Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 29 2008

Weekend, etc.

First of all, before I start blathering on about my weekend, watch this video. Now, I used to tell people that everyone should visit New York City at least once, but I’m beginning to think I should change my advice. That person being arrested? It’s you.

After Tai-chi practice on Saturday, I joined Daniel and Prince Roy for a nice lunch at the Yongkang Sababa. The weather was perfect for lounging and eating pitas on the veranda. We then went to check out the progress of our favorite teahouse, Wistaria. Unfortunately, not only was the old structure still closed for renovation, the opening was delayed until June. We walked up Xinsheng to its other location, in a quiet alley, and sat next to the front window, which looks out onto the small garden.

tree windowUnfortunately for us, peace and quiet was not to be had, due to a woman loudly “educating” a couple of foreigners at a table on the other side of the room. The foreigners were apparently still jetlagged from their trip. “THE TEA CEREMONY IS A CENTRAL PART OF OUR SPIRITUAL LIVES,” the woman orated. “IT IS SOMETHING WE PARTAKE OF EVERY DAY.” I fought the urge to shout, “ANCIENT CHINESE SECRET, HUH?” at her.

Despite the noise, the tea was very good. We got our favorite Iron Bodhisattva tea and some snacks and spent the next couple of hours chatting above the din. After night fell, we walked over to Chicago Pizza off Jianguo and took a couple of pizzas over to the Da-an Park amphitheater to eat as we watched workmen take down scaffolding from that night’s show. In the distance we could hear a constant drumming. I wondered how they could keep going without tiring out. After the pizza was gone, we walked over to take a look, and found a group of people doing Brazilian dance-fighting to a drumbeat.

crazy bike on bridgeThe next day, Sunday, I decided to dust off the Crazy Bike, which had laid dormant in the bowels of my building all winter, and take a ride. I told myself it would be just a short ride, as I’d planned to get the Tokyo video done that day. The weather was just too nice, and it had been too long since I’d ridden. When I reached the confluence of the Xindian and Dahan Rivers, I turned west up the latter stream and crossed to the other side on the Xinhai Bridge. Then I began to wonder if they can extended the path. I told myself that I had come that far, and I might as well find out. The path ran between the train tracks and the river as I passed through Shulin, where I found that it had indeed been extended. I continued along the riverside, and found myself in downtown Yingge, across from the ceramics center. I’d set out at 1pm, and it was only 4pm, so I felt I could be back in Bitan by 7pm.

other endI was wrong. On the way back I began to get tired, and my knees began to ache. I stopped to chat with some drunken aborigines who having a party under a bridge, sharing a drink with them and plying them for hat-related information. I stopped on the bridge back to take pictures, and then at the site of the construction of a bridge across the meeting of the three rivers for still more pictures. At Gongguan I parked on the wooden walkway and laid on a bench to watch the stars for a bit.

It was well after 9pm by the time I got home, and after some spaghetti for dinner, all I wanted was a shower and bed. So much for productivity. Later I measured the distance I’d ridden with a map interface, which is probably not entirely accurate due to it’s straight-line distances, but it said I’d gone about 70 kilometers. It was a good ride, but I probably should have taken it a bit easier the first time out. Still, I now know that the path goes all the way to Yingge, so maybe next time I little exploring of that area would take the edge off the journey there and back.

posted by Poagao at 4:06 am  
Apr 07 2008

Matsu: the Return

The guy who ran the hostel knocked on my door at 8am with a bag of fried things and doujiang for breakfast. I was gathering my stuff together and stuffing it into my backpack, which fortunately can be expanded to accommodate the…wait a minute, I didn’t buy anything. Hmm….accommodate the instant noodles I was taking on the boat, then. Prince Roy was busy watching a black-and-white, blurry version of a baseball game in his room. The world outside was white with fog even thicker than the day before, and we heard the Taima ferry’s foghorn repeatedly as it tried to make its way into the area.

After settling our bills, we were driven down to the port, where a fairly large group of people, mostly soldiers, waited for the ferry, still making its presence known via foghorn. PR and I sat on the waterfront and watched it appear out of the fog and sidle up to the dock. Back inside, a short, bespectacled MP checked the soldiers’ papers as we lined up. MP’s are allowed to arrest up to three ranks above their own, so everyone from sergeant on down was at the mercy of the little private.

Once on board, we put our things away in our cabin, the very cabin we’d had on the trip out (this time sans interlopers), and went up top to watch the departure. I struck up a conversation with a soldier who turned out to be one of the few volunteers in the new experimental program. He told me that he makes NT$37,000 a month, and gets nine days’ leave in Taiwan every three months. He is in for five years and will be discharged at the rank of sergeant-major. Now, a year and a half in, he is a corporal. He was also born the year I arrived in Taiwan.

on the way outFuao Port disappeared into the mist, and we slid along the surprisingly smooth seas with only a slight rocking. Perfect sleeping weather, so that’s what we did, getting up for a lunch of gooey microwaved curry rice in the restaurant. Then we went out and stood just below the bridge watching the ocean and wondering where all the garbage we saw on the water came from. PR thought there might be a wreck somewhere ahead.

The sun came out; we were making good time. Keelung came into view before 4pm, though it took us a while to weed our way through the harbor and dock. For a while, PR and I stood stupidly by the upper-deck exit, wondering when they were going to extend the gangway, before we realized that everyone was headed below to the car gate at the rear of the ship.

Keelung skyKeelung, and Taiwan, were pretty much as we’d left them, albeit about 15 degrees warmer. Summer came while we were away. Keelung, of course, is a depressing place to arrive, even from as undeveloped a place as Matsu, but my spirits were lifted somewhat by the atmosphere of the soldiers just starting their 9-day leave. We walked to the train station and caught a train back to Taipei. At each stop more and more students would crowd onto the train, and it struck me how different they seemed from the soldiers only a few years’ older.

