At the end of the road, the concrete lane twisted into the hillside. The city swelled only as far as the mountains allowed.

My days had a hazy structure to them, well-suited to Taiwan winter. It rained almost constantly, and as December set in I found myself cold in weather I’d otherwise consider warm. I wrapped a coat around myself, bought thermal layers.

When on Wednesdays I heard ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’ piped tinnily through the streets, I knew the neighbours would be meeting outside at the corner, gathering their rubbish and recycling for collection. Aunties in parkas gossiped as they sorted pink bags of plastic. Schoolchildren waited next to their mothers, tugging at their coats. I didn’t have to go outside to sort my rubbish – like many serviced buildings, mine had collection – but I liked the ritual of leaving the house at the same time, strolling over to the vegetarian diner when the music called everyone outside. I needed the routine.

Each day I would trace my fingers over the map on my phone, looking for lanes I hadn’t walked before. I took care not to get lost. If I had learned anything from my mother, it was that I needed to learn landmarks. The crest of a hillside, the stretch of a long-standing wall. Details. (Is this what she had forgotten?) In the narrower lanes, it was impossible to tell when a path curved, when a corner had been cut for convenience. I walked straight ahead, but changed direction without meaning to.

So I followed the alleys in every direction: across Chengfu Road, into the paths of the neighbouring block, where each shopfront had metal grates in a different pattern. A market appeared near the curve of the lane on weekday mornings – twelve kinds of cabbage leafing into the roadway – and the pavements filled with people. For a time, from one of these lanes, you could see the Taipei 101 skyscraper creep into the sky above the city. (Street View now tells me it is obscured by new construction.)

On Fude Street, beneath the sheltered shopfronts – the closest Taipei comes to the Parisian arcade – I learned to train my gaze to the ground: every shop tiled the walkway at a different height, and I often lost my footing. I hated that walking freely in a city dug up the image of the flâneur – aimless, detached and spectating. Because I wanted more than anything to commit myself to these lanes, and to commit them to my memory. I loved that the pavements here made ease impossible. Tiles turned to concrete and back again – beyond hazardous in the rain – and shopfronts spilled into the streets. One lane was filled with songbirds in cages, who seemed to sing louder for every passer-by.

I darted between the walls of a school and a temple, following a narrow path along the hillside: losing myself between sixteen temples on a southern slope. In front of one, two old men sat at a folding table, sipping tea and playing cards. At another I found only stray dogs, no sign of people or prayer. I never made it to all of the temples, got turned around on unmapped tracks. But I found my way downhill, and at the hill’s end I stopped to buy turnip buns, flaky and bursting with salt, from a stallholder who parked at a corner no one ever seemed to pass, unless, like me, they’d gotten lost. I clambered uphill again, made the same wrong turns. I didn’t mind because the turnip buns were good.

One route I walked repeatedly. From the end of my lane there was an alley that doesn’t appear on the digital map: beneath and between buildings, to a house swallowed entirely with green. Elephant ear and money trees strung through with dwarf umbrella. From here to where the forest loomed, the houses crouched lower, no longer apartments but single homes, fronted with tiled courtyards. There were bicycles and gardening gloves. The scent of laundry and the smell of soil. It was a place I could imagine living.

At the end of this alley, where the online map now resumes coverage, the Street View image glitches: potted plants blur into asphalt, and the lane appears paved with leaf. I said before that a map cannot be faithful; but in some ways, this glitch is more faithful than I can explain.

 

Alley 11, Lane 147, Section 3, Xinyi Road

A map in hand, I could not feel at home. My attention drifted to my phone, and I missed the details. I don’t know why I told my mother to try to use one; she might more easily have learned the route by me saying: soup restaurant, straight ahead, FamilyMart, right, and then alley, alley, alley.

That is how I learned. And how I began to navigate. In walking I asked myself: what is this place to me? Am I anything at all to it?

Now, the lane doubles after the rain. Street lights and neon bounce off wet asphalt, saturating night with bright colour. It is September, two years since I was last in Taiwan, and it is still hot. Not summer hot – not for here, anyway – but humid enough that in the afternoon my T-shirt sticks to my chest. When we arrived and squeezed ourselves into the Da’an apartment we’d rented, my husband – once accustomed to tropical heat – removed every layer he was wearing. I laughed. ‘Welcome to Taiwan.’

I lead him past the park, across the traffic of Fuxing South Road, and onto a lane I can just about remember. My phone stays in my pocket; I search for the back-alley temple a friend once showed me, and then follow the lane to the corner where the barley and taro dessert shop shines fluorescent in the dark.

I cannot find the restaurant I am looking for. But it doesn’t matter.

In the days after, I lead us from landmark to landmark, no longer ambling in between. I have long since grown used to the lanes, the quickest way through them. I’ve picked up pace and stopped needing to notice. Is this what I had wanted walking to be?

It feels strange to walk with someone again.

But every so often I turn, and my husband is no longer by my side. He has drifted into a smaller alley, has stopped to take a photograph.

The alley where a woman sells pan-fried buns to office workers, clouding the passage with steam. A laneway where a man sorts cables, twining them into tidy loops. A path empty of people but living still: the same green I’ve known in so many lanes like this. Potted plants, all clustered together.

He takes an entire series of photos in those weeks, even though I’ve never talked about my love of these alleys with him: passageways we never walk. Gaps where new things have grown.

I want to stop and say: it is these paths that made me fluent. But I am moving already, fluid.

 

Image © Yu Chong, Quan Tai qian hou shan yu tu (全台前後山與圖 /Map of Taiwan Island), 1878, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Jessica J. Lee

Jessica J. Lee is an author, environmental historian and winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She has written two books of nature writing: Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest. Jessica is the founding editor of the Willowherb Review and is a researcher at the University of Cambridge.

Photograph © Ricardo A. Rivas

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