My favourite thing about travel has always been the unexpected friendliness that happens when you are least expecting it. While Taiwan has been home now for close to five years, I am still somewhat a traveler in what is now my hometown. Within those conditions, I am thrilled to relay a great travel story from here in Taipei.
Having finished an enjoyable coffee, cake and read at my most local Starbucks, we decided to enjoy the lovely fall weather by walking home rather than taking the bus. Not only walking, but we decided to intentionally go out of our way, just in case we might see something new.
Not sure if it is really new, but we did have a great and unexpected experience; one which certainly shows the best of Taiwan hospitality.
Going down a completely nondescript side street, we came across an older man working on a piece of wood with a saw.
The artist as I first encountered him.
As per usual for me, I squatted down and took a few shots. Now, I take lots of photos of lots of people, but you never know when you might have a bad reaction. A bad reaction from a man with a saw in his hand could be bad indeed. Well, the reaction was far from bad.
After introducing himself as Zhan, ZiFu (詹資富), Mr. Zhan ushered us into the entrance area of his home, where much of his work, both complete and in progress, is on display. It seems that he retired at 59 and has been working at his hobby of creating his art for the past 13 years. His art involves creating highly detailed replicas of birds using wood, glue and ribbon and then mounting them on wooden mounts made to resemble trees or tree branches.
Here you can see the energy and enthusiasm with which Mr. Zhan describes what he does. Right from the first moment we met him, it was so obvious that he not only loved what he was doing, but he loved talking about it and showing off the results too.
He is definitely a “from scratch” type of artist. Almost all the materials in what he builds were made by his own hand. Not only were things made by hand, but he collects the wood he uses himself from the mountains around Taipei.
Here, he shows a 13kg piece of wood which he found in the mountains around Xindian, one which he not only found, but arranged for a car to have it brought back to his home. I have no idea what kind of wood it was, but it was certainly a hardwood and very dense. I did notice that some of his stuff was made from Sandalwood, just not this particular piece.
Taking the complete craftsman approach, Mr. Zhan does not use any power tools at all in his work. Everything is done by handtools, such as the handsaw you see here, rasps, files, sandpaper or the like. No electricity needed.
The bag you see in his hand is sawdust he has collected from his work and then dyed. This is then glued down on some of the pieces to replicate grass or other surface materials. He does buy the dye, but the saw dust, he both creates and collects himself, as well as doing the coloring. Also seen in his hand is a bag of white glue. This is used not only to glue down the colored sawdust, but it also can get mixed in with the saw dust and then painted on to a branch to increase its size and change its texture.
The birds that Mr. Zhan mounts on the wood are also handmade. He starts with a smallish piece of wood, which he then carves into shape, again using rasps, files, knives and any number of handtools. After getting the shape right, he creates feathers using individually cut ribbons, whch are glued on. Exposed areas of wood are painted the proper colour. Making each bird is painstaking and time consuming. Some of his most intricate designs take up to a full month to finish.
In the foreground, you can see a very fuzzy wooden bird. This has been carved and shaped, but the feathers have not been applied. On the work in his hand, you can see a finished bird, affixed to a finished tree.
Here, with one finished piece in his hands, Mr. Zhan gestures to his display case, where many others are on show. The case is really nicely presented too, with custom lighting and individual tags made up for each displayed piece. With the tags, the 21st Century has crept in; they are all computer printed by his daughter.
The pride with which Mr. Zhan showed us what he does, coupled with the friendliness and genuine warmth towards us made this an exceptionally rewarding experience for both Becki and myself. One can’t hope to meet someone more genuine and hospitable than Mr. Zhan. We were really lucky to have the experience. Mr. Zhan says that it is his dream to open a small gallery where he can sell his works. I hope this dream comes true and I believe that between his wonderful way with people and his talent for what he does, his gallery has the potential for real success. I hope this ends up being the case.
The above essay was all written in October of 2007. However, in early February of this year, my mom and stepfather visited Taipei. My stepfather is very interested in woodworking, so we brought him to visit Mr. Zhan. Once again, Mr. Zhan and his family could not have been more pleasant and welcoming. Much of what he showed me earlier was repeated for the benefit of my stepfather; all the great pride and openness was still there. One thing I found most interesting was that when my stepfather asked about purchasing a piece, he was simply told no. For now, Mr. Zhan does not feel right about selling his works, even though he does hope to open a gallery at some point. To me, this was further evidence that Mr. Zhan was truly open and welcoming and not simply looking to make a sale. I never doubted it for a moment, but to have it proven further was very nice.
Although not specifically a travel story, Mr. Zhan and incidents such as this are really what I love most about traveling. To have this experience, I didn’t even have to leave home.