Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Sep 18 2018

Photography and Personing

Are you into photography? Do you like to person? Do you like to do both at the same time?

When I say “into” photography, I don’t mean someone who has/desires a great deal of gear, or someone who knows all the best places to find the best birds/orangutans/fire escapes, nor am I talking about dudes who take thousands of photos of women models in studios and random parks. I’m talking about people who are afflicted with the condition where they can’t not see photographs everywhere they go, even if they don’t have a camera at hand.

Another group I’m not talking about: Those who “got into” photography when it became the hot thing with the popular kids a few years ago (featuring skateboarders, that oft-used demographic every large corporation knows is perfect for bringing “the youth” into the fold for effective consumerism). I won’t waste my time because soon enough you’ll be saying things like “I just haven’t had time to go out shooting” and “There’s just nothing going on here” when something else comes along. Whenever I hear those phrases, I recall my ophthalmologist’s advice that I really need to stop rolling my eyes. Just admit it: You are not really into photography. But hold up: That’s great! It’s not an insult; it’s a compliment. Congratulations, because, as it turns out, being really into photography (as opposed to being a professional photographer, which is often a different thing), can be rough.

What could I possibly mean by this? Isn’t “everyone a photographer” these days? Don’t most people have a capable camera in their phone or around their neck? How do these people people, as it were?

Let’s say you are with other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking, eating, in a car, on a bus, in a meeting, having sex, or paragliding, or all of those at the same time (which admittedly sounds like one hell of a party). Do you remain committed to maintaining your interaction with them, or do you remain open to all of the potential photos happening around you?

Most normal people opt for the former. Obviously. Even in the unlikely event that you can engage with your companions as well as paying sufficient attention to your surroundings, what happens when a photograph become apparent to you? Do you maintain eye contact? Try and keep the conversation going? Think up an excuse to leave suddenly?

Again, for most people, the conversation is their literal focus. Most non-photographers, regardless of the photographic machinery they may have on hand, aren’t even looking. Of those who are looking, most ignore it. Of those who can’t ignore it, most watch helplessly as the photograph disappears while they try to keep their attention on the other people. Of those who make an attempt to socially disengage in order to make the photograph, most will be too late as well as flustered from resisting the ancient DNA-level code of Not Being an Asshole to one’s tribe. And those who just go take the damn picture are of course rude, self-centered malcontents who think their so-called “art” is more important than the actually important matters their companions are earnestly discussing with them at the time of the aforementioned abscondment.

“But TC,” you say, “I’ve found the Perfect Friends/Significant Other who is perfectly fine with me shooting anything I want at any time!”

That’s great! I’m sure they’re very nice, lovely, accommodating people who are really into you, and willing to put up with this behavior in order to be around you. I’m jealous, truly I am. Perhaps they even point out little scenes they think you’d be interested in, even though you aren’t because they can’t actually know what you see, and by the time you’ve followed their pointing finger and excited, slightly patronizing tone that of course has alerted the denizens of said scene to your attention, it has vanished. But I’ll bet a reasonable amount of money that they in fact hide their dismay when you display in a most abrupt fashion how much more devoted you are to some imagined, phantom scene than you are to really being truly “with” them.

That they’re willing to go through that for you is admirable. But perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll eventually get to wondering exactly why you can’t deny yourself this stupid photography shit in order to be with them. It’s not like you’re exactly famous or really any good at it. Which is most likely true, because in their eyes you can’t be good until you’re famous, and becoming a Famous Photographer is not only nearly impossible, it almost by definition disallows continuing to be into photography, because you need to person. If they don’t want you to give up photography for them, they will almost certainly try to steer you into a more lucrative, “useful” form of it. Again with the personing, extreme personing in this context, because lucrative photography is generally more about the lucrative part than the photography part. Can you schmooze? I mean, are you really good at it? Here, I’ll just take that camera; you won’t be needing it. Your attention is elsewhere. Go person.

This condition, of being disconnected enough from the tangled skeins of social obligation in which most people are ensconced that you are able to readily observe the things around you, can wear you down if you let it. Someone is always in the way, if not physically then mentally, assuming that you are engaged in the conversation or whatever else that may going on. People see you as off in the clouds somewhere when you are actually as present in the world as they are, just in a different way. They don’t notice the man quietly sobbing in the corner, the cat perched precariously on the railing, the estranged couple maintaining an awkward distance in the park, or the factory lazily polluting the river. And you don’t notice the latest gossip, that thing we have next week, or that horrible insult someone said that might mean something else. You’re there, but not in the “right” way. Not for personing.

Some extremely talented photographers in the past have obviously been the kind of “difficult” individuals I’m talking about, but by definition and due to survivor bias, the ones we know of are the ones who had special ways to deal with it. Many, such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, were independently wealthy when they started out, and just DNGAF. Others like Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand failed spectacularly at maintaining the relationships in their lives.

Of course there are many successful photographers who are friendly, engaging, well-adjusted individuals with happy friends and families. That’s great. I’m happy for them…mystified, but happy. The rest of us are left with a sense of not quite belonging to the world we are so intent on observing because, were we capable of belonging, we would no longer see it. Some of the photos resulting from this state might happen to be interesting, but nobody will know or care because we cannot person*.

