Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jun 06 2008

Exploring Bitan’s past

A while ago, Sandman told me of a fascinating large-scale photograph of Bitan from years ago on display at the Cardinal Tien Hospital in Xindian. “You should see it, ” he told me, “and take another one today from the same place.”

When I did get around to visiting the hospital, however, the exhibit was long gone. I asked the people at the help desk what happened to the photos, and they put me in contact with the photographer, Huang Jin-fa of Alpha Photography. I called him up and arranged to meet him at his studio in Xindian a few days later.

Alfa photogHuang used to work for a newspaper as a photojournalist until the paper shut down. Alpha is basically his garage, converted into a studio, the walls covered with huge prints of his photos, including the one Sandman had mentioned seeing. Many are taken from helicopters, a testament to Huang’s standing as a photographer, and the stages of Bitan’s development as seen from the air are fascinating. The picture Sandman saw was taken from the expressway bridge before it was open to traffic, so reproducing it would be difficult without a car. Many other photos he’s taken and collected over the years show views of Bitan I hadn’t seen before. One shows his daughter in front of the old Xindian Bus Station, the site of the present MRT station. Others show the various suspension bridges throughout the Japanese period and since. Besides the bridge, the Bi-ting pavilion is another constant throughout the pictures; that little place is ancient.

The riverfront was just rocks up until relatively recently, forcing people interesting in taking a spin in one of the huge-wheeled paddle boats of the time to pick their way down from the top of the riverbed across rocks of all sizes. “US servicemen on leave from Vietnam used to come down here to swim all the time,” Huang said. The catchment under the traffic bridge was originally much more fragile, being swept away with every strong storm and drastically lowering the water levels. The original bridge, built by the Japanese, was a single-lane plank construction, with heavy cement planks that could take the weight of vehicles and animals. The second bridge was divided into two lanes and was of a lighter construction. I remember the second bridge from my early days in Taiwan. The current version is again one lane, with a lighter construction method.

old bitanThe road on which I live now was apparently a tiny alley before they widened it, bordered by what looked like a wooden shantytown on both sides. In fact, a plan has been on the books for years to tear down the ugly 70’s-era tile buildings that now fill the triangle between my building and the shore, as it is government land, in order to build a park. The people who live and work there have fought to keep things the way they are, however, and the plans stay languishing on the books. In a way, it’s good, as I could never have afforded my place if they had improved that space. Property values would be double what they are today.

I noticed a collection of old lenses on a shelf in Huang’s office where he was showing me the old pictures, along with a Canon 20D. I asked him about these, and he said that it was very easy to plop on an adapter ring to use any old lens on the 20D body. He demonstrated with an old Leica lens. I took a few test shots and was impressed with the effect. You have to focus manually, and the viewfinder is too dark, especially if you close the aperture too much. With good old lenses going for dirt cheap at camera stores as people rush to more modern offerings, however, I might just go see what I can find on Camera Street in the old downtown area. “Young people aren’t interested in these old lenses,” he said. “They want immediate gratification; it used to be that you composed a shot. Now you take a million and hope for some accidental goodness from the camera’s AI.”

I told Huang that he should set up a Flickr account, but he waved his hand, saying, “I don’t understand these Internet things.” His son and son-in-law were more savvy and set up the company website, but they don’t seem to see photography in quite the same way as their father. When I told Huang about the feeling of regret I get when I pass up potential shots, his eyes lit up. “That’s just the way I was when I was younger,” he said.

posted by Poagao at 6:13 am  


  1. those are some beautiful photos and I’d love to see the rest. Maybe you could host his photos on your Flickr site if he’d be willing.

    Comment by Prince Roy — June 6, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

  2. You know, I might have seen this guy at work — me and Tim used to rollerblade on the expressway before it was opened to traffic and we often saw a photographer set up there (as well as another guy with a powerful telescope, stool, thermos flask, etc., who used to spy on the love hotel in the hope of seeing something titillating.)

    Comment by sandman — June 7, 2008 @ 1:04 am

  3. […] Poagao explores the history of Bitan. […]

    Pingback by Links 9 June 2008 - David on Formosa — June 8, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

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