An hour of cell-phone-related chatter later, PR and I parted ways in the MRT station, him to sort through the 478 photos he took, and me to sift through the 609 pictures I ended up with after deleting the obvious duds every night to save CF card space. Not that we were competing, but it will be interesting not only to read his version of the events I’ve described here, but to see the pictures he took as well.

And now, over 6,000 words later, we return to life as we know it. Just 15 degrees warmer.

posted by Poagao at 12:29 pm  
Apr 06 2008

Matsu: Sunday

I was woken up this morning not by the washing machine, but rather two loud blasts from the Taima ferry’s foghorn. Pulling back my curtains, I was met with a white wall of solid mist. “Someone stole my view,” I texted Prince Roy downstairs.

Over the next couple of hours, however, the fog gradually lifted to reveal a sunny, warm day. PR and I took a short walk down to the village to look at a particularly interesting little house we’d seen the night before. On the way, we stopped to chat with a woman who was watering the plants in her yard. She told us that nobody was selling land or houses in Matsu, for various reasons.

Back at the hostel, we rented a couple of scooters and set out to explore Nangan island. We rode the curving white road through the hills of the center of the island to the highest point, Mt. Yuntai, but although there was a helpful concrete map telling us where to look for other islands and mainland China, the view was shrouded in mist. A military situation center was located at the peak, decorated with black murals of Chiang Kai-shek in Dirty Harry poses. The KMT emblem part of the flag had fallen off the mural, and Chiang had bird droppings on his shoulder. Soldiers peeked out of the gunslits, the emblem painted on the ceiling of their little room.

cannistersWe rode back down and on to Jinsha Village. At first it appeared much like a Chinese city, with a group of people sitting on the curb. It turned out, however, that the group were all tourists. We visited the local temple and helped a frog caught in the sun to a shady spot. Then we walked through the alleys and by a local hostel constructed with traditional materials. At one point we ran into a couple from Canada, who were staying there with their dog. They said their flight had been canceled and that there was no ferry on Monday, which was alarming news. We still held out hope that our flight, at 5:30, wouldn’t be canceled as the sun burned the fog away.

Along the waterfront was a bomb shelter decorated in the blue and white of the KMT, featuring small pieces of art inside. The old stone houses reached up the side of the mountain, and more were being built near the village’s mail road.

We rode on to Matsu Village, where The Matsu Temple was located, along the beach where Matsu’s body washed ashore. She is supposedly buried under a concrete slab in the temple, though some say it is just some of her clothes, or her father. I take it nobody’s thought of exhuming the remains to check. A pavillion next door features lovely chairs in the shape of upturned hands. Mine was wet. Monkey! I thought.

b/w boatlineSome WWII-era military transport ships were beached along the shore, as well as a supply ship. PR and I walked along the edge of the bay, examining the various fortifications and their decreptitude, and I explored part of a tunnel that appeared to be abandoned, but still features two 80’s-era video games. Unfortunately, they weren’t plugged in.

Matsu Village was full of soldiers, the main street positively hopping in comparison with the other parts of the island we’d seen so far. It also features an ATM and a 7-Eleven. We had lunch at a local restaurant that smelled like barracks due to all the soldiers there; a bank of small fans were no match for their numbers. I had egg rice covered in barbecue sauce, which was better than it sounds. PR had soup with a side of soup.

It was around this point that PR discovered that, for some strange reason, his travel agent had booked our flights out of Beigan Island, instead of the island where we actually arrived and where we were staying. In a desperate bid to change this situation, we raced back across the island to the airport, breaking speed records and cameras along the way. Once PR ran into the curb and nearly crashed.

When we arrived at the airport, we were told that all the flights had been canceled. This was bad, as we both have to work tomorrow. What was worse, all the flights on Monday were booked solid, as well as standby. The ferry, however, was running, so we rode back to the port and booked two tickets for tomorrow morning back to Taiwan. It will only arrive at Keelung at 4pm, effectively ruining any chances of work that day, but it’s our only option at this point, other than just settling down here for good.

snowboarder?Our dilemma resolved, after a fashion, we continued our tour by riding to Siwei Village, at the northwest corner of the island. There we found temples with interesting carved figures, one apparently wearing skiing goggles, and another I thought looked uncannily like me, and elaborate chandeliers overlooking the sea.

One temple, the White Horse God Temple, marked the spot where the bodies of two mainland generals washed up on the shore. The local people buried them, and then a light would shine out at sea warning fishermen of inclement weather. At another village we visited later, Qingshui, another body had washed up on shore, yet another mainland general, and when the villagers buried it, they found the fishing quite good for the next few seasons. So they erected a temple on the spot. It seems that Matsu is quite The Place for washed-up generals.

The afternoon was wearing on when we reached Renai Village, which is located on a steep hill rising from a nice little bay. We parked at the top and walked down the main street to the harbor, where some residents had made great efforts to restore their buildings to their former glory. It was the first place I’d seen here that rivaled Fuxing Village, where we’re staying. We toured the local temple, the interior of which was ancient despite the exterior being touched up in 1984. The tables were scarred with decades, if not centuries, of daily temple use.

Next stop was the Stone Fortress, which meant riding through an army base gate and along the coast to a place where a stone outcropping had been hollowed out and made into an impregnable fortress. Inside was a long, dark hallway, lined with shelves for soldiers to sleep and machine gun holes, two toilets, water tanks, a sentry post and a room for the dog, which apparently not only had a rank, but was an officer. I’ll bet the guys who served there have stories to tell.

beach boat lightWestwards, the sun was settling into the haze, so after figuring that we liked Matsu Village best, we rode back there on the winding coast road, past a reservoir adorned with a cool wooden pavillion, though to the village, where we bought some snacks and sat in front of the temple watching the day come to a close. The supply ship was completely beached by this point, but apparently men live on it, as it was lit up. Soldiers finishing up their weekend leave milled around on the main street and at the bus station.