So what can we do? Don’t worry; all is not lost. While we may not be able to ignore the draw of photography, we might be able to control how much we care about superficialities, things that are on the surface at least tangentially related to this Thing We Can’t Not Do, but in reality just drag us down…things like social media addiction to likes and faves, trying to be noticed and published, things like gear obsession and one-upsmanship. Take that time and use it better; instead of clinging to the impossibility of being universally adored, try to make friends with a few like-minded souls instead of just anyone you think will advance your social status. Recognize, explore and embrace your own instincts and inclinations. Be there for yourself. Person for yourself.

If we simply value being as open and genuine as possible, we might stand a chance of getting through all this with some semblance of sanity. And maybe, just maybe, collect a few good shots along the way.

 

 

*Of course, if you’re “lucky”, after you’ve died someone might buy your photos at an auction and “discover” you, now that your difficult ass is safely beyond having to deal with.
posted by Poagao at 10:46 am  
Jul 05 2018

Not really back, but off again soon

Things never really got back to normal around here since I got back from San Francisco. They just kept being strange. Oh, I kept going to work and teaching classes and returning to the Water Curtain Cave at night, but the surreal feeling I’ve had ever since I got back never lost its edge. I’ve been delving into Wiki articles about Erik Satie and how he and Debussy used to hang out in Montmarte and at Le Chat Noir and what that world must have been like. Wiki articles tend to leave out moments and details like smells and feelings while walking down a street or crossing a bridge.

So when I found myself at Jiantan Station with nothing to do for two hours before a gig at the American Club last weekend, I figured I’d just wander in the general direction, hauling my instruments behind me. I walked along the former riverside before they changed the waterway’s course, wondering exactly where the exit to Chiang Kai-shek’s Emergency Fun Slide was. I really, really, didn’t want to enter the American Club earlier than I needed to, so I sat down in the armory park next door, the one dedicated to a couple of large guns that helped defend our outer islands against Chinese attacks in the late 50’s, and sat and thought and listened to the cicadas. But mostly I enjoyed not doing anything in particular, apart from scratching the occasional mosquito bite. Eventually I was joined by Slim, and then it was time to go do the deed.

The local staff inside the complex walls was being wrangled by a heavy blonde man with a German accent. There were lots of stands with the names of various foods and states and football teams or something. One stand, staffed by two people, emphasized the fact that Americans Can Vote Anywhere. It was very hot, and we shuttled between the very hot stage and the very cold ready room upstairs for most of the afternoon and into the evening for the Independence Day event. Every so often aircraft would pass over after taking off from Songshan Airport next door, and a vision flashed unbidden into my mind, of the local staff looking up at the military planes carrying the last of the U.S. staff off the island as the club lay abandoned due to a Chinese invasion and Politics As Usual. These thoughts thrust me into an even stranger state of mind. Unlike previous incantations, we were allowed access to all the stalls and people at the event, though it was sparsely attended. We played three long, lumpy sets, and everyone was hot and exhausted afterwards. I scored a couple of cupcakes as they were too sweet for the local staff and nobody else seemed to want cupcakes. Packing up amid the emptying complex, hauling our stuff down darkened halls and through empty gates, we took some cabs to Yuanshan Station, where some of the band was hanging out, but I was spooked and had to leave.

More surreality awaited me as I attended an event at Taipei Main Station, in the atrium no less, held by the publication for which I work, on tourism in Taiwan. Several bigwigs talked on the subject, including Premiere Lai, who was sitting once again a couple rows away. I talked with writer friend Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, who were also there. Joshua mentioned something that had escaped my notice: The invitations had been sent out in English, many to foreign nationals, yet there were no English translations; the entire event took place in Chinese. It was a jarring disconnect from the messages being given lip service to at the event itself. Why, again, are we doing this? The location was selected “because everyone sets out from the train station” yet I wondered if these people knew that this exact spot was usually inhabited by Southeast Asian laborers on their day off.

My photography class’s last class was on Tuesday, and Chenbl and I worked hard to finish the accompanying photobook. These books have gotten better and thicker each semester, and this one is no exception. Some, if not most of my students have improved beyond recognition, and it’s a wonder to see them finding their individual styles and reveling in the practice of photography, a world they didn’t know existed before. We’ve become quite the big family over the years, and about a dozen of them are actually coming to Bangkok with us.

Bangkok? Oh yes, didn’t I say? Even though I’m still recovering from my trip to San Francisco, Chenbl and I are flying to Bangkok on Saturday to spend a week or so there. The reason for this is that, in addition to being a judge for the Bangkok Street Photography competition, I’m going to be teaching a workshop there with Rammy Narula and Barry Talis from Israel. Oddly enough, I’ve never been to Thailand before, only catching glimpses of it from across the river in Vientiane years ago when I visited Prince Roy there. People always exclaim in disbelief when I say I’ve never been to Thailand, which puzzles me, and, to be honest, is probably one of the reasons I’ve never gone, just because it was somehow expected of me, and things being expected of me nearly always pisses me off because it’s often because of the stupidest of reasons. But I’m happy to be proven wrong, and hopefully this will be one of those times.

