Reimagining Traditions: How to Innovate for Cultural Sustainability

Let’s bring new life to old buildings and traditional culture

Sophia Wu
Sophia Wu
Nov 19, 2020 · 18 min read
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2020 World Interaction Design Day (IxDD)

“In an increasingly interconnected global community, how do we enable local cultures to be resilient and sustainable?”

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(Photo Credit: IxDA Taiwan)

Let’s see how they presented their traditions with new faces while passing it on to future generations.

Table of Contents

  1. Traditions: Memories Gradually Lost in Modernity
  2. Finding Your Place in Building Cultural Sustainability
  3. Growing a New Audience- Taiwanese Traditional Puppetry
  4. Engaging an Old Community- Repurposing a Traditional Market

The First Speaker: Cheng Han Chiu

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Cheng Han Chiu 邱承漢 (Photo Credit: IxDA Taiwan)

Chiu is the Founder of Thirty-Eighty (叁捌地方生活). It is an organization he established with the aim to preserve and revive a once struggling and dying community, which centers around an old traditional market in Yancheng District (鹽埕) of Kaohsiung City.

The Second Speaker: Xiang Pu Zhu

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Xiang Pu Zhu 朱祥溥 (Photo Credit: IxDA Taiwan)

Zhu is the Director of Shinergy Puppet Show Theatre (新勝景掌中劇). In his talk, he will share with us how he has recaptured the eyes of younger generations by creatively incorporating digital projection mapping technology into the performance of traditional Taiwanese outdoor glove puppetry shows (布袋戲).

Traditions: Memories Gradually Lost in Modernity

Memories We Share

Like most of the people devoted to cultural and community development work, both of our speakers began to share their journeys by reflecting on the past that they cherish. Whether a piece of childhood memory shared among their families or an image that displays an old-fashioned lifestyle once popular among the earlier generations. It was certainly something shared and loved.

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The department store in Yancheng (Photo Credit: Chiu)

“The old Yancheng District (鹽埕) had its glamorous moments in history,” Chiu said with pride as he mentioned his hometown.

“The name of my organization, Thirty-Eighty, was inspired by that period of Yancheng, which dates back from the 1930s to the 1980s.”

He shared how the first modern department store in Kaohsiung was built there. How, in the past, you would see a street clustered with bars that served the U.S Seventh Fleet sailors dispatched to Taiwan during World War II. How once in history, in such a small district, there were nearly thirty old movie theatres. During the glamorous era of old Yancheng, the district was popular, vigorously jammed and packed with people.

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American sailors in Yancheng during World War II (Photo Credit: Chiu)

Once upon a time, during the early 20th century, watching outdoor Taiwanese puppetry shows was one of the most popular types of entertainment around common households in Taiwan. Zhu, Director of Shinergy Puppet Show Theatre, also shared how his connections to traditional glove puppetry were rooted deeply in his childhood.

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Young Zhu with a glove puppet in his hands (Photo Credit: Zhu)

“I grew up in a traditional Taiwanese glove puppetry family,” he said. “Along with my father, me and my brother had performed many outdoor puppetry shows in front of different temples across many villages.” Those puppetry performances were shows that acted out religious themes and stories for the gods to worship them. “That’s why me and my brother are both puppeteers of traditional Taiwanese glove puppets.”

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A traditional outdoor puppetry stage (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Traditional Culture At Risk

“What is local culture?”

Like those early sweet memories mentioned above, local culture is composed of the unique stories, beliefs, and practices that are being shared among a group of people. Culture provides a person with a deep sense of self. Through those shared life experiences and practices, which are uncommon elsewhere, people can identify their social belonging as well as the cultural identity that they share with others.

However, as time passes, with fewer and fewer people willing to share and appreciate it, the culture risks being forgotten. The affiliated cultural identities risk dying out.

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Chiu’s grandma and her traditional wedding gown shop (Photo Credit: Chiu)

“My grandma used to own a handmade wedding gown shop around the corners of the market,” Chiu said, as he recalled his childhood memories growing up next to the Yancheng First Public Retail Market (鹽埕第一公有市場). It was once a busy traditional market that fed tons of families within the community. Home to a diverse group of vendors that sold all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and household goods.

However, with the rise of modern food retailers, people abandoned traditional markets as they embraced a modern lifestyle. Therefore, most of the market spaces became empty and deserted.

