Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

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  
Jan 25 2013

Traveling as One’s Self

I was re-reading what I consider Kirk Tuck’s best post ever today, in which he gets to the meat of things in a way few people have the guts to utter:

“I had always traveled with, first my parents, then my college girl friend and finally, with my wife. And in all those scenarios photography takes a back seat to the social appeasement of travelling with people and spending time with them. You might want to wander aimlessly but the other person or people you are travelling with might have an agenda. A list of museums to visit and stores to shop in. Try as they might they don’t really understand your desire to walk around, stop, turnaround, click the shutter, walk ten feet and then do it all over again. Friction arises.

If you want to do photography at a level that really satisfies your soul and your ego you’ll need to do it alone. Forget having the spouse or girlfriend or best friend or camera buddy tagging along. Forget the whole sorry concept of the “photo walk” which does nothing but engender homogenization and “group think.” Learn what makes your brain salivate and why. Make your decisions based on what your inner curator wants you to say.

None of your non-photographer friends will understand, and that’s okay. Your real photographer friends will either be jealous or nodding their heads in appreciative approval because they’ve been there. When you see the world unfold in front of you, unencumbered by the social construct of the group, you become freed to see differently and make different decisions about what you’ll photograph and why. In the end you’ll come home with intensely personal photographs.

Many of you will throw your hands up and complain that you have kids and obligations and can’t possibly get away by yourself. Others will whine that “their spouse would never let me go to Paris without them.” But you only get one life. If you have a spouse like that you might think about a quick divorce.”

Lately, as the group of (six!) people with whom I am going to be traveling next month make their plans and itineraries for the trip, I’ve been recalling vacations I’ve taken. Inevitably, the best parts have been stolen moments, little stretches of time when I managed somehow to get away from everyone else, to just Be. To look, without the weight of a schedule or obligations or the incessant “What’s next?”, “Wait up!”, “Hurry up!”, “Where’s so-and-so?”, “Where are we going?”, “What are we going to eat?” etc. To not have to act and interact and guess about niceties and other people’s expectations. To just Be:

1. Walking the streets of Sydney around the harbour and along the Yarra River in Melbourne in 2002.

2. Doing the same in Shanghai in 2006 before boarding an overnight train to Beijing. Eating breakfast in the dining car as the outskirts of the city flashed by.

3. On my Okinawa trip in 2007, getting off the ship and into town on my own, just wandering amongst the alleys and streams. Even when it started to rain, everything just shined, as if electricity were running through it.

4. Pretty much my entire trip to Tokyo in early 2008, still my best trip in memory. 12 days on my own in a completely unfamiliar city, knowing none of the language, even dealing with rain, sleet, and snow at times. My follow-up trip to Osaka and Kyoto later that year was also good, but somewhat lessened by personal issues.

3. In Paris, when my traveling companions decided to go into the Louvre, and I walked out along the Seine.

4. In Spain, driving from Madrid to Granada as they slept, and then in Sitges when we wandered independently for a time.

5. Taking a train from Tokyo to Yokohama in late 2009, a brilliant day, just as the leaves were turning.

6. In Malaysia, when I somehow managed to leave everyone else behind on a winding road in the highlands where the hills are covered with tea plants, on a brilliant afternoon. I stood alone on the empty road, just drinking in the sight, smell and feel of the place.

7. During my trip on Xiamen, going up on deck by myself as the ship left the port and watching the city slide by.

8. On my trip to the US, wandering around downtown San Francisco just after sunset, and also renting a car and driving from Lexington, Kentucky to Lexington, Virginia.

When I read my accounts of my travels, it seems that when I am with a group, my writing become even more boring (if that’s possible), full of “…and then we went____ and then we had____ and then we went…”, because I wasn’t open to what was going on around me. You could say it’s horribly self-centered of me, but in my defense, I think it’s because it wasn’t really me experiencing those things.

Let me explain: Though I get frustrated at not being able to be as open as I can to photographs when I am with a group (“like being guided through paradise with a blindfold on,” as Tuck says), I should note that this isn’t necessarily about photography; it’s less about how many pictures I get or meals I enjoy than it is about what satisfies me to the very core of my being. I don’t particularly like going somewhere specifically “to shoot”; I find it terribly limiting. And it isn’t even about exotic locations either; I had a similarly enjoyable walk just the other day after our company’s end-of-year dinner. I walked out of the Westin Hotel and took a series of alleys I’d never traversed, just a few blocks over to where David Chen was playing in a bar off Linsen North Road, but it was still a great walk.

I’m not sure exactly what it is inside me, that urge to go a certain way, to turn a certain corner, to explore certain places over other places, but it’s deep and strong and old. Are we not, after all, defined by our choices? It’s as if that path is me, a la the songlines of the Australian aborigines, a relic of the millions of years of walking that our ancestors did. Or perhaps it was simply a largely friendless childhood or having moved so many times that drove me towards such things, or even common frustration with being in an office all day. But this isn’t about denying myself such pleasures as the occasional donut; denying these compulsions feels like denying my own self, i.e., I’m not me when I don’t do those things, if that makes any sense. I’m not anyone. Paul Theroux hints at the same, though coming from the other direction: “You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back,” he writes in Dark Star Safari.

