Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Aug 22 2015

Despite the fact that I managed to hold out until a decent hour before going to bed, I still woke up around 2 a.m. I managed to get back to sleep, waking up at another decent hour in my hotel room. The Park Hotel is an old building that puts me in mind of something out of an old detective story, with all of the old, painted-over fittings, the rounded ceiling corners, the bathtub with feet, the sink in the room, the weighted wooden frame of the window. No need for air conditioning, the weather is cool, almost wintery by Taiwanese standards, but fortunately I brought a jacket. From what I gather, some people basically live there. I can see that. Rents in SF were already ridiculous years ago, and they’re still skyrocketing, especially in gentrificating neighborhoods like the Tenderloin.

After a quick breakfast a la Walgreens, I walked down Market Street to the bay and long the waterfront to Pier 24, where I met my friend and fellow BME member Jack Simon. Jack used his considerable influence to get me into the exclusive photography gallery there, and we spent the next hour or so looking and wondering about a Paul Graham exhibit that included three of his photographic series. The space was excellent and the staff supremely knowlegable. My only concern was that the deep frames in combination with the lack of ambient light made for deep shadows across the tops of many of the photos, influening the sense of composition. Graham apparently had o problem with it, I was told when I mentioned it. Jack didn’t notice it until I told him, and then he said he couldn’t unnotice it. Sorry, Jack.

Afterwards, we walked up Mission to the Tenderloin and lunch with two other photographers, Joe Aguirre and Ben Molina. It was great to exchange and discuss our various work and ideas over delicious chicken and rice, washed down with mate. We ate out on the red brick sidewalk, cracked with use. Ben possesses encylopedic knowlege of photographic history and artists, which added a lot to the discussion.

Joe had to go start work at his coffee/wine shop at 1:30, so Ben, Jack and I walked through the Mission, taking in a small Todd Hido exhibition, and also tea at a coffeehouse with a wooden boat in front of it, startling a young woman from Austin who was wearing dog-themed pantyhose. As we walked towards a grafitti-themed alley, a young man shouted from his car, “Respect the arts! Yall got cameras in your hands…” I looked back and nodded my agreement at him.

The grey coolness of the morning evaporated into solid blue skies as we walked, and I saw a handful of potentially wonderful photos, but I have a hard time photographing when I’m engaged in conversation with other people. Perhaps it’s just as well, as I would need to spend a bit more time getting a grasp on the local photographic mores.

The sky clouded over again as we walked back to Joe’s work, where we sat and talked while he served us drinks and tasty pastries occasionally. Jack had to leave after a while, and Ben took me to a place called the Super Duper Burger Joint or something like that, and the burgers were indeed super. The bathrooms had combination locks on them, and the codes were on the receipts, which I found clever. Strange, but clever.

Joe had gotten off work at 9:30 and met us outside the restaurant, but Ben had to go home. Joe took me through Chinatown to a bar where Jack Kerouak apparently hung out, now full of people Kerouak would probably despise. We sat and talked and drank until around midnight, after which we parted ways, Joe on a bus home and me back to my hotel.

I was already awake this morning when Chenbl Lined me, and pretty much packed, so I was checked out and picking up some convenience-store snacks in half an hour, and on the BART to the airport ten minutes after that. Public transit in San Francisco works pretty well, and now they even have rental bicycles a la Youbike in Taipei.

Now I’m sitting in the departure lounge at SFO, having sped through check-in and the TSA circus smoothly, only to find that my flight to Oklahoma City has been delayed until after noon. Fortunately they have wifi, so I’ve been spending the time here to write this account.

I’ve had a great time this time in San Francisco, meeting a lot of great people and seeing a bit of the city. I wish I could stay longer. Perhaps some other time.

 

posted by Poagao at 2:23 am  
Aug 20 2015

A really long day

The Ibis Hotel staff told me that the free breakfast would go until 10 a.m. So imagine my surprise when I got down to the lobby a little after 9 to find that they were actually not only indicating that the free breakfast was at the other hotel where I was supposed to be staying, but it had ended at 9.

I trudged over to the other hotel to find that they indeed had stopped serving breakfast. “Trainee employees,” the man at the desk scoffed, and offered the remains of the breakfast buffet in compensation. It was rather awful, but breakfast is breakfast.

I didn’t want to take a chance on a trip downtown, so I spent the rest of the morning walking around the desolation surrounding the airport. Most people smoked, and with good reason; the  place stank. It was difficult to imagine food being prepared in such an environment, but it was. Planes flew low over the scene as I approached and then turned back from a guarded  gate, walking out to the edge of the walled complexes. I chatted with a man whose car was being repaired by a trio of young mechanics. “This isn’t regular business,” he said. “This is a grey area.” He was right about that, in so many ways.

