Snowy Egret 66 (1): 6-7. Spring 2003.
"Taiwan's Secret Economy"
There is a narrow alley near my home here in Wufong, Taiwan that's a dead end and doesn't lead anywhere. As far as I could see there would be no reason anyone would ever walk into that place. Small cars are parked the length of it on the right. On the left, bare concrete walls of the buildings abut the asphalt pavement. At the end -- nothing. I'd never have noticed the uninviting alleyway in the first place were it not that every time I return from the marketplace laden down with purchases, I wish it led through to the next street because that would give me a shortcut home. On my way back from paying the phone bill at the 7-Eleven this morning I was surprised to spot an elderly Chinese man and woman appear suddenly at the end of that alleyway, as if out of nowhere, then turn and continue in my direction towards the street. The alley verved abruptly right at its far end, I was sure of it.
Excited that I might have my shortcut home after all, I headed into the alleyway. Halfway to the end, I passed the elderly Chinese couple. They looked at me like they wondered what I was doing going that way. Since I came from New York this was the first time I'd gotten that look. Undaunted, I continued. After all, it was a public alleyway. Sure enough, at the end the alley turned right; and not just right but also left. There was a pedestrian street hidden inside there going the length of the block. It was narrow, dark and cozy and had a hidden enchantment about it. Overhead, metal awnings on some of the buildings extended far out over the alley, shielding building fronts from the rain. Out in front of one house under such an awning -- the whole family's shoes sat in a boxed-in wooden rack. Out front of a house without an awning -- an entire orchid collection. I paused in amazement that right out in the open twelve potted Phalanopsis orchids in full flower hung on the outside of a window grating. I was touched that these people would be so trusting with their potted orchids as to leave them out on the street like this. I looked to the left and saw that the back alley opened out in that direction to a splash of light against a concrete wall. That must be a way out to the road. To the right it seemed like the alley verved to the left at the end in a wonderful profusion of greenery. This would be my shortcut home. I headed in that direction. When I got to where all the greenery was, I found there was indeed an opening to the left but it wasn't a road. It was a narrow sliver of a triangle between buildings. It was filled with orchids as was the wall at the end of the alleyway. Someone had used that tiny leftover space to build an orchid collection even more impressive than the one I'd just seen. Besides Phalanopsises, there were Dendrobiums hanging on Osmunda slabs on the wall and Cattleyas galore in pots sitting on wooden benches. There was a small fortune in orchid plants here right out in the open for anyone to grab. Yet I could see they were perfectly safe. I thought of how back in New York the flowers planted around the street tree in front of our building had been dug up and carted away in the night. Somebody even dug plants out of the window boxes on the first floor and made off with them.
The lush greenery of all these orchids and the splash of sunlight they nested in had the delightful feel of a forest clearing. I forgot to be disappointed I'd come to a dead end. I turned and ambled down the narrow roadway to its far end. In front of one house was a bin filled with paper to be recycled. All along the alley, any little triangle or opening where there was light was filled with flowers and plants. I marveled at the economy of these people, who wasted not a single nook. The alleyway itself was immaculate, as if swept clean. As I walked past another house, I could feel and see someone stirring just inside the window. The lives, like the houses here, were close together. They touched one another. When I got to the other end of the alley, I was surprised to find there was no way out there either. I peered over the concrete wall at the end into a vacant lot with piles of rubble overgrown with weeds. Some buildings had gone down in the earthquake. I had to turn around and go back out the way I came in.
When I stepped back out onto the noisy street a moment later amid the rich mix of pedestrians, motorbikes and vehicles of all sorts vying for a path from every angle, I looked back at the uninviting alley. It might be a dead end, yes. But it wasn't true that it didn't lead anywhere. It led inside. It had given me a privileged glimpse into the mystery and beauty of the Taiwanese heart and the secret economy of lives that make so much out of so little.