Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Chinese Brush Painting

Not only were PE and Music well planned and taught according to a syllabus, Art was also a wonder.

The book wasn’t thick but I would pore over the pages over and over again. Truth be told, the teacher did not go over all of the material. For instance, there was a chapter on cartooning that I awaited eagerly but was skipped over. Whatever we did cover, I loved it.

charcoal busts

There were a few sessions on charcoal portraiture. The teacher brought a Roman or Greek bust and we all drew it. At the end, she held up three different drawings — and I’m proud to say, mine was one of them — and explained how although they were of different styles, they were all good. The other two were a “slabby” style, where every slope and corner was exaggerated into slabs; and a “soft” style where all shades of black and grey were carefully mixed and smoothed so no sudden changes along the meeting edges.

Another month, we studied Chinese brush painting. Now I discovered how to paint those dreamy landscapes I was trying to duplicate back in Paris. Chinese painting is a bit like Montessori education. Each little part is very specific and must be practiced at length in order for one to master it. Yet the artist is totally free to decide what to do with those parts. The real art and skill are in the design of the entire painting, and in the ability to infuse this painting with “chi/qi” or spirit. One might wonder whether such highly stylized paintings are not like stencilling. No, not at all. Stencil art is very dead looking, no life in it at all. On the other hand, a well-done Chinese painting should burst with vitality.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

A stenciled image (left) is unable to convey ardent Qi because each element is pre-drawn. A brush painting (right) can show vital force because it is executed on the spot, with the hand and wrist moving in one direction. Perfection of stroke is secondary to movement.

That year, we were slated to learn landscape elements such as rocks and trees. I was totally enthralled by it. Just by using black ink, and various dilutions of grey, old and gnarled pines would shape up three-dimensionally, and rocks would pop out of the paper. I practiced night and day the different types of pine needle formations, as well as straight trunks, tortured and bent trunks, roots pushing out of the earth, and squirrel holes. I delighted in slowly pulling out leaves of the grass orchid across the paper, in graceful curves thinning into a line where it bent.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces' retreat in 1949.

The Ancient Palace Museum, in the suburbs of Taipei, exhibits relics from past dynasties saved and carried to Taiwan during the Nationalist Forces’ retreat in 1949.

how to paint rocks

Maybe that year, or maybe the next, Papa saw a tiny announcement for a lecture at the Ancient Palace Museum in the suburbs of Taipei. “Hey, Fawzia,” he said, “There is a lecture on the comparison of Classical Chinese brush art versus Classical European art. Want to come and listen to it together?” So it was that one fine twilight, the two of us took the bus to the magnificent Ancient Palace Museum. The speaker was a French person whose job I cannot remember. But it had nothing to do with art, more with science or possibly engineering. Nor can I recall his name, so I apologize for not crediting his work properly. But his presentation made a profound impression on me. He had a collection of slides — and this was in the time of real photographic slides, not power point ones. You had to place them in order in a tray that was loaded into a slide projector.  He started with an introduction about how he had become interested in Chinese art and a disclaimer about not being a specialist. Then to the meat of the matter.

He showed a typical Western oil painting of flowers; and another; and another. They were all of cut flowers in vases; some were even cut flowers placed on a table, waiting to die. Then he showed slides of Chinese flowers: orchids, wisterias, chrysanthemums, all vibrant with life and in a natural habitat. Similarly, he went on contrasting Western classical paintings of animals: horses as cavalry, dogs in a hunt, hunted animals, butchered animals, fish on a plate, you get the idea. Then the Chinese animals, wild horses galloping, koi fish and shrimps in a pond, peacocks strutting among rocks, all alive and well, and enjoying their day.

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

Plants and flowers, Chinese classical style

flowers, Western style

Flowers, Western classical/impressionist style. They are usually cut flowers, displayed in a vase.

