One of my first stories for the Taipei Times was a profile of a small store in Yingge that specializes in wind-up tin robots and other nostalgic goodies from the 1960s and 1970s. Fifty Dollars (check out their Ruten store here) was the first place I learned about Tatung Babies (大同寶寶) coin banks, which were given as a promotional items to anyone who purchased a Tatung appliance (apparently my grandmother once had dozens of them tucked away in her house).
Fifty Dollars also had a row of red, green and blue-striped bags with a small sign tacked above them: “Taiwan’s LV Bag.” The bags looked vaguely familiar and the more time I spent in Taiwan, the more I realized how much these simple woven tote bags symbolize working class Taiwanese life. Now I keep my eye out for them: in corner stores, slung onto the handle bars of a bike, stuffed with papers for recycling at garbage pickup. But it wasn’t until I visited The Story of Carrier Bags at Taipei Story House (台北故事館) to report on the exhibit that I realized these utilitarian totes have a name: ka-ji a (茄芷) in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese).
Plastic and tote bags might not seem worthy of a showcase, but the Taipei Story House’s goal is to create exhibits that hone in on details of daily life in Taiwan that are easily overlooked. Once you do take a closer look, you can see how things like tote bags, dolls and paper currency (two previous Taipei Story House exhibitions) not only trace Taiwan’s economic and cultural development, but also show how rapidly people’s lives changed — and how much they have stayed the same.
The Taipei Story House’s curators were inspired by the Taiwanese custom of carrying a small tote along with a purse or satchel. The latter holds important thing like keys, wallets and work documents, while the totes haul along lunches and umbrellas. Even though they are completely utilitarian, the exhibit’s curators found out that many people still carefully pick and chose which shopping totes to save.
A bookworm might carry tuck her thermos and newspaper into one of Eslite’s signature pine green shopping bags, while a fashion-conscious office worker might hideaway his soggy umbrella in a Louis Vuitton carrier.
The exhibit opens with rush bags woven into intricate, fashion-forward patterns. Commonplace before plastic bags became readily available, rush bags are still popular, but their production has been mostly outsourced from workshops in Miaoli Country to Chinese factories.
If you have eaten in a night market or just made a visit to the corner store to pick up some odds and ends, chances are your purchases were placed into a striped red-and-white bag. The Story of Carrier Bags’ curators visited a Tainan factory to see how the shopping bags were produced and film a documentary that will run continuously at the exhibition When I asked my red, green and blue tote bags and red and white striped plastic bags are so popular, I was told that that was probably because those are the most basic ink colors, and red and white bags became more popular than their blue or orange counterparts simply because they looked more cheerful. Red-and-striped shopping bags have become an icon of daily life in Taiwan, but it is a great environmental cost. The manufacturing process leaves a lot of waste material and of course those bags are usually too flimsy to use more than once. In response, exhibit also featured conceptual bags designs that address the impact of consumerism on the planet (among other topics).
I enjoyed seeing shopping bags used in Taipei during the 1960s and 1970s, when my parents still lived here. I wondered which ones would look familiar to them.
Even hardware stores saw the marketing potential of turning their customers into walking billboards. Sturdy canvas work bags were sewn up and given to customers.
The Taipei Story House also focused on bags that have been kept for sentimental reasons by various people, such as the army kit carried by Mandopop singer Sky Wu’s (伍思凱) during his mandatory military service. Each person wrote a note about what the bag meant to them, even if it was just a paper shopping bag or cheap nylon tote.
That prompted me to reflect on my own obsession with tote bags. I tend to schlep a bunch of stuff around with me. As much as I’d like to think of myself as a person who needs only a tube of lip balm, wallet and phone to make it through the day — that is just not true. A few weeks ago I cleaned out my bag and found a sewing machine foot, box of mints, a notebook, several pens, a box of Fuji Instax film, two name card cases, one compact umbrella, two handkerchiefs and some twine. Well, that explained my chronic shoulder pain.
As an undergraduate, I hauled my Britex tote bag everywhere. Britex is a legendary fabric store in San Francisco and my bag was almost like a security blanket for me when I was lonely and homesick for California. I carried it until I graduated. Unfortunately, my roommate decided to use my bag to transport bottles of bleach to the laundromat and since she hadn’t mastered the whole “screwing caps onto bottles” skillset, my Britex tote ended up with a huge bleach hole burned through it. But a few years later, I purchased a new Britex tote while on honeymoon with my husband in San Francisco. It’s a really handy bag — I’m always amazed at how much stuff I can shove into it.
Another one of my favorite tote bags is this tiny version of the Taipei First Girls High School (臺北市立第一女子高級中學) signature army green book bag. I bought it for my 30th birthday party last year, which had a school uniform theme. I once asked my Mom if she thought I could have been a Taipei First Girls High School student, too, and she said that she didn’t know because students had to be good at math to test into the school and that was never my best subject. Well, I think that if I had grown up in Taiwan and I had wanted to go to Taipei First Girls High School, I would have found a way. I’m a hard worker, especially if I’m determined to prove a point. But I might also have found another path for myself. It’s always strange pondering all these “what if” questions. How different of a person would I have been had I grown up in Taiwan. Would I still fundamentally be the person that I am?
I’m pretty sure that no matter where I grew up, I would have enjoyed Miffy illustrations. I love how current the character looks even though Miffy was first created by Dutch artist Dick Bruna in 1955. I got this tote as part of 7-Eleven’s recent City Cafe promotion and I plan to use it to hide my knitting products from George. The Story of Carrier Bags runs through Oct. 28 at the Taipei Story House, 181-1, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市中山北路三段181-1號), tel: (02) 2587-5565. For more information, please see my Taipei Times article or visit the Taipei Story House’s Web site.
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