“Go this way,” this mysterious authority whispers, but only when I am alone does it enunciate; when I am with others it is most often silent or confusing in its signals, and at any rate I would be unable to explain it to anyone else’s satisfaction. “What are you looking for?” others may ask, but it’s not what I’m looking for, it’s that I am looking. It is as satisfying to follow it as it is frustrating to deny, or worse yet, to be deaf to. There is no logic to it. I may find myself taking photos, or not; it doesn’t matter. For as long as it lasts, I am there.

posted by Poagao at 5:22 pm  
Dec 21 2012


Another year, almost over. People ask me what’s up these days, and my answer is always some variation on the theme of “same as always.” Movie still not out, books still unpublished. Working two and a half jobs, day after day, and my best vacation in recent memory dates to 2008. I do a bit of wandering when I can, but there’s precious little time for that any more; every day is full of sand, and there’s no room for the golf balls, as the meme goes. I don’t even go see movies any more, not really.

The enjoyable things I do manage to fit in these days, aside from the occasional aimless stroll during my lunch break when the weather’s nice, are badminton, music and photography. Badminton with Bears is every Thursday night. I enjoy it as I can keep up with most of them, as most everyone’s about the same level as I am, and they’re fun to hang around. And it’s bears playing badminton; that’s just fun.

As for music, the Muddy Basin Ramblers are working on our second album, and I enjoy our practices down at Bob’s each weekend…music, drink, friends and the occasional tasty treat. Katrina’s chicken pies are frequent guests in my freezer these days. Our next gig is New Year’s Eve at the Taipei Artists Village: Black and white theme, tuxes optional. Should be a fairly raucous affair.

I’ve been working on producing a photography book for a while now, whittling down thousands of photos to hundreds, and then down to a good selection on my theme, by spreading prints all over my apartment floor and slowly mixing and matching them up into a sequence that I can feel emotionally. I then used Lightroom’s book module to make a dummy, and then showed it to some people. With their input, I made another dummy, etc. I think I’m getting close to an edit I can show to publishers with confidence, but it probably won’t be to local publishers.

Why not? As I’ve mentioned before here, I’ve made a few contacts in the local photography scene, but from what I’ve seen, it’s in a pretty miserable state. Every time I uncovered another aspect of the circles, I would think to myself: This is awful, but surely there is a genuine effort to practice, edit and display good photography elsewhere in Taiwan. Yet so far I’ve only been disappointed. A lot of it is cultural; if you really want to see decent shots, go see the results of a widely known photographic competition and look at the ones that got prizes like “honorable mention” and the like. These are the ones from photographers who don’t have the connections to take the big prizes, yet are talented enough to place.

I’m not going to rant (much more) about the state of the photography scene in Taiwan; there’s too much ranting online already, and it seldom does anyone any good. I’m not into photography for awards and praise; I do it because I can’t stop.

On a related note, I’ve been invited to speak for two hours on the subject of street photography in April, to a local audience at a space near Dihua Street. The organizer, Mr. Ye Lun-hui, is a well-known historical tour guide. Chenbl and I attended one of his tours last Saturday in Wanhua, following the small group through Longshan Temple, where Mr. Ye commented on the construction details, and through the alleys surrounding Snake Alley, including a 50’s-era hostel I’d never seen before, and then to the West Gate District. It was quite entertaining, and Mr. Ye seems to know a lot about the city’s history. Occasionally we would stop at some shop and the vendor would tell us a story of the area’s past. I’d like to go on more of his tours, especially of the old walled city of Taipei, which I find particularly fascinating. Every day I walk through Taipei New Park, which is called the 2/28 Peace Park these days, and wonder how much of it has changed since it was constructed over a hundred years ago by the Japanese.

I’d gotten a call from Katrina down at Bob’s on Friday night; she said a bunch of people were fighting over my photos there, so I went over to find, not an actual fight, but a Swiss woman named Zarah, who was interested in buying three of my photos that were hanging there. Some other people were also interested, and they were arguing over it. I told Zarah I had more works hanging at the Milla Bear cafe off Dihua Street, so Chenbl and I met her there on Sunday morning. Mr. Chen, the owner, was exuberant as always, introducing me to each and every customer with great fanfare. I think Zarah was a little overwhelmed at the display.

Mr. Chen brought all my photos out to the courtyard for us to examine, and I told Zarah about how each one was taken. We chatted for hours, as the weather was very pleasant, and Mr. Chen provided sandwiches at various intervals. Mr. Ye showed up as well, and it turns out that he and Mr. Chen know each other. I guess that makes sense. We also met a man whose family used to own the lovely old building next door, which is mostly rented out to foreigners these days. It looks like it has a neat little garden between it and the elaborate frontage on Dihua Street, and I can’t help but think that it would make a wonderful Bed and Breakfast if someone took the trouble to restore it. The man said the structure was sound, and he is making efforts to try and repurchase it. I wish him luck. The whole Dihua Street area has come a long way since I was there last, with lots of interestingly restored stores. I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the place, and I’m glad to see all of the restoration work coming to fruition.