I walked back towards the hotel, coming across a utility pole repairmant hoisted aloft to switch out new plates. For  some reason I felt I shold follow him, but I quickly lost his trail. I was tired of the place anyway. It depressed me.

Back at the hotel for a shower, and then downstairs to check out and wait for the airport bus, which turned out to be another creaking old bus driven by a middle-aged man who complained at how many passengers there were. I couldn’t think of why he would care until I saw that he was planning on parking illegally in front of the airport and more time would increase his odds of getting a ticket.

I strode under the huge canopy that is Beijing Airport, had some lunch upstairs with a view over the whole thing, and then proceeded on the light rail to the gates. There, I was confronted with a huge mass of people as the immigration staff continued to stamp the passports of more and more people, cramming them all into the inspection lines, creating an insufferable blockage of people. I managed to get into one of the shorter lines, but I soon regretted it.

“Is this your battery?” the customs inspection man asked. I nodded. Actually, it was Chenbl’s, but he didn’t need to know that. “What’s the rating?”

“12,000,” I said. He held up the battery of a Western woman and pointed at a sticker that read “10,000”.

“This one says it’s 10,000,” he said. Then, getting no reply, he pointed at mine. “You’re doesn’t say how much it is.”

“It’s 12,000,” I repeated, but he shook his head.

“Without a label, we can’t let you have this,” he said, as if this was the end of the discussion, which it was for all intents and purposes. Chenbl’s backup battery went on the Chinese inspector’s table.

“Well, I’m sure you need it more than I do,” I said sarcastically, but the man wasn’t listening; he had my battery and that was it. I felt like a five-year-old on a playground watching older kids take my lunch money.

But I had a flight to catch. My mood was not improved by the fact that the 747 waiting to take me to San Francisco was parked at the furthest gate. I sat and waited while hundreds of other passengers stood in line to get on board. As usual, I was the last one, but there was one more inspection of luggage in the hallway before the plane could be boarded. I wondered what else they were going to steal, but thankfully nobody there seemed to have sticky fingers.

So I wasn’t feeling too charitable about China as the huge plane hefted itself up into the turbulent dirt Beijing calls air. For one thing we were late leaving the gate, and for another we had waited for over and hour on the tarmac due to a “traffic jam,” as if a bunch of planes had just shown up out of nowhere.

The flight itself, other than occasional turbulence that made me wonder why the hell we were flying so low, was ok. I watched a bunch of Sean the Sheep and am now a Sean the Sheep Fan. The plane was clean, the meals decent. I tried and failed to sleep, as usual. 10 hours later we were wafting over San Francisco Bay, itself surrounding by brown fields. I could see two or three other aircraft in our flight pattern.

The immigration line stretched over a few football fields, but the real fun didn’t begin until I met with the officials, all of whom were quite interested in my background and chatted with me in a mostly pleasant fashion for a good long time. I didn’t have any particular place to be, so I just chatted along. Eventually they realized I wasn’t up to any funny business and let me go. I  got the BART to Montgomery Street, found my hotel, and put my things away. After a refreshing shower in the four-footed tub, I headed out to meet my friend Ernie for dinner at a pseudo-Mexican place nearby. San Francisco is surprisingly chilly in the middle of August. We waited, chatting, outside for about 45 minutes until we were seated. Tne meal was deliciou, and we took a Lyft ride out to the Mission for ice cream. It was my first Lyft, and it was interesting. Ernie and I talked about its implications over some delicious desserts. Then it was another Lyth back to the hotel.

What a long day! I’m tired.

 

posted by Poagao at 2:50 pm  
Aug 18 2015

Beijing again, but not

I packed badly this time around. Instead of taking things out and getting ready well beforehand, I left it til the last minute and spent the morning dumping things into my suitcase and backpack before hauling ass over the bridge and onto the train to catch a bus to the airport, constantly feeling like I must have forgotten half of the things I was supposed to remember.

I didn’t feel much of the excitement that ordinarily accompanies travel, there was no feeling of departure. With luck, the trip on the airport bus will be my last, as the airport MRT line is supposed to be up and running soon-ish. It was supposed to be done this year, but yet another delay put it next year. We’ll see. Our bus was rather full of mainlanders, but they behaved for the most part. I did get a good check-in at the Air China counter in Terminal 2, formerly the Good Terminal and now the one relegated to mainland flights before they redid Terminal 1 into a 70’s Lounge. The automatic passport control machines had trouble identifying me, which is a first. How quickly they forget. Fortunately my fingerprints still matched.