After dark, PR insisted on trying the nearby Pizza King, so we barged in on what was obviously a boistrous family meeting and ordered two small pizzas. When they came, approximately 27 seconds later, they looked pretty much like regular pizzas, but tasted almost nothing like any such thing. The bread, for one thing, was sweet and soft. The sauce was barbeque sauce, and although we managed to stop them from putting raisins on our pizzas, they did feature carrots and quite a lot of pepper. It was sort of like Teppanyaki in pizza form, and it actually wasn’t bad once you got over the fact that it looked like pizza.

Matsu villageWhen we left the restaurant, the streets were almost deserted; all the soldiers had gone back to their bases. The ride back across the island was nice and cool in the night. The harbor lights flashed as we descended and then climbed again on the way back to Fuxing Village to the hostel. After handing in the keys, however, I didn’t quite feel like turning in just yet, so PR and I went for one last tour of the village, including the temple by the bay, the broiling water a symphony of gurgles and crashes I would love to record and play back at home.

Tomorrow we have to get up by 8am or so to catch the ferry. We snagged another cabin this time, but PR called window bunk already. It will be interesting to see how the trip is experienced in real time, without sleeping through most of it.

posted by Poagao at 11:49 am  
Apr 05 2008

Matsu: Saturday

I was awoken this morning by the clotheswashing machine churning away in the next room at around 6am. So, it being quite cold in my room, I turned on the heater to drown out the intermediate noise with constant noise. A while later, I was again woken by a phone call from the front desk. “Can you turn off your heater?” she asked. “The dripping water is keeping the guest downstairs awake.”

“By the guest downstairs, do you mean Prince Roy?” I asked.

“Yes, and he wants you to cut it out,” she said. So I turned it off. It was almost 7am by this point, so I gave up on sleep and just got dressed. Outside, the Taima ferry plowed through the waters on its way from Dongyin to the port here. It looked like the makings of a beautiful day outside, a little cloudy but dry. PR was watching the Yankees game on TV, but we had to catch the boat to Beigan for the day.

boat peopleDespite waiting forever for the people in front of us to buy tickets down at the port, we just made the 9:00am boat, along with a dozen other passengers. The boat was about the size and shape of the USS Minnow, and the pilot drove it like a bus. PR had the window open and was told to shut it, a wise decision as it was sprayed with water once we got out into open ocean.

The port at Beigan seems to be in the middle of nowhere, and you have to take a taxi to the main village by the airport, or so we’d been informed. Actually there were scooter rental places right there, but we didn’t see them. We shared a taxi with a couple instead.

bishanThe main village of Tongxi isn’t much to look at. It’s basically two streets, once perpendicular to the other. I took pictures of a KMT emblem while PR rented a pair of scooters, and then we were off. We rode up steep, curving roads past military base after military base to the top of Bishan, where an observation platform was located right in front of yet another military base and a sign saying “No pictures.” Gunfire and shouts echoed clearly up from below, where soldiers were training. I asked the guard at the gate when the planes usually landed, and he said one was due in a few minutes, so we waited. Powerful strobe lights began to flash on the tops of all the nearby mountains, and we heard the sound of a small propellor plane approach, and then disappear. We saw no plane. The weather wasn’t bad, so I can’t believe they cancelled the landing because of that.

Disappointed, we got back on our scooters and rode down to the coast to look at a series of temples along the coast. Temples in Matsu look different from their counterparts in Taiwan, with more reds and yellows and whites involved. We saw one temple just for female gods, with a phoenix motif and two female lions out front. We looked for the Thunder God temple, which I pictures as a kind of superhero god, hopefully wearing a cape of some kind, but we didn’t find it. Nobody knew what we were talking about when we asked them.

Chinbi villageWe continued down the coast to the Chinbi village, which is inordinately cool. For one thing, it’s been preserved, and all new buildings have to be built like the old ones. The community of stone houses faces a small beach with a turtle-shaped island not far off shore, and is apparently home to visiting artists who live there to “create”. We parked our scooters and walked into the complex, noting the many old signs harking back decades, with slogans like “Retake the Mainland” and “Look Out for Commie Spies!” The place was filled with interesting little nooks and crannies, sunny verandas and shady courtyards. One interesting motif was the use of frogs in the design. We even found a room full of various frog-related statuary. It seems that long ago, the village was besieged by drought and disease, and after praying to Matsu, relief appeared in the form of rainfall, and frogs, so frogs here are kind of like cows in India, i.e. not on the menu.

fastfood templeAt the local Matsu temple, another surprise awaited us. In addition to all the flowers and notes wishing Matsu a happy birthday, on the altar lay the latest Pizza Hut pizza with all the toppings, a bucket of KFC and a bottle of Pepsi. Matsu is living it up this year, it seems.

We had lunch at the Chinbi Cafe, sitting out on the patio while a stray cat begged loudly for scraps. I wondered if it had eaten any frogs. I met the people who had donated the fast food at the altar. They had originally planned to take the plane the day before, but it was canceled (probably the same flight Mark was supposed to be on), so they took the ferry over, carrying the delicacies with them at great inconvenience. Now that’s dedication.

The food at the Chinbi Cafe was delicious and the view unsurpassed as the sun came out, the blue sky showing through the clouds. I asked the owner what renting places there was like in the summer, and was told it was very difficult. “It’s full of tourists during the high season,” he said. After lunch we walked around a bit more, exploring the place before getting back on the scooters and continuing on our way.