In any case, we’ve supposedly survived the Mayan apocalypse, and are now facing down 2013. Ten years since the Muddy Basin Ramblers formed. Ten years since I published the Chinese version of my book. Ten years since we filmed Clay Soldiers. I’ve done what I could on those fronts. Now all I want to do is book a train ticket to Istanbul.

posted by Poagao at 5:05 pm  
Oct 11 2012

Cities Happen

I recently wrote the following article for URS/Village Taipei on my city and its urban development from the standpoint of a photographer:

The best cities happen. They develop organically according to the varying trends among their inhabitants, the supplies and demands of the shifting citizenry over the decades. Even the best-laid grids imposed from on high over the twisting, labyrinthine networks of alleys are co-opted and bent to the will of those who inhabit every corner of the spaces within the bold, straight lines, from basement to cupola. The residents are tied to each other but not particularly beholden to any exterior force. Lesser cities, on the other hand, tend to be comprised of awkward, unreasonable structures that defy the attempts of anyone to comfortably inhabit them. The people of such places live with the nagging suspicion that they have been shipped in from the outside and put on display inside a mall for a shopping trip that never ends, and even the most luxurious of malls in the end incites rebellion against the yearning for space of one’s own.

Taipei is, in spite of itself, the former kind of city. Originally formed from settlements along the riverside, it grew gradually into a city, only to be briefly ensconced within high stone walls with five grand gates before the Japanese arrived and tore down the walls, leaving all but one of the gates, and laying down a geometrical grid of their own.

However, throughout Japanese rule as well as following retrocession in 1945, this city has paid only the merest lip service to ideas and goals that didn’t serve the interests, from the lofty to the base, of its inhabitants. The result is the most democratic of appearances, a strange kind of order masquerading as chaos. The result of many masters is inevitably none, and from this all-encompassing stew occasionally arises the most startling serendipity, all the more valuable because it arose from nobody’s plans, was the result of nobody’s intentions, and according to nobody’s vision.

Buildings in Taipei instead contort themselves in the most incredible fashions in order to occupy every inch of the land sky they possibly can, and their inhabitants take it from there, asserting their domain over not just the buildings but the various surrounding corridors, sidewalks and even streets, everyone’s territory melding together in such a fashion that the public and the private become almost indistinguishable and in the process opening up for examination the most sublime details of life in this metropolis. You may be walking on the sidewalk, but it may also be someone’s living room. A shop is also a den where the owner gets up from his dinner table to serve a customer. A night market is our collective kitchen. Even in large corporations, where in other countries the private would not dare show its face, elements of the private can be found, not only in the physical structures, but also in the interactions of the people, in their language and attitude. The result is a rough intimacy like cotton wrapped in the mesh of officialdom. It is a surprisingly resilient combination.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, and this is where Taipei’s genius lies. Whereas cities like gleaming Singapore feature carefully contoured environments designed to be visually pleasing, or Shanghai, where the sight of any building that is not old or “historical” is becoming increasingly rare, the occasional, incidental beauty that appears in certain moments, be it revealed in a flash, uncovered after decades or hiding in plain sight, is stunning because it is not bound by the limited imaginations of city planners, however gifted they may be. Most of the time the chaos is chaos, but here and there, pure genius appears, seemingly out of thin air; all we need are the eyes to see it, to recognize it for what it is, apart from the smokescreen of regrets or what we think it should be.

So far, this has been a mixed blessing for me as a photographer and director, as well as for Taipei itself. The open nature and general overlap of public and private, not just in the physical infrastructure but in the general outlook of this society, have allowed me access to scenes I simply wouldn’t see in other scenarios. In filming, many times no costly, involved setup is required, and a small, fast crew can accomplish a great deal before anyone even begins to care what is happening.

Over the nearly quarter century I have observed this city, I have learned to seek out instances of incidental beauty by striving to remain open to its appearance at any time, in any place, an ability most denizens shut off as soon as they can, resulting in genuine cognitive dissonance when presented with its existence. I often hear people presented with my photos saying, “I recognize this, but I’ve never seen it!” Yet, a growing antipathy for the haphazardly pragmatic architectural “designs”, if one can call them that, of the 60’s and 70’s, resulted in efforts to purposefully make spaces aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, many of these efforts have resulted in empty, superficial structures and areas, imposed upon the urban landscape rather than integrating with it. Though momentarily popular, such efforts lack pragmatic human involvement and end up gathering dust rather than memories. Even older, well-used and lived-in communities, once “cleaned up”, lose their connection to both the past and the future if the very things that made them livable are removed for the sake of some artist’s or planner’s idea of “modern surroundings.”

There is, after all, an inevitable gap between who we are and who we like to think we are, and urban design needs to take into account not only visions of a better future, but the realities of the present and even the horrors of the past. All of these make us who we are, and ignoring our baser natures will not make them go away. On the contrary, the results will falter for reasons nobody is willing to admit, and therefore be allowed to fester longer, in the end doing more damage than anyone expected. For most of Taipei’s history, urban development has followed the winding path of least resistance, the details left to a more or less freely random process, unconstrained by considerations of the larger picture. There are those who would claim we deserve better, and they are right, but we must first recognize that we make what is provided to us our own.