So I’ve spent the last few days since the end of our class trying to rest up and recover and get my mind right. This has involved afternoon naps, copious amounts of tea, and watching every single A Tribe Called Quest video  – Rest in Power, Phife –  intermixed with early seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. Also Little Debbie Snack Cakes (“Zebra Cakes” for you Philistine kids who know not from whence you came). Am I showing my age yet? Today I had to go to the local government office to pay my housing tax, get my household registration for a gig we’re playing in Hong Kong this fall, as well as have some passport-sized photos made for said gig. Late-40’s passport photos usually tell a sobering tale, but I’m ok just being along for the ride so far.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 5:38 pm  
Jan 04 2016

Recent stories

My usual shoe cobbler disappeared some time ago. He was an older fellow with bristly white hair, always smiling as he pounded people’s leather foot coverings back into shape at his stall in an alley off Nanyang Street. He’d been there for decades, as long as I could remember. I brought him hot drinks sometimes in the winter. But then I stopped frequenting the area as much due to an employment change, and the last time I went, he was gone. None of the neighboring shops knew anything about him. “He must have taken ill,” one said, shrugging.

So I went in search of another cobbler to patch up my old Nikes. I know what you’re thinking: Just buy another pair! But when I happen across a pair of comfy shoes, I like to make them last as long as possible, and I’ve found that even cheap sneakers can be made to last a bit longer with some glue and stitching. I recalled seeing a shoe shop next to the old Futai Mansion on Yanping, just south of the North Gate, so there I went. Sure enough, the older fellow was willing to take on the job. We talked about the area as he fixed my shoes, appropriately, on a foot pedal-driven machine.

“We used to live right up there,” he said, pointing towards the intersection of Zhongxiao West and Zhonghua roads. “Right by the railroad tracks.” I nodded. I remember those tracks, and the Chunghwa Market that had been built next to them. Both were gone by the early 1990’s.

“When I picked my lot in the army, I found I’d been sent to an outer island base,” he continued. “Back then, you couldn’t tell anyone you were being sent to one of those places, not even your family. When we set out from Taipei Train Station down south to catch a ship, as luck would have it, there was an accident on the road, and my train stopped right next to my house. I could look out the window and see my family going about their business, but I couldn’t call out to them., even though I wouldn’t see them again for years.” He shook his head at the memory, sighed, and then gave me my shoes. “That’ll be NT$300.”

As I was crossing the bridge on my way home, I spotted a cat prowling around the swan boat docks, looking over the edges into the water for fish. Its orange and white coat was conspicuous among the largely blue hulls, and its striped tail waved to and fro as it snatched perfect balance from thin air even as it leaped across the water in pursuit of a small bird it had no hope of catching. Some small children at the ticket stand on the shore shouted at it, beckoning with loud MEOWs, but it simply stared, shrugged, and moved onto more serious pursuits. We had been dismissed.

Further along the bridge, I took some photos of the makeshift ferries plying the still-muddy waters, carrying debris from the destruction of the lone house on the hillside. “They’re tearing it down because the Forestry Bureau doesn’t need it any more,” said the bridge guard, apparently worried that I was a spy. “It’s an illegal construction now.”

“And those illegal constructions?” I said, pointing to the row of far more accessible and actually dangerous buildings on the hillside just past the bridge, also on national land. The guard waved dismissively.

“Those aren’t our concern. We’re only concerned with national matters,” he said. I just stared, shrugged, and moved on.

posted by Poagao at 3:26 pm  
Jul 06 2015

Difficult photography

I like this article about Robert Frank, in that it attempts to address Frank’s viewpoint and method, touching on how difficult people with issues work towards art by bringing ugly things from deep down to light without dressing them up with absurd excuses, uncovering realities that are so true they can’t help but be beautiful.

In this age of constant connectedness and constant self-presentation, however, when one mistweet or inappropriate instagram can bring down global shunning, the dynamics of fame in any field, not just photography, have shifted. Back in the day, one would often find in any successful photographer’s bio the phrase “…fortunately happened to know (insert famous, influential individual here),” not to mention “…came from a wealthy family.” Other than those, and the work produced, not much else mattered. Connections, wealth, talent and luck, in that order.

It puts a dent in my admiration for photographers like Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, and increases my respect for photographers like Moriyama and Kertesz who hauled themselves up, though of course the work is the work, and the photographer is the photographer. I know talented photographers who produce excellent work but who are impossible to deal with, just as I know wonderful people who are kind and just and warm invididuals, whose photography…well, isn’t. The two aren’t necessarily connected, but I suspect that those people who are disconnected from society are better able to see society for what it really is. You have to go out of the house to see the house, as it were. If you’re constantly thinking of how you appear to others, making sure you’re socially acceptable, ensuring that you present the right sentiments at the right time, you’re not going to have the time or presence of mind to observe your surroundings with an eye to what’s really happening outside of yourself.

Frank was a terrible person to many people, by many accounts. Like Eugene Smith and Vivian Maier, he wasn’t cut out for family life or even social life…he couldn’t work with others; he couldn’t stand many other photographers; Magnum wouldn’t touch him. Some may think that his photography was brilliant despite these things, but I’m certain it was brilliant because of these things. If Maier had had a champion to maneuver her beyond her social and financial limitations, would we have seen her emerge as one of her era’s preeminant photographers? Likewise, if Frank had pissed off Walker Evans earlier, would we now be seeing stories like “Lifelong janitor’s road-trip photographs uncovered at yard sale will BLOW YOUR MIND (#37 made me choke up)”?