Matsu TempleWe stopped at a few more temples, including an old Matsu temple painted in a striking shade of yellow on a large, nice beach. In front of it was a field covered with yellow flowers, and next door was a small military unit. The soldiers were out in the courtyard polishing or painting things, but otherwise there was nobody around. The crash of the waves on the beach and birdsong were the only sounds. It was extremely peaceful and would be a good place to meditate. Another temple down the road had scenes from “Journey to the West” carved on its elaborate facade and a flashy ceiling inside.

around CKSWe rode down to the ferry port and back, stopping at a couple of statues of late President Chiang Kai-shek, one with a jaunty hat, and then back to the airport and across a sand spit to Hou-ao village. We then waited at an intersection-free stoplight counting down to zero as a soldier on guard gave his comrades across the street the finger from his post atop a small building. When the inexplicable light turned green, we rode up into the hills, past some military displays to an observation deck at the edge of a sea cliff. Not content to merely tempt fate by standing too close to the edge, I went to get closer pictures to a bunch of “Danger: Landmines” signs nearby while PR climbed across a small rocky bridge and up to an outcrop of stone high above the waves. There was also a military museum with, ironically and suitably depending on your point of view, an alternative serviceman sitting at the reception desk overlooking the old guns and other military paraphernalia on display. The mannequins were all tall, thin and white Caucasian models that looked extremely odd wearing the green slickers and face paint.

The afternoon was wearing on as we rode back down to Hou-ao Village to have a look around. The community is located just at the edge of the hillside, in front of the channel of water between it and the airport. We happened upon a row of plastic bags hung out to dry, as well as several Beijing 2008 Olympic mascot figures in a pile, on bases that read, “Courtesy of The People’s Government of Gulou District.” Curious. In fact, we had already noted that many of the offerings at the temples were in fact mainland Chinese goods. Another curiosity: an electricity bill stuck in the doorway of a building that looked as if it hadn’t seen any improvements since the Qing dynasty.

We rode back across the sand spit and under the airport runway to the scooter place to return our rides, stocked up on water at 7-Eleven, and walked along the street looking for a taxi. As we did so, we passed an old lady carrying fish noodle ingredients. She said hello, and PR noted that he had read about her in his guidebook.

boat rowEventually we caught a tattered cab back to the port to catch the ferry. Unfortunately, we just missed the 4:30pm boat, and had to wait an hour for the last boat back to Nangan. In the meantime, we sat at a nearby temple and talked about what we had seen so far, as a fishing boat docking up confused the two young coast guard members entrusted with registering the vessel. The tide was out and the water level was about two stories lower than it had been when we arrived.

The ride back was as uneventful as the ride there. PR nodded off while I waited impatiently for a wave to slap a woman across the cabin who had left her window open. Unfortunately, no such thing happened, and I had to content myself with capturing blurry photos of the mountains of Nangan across the sea.

The sun was setting when we arrived back at Nangan port. We caught a cab back to our hostel; the cabbie thought it strange that we would choose a place with a view over somewhere “in the middle of everything.” Yes, I came to Matsu for its urban sophistication and cosmopolitan nature; what was I thinking?

Village at nightWe walked down the hill to Yi-ma’s Shop, but found it awash with people, including a couple of shrieking children who thought I was a pirate. We decided to head instead to the temple by the bay instead, where we sat and ate garlic peanuts and cookies while catching glimpses of the stars overhead through the clouds. One of the temple doors was open, and we took a look at the spookily empty interior. The “guards” painted on the side gates were women, which is unusual. The “guards” on the main gates were done in 3D and looked unnaturally real in the night, as if they could step out and throttle you at any moment.

By the time we got back to the restaurant a bit after 8pm, the crowds had left, and sat down to another delicious meal prepared by Mrs. Chen and her crew. PR got a huge glass of laojiu, but I declined. Just like yesterday, the atmosphere was most relaxing. As we ate, we heard Taichung Mayor Jason Hu pimping out his city on the radio to Chinese tourists, and then an official from Miaoli did the same. “It has begun,” PR said. Mrs. Chen gave us some nice fried peanuts for dessert, and we made our slow, stuffed way back up the hill to the hostel, exhausted from all the sun, wind, riding and food. It was a full day and an interesting one.

Tomorrow afternoon we will have to board a place back to Taipei and the relatively normal world. But before that we hope to explore this island of Nangan a little more via scooter.

posted by Poagao at 11:07 am  
Apr 04 2008

Matsu -Friday

hotel viewIt was about 11am by the time I got a text message from Prince Roy that he was awake and ready for lunch. In the intervening time it had started to rain outside, with my hotel room doing a decent impression of the Water Curtain Cave, complete with a small waterfall running down one window. Downstairs, the hotel owner said Mark’s flight would surely be canceled. “We can’t see Beigan island,” he said, pointing. “When we can’t see Beigan, the planes can’t land.”

We set out for the cultural, commercial and economic center of all of Matsu: Jieshou Village, the county seat. The County Government building overlooks a large field full of small gardens that used to be the local harbor before it was silted in, making for very fertile soil. Indeed, it seems that all the flat land here is used for planting something or another. The one main street that makes up the town was lined with mostly closed shops, some KTVs, a pool hall full of soldiers, and the huge old KMT headquarters, covered with ROC flags, a large banner of Ma Ying-jeou and Vincent Siew holding hands, and the blue-and-white party symbol on the front facade.

old man blue houseMost of the restaurants were closed, but we found a place down by the current former harbor, also silted in and being made into a park, that sold beef noodles and the like. It was also mostly full of soldiers, but we got a table by the kitchen. At one point an MP officer came in, and the place got very quiet until he left. The dumplings I got weren’t anything special, but enough to fill me up. PR had beef noodles, adorned with the magic sauce he’d brought along, courtesy of his mother-in-law. I tried some and kind of liked it, even though I usually don’t like spicy food.

As we ate, Mark called and said his flight had indeed been canceled. He didn’t seem interested in taking the ferry, either, so it was just me and PR. After lunch we walked around the neighborhood, visiting a local temple that was completely empty inside except for a large population of birds, and then walking up the hill behind to some fields and huge grave sites. PR spent several minutes in an Iwo-Jima-esque effort to unravel a political flag planted in a garden, apparently to scare away the crows. Our shoes sunk into the dirt, loosened by the rain. The grass under the wind-bent trees was bright green.