I cannot quote him exactly, and maybe my memory of his exact meaning is fuzzy. But I have often repeated to my students his presentation, or a version of it, now on a power point slide . Man reflects his attitude to life in his paintings. In the Europe of the Classical period, the European man sought to conquer and control his surroundings and other forms of life while the Chinese man tended to observe nature, admire it, preserve it, and learn from it. 

I cannot pinpoint when it started happening, but slowly, very slowly, and very surely, a growing pride in being Chinese germinated in my heart.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

Animals, in the Chinese classical style, are alive and well, doing their own thing in a natural habitat.

 

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Animals, in the Western classical style, are usually, if alive, subjugated to human willpower.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

Chinese horses frolicking vs European horses glorifying humans.

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Golden Dragons

Papa had been able to enter beyond the gates because of his special badge for Foreign Affairs employees. The rest of the family had been waiting in the regular lobby. I met for the first time — well, in my memory at least it was the first time, for they remembered me as a little toddler — my maternal grandfather Chang, Ping-Nan, and my “dry” father (Chinese godfather) Wang Jie-San.  Mama held two multicolored leis in her hand, and placed them around our necks. Abdul Kerim and Iffat were there too, though  Iffat was a bit shy with us. I don’t think she really remembered us since she was barely a year old when we had left. We all packed into a van someone had rented, and off we went.

Le Hua Night Market in Yong He

Le Hua Night Market in Yong He

Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung owned a little villa in YongHe, a district on the south side of metro Taipei. Mama and Aunt Lily had discussed the matter and agreed that our family could live there during this period. As the van pulled into the narrow lane and stopped at a red gate, a long string of firecrackers hanging by the door was lighted.  I nearly fell off my seat at the loudness of the pops and cracks. Before I even got up from my seat, Grandpa Chang hopped off the van and fast as lightning, tore into the house. Slightly bemused, I wondered whether he had a bladder problem. When I entered the sitting-room, I found him crouched in front of the TV, intently watching a baseball game.  My brother was there already as well, and they were soon joined by everyone else. Saadia and I stood awkwardly on the side, not sure of what was happening.

 

The Chinese love setting off loud and smoky firecrackers to celebrate happy occasions.

The Chinese love setting off loud and smoky firecrackers to celebrate happy occasions.

I was slightly disappointed. So, that was how eagerly everyone welcomed us back? Then I understood. It was the game of the year, the game that made us, Taiwan, shine again in the world. I had read in the Torch of Victory, a magazine circulated among the overseas Chinese community, about the unexpected and amazing victory of the Golden Dragons, a kids baseball team from Taichung, Taiwan, who came out of nowhere, in a game where Taiwan was unheard of, to win the Little League world championship at Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I certainly had never heard of the game before reading about it, and still was in a fog about how it was played. But did it matter?

The Golden Dragons return triumphantly to Taiwan as  world champions.

The Golden Dragons return triumphantly to Taiwan as world champions.

Later, my classmates told me stories of how the team had been noticed by the expatriate American community who loved baseball. When the Golden Dragons won the national title in a game that was then little known in Taiwan, they had to scrape the money together to go to Japan for the Regionals. After winning the Asia-Pacific title, they were stuck. No funds whatsoever. How were they to travel to the US for the world finals?  They appealed to the government who did not even bother to reply. Finally, it was the US marines and the rest of the American community who fund-raised for them, and helped finance their trip to Pennsylvania. When they returned with the World title, they were a bit surprised to find a red carpet welcome at the airport, along with an open-car parade along the streets of Taipei all the way to the Presidential palace! The government had realized that in the then atmosphere of growing international isolation, country after country breaking relations with us and courting Communist China instead, this was a bright shaft of sunlight.

1969 little league champions

That was in 1969. This now was 1970. Was the miracle going to repeat itself? The winning team this year came from Jia-Yi, and was named the Seven Tigers. Their heated competition against the Golden Dragons, dubbed the “Dragon-Tiger Struggle”,  had sparked impassioned fan movements in Taiwan. Having made it to the Asia-Pacific Regional, they were right now fighting for the title, on that silver screen in our living room.

