“The opium sniffing started at 1897.”
Misused preposition aside, this reads more like a line from a Victorian penny dreadful, than the opening to a history of the Taiwan Monopoly Bureau.
That’s appropriate, as what follows is some interesting history that unfortunately staggers into the realm of fiction in places.
I know bloggers elsewhere rightly take issue with the dishonesty on display at sites of cultural and historic importance in Taiwan; I don’t intend this to be a regular whinge of mine – I have ample pet peeves of other colours to keep me occupied – but I have to say the handling of some of the exhibits at the Puli Shaohsing Brewery (埔里酒廠) is abysmal.
In town for the weekend, we were trapped indoors most of the time, primarily because of the pissy weather. In such circumstances, the brewery is easily worth an idle hour or two. It’s just the lame job they do with what they have that rankles.
The setting was particularly appropriate for my friend The Aesthete who, in the wake of an Olympian session the preceding night, had skipped the hair and gone straight for the dog by the time we negotiated the brewery portals around 11 a.m. Though I’ve been firmly on the wagon of late, a couple of free tasters and a perfectly foul coffee laced with Shaohsing wine (紹興酒) were begging to be sampled.
But back to the crapness, starting with the information board on the history of the government monopolies.
Things began promisingly as we chuckled over that classic first line of the opium entry. Each of the subjects – booze, tobacco, opium, camphor, salt, petrol, and weights and measures – has a swiveling panel that can be flipped, revealing the Chinese characters for the item on one side and information about its history on the other.
No problems with the presentation of the exhibit. We actually had puerile fun flipping the panels around. It’s in the text that things start to get dodgy. First, there’s the repeated use of the word “restoration” to describe the onset of KMT rule in Taiwan.
It’s hard to escape “guangfu” (光復) references in Taiwan, with the term usually translated as “retrocession.” That’s bad enough but the semantic slither to “restoration” takes the biscuit. The town magistrate Ma Wen-jun (馬文君) is a blue, so the language isn’t surprising but I don’t think it matters who’s in charge when this dross gets printed half the time.
There seems to be a general indifference surrounding such loaded terms, with the ineffably irritating call not to “think to much” a default position for many Taiwanese – at least I’ve found this so with young people. “Why don’t you want to make the ROC flag your Facebook profile picture on Taiwan’s birthday?” asked one bright young student on 10/10 last year.
“Don’t think too much; it’s nothing to do with politics.”
I suppose we should be thankful they haven’t been quite as brazen about the retrocession issue as they have here.
So much for the semantics. Further on we have the unsubstantiated and, as far as I can see, preposterous claim that the Dutch sparked opium addiction in Taiwan by getting the aborigines hooked on tobacco laced with the drug.
Never in all my reading on Taiwanese history – which is not inconsiderable – have I come across such a claim. If they’d blamed it on the British, asserting the habits had been imported from China, I could understand the logic, if not the chronology. But why is the finger being pointed at the Dutch, who had left Taiwan some 335 years before “the opium sniffing began”? Honest mistake, or a case of blame big nose?
Worse was to come in another section of the same room. I’m not sure whether or not proceeds of the 921 earthquake commemorative grog see their way to local victims of 1999’s devastating quake but, either way, producing booze as a souvenir seems a rather tacky way to cash in. “Can you imagine a 9-11 memorial beer?” asked The Aesthete, rhetorically.
And this was just the start of the disrespectful way in which the disaster and its aftermath is presented.
Looking at the photos of the damage inflicted on Puli and elsewhere in the county, one is confronted by frightening scenes of destruction. It’s certainly no laughing matter. Why, then, did we find ourselves chortling away?
Because of this (click to enlarge):
The juxtaposition of text and image in this last one emphasizes the unintentionally tragicomic aspect to the presentation:
The text was so bizarre as to be incomprehensible in places. Luckily, The Aesthete’s Chinese reading is fairly decent, and we had an interesting time trying to figure out what was being said.
In parts it looked like the text had been stuck into Babelfish or a similar online translation tool. Why on earth did the authorities not just pay someone a few thousand NT to do a decent job?
On the opposite wall there were equally amusing observations on the supposed health benefits of Shaohsing wine, though the humour factor here was as much from the extravagance of the claims and their “scientific base” as the inanity of the language.
The text included the assertion that the booze could cure all sorts of ailments (colds, excess phlegm, diarrhea and – ahem – depression), that it helped “harmonizing your blood and smooth your breathing,” and allowed the body to “get rid of moisture and darkness.”
It will also apparently “make bodies smooth.” Indeed:
My personal fave is the observation that:
But as silly and unwittingly humorous as these were, they weren’t dealing with a serious subject and demeaning the memory of a tragic event in the process. The earthquake exhibit was reduced to comic absurdity because of these dreadful captions, so much so that we had to check ourselves and think about what we were looking at.
Later in the day, before we bussed and HSR-ed it back to Taipei, we took a brief walk up the hill at the park that marks the centre point of Taiwan. It’s a well-known spot for paragliding.
“You won’t able to do any flying today,” a local warned us as we stopped for some braised minced pork and rice on the way. That was OK. Walking was a task for The Aesthete by this stage.
We didn’t make it to the top but took in some views of the town part of the way up, to give us a nice final impression of Puli. It’s a shame those responsible for the brewery exhibits are failing to do the same.
The 100 things you always wanted to know about Shaohsing wine on the back wall was a nice touch. It must have taken some effort to come up with that many. Gouty old git that I am, No. 19 was of interest:
 As my pal The Aesthete pointed out – the verb xi (吸), which means inhale but can be used for the taking of drugs in various manners, probably should have been translated as “smoke.”