This article has been written after we spent one night in the Fish Market in Keelung, North Taiwan. It left a strong impression on me, and, although it was almost one year ago, I can still remember every minute, every impression; the magic of this night will stay with me for a long time.
It was raining outside, and fine water drops hitting the metal quietly echoed the roaring noise of the train through the night, en route to the coast of North Taiwan, to Keelung.
Trapped in the old fashioned, humid wagon, behind foggy windows, I wondered if I was not indeed in a bizarre aquarium, a rusty steel cage where, who knows, some Giant Big Fish hidden in the dark could very well observe me, detail each of my moves and expressions, draw upon me some aqueous fantastic conclusions still unknown to human mankind. Yes, after all, I started persuading myself that it was possible, and then: what would such an ubiquitous fish have seen in this wagon anyway?
Isolated from the students and other older people on their way home, a small group of journalists was sitting at the back of the wagon. They didn’t speak much.
Hemingway, behind his furnished eyebrows, seemed to be reviewing the secret map to an intricate land, an exact replica of one of those decay places he knew by heart, lovingly and jealously kept fresh in his mind. Seeing him like this, low energy, dark thoughts, you would never tell he would, just a few dozens minutes later, turn into an audacious hunter, capable of tracking the thinnest hint of a news, a picture, a fact, a truth, right now, with so much ease.
Then there was his friend, Professor Sunflower, he also was silent, an adventurer who took the best of life and also managed to remain vivid, easily touched; an artist and an artisan at the same time.
I was there, too, looking through the window, vaguely aware of that Giant Big fish maybe looking at me, trying to see through the obscurity, trying to listen through the noise and the rain for a confirmation we were going the right way, nervously playing some forgotten ocarina tune on the windowsill with my fingers.
All of us were often looking down at our cameras, our material, cleaning lenses and testing parameters of light and image compression, lost in a world of batteries, tissues, glass, metal, dust cleaner, memory cards, filters, tiny details that could spoil a picture, maybe the picture each of us had been dreaming about.
But ironically all of this material, brutally real, couldn’t catch anything from the Giant Big Fish peeping at us through the window of the train. I was pressing my face against the window, as kids do, but I was still unable to understand that this cold sensation was the breathe of a God Fish, a giant animal looking at me with his paternal, slightly surprised-almost amused- air. Fishes generally have expressive features, and gain to be better known. They are of difficult access, though, living in the sea, or in aquariums similar to the one we were presently trapped in, and few people have ever spent time talking to them, or asking about their lives.
Some time passed and we arrived, as if by chance, in Keelung; a whistle blowing welcomed us, and the rain. All was silent; the lights were dim, the air slightly salted.
The fish market is a well organized geometrical place, revolving around a long rectangular building. It is strategically located near the train station, the harbor, and the main street in Keelung. The lowrise building is around 200 to 300m in length and 50m in width, the upper floors occupied by harbor administration and local trading companies offices-this is a privately held market-, while the ground floor is packed with small warehouses, storage room, and a simple network of lanes to let staff hastily move from one side to another, or hide for a minute and light a cigarette. The overall appearance is unassuming, it looks like any other old brick and concrete building in Taiwan, just a bit more rusty, betraying the sea nearby, or maybe, who knows, the toll the Giant Big Fish slowly takes, year on year. During the day, you would probably hardly say it has anything to do with fish, streets are empty, steel curtains closed, and just a few hieroglyph-like boards hint of fisheries. They make me think of forgotten odes to the Giant Big Fish, odes someone would have forgotten there, long ago, when men and god where living together in peace.
Circulation around the building is polarized, one long length of the rectangle is used as an open air parking for the large trucks coming from all over the country, while the other long length serves as the main alley where customers stroll all night on the side, while smaller “trucks”, ownership of the market, keep circulating in the middle of the lane, loading and unloading polystyrene boxes of fish for each shop, precious treasures that will, soon, end up in plates all over the island.
This market has existed for many years, time has taken its tribute on buildings, but the organization remains the same, a living proof of the strong organization of the past Taiwanese society. When discovering this place, we are all puzzled: such a time resistant place, unchanged and proud, and still delivering a massive number of fishes to all Taiwanese North Coast… who the heck stands behind that? The Big Giant Fish would think different, of course; he would curse those men who for years have been engaged in the fight with its own creatures, the fishes from the sea, and he would worry, also, that fishes are losing the fight, those days-this was only too obvious to us this night as we were watching the fresh meat being cut, eviscerated, truncated, polished, brushed, hooked, carried, thrown away on the floor, concatenated in large boxes, weighed; all this heavy, heavy flesh, meat already, having lost any parcel of life.
