“maybe it’s more interesting,” — chia-wen liuBack
We’ve met many people with a default stance of an affected cool distance from the things they really like to do, the places they really like to live.
Like received pronunciation — speaking in the voice you were taught to think you ought — it’s a kind of received cynicism, treating your own life with a mild disdain, for fear that enthusiasm will give your true feelings away.
It’s that pause before double tapping a photo on Instagram; do you want to let someone know that their photo made you smile, or are smiles passé now? And the even greater pause before posting a photo of your own. Is it all over, now, posting photos of breakfast? Isn’t it a thing anymore? Oh, but it’s such a good breakfast. You can’t remember the last time you enjoyed a breakfast so much. Surely someone would like to see it, and be glad?
Simple pleasures. We say that someone who likes their life and other people’s lives and the things that happen in cities and lives is childlike, or naive; they haven’t grown up into sophisticated disliking. Then we meet someone like Chia-wen Liu, her black hair a sharp-edged bowl, great blazers and coats draping hearts around her, bright buckle-up shoes ending the sentence of jail-arrowed tights that point with emphasis at London’s famous pavements. The streets of London are not really paved with gold, and Chia-wen is fine with that. The age of their stone, as a stage for constant newness, is what makes them London, a London that Chia-wen — who moved here eight years ago, from Taipei — loves without complication. Which a very different kind of love to simple love.
“You can work and go home in any country,” says Chia-wen. “If you are in London, why don’t you go out, why don’t you go to see what London has to offer?
“I like living in London. I like walking down the street, going to see exhibitions. I don’t feel like I have to do something because I’m in London, but I like the idea that because I’m living here, that’s my normal life.
“I feel like if there’s a new restaurant opening, if I can afford it, I will want to try it; if there’s an exhibition and I want to see it, I will go to see it.”
And Chia-wen will take pictures of it. London’s iconography has been served to the world in such heavy doses it can feel sedating, but Chia-wen lives and views the city with a passion for all it is that is as intense as any xth generation Londoner’s, but more enthusiastic because it is so fresh. The Facebook page she started with her friend Shang-Ting Peng became an enormous hit in Taiwan for the reality and personality it added to photos of their lives in the UK; it became a top-selling book in 2012. The observing worked because it was lived as much as watched; Chia-wen lives like a Londoner, but enjoys the city like a tourist.
“Even now I feel like I’m so happy to live here,” says Chia-wen, “Because I’ve seen it in the movies, and I feel like, oh, this is the place where they actually made the films!
“But people in Taiwan have a kind of vision of England that, if for example they see a red phone box, they will think oh, this is England. And that’s what they want to see. That’s why I take photographs, not just for myself or my friends, but for people in Taiwan too.
“They just know about red buses, red phone booths — the most iconic stuff. For UK Observing Diary, we took photos more like what we wanted to take: the normal stuff, the everyday.”
That means keeping a viewfinder frame around London that uncynically accepts everything within the borders of a photograph, and of a life. Red phone boxes do exist, but so do chic new galleries; and then there are the uncountable hidden spaces that curiosity can drive you towards, if you’re curious.
“I’ve got this fantasy about private members’ clubs,” says Chia-wen, “Because I know it’s really hard to get a membership. But sometimes you can go to events or something and you get to see what’s inside.
“That’s why I like to go to these special previews; you can go to places that you don’t normally go every day, and you feel kind of privileged that you can go in.
“I think there’s a lot more to explore. I’m not really a social person, so for me I just want to see what’s inside, the interior or the decoration; not necessarily to talk to the people inside.”
For socialising, Chia-wen can turn to another aspect of secret London, unlocked: cats.
“Cat sitting is a real thing!” laughs Chia-wen, when we ask. “It’s so weird, every time I explain this people are like, ‘What, is this a thing?’ And yes, it is a thing!
“There’s a website for it, and you have to register to become a cat sitter. Then, if a cat’s owners go on holiday or away from their home, and they don’t want to put their cat in a cattery or a cat hotel, they can just leave the key with me. I go to their house, feed the cat, play with the cat.
“I’m a cat person. I know cats are not really attached to people, but then that’s why I love cats. And I think I’m really lucky, all the cats I have been sitting for are really friendly. Most of the cats will come to you when you go to their house.”