When I looked out at the plane we were to take to Beijing, I was in for a disappointment. I have nothing against wear and tear, but the Airbus that waltzed lazily into the gate 20 minutes late was smeared with grime, and the departing crew looked like they needed a hug. What had happened? Nobody was telling. Taoyuan Airport apparently treats Air China like crap, because we waited for 27 planes to land on our strip before we could take off. That was meant to be hyperbole when I wrote it in my notebook, but it soon became the literal truth. Finally, after a big lumbering 747 cargo conversion floated down in front of us, we were able to take off. I began to suspect severe turbulence had been the reason the previous crew had been so glum when the plane started to shake as we flew north. Nothing terrible, but I suppose it could have been worse on the way down. The interior was as grungy as the exterior, but the lunch wasn’t bad. Then again, I’ve always been partial to airplane meals, just because I like the novelty of eating during flight.

My spirits lifted somewhat at the sight of the clear blue sky, but soon we were flying inside a featureless grayness. Why so low? Why were we zigzagging? No idea. The woman in the seat behind me pointed out that a ticket was on the floor under my seat. Was it mine? No, it was from the day before. In Beijing, I got into the Chinese line, was told to go to the foreigners line, but I was tired and didn’t want to line up, so I showed them my Taibaozheng and they let me through. The airline was putting me up in a hotel for the night before my connecting flight to San Francisco the next day, but when I got to the service counter all I got was a card and the command “Wait over there.” I did, for quite a while. Nearby a group of what looked like a wrestling team made jokes as I sat down next to a platinum blonde girl. When a man came by and they all got up to follow him, I asked him which hotel he was going to. He looked at me and said, “Believe me, the hotel we’re going to isn’t the one you’re going to.”

Eventually we were told to follow another fellow to a white van, which took us to a nearby hotel that was completely not the one I was told had been booked. “Look, I was told to drop you off here,” the driver insisted, though the remaining people in the van were also staying at the hotel I was supposedly staying at. So instead of the Hoya, I’m at the Ibis. After looking at the Hoya, I really think it doesn’t matter.

After putting my luggage in my room, I set out, thinking I would stroll over to the subway stop, take a train into downtown Beijing. But I grossly underestimated the distances involved, and ended up eating a club sandwich at a bakery, reminiscent of the club sandwiches I used to eat at the Kaiping Hotel back in the day. I was told the subway takes an hour and a half just to get downtown, so it would have been a wash anyway.

I walked back, taking photos of overgrown billboards featuring happy Chinese families. As I approached one shop, a man outside saw me and ran inside. As I passed in front, a middle-aged woman rushed out, calling me to partake of their “massages”. Further on, a dump truck’s cab was up in the air as it unloaded something in a dark lot. Airplanes periodically loomed overhead as they flew in for landing.

We get breakfast tomorrow, but I’m not sure what I’ll do after. My flight’s not until after 3 in the afternoon. Perhaps more walking around. I don’t like the air here, though, it irritates my throat.

posted by Poagao at 11:38 pm  
Aug 10 2015

Weekend storm

Typhoon Soudelor crossed Taiwan on Saturday. Some were hoping for a day off on Friday, but aside from a bit of wind and rain it wasn’t too bad that day. I bought a big bottle of water as well as some bread, fruit and sandwiches on my way home from work to prepare. The typhoons in recent years, aside from Morakot a few years back, haven’t been much to talk about. Nari also caused a lot of flooding with massive rainfall, but those two storms were particularly damaging due to the length of time they stalled over Taiwan rather than outright fierceness.

Soudelor, however, was projected to pass over the island quickly, and although it was strong, it was supposed to be over quickly, and the central mountain range tends to scrape the bottom from under such systems quickly enough to render them fairly toothless by the time they reach the more populated west coast of the island. I figured we’d get some interesting weather on Saturday and that would be it.

The wind and rain picked up on Friday night, and the storm’s eye made landfall early Saturday morning. The rainfall was impressive, but the wind was truly alarming. Though the Water Curtain Cave is located in a relatively wind-free part of the building, my balcony was still a mess, and my ears were popping when the gusts shook the building. We’re talking about a large, 19-story concrete building, so that’s not a small thing. I went up to the top floor to get a view of the river, which was as high as I’ve seen it in years, but fortunately not threatening to spill over the flood walls or threaten the restaurants on the other side. I spent most of the day finishing up my Vietnam photos and uploading them, but I did venture out in the afternoon. It was still raining, but I knew an umbrella would be useless due to the wind, so I wore my trusty TVBS raingear that has proven to keep my dry in the fiercest of storms.

