Stopping in front of a small electronics store on a quiet street in Jhudong, it is hard to imagine that this simple three-story townhouse contains over 300 oil paintings that record the history of Taiwan. As I was fumbling through my purse for taxi fare, I heard someone speaking Hakka to the taxi-driver outside the window. There was a strange familiarity in the way he spoke. His accent, like my mother’s, spoke of the times he has lived through on this same piece of land that we call home.
His name is Yu Hsiu-hsiung, and he is both an artist and a living history of Taiwan. Yu was born in 1940 to a poor Hakka family in Miaoli. Since he was young, Yu not only managed all kinds of chores in the fields, but also learned how to build temples and traditional houses from his father.
After he retired in 1992 and finally had the time to stop and take a look around him, he realized that many historical artifacts and agricultural activities were rapidly disappearing without leaving any written or pictorial records. The lives of the older generations are like footsteps on the sand that leave no trace after the winds and tides have died down. “It’s a great pity,” said Yu. “The younger generations don’t know whose shoulders they are standing on.”
With the determination to pass on the history of Taiwan to the later generations, Yu taught himself to paint at the age of 52. “The past is still very much alive in my mind,” said Yu, “but because I can’t take pictures of them, I have to use other means to record them.”
Yu is credited with establishing genre painting particularly related to early peasant life in Taiwan. He uses bright colors to bring the past back to life, and blending of figures with the landscape to create unity between humans and nature. Yu pays special attention the cultural details of his paintings, such as the use of bamboo and the Eight Diagrams.
Yu has been recognized for his contribution to the preservation of Taiwan’s history and culture. In 2003, he received the International Art Contributions Award for his oil paintings, and he currently serves as the director of several art societies in Hsinchu
The Chamber in the Wall
Yu led us through rows and rows of paintings until we arrived at a small but cozy room in a corner of his studio. A painting of a woman pouring a gold-like substance into a chamber in an old house immediately caught our attention. There is a hint of mystery in the picture; the table and the baskets in front of the chamber are placed in a conspicuous manner, and a woman appears behind the chamber with half of her face concealed by a basket and a hood revealing only her eyes.
“What is that woman doing?” I asked.
Yu smiled and gave me a knowing look. “That’s exactly what I want young people like you to ask.”
The artist walked out of the room and returned with another painting. This time, the setting is a field where an officer in white uniform watches over a group of farmers who are bending over to harvest grain. The setting sun shines on the field, casting a golden hue over the grains. Japanese soldiers carry the golden grains away in huge baskets. “In the 1930s when the Japanese ruled Taiwan,” explained Yu, “they forced us to turn in most of our grain to support their army, leaving us with barely enough to eat. So, some families built hidden chambers behind the walls to store grain in secret. The grain is poured in from two separate openings on top of the chamber and retrieved from a little hole under a table. You know, chambers like these are so well designed that even now if you have a chance to visit a house with a chamber like this, you won’t be able to find it unless someone points it out to you.”
No wonder Mother used to say that my face would grow pockmarks if I didn’t finish every grain of rice in the bowl. For the people of those days, grain was indeed gold, perhaps even more.
A Long Way to School
Then Yu showed us another painting that created an immediate reaction in me.
The painting is beautiful, yes, but more importantly it affects all those who see it. I could almost feel myself slipping off a muddy path depicted in this painting, along with the barefoot children walking to school on a rainy day, highlighting the hardships of school children of earlier generations. The long and winding road with no houses in sight, the image of children trying to hide under their straw hoods, and large raindrops hitting them mercilessly all add to the feeling of difficulty they had in just getting to school.
“My father bought me my first pair of shoes when I was eighteen. I had never worn shoes to school or on any other occasions before that,” Yu explained. He held up another painting of an awkward boy being surrounded by a group of students pointing at his feet. The boy’s clean outfit and white shoes, and the length of his sleeves and pants, form a sharp contrast with the students around him. “It was a strange sight to see students with shoes on at school. We only wore shoes when we were paying formal visits to family and friends. Shoes were put on right before we reached our destination, and immediately taken off after the visit. We had to carry our shoes and walk barefoot all the way home.”