Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jul 02 2014

Yeh Ching-fang

Lately I’ve been spending my afternoon breaks over at the Futai Mansion near the North Gate, looking at all of the photography books on display there before the exhibition ends at the end of July. It’s an impressive collection, larger than I’ve found at bookstores here or at the library. There are chairs to sit in, and it’s usually quiet with only the occasional passerby glancing in. Typically I can get through a book a day, though some of the more interesting ones have taken a couple of days to really appreciate. Others I get through very quickly, for reasons I will explain below.

I’ve found is that there is no relationship between the quality and size of the books to the quality of the images within. Large, well-bound tomes with hundreds of large prints contain the most dreadfully boring photos, while coming across truly interesting Taiwanese photography seems to be a matter of chancing upon a small mention of someone in a random collection, with smaller, poorly edited selections that require the reader to seek other mentions in other books, which is often in vain.

Photography in Taiwan seem to have more or less always been stuck in such a rut, leaving anyone seeking to develop outside the Confucian system of “master photographers” out in the cold, unsupported and all-too-often foundering without any objective reviews or guidance from the community. The only commentary one could level at the “masters” was praise if you wanted to get anywhere, and anyone else wasn’t worth the time to even denigrate; ignoring them completely was a far more destructive weapon. Ironically, Taiwan itself would come to be largely ignored by the rest of the world due to political concerns.

The deleterious effects of this “system” are obvious in looking at the work being celebrated up until the 1990′s or so. For a long time, any photography was good photography, simply because a camera cost as much as a house, to nothing of film and developing costs, and photography was therefore even more rare and precious than it was in Western nations at the time. Of the renowned “Three Musketeers” of old, namely Chang Tsai, Deng Nan-guang and Lee Ming-tiao, only Lee, the longest-surviving of the three, had a solid sense of composition and emotion, while the others were more or less famous for their resistance to the attraction of the “salon” school of studio photography that was the rage at the time rather than the quality of their work. One of the most promising photographers of the 60′s, Huang Po-chi, virtually gave up photography to concentrate on his job as a doctor. It makes me wonder how many other photographers gave up their dreams in the face of such barriers over the decades.

A wave of “new school” photographers came on the scene following the lifting of martial law, coinciding, as it happens, with my arrival on our fair island, but the quality of their work was erratic and often either abstract for abstraction’s sake or poor shadows of documentary. There was seemingly no way of reviewing their own work. One particularly revealing collection I examined contained the works of Liu Chen-hsiang, Lian Hui-lin, Yeh Ching-fang, Hou Tsung-hui, Kao Chung-li, Chien Yong-pin, Pan Hsiao-hsia, Liang Cheng-chu and, of course, Chang Chao-tang. I know some of these photographers, but there was one photographer in the bunch whose work stuck out, and that was Yeh Ching-fang. His photos are not only well-composed, they aren’t boring. He was able to capture the essence and gravitas of everyday scenes with elegance and emotion. He didn’t seem to be photographing out of a sense of obligation, just because he could, but because he saw differently, he saw well.

It’s a shame that Yeh Ching-fang led such a destructive lifestyle that eventually killed him in 2005, because he is the best Taiwanese photographer I have ever come across.

I scoured the collection for more of Yeh’s work, but aside from a couple of small books there was precious little of it, though large volumes had been dedicated to someone’s mediocre snaps, or cows, or orchids, or whatever. One would think that the situation would be different today, and had Yeh lived, his work would now be recognized and supported by the outside world via the Internet, and he might have been able to reveal Taiwan and our society to the world.

posted by Poagao at 5:01 pm  
Jun 24 2014


This anniversary felt different than the one just five years ago. The weather’s different, for one thing; it was grey and moody when I got out of the office around six, cooler and wetter than that hot summer night so long ago. I walked through the park to Chongqing South Road as the sun peeked out from under the clouds, illuminating the traffic on Zhongxiao West Road, before it sank into the hills of Linkou to the west of the city.

I felt time as a cycle, somehow, and that everything had come full circle. “I’ll be arriving by bus from CKS at around 7:30,” I thought to myself as the city darkened, the neon lights springing to life. This, I felt, was the city before my arrival that day, a perfectly normal day. A work day.

I strolled over to where Zhang Cai had had his photography studio, back in the day. He’d still been alive when I arrived. Li Ming-diao as well. So many people…but I couldn’t go down that alley. The city was dark; it started to rain. I walked back to Chongqing, now the site of a massive construction site, to roughly where I’d gotten off the bus. I’d been encumbered with two heavy suitcases. Dr. Hill had led Boogie and me off towards Zhongxiao, up and down the now-absent pedestrian bridges. I followed our original route more or less, and the scenery that I see almost every day was transposed on a thin film bridging the decades. Here, on this corner, we’d stopped for some reason. I’d forgotten that until today. What was it? Boogie was lagging behind, I seem to recall…we waited for him to catch up. It was my first sight of Taiwan, really. The sights, sounds, smells, right on that corner while we waited.