The wind, I must say, was impressive. I had to duck into the fruit shop to avoid being blown down the street by a particularly strong gust, but I made it over to the bridge, which was not only bucking, as it tends to do in high winds, but actually bending sideways, which I hadn’t really seen it do before. I ventured out onto the bridge for a short time, but the wind was just crazy strong, tree branches were flying around in a manner completely unbecoming for such large pieces of wood, so I retreated.

And the wind did not die down, but kept its intensity as the storm took a slanted path southwest across the island. The Central Mountain Range was apparently slacking off, because Souledor emerged into the Taiwan Strait nearly as strong as it had been when it landed, and then turned promptly north again, as if it missed us and wanted to come back. The wind blew on and on, into the night, hours and hours. We lost electricity for a couple of fractions of seconds, resetting everything in the apartment, but the building’s backup power systems kept everything going for the most part. When I went back out in search of something hot for dinner, I noticed that besides my building and the two other high-rises next to it, the entire area was blacked out. Fortunately the vegetarian place downstairs was open for business.

I went to sleep on Saturday night to the sound of the shrieking wind, but it had died down by Sunday morning, though the weather was still grey. The state of the park downtown where I usually go to practice tai-chi was no doubt unsuitable for practice, so I headed out along the riverside, taking pictures as I went. Just north of the highway bridge, a man in a blue poncho was grabbing tiny fish from underneath a devastated cable TV box, despite warnings from a security guard. Other men fished in the muddy, torrential waters of the river. The paths were covered with mud and dead fish. The dead fish stank, but the aroma of freshly broken foliage was able to overcome most of the stench.

xizhoufloodingI walked northwards to the Xizhou Community, home to many aborigine residents. The upper part of the little village was ok, but the lower part had been completely inundated. Trucks and other earth-moving equipment were digging out metric tons of mud, and stacks of ruined furniture and other things were piled on corners. “Careful walking in the mud!” One of them called to me. I was treading carefully, mindful that the mud could be hiding anything from broken glass to snakes. My sandals made sucking noises as I pulled them out of the ankle-deep muck with each step with an effort, but they held up as I made my way across the village, avoiding the places where the mud was soft enough to really sink into.

The bathtub-ring-like line of detritus on the shores showed clearly how far the water had risen, below which the grass was swept and brown. Older people in ponchos and straw hats combed the banks for things they could salvage. I was becoming very hot and thirsty from trudging through the mud, berating myself for not bringing any water with me.

I passed the failed temple by the highway, blocked up by parked buses, and through another sea of mud to the Yangguang Sports Park, or rather, the large field of mud where the Yangguang Sports Park used to be. Thankfully I was able to buy some water there while I was waiting for an elderly gentleman to wash the mud off his bicycle. I then washed as much of the mud off my feet and sandals as I could before continuing over the pedestrian bridge. Helicopters were flying constantly back and forth from Xindian to Wulai, airlifting supplies to stranded communities there.

As I crossed the bridge, I noticed a man in a yellow shirt with a white bag, from which he was dumping something into the river. He then trudged back towards some puddles along the riverside and bent down, grabbing something from them. I watched him for a while, curious as to what he was doing. Eventually I realized that he was rescuing fish that had been trapped in the puddles during the flooding, putting them in the bag and releasing them back into the river.

rescueThe sight warmed my heart. What a contrast to those supposed “Buddhists” who buy fish and fowl that have been trapped just for that purpose to “release” in order to “do good deeds.” This man, I figured, was the real deal.

On the other side of the river, hardcore cyclists were struggling to push their bikes through the mud. I walked through the neighborhood of Xiao Bitan, circling downed trees that had crushed the occasional parked car. Men with chainsaws were out, reducing each felled tree to a pile of wood stacked neatly on the corner. Shops and restaurants were already back in business. One in particular smelled very good, but the prices on the menu stopped me at the door.

The glass doors to the smoking room outside the Xiao Bitan MRT station had been blown in, but fortunately remained unshattered. I took the subway to Gongguan, where I had a nice lunch at Sababa as I usually do on Sundays. Then I took a bus out to Banqiao to meet Chenbl, who is taking a summer massage course out there. I’ve taken that bus, no. 311, twice, and each time it has impressed me with how reckless and unprofessional the driver has been. Sudden starts and stops, breathtaking acceleration, rapid lane changes, and a refusal, every. single. time. to stop at the stop where I want to get off. No matter when I push the button, the bus just sails on to the next stop. I hate buses in general, give me a train or a boat any day, but the 311 gives me cause to hate them even more.