It doesn’t seem to work that way these days, however. For one thing, there is the deluge of online imagery, which doesn’t seem to have increased the amount of good photography by as much as people were expecting; if anything, it might have even somehow reduced it. But the Great Image Flood has managed to produce a different paradigm for judging value. Now we have contests for images taken with a certain machine or in a certain place, or by people of a certain age. People sit in front of computers taking screenshots of Google Streetview and call it photography. Others write about the latest gear and accrue huge followings, while more and more governments strive to demonize photography by their citizens while increasing their own surveillance capabilities, two phenomona that are not unrelated, crowing about the End of the Private when what is really happening is the End of the Public. And amid all this are the constant articles about the Death of Photography, as if to paraphrase a Pixar movie script, saying that when everyone is a photographer, no one is.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “Image Flood” photopocalypse theory, however. Why bother looking at anything if there’s so much out there, people seem to be saying. But we can only view so many images a day, just as we always have. If a billion images are uploaded in a forest, do they make a sound?

These are no doubt confusing times for someone who is interested in photography. I’m not singling out studio/model/business/sports/wildlife/landscape/HumansofRandomCity/yourlastmealatChipotle/whatever images, but actual photography. A lot of good work is being done, but any metric we once might have had evaluating it, much less finding it and appreciating it, has largely been replaced by counterproductive niceties and artspeak. It’s great and it’s there if you can find it, but don’t expect an easy path or anything approaching valid agreement of its worth. A flash on your screen and it’s gone. Offscreen, out of mind.

The death of photography, as well as many other things, could really only be the result of our refusal to observe and, as Georgia O’Keefe said, “make our unknown known.” Robert Frank did this, and his unknown was beautiful. It couldn’t not be. Unfortunately, in this knowlege-driven age, ignorance has become our greatest power (all you have to do is open virtually any comments section to see just how eager we are to wield it). There are modern-day Franks and Cartier-bressons and Smiths and Maiers. There are artists producing amazing work that transcends all of those, but they’re not the ones you know. The ones you know are concentrating on making sure you know them, and they don’t have the time to not suck.

posted by Poagao at 12:04 pm  
Apr 14 2015

How not to be a good president

I was thinking the other day: If I were the president, due to step down in the near-ish future and with little hope of my party winning, I’d just start doing whatever the hell I thought was a good idea but never pushed before due to lack of public acceptance or local politics. What can you lose at this point? You’re already sunk. Why not throw shit at the wall and see what sticks? Of course, I’d probably be the most unpopular president Taiwan has ever had (and that, my friends, is saying something), but who knows? A few years down the road people might wise up and see that some of those stupid things might have actually been a good idea. Like when Chiang Ching-kuo was promoting an eight-lane north-south freeway but was forced to cut it down to four lanes due to opposition from such people as Hsu Hsin-liang. Now, of course, we all wonder why the first highway was so small, and we’ve spent billions trying to fix it. Oh, those were wacky times!

So let’s rant! Here for your fantastic whimsical consideration are some awful ideas that would make me not only un-electable but probably the target for an angry, pitchfork-waving mob or two, but which I think might just make things better down the road:

1. I might levy a heavy tax on ghost money, but I would probably just outright ban the stuff. Modern ghosts probably don’t use the stuff anyway, and we’re losing all of our god-damn trees as well as creating pollution. Ghosts probably use the Internet anyway. Go make your offerings on guipal.com if you feel the need, but don’t fuck up our air based on your superstitions. Moderate amounts of incense would be tolerable, but the ghost money thing…that’s right out.

2. Romanization: Hanyu Pinyin. Everywhere. For everything, including company names, personal names on passports, pet names, etc. Existing major city names would stay as is, and maybe include a hyphen between the given name characters, but otherwise, the spelling would all be according to Hanyu Pinyin. Your name is your fucking name, you don’t get to change it around on a whim. There’s a process for that. Include a system for romanizing Aboriginal names as well, of course, but for Chinese names, Hanyu Pinyin or GTFO.

3. Pump up the electric scooter infrastructure (get it? Pump up….oh forget it), allow imports to compete on the market, and ban two-stroke scooters outright. If you have a two-stroke scooter, you get a discount on your new electric scooter. Congratulations.

4. Hello service industry people! Tired of hiding behind the counter whenever someone of a different race walks in because you fear they might speak another language? I’m here to solve your problem: From now on, no matter who your customer is, the first words out of your mouth will be in a local language. If they complain, tell them I said it was ok. If said customer fails to understand that, then figure something out. I guarantee you it won’t be as much of a problem as you think it will be, and even when it is, it’s not your problem, it’s theirs. Speak your own fucking language; they’re the visitors here, not you. To our police friends: If the white dude on the scooter without a license doesn’t understand you, again: Not your problem. You got his info, you issue a ticket. After that it’s his problem. Have some fucking self respect.

5. Ships. Hey, did you know that we’re on an ISLAND? With lots of rivers? Look at any map from the Japanese era, and you’ll see a spaghetti plate of lines connecting Taiwan to lots of other places. Kind of sad that everyone’s so afraid of water that we’re all hiding behind huge concrete walls with soldiers and barbed wire on top, isn’t it? So STOP IT! Coming soon: Not only mandatory swimming classes in schools, but also ferry services between Taipei, Ilan, Hualien, Taitung, Kaohsiung, and Kending. Actual ferries across the Danshui/Dahan/Xindian river system. A new flood-containment system that doesn’t require huge concrete barriers. Let the river be part of the city again. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.