I went to the Y, where we’d stayed, took the elevator up to room 507. The sound of the TV came from inside. Had I arrived yet? I guessed I had. I couldn’t knock, of course. Instead, I put my hand on the doorknob, and then took the elevator back down to the lobby.

The past stayed with me, though I’d meant to leave them at the hotel. It followed me to the Japanese ramen place nearby, to the park, even on the subway, which hadn’t existed back then. Only when I crossed the bridge at Bitan did I retake my place in the present. That bridge has always been powerful, and I needed it tonight.

posted by Poagao at 11:48 pm  
May 29 2014

Tense subway

About a week ago, a college student stabbed a bunch of people on the MRT, killing four and injuring 21. He managed to kill the people he attacked first, as they were asleep and had no time to react, but fortunately once people were onto him the fatalities were at an end. Still, scary stuff. Aside from hating the guy for being a murderer, I have to admit I also hate him for screwing with the MRT, which I have always liked a lot, kind of in the same way that I also hated the 9/11 terrorists for adding those connotations to such a wonderful thing as air travel.

The atmosphere in the trains has changed: People are more alert. Fewer sleep. Fewer have headphones on. For the first few days after the attack, the trains were nearly silent, especially as the trains entered a tunnel under a river, for that was where the killer chose to begin his attack, as that gave him the most time between stops. He also wore a red shirt, most likely in order to hide the inevitable blood stains that would alert others to his activities (as if holding a couple of knives didn’t clue people in). Any kind of exclamation or unusual noise would get everyone looking instantly at its source. The media, of course, went insane. That’s what the media here does. The parents of the killer were hounded by the press so much that the mayor of Xinbei City told them to cut it out. Priests were called in to exorcize the train cars. Mountains of flowers piled up outside the station where the train stopped and the killer was caught.

Slowly, things are returning to normal as reports of “copycats” subside. For a while SWAT teams roamed the subways with semi-automatic weapons at their sides. Now, ordinary police officers have replaced them, and substitute national servicemen will most likely follow. People are beginning to sleep in their seats again, wear headphones, talk, etc.

Still, reinforced umbrellas have been selling like hotcakes in  recent days, and self-defense courses are suddenly popular. It was inevitable that something would happen on the MRT eventually, given its popularity and the number of people who take it every day; it’s a shame it had to be this, but Taipei is a big city, with a big heart, and hopefully this terrible incident won’t change that.

posted by Poagao at 5:13 pm  
May 11 2014

Hangzhou final

There was an interesting design choice at the gallery: The gate to the area folded in at the bottom, and people would periodically trip over it. Nobody threatened to sue or even really complained about it; they just took it for granted that something like that would happen.

It was foggy on the morning of our departure. The driver of our car to the airport explained the various rules of the road, including how different license plate numbered cars are allowed on the roads on different days. That might explain why every single taxi driver I’ve seen here has a face different from their own on the car’s license on the dashboard, but apparently taxis are exempt from the license-plate rules. So it must be something else.

We got to the airport in plenty of time despite having to leave the airport expressway for a large portion of the journey. It had simply been closed off for no particular reason that anyone knew; grass grew wild on the empty parts. Similarly, our plane took a surprisingly roundabout route to and from Taiwan, making a huge “S” out into the ocean and then back down, almost the way it came, to Taiwan. It did the same thing on the way to Hangzhou. It must have cost us at least double the time and fuel, so perhaps “direct flights” is a bit of a euphemism. When we arrived back in Taoyuan I again couldn’t help but be reminded at how much not having an airport metro line hurts Taiwan’s image. Just the act of having to take either a taxi or a decrepit bus into town seems to diminish any kind of good first impressions one might have. Perhaps I am overthinking things, but I’ll be glad when the thing finally goes online.

So that was the trip. A lot of it was exhausting, but we saw a lot of places, and the exhibition was very well done and deserves its success. Some people from the festivals in Pingyao and Dali said they’d like me to exhibit there as well, so we’ll see what happens with those.

posted by Poagao at 10:52 pm  
May 09 2014

Hangzhou 8

Hangzhou was foggy this morning as we headed back to the gallery. It seems that everyone here has a DSLR around their neck, always with the kit lens. From little old ladies and old men, all the way down to kids, the DSLR is king here, in stark contrast to Japan, where everyone seemed to sport a micro-four-thirds camera.