On my way to the school I took a wrong turn and found myself in a dead-end alley that reminded me not a little of Nocture Alley from Harry Potter. A woman who apparently worked in the area asked me in a rude tone, “Who are you here to see?”

“I’m just looking for a place, not a person,” I replied to her accusing stare.

Chenbl had just gotten out of class, and the assistant teacher gave me a nice head massage as I had the beginnings of a headache, probably from dehydration. Though it was cloudy, the day was hot and muggy. We walked west from the school, crossing though a mean, lonely industrial area, then under an overpass and into an interesting neighborhood around an old restaurant in front of a temple. The place felt friendly and open compared to the sooty darkness under the overpass, where I imagined dwelt all kinds of shady characters, even though rats ran up and down behind the restaurant. Beyond the temple were hillside cemeteries, but we didn’t proceed that way as Chenbl felt dizzy from all the ghosts there.

The sun was setting as we walked by a school, getting directions from some of the students playing basketball there, and then up Minxiang Street to the Global Mall. Which was packed. The day before, 8/8, was supposed to be Father’s Day, but due to the typhoon nobody had gone out. They were now making up for it and how; every restaurant in the place was packed. We managed to find a table in the food court to partake of some mediocre Japanese fare, but my head was throbbing and I just wanted to get home. Fortunately there was a shuttle bus from the mall to Banqiao Station, from which we took the subway back, Chenbl to his home downtown, and me back to Xindian.

posted by Poagao at 12:21 pm  
Jul 06 2015

Difficult photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Poagao at 12:04 pm  
Jun 30 2015

101ity

I went over to the Page One bookstore in Taipei 101 this afternoon, or rather what’s left of it. When Page One opened in the new mall complex that formed the base of what was then the world’s tallest building, it filled an entire floor with rows upon towering rows of books on every subject, featuring vast literature and fiction sections, a healthy art and photography selection, and the whole place was filled with that wonderful new-book smell. There was a huge Sony Store opposite with all kinds of cool gadgets, and the Jason’s supermarket downstairs was filled with tasty treats from all over the world, including Keebler Fudge Sticks.

Over the years, however, things have changed in the area. More buildings have gone up, mostly luxury apartments no normal person could ever hope to afford. More useful stores, such as electronics outlets and interesting restaurants, gave way to more and more top-end fashion accessory brands. The supermarket was left mostly devoid of Western goodies, settling down into more of a large-ish Wellcome grocery at three times the price. As this happened, Page One closed off one section after another, slowly shrinking until it could only be entered through an exit stairway door.

Now it’s scheduled to close in the near future. Most of the unsold books have been brought to the front of the store, including the children’s book section, which I found kind of sad. The whole thing is kind of sad, not just Page One but the entire area, although Page One seems like an apt metaphor for what’s happened, i.e. money chasing out culture. But I suppose it’s better to build that area up than to simply tear the old parts of the city down, which is happening, but not at the rate it might have had no land been available out at the east edge of the city.

After purchasing, somewhat out of a sense of guilt, a Star Wars notebook, I walked around the area a bit, remembering when it was mostly empty, and how happy I’d been when the Warner Village theaters were built. They’re still there, of course, along with a long series of expensive Mitsukoshi Department Stores. I stopped in the Gogoro Scooter shop and was impressed with the electric scooters dotting the showroom floor, though for me a city scooter is solving a problem that has been solved effectively with the arrival of the MRT and the YouBike system. If I were to buy another two-wheeler, it would an electric motorcycle with enough range to get me into and back out of the mountains for a day or so.

But the area around 101 has become markedly less interesting. The real action is happening, as it seems to always have done, in the alleys of Taipei as young entrepreneurs open up more interesting shops with their own vibe and audience. Perhaps the vacuous culture-suck that surrounds 101 is a useful lightning rod, drawing clueless rich tourists and spoiled rich locals away from places where they could do a lot more harm. The real soul of this city still lies elsewhere.

I took the big movie poster over to the new DV8 the other night. I figure that that is the most suitable place for it, rather than just sitting amid the clutter of the Water Curtain Cave. For one thing, the first scene we shot was at the original DV8, and Gary, who runs the place these days, also acted in the film (in a scene shot at Peshawar, which has long since been torn down). I’d never been to the new DV8, which is now on Fuxing South Road near the rear entrance to NTU, not far from one of my former haunts, actually. I should get a DVD to Gary, I suppose, though Dean said he would work on a Blu-ray version.