So there we were, three reporters in another world, of hard work and repetition, a world of trust and families, a world of hopes and delusions, too. What struck me first was… the light, the lights shining through the night, the lights on the dead fishes, a yellow/orange light, my photographer eye recognized, around 4000 Kelvin, a light also more powerful than the one we usually see on traditional markets, a powerful, aggressive, strong light, literally piercing the autumn night, spreading sharp shadows, a light not human, a shiny sign the god of business was living here too, we were after all really in Taiwan, a place deep rooted in an ancestral tradition and culture that hadn’t been forgotten -yet-, a place where business is fast, efficient, convenient, omnipresent. This light was tricky, it looked warm and friendly, a net open above a sea of buyers; but I knew instinctively what it was all about: turnover, as if business had won over all those fishes lives, in a separate, more essential, battle raging over the world, rich against poor, ideas versus dollars, ethics versus fun, and who knows where each side stands- after all, trade has always been a dual move, carried a balance; yes, who knows where each side stands. But, here, it was all about something else, and the dead fish bodies everywhere witnessed the evidence: life and death, origin of ideas, the raw light of business casting an other-worldly shadow on the street, showing the bright side only and throwing everything else awash in the dark, out of sight, far away…but the Giant Big Fish was seeing it still. It was a fight sight on sight, the cold metal from my camera versus the globulous, ominous eyes from thousands of dead fish eyes, laying on the ground, dead, having lost everything, but still, still, watching me in agony, half conscious of my presence, and behind them, the Giant Big Fish, the big, deaf God-Fish, laughing at me, watching me through them.
We were going on those dark, humid streets, always, our drug and our belief, we believed in the heart of men lying here. We accepted the challenge offered by the God Fish, we wanted to show him that we, mankind, are worth something, we wanted to fight tonight for humanity. Maybe that was why we felt this sense of emergency, this deep, burning breath of freedom in the night, we were there, thousands of miles away from our homes, all sense open, ready to believe, our eyes like a film ready to capture life, as if the veil of our personality had finally been lifted, the thin veil what keeps us together, shy, self-conscious, partial and finally oblivious to the real big picture, the link that binds us all together, which I could summarize rather simply: we are all gonna die. In this regard, I almost had a compassionate feeling towards those bodies lying beneath me. There was some beauty in it, some dignity in their eyes; they were not refusing death, they were simply not understanding it. It looked like there had been no struggle-what!? How could this net, this anchor, bring death? It had probably seemed so delicious to them, so harmless, the night before…
Could Hemingway understand all of this? I recalled all the great novels he had written, and I wondered if he had ever thought that the heroes he was describing in his books, the fishermen, would one day disappear from collective imagination-who wants to be a fisherman today?- and that instead the market selling their catch would become the center of attention, in a time where heroes would be despised because they are poor, a time where technique and reason would rule everything, a time when business always wins. This is probably why he was not writing anymore about old men and sea, but about markets and big dollars, because: This is what mattered, now, to billions of people in the world, who just want to eat, and the ones who want to make money out of that hunger, that is the new world, that is where we are moving like desperate crabs on a rock. Yes, we all are gonna die.
But, in Taiwan, here on the streets we all loved so much, we were so close to the ground, we were so nothing in the universe, feeling free and lost in our photographic world, that, for a short instant, I could almost feel that we were spending the night among genuine heroes, people moved by their passion, their work, their responsibilities.
And then there were people. They were the real thing, not because they were extraordinarily clever, even if I could tell their eyes were smart; not because they were enthusiastic, they couldn’t recall how many days they had done this job, some of them were sleeping on the side, exhausted; not even because this whole scene made sense to them: life was going on, its load of stories, networking, like any other day, small drama and negotiations-yes, everywhere negotiations, and dollars-; no, it was all business as usual, and everyone, at first, just thought we were from the police.
So, what? The question I heard most, after many month going straight into the heart of Taiwan oldest districts was: “What are you doing here? Why do you take pictures here?” We usually answer: “it is the atmosphere”, and people nod, politely unconvinced, vaguely reassured. They are right! to me at least this is not the real reason. I am here because everything around this market is simple. Taiwan is a country with no ambition -almost no one knows it, for example in France-, Keelung is a city whose fame peaked 30 years ago, the market has been running untouched all this time, people stick to their daily work, and have a tough life indeed. Every night, they start preparing their booth at 10pm, till roughly 1.00am when the first, most demanding customers arrive, those who come in advance for the best deals; they want the most delicate, freshest fishes, and leave, royally abandoning the remnants to the common of the mortals after having spent each a few millions taiwan dollars on the meat.
And then, from 3am, it is rush hour, individuals disappear into a human sea that carries us all like fishes in the ocean, again and again, and we become crushed together like sardines packed in a can tinned box. It looks almost as if the Giant Big Fish had cast a spell on mankind for the night, as if humans were made, for a time, to share the fate of fishes.