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Built in 1954, the traditional market was being abandoned in modern life (Photo Credit: Chiu)

“Ten years ago, when I came back to Yancheng, I was shocked to see that there were only ten vendors left.” “Sometimes, you would see more mice than humans around.”

Witnessing the last old movie theatre in Yancheng being demolished for urban renewal, Chiu saw how the unique cultural identity and symbols of Yancheng has drastically disappeared in order to make way for modernity. “I refused to let this happen to the traditional market.”

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Old movie theatres in Yancheng being knocked down (Photo Credit: Chiu)

For Zhu, the Taiwanese puppetry culture he grew up loving was also at risk and amidst great modern struggles. As contemporary entertainment consumption habits have changed, the traditional outdoor puppet show has long lost its human audiences. Nowadays, they are mostly performed in front of the statues of gods and goddesses in front of temples.

“It was quite common to have more puppeteers than audiences on-site while we were performing.”

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(Photo Credit: IxDA)

Losing sight of the audiences’ appreciation, even a performance art with such rich traditions could no longer secure a puppeteer’s livelihood. As there was not enough demand to sustain their theatre, Zhu and his brother were pushed to the verge of almost shutting down their beloved family business.

Finding Your Place in Building Cultural Sustainability

When your past memories and the unique cultural identity it carries are disappearing, what can you do to make a difference?

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(Photo Credit: IxDA)

Be a Cultural Intermediary

Becoming a cultural intermediary means taking on the influential role of becoming the agent between the local culture and the general public. Chiu introduced this concept with the example of an art gallery as the intermediary. “The gallery functions as the communicator between the artist and the general public.”

In order to be an effective communicator, it has to have a comprehensive understanding of both the value of the artist’s work as well as the audiences and its marketplace.

“The art gallery deeply affects how the artist will be perceived by the general public.”

In the case of Yancheng First Public Retail Market and Shinergy Puppet Show, both Chiu and Zhu have aspired to positively shape how people get to experience the culture, to incentivize cultural engagement, and help a wider audience to rediscover the beauty of these traditions. In other words, they have tactically and successfully played a competent role as good cultural intermediaries.

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(Photo Credit: IxDA)

Build Your Cultural Model

In order to become an effective cultural intermediary, one needs a compelling communication strategy. When the original forms of conveying your culture are no longer effective, a new cultural model needs to be created. The term “cultural model” Chiu used can be understood as the representation of traditional culture with a new and novel light.

  1. First, Chiu encouraged people to soak themselves into their local traditions in order to gain a deeper understanding of it. “Expose yourself to the things that you find tacky or stuff that you consider to be out of date.” “Feel the liveliness and beauty in it. Become part of it.”
  2. Afterwards, he invited people to give the traditions a new life through a contemporary lens. “Translate it. Reshape it.” Move from taking a passive stance to becoming more proactive within your cultural intermediation. He believes that by the activeness in reshaping cultural communication and experiences, people empower their traditional cultures with more vigor that will allow them to survive into the future.

Example: How Chiu Began His Early Works

In 2011, Chiu made up his mind to start doing cultural preservation at home. He resigned from his job in Taipei, returned to Yancheng, and rented a space near the Yancheng First Public Retail Market.

Nonetheless, it was still quite unclear where he should start and how a reformed cultural model could ultimately come into place.

To gain a deeper understanding of the traditional market community that he wished to revive, he began to visit the remaining vendors and shops one by one. There were traditional cheongsam dress shops (旗袍行), clothing repair shops (繡補), and even button shops (鈕扣行).

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The remaining vendors within the traditional market (Photo Credit: Chiu)

By speaking to the owners across generations and listening to their stories that grew from within the unique social context of the market, Chiu was gradually able to grasp the extraordinary historical logic behind these small vendors and the products being sold.

“Local culture can exist in the form of anecdotes and legends, which only those who live among the local community will have the privilege to know,”

Chiu said with a smile, knowing that he has now become one with the local privileges. After noticing these intriguing stories behind the curtains of the traditional market, Chiu began to publish his fieldwork findings on a local magazine he founded, called《什貨生活》, which guides visitors on how to enjoy Yancheng’s culture just like a local resident.