In other news, Maoman, Taffy et al are setting up a book party/signing for me on July 18th, a Saturday. They’re looking at Vinyl Decisions, which is near the old Bob’s (My, there are a lot of old/new places in that area). I imagine it will be a small affair, but I’ll post the details either here or on Facebook when I know more. Hopefully the print version will be available on amazon soon; they require a certain amount of time, but it’s been a while, so hopefully by that time it will be up. Currently the print version is available at Camphor Press’s site. If you buy one and somehow randomly encounter me on the street when I’m not in too foul a mood, I’ll probably even agree to sign it for you.

posted by Poagao at 10:51 pm  
Jun 09 2015

Good-bye, IHOP

It seems my dear alma mater, Washington & Lee University, has decided not only to tear down my freshman-year dorm, Gilliam Hall, but also the place where I spent most of my time when I was at W&L, aka the old International House. The IHOP, as we called it, was an old two-story white wooden structure just two doors away from Gilliam. It must have been built very long ago, as it was already old and rickety when I first saw it in the late 1980’s. But it was a godsend for me.

ihopAlong with Chavis House, where I also spent a lot of time, the International House was the most interesting place on campus, a welcome oasis of multicultural influence in a desert of entitled white fratboys in polos and khakis with beers glued to their hands. If it were a fraternity I would have rushed it, but it was more of an anti-fraternity. Anyone was welcome; it was more about embracing than exclusion. And the people I met there were my best friends during those days. I keep in touch with many of them to this day. I honestly think that if it weren’t for them I would have left W&L altogether.

It will come as no surprise that I didn’t get along terribly well with most of the other students at W&L. That included my freshman-year roommate, Todd, which is not intended as any kind of negative reflection on him. He just became good friends, not with me, but instead with my high-school friend Garrick, who also attended W&L. We ended up having some kind of falling out over something that apparently neither of us can recall. It was ugly, but to me the entire fraternity culture was ugly.

The saving grace of W&L was the wonderfully kind and brilliant faculty, most of whom would bend over backwards to help students. But the International House made it home. I moved most of my things there and more-or-less lived there full time in a side room nobody happened to be using. There was one bathroom in the hall under the stairway, and the kitchen, with an oddly slanting floor, was an addition in the rear; the house had apparently been built before indoor plumbing was invented. Victor Cheung, from Hong Kong, lived upstairs in the master bedroom with his girlfriend Junku, from Japan. Members would have parties there, trips to places like Washington, DC, and occasional fights over who ate something out of the pantry that didn’t belong to them (I’m sorry Outi; I just love pop-tarts and I was hungry). Taiwanese cadets from the adjacent Virginia Military Institute would come to the parties as they knew they would be welcome there. There was always something going on, be it a midnight game of strip poker or just someone studying while the TV was on.

Later the building served as the university’s LGBQT Center, I saw to my astonishment when I visited a few years ago. But now it’s gone. Farewell, old friend.

posted by Poagao at 12:29 pm  
Jun 01 2015

Back from Vietnam, etc.

The hotel had arranged for a car to the airport leaving at 7:30 a.m., but we were up at 5 and out on the streets to watch the city come to life. Chenbl was looking for the city gate we’d stumbled upon the previous day, but we failed to restumble upon it, and instead spent the time wandering around markets and random streets as the sun appeared and began to cast interesting light here and there.

Just as the light was getting really good, though, we had to leave. Time was up. Breakfast was had, and soon we were in the car driving sedately (there seems to be no other way to drive in Vietnam…everything is more or less sedate) in the direction of the airport. No muss, no fuss. We tipped the driver and walked back into the flurry cloud of travel, which included a large group of Very Loud Chinese just behind us. Oddly, the woman at the desk had us weigh our carry-ons, and then declared that we’d have to check them as they were over seven kilograms. This has never happened to me before, not just being over the weight, but having to weigh my carry-on luggage at all. Now we were free and unencumbered, with no worries as long as we didn’t miss our connecting flight.

flightSo we missed our connecting flight. It wasn’t our fault; our flight out of Hanoi was delayed coming in, so by the time we got to Hong Kong our other flight had already left. We might have made it if air traffic control hadn’t had us flying in circles for half an hour. The women who met us at the gate in HK already had us on the next Cathay flight back to Taipei, but they’d also put us in the very middle seats. Once we were on board I asked a stewardess if there were any window seats available. The HK woman next to me then asked her the same thing. Five minutes later, the HK woman was escorted to an emergency exit window seat, but Chenbl had to snap at the stewardess to remind her of my request. In any case, I ended up with a nice view of the brand-spanking new Rolls-Royce engine as we jetted back to Taipei, a few hours behind schedule.