This city is distinguished by the unrelenting reality of its creation, every day, at the level of its inhabitants’ desires and needs, without regard for superficialities or design. It is the kind of reality over which artists grieve for being unable to relate, but the bottom line is that it works. It is, the lion’s share of the time, not a pretty sight, but it works. And, occasionally, it not only works, it is the perfect picture of ourselves.

posted by Poagao at 2:46 pm  
Dec 29 2011

In summation: my trip

One of the main things I got out of my recent trip was a reassessment of my relation to the US. Perhaps over the extended period of time I’ve spent in Taiwan,  a period that already covers most of my life up to this point, my recollections and impressions from my American childhood have assumed a greater status in my memories than they actually deserve. This is natural, I suppose, and comes to most people with the passing of the years, but on this trip I realized that who I am today is actually more the result of my experiences and choices as an adult in Taiwan than my experiences as a child in the US. I’ve never lived as an adult in the US. I’ve been out of touch with the on-the-ground culture there for almost a quarter of a century, if I ever really was in touch with it when I was growing up. We all attribute great meaning to our formative years, of course, and being away from the place where those years passed for me has accented that time and place in my memories, set them apart as something special and important. Which they are, but it was when I started to make my own choices that I began creating who I am today.

This point was particularly driven home when I was dealing with my relatives: I was the baby of the family when I was growing up; my older sister and brother seemed infinitely wiser and more in touch with the world outside than I was. Communication with my parents was difficult as I wasn’t coming from anywhere in particular. Their viewpoint was the only viewpoint, and if it didn’t make sense to me, I had nothing to fall back on. Now I see my brother and sister as equals, friends and  companions, and even difficult conversations with my parents are somewhat easier because I no longer depend on their judgement for my sense of self worth.

While I have changed significantly over the decades since I left the US, the country itself has changed as well, though it’s difficult to be objective with a moving target. Americans these days seem larger in frame, yet somehow diminished in daring.  Children don’t play, adults don’t wander. Cars, grocery stores and meals have all become huge, while people meekly submit to a general paranoia and mutual suspicion actively engendered by the government in various official acts seemingly designed to strangle open discussion. Perhaps one is a reaction to the other. Perhaps the two phenomena are symbiotic parasites.

Or perhaps I just don’t know what I’m talking about. How can I tell all of this after a couple of weeks flying and driving around the country? Obviously I can’t; it’s just my fleeting impression. Of course, Taiwan has changed as well, though this is even harder to note as it has happened day by day over a long period of time.

But when I returned to Taipei after my trip, I felt it: The familiarity, the comfort, the intimate knowledge of a place rushing back into your environment that signals the simple fact of coming home.

posted by Poagao at 5:40 pm  
Sep 30 2011

US trip, part 5

I woke up early this morning and proceeded to take pictures of the sunlight creeping through the house. The kids were already up and getting ready for school, and I showed Jack the Dragonball Z Son Goku T-shirt I bought in Kyoto.

Kevin drove me to the airport to see if I could rent a car with my international driver’s license. It turned out I could, so I obtained a silver Honda Civic, got instructions, and set out for Lexington, Virginia.

It was good to be out on the road again, driving long distances alone through interesting scenery. The Civic wasn’t perfect ergonomically, as the side of the dask bit into my leg a bit, but it was generally up to the job of mountain driving via frequent downshifts.

There was quite a bit of roadwork, lanes cut off, and one toll section that you have to pay not only to get into, but to leave as well, $2 each time. Fortunately I had change. I stayed just a bit over the 70mph speed limit, running with traffic, which wasn’t heavy for most of the drive. Almost every radio station was country music, sprinkled with hateful radio hosts saying things like, “These…progressives…are anti-progress. These…people…should be silenced.” At least it kept me awake.

I had lunch at a truck stop; burger and fries accompanied by an incredibly sweet drink that caused me to hack and cough and spit sweet red goo into the landscaping. Nobody seemed to mind; perhaps they’re used to it.

I got into Lexington around 3 or 4pm, amidst a brilliant afternoon, the trees just starting to turn. I parked by the post office, where I dropped in to see my old PO box, and the interior was exactly the same. The whole town seemed exactly the same, I thought as I walked down to Main Street to find a place to stay. The first hotel I came across, the MacAdams Inn, had a room for a benjamin and change, so I got the car, parked it in back, tossed my stuff inside, and walked to my old campus.

My first stop was my freshman dorm, Gilliam Hall, which hasn’t changed at all except for the addition of an ineffective lock on the front door. I went down to the “dungeon” where I failed to get along with my roomie Todd, and found the formerly green walls now ainted pink.

When I rounded the corner of Gilliam, I found the neighboring buildings had been torn down, but the old International House was still there; it is now the Hill House (named after the late Professor Hill?) and houses the Gender Studies and LGBTQ group, which I find astonishing for this community. The door was locked, though, so I proceeded past the sagging rear balcony where George Chang used to park his new Saab, and over to Gaines Hall, which was brand new when I first lived there as a sophomore. All the trees have grown huge now, but it basically looks the same now as it did then, of course with door locks. I was gazing back up at the other side of Gilliam, lost in memories of happening to see one of my particularly attractive fellow students undressing in the window at night, when an Asian student walked up to me and asked if he could help. I couldn’t help but note the resemblance, but decided to keep this creepiness to myself; I thanked him and walked up to the campus proper, the famous colonade, which seems to be under repair, and the old red house where I spent so much time studying Chinese. It is still called the East Asian Language Building, but as far as I know the only East Asian Language taught at W&L today is Japanese. I think the Chinese program died with Dr. Hill.

I then proceeded through the late afternoon light to Reid Hall, aka the Journalism School, which has been completely remodeled. I looked for my old teacher, Professor de Maria, but he’d just left. Fortunately, one of the staff found him for me through his cell phone. “Prof de Maria always gets interesting visitors,” he explained. “You’ve got that vibe about you, so I knew I had to find him for you.”

