We went hunting to find a man surnamed Li. He spends most of his time beneath a “bridge”, speaks little Mandarin, creates small-scale cities and is a stationary vagabond. We got a GPS hot spot, jumped in the truck and cruised south. We figured 15 minutes. Cameras and equipment ready for action.
An hour later we are way too south and almost out of diesel. You do NOT want to run an engine like that down to zero fuel, because it requires a mechanic to come and do a special pump maneuver to get it started. A nice dude on a motorcycle took us way out of his way to the nearest gas station. That involved what seemed like illegal riding on a raised highway. He looked at our map and explicitly drew a new one for us to follow.
30 minutes later we were in the neighborhood, but tired and planning to try again the next day. We did a series of exploratory routes, decided to get back on the elevated highway, and as we did, we spotted little structures under on ramp. We parked, and hiked through endless miniature townships.
A man was busy bending steel mesh. He saw us and greeted us with a basket of candy. I was afraid my Taiwanese would not cut the mustard, but he spoke a version of Chinese through a mouth with one single tooth I could decipher. His sofa was wedged into the inner crux of the on-ramp. I explained who we are, explained that he was very hard to find and asked if we could come back to visit another day.
This time it was easy to find him. I said, “Master Li, we are back.” He put down his work and offered us a basket of lychees. This time he was cementing little stones together on a form he fashioned to build a dramatically arched bridge over a pond to a palace. “Are we interrupting you, Sir?” Nope, I can’t do too many at one time.” “Here are some copies of Guan Xi Magazine, for your down time to read. We want to make you famous.”
We clip on his mic, sit down with a backdrop of his work, and start chatting. He said that he’s been doing his art for 4 years in this spot, under a highway ramp. He started when it just got under construction. He had free cement, rocks, scrap metal and more. I asked why he does it. He said, “It beats boredom.” The whole time, we are laughing and he is shining… this vagabond.
I asked about his past profession. “I specialized in elevator technology, welding, bicycle and motorcycle manufacturing… things like that.” That is a broad set of skills. I asked about the fish in his ponds. “I got those from the rice paddies. I had frogs, newts, turtles and more. My problem is the egrets come and eat them.” “Shall I buy you a slingshot?” He said that would be dangerous because of the traffic above and beside him.
Indeed, the overhead road did tremble at times. I thought to ask if there had been any crash-ups above head, but thought better of it. Instead I asked, “Do you live under here with no family?” That was a risky one. He laughed and said, “I got 6 brothers and 3 sisters. I stay with them when the sun goes down.”
We kept bumping our heads on the way out. Under a ramp, that tends to happen. He also mentioned that the city government applauds his presence. The media and universities come to see him. Little kids take field trips out to see him. How they all found him is a mystery, but they did. All of his publicity has been for local awareness. Now, we get it in English. Check out the video, as that will speak louder than these words here.
Master Li, an unknown gem in the world of Taiwan.
Published in Guan Xi Maagazine- Fall 2017 issue