The train station, where the bus dropped us off, was full of people, as it tends to be on weekends. I really can’t wait for the airport MRT to be finished so I can start bitching about that instead of the airport buses. I was exhausted by the time I got home, and went to bed without fully unpacking.

The reason for this was that the next day, i.e. Sunday, I was hosting/judging a photography event in Sanxia. In order to make it there on time, I caught the first bus from Xindian at 6:40 a.m., arriving in Sanxia a little after 7. After wandering around the market a bit and meeting up with Chenbl and Ewan, the people who had arranged the event briefed me on what I was supposed to do. Basically it was a contest for market photography, and the event was kicking the whole thing off. I talked a little bit about this and that, went with them around the market, and we took some photos. It was fun. A few dozen photographers registered for the event, which includes some very nice prizes. Many of the participating photographers were seriously equipped older men who weren’t quite sure what the hell I was doing there but were afraid to ask.

Afterwards, we had some lunch in an alley, and then walked over to the temple to meet up with my friend Ashish, who brought along his two adorably cute kids. We walked around and chatted over ice treats before Ashish had to leave.

Just then a temple ceremony started up, so we watched people taking statuettes in and out of the temple, accompanied by fireworks. Then it was back on the bus home. This time, however, I felt that my trip was truly concluded. I’d been thinking so much about getting up and going to the event that I hadn’t truly relaxed since I got back.

Aaaand now it’s Monday. There are some reports in the media about the event, but nothing major. Anyway, back to work. See you later.

posted by Poagao at 11:18 am  
May 30 2015

Vietnam 8

wiresHanoi seems to be in the middle of replacing the entirety of its considerable airborne wiring. Every few streets we saw a bevy of repairmen balancing precariously on the black masses of wiring in between poles.

We got a rather later start than we’d intended to, but we were out on the streets by 8 a.m., after a mediocre breakfast downstairs. At first we tried to follow the purple path suggested by the tourist map, but other streets were too tempting. We found one of the old city gates, and some interesting markets once we left the tourist district. Chenbl spent a good 15 minutes chasing chickens in an alley while I photographed scooters piled high with plastic bottles edging through the narrow entrance. Walking north, we passed underneath the railway and, quite thirsty, looked for something to drink. When we approached a coconut stand as we’d done last night quite easily, the woman selling the coconuts demanded that we pay first. This was a bad sign, and we should have left then and there, but we were thirsty. Of course once she had our money, she pulled out her very worst coconut, the one she’d been saving for fools just as us, with a moldy black exterior and exactly one metric mouthful of juice. We should have made a bigger fuss than we did, but again, we were thirsty, and we had no idea that a Lotteria was just around the corner. Heated up with anger rather than cooled down by the coconut juice, we sat and drank lemon juice to cool off.

We spotted another lake nearby, Truc Bach lake, so we walked over to check it out. It turned out to be uninteresting, but the trip did serve one purpose: Chenbl finally found a way to cut his fingernails: He approached a trio of Vietnamese fellows on the bank of the lake and asked if he could borrow their nail clippers. They said ok, Chenbl’s nails were clipped, and we were on our merry way around the small promontory, separated from land by a truly awful canal.

We were wandering around without purpose, and this suited me fine. We passed by the luxurious Army Hotel, with bored Army guards outside, and walked down broad streets to a long park where I nearly fell on my face when I tripped on a fractured curb. I fell on Chenbl instead, who had the presence of mind not to fall over himself.

armyhotelWe walked around a round building in the middle of a roundabout that turned out to be Old, and then over to where the train tracks crossed over the street, following the tracks until we were hungry enough for lunch of beef pho sitting on the street. I haven’t had any pho here so far that hasn’t been  delicious.

We walked south, out of the tourist district completely this time, and our exodus engendered a sense of relief. People seemed like regular people, touts weren’t constantly approaching me, there were actual sidewalks and street crossings, and prices were half of what they were in the old district. It was like returning to civilization. We even saw a traffic accident where the drivers got out, glared at each other, got back into their cars and drove off, both completely ignoring the traffic cop at the intersection, who ignored them right back.

Further south, we came upon another lake, this one looking man-made, probably to cool off the neighborhood. After sitting and resting while a small boy slid down the stairs over and over again, we decided to walk west. Inside a nearby alley, an old barber was striking camp in the light of the sunset as a boy threatened me with a tree branch. Both lived just down the alley, near a small temple on the lake.