Moreover, Chiu designed cultural tours so that he could invite tourists to come and walk along with him. He created a platform called “Walk the Kitchen” (as traditional markets used to serve as the important source of people’s food) that offered his “Walking Tour in YanCheng.” By doing so, he invited people to experience the market with their own feet, mouth, and eyes.

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“Walk the Kitchen” walking tours (Photo Credit: Chiu)

Moreover, within the market, he even transformed a big shop’s window into a space where stories of those old market vendors were exhibited. In the meantime, while regularly showcasing the stories of the traditional market, the big shop window corner also hosted some diverse and international art exhibitions.

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The big shop window corner that showcases stories of the market (Photo Credit: Chiu)

His efforts have deeply enriched the cultural dynamics of this old community. “Once, a Spanish artist came here to play the West African Kora.” Chiu then displayed a photo that captured an old granny in the community passing by while the Spanish artist played the Kora. “The granny looked quite puzzled,” Chiu said, as he laughed with amusement.

“She might not know what it is that she sees, but she can tell that the market space is no longer deserted. Life here has become more colorful now.”

The sight of this culture clash within the once empty market and dying community was just one of the many miracles created by Chiu’s works.

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An old granny walks by a Spanish artist who is playing the West African kora (Photo Credit: Chiu)

Growing a New Audience- Taiwanese Traditional Puppetry

Zhu’s story of how he reshaped the traditional puppet show performing experience in order to appeal to new audiences is yet another success story of how one can become an effective cultural intermediary.

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Zhu’s father, the founder of Shinergy Puppet Show Theatre (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Before taking over the family business, Zhu was already working as an Animation Director at an animation studio. “Performing outdoor puppet shows for a living is impossible in modern times,” Zhu said, as demands for the shows had shrunk immensely.

“Aside from the theatre’s business, my father also had to be a taxi driver to be able to support our family.”

Thus, when Zhu grew up, he left the villages and chose a job in the big cities that he deemed was easier to do. One that is reasonably paid and done in an office in front of a computer, instead of working outdoors with puppets, without audiences, and under the sun.

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The day Zhu and his brother took over the theatre (Photo Credit: Zhu)

However, in 2015 Zhu’s father passed away. The future of their old theatre had fallen on the shoulders of Zhu and his older brother.

“After my brother became the new owner, even old temple customers became less willing to continue with our cases.”

They trusted Zhu’s father more than they trusted his younger generation. As the situation became tougher, Zhu and his brother had even considered closing their beloved theatre for good.

“I don’t want us to shut down.”

Amidst such difficulty, Zhu was still determined to preserve his father’s legacy. “We need to capture the eyes of a wider and younger audience.” To him, it was now or never. This was when his journey to innovations and reformations of his family tradition began.

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A traditional outdoor puppetry stage (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Deciding What to Innovate

As an Animation Director, Zhu was no stranger to storytellings using computer animation and game art. To begin with his attempt towards innovations, he decided to incorporate both of his expertise with each other. To include modern technology within the performance of this ancient performance art.

“There are many different kinds of plays in Taiwanese glove puppetry. I had to decide which one to focus on,” Zhu said.

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Choosing golden light puppet shows (金光戲) among other types of shows (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Among them, there was one named “golden light puppet show (金光戲),” which he deemed as one which was most suitable for his innovative experiment.

“This type of play is highly reliant on visual effects, as its stories are always filled with intensive fights, bursts, and explosions.”

By examining the basic visual elements of golden light puppet shows, he has chosen to apply projection mapping technology to the following traditional visual aspects of outdoor glove puppetry shows.

The Foreground (前景)

In the past, fluorescent paint was used on the foreground to depict cochin ceramics (交趾陶), an architectural decoration that appears on traditional buildings. Now, with projection mapping technology, Zhu can use augmented reality to present the foreground with more articulated simulations of real architectural structures.

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The foreground presented via projection mapping technology (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Not only can the architectural decoration be presented with three-dimensional designs and detail, but Zhu can also bring the stone dragons on the carving pillars to life with animation technology. The foreground that once stood still in the shows can now go wild.

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The foreground presented via projection mapping technology (Photo Credit: Zhu)

The Background (背景)

As golden light puppet show plots are stories that involve a lot of expeditions and dynamic fights between characters among the justice and evil, the shows had to allow the puppets to seem as if they are wandering around or racing each other intensely on stage.