6. Old buildings. Work out a system of reimbursement for historical structures so that the owners won’t be left with a rotting hulk on their hands, lest they tear the things down in the dark of night and exclaim in mock surprise the next morning: “Oh my, I wonder what happened to my house?” We will prepare a pool holding all the discarded alligators from Da-an Park just for you.

7. New buildings. Residences can only stay empty for a certain amount of time, whereupon Mr. Tax man will be visiting. Want to fend him off? Cut your losses and sell it for cheap. You can’t guarantee you’ll be able to sell most of the apartments in that building you’re building? Perhaps you should have taken a clue from the seven completely empty buildings next door. *WHOMP goes the stamp* Denied.

8. Bar-free windows. If you insist on barring up your windows, that nice, strapping Fireman will not be able to rescue your sorry ass from the fire you started when you were trying to burn ghost money in your god-damn hallway. Enjoy the view, and stop worrying that thieves will make away with your moldy black sofa. The thing’s awful to sit on anyway.

9. Inspectors get changed out. Inspectors, no matter how honest they may start out, will inevitably be co-opted into the corrupt system. Change them out every so often to avoid this.

10. Politicians clean up their messes: Stepping down to “take responsibility” for something won’t be acceptable. You want to step down? Fine. FIX YOUR SHIT and then leave. We’ll be happy to show you the door after you stop the streets of your city from exploding. Thank you very much, and by the way, once you step down, you stay the fuck down. We don’t want to see your name on the ballot next month. Or ever.

11. The military. Sure, the draft is ending, but if you want a real professional military, changes are going to have to be made.  You can’t run a volunteer army the way you ran a conscript army, and you’re working against decades of bad memories for most of the people here. The first step is to pay a decent wage, make it a viable career, etc. But you need to market yourself to people who are into this kind of thing, by which I mean actual soldiering, not just lazy students or whomever you’re trying to impress with comfy barracks with Hello Kitty wifi spots or whatever the hell you’re offering. Offer adventure. Offer challenges. Leave out the amenities.

12. Chinese tourists. Hey, don’t we all love Chinese tourists? Or at least their money? But you know what? There are other countries in the world! Instead of participating in a race to the bottom, I think you’ll find that, with the above policies, people from other countries might just want to visit as well!

13. Freedom of speech. You hear a lot about how “free” Taiwan is. But there are a few niggling problems with that. The public insult laws need to go. Slander and libel are of course actual Things, but public insult is just a fact of life, and if you can’t handle being given the finger in traffic, you need to STFU and deal.

14. Public photography. In a decade or two, if things keep going the way they’re going, the only way we’ll ever know that places like Hungary exist will be reading questionable Wikipedia texts. Taiwan is ALREADY practically invisible in the international scene, and you want to prohibit photographers from showing it to the world? Fuck that. If you’re in a public place with no reasonable expectation of privacy, we don’t care if someone shot you picking your nose or scratching your ass.

15. Actual fucking media. This is becoming a problem worldwide, but it’s pretty awful here as well. In order to call yourself a news source, you will need to offer real, actual journalism. You start in with this 24-hour “infotainment” shit and you’re out. You mix your op/ed with your actual news? There’s the door. You opine on shit you have no right to opine on? Good-bye. On your way out, feel free to look up Walter Fucking Cronkite and school your ignorant ass.

16.  The street is the street. It is not your living room. We will paint a line where the street goes, and another where the sidewalk goes. You will not put your shit in the street. You put it there, and it becomes ours. Or a deserving charity’s. But not yours.

17. Intersections. Automatic bollards will pop up at red lights. Emergency vehicles will be able to disable them, but your gas pedal will not. You want to run a red light? Talk to the bollard. Anyone injured by running into a properly functioning bollard will be required to take all the responsibility for all the damage caused.

18. Marijuana. Allow it, regulate it. There’s no real reason not to. America may have a stick up its ass about this, but the opium wars ended a long time ago. Sure, it’s a drug, but we allow tobacco and alcohol, under certain conditions.

19. Marriage equality. Again, no reason not to. Many reasons to do it. We’ll be in the spotlight as a bastion of human rights in a region where such things are rare. There’s literally no downside to it. You even get to piss off crazy right-wing Christian hypocrites, which is just gravy.

20. Immigration: Create a reasonable system of immigration that treats everyone the same. You don’t want foreigners to be allowed to keep their other citizenship, Mr. ABC? Fine, then you’ll have to do it too. Same rules for everyone, regardless of race.

21. Judges will be selected by a rigorous examination after decades of experience in the legal system, not as a graduation present from mommy and daddy along with a fake Versace bag from a night market. The bag is more convincing.

22. Stop worshiping English. No, the whole world doesn’t speak it. It’s not a sign of how “fashion” you are. Sure, if your job involves negotiating government treaties face-to-face with U.S. congressmen, then of course you need to possess a good command of the English language. If you run a bubble tea shop and are worried that some day you might be tasked with negotiating government treaties, I’d say don’t worry so much about the English lessons and more about the shit chemicals people are trying to put in your tea.

23. You put poison into food? You go to jail for a long time. People die or get sick from the shit you put in your food? You get tried for murder and/or attempted murder. In any case, your company disappears.

