普通美: A Taiwanese Mailbox
plus unsolicited ruminations on the ordinary
This week, we’re launching an icon of Taiwanese daily life: the red and green mailbox that peppers Taiwanese streets and alleys. It exudes nostalgia, but for me, it’s a talismanic object to remind us all to be street. And by that, I mean Taiwanese street—to look after your objects, improvise often, and approach daily life as an art form. We’re also pasting giant mailbox posters in a few NYC neighborhoods because we sure miss seeing them around. This is happening tomorrow, June 30th. Scroll for more details.
P.S. The store will be closed for a short summer break on Saturday, July 1st to Sunday, July 2nd. We will resume regular hours on Wednesday, July 5th.
Every country has an everyday life language made up of bits and pieces available at hardware shops and general stores—or gamadiam 柑仔店, as it were. It’s a vernacular style generated by a multitude of anonymous folks who have given shape to local quotidian experience, the ordinary beauty, the 普通美.
Many people have dedicated themselves to the study and collection of regional ordinariness. See the compendium of Taiwanese daily life objects by Ordinary Beauty普通美; Kiosk’s comprehensive hardware store collections (they never made it to Taiwan); or the Massive Memory database at the Computational Visual Cognition Lab at MIT (who used everyday objects to demonstrate that human visual memory has a huge capacity for storing visual detail).
In 1980, Michel de Certeau, a French multidisciplinarian, published The Practice of Everyday Life. In this book, he argues that consumption is a form of creation. Everyday people subvert the structures imposed on them by creatively diverging within daily constraints. Examples include taking shortcuts within a city grid, or making do with daily life objects—like turning a bucket over into a chair. He postulates that if we don't recognize reappropriation as a means of expression, we are characterizing the majority of people as “non artists” passively receiving culture, versus a community of producers generating a way of life. To improvise is to exercise power, to create.
This idea is universal, but I deeply connected with this text when I read it nearly twenty years ago. It reflected my experiences of Taiwan, where improvising is a large part of daily life: homemade tools bespoke to a street vendor’s preferred cooking method; the way plastic bags and containers are used and reused; the thousand and one functions an average person has for their electric steamers; the lush street gardens in found containers; and even the creative ways folks use the network of convenience stores to support the logistics of life. That’s not to say that consumers in Taiwan are especially responsible and aware (we’re lacking worldwide on that front), but there is a strong ad-hoc thread in everyday lived experience that I admire—a way of making what’s next coexist with what came before.
All this is my way of introducing our newest product: a Taiwanese mailbox. These green and red mailboxes are icons of Taiwanese hardware-core. You can find them dotting every locale, from seaside to mountain top. With age, they take on the character of the elements—the sun fades red to pink, and the rain washes green into grey. Eventually, they start to look like individuals, each with a different aspect, reflecting their life of use.
In Taiwanese post office collection boxes, red signifies urgency (aka expedited mail) and green signifies peace (aka regular speed). In residential mailboxes, the two colors have come together in a balancing act that suggests both calm and haste. It’s poetry.
Comparing the newer versions above to the antique mailboxes from Taiwanese military villages below, we can see elements of the past design that were carried forward. The general shape and size are the same. The viewing holes in the bottom panel have transformed into a window. And, the expectation that they would simply be labeled by painting on them is preserved.
What captivates me most about the Taiwanese mailbox is not its unique look and feel, but the fierce dedication people have to keeping them around. These things get really worn and remain in use for ages. This longevity has little to do with the build quality, which I'd generously describe as average. It's the commitment of the owners to repair, shore up, mark, remark, repurpose, and most of all, accept.
These are not colorfast and will fade with time. They may crack. Parts may fall off. Sometimes there isn't a clear place to mount them, but people find a way, strapping them to poles or tying them to ladders. There’s no label for marking a residence number or name, so users write on them directly, creating a wild typographic effect.
This mailbox is one of those anonymous, magic objects that telegraphs Taiwanese vibes of the warmest kind. We've had one in our store since day one. To me, they are a symbol of Taiwanese daily life and the power within us all to improvise and look after. Some of you asked us to bring it in, and we gladly obliged.
Taiwanese Mailboxes in New York City
Ok, now for a caveat: like many objects that are emblems of Taiwanese daily life (hi, red stools), the mailbox is made out of plastic. There's tension there, so we’ve only brought in a small amount for people who really want them. Don’t buy this if you think you might toss it later. Buy it because you're going to collect it and keep it out of the landfill. Cherish the transition from new to old.
Because we’re keeping it small scale, we’ve devised another way to celebrate them that does not require mailbox ownership, per se.
We miss seeing these on the streets of Taiwan, so we’re bringing them to the streets of NYC. Photographs of mailboxes by Taipei-based photographer Ray Lin (@mybrotherray) will be postered in the following neighborhoods: Chinatown (Manhattan), Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Long Island City. Consider this a small porthole to the Taiwan streets.
This outdoor campaign starts Friday, June 30th (that’s tomorrow, folks). To find them, look around construction barriers and other areas where concert posters and announcements are typically shared. If you do see one, snap a pic and tag @yunhaishop. Wheatpaste posters don’t last long in a city like this (max a couple days), but we hope at least some of our NYC fans will get to see them. If not, know that thousands of others did. Thanks so much to Ray and design studio o.oo for their hard work on this project.
Taiwanese Mailboxes in Taiwan
We don’t have nearly enough of an advertising budget to poster all the beautiful photos Ray took, so here some favorites that didn’t make the cut. All of these were taken in the last month or so in Taipei, between Zhongshan 中山 MRT and Dadaocheng 大稻埕.
Other News in Yun Hai Land
In other news, our store turned one! We had a lovely anniversary event. Thanks to all who stopped by last week to witness the Lion Dance on Montrose Ave. Endless gratitude to everyone who made our first year great: Emma, Yozen, Natya, Jasmine, and especially our store manager Jeremy, who will be heading off to a new adventure soon. Much appreciation to Tri.Club for the catering and Tai Look Dance Troupe for the entertainment.
I’m popping up with my friend Phoebe Tran of Bé Bếp for a Summer Cookout in Upstate New York at Hamden General in Delaware County. We’ll be serving Vietnamese ‘cue and Taiwanese jelly desserts. More info here.
Just a reminder that one of the most anticipated books of the year is still available for preorder: Clarissa Wei’s Made in Taiwan.
And finally, peep this beautiful photo from the Taiwan Pride cohort at the NYC Pride Parade.
No promises that launching a mailbox will make me a better correspondent,
Lisa Cheng Smith
Research and editing support by Lillian Lin and Amalissa Uytingco. Thanks to Luke Miller and Jason Park for editorial support. Images of mailboxes in their natural habitat by Ray Lin. Mailbox posters by o.oo and Sauced.Lab.
If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with friends and subscribe if you haven’t already. I email once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. For more Taiwanese food, head to yunhai.shop, follow us on instagram and twitter, or view the newsletter archives.