Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 16 2008

Down to Kaohsiung

I took the noon high speed rail down to Kaohsiung on Monday to attend a wedding, arriving at the new, airport-esque Zuoying Station at 1:30 p.m. I was eager to experience the new MRT that has taken so long and been the subject of so much controversy over the last decade. Fortunately, the HSR station is almost on top of the subway station, so after only a short exposure to the sunshine outside on the way down, I was there.

The first thing I noticed was the level of ambient light; Taipei’s subway stations are very bright in comparison. The low, dark ceiling, festooned with a metal grating, along with the solid glass walls along the platform made it feel like a bar lounge instead of a subway station. The place smelled of fresh concrete, and hardly any people were there. The train, when it came, only covers half of the platform length, so that if you weren’t in front of the right doors you’d miss the train.

Inside the cars, the seats line the sides, Hong Kong-style, rather than utilizing the forward/backward style of Taipei. The seats are molded plastic of an unsettling green hue, but the curvature of the handrails and the white walls and pillars aren’t so bad. It’s like an alternate universe version of Taipei’s system. I wish they accepted the yoyo cards, though.

After getting directions from a good-looking subway employee wearing a baseball cap, I transferred at the Formosa Blvd Station to an even more sparsely populated train to Xiziwan, surfacing a couple of blocks from the harbor. I like cities with harbors, and it’s always the first place I want to go when I get to Kaohsiung. Near the subway exit was a line of tiny scooters, just frames with wheels and a seat, really, under a sign that said “electric scooters”. Intrigued to see whether Taiwan is actually going to follow in Shanghai’s footsteps in promoting electric scooters, I went to the nearby shop, only to be told that the scooters were actually 50cc two-stroke models. I am convinced that you could slap an electric motor, paint the front shell olive drab and have a hit on your hands, but that idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to the manufacturers. “The time to buy one of these is now,” the shop owner told me. “Two-strokes won’t be legally manufactured after this year.” Apparently they’re going to put a 4-stroke engine in instead.

I rented one anyway, just to see how it drove, and rode it out along the coast past the university. Even mild hills challenged it, and the suspension was barely working, but it was light and highly maneuverable. I could pick it up easily, almost like a bicycle. Good for local jaunts but not much else.

The coast road was very pleasant. I stopped to look down at the sun on the incoming waves, while a monkey perched on the railing by the roadside nearby watched me.

Kaohsiung HarborI rode back down to the harbor to watch some of the big ships coming and going through the pass, and then around the neighborhood for a while before returning the scooter and walking back to a bar by the water, where I was the only customer. Kaohsiung feels empty after the crowds of Taipei. Huge cargo ships loomed through the haze, cutting a swath through the paths of the triangular ferries bearing scooters and their riders across to Qijin Island. A black cat yowled at me, wanting food, but all I had was ginger tea. Next door was a Navy port where sailors got off transport ships and flowed per whistle commands into blue buses to take them into the city.

After night fell and I had taken my fill of superfluous pictures of tables and lamps, I headed back to the subway station to board a train for Formosa Blvd Station, where the wedding was being held. Only when I emerged from the station did I realize how grand a station it is. Four shining crystal structures jut out of the ground surrounding the roundabout on the surface, and the effect is quite striking.

Even at rush hour, the city had an evacuated feel to it. Perhaps I’m not used to the wide streets. The new concrete sidewalks have helpful instructions embedded in them, though my phone had already told me where I was going. I arrived at the Howard Plaza and found the wedding party on the fourth floor ballroom. The groom, Chalaw, greeted me at the door, and I found my seat next to David Chen at the same table as Lin Sheng-xiang and the Betelnut Brothers. Kimbo was at the next table, busy downing bottles of wine.

Chalaw had told me to bring my pocket trumpet, so I had assumed he wanted me to play accompaniment to one of the songs at some point. It turned out, however, that he wanted David and I to go on stage and play something. Consummate musicians that we are, neither of us had prepared anything. David didn’t even know that he was expected to play. Being only one third of the total Muddy Basin Ramblers, and me with a bass, we puzzled over what to do. Eventually, after I hurriedly learned “Nagasaki” on the trumpet in about 30 seconds backstage in case they wanted two songs, we played the Taiwan Song, which worked out pretty well, considering.

Kimbo, who was amazingly still upright after so much wine, played after us. All of the music that night was great, with lots of aboriginal tunes and singalongs. Sitting at the table with the Betelnut Bros., we had the best seats in the house for their impromptu accompaniments. Sheng-xiang sang one song written by his mother, who was at the table as well. She blushed when he mentioned her on stage.