We walked down to the village again, stopping by an interesting little red temple by the soon-to-be park, and then back to main street to visit the 7-Eleven, which was doing an extremely brisk business. While waiting to use one of the two ATMs, I chatted with a soldier. I could tell from his rank and his disposition that he had not arrived long ago, and he confirmed this was true. Although the government buildings proclained that we were in Fujian Province, none of the cars’ license plates reflected this, and just read “Lianjiang County”.

godlistFortified with snacks and water, we walked back to Fuxing Village, where our hostel is located, and down to the waterfront, where a brand-new Taoist temple with bright red walls flanked the small harbor. The light inside was very nice, illuminating all of the religious figures inside. We kept walking up the hill to a guard post, posing with the cactii for PR’s camera, which was wrapped around a dead plant. Around the corner was an empty military emplacement that looked like a seaside villa painted dark green. Though the door was locked, the windows were not, and we spied yesterday’s menu taped on the wall inside. It was deserted, though, and half of the wall looked like it was ready to tumble into the sea below. We looked at the surrounding defenses and the views of Beigan to the north as we reminisced about our own experiences in the military. Across the water, China lay shrouded in clouds, invisible.

caught in the actIt had stopped raining by this point, but it was still cool and cloudy. We headed back towards the village, passing a military fueling point whose camouflage efforts (pink) were dismally inappropriate, and ended up at a century-old restaurant called Yi-ma’s Old Shop, run by Mrs. Chen, a woman with a bubbling personality and a love of telling stories. We sat down for some tea after getting a tour of the place as a couple of girls came in looking for accommodation advice. Mrs. Chen helped them find rooms at the same hostel where we were staying. Soon after a group of soldiers came in for dinner. Mrs. Chen provides social services for soldiers, helping the ones that have trouble dealing with military life here.

It was getting dark outside, and after seeing the sumptuous dishes coming out of the kitchen, we ordered mostly what the soldiers had had. The food was really good, and not just because it was different than Taiwanese food. Mrs. Chen brought out a couple of glasses of Laojiu, which to me tastes just like Shaoxing wine, i.e. sweetened spit, but PR seemed to like it.

Yima doorsAfter dinner, Mrs. Chen told us at great length how the other place just across the street had come to have basically the same name as her place. Everything Mrs. Chen says is pretty much at great length, but it’s interesting nonetheless. She’s full of advice and good cheer, and if she doesn’t have an answer to your question, she’ll make some calls to find out for you.

It was night, and PR and I wandered around the alleys of the village, past empty houses and closed doors and the sounds of families eating and watching TV, while I tried to find interesting angles. We came across one barking dog as well as one dog that had lost its voice, a Westie that sounded more like a squeak toy than a dog, before we arrived back at our hostel at the top of the hill.

We have no idea what we’re going to do tomorrow; I suppose it depends on the weather.

posted by Poagao at 11:26 am  
Mar 23 2008

A historic day

Prince Roy wanted to watch me vote, for some reason. He was touring polling stations around town with his AIT pass, so he came down to Bitan and came to the station down here to talk with some of the officials while I cast my ballot in the presidential elections. As usual, nobody stared, pointed, commented or indicated in any way that they thought my participation was anything but completely normal.

Afterwards we had a nice lunch at Rosemary’s Kitchen, overlooking the construction chaos, and then retired to the Water Curtain Cave to watch TV news reporters give their Oscar-night commentary about various celebrities at the poll stations for a while before PR had to leave to catch some more hot vote-on-vote action. I, on the other hand, went downtown to while away the hours before the election results were announced at a badminton competition with my friend Xian-rui, who is also into badminton and quite a good player. The finals weren’t until the next day, but I’d never been to a badminton competition so it was interesting to see. Kind of made me wish I’d taken up the sport at an earlier age, though.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the election, however, and kept checking the Central Election Commission’s website for the latest count after the polls closed at 4pm. Ma Ying-jeou got an early lead, but I recalled that that didn’t necessarily mean anything (Lien Chan also had an early lead in 2004), so I decided to log off and wait instead of torturing myself by checking every few minutes.

Xian-rui had to go to the gym to work off some election-day jitters, so I sat outside the Starbucks amid the mosquitoes, looking at the huge screen on the new stadium. On the second floor, a crowd of people surrounded the TV set, watching the latest poll counts. The only last-minute tactic the DPP had left, it seemed, was to drape as many surfaces of the city as possible with banners claiming that Chinese workers bearing AK-47s would be flooding the island and putting everyone out of a job tomorrow morning, and Ma, who is actually an American, would then fly off to his Haight-Ashbury mansion, where he would sip tea with his pinkie in the air just so.

I hoped that such tactics wouldn’t work, as the negative campaign focusing entirely on niggling doubts and minor transgressions allegedly committed by the other candidates’ wife and family members 30 years ago just made Hsieh seem like a petty little man who had nothing to say about what kind of president he would be. I have to admit I was expecting a much better campaign from the DPP.

Apparently so were most other people. I checked the numbers again, and Ma was still ahead. Way ahead. A call to Prince Roy confirmed that it was indeed a landslide, and he was headed over to the Ma-Siew headquarters to case the scene there. I decided to join him. On the way, every TV screen facing the street was surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. When I saw fireworks being set off around the city, I knew that Ma had attained an unassailable lead.

Xiaonanmen Station, I believe, had never seen the amount of traffic it saw last night, as it was the nearest MRT station. I followed the crowds and the noise to the intersection of Zhonghua and Aiguo roads (note the symbolism of the names), where a huge throng surrounded the stage and spilled out across both roads. Fireworks were being set off, and it seemed that every person there had purchased at least one of those irritating air horns you see at baseball games here. I bought three ROC flags for NT$100 and stuck them in my backpack, and then, fingers in my ears to block the noise, accompanied PR into the fray.

Ma winsIt was madness. I half expected to see a huge statue of Chen Shui-bian, dressed in an Emporer Palpatine-like robe, being toppled. People were waving flags, setting off fireworks, shouting and even dancing. KMT officials were making speeches on stage, punctuated by huge applause and more air horns. I looked at the CEC site to find that Ma had officially won by a whopping 2.2 millon votes, or 17%. The crowd went nuts. Everyone was very friendly, even apologizing to each other when pushing through the dense crowd. “That’s a great flag!” a man called out to me, pointing to the flags sticking out of my backpack and giving me a thumbs-up sign.