24. Raise utility prices. “Hmm, we have to somehow restrict usage on these valuable items, but everyone is using them because they’re so cheap? WHO CAN SOLVE THIS UNSOLVABLE CONUNDRUM?” Yeah, you could write some hokey slogans about being a good citizen and saving these precious resources out of the goodness of your precious widdle heart. Or you could do something effective, like raises water and electricity rates to levels that aren’t some of the cheapest in the entire world. It’s crazy, but it just might work!

25. Language schools (and everyone else, but especially language schools): Don’t want to hire someone because of their race? Sure, go ahead! And then go to fucking jail, because that shit is lame.

I guess that’s it for now. I didn’t put a great deal of thought into these, but go ahead and sharpen those pitchforks, because everyone knows that some random blog post is legally binding and everyone will be forced to think exactly the same way as I do.

 

posted by Poagao at 12:14 pm  
Mar 27 2015

BRAVE NEW SOCIAL MEDIA

Is Facebook old-fashioned? Duh! Of course it is, because now all the cool kids are parents, and having your parents checking up on you on Facebook is, like, the uncoolist thing EVAR.

Ok, sorry, that’s the chocolate-filled coffee I just drank talking. It speaks in a sticky-sweet voice and I can’t stop listening.

But seriously, Facebook has actually never been cool, though it can be a useful tool at times. Recently I was turned on to Vine by the work of Thomas Sanders, who makes (mostly) funny six-second videos with an amazing amount of creativity. I’d heard of Vine before, but at that point I just scoffed in the fashion of an elderly white gentleman sipping tea in a puffy armchair while grumbling about “the masses.” Now, years later, I can see the error of my presumption, because Vines can be pretty damn neat. The work of Sanders was a gateway to many other users of the service, and I am now a fan, basically because I like the idea of making a video almost instantly after I come up with the idea to make a video. I suspect this might be a consequence of having spent ten years making a single feature film; I want these things DONE. NOW. And they are. I still suck at making Vines of my own, but it doesn’t matter; I’ll never be one of the A-list there, which is fine because I don’t need that kind of pressure (he said nonchalantly while secretly entertaining fantasies of attending huge Vine Meetups in NYC and LA and hanging out with Egyptian DJs who raise rabbits and wear their hats backwards).

Another social media service I was turned on to via Vine is Snapchat (For some reason I keep typing Snapshat, which I assume is a completely different service). I’d also heard of Snapchat before, which I’d also dismissed in a similarly raised-pinkie fashion, but again, I think there’s something to it. The photos/chats/videos disappear after a certain number of viewings/amount of time. What’s the good of that? You ask. To me, it’s an attempt to regain the feeling of real-world interaction, a backlash against endlessly permanent interactions whose nature is changed because considerations of their permanence. With Snapchat, whatever you say is over and unrecorded (but possibly screenshot, alas) once it’s out you pretty little mouth. People feel less inhibited, say more of whatever nonsense they really think, and it’s over and out; you’re free to move on afterwards because there are fewer consequences. In my case, there are literally no consequences because exactly zero people have ever seen anything I’ve posted on Snapchat. I assume this is because you really need to become well-known on another service like Instagram (which I have reluctantly rejoined, though I’m not terribly active) or Vine before you can entice people over to Snapchat to revel in your fabulous everyday life, real-time, instead of talking with the person sitting next to them on the subway. The nice thing about this is that I can spout any damn nonsense that comes into my fatuous head, something I do anyway, but now I can record myself doing it! There’s no possible use for it that I can imagine.

And now, of course, we have Periscope, launched today by Twitter, which lets everyone broadcast everything all the time. AKA Chaos, mass hysteria, pet co-habitation, etc.

Cool.

Anyway, these things come and go, as those of us who have reached our 40s more or less intact can attest, and I’m sure something new and more interesting will replace the New Things. It keeps things fresh, or at least a welcome distraction from…uh…China’s political hegemony? Tupperware? Eerily anthropomorphic depictions of Elmer the Bull? Voles in general? I can’t remember.

posted by Poagao at 11:54 am  
Jan 06 2015

The wind

I went down to the company headquarters in Hsinchu for the first time on the last day of the year to sign the papers; one of the projects I’ve been working on for many years has been cancelled, and so I find myself with a schedule I haven’t had in years. They’ve promised to treat me fairly. We parted on good terms. Afterward, as my train back to Taipei was hours away, I wandered around the high-speed rail station, among the huge apartment blocks and new construction. The day was clear and cold, and hardly anyone was around as I walked on the big grass field behind the station, the wind whipping at me from various directions. I felt great, free, even though my income will take a hit. After over a decade in one position, one secure, steady position, part of me is excited at the change, though another part of me has become unused to such things. Right now I’m preparing for a photography talk I’m giving later this month. Then there’s always writing and photography and just general wandering that all call to me. I’ve also signed up for violin classes for some reason. I went to the community college near the Death Star Mall last night to listen to the teacher, and she seemed to know what she was doing. Chenbl has a spare violin that his niece discarded after losing interest in music, so it won’t be much of an expense. I find myself wanting to sell the Water Curtain Cave and move back into the city, maybe sell off all my things and live in a tiny room downtown, maybe get an electric scooter. To be honest, that’s not a very practical plan, financially speaking. And I have to admit that, even after all these years, I still love walking over that bridge, though the load of worries I toss over the side each day seems to grow all the time.