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Traditional backgrounds of an outdoor puppetry stage (Photo Credit: Zhu)

In the past, in order to create this kind of effect, puppeteers would have to use background paper that could be rolled from left to right, to make it seem as if the puppets were running from right to left, vice versa. In Mandarin, this was called “walking scenery (走景).”

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The background presented via projection mapping technology (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Now, with projection mapping technology, Shinergy’s puppet shows could enable their puppets to run and change backgrounds dynamically without requiring anyone to manually roll the background over and over again.

The Special Effects

As mentioned above, intensive fights, bursts, and explosions are the most crucial elements that constitute golden light puppet shows. This is also where computer animation and game art comes in handy. Thus, Zhu used the art of projection mapping technology and animations to reimagine the effects that used to require traditional real-world small scale explosions and fireworks to be released on stage.

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Traditional golden light puppet show special effects: lightning, fire, and explosions (Photo Credit: Zhu)

Moreover, he used modern animation visual effects to represent the effects of pugilistic arts (拳術). Therefore, articulating the beauty and allurement of different fictitious martial arts, which each kung fu master puppet character would specialize in within famous traditional glove puppetry show plots.

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Pugilistic arts called “apolar baguazhang (無極八卦掌)” presented via animation (Photo Credit: Zhu)

After Testing the Waters

Zhu’s pioneering digital-physical hybrid puppetry showpiece turned out to be a great success. In 2018, their first debut performance at the 2018 Nuit Blanche Taipei attracted over 1,000 audiences.

“I was so happy! Our puppeteers were overjoyed to see that they were finally outnumbered by the numbers of the audiences seated in front of our stage.”

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(Photo Credit: IxDA)

This well-received performance led to a series of surprising and exciting opportunities unforeseen by Zhu. They were invited to perform this modern-traditional art piece abroad, in eight big cities all across North America.

In Taiwan, Shinergy has won the hearts of a new crowd of Taiwanese audiences and sustained this momentum ever since. They continued to appear in the 2020 Nuit Blanche Taipei, as they persist with their innovations in new ways of storytelling in Taiwanese glove puppetry.

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Attracting a big crowd at 2018 Nuit Blanche Taipei (Photo Credit: Zhu)

However, when Zhu recalled their performance tour in North America, he reflected on how cultural differences may have affected the audience’s responses to their show. While gaining popularity in many cities, one performance, in particular, was not quite appreciated.

“I only noticed it afterwards, that as we performed in a Mormon district, the intense violence depicted in our show plot might have upset our audiences a bit.”

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Shinergy’s tour around 8 cities in North America (Photo Credit: Zhu)

This experience made Zhu realize that the scripts they performed on needed to be rewritten for different audiences.

“For Taiwanese audiences, they have more context and background knowledge of our shows, as what we present is a remake of traditional characters and plots familiar to them,”

Zhu said as he ponders on the differences. “For our audiences overseas, without providing enough context and knowledge, mere clashes and fights between the characters can seem too violent and hard to catch.”

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The redesign of the glove puppet character’s appearances (Photo Credit: Zhu)

After this experience, Zhu included more narratives and debates within their plots that discussed the meaning and fuzziness between evil and justice, prior to intensive flights and physical conflicts. All in all, Zhu’s reimagination of a new cultural model that can be used to communicate his beloved traditional glove puppetry continues to bloom.

Engaging an Old Community- Repurposing a Traditional Market

How can you revive a perishing traditional community, or plant seeds of hope in the soil of a barren old market, while the world is running the tides of industrialization and modernity?

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(Photo Credit: IxDA Taiwan)

Step 1: Testing and Understanding

“How can we invite more vendors to do business in this market, when the environment is so shabby with little to no people visiting it?”

While Chiu hosted the local walking tours that were mentioned above, he could not but worry that an old market space so empty would one day be demolished. With a little budget and a bold idea, Chiu rented one of the stalls next to a small traditional pork stand.

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The stall that Chiu rented beside the pork stand (Photo Credit: Chiu)

“We wanted to utilize the space as our first attempt of revival, but didn’t have enough staff to help run it.” Thus, Chiu decided to adopt the concept of unmanned stores and used the stall as a space where people could come and exchange used second-hand goods for free.

The experiment led to the gathering of deep local insights and enriched Chiu’s understanding of the remaining market community. “At first, we thought that our stall would be attractive to young Taiwanese hipsters,” Chiu said with laughter.