We had to catch the last bullet train back to Taipei at 10:12 p.m., so we couldn’t stay. The party was winding down anyway, as many of the guests were from other parts of the island. A cab ride later we were at the station, and after a momentary panic when my ticket decided to play musical pockets on me, we were on the train back. The train felt like a low-flying airplane as it sped over the lights of villages and rice fields, accompanied by the occasional safety announcement. I played with David’s Ricoh, which made me realize what Internet posters are talking about when they mention a good user interface. If only a camera combined Sigma’s image quality with Ricoh’s interface, they’d sell like hotcakes. Alas, prior to the as yet still-mythical micro 4/3 camera (the G1 doesn’t count, IMHO, as it’s too big), we’re all still waiting.

It was past midnight when I switched on the lights of the Water Curtain Cave. It’s good to get out of town once in a while.

I’m taking this week off to finish up the editing before I leave for Osaka next week. I realize that it’s not the best time of year to go, but it was short notice as I was told by my company that I have more vacation time than I’d thought. I’ve heard that Kyoto is a beautiful city, which is a slightly daunting thing to me, seeing as I don’t usually like to photograph beautiful things (where’s the challenge in that, after all?). Still, it should be interesting, as I know next to nothing about the place.

posted by Poagao at 11:50 pm  
Oct 11 2008

A day in Central Taiwan

Last weekend the Muddy Basin Ramblers played at the opening of the new Mary Jane Pizza in Gongguan. It was a good time, though I didn’t get to eat as much pizza as I would have liked. Afterwords we went over to the NTU campus track stands to jam and chat until the wee hours of the morning. It was after 2am before I got to bed.

A mere three hours later I got up in order to catch the first subway train to Taipei Main Station, where I caught the first bullet train to Taichung at 6:30am. I was so sleep-addled that I forgot my change from the ticket vending machine. Hopefully some desperate individual got the extra NT$300 they needed for some reason. The ride was silky smooth as usual, but I didn’t dare nod off on the train for fear of ending up in Kaohsiung.

In Taichung I had some breakfast at the sleek, modern station’s Starbucks and then caught a free bus to the front gate of Tunghai University, where I met some friends. We then took a cab north along the ridge of the hills, which are covered with old military bunkers and tunnels, past the park and a couple of desolate military bases. Our objective was the Chio-tian Folk Drums & Arts Troupe headquarters, which turned out to be comprised of a small temple adorned with the trappings of a crude campus in the middle of a large, empty field. The students’ dormitories, cargo containers with windows carved in them, surround the small structure.

The head of the troupe, director Hsu Cheng-rong, started taking in children from underprivileged and troubled households in 1995, training them in various temple ceremonial rites and roles and giving them an outlet for their energies. He does all of this out of his own pocket.

We talked with Hsu and met some of the students, who go through rigorous training. Hsu said that if a student screws up, they have a choice: either leave the troupe forever or accept punishment, which is a “spanking,” but after Hsu had one of this students lie down in front of the temple alter to demonstrate, it looked more like preparations for a real beating. “That’s for serious mistakes,” he said, “Like stealing or fighting.”

Hsu thinks that the transition of temple-related activities to more mainstream entertainment venues is gradually gaining acceptance within society. “The Japanese didn’t like them because they were channels for civic unrest,” he said. “The old KMT didn’t like them for the same reason. But now things are looking up. People are becoming more confident in their culture, and they can appreciate the art within it.” The focus of the activities does seem to be moving in that direction. The group sees more shows for entertainment than actual temple ceremonies these days.

thingsThe most senior disciple there, a man of 30 with long, faintly reddish hair, painted our faces and dressed us up in various Eight Generals “Ba Jia Jiang” regalia, then taught us some of the moves, dances and poses, as well as some of the weapons the students have to wield. It’s much harder than it looks, I have to say. The regalia is heavy and thick, and the movements require a certain degree of agility and stamina. I was so impressed with the job the student had done on painting my face, I left it on after we left the center that afternoon.

Our next stop was the Taiwan Folk Village in Zhanghua, which was downright depressing after the hopeful nature of the dance troupe. The amusement park has gone the furthest it can towards closing down without actually closing down: Half of the attractions are closed, the buildings falling apart and covered in weeds. The once-impressive water park, featuring a water slide and a pirate ship affixed to the side of the building, is clogged with algae and overgrown. The only things left in operation are a few old-style structures selling trinkets and the second-rate theater where a magician saws women in half and allegedly Outer Mongolian wrestlers throw heavy objects at each other in front of a crowd of a dozen or so people. Apparently the park started making its money more from film crews than actual visitors at one point, and things just went downhill from there.

Since we were in Zhanghua, we stopped by the famous giant Buddha there for some pictures as dusk deepened, and then back to Taichung for dinner at a restaurant made to look like a kind of grotto. The sinks and urinals in the bathroom were so similar that men were using them interchangeably, I noticed as I finally removed the multicolored paint from my face before dinner. The kitchen was working fine, however; the food was excellent.