Professor de Maria was down at the new co-op, or whatever they call it, eating some fruit before his singing class at the church. He seemed happy to see me, and we talked of what we’d both been doing, plans, thoughts on recent sociopolitial trends, etc. He had a lot of interesting observations on the state of things, not all of them entirely hopeful.

After I left Professor de Maria at the church, I walked back to the very nice, expansive university shop to buy some W&L sweatshirts before they closed. I’d been unable to buy them online because the website doesn’t accept foreign orders, which I find ludicrous as many of W&L’s alumni end up overseas. The woman managing the store was very nice and informative, and she told me of a way to use email order things and have them send the stuff by post, but I felt that this information really should be on the website.

The sun had set by this point, the old Doremus Gymnasium silhouetted by its light. I walked down the mall and over to the edge of the Virginia Military Institute’s parade grounds, wondering if I should go look up my old trumpet instructor, (then-)Captain Brodie. He’s probably at least a Colonel by now, if he’s still there. The evening formation was taking place, tiny uniformed figures assembling in front of the massive castle-like barracks in the dying light. I heard the band playing and figured that if Brodie was there, he was probably too busy for visitors. The bugle played, and the cannon boomed, and I thought of my many visits to the Taiwanese cadets there, as well as music lessons and even small musical group practices. Standing on the edge of W&L and VMI always made me feel discombobulated. It still does.

I walked back to Dupont Hall, where the music program was and still is located. Nothing has changed there I climbed the stairs to the attic rehearsal room to find it unchanged. So many rehearsals there under Professor Stewart, and later under Barry Kolman. Kolman’s still around, but he never liked me much.

I walked down past the old ROTC building, now something else, to Woods Creek, where I crossed the bridge, listening to the musical water, and then up past the apartments of the same name, where older students lived and still live; it could have been 1988 again. Climbing the stairs to the athletic field, I took some photos, realizing that W&L really is not conducive to interesting photography; the buildings are pretty but dull (as are the students for the most part). Soccer teams were practicing on Wilson Field as I turned back across the bridge, the new sorority houses lined up under the sliver of new moon in the fading sky.

I saw lights on in the lnternational House, so I went and asked a student who was entering if I could have a look inside. He shook his head. “I’m not supposed to let anyone in,” he said.

“But I was president of the International Club, I actually lived here,” I said.

“Ok, I’ll ask.” He disappeared upstairs, and I could envision him explaining how some strange mean-looking guy wanted inside, but soon enough he came down with a couple of other people, for safety perhaps, and they let me inside to look around.

The place has certainly been cleaned up; nice carpet and paint, the kitchen is an office, and the old living room where we used to hang out watching MTV is a meeting room. Upstairs, Victor Cheung’s old room was hosting a student meeting. I was introduced to the dozen-odd, very earnest-looking group, and felt I should say something: “We used to play strip poker in this very room,” I said helpfully.

Back at Gaines Hall, I could see into my old suite on the first floor, where a girl was playing music that was new in 1988. The same damn music! Some boys walked by, commenting, “That suite has some nice atmosphere.” I managed to find an open door and strolled the hallways again, noting the stairwells retained their rubbery odor even after two decades.

I walked up the alley towards Chavis House, where Boogie lived back then, a walk I used to make quite often, behind the dining hall, and then I visited the dining hall itself, the site of many a donut’s demise at my hands (and mouth). I’d forgotten all the little things like the steps, the stairs, the breezeway through Baker Hall where my friend and high-schoolmate Garrick lived.

I got some dinner in the same co-op Professor de Maria ate. I had a chicken sandwich that was nearly identical to the ones I had at the old co-op, which is now a nice, elegant building. Now they have cereal-in-a-cup, which I think is utter genius.

After dinner I visited the library, which also doesn’t seem to have changed. I’m sure they are all connected, Internet-wise, but the 70’s-era color schemes as well as the actual physical book collection seems exactly the same as the day I left. I jostled noisily by the little compartment where I penned some of my disastrous thesis, thumbed through some old anthropological volumes, and lamented the fact that I hadn’t exhausted the photography section at the time. My old ex-advisor, Dr. Jeans, though retired, was supposed to have a pseudo-office in one of the carrels down there, according to Professor de Maria. But I didn’t see him, though

It was late by this point, so I walked back off campus, though the completely empty town, wondering which of the shops was the old Sandwich Shop where Boogie and I played jazz sets, and back to my hotel room, which seems to be much higher at one end than the other; the building is lop-sided, kind of like that mystery spot outside of San Francisco. But it will do. At least until the drunken fratboys downstairs wake me up. I heard that things have improved on that front, in that the fraternity/sorority membership is only 86% now, as opposed to the 95% of my time here.

It’s odd, but coming back is bringing back not only the memories I thought would return but also reminders that I wasn’t really very happy here. I never belonged here, and I never will. It was the site of a time of my life, and over the years I suppose I have made it more than that in my mind, but sometimes it takes a trip like this to see things not only for what they are, but what they have always been, whether we know it or not.

posted by Poagao at 12:34 pm  
Aug 08 2011

Photography, for laughs and for reals

I just listened, for the first time, to “The Grid”, an online show purportedly about photography with Scott Kelby. It was Episode 18, in which the hosts, Scott and RC, discuss the various social networking sites and display some surprising ignorance of certain areas of photography. “All cameras focus…even the disposable ones from Walgreens!” (Yes, it is a fixed hyperfocal lens, aka  a fixed small aperture and shutter speed where most everything is in focus). “Contrast detect AF works on a G12, it should be the same for the X100” (sensor size makes a huge difference). And of course that anyone who prefers the Fuji to take photos is stupid.