We walked to the railway tracks, where we were surprised to see far more people camped out on the tracks than we’d expected. I guess it must be cooler, and they all seem to know the train schedule, but it was still a bit unnerving considering how easily trains can slip up on one. We talked with one young bespectacled fellow who enquired about our cameras. I got his flickr handle so I can look at his work.

Continuing through long alleys punctuated with LED signs and little old shops, my spirits lifted even more. This was actual Vietnam, actual Hanoi. People were friendly and open, traffic moved smoothly. We had some delicious dry beef noodles at some random shop patronized by heavy, shirtless men and one very old woman. In the corner by the TV was a large glass bottle of something straight out of Severus Snape’s pantry.

We continued up the alley, which turned out to be very, very long, but it was interesting and the most fun we’ve had in Hanoi so far. We made attempts to chat with various people along the way, some older men smoking water cigars, some women cutting hair, some construction workers eating dinner, etc. We passed empty lots where the houses had been torn down, and eventually ended up on a major road, where we asked directions back to the old district. Everyone we asked said it was too far to walk, but when we pointed out that we had just walked from there, they just shrugged. Crazy foreigners, I guess. What can you do?

As we made our way back towards the hotel, showers of leaves would occasionally float down from the trees. We had some fresh juice at an intersection, but some air conditioning was in order, so we stopped in at a KFC. Chenbl noted that the chicken there was much thinner than it is in Taiwan. The women in front of us were apparently applying for several foreign visas along with their meal, as they had filled out several forms and provided bank statements with phone confirmations. Then every school in the vicinity let out, and the place was suddenly filled with screaming children. This prompted our escape.

Now we’re back at the hotel, where the broken fridge has been fixed. In order to compensate for this commendable act, neither the TV nor Internet is working, most likely due to the cutting of a few wrong wires today.

posted by Poagao at 10:11 am  
May 28 2015

Vietnam 7

The other ships in the harbor where we docked were still lit up when I got up this morning at around 5 a.m. They’d doused their lights by the time I got up on the sundeck to watch the sunrise. One other passenger was there taking shots with his phone. The sunrise was much nicer this morning than yesterday, with an actual sun-shaped sun rising up into the sky rather than just a general lightening of clouds. I stayed on top of the ship as the engines turned on noiselessly and we began to move through the water towards the same place we’d moved the day before. Several other ships followed, and we dropped anchor in the same place, with the same hawkers, and the same bad tai-chi. Today, however, we were taken over to a very large, impressive system of caves called Hang Sung Sot. It felt like something out of the Lord of the Rings, except sprinkled with signs saying STOP and THIS WAY and NO SMOKING and CUT THAT OUT. Bats hung from the roof, swaying, chirping and shitting on the floor. The group moved faster than I could take photos, so I only got a few shots. We were the first group in and damn if we weren’t going to be the first group out! Such is tourism.

caveThen it was back to the ship, a nice big breakfast. By the time I’d showered and packed, the ship was part of an armada of Paradise ships heading back to port. After we docked we were taken to yet another lounge, where we were fed and sung to before embarking on the grueling 3-hour drive back to Hanoi. I say grueling but it was merely a little uncomfortable due to 45-degree heat that the crowded van’s a/c just wasn’t up to dealing with. I felt far more sorry for the people laying boiling asphalt in that weather, covered head-to-toe in clothes for protection.

Back in Hanoi, we were the last of our group to be dropped off at our hotel, the Golden Sun Moment. This was possibly in order to spare us any embarrassment, as everyone else seemed to be staying at really nice joints. Thoughtful, that.

We managed to get a room somewhat unlike the one we booked, which has been a constant theme in Vietnam, and then we headed out to walk around. We went down to the lake and around to the old cathedral as the late afternoon sun lit up the streets. A man in black with a taped-up rangefinder had staked out a nice spot to catch people walking through the light on the other side of the road, but when I approached he scattered. “Just wait until you submit your stuff to HCSP,” I didn’t call after him. “I will be condescendingly arrogant with pop-culture references! Ooh, feel the burn!”

Behind the cathedral several boys were kicking a ball at the rear windows, against a backdrop of the wise men pointing at weeds. When they saw us they kicked the ball at us, but we managed to dodge in time (Chenbl can move surprisingly quickly if he needs to). Later we had dry noodles at a place one of the Americans on the ship had recommended. It wasn’t terribly good. Rather, it was both full of Westerners and really expensive.

I’ll be honest here, so far I really dislike Hanoi. Or at least the Old District. It’s busy and wary and fearful, it feels as if no Vietnamese live here, and the ones who do aren’t happy about the fact. But perhaps I’ll get a better impression tomorrow.

posted by Poagao at 10:09 pm  
Next Page »