Artists Reveal the Beauty and Suffering of Jiufen

Hung Jui-lin, Miners Waiting to Exit the Mine, 1957. Ink, pigment, and pastel on paper. Photo: Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Three artists depict, through paintings, photographs, and exhibitions, the lives of miners and residents of the now popular tourist destination Jiufen.

Jiufen, a winding hillside tourist destination on Taiwan’s northwestern coast, is frequently featured in travel magazines due to its distinctive architecture and breathtaking mountain and sea views. But beyond the postcards, past the tables of local delicacies lies a hidden pain and heartache that has inspired a trio of artists who are now the subject of critical acclaim.

Unearthing Light: Hung Jui-lin (1912-1996), on exhibit at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum until July 31, celebrates the life and work of an academically trained artist who was unexpectedly indentured to a mine owner and compelled to work a lifetime alongside the rough coal miners of Jiufen. Life below ground, on the fringes of society, became Hung’s muse for creating social-realist paintings depicting the daily struggles of many workers.

Hung Jui-lin, Working Inside the Mine, 1954. Watercolor on paper. Photo: Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Hung was born into a wealthy tea merchant family in Taipei’s Dadaocheng area. Like other gentries of the time, he emulated the Japanese in manners and sensibilities, even pursuing Japanese-language education. Hung studied art under Ishikawa Kinichiro, a translator for the Japanese Army General Staff, who also instructed pupils in landscape and figurative painting. Hung was eventually one of a few selected from his art academy to pursue art studies in Tokyo.

To many, it might seem inconceivable that the son of a wealthy businessman with overseas art-institute training would return home to perform menial work. Mining was only for the hardiest of souls, as temperatures below ground could reach 40° Celsius in the summer and the chafing effects of coal dust meant most miners worked with little clothing aside from a pair of shorts. Hung initially planned to work in the mines for a decade – before continuing his art education in Europe – to repay the patron who supported his overseas studies.

Hung Jui-lin painting four miners in a tunnel in the 1950s. Photo: Taipei Fine Arts Museum

“When Hung came back to Taiwan, the only job he could get was that of an art instructor, which didn’t pay much,” says Daisy Shiou, a staff member at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. “Miners made double the salary of most workers, getting paid for every cart of coal they produced. He was later promoted to do clerical work like payroll, and through marrying the daughter of the mine manager, he eventually obtained the top job.”

Mining rights were initially given only to three Japanese companies that also imported mining equipment, and many of Taiwan’s early miners were Japanese nationals skilled in blasting and extraction. Underground resource development on the island became a priority for the Japanese colonial government due to wartime natural resource needs. Gold would prove instrumental in conducting international commerce, and coal was in high demand to power Japan’s navy, the second biggest in the world at the time.

But as time passed, more opportunities arose for Taiwanese to be employed in the mines. One such example is the enterprising local merchant Yen Yun-nian (1882 – 1923). While working as a security guard in a Japanese mine, Yen earned the trust of his employers, who sold him mining interests that he later offered to locals in the form of smaller stakes. When the war ended, Japan relinquished mining stakes to the Kuomintang-led government and locals.

The mine where Hung worked employed around 50 individuals, many of whom were fathers and sons routinely toiling alongside each other. Although Hung planned to work in the mines for only 10 years, he settled in nearby quarters and married the daughter of a mine manager. By way of marriage, he became the next in line to take over management of the mining operations and extended his time in mining to a total of 35 years.

Hung returned to academia in 1964 when he began teaching western painting at the National Taiwan University of the Arts, influencing a new generation of artists. Art exhibits were rare at the time – most of them were end-of-year graduation exhibitions for students, occasionally permitting the inclusion of an instructor’s work. A friend of Hung’s chose such an opportunity to curate a retrospective of Hung’s 35 years of coal mining-focused artwork, which generated a great deal of buzz thanks to a full-page spread in United Daily News and television reporting.

Unfortunately, Hung’s celebrity would be short-lived. The following year, political upheaval in the aftermath of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Kaohsiung, known as the Formosa Incident, led him to choose exile in the Los Angeles area. Hung would spend the final days of his life painting landscapes in the California sunshine.

“He exhibited very little during his lifetime, most of which was only coal mining paintings as no one saw his complete body of works, which are being exhibited for the first time,” says exhibit curator Kao Tzu-Chin. The Hung exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum features 200 works and includes loaned pieces from local collectors, as well as photographs, drawings, sketches, and other items from the Hung family.

The hermit

Yeh Shih-chiang painted his works on rice paper and drew inspiration from traditional Chinese arts, Buddhism, and ascetic practices. Photo: Courtesy of Yeh Wei-li

While the native Taiwanese elite mimicked Japanese masters in manner and style, Yeh Shih-chiang (1926-2012), born in Guangdong Province, drew inspiration from a far deeper vein of traditional Chinese arts, Buddhism, and ascetic practices. After studying at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, Yeh left Guangzhou in 1947 together with two other students, intent on traveling on foot to the Dunhuang Buddhist Caves in Gansu. But his travels were disrupted by the Chinese Civil War, and Yeh would later escape localized fighting by boarding a boat to Taiwan, never to return.

Upon arrival in his new home, Yeh resumed his art studies, and his talent was immediately recognized, earning him an instructor post at National Taiwan Normal University. As time passed and the political schism between Taiwan and the PRC grew, returning home became impossible. As he aged, Yeh grew increasingly reclusive and rarely entertained guests or gave an audience for his artworks. Early on, he vowed not to sell his artwork in order to protect its purity, and the rare occasional public exhibitions of his work were confined to 10-minute viewings. Yeh’s art was difficult to showcase as it was spread across multiple sheets of rice paper, which were rolled together for storage.