But. But, here, in the dark hours of the night, this humanity is talking to me. Those people don’t know who we are, and I probably won’t meet them again, they are working and we may annoy them, but they smile as they move on. They don’t ask much, and display their raw force among the sea creatures, their experience, their skills and their kindness. They submit to necessity and they use it at their own benefits, they live, at least partly, out of the consumerist world, because they are the ones who make it possible: they are worth more than those who belong to it -us-. And their smile, in turn, lights the atmosphere more than the extra aggressive light around, their smiles goes straight into the heart, smiles of irony, dignity or contempt. The giant big fish can’t do anything against that, this human light keeps him from winning back the fight day after day.
We lost track of each other. We went our way, and Prof. Sunflower reappeared just after sunrise, while Hemingway, like an old-fashioned magician, kept appearing and disappearing. Oh, I know magicians don’t exist, but never mind. i found him on the back lanes tracking a mighty fisherman carrying some big tunas on the alley, I saw him behind old men smoking and contemplating the market, I saw him on the stairs grabbing the crowd in its whole, I saw him stuck to the tattoo of some dockers, giants with big heart, and then he was vanishing again, and again.
But everywhere I went, after a short glimpse at me, they would ask: -are you French? Are you with that group of reporters? -Yes, how do you know? Have you met us?-No, but I heard, they have told me, and I was curious…We achieved almost instant celebrity, guided by the expert skill of Hemingway at making people feel comfortable with the most simple explanation, an explanation i can’t betray -if you want to know what it is, just come with us, just come and dive into the crowd of the night! Then, and only then, will you feel the freedom of this salty air coming from the ocean, from the star-lit sky over us, and you will understand this secret. it’s there in the freedom of our movements, in the incognito that only the street can give you, and you can just grab it, at night, alone, among people, and my pictures just won’t reflect that reality, won’t do justice to these people who are worth more than this.
The auction starts. Dozens of people have gathered before two men, their wife ready in the back, the yellow light bulb even stronger than on the other stands.
They watch everywhere, they are waiting for the moment, the right moment to start, and suddenly that’s it, they raise their hand and you can see the grapes of fish, small multicolor fishes or just single, large, shiny princes in their majestic loneliness, they bring the small fishes closer to the lamp, they start mumbling, like a prayer, slowly first, then faster and faster, the price, the price they are gonna ask, and it must go fast, 600, 600, 600, you take it you leave it, 400, 400, 400 take it take it take it, 300, 300, 300, come on come on come one, 200, 200, deal… and their bait is balancing in cadence with the words, until someone raises a hand and pays in cash, and then again and again, doubtfully gauzing the audience to see what piece they will be auction in a minute, should they go for the biggest, most unique piece… Watching them, I remain fascinated by all that I don’t see: is it the same man that has been on his boat just a few days ago? Has he been away for days looking for fish, or did he buy it just a couple hours before? Has he enjoyed a modern fishing boat, done nothing and gathered a wealth of fishes, or just gone painfully at sea in a noble fight as Hemingway has described in his novels? I can’t tell and think about it in silence, maybe that part I see is only the end of a longer process I can’t fully understand. I just don’t ask. Respect the magic of the place. I didn’t notice but the man is just staring at me, and he starts to grin, a deep, jovial, tricky grin that tells me he’s gonna make the show tonight, he’s gonna sell the goddamn fish to those people out there, he quickly pulls another line to the bait and starts it over again, 600, 600, 600, cmone cmone, 500, 500… deal – I guess he is using me in a way as a witness to the other buyers, to showoff his power, hope it works. Undeterred I keep shooting, and go to the second buyer, his style is different, he is even faster than the first one, he looks like he wants to close deal in as little time as possible, his voice is softer but people still listen, he stands closer to the lamp-I shoot the fish, they are the ones who jump out of the pictures, and people keep buying, again and again, in the night.
The market goes on like this all night. I rushed frantically again and again through those same streets until the day catches us, and people, slowly, start to pack the fishes that hadn’t been sold. An ingenious system is in place: the motorcycles you see here and there on the pictures are actually sent by the market organizers, maybe a cooperative of the different companies?, and they collect the fishes for everyone at once; this avoids partially congestion, but I couldn’t help but wonder how people can find back their fishes around all those boxes. Here and there, I discussed with the people working on the market, with my average Chinese, and caught a few ideas about their lives. Someone offered me a beer. A few owners were worried about the police, but most of them were friendly. Buyers just ignored us. A few of them had come to shop with their dogs, that made them slightly out of fashion. There where no cats around, they really don’t know what they miss! As the night was running, we felt tired and had to halt several time at one of the stalls selling traditional food, always delicious! Everywhere, people were chatting, arguing, negotiating, at times I was thinking about a vast stage of an impromptu play, maybe Waiting for Godot?
Yes, maybe, after all, that was it.