That’s their opinion, of course (the stupid part, that is), but overall it was the dismissive fratboy tone of the whole thing that made me think, well, at least they’re really kick-ass photographers, right? They’re not like Chase Jarvis, more about self promotion than actual photography, or Ken Rockwell, i.e. more about gear promotion, or “Thomas Hawk”, not just obnoxious and confrontational but mediocre photographers as well. I mean, they’re artists on the equivalent of AM talk radio, after all, and have their opinions.

This is where I should have stopped and gone on with my life, perhaps even whistling as I went. But no, I had to visit their photography sites.

Oy. As I have pretty much alienated the entire online photography expert world in a single post, I will refrain from commenting more specifically due to the fact that these guys have the power to squash their detractors like bugs, but…just oy. Ok, I’ll shut up now; No one’s forcing me to listen to the show or look at their stuff, after all, and it behooves me to be grateful for small favors.

Speaking of small favors, I recently read an interview with Joseph Koudelka by Frank Horvat in which Kouldelka gives some insight into his view of photography, how he lives his life, and how the two intertwine. Koudelka’s thought-provoking views aside, what particularly impressed me was how deftly he danced around the mundane nature of Horvat’s questions in order to strike at the heart of the issues at hand, what photography meant to him personally, how he expresses himself though the camera, what he sees, what he is saying.

To me, that is talking about photography, not lowest-common-denominator rants about how people who use a certain camera are idiots, or how to SEO-up your website for hits. The best communication possible with photography is through the photographs themselves. Barring that, any amount of geartalk or Internet popularity games is just a way of trying to fill the void left by lack of vision.

posted by Poagao at 5:43 pm  
Jun 20 2011

A full weekend

I’d thought that the Muddy Basin Ramblers were meeting up at the Red House Theater in the West Gate District at 1:30 in the afternoon before our 2:05 show at a benefit concert for Japanese tsunami orphans, and I therefore proceeded to enjoy a leisurely morning at home, slowly getting my things together, before realizing that we’d actually arranged to meet at 12:30. One mad dash and a NT$300 taxi ride later, I was behind the theater going through a quick practice with the band, minus Conor who was already on stage with another band.

The show went well, but it was over too quickly. It seemed like we’d barely started before we were playing our last song as the hosts came up on stage. I was taking apart the washtub bass when one of the hosts, a woman, grabbed the tub and held it up for the audience to see. “This is what he’s been playing, if you didn’t notice!” she said. She then asked for a quick demonstration. Now there’s a sentence to boost my search ratings.

We were going out to celebrate David’s birthday that night, so I hung around and listened to the other bands, which included a Japanese family of ukulele players who performed some hits from Miyazaki movie themes like Spirited Away and Totoro. Adorable, if somewhat out of tune. One of the younger kids lost the beat halfway through one song, and within two measures the rest of the family switched to accommodate him. We had planned to find a spot near the Chungshan Hall for a little street performance, but Sandy and Thumper bailed early. A South American group got on stage and played such wonderful mariachi-style tunes I wanted to jump on stage and play along, but I refrained.

Eventually I tired of the booming sound, however, and walked out to the square where the old roundabout and park used to be before they made a boring intersection out of it, and stood in the same spot for about half an hour, just looking at people and things. Everyone had a camera, everyone was taking photos except me. The Golden Melody Awards, which I attended with Chalaw a few years ago (we didn’t win, but he won the next year), were taking place that evening, and one of my favorite bands as well as a friend, Matzka, was up for several awards. I knew from previous experience that he and his band were probably walking down the red carpet at the venue as I stood watching people in the square. Matzka would win the best group award that night. Not bad.

Night fell over the Red House Theater as all the bars and clubs fired up and filled with bears and other demographics. We walked over to the Calcutta. Slim was sloshedly vociferous the whole way. The food wasn’t bad, better than Tandoor, I felt, though I’m not a particular connoisseur of Indian food. David and Robin told tales of their recent honeymoon in Paris, of all the wonderful sights and sounds I missed when I was there, such as Belleville and the bars where Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grapelli played. The Leica Forum is going on there at the moment, attended by many a wealthy photographer (and probably some good ones, too, he said, trying not to sound too bitter).

The others were heading to Bobwundaye after dinner for some jamming, but I had an early start coming up on Sunday, so I reluctantly declined even though I was itching to play some more.

I was awake at 7:20 a.m. the next morning, grabbing the Invincible Rabbit and heading out into the already-brilliant sunshine, across the bridge and onto the subway to Taipei Train Station, where I met up with Chenbl, Terry, Lulu, Sean, his girlfriend Lily and her cousin, who were visiting from Hong Kong. Sean just got his master’s degree from Qinghua University in Disney Studies.