The Seven Tigers team

The Seven Tigers team

I forgave my grandpa for ignoring us.

Although the Seven Tigers defeated the Philippines and Japan to clinch the Regional title, they eventually lost to Nicaragua and placed fifth at the World finals. However, the golden era of Little League baseball in Taiwan had been ignited, and Taiwan went on a string of victories, winning ten years out of thirteen from 1969 to 1981. The streak continued at a lesser pace through 1996, with another seven world champions in 15 years. Taiwan withdrew from the Little League in 1997, following new restrictions of rules. From the introduction of Far Eastern teams in 1967 to 1996, Taiwan won 17 of the 30 championships, and was twice runner-up.

Seven Tigers, upon their return to Taiwan, shake hands with Chiang Ching Kuo, son of the President Chiang Kai Shek.

Seven Tigers, upon their return to Taiwan, shake hands with Chiang Ching Kuo, son of the President Chiang Kai Shek.

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I’m coming home!

So Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily prepared to move to Switzerland. Papa and Mama discussed our situation at length, with Papa tending towards our continuing our education in French, and Mama insisting that it was time we went home and learned Chinese. Mama won.

And so, finally, at the age of 13, I was finally going to head back to Taiwan after having spent almost twelve years abroad.

I was ecstatic! Primarily, because I was going to join my own family again. I loved Aunt Lily, and my cousin Therese had become more of a sister than a cousin now, but home is home, mother is mother, and no one can replace that.

dreaming of home and mother

I was also happy to finally get to know my homeland. Well, technically, since Papa was from Nanjing, then so was I. But given the political situation, and having never set eyes or foot on the Chinese mainland, I called Taiwan home. I peppered Aunt Lily with questions. What were the schools like? Would we have to wear uniforms?

Aunt Lily acted all cool and matter-of-fact, even a little snippy. But I could sense her tears under it all. Just as I thought of her as Mama Number Two, she had come to love me as her daughter too.  She sewed dresses for us just like Mama used to, even though she kept complaining about my neck — too long, and set too low in front, causing her to redo the neckline several times. Aunt Lily would sprinkle her speech with Taiwanese words, unlike Mama, who had tried very hard to acquire Papa’s Mainland speech and accent.

Chinese adults equate love and care with scolding and rebuking, or, at best, advice. The more they scold you, the more they love you. Aunt Lily was no different. She kept calling me “kong-kong, gong-gong”, which meant crazy-stupid, in Taiwanese. At dinner time, she’d call out, “jia-beng la!” — time to eat!  and afterwards, she’d tell us to go “kee sey ka tseng!” before bedtime — go wash your buttocks! An operation which entailed filling a plastic basin with hot water, then squatting over it for the washing. Mama had not taught us that Muslims actually need to wash that part of the body after every single toilet use, so we did so only once a day.

Diane Briere de l'Isle -- entry in my cahier de souvenirs

I had my friends and teachers write in my cahier de souvenirs, and then it was  time to pack. Uncle Lung took Saadia and me to town to purchase our airline tickets. There was no parking space in front of the airline office, so he dropped us and left to find a spot. We entered the place and walked up to the counter. We were now taller, and our heads did stick out above the counter top, but the airline workers sitting there acted as if we were still short little dwarves and they couldn’t see us. We patiently waited and waited silently for someone to give us some attention, but none did. They chatted and laughed but totally ignored us. Just then Uncle Lung entered. The hostesses suddenly transformed themselves into smiling and assiduous clerks. They almost fell over each other trying to flirt with Uncle Lung. Thinking back, I guess he was kind of handsome, tall and straight, with glasses giving him a scholarly aura. Aunt Lily often commented resentfully on the female clerks of whatever office she had business in. They would treat her with rudeness or even give her the cold shoulder, but the minute her husband appeared, these women would suddenly fawn all over him. Ah, Aunt Lily, today I feel so much with you!