Late in life, Yeh had an amorous affair with a younger woman who offered him the opportunity to live in Shuinandong, the most attractive of the three mining towns in the area (the others being Jiufen and Jinguashih). Yeh was immediately enamored by the quiet and impressive views from his new three-room residence, where in addition to painting, he also produced handmade guqin instruments from locally sourced wood. Artists like Yeh were able to live in the area at a low cost as it was largely a polluted, post-industrial wasteland, but after Yeh’s affair soured, he was forced to vacate his lover’s apartment. However, thanks to his devotion to the area and the residents’ admiration for his art, Yeh managed to move into a nearby residence where the rent was low.

Yeh Shih-Chiang, Yellow Moon Over A Bare Wood, 2008. Ink on paper, 138×315 cm. Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: Courtesy of Yeh Wei-li

Around the age of 70, the need to find a source of income prompted Yeh to break his previous vow and begin selling works from his collections, primarily to students who visited him. It was also his students who petitioned local and regional galleries to launch a retrospective of his work, first approaching Eslite and then Hanart in Hong Kong. Hanart’s founder, Johnson Chang, decided to organize an exhibit of Yeh’s work there. The show’s enthusiastic response and sales spurred the purchase by Chang of two of Yeh’s residences in Shuiandong to create both a museum and archive for the late master. A major retrospective is planned for 2023 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, along with an art book published by New York-based Rizzoli, the first such publication dedicated to a Taiwanese artist.

Yeh Shih-Chiang, The Yeh Shih-Chiang Museum, 2006. Oil on Canvas, 217×461 cm. Hanart TZ Gallery. Photo: Courtesy of Yeh Wei-li

The archivist

Accomplished photographer, curator, archivist, and art instigator Yeh Wei-li spent his early life and adolescence in the U.S. and attended an MFA program in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. His photography focuses on painstakingly arranged large-scale still life compositions. The subjects of these photos are often discarded commonplace objects that have been overlooked by others. Where some see garbage, Yeh sees “antiquity-like” objects.

For the past seven years, Yeh has been mining the life and work of the late Yeh Shih-chiang (no relation), collecting artifacts from the master’s life such as paint brushes, books, ceramic bowls, and ordinary objects like crushed cigarette packs and cassette tapes. His work has been featured in a number of major exhibitions, including the recent Taipei Dang-dai art fair.

Yeh’s introduction to the late master came at the urging of his gallery, Hanart, which represents both artists. The gallery first considered a collaboration between the two artists when preparing the first-ever major retrospective of Yeh Shih-chang’s artwork in Hong Kong, and it approached Yeh Wei-li to ask him whether he could photograph Yeh Shih-chiang’s work in a variety of real-life settings. The task seemed simple at first but was complicated by the fragile nature of the late master’s work. Yeh soon found that the project required stretching, framing, and thorough background research – skills the younger artist possessed in spades.

Yeh Wei-li’s first exhibition upon returning to Taiwan was a group show called A Fable of Changan West Road at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Taipei, where he was asked by curator Roan Ching-yueh to develop work that would achieve greater integration with the neighboring community. Yeh used the directive to approach the museum’s neighbors and nearby shopkeepers, asking them to temporarily loan their valued objects for exhibition at the museum. Yeh also photographed residents and played their favorite songs in the exhibition.

Later, when the same curator was conducting research for a publication about ruins, Yeh tagged along to photograph Treasure Hill in Taipei’s Gongguan area. Arts groups petitioned the Taipei City government to save the former military dependents’ village and create a two-month art residency, to which Yeh’s Treasure Hill Tea-Photo (THTP) project was accepted. Again, he began archiving the lives of residents through their belongings, creating supporting structures such as frames, vitrines, and pedestals to display artifacts that would eventually find their way to various biennial exhibitions across Asia.

A photograph of the late artist Yeh Shih-chiang’s residence in Shuiandong. The picture (Dining Room #3, Yeh Shih-Chiang Shuinandong Residence, 2019 90×110cm. Hanart TZ Gallery) was taken by Yeh Wei-li, who has been archiving Yeh Shih-chiang’s art and personal effects and whose main subjects are commonplace objects and environments. Photo: Yeh Wei-Li

When photographing Yeh Shih-chiang’s unframed works, Yeh immediately immersed himself in the late artist’s life and environment. An initial meeting with Yeh’s former lover led to visits to a Xindian Wantan residence and then the Shuiandong residence. Both locations were in terrible states of disrepair but were eerily serene in their environment. Remnants of the late artist’s life remained practically untouched.

“My definition of artistic genius is quantity and quality,” says Yeh Wei-li. “And Yeh Shih-chiang definitely has a lot of work that is worth considering.” Yeh later cleaned both residences in preparation for photography, both with and without the late master’s artwork. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the lives of the two artists began to intertwine as the younger Yeh underwent the work. Following the critically acclaimed retrospective of Yeh Shih-chiang at the Hong Kong Art Centre, the two continued to engage through the restoration of the Yeh Shih-chiang Residence Museum and the nearby archive in Shuiandong.

“After spending time here in the community, I began to think that it may be a good place to live and raise my son,” says Yeh. He first relocated to Shuiandong to be closer to the restoration work and later purchased land in nearby Jiufen for an artist studio and adjacent wood shop. Yeh plans to continue living and working in the community, noting that the winding country roads and terraced housing remind him of Treasure Hill and provide the solitude and just enough routine to keep him productive.