We caught the train to Keelung, traveling along the various construction sites and through the industry, through the mountain range and into the port city in about 40 minutes. Chenbl just failed to catch the bus out to Peace Island, so we waited in the hot sun, shooting irritated-looking passengers. Terry had an even more formidable beast than the Rabbit, a 1Ds, while Lulu, I think, had a 50D. A new liner was docked in the harbor, the Star Aquarius, bigger and nicer than the Star Libra I took to Okinawa. I wondered where it was bound for..Singapore? Hong Kong? Across from it was the Cosco Star that we took to Xiamen a few months ago. It looked small and dirty next to the Aquarius.

We caught the next bus out to Peace Island, which is located across a short bridge up near the mouth of the river. The area by the entrance is still under construction, as it was this time last year when I last saw it. The sun was glaring off the newly laid concrete, and a guard languished deep inside the shade of his shelter at the gate of a military base. We walked out to the rocky coast, where some messy picnickers were lighting fires and consuming bottles of tea. I climbed up on the rocks to get close to the sea, delighted to hear the wonderful sound of the water sluicing through the various crevices.

We walked up the coast and inland to a small group of houses whose occupants no doubt rely on hot, sweaty tourists for their livelihood. A group of aboriginal children surrounded us, trying and failing to guess who among us was Taiwanese and who wasn’t. “You’re the only real Taiwanese here,” I told them. The kids were apparently big fans of the hit TV show Rookie’s Diary, and weren’t entirely convinced that I knew Ye Da-tong, Lai Hu, Luo Gang, and Yang Hai-sheng, and I thought it was a shame that my friend Fu Zi-cun, who played Yang Hai-sheng and who is not a bad photographer himself, didn’t come along this time. He’s busy filming a new series down south though, and couldn’t make it.

The kids were playing around on a laundry rack comprised of a bamboo stick on two poles as we talked to them, and suddenly the bamboo stick, which was obviously quite old and moldy, broke. Almost immediately an old man in a white shirt came rushing up, yelling at this travesty, and the kids scattered. The old man took off his shoe and threw it at the kids several times, cursing them. At one point he actually got his hand on one of them and raised a heavy club to hit him with, but Terry stopped him, saying, “There’s no need for that.” I wondered if we would see that old man in the Apple Daily some day.

We walked down to the nearest bus stop and, 15 sweaty minutes later, caught a bus back to the train station, where we’d arranged to meet up with the Taiwan Photo Club, or at least part of it. Craig and Selina were there, of course, as well as Josh Ellis, Gillian Benjamin and a few others. They were waiting at the Starbucks on the harbor, and we had a quick lunch at the Burger King next door, enticed by the free ice cream sundaes, before boarding another bus out to the Fairy Cave.

I don’t think I’d ever been to the Fairy Cave before. Flocks of birds swarmed around the cliff face above the cave’s entrance, which was accompanied by ever-shy monks and a great deal of religious paraphernalia as the cave contains several temples. It was cool and misty inside, and several side caves branched out from the main one. One of the side branches became quite narrow, and some people came back claiming it was impossible to get through. I tried it, and though I had to crouch over and turn sideways, both the rabbit and I managed to get through fairly unscathed, though my shoulders were scrapped and muddy. Inside was another altar enveloped in a heavy mix of mist and incense that an ancient fan in the corner failed to alleviate.

We explored the neighborhood around the cave, waking up dogs and cats and a strange kind of wasp that attacked Josh because it really didn’t want to be on Facebook. Then Chenbl led us on a long trek across the valley and up another hill to a nice view of the sea right next to a power plant. As we recovered from the climb, which included the toxic fumes of a house painted entirely in tar the owner probably won in a game of majhong and didn’t want to waste, a lone paraglider sailed over the smokestacks of the powerplant, his shadow flitting across the field overlooking the sea.

The walk back down was much easier, and we luxuriated in the air conditioning of the rickety bus back downtown. Terry, Lulu, Sean, Lily and Lily’s cousin had to leave; the rest of us crossed the bridge over the other side of the tracks. A couple of aesthetic homeless men populated the bridge, lit by the late-afternoon sun in a way that even I couldn’t resist taking a shot, though I generally don’t like to take too many such shots. Craig was taking phone pictures the whole time, unburdened by a heavy DSLR. Probably a smart move considering the heat and all the hills we were climbing that day.

We wound our way through the steep alleys and stairs, passing and occasionally photographing the local residents. One man sitting on his scooter smoking glared at me as I took his shot. “Sorry,” he said, pointing to his cigarette. I refrained from pointing out that he would look just as thuggish without the cigarette, and walked on.

The whole of Keelung was laid out in the light of the approaching sunset as we reached the big KEELUNG sign, whereupon the mosquitoes decided that Chenbl was the only really delicious person on the site. Everyone except Craig and Selina climbed up to the top of the hill for an even better view. Josh and I stood atop the summit, on a circle of an old structure, noting the approaching clouds and thunder that meant it was surely raining in Taipei. The Aquarius had departed, off to wherever it was headed, a voyage of good food, swimming pools and gambling. The Cosco Star would be heading out later that evening.

Rain began to fall as we descended the hill, often going in circles as Chenbl tried to make the walk more interesting. We recrossed the bridge, noting that the homeless men had changed positions, and walked over to the Miaokou Night Market, which was mostly closed due to construction work. I didn’t see anything I liked. The harbor city was taking on its nocturnal form, its nights darker than those of other cities, its streets and alleys closer, wetter. I was game for more exploration, but I could feel the group’s gravitation towards the train station and our comfortable homes, so I went along, telling myself, another time: Keelung will still be there.

posted by Poagao at 12:01 pm  
Sep 28 2010

GF1 vs. EP1: Fight!