I was bushed, though, and caught a cab back out to the HSR station, where I took a direct train which saw me back in Taipei in less than an hour.It was an interesting day; it’s good to get out of town for a bit.

posted by Poagao at 6:06 am  
Dec 12 2007

Jiayi Rambling

The train station was busy on Saturday morning, when we had arranged to meet up for the trip. Slim was outside leaning against a wall when I arrived, and Thumper’s wife Christina waved from inside the station entrance. David and Conor showed up not long after, but Sandman was nowhere to be seen even as our departure time approached. Not wanting to miss our bullet train south, we descended into the bowels of the massive structure, loaded down with instruments and luggage, and boarded while David scouted Sandman out via the latest in phone tag technology.

It was my second trip on the high speed rail, and Jiayi would be the furthest I’d ever gone on one of the new trains. I once again pondered the wisdom of traveling the short distance from Taipei to Banqiao on such a train, but soon enough we emerged from the tunnel system onto the arrow-straight elevated track, where we accelerated to almost 300kph. It didn’t feel that fast; the distance to the ground made it seem a much more reasonable speed unless you looked at the small size of the things on the ground. I tried using my phone’s GPS to track us, but we were going too fast for the relatively weak 2G signal; Google Maps couldn’t quite download satellite images fast enough to keep up with the little blue dot that was us.

rearviewWe were in Jiayi in less than an hour. No mess, no fuss, though I nearly broke the train doors getting all my gear in and out. The Jiayi HSR station is a rocket launchpad in the middle of green farmland. We caught a handful of taxis, assisted by Ah-bing, and were taken to the Songyou Hostel in Zhongpu, where we’d booked a few sunny, peaceful rooms on the second floor. The hostel, as are so many buildings in Taiwan, was built with an almost gluttonous excess of concrete, but it was on a quiet street and had a garden with tables and chairs next to farmland and greenhouses.

I slid the three mats, which had been huddled in one corner of the room, apart as we got settled in. Afterwards, a delicious lunch was had in the garden across the street. Christina even hopped onto the karaoke machine while we ate.

temple courtyard at nightOur first show was at 7:30 at the Sanzhu temple in Shuishang, and the soundcheck was at 4pm. The stage was set up at one side of the parking lot in front of the temple, with a rainbow balloon bridge on the other side and a scattering of white plastic chairs in between. Our greenroom was actually a blue tent with red chairs on the lawn behind the massive stage.

The sound guys were surprisingly competent. I’d say it was one of the best sound jobs I’ve seen (or heard). They brought out a little flat mic shaped like a landmine for the washtub bass that boomed down into registers most mics couldn’t dream of reproducing. Afterwards we wandered in the golden hour as the sun set behind the temple. I found Christina chatting with the owner of a shanty shop across the street.
great faceHe had an interesting face, so I took a picture. Turns out he’s also a village official. He said there was a DPP campaign rally that night so not many people would show up at the show.

As showtime neared, the Ramblers reappeared out of the nooks and crannies of the temple and woods. The mood in the air was a little strange. The stage was too big. No foreign band had ever performed there before. The audience was there but had no idea what to expect. I felt a strange lack of motivation during the show, possibly due to eating too many almond cookies beforehand. But we were also too far away from each other, too disconnected, and it felt like we weren’t really playing together at many points. Despite the strange canned applause being broadcast over the speakers, the audience seemed to enjoy us, though I didn’t see any dancing going on, as is usually seen when we play. After the show I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, and sat inside the tent on one of the red chairs waiting to leave.

photojamMy mood improved considerably back at the hostel, however, after everyone changed back into civvies and adjourned to the garden for a long night of drinking, music, chatting and photography. Almas John and Thumper spent a disturbingly large amount of time lifting each other into the air, while I borrowed the latter’s new 30D, accompanied by very nice L-series lenses, to prowl around the area looking for interesting night shots. The revelry lasted into the wee hours of the morning, ending on the balcony of our room, passing a bag of potato chips between us.

Conor’s snoring woke me up the next morning. Well, that and the harsh whisper of Slim saying “Stop snoring!” over and over again. I sat up and threw a slipper at Conor, who did in fact stop snoring. But I was up already, and an outdoor kitchen was being set up downstairs, so I got dressed and hiked up the main road to look for some breakfast. Down the road I found a breakfast place that was still open. “I’d like a danbing,” I said. The woman behind the greasy counter pointed at a small yellow lump on the tray and said, “We’ve got one left.”

I looked at the unbroken eggs on the counter and then at the hot grill, and wondered if I should broach the possibility of making a fresh one. I decided that anyone who considered the possibility of eating a cold danbing wasn’t the kind of person who should be making one, so I said no thanks and went a couple of doors down to another breakfast shop where they were happy to make a fresh one for me. I chatted with the staff a little, and one woman asked me, “When did you get here?”