“It’s my flag!” I called back at him.

After listening to some of the speeches, PR and I retreated, ears aching, back to the little South Gate. As it happened, this was apparently the pick-up/drop-off area for high-ranking officials. We saw chairman Wu Poh-hsiung, legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng and PFP chairman James Soong getting into their cars. I managed to shake hands with Wang and Soong, while PR snapped some nice shots. It was amazing how accessible these guys are, actually. I refrained from asking Wang if he regretted turning down the vice-presidential spot or inquiring whether Soong was feeling at all jealous. Didn’t seem quite appropriate.

Later, Wayne and Grace appeared, followed by Maoman and Vanessa, and eventually Mark and David. We chatted by the gate while policemen milled around us, unconcerned about the big bag o’ beer Maoman had brought along. At one point a woman who apparently didn’t have any teeth tapped on Vanessa’s shoulder, wanting to express her joy at Ma’s victory to a complete stranger. “Oh, it’s been such a hard eight years!” I’m pretty sure she said. The lack of teeth made it kind of hard to tell. Maoman and Vanessa both turned away from the woman and looked at me, and I wondered if I was expected to come up with some kind of way to get rid of the unwelcome guest. Fortunately, however, she took the hint and continued her search for another stranger to talk to.

We all realized, seemingly simultaneously, that we hadn’t eaten since lunch, so we took the subway to the Shi-da area, where we had some middle eastern food at a place called Baba Kababa. I had two pitas, which were good, but the pitas weren’t on the same level as Sababa. It was sort of like the Wonder Bread version of a pita. But the chicken/potato/eggplant filling was delicious. The table next to us was quite boisterous, but it had nothing to do with the election; they were celebrating someone’s birthday.

Outside, it had finally started to rain. The weather forecasters had predicted rain, and some people worried that it would affect the elections, but the day had been very nice up to that point. We retired, stuffed with pitas and other things, to the park along Shi-da Road. Daniel showed up and pried Mark with computer questions. The rain was coming down harder on the roof of the pavilion under which we stood. As the beers ran out, one-by-one, people left, until only PR, Mark, Daniel and I remained.

Now, of course, the hard work begins. I wonder if the first thing president-elect Ma thought when he woke up this morning wasn’t actually “It wasn’t a dream; I really won!” but rather, “Damn, now I have to actually do all the things I promised!” I guess we’ll find out. Interesting times, to be sure.

posted by Poagao at 2:53 am  
Mar 10 2008

Another Saturday

After Tai-chi practice on Saturday at CKS Hall, I called up Prince Roy to see what he was up to. As is his wont, he was planning to visit a couple of political rallies later, so after a particularly delicious lunch at the Yongkang Sababa, we walked back towards Hangzhou Road to see the DPP’s Women’s Day rally. On our way, however, we saw a bunch of people staring at a building. “What’s going on?” I asked some women peering out of a nearby shop.

“We don’t know,” they said. “We saw some people looking, so we’re looking, too.” Just then a motorcade pulled up to the building, and none other than Ma Ying-jeou stepped out and walked into the building. PR was hot on his heels, no doubt looking for another handshake picture to add to his collection. I followed the crowd down to the packed meeting room in the basement where Ma was speaking. Encouraging slogans were being shouted under a giant portrait of Sun Yat-sen. I spotted PR’s colorful hat near the middle of the room. Having gotten his picture, he was ready to leave.

We continued walking up the road to the Zhongxiao East Road intersection, where the Women’s Day rally was being held. Though most of the seats were empty, music was blasting out of huge speakers, and dancers were on the stage. Tables full of stuffed dolls and other figurines resembling Frank Hsieh and Su Tseng-chang had been set up nearby, as well as two rows of port-a-potties that were the exact shade of aquamarine the DPP has chosen as its campaign color.

protestPR and I walked up to the stage and watched the singing and dancing for a while as various groups from around Taiwan arrived and filled the seats. The crowd was mostly older women, and the line for the row of port-a-potties grew quite long. Yeh Chu-lan gave a speech, and I wondered if she felt at all disappointed that she didn’t get the VP candidate slot. In the crowd, old men who looked like they’d never seen a diploma held signs protesting the recognition of any such documents issued by Chinese universities.

I had to go back to Bitan by that point, though; the Muddy Basin Ramblers have a show next Friday at Bliss, so we needed a practice. The weather was nice enough that we could hold forth on the riverside, though only on our side of the river as the other side’s completely torn up. Getting home, putting my things away and gathering up my instruments seemed to take forever, and it was getting dark by the time I joined the other Ramblers down by the horseshoe. It was good to be jamming again, and David introduced some nice new tunes for us to chew on. Even at such an isolated spot we managed to draw small groups of people, some of whom took out their phones and called their friends: “Hey, you’ll never guess what I found by the riverside in Bitan! Foreigners! And they’re playing music! Yeah, I KNOW!”

“Could you speak up?” Thumper told the excited girl who was yapping on her phone two feet away. “I can’t quite hear everything you’re saying over the music.”

Later, we all went to Athula’s for our traditional post-jam rottis. Alas, he was again out of tuna. Oh, well; more fried rice at home, then. Still plowing through the endless gigabytes of Tokyo photos. Hopefully soon they’ll all be up, and the video done and posted too, and maybe then I’ll feel a little less behind with everything.

posted by Poagao at 3:49 am  
Feb 29 2008

2/28 events, and Chalaw’s CD party

IMG_9296-01I met Prince Roy yesterday afternoon at the best Sababa in Taiwan, the one near Yongkang Street, for lunch and conversation on the veranda. I’d brought my trumpet because David Chen and I were going to play at Chalaw’s CD release party in Gongguan later that night. Neither of us had to work as it was a national holiday to commemorate the 2/28 Incident of 1947. It was also one of the DPP’s last chances for publicity before the presidential election next month, and many events were scheduled. PR had arranged to meet up with several other bloggers at CKS Hall, where the DPP was holding an event and marching from there to the Songshan Soccer Stadium, so I thought I’d tag along. I didn’t feel like going all the way back to Bitan, and it was just a short walk from Yongkang Street.