I realize that anyone interested in the GF1 vs. EP1 debate has long since either made up their minds or are rabidly awaiting Fuji’s X100, but as I’ve had a chance to use both cameras extensively, I thought I’d provide my thoughts on the subject.

When Olympus came out with the EP1 last summer, I was intrigued and planned to get one when I could rustle up enough cash. I was attracted to the idea of a larger sensor in a small body, small enough to be my “always with me” camera that I keep in my backpack for everyday shooting. Previously, this spot had been filled by a series of Canon Powershots, Sigma’s DP1 and most recently the Panasonic LX3. I never really warmed to the LX3, however; something about the images just put me off it. The colors never seemed quite right, and with the protruding lens it wasn’t pocketable either. Granted, I was coming from the DP1, which produced excellent images when it got around to focusing on something and actually taking a shot, but I was frustrated at the slow operation and the fixed 28mm-equivalent lens. 35mm I could see as a single lens, but not 28; it’s just too wide. In any case, neither camera really hit the spot.

Panasonic’s first micro-four-thirds cameras, the G series, were almost DSLR-sized, and I simply couldn’t see the point of such devices, particularly as the DP1 was smaller and produced similar image quality with its larger foveon sensor.

Although I was interested in the EP1, the reported focusing problems made me hesitate. It just took too long, DP1-long, and it often missed. That fall, Panasonic introduced its own small m43 camera, the GF1. On paper, it addressed all the problems of the EP1, and it came with a snappy 40mm-equivalent f1.7 lens. On a trip to Tokyo last November I was able to handle both cameras in the stores, and the quick autofocus and higher-resolution LCD of the GF1 won me over. The feel of the EP1 was nicer, the brushed metal skin a joy to hold and the “clunk” of the shutter more akin to closing the door on a big Mercedes than the harsh plastic “clack” of the GF1’s shutter.

But I had to be practical. I’m pretty good at holding cameras steady in low light, so I figured I didn’t need the in-body image stabilization that the Olympus offers.

So I got the GF1, a silver version, and wrapped it in some leatherette skin I ordered from Japan. It looked great and was easy to hold. I used it every day, with the 40mm as well as the Olympus’s wide zoom. People often asked me if it was a film camera.

In daylight it was a great performer. At night, however, the ISO would jump and the shutter speeds plummeted, and I got some blurry, grainy shots. Not nearly as many as the LX3 or DP1, but enough to make me pause. This sensor is almost there, I thought. If it were just a little more sensitive, it would be useful as a night shooter.

I shoot a lot at night. Taipei comes alive at night, visually, with all the signs, stalls and activity, life spilling out the doors onto the verandas, patios, streets and alleys. Night photography is important to me, but it’s hard to have the 5DII with me all the time. The Invincible Rabbit, albeit invincible, is just too big and heavy for that.

Recently, my friend and fellow photographer Brian Q. Webb, aka Photojazz, upgraded his EP1 to an EP2, and so he let me borrow his old EP1, which he had dropped, dinged and dented up pretty good. With the most recent firmware, the focus speed has improved to within shouting distance of the GF1, though shot-to-shot time is still frustratingly slow and the low-resolution screen makes focusing something that can only be left to the camera. Also, the EP1 lacks controls on top for shooting modes like black/white or multiple exposures, requiring a trip to the back of the camera.

Still, the camera felt as nice as I recalled, and I enjoyed the shutter feel and sound more than the GF1. All in all, for daytime shooting, the two cameras were more or less the same. Both are less than instantaneous when shooting, with the shutter lag and focusing issues. The GF1 has the useful ability to sleep and wake up at a moment’s notice, something I haven’t figured out how to do with the EP1, which has to stretch and yawn before bothering to take a shot. The battery life is also less impressive than the GF1, though the batteries are smaller as well.

Shooting at night, however, brought the EP1’s true strengths into play. On the pitiful LCD I couldn’t see much, but once I zoomed in, I was astounded: The combination of the IBIS, the f1.7 aperture, and Olympus’ noise reduction algorithm let me get a surprising amount of sharp shots all the way down to a quarter of a second. The subjects’ motion is blurred, but the environment is tack-sharp. The stabilization works on all lenses, including the wide zoom as well as my Leica summicrons, and though manual focusing on the terrible LCD is a hit-and-miss affair, the EP1 produces more usable shots with the legacy lenses at night than I got using the GF1; even at f2, they just weren’t bright enough to get decent shutter speeds without IBIS.

Is it too late in the game for such contemplation? I’m not sure; as beautiful as it may be, Fuji’s upcoming X100 will not have optical image stabilization that I know of. It will also be restricted to a fixed focal length, and I like my wide-angle shots, especially in as dense and crowded city as Taipei. So far, only the m43 cameras provide a large-sensor compact with useful interchangeable lenses. Sony’s NEX series is an operational nightmare with no useful pancake lenses available yet, and Samsung’s sensor hasn’t proven to be a strong performer. Things might change as other brands move into the market, but for now, that’s the way it is.

In the end, I bought Brian’s old EP1. I couldn’t justify buying a new one or the even costlier EP2 so late in the product cycle, but the battered little camera, with its nocturnal superpowers and chunky shutter, has earned its place in my backpack.

posted by Poagao at 11:44 am  
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