One fine morning in February 2014 I decided to go out riding. I had seen photos of a beautiful cliffside temple next to a waterfall in Xīndiàn 新店 and it looked to be within easy reach of my place in Jingmei. I set out for the highway leading to Pinglin, passing through the sprawl of southern Taipei 台北 under the warm winter sun. The roadway began to steepen as I reached the outskirts of the city. Struggling against gravity—but enjoying every minute of it—I ascended into the hills before taking a turn onto Yínhé Road 銀河路 (the literal translation of which is “silver river”, better known to us as the Milky Way).
Not long after leaving the highway behind I stopped to catch my breath. My eyes were drawn to the mountainside and the appearance of an abandoned building in the shadows of the tall trees along the river. Since I was in no particular rush I parked my bicycle and ambled over to investigate, not knowing what I might find. At a glance, it looked as if this building once housed a bunch of restaurants. There were individual units, each with their own entrance, and I imagined that this might have once been a small roadside market of sorts, though it seemed rather out of the way. I started to poke around and found stairways within some of the units. There were more levels to explore.
The second level housed former kitchens, further supporting my guess that this was once a bunch of restaurants. It confused me somewhat that there didn’t seem to be any seating anywhere—but then I got up to the third floor, an open space that must have once had quite a nice view. There was no remnant of tables or anything else like that but it could have easily been the place that people went to enjoy their meals.
At one point I found a calendar, a constant presence in Taiwanese homes and businesses. I pictured in my mind all the spectral hands of time flipping back or tearing off the page of the previous day, and looking forward to another cycle of death and rebirth in miniature. And then, at some point, no hand graced that calendar again, and time became fixed and frozen, immutable.
As I made my way deeper into the complex the mystery deepened. This place seemed awfully large, as if it were much more than just a couple of restaurants. The building seemed to go on and on, plunging into the jungled hills far from the roadside, but this was a trick of perception. In actuality I hadn’t gone far at all—it was simply that I was taking my time, observing patiently, and looking for traces of movement, of clues in the undergrowth.
Eventually I found a mossy, fern-covered stairway leading down to the area behind the metal shutters I first saw from the roadside. When I reached the surface I paused, looking around for evidence of habitation. There was something different about this place compared to the mostly featureless concrete structures I had been exploring. This place looked more like a home.
I stepped into a building to my right and found all kinds of artifacts of the past: sewing kits, drafting instruments, rusty metal tins filled with dust, faded photographs, old letters, glass and plastic bottles filled with unidentified liquids, boxes and carts piled high with various belongings, mops and ladders, and other items typically found in garages worldwide.
I was particularly interested in a pile of photographic negatives I discovered on a desk to one side. Later on, while developing the photos that appear here, I attempted to restore one of the negatives, with fascinating results (click on the link to read more about that). At the time I was not able to discern what was depicted in the negatives, though my imagination did its best to fill in the blanks.
I climbed the hill, meaning to work back to front. By this point I had realized that this entire complex was likely to have been a family business. I wondered what happened to everyone—it seemed evident that there were quite a few people living here at one point.
The back of the complex was incredibly overgrown, impeding my explorations. I could discern a collapsed cabin at the very back, next to an area that must have once housed a garden—and perhaps even livestock. I thought back to the sign advertising goat meat—was this also once a small farm?
Returning to the main building down the hill I entered a room filled with personal effects. It looked like whoever had been living here had left abruptly, without warning, leaving everything behind. The closets were lined with clothing, the desk was littered with cases containing makeup, and the shelves were packed with orderly stacks of empty cigarette cartons. If it weren’t for the sodden scent of mold and mildew and the thin layer of grime on everything it might have, at a glance, looked like someone had just stepped out.
I wandered on, exploring several other rooms in the complex, wary of being too invasive. I am not at all concerned about ghosts—which is what keeps most Taiwanese people from exploring these places—but I do try my best to be respectful. There are objects I won’t touch, photographs I won’t take or share, and things I certainly won’t do. I abide by one of the elementary precepts of urban exploration: “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”.
You never really know what you’ll find when you start to explore someplace new. Often there is nothing particularly personal about a space—particularly if it is a former factory, warehouse, or other industrial site. Exploring abandoned homes is a little different. A lot of the time homes are so trashed and ravaged by time that the experience is somewhat impersonal. And then there are those homes that remain preserved, offering a window into other people’s lives as they were in the past. You can’t help but feel a connection to these strangers, a wistful nostalgia that their time has passed, that the world has moved on, just as it will move on when it is your time to fade from this material plane.
I know that not everyone will understand why I do what I do. Something this personal—it can’t help but offend at least some people. Is it better to leave these things alone, to let them be forgotten? Perhaps. I mean well in exploring and documenting and sharing some of what I discover. It is a way of remembering, of paying tribute to the human experience, to the hopes and dreams we all have in common.
On my way out, feeling solemn, I heard the distant sound of music wafting over the long grass in the shade of the mountains at my back. I walked along a footpath leading around a bend in the river, following the siren song to a small shrine opposite the entrance of the buildings I had just explored.
Here I found an old radio playing music of the distant past. I knew, without even thinking it, that the former residents of the home I had just explored came here often. I wondered who had placed this radio here, when the music had begun to play. Had it been playing all this time while we wandered the earth unaware? Were we simply not listening?
I hit the road again, pausing only to capture one last photograph from across the river. I let the camera rest on my chest as it heaved, drawing breath that will one day be denied. With gratefulness and appreciation I turned back to the road and continued my journey to the wonders up ahead, a little song in my bones.