“Last night,” I said between mouthfuls. She looked shocked.

“Wow, really? Your Taiwanese is amazing!”

Zhongpu canalAfter breakfast I walked back and past the hostel, stopping here and there to take pictures. The weather was great, clear and cool. I walked through the fields past a nice new ranch-style house being built in the middle of some fields. A family of four, from the city by the look of them, exited as I walked by, piling into a small green VW and driving off. I waited until they were out of sight before peeking in the windows.

Past the house were more fields and a canal with a bridge, on which I decided I could go through my tai-chi forms while listening to the insects and tumbling water below.

The other Ramblers roused themselves around noon, reanimation via coffee and sunlight commenced. Slim and I took a walk down the road, exploring old Japanese-style houses and wondering at the sense of space and quiet. As we walked across a deserted intersection, I turned my head to look down the intersecting road and was surprised to see it vanish into the horizon, something I seldom see in Taipei. That and the empty old wooden buildings reminded me vaguely of Oklahoma.

zhongpuOur show that night was at 7pm at the Zhongpu Township Hall. David and I were in the last car, and the sun was low in the sky as Ah-bing drove us over. It turned out that the stage was actually the portico in front of the imposing stone building’s front entrance, and umpteen microphones were crowded like a flock of black storks on the red carpet in between the pillars. The area seemed deserted, and I wondered if anyone would show up. Sure, a few faithful friends were there, but who else would seek out this desolate location?

Turns out I needn’t have worried. Soon after we began playing the seat filled up, and the crowd was soon roaring with pleasure. My confidence was restored, though the bass was booming off the portico and smothering the sound. After the show we sat at a table and signed CDs for a while, which I’d never done before.

Getting all of our gear as well as ourselves into three taxis back to the HSR station turned out to be an engineering challenge worthy of a Mythbusters episode, but we managed, and soon enough were speeding along the highway. Ahead of us, in the distance, a bullet train streaked across the horizon towards the station.

b/w hsrConor got a warning whistle when he walked too close to the edge of the ultra-modern platform. A few minutes later we found out why when a train blew past only inches away from us at a startling speed. The ride back was just as quick and smooth, aided by celebratory wine, and seemed even more like magic in the dark, as the sense of speed was diminished even further. Before we knew it, Sandman, Slim and I were on the MRT, heading south and home.

posted by Poagao at 5:39 am  
Apr 25 2007

Political HSR? Or just "mountain and ocean views"?

The other day I was looking at the High Speed Rail schedule I have at the office, and I noticed that the HSR chose to print the label the southbound train schedule in green, and the northbound one in blue. I wonder, is this deliberate or just some kind of Freudian Slip? If the former, do we really need the HSR to contribute to the political polarization of Taiwan?

Perhaps the HSR seeks to reassure potential passengers that they will indeed be approach the pan-green/pan-blue bastion of their choice when traveling in a certain direction. A color bar installed in each car would gauge the political climate of the country the train is passing through for the passengers’ reference: “Ooh, look at how deep the green is here, this rice field must be a pocket of TSU supporters!” or “Look, honey, this village is PFP!”

They might even include soothing messages on the trains themselves, a la “Yes, valued passenger, you are truly on your way out of the dark tunnel of national political intrigue to the verdant, green, pro-independence homeland, land of the DPP, land of Chen Shui-bian and Frank Hsieh, and the thriving port-metropolis of Kaohsiung” or “Relax, honored guest, this train is bearing you away from the chaotic south towards the solid, reliable, ordered north, back to economic surety and practical values, home of the glorious capital and its convenient mass-transit system, orderly traffic and international style.” They could have “pan-green” cars with Minnan and Japanese announcements, that serve sweet-potato-based meals have extra storage space for, say, chickens, while “pan-blue” cars would have announcements in Mandarin and English, featuring iced taro desserts and waterproof floors for umbrellas to drain on.

Of course, both types of cars would have pictures of dancing aborigines.

HSR ScheduleUPDATE:

“This is Customer Service Center from Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation (THSRC), as for your inquiry

‘You have printed the schedule for southbound trains in green and the one for northbound trains in blue. Is this intended to reflect political demographics on the island of Taiwan? Or is it a mere coincidence?’

THSRC has replied as follows:

Dear Mr. Lin,

Thank you for taking the time to e-mail Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation.

A double-track line is installed on the entire route. Under normal operations, the trains should travel on the tracks on the left-hand side. Passengers seated on the left side of the southbound train are able to enjoy the mountain view, therefore the southbound timetable is represented in the color green. It is the ocean view on the left side for northbound trains; hence the northbound timetable is shown in the color blue.

Should you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact us at any time.

Sincerely,

Taiwan High Speed Rail

Customer Service Center”

posted by Poagao at 3:48 am