Simplify should be the word of the year. I should get rid of a lot of stuff, even if I don’t end up moving into a micro-apartment above Q-Square or something. I should put all my old DVDs onto a hard drive, all my books (well, most of them, aside from my photobooks) onto a Kindle, and ship everything off to second-hand shops. Travel will probably be a bit sparser in 2015 than it was in 2014; I made four trips last year, which is about twice as many as I usually take, but the photo festival paid for my trip to Hangzhou in the spring, and the trip to Tokyo in the fall was purely to regain a portion of my sanity, so I consider it a fair trade.

Right now I have photography instruction, the print version of my book, the final DVD/blu-ray package for the movie, recording a third album with the Muddy Basin Ramblers (plus playing shows), revamping this entire site, and a photography book or two on my plate. Will things get a bit more “normal” this year for me? I don’t know; there are powerful forces at work to prevent such development, but you never know. I want to live a life that I can write about, and that hasn’t been the case for a while now, resulting in very sparse posting, but I just may claw my way back into something resembling such a state eventually. Go me.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:21 am  
Aug 15 2013

Long enough

I didn’t know what to do with myself after lunch today. I have lunch almost every day at the same buffet place of Guanqian Road. I’ve taken every possible route there over the years, and every possible route back to my afternoon job.

Today I couldn’t face the walk south on Guanqian Road again. It’s been too long, and I’m numb and lost from insufficient wandering. I walked north and ducked into a stale electronics store, the kind where boxes are piling up and the staff wander aimlessly or stare at their phones while the merchandise beeps and flashes automatically. The new Microsoft Surface tablets held the center spot, but nobody was interested.

When I walked out the doors, the rain had started, hard and uncompromising, but it felt right to me. There should be rain right now, I thought. I walked up to the intersection of Guanqian and Zhongxiao, where the big yellow tiled building used to look out over the old train station back in the day when it was the tallest building around.

I walked a block over, wondering who lived behind the curtained windows lining the upper stories, and stopped at the intersection of Huaining and Kaifeng. There I stood, watching people cross the streets, some running, some limping, most with umbrellas. An umbrella vendor called out “Buy an umbrella!” every so often, in Taiwanese. I stood under the eaves of the least interesting building on the intersection and looked at the scene. The brightly lit office windows of the bank building towering over Chongqing South Road, the old, worn cafe where, one night years ago, I was convinced to buy my first digital camcorder. The faces of girls staring out of the second floor of Starbucks. A black-and-white cat eating leftovers from a Korean restaurant. Travelers, from places like Europe and Japan and Singapore, striding to and from the nearby hostels. An albino woman with long white hair lit up the scene like a beacon as she strode across in her bright pink dress and white umbrella, smiling at everyone she saw.

I’m not sure how long I stood there. Maybe 15 minutes or half an hour. My camera was around my neck but I didn’t take a single shot. I was just looking, at the people, at the details, at the rain in the puddles, and listening, to the bits of conversation, the cars and scooters. That intersection has seen things. I stood there so long I felt I was looking at a webcam, before I realized I could move.

The wet walk to my office didn’t take long, unfortunately.

posted by Poagao at 2:54 pm  
Jul 17 2013

The city and the river

(This is an article I wrote on the dysfunctional relationship between Taipei and its rivers for Village Taipei URS magazine)

It is said that fengshui has strict requirements on the positioning of cities. The central axis is supposed to run from north to south, with its north end pointing towards a mountain that runs from east to west and acts as the guardian of the city. A winding river around the city is said to be an auspicious feature. Even the Forbidden City in Beijing was built according to these rules. And at first glance, the city of Taipei conforms almost exactly to these conditions as well, surrounded by winding rivers and bordered on the north by Yangmingshan. But something happened along the way, a kind of divorce.

Taipei used to be all about the rivers surrounding it. Trade poured in from overseas as ships plied up and down the rivers, bringing goods and passengers to the riverfront districts of Dadaocheng and Wanhua. For hundreds of years, the pristine water supplied to the Taipei Basin by the rivers was the source of health, livelihood and transportation.

But the focus of the city was destined to move inland as it expanded. The authorities built a walled administrative center halfway in between the two main business districts, and then the Japanese tore down the walls and built what is now the Presidential Office, facing away from the river, away from the old business districts, towards the eastern plains that were the subject of elaborate plans for the development the city. Nonetheless, ships from Taiwan still traveled all over the region under Japanese rule.

But that would not last. When the KMT began administering the city, under the cloud of the threat from mainland China’s communist forces, the sea and everything close to it became off-limits, mirroring on a smaller, civic scale China’s retreat from the sea in the late Ming Dynasty, another tragedy on another scale. Personal craft were banned, military installations took over the shorelines, and ferry services dried up and disappeared. The island was repurposed for the use of small industries, whose pollution was deliberately overlooked so that quick profits could be maximized. Purportedly for flood control purposes, huge walls were built separating the rivers from the city, hiding them from view, cutting off access. The government widened the bottleneck of the Danshui River in Guandu, allowing saltwater to flow inland and completely change the ecosystem, which was already under severe attack from the unregulated pollution flowing into the river from the city’s primitive sewage systems and countless small factories. The path of the river was changed, and, as if to add insult to injury, dredging the river ceased; with no ship traffic to accommodate, it soon became too shallow for all but the smallest, flat-bottom boats. The shallower rivers flooded even more, of course. Even then, the reek of pollution made this a somewhat less than appealing notion, and fishing was out of the question for the same reason. Waterfront property wasn’t for living any more; it was for factories and junkyards. Stray dogs had better views than the majority of the expensive high-rises in downtown Taipei.