Anyway, our tickets were finally purchased. They indicated that we were to fly Lufthansa to Frankfurt, then BOAC to Tehran, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and finally Cathay Pacific to Taipei. Quite a long journey, with plenty of breaks on the way. Again, Hansel and Gretel set off on their own. Airline services had improved somewhat by then, for Uncle Lung managed to get a stewardess to oversee our transfer in Frankfurt. Which was a good thing, because I barely knew a few words of German gleaned from the girls in school who were in German class. Then, it was the land of the unknown, for all announcements were now in English and the language of the country where we landed. Our English wasn’t that good yet. We had started formal English classes in 6eme and 5eme, but as any student of foreign languages can attest, classroom English does not equal fluency to understand “This is your captain speaking…”

BOAC

Having each other’s company gave us more courage, and Saadia and I started enjoying playing with the little tray tables and cute utensils. In Iran, I tried to look outside the windows to see the famous roses of Ispahan, but of course, to no avail. Finally, we landed in Delhi, took a turn in the transit lounge and re-boarded the plane. But… what was taking them so long? It started getting hotter and hotter, and everyone was pulling out magazines and fanning themselves. Then, the speakers crackled, and made an announcement in English. A unanimous sigh of annoyment broke out. Even before the captain stopped talking, passengers were getting up, opening the overhead compartments and pulling their bags out. Everyone was grumbling and talking. We were shocked. What was happening?

BOAC stewardess

We also pulled our bags out and followed the crowd. What was going on? Why were we heading back to the transit lounge? Finally, a stewardess came up to us to talk to us. We tried with ers… and ahs… to ask the question, what exactly was happening? A cute Indian stewardess located an English middle aged lady who could remember her high school French. The husband could not speak French, but we couldn’t care less. Finally, between our broken English and her broken French, we could communicate. It turned out the plane had some mechanical problem and would require a longer time on the ground. In the meantime, we, the passengers, would be taken to a hotel to rest and eat.

I became worried. Did we have to pay for all this? We only carried a little cash on us. The kind English lady and her husband were appointed our mentors and translators. She said, no, don’t worry, it’s all on the airline. I worried still about our visas. We did not have visas for India. But I suppose that in cases of such emergency, the immigration officers had the authority to allow two little Chinese girls onto Indian soil without visas. Please, I asked the stewardess, can you send a telegram to my parents to inform them that we would not be arriving on the expected flight? She assured me she would take care of that. So finally, I relaxed. Little did I know that no one took care of it, and my parents went frantic with worry.

new delhi

So, I stared at the dusty streets and colorful pedestrians filling the city of New Delhi. The English couple decided to go out for a walk, but we were too scared of missing the flight. Saadia managed to take a nap but I was way too excited. I decided to jump on the mattress and enjoyed a great trampoline session, something neither Mama nor Aunt Lily ever allowed for fear of damaging the springs. In the evening, the cute Indian stewardess came to take us to the buffet where we met the English couple again.  They took great advantage of the free food and drinks! As for us, since we didn’t know how to ask whether there was pork or lard here, there and everywhere, and were too shy to do so anyway, we ended up eating very little, only dishes that looked obviously vegetarian.

Taipei SongShan Airport

Taipei SongShan Airport

Finally, the plane was fixed, and we flew off again. By the time we landed in Taipei, we were exhausted. As we descended the steps to the tarmac, there was Papa, waiting for us. We ran to him, “Papa! Papa!” and embraced him. He was so happy and laughed from ear to ear! He gave us a great big hug, then stepped back to take a good look at us. In later years, he loved recalling that moment. As he took that look, he suddenly realized we were much taller than what he remembered, and had an instant’s frozen fear that he had hugged the wrong girls!

 

 

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