Travel in Taiwan Museums

Taipei's Lively New Museum

By Christopher Logan Photos courtesy Ho Su Memorial Paper Museum



Paper is made by screening a slurry of fibrous material, letting the water drain off, and then peeling the sheets off the screen.

Modern Taipei has museums for just about everything. The world-famous National Palace Museum is joined by others featuring folk arts, postage stamps, ships, planes, and even butterflies. It was just a few months ago that Miss Chen Ruey-huey opened the city's latest, the Su Ho Memorial Paper Museum, fulfilling the dream of her father Chen Su Ho.

Mr. Chen, a paper manufacturer for over 30 years, delighted in his product's artistic possibilities, and long wanted to establish a place to celebrate uncommonly beautiful paper for all to enjoy. When he was killed in a tragic plane crash, the dream was left to his daughter to carry on.

"My father traveled a lot in Japan," explains Miss Chen, "where they have many such museums. America and Europe also have great museums about paper. Although it's a Chinese invention, Taipei had no source of information on the history or art of paper making."

In A.D. 105, the scholar Tsai Lun informed his emperor of the simple process--basically the same as the one used today--by which he had turned old fish nets, rags, and tree bark into paper. China guarded this technology as carefully as modern superpowers protect their military secrets. When paper-makers were captured by the Turks during an eighth-century war, however, the secret began its long journey from central Asia to Europe, via North Africa. The first European paper was made in Spain, around A.D. 1200.

A Dynamic Adventure
Don't expect a boring stack of paper products at the Su Ho Museum. This place is a hands-on, dynamic adventure into the craft of paper making. Exhibits are clearly explained in both English and Chinese, and you can arrange in advance for English tours. Four floors of surprising opportunities invite the visitor to do much more than walk around eyeballing artifacts.

The first floor is a lively, fully equipped workshop where quality paper is hand-made every day. As a young man dips his screened box into the slurry of fibrous material, your tour guide explains the traditional process. Actually, anything can be used to make paper, as long as it has fiber. Old rags, pineapple peels, and sugar cane make nice paper. Mulberry bark is a traditional favorite. Once the main ingredients are mashed and mixed with water, chestnut root extract is added to keep the mixture suspended instead of sinking to the bottom of the tank.

A craftsman sieves out a film of pulp, lets it drain a bit, and peels it off the screen. Sheets are lain one on another, and a large stack is pressed to expel the remaining water. The chestnut root extract in the mash prevents the individual sheets from sticking to each other in a giant mass of papier-mache. Finally the sheets are dried, one at a time, on a hot grill--like tortillas. The staff are happy to answer questions, and the process is as intimate and casual as it is professional.

"Is this Really Paper?"



Natural ingredients--anything with fibercan be used to make extraordinarily beautiful paper.

Gorgeous sheets produced in this manner are not your common notebook paper. They are exotic in a way that woven fabrics of museum quality can be. Fiber patterns may involve dramatic inclusions, like crushed rope, grasses, or even flowers. Textures are deliberately varied for effect, and tinting is another special technique.

"Is this really paper?" you may ask, examining some unusual pieces. The limited definition that visitors walk in with has to grow enormously to take in the full potential of the medium.

One of the oldest bits of paper in the world, made from herbs that repel insects, is displayed on the second floor. On it is an essay written in beautiful calligraphy, 1,600 years ago! That, and a picture of Tsai Lun, comprise the Chinese portion of the museum. The focus is on handmade Taiwanese paper.

"The subject is just too large to cover everything," says Miss Chen. "I decided that this is Taiwan, and the rich tradition of paper crafting here should be our focus." Deep in the mountains of central Taiwan, a small workshop still renders bamboo into fine paper by an ancient process. Since it's inconvenient to journey there, a photo essay brings the story to the museum's second floor, set off by a giant millstone once used to crush bamboo. Nearby are samples of other exotic local papers. Sharing the second floor is a special exhibition room wherepaper-related arts and issues are highlighted. Beginning in late February, this space will feature an exhibit on recycling.

Recycling Exhibit
"We're going to bring in a whole tree and also a big bicycle cart stacked with newspapers and cardboard--the kind that you see on Taipei streets," says Chen. "We'll have a scale to weigh wood and waste paper, so visitors can compare the quantities needed." By-products of the milling process will also be featured to give a clear idea of the environmental impact and issues involved. "We want to make people aware," she explains.

Other special exhibits planned for the future will demonstrate the arts of paper cutting and origami. Soon, a collection of Taiwanese children's toys from the 1960s will be on display. Taiwan was not rich at that time; but its people were very ingenious, and children often played with toys crafted from paper.

Test for yourself the strength and absorbency of different paper varieties. The third floor offers a laboratory of experiments set up along one wall. You can also dive into a log-jam of tiny fibers through a 200-power microscope. Young children enjoy the bizarre inner world of various samples, and like to look at their hair and clothing this way too. Kids can romp about on this floor without getting into any trouble, and the experiments are fun for adults, too.

Making Your Own Paper


On the third floor a laboratory full of experiments takes you into the microscopic world of paper fiber. On the fourth floor you can make your own paper, an activity in which kids enthusiastically participate.

On the fourth floor, you can try your own hand at making paper. To cover costs the museum charges NT$60 per sheet, but you'll get a certificate to the effect that you are a "Student of Tsai Lun." It's a rare opportunity to practice a clean, useful craft that originated nearly 2,000 years ago. Once your paper is pressed and dried, you may feel that you have found your calling. If so, the museum also arranges classes in the art. After having spent an hour or so examining what you thought was an ordinary item, you'll begin to see paper as an engineering problem with sublime artistic potential. What's more, you'll get to inspect some of the most beautiful paper in the world. A few samples are sold in the lobby, along with several English books on the paper-making craft. For a shop full of experimental and artistic papers, you'll want to stop in at the Changchuan Paper Company, affiliated with the museum. It's just a couple of doors east, and complements the museum tour perfectly. Taipei's newest museum is open from ten to five every day but Monday. It's located at 68 Changan East Road, Section 2, near Sungchiang Road. For an English tour, call (02) 507-5539, or send a fax to Chen Ruey-huey or Robin (her English-speaking assistant) at (02) 506-5195. Admission is NT$80 for adults and NT$60 for children. Group discounts are available. For especially large groups, two weeks prior notice is requested for an English-speaking guide.


Travel in Taiwan Museums
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.