Such brief spells of holiday-cat friendship might make it hard when it’s time to say goodbye, but in the grand drama of a city you and that cat can be certain you’ll be thrown together again.
“That’s the thing,” says Chia-wen. “I think 100% of my customers have come back to me the next time they go on holiday. So I just wait. I always think, I will definitely see you again, so that’s fine. It’s the best job in the world, I think.”
Chia-wen works, and has worked, several jobs in her life in London; gallery assistant, design assistant, sales associate, wrier.
“London is an expensive place, so lots of people have more than one job,” she says. “They do something 9-5 and then have freelance work, or they’re musicians and play in a club or something like that. That’s why London is full of interesting people, because people here have different jobs and different interests.”
Chia-wen now concentrates on Zeczec.com, “The first Taiwanese creativity crowd-funding website,” that she founded with friends; the site has raised over 100 million NTD in crowdfunding so far; writing for Elle, Xinmedia and Time Out; and working for Apu Jan, a fashion designer, as creative consultant and show director.
“I do that during London fashion week, so it’s only two times a year,” says Chia-wen. “I direct everything backstage, so I’ll be the one pushing models out, calling the show.
“I do it in Paris too, but that’s a small trade show, so it’s not really catwalk. I don’t like Paris as much. Every time I’m in Paris, something bad happens to me: I get sick, my camera is broken, I fall down the stairs. Bad things happen to me in Paris!”
Perhaps there’s a civic defence mechanism at work. Chia-wen says she only feels her love for London — “I’m not saying every day, ‘I love London!’” — but perhaps other cities can feel it in her too; or her affection for London means no other city can compare.
“I’ve never been to America, but I’d love to go one day,” she says. “But the thing is, there’s this stereotype, where people say that people who like London don’t like New York, and people who like New York don’t like London. So I’m afraid that I wouldn’t like New York that much, because I love London. But I would love to go one day.”
Love; Shang-Ting, when we ask about her friend, wonders if it isn’t more like lust. “Someone said, and it’s a good thing, that Chia-wen has beer goggles for London. Like, she likes the weather; she doesn’t hate the weather like most people.”
“What’s to hate?” protests Chia-wen. “It’s fine. We have worse weather in Taipei; throwing down rain twenty-four hours, seven days in a week. It’s non-stop pouring down. So here it’s fine; here you’ve got rain, and five minutes later, it stops.”
“And commuting,” says Shang-Ting, insisting on her theme. “I feel like loads of people have complaints about city life, but it isn’t too much of a problem for you. You don’t hate the weather, you don’t hate commuting.”
“You get used to it,” says Chia-wen. “Maybe I’ve got a really bad memory. So if something bad happens to me, I’ll just forget easily.”
Forget it in London, anyway; Chia-wen hasn’t forgiven Paris, but she’ll forgive London anything, and let a new good memory take the place of a bad one.
“I think maybe it’s because London is changing a lot, and there are always new things coming out to talk and write about.
“Everything happens so fast, it’s really hard to catch up. Even though I’m living here I feel like every day I’m missing out on something, because you can’t go to all the places and you can’t see all the things you want to see.”
And at the end of the day Chia-wen can go home to the not-new; a flat in West Hampstead in a house that’s over a hundred years old — “Haunted!” claims Shang-Ting — where people have lived like Londoners for centuries but maybe, never quite, lived like a Londoner like a young woman from Taipei.
“That’s the thing about living in London,” says Chia-wen. “I like living in an old house rather than a new building, because I think now London is getting more new buildings, but before I came I felt like if you want to live in London you have to live in an old house. That’s what I thought.”
It doesn’t sound so much like a thought as a dream; but a dream that has come true by mingling real life with fantasy, the seen with the could-see, and the desire to keep dreaming, and keep living a life in which dreams can become real.
“If you write that I live in a haunted house, I don’t mind that,” says Chia-wen. “Maybe it’s more interesting than cat sitting.”
But it’s not. What could be more interesting than living in a city of holiday cats, purring quietly upon grand pianos, waiting for the day you return?
Originally published in The City Talking: London — issue 02