A large stage was set up for a symphony performance in front of the actual hall, but the actual event was being held by the gate. PR and I were both reminded what a poor job the designers had done with the new inscription, which looks like it was drawn by four different people and then photoshopped together by drunken lemurs. Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, but lord, it ain’t good. At least they didn’t tear down the walls, as they had threatened to at one point.

presidentDue to the importance of the event and the lovely weather, I was expecting a huge crowd, but there weren’t that many people there, less than had witnessed the changing of the inscription. President Chen showed up and walked around a bodyguard-controlled corridor shaking hands. PR and I were just standing around and somehow got within a foot of him; PR even shook his hand. I saw the symbol of irony that is the Minister of Education, Tu Cheng-sheng, posing for pictures. We also saw Craig Ferguson and spotted David Reid, who, having had his cheek stamped with a DPP stamp, got a good spot amongst the wall of TV cameras and wasn’t going to budge. I also saw Darren there. Later, Wayne and Mark showed up, but it wasn’t clear exactly what was going to happen. The small crowd seemed lackluster and muted.

birdgateAs the sun dipped towards the horizon the weather got substantially cooler. Large flocks of birds flew around between the gate and nearby trees. Eventually some marchers who had been making their way on foot up the island showed up with flags, along with some loudspeaker trucks, and people began to move off towards the street. Wayne and Mark followed, while the rest of us headed for the subway. David and Craig were going to take the MRT up to Zhongshan to get ahead of the marchers, while PR, wallowing in indecision, said he was going home.

I met up with Chalaw, Honghao, Doug and the others at a noodle shop next to the Riverside and Kafka by the Sea for some dumplings. There was also a guy I hadn’t met, a Spanish guitar player named Ramses who is in Taiwan studying Chinese. He’s hoping to switch to a kind of musician’s visa soon, he told me. After we’d eaten we went up to the cafe and drank some rice wine Honghao had thoughtfully provided. It tasted like those little Yakult yogurt drinks you see everywhere here in lunch boxes.

I was a bit nervous as I hadn’t played the songs from the album in months, and I hadn’t even picked up my trumpet since well before the new year. I’d forgotten the pieces I’d learned for the album, but I was able to follow along and accompany well enough. As we were running through a few of the songs from the album, a heavyset young man with long dreadlocks walked in. Later he played a few songs with Chalaw, including a couple of Cui Jian covers as well as his own works. I was impressed with his voice as well as his songs, but most of all the way the music seemed to move him. His name is Matzka, from the Paiwan tribe, and he’s just starting out.

I glanced out the window and saw a long line of people waiting to get into Riverside downstairs. Apparently the drummer from Matzka’s group was playing down there. We finished up and moved our stuff so that people would have a place to sit while they opened the doors.

kafka showThe crowd wasn’t huge, but they were enthusiastic. David and I got off stage after we’d finished the songs we played on. I sat at a table in the back, by the window, watching the show and traffic outside. The original band members’ voices mixed well, the harmonies tighter and better than before. David had pointed out that Honghao was still wearing his shiny black police shoes, and I wondered if he might be on standby in case of a 2/28-related incident.

During the break later, fans ran around getting people from the band to sign their CDs. It didn’t seem fair that so many people wanted Ramses’ signature, even though he didn’t play on the album; the excellent slide guitar work on the actual album is actually David Chen’s doing.

Matzka, at least, knew this, and was impressed by David’s slide guitar work on the album, he told me in the smoking room towards the end of the show. These days he plays at a dive in Bali on Tuesday nights with two other guys playing bass and drums. His songs have a kind of reggae/ska vibe and could some more instrumentation, I think.

The show ended late, after 11pm. I said good-bye to everyone who remained (David, quite drunk, had departed with Robyn already), and went to a nearby KFC for a snack. I was reading one of Asimov’s robot novels when I looked up to see Wayne and Mark staring hungrily through the window at my fries. They’d lost interest in the DPP march halfway through and gone for dinner with Prince Roy instead. We chatted a bit before they, too, headed home.

I took the MRT back, reaching Bitan after midnight and dreading the view of the desolation along the riverbank. All of the buildings have been torn down on both sides of the water, save for the public restrooms, leaving a only huge swath of debris where once we lounged, talked, ate and played. It’s a truly depressing sight, somehow even worse in the emptiness of the night.

posted by Poagao at 4:54 am  
Feb 29 2008

2/28 events, and Chalaw’s CD party

IMG_9296-01I met Prince Roy yesterday afternoon at the best Sababa in Taiwan, the one near Yongkang Street, for lunch and conversation on the veranda. I’d brought my trumpet because David Chen and I were going to play at Chalaw’s CD release party in Gongguan later that night. Neither of us had to work as it was a national holiday to commemorate the 2/28 Incident of 1947. It was also one of the DPP’s last chances for publicity before the presidential election next month, and many events were scheduled. PR had arranged to meet up with several other bloggers at CKS Hall, where the DPP was holding an event and marching from there to the Songshan Soccer Stadium, so I thought I’d tag along. I didn’t feel like going all the way back to Bitan, and it was just a short walk from Yongkang Street.