Gradually, the people of Taipei forgot about the rivers surrounding them. Rivers were just things one caught a brief glimpse of when hurtling across a bridge from one part of the city to another, if one were brave enough to take one’s eyes off the whirling maelstrom of scooters for a second or two. The prohibitions against coastal uses combined with local beliefs that water was dangerous, not just during Ghost Month, but all year round, a self-perpetuating and most vicious cycle, as the more people believed that swimming and other water activities were dangerous, the fewer people engaged in such activities, and with almost nobody knowing how to swim, the danger of drowning became all the more severe for those who did venture into the water, reinforcing the belief that water was dangerous, and so on. The polluted state of the water did not exactly help in this regard either, and the government actively discouraged any riverside farming or settlement. Again, “flood control”, a problem exacerbated by the very measures implemented to control it, was the driving force behind such actions. However, in Taiwan, the difficulties in dealing with the pragmatic realities of life resulting from ill-advised policy are almost always dealt with in the same fashion: Under-the-table practices with little of no enforcement. Thus, the farms and other river-related activities, became part of the unofficial mythology, like the rivers themselves.

For decades, this was the state of things in Taipei. The old waterfront districts of Wanhua and Dadaocheng languished, falling into disrepair as the city’s focus moved further and further inland from the forgotten rivers. The old districts were now bordered not by the river but instead faced huge concrete walls that allowed no scent or sign of the river it concealed. Hidden rivers were not just easier to ignore, they were also much easier to pollute, being out of sight as well as mind for most of the populace, and without any public impetus for reform, factories were free to continue dumping whatever chemicals they liked into the waters. The results of these pollutants entering the riverside farms and fishing, a world that didn’t officially exist, were likewise ignored.

Starting a decade or so ago, however, some of these things began to change. Recent administrations have opened an eye towards the existence of the rivers, raising enforcement of environmental standards to the point that the water isn’t as toxic as it once was. A certain amount of fish and other flora and fauna have returned. Boats now ply the waters between Dadaocheng, Guandu and Danshui, and there is talk of a new ferry down the coast to Hualian. The riverside has been transformed into a place for bicycling and sports.

But the huge walls still exist. More important than the physical walls, which remain necessary for flood prevention, are the mental walls the people of this city have built in their perceptions of the rivers over the many decades since the two parted ways. The government can spruce up the riverside paths and place a few boats on the water, but all it takes is a glance at the picture windows of many a riverside dwelling to see that they have their work cut out for them. For more often than not, the expanses of double-glazed glass do not present the views they were made for, but rather buttress stacks of boxes, clothes and other household detritus.

Chinese architecture traditions are partially to blame for this, after centuries if not millennia of courtyard-style buildings with no real windows facing outside, but when a magnificent view of the river, winding its way from the mountains to the sea, is placed on the same level of value as the concrete wall of the building next door, the reality of priorities influenced by decades of ignorance becomes apparent.

There’s no easy answer; government authorities can encourage riverside and seaside development, and some progress has been made on Taiwan’s east coast. Kaohsiung, having always been a port city, has also made great strides in this area. The aura of an international port has kept it open and alive, though just as, if not even more polluted than Taipei, over the years, and parts of the Love River have ceased to smell like cesspools. Current construction methods, floodways, underground storm water reservoirs, etc., make the existence of primitive floodwalls unnecessary, and with Taiwan’s population growth slowing, there simply isn’t a need to cover up the rivers with concrete and buildings; there is space for wetlands, for floodplains, there is space for the river.

But that would only be the beginning. The participation of the rivers in the existence of a city is an indicator of more than physical presence; rivers are the opposite of walls; they connect us to the rest of the world. Taipei tore down one wall but built many more, the most important of which were in the minds of its residents.

It’s high time those walls came down.

posted by Poagao at 11:08 am  
Jun 10 2013

Long weekend

It was a long weekend. Not literally, unfortunately; it just felt that way. Saturday was spent recording songs for our second album at Soundkiss Studios. This is usually a lot of fun, and this time was no exception…except, well, one of the songs was one I’d been practicing over the previous week, not only to work out what I was going to play, or at least options to choose from, but just to increase my stamina so I could play longer without tiring out. This didn’t really work, for we had to go through the song several times just to make sure everyone was on the same page, and although my first couple of takes were good enough, my performance started to fall off, just in time for the other players to hit their stride in getting used to the song and honing their performances. I don’t envy David when it comes time to choose which edition of the song makes it to the album.

Sunday I gave another talk, this time on travel photography, at an art space near Dihua Street. There were four speakers, of which I was the second. The other speakers did well, but, as usual, I had too much material to get through in the short 18 minutes allotted. Afterwards I just wanted to go off somewhere, but those were the days, my friend.

You might have noticed that I don’t write here much these days, and when I do, it’s about relatively impersonal things, which I describe in a perfunctory nature. That’s just the way it is. A few of you know what I’m talking about, though I’d be surprised if anyone still reads this. Eventually I’ll either be able to write about my life again, or I’ll just stop. We’ll see.

posted by Poagao at 4:47 pm  
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