“I did not expect to see so many aunties (how Taiwanese colloquially refer to elderly women) from the local community.”

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Second-hand goods exchange at the traditional market (Photo Credit: Chiu)

By talking to these aunties in person, Chiu started to understand the social dynamics and roles being played within the traditional market. Who are the most influential people in this market? What are the relationships between the remaining vendors? What is their relationship with the city government?

After six months, Chiu answered all these questions comprehensively. He was filled with insights that later became important building blocks of his communal engagement efforts.

Step 2: Building Trust From Within

Based on his foundational understanding of the local community and the relationships that he began to form with the local residents, Chiu wanted to do more.

He began to hold events that allowed people from outside of the community to come and experience life in the traditional market for themselves. As he began to involve the local vendors and residents in the events, he made sure that they would not be invasive to their communal routines and local values.

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Tourists come to experience traditional sausage-making (Photo Credit: Chiu)

For example, events that allowed tourists to come and experience traditional sausage-making would offer people sausages to eat after they have paid for the experience. They adjusted the monetary exchange to one similar to when a customer simply buys the sausages from old vendors.

“These aunties are not used to being paid when teaching others how to make sausages.”

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Cultural talks and music concerts held in the traditional market (Photo Credit: Chiu)

He also held many local cultural talks, music concerts, market fairs, and outdoor movie theatre events within the market space. Inviting people from inside out to all come and enjoy the beautiful traditional space and giving it new life. The events were enjoyed by both the locals as well as a new crowd.

“These local aunties would never attend the market fairs at the famous modern Yancheng Pier-2 Art Centre,”

Chiu said happily. “Yet, they would not miss our market fair.” Even when the events were an innovative mixture of traditions conveyed by a somewhat modern tone, it was welcomed by local residents.

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Local residents engaging in Chiu’s market fairs at the traditional market (Photo Credit: Chiu)

Step 3: Cohabiting the Old with the New

Communal trust was gradually built after Chiu held 20 of those events in the market. By those events, he conveyed to the local community that, while repurposing the traditional market and engaging a new crowd, he would not drastically affect the original daily lives of the existing community.

They knew that aside from these innovative revival initiatives, their traditional businesses could run as usual. This paved way for cohabitation. The traditional market needed a long-term repurposing strategy that would allow it to be used on a regular basis sustainably.

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Reconstructing the stalls into co-working spaces (Photo Credit: Chiu)

Therefore, Chiu rented 7 stalls and reconstructed them into co-working spaces to serve as startup hubs, keeping in mind that the renovation should minimize disturbance and intrusion to the traditional market.

Now, the Yancheng First Public Retail Market is home to not only traditional market vendors with rich stories to tell but also a series of small stores run by a younger generation. Many young souls that love to incorporate the elements of cultural traditions into their modern businesses, with the ongoing trial and errors as well as Chiu’s spirit of experimentation continuing.

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The restaurant that invites customers to dine in the traditional market space (Photo Credit: Chiu)

For example, a restaurant experimented whether customers would be willing to pay an above-average price to come and dine in a renovated dark and ancient market space. The results were astonishing.

In addition, the cohabitation of the old and new also sparked new conversations across generations. One store in the hub named Jam & Pastry Collection was owned by a young gay couple.

“The neighboring aunties, who might have never encountered people from the LGBT group, began to kindly ask them who’s home they would go back to for Chinese New Year,” Chiu shared.

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New small businesses running in the traditional market (Photo Credit: Chiu)

Who would have known that these latent possibilities lied in the center of a deserted old market?

Now, the traditional market is even used as a space where people could gather and hold events to discuss topics regarding freedom, equality, sexuality, and the environment.

In May, Chiu’s newest attempt was the re-opening of a seventy years old coffee house, the House of TAKAO GINZA, in Yancheng. It also serves as a bed & breakfast that is guaranteed to provide visitors a deep cultural experience.

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The re-opened Takao Ginza in Yancheng (Photo Credit: Chiu)

“Culture work is a battle between persistence and time,” Chiu said with a gentle smile. “It takes time to sow what you reap.”

It took Chiu, along with the market, for about 10 years to get this far. “You have to persist. You need to survive,” he said. “Only through time, will you be able to see the difference you’ve made.”

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