A large stage was set up for a symphony performance in front of the actual hall, but the actual event was being held by the gate. PR and I were both reminded what a poor job the designers had done with the new inscription, which looks like it was drawn by four different people and then photoshopped together by drunken lemurs. Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, but lord, it ain’t good. At least they didn’t tear down the walls, as they had threatened to at one point.

presidentDue to the importance of the event and the lovely weather, I was expecting a huge crowd, but there weren’t that many people there, less than had witnessed the changing of the inscription. President Chen showed up and walked around a bodyguard-controlled corridor shaking hands. PR and I were just standing around and somehow got within a foot of him; PR even shook his hand. I saw the symbol of irony that is the Minister of Education, Tu Cheng-sheng, posing for pictures. We also saw Craig Ferguson and spotted David Reid, who, having had his cheek stamped with a DPP stamp, got a good spot amongst the wall of TV cameras and wasn’t going to budge. I also saw Darren there. Later, Wayne and Mark showed up, but it wasn’t clear exactly what was going to happen. The small crowd seemed lackluster and muted.

birdgateAs the sun dipped towards the horizon the weather got substantially cooler. Large flocks of birds flew around between the gate and nearby trees. Eventually some marchers who had been making their way on foot up the island showed up with flags, along with some loudspeaker trucks, and people began to move off towards the street. Wayne and Mark followed, while the rest of us headed for the subway. David and Craig were going to take the MRT up to Zhongshan to get ahead of the marchers, while PR, wallowing in indecision, said he was going home.

I met up with Chalaw, Honghao, Doug and the others at a noodle shop next to the Riverside and Kafka by the Sea for some dumplings. There was also a guy I hadn’t met, a Spanish guitar player named Ramses who is in Taiwan studying Chinese. He’s hoping to switch to a kind of musician’s visa soon, he told me. After we’d eaten we went up to the cafe and drank some rice wine Honghao had thoughtfully provided. It tasted like those little Yakult yogurt drinks you see everywhere here in lunch boxes.

I was a bit nervous as I hadn’t played the songs from the album in months, and I hadn’t even picked up my trumpet since well before the new year. I’d forgotten the pieces I’d learned for the album, but I was able to follow along and accompany well enough. As we were running through a few of the songs from the album, a heavyset young man with long dreadlocks walked in. Later he played a few songs with Chalaw, including a couple of Cui Jian covers as well as his own works. I was impressed with his voice as well as his songs, but most of all the way the music seemed to move him. His name is Matzka, from the Paiwan tribe, and he’s just starting out.

I glanced out the window and saw a long line of people waiting to get into Riverside downstairs. Apparently the drummer from Matzka’s group was playing down there. We finished up and moved our stuff so that people would have a place to sit while they opened the doors.

kafka showThe crowd wasn’t huge, but they were enthusiastic. David and I got off stage after we’d finished the songs we played on. I sat at a table in the back, by the window, watching the show and traffic outside. The original band members’ voices mixed well, the harmonies tighter and better than before. David had pointed out that Honghao was still wearing his shiny black police shoes, and I wondered if he might be on standby in case of a 2/28-related incident.

During the break later, fans ran around getting people from the band to sign their CDs. It didn’t seem fair that so many people wanted Ramses’ signature, even though he didn’t play on the album; the excellent slide guitar work on the actual album is actually David Chen’s doing.

Matzka, at least, knew this, and was impressed by David’s slide guitar work on the album, he told me in the smoking room towards the end of the show. These days he plays at a dive in Bali on Tuesday nights with two other guys playing bass and drums. His songs have a kind of reggae/ska vibe and could some more instrumentation, I think.

The show ended late, after 11pm. I said good-bye to everyone who remained (David, quite drunk, had departed with Robyn already), and went to a nearby KFC for a snack. I was reading one of Asimov’s robot novels when I looked up to see Wayne and Mark staring hungrily through the window at my fries. They’d lost interest in the DPP march halfway through and gone for dinner with Prince Roy instead. We chatted a bit before they, too, headed home.

I took the MRT back, reaching Bitan after midnight and dreading the view of the desolation along the riverbank. All of the buildings have been torn down on both sides of the water, save for the public restrooms, leaving a only huge swath of debris where once we lounged, talked, ate and played. It’s a truly depressing sight, somehow even worse in the emptiness of the night.

posted by Poagao at 4:54 am  
Dec 29 2007

A Shitty Christmas

Christmas sucked, for the most part. Sure, I had a nice Christmas dinner party on Sunday night with Darrell, Judy, Maurice and other friends at their friend Barrie’s incredibly long Banqiao apartment. We had delicious roast beef and huddled around the glowing TV screen, picking out Youtube favorites to show each other and chatting during the downloads. Judy baked me my favorite kind of cake, yellow with chocolate frosting, and Maurice brought wrapped gifts for everyone. I got a retro glass.

But Christmas Day, i.e. Tuesday, was a different story. My stomach was upset after eating the disasterous results of Webster’s turkey experiment at The Source the night before, and I sat in the office all day plowing through a sudden onslaught of monotonous extra work, shivering because the people in the meeting room next door mistook my air conditioning controls for theirs, and instead of figuring this out, decided to turn the thermostat to precisely 17 degrees in an effort to make the meeting room cooler in the face of the fierce December heat.

I finally got done some time after 8pm, and I had arranged to meet Prince Roy, Wayne and some others at Citizen Cain, which promised a genuine turkey dinner with all the trimmings. When I arrived, however, the waitress pointed to a long table in the back surrounded by a pack of people wearing santa hats. “They just came in and ordered 32 turkey dinners,” she told me. “We’re all out.” When I tried to order off the main menu, she told me they weren’t serving other dinners until after the Christmas Dinner period was over at 9.

I was in a foul mood as I sat watching Prince Roy chat with his friend Aaron, who greatly resembles Chandler Bing of Friends, about learning Chinese, for that is what Chandler is doing here. Wayne arrived with a lady friend, and we talked a bit about cameras just to bore PR for our own sadistic pleasure. Dinner, when it became available, was something with chicken.

Afterwards, Prince Roy walked me back through the nearly empty streets to the MRT station, and I sat on the three trains back to my little cave, where I turned on the Christmas lights on the balcony, watched them blink for a couple of minutes, then unplugged them and went to bed.

posted by Poagao at 4:27 am  
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