Fu Yong-jun, the main organizer of the exhibit as well as a talented photographer in his own right, was taking people through the gallery. One of them, I was told, had won a Pulitzer Prize, but I didn’t recognize him. Another guest was a tall, thin Chinese man whom I was informed was an American-born Chinese. When he met me, he said, in accented English, “They told me you were fun. You don’t seem very fun.” He had a quick look at the photos, and shrugged dismissively. I did get a lot of interest from the media as well as the organizers of other photography festivals in China, however.

We had planned on leaving at 4 p.m. to go explore a neighborhood recommended by the woman whose exhibit was next door, but there was a sudden influx of visitors wanting to know about certain photos and taking pictures with me, so it was closer to 5 by the time we left, and it was starting to rain outside. We caught a ride with one of the friends of the organizers to the area, called Mantou Hill, where the emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty supposedly had his palace, but digging it up would be too expensive, so the government just lets the residents stay there, and the area has consequently become one of the less-developed and therefore more interesting parts of the city as a result.

The rain was coming down in earnest, however, so we eventually caught a cab back to the hotel, which, incidentally, sports “-1″ and “-2″ floors instead of “B1″ and “B2″. This seems to be true everywhere I’ve been in China. I learned that the reason there are no gasoline-powered scooters is that motorcycles are illegal in Hangzhou. Electric scooters count as bicycles, need no license or helmets or anything, however, so all the scooters are electric.

Tomorrow and Sunday, being the weekend, are supposed to see huge crowds at the gallery, and there will be discussions and other activities. I’m going to have to miss those, however, because the long-awaited premiere of our movie is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon in Taipei, so we’re going to have to be up once again at the crack of dawn in order to make our morning flight back.

posted by Poagao at 8:55 pm  
May 08 2014

Hangzhou 7

The exhibit was supposed to officially open at 1:00 this afternoon, but the official opening was contingent on the arrival of a particular public official, who was delayed, so the official opening only happened at around 3:30. People began trickling in beforehand in any case, and as usual it was a pleasure to see people viewing and discussing the photos, even though the air conditioning was frigid. The exhibition was well done and pleasantly laid out. I was interviewed for a couple of TV stations, and the Shanghai Daily is doing an email interview later.

At the opening ceremony, the emcees invited some people to discuss their photos, with predictably hilarious results:
Emcee A: “In this photo we see a tree. Now, we see many trees every day. What makes this tree so special that it deserves to be in a photograph?”

Emcee B: “In this case, there are birds in the tree.”

Most of my conversations were fun and interesting. One pair of woman wanted me to review their photos on the back of their cameras.

The gallery closed at 5 p.m., so we met up with Chin Wei, the photographer from Hong Kong, and walked down the side of the lake to the Starbucks for some drinks. The trees, which were apparently upset at being festooned with fake birdnests disguising lights, sprayed us with evil pollen, making us choke and cough while soldiers ran up and down the waterfront.

After drinks we were informed that we were being picked up soon, so we went to the roadside and watched Chin Wei’s assistant’s phone, on which two dots approached each other, until the van appeared. This is apparently a function of Wechat that I haven’t seen used on other programs, though I’d think it an obvious function in retrospect.

We had dinner with the organizers near the hotel, and got back early. They’re holding a phone photography judging competition tomorrow, and I don’t envy the judges their jobs.

posted by Poagao at 11:08 pm  
May 07 2014

Hangzhou 6

The reason we got up early yet again on Tuesday morning in Hangzhou was because, in addition to the exhibition of around 50 of my photos taken in Taiwan, they also want to feature some photos I’ve taken in Hangzhou, which is a challenge for me as I am used to setting my photos aside for a period of some months before really being able to evaluate them. Also, I’d spent the past week out of Hangzhou touring seemingly every single ancient water town in the province, so I hadn’t taken many shots here.

We were met downstairs by a couple of older men who were part of the organizing group; we all piled into a taxi and headed to Xihu, which they said was interesting in the mornings.

Xihu is a large lake, surrounded by parkland, so many people in Hangzhou go there to exercise in the early morning. We walked past people doing taichi, running, biking, dancing, etc. One old man was hitting a wall with his back in a violent fashion. I asked him how many time he was doing this, and he said 87, which happens to also be his age. Further on, I couldn’t resist doing a little sword work with one group, but I managed to stay away from the tuishou practitioners, as they seemed a little rough.

We had some buns for breakfast near a large map of old Hangzhou before piling into another taxi to go to the old Wangjiangmen neighborhood we’d visited before. The near-misses in the taxi seemed less frightening after a while, which was frightening in itself.

The neighborhood is crowded during the day, the market street packed, so we explored alleys. We met Mr. Wang, who, it turns out, is much less enthusiastic when he is not drunk. He was friendly and remembered us, though, so there’s that, but there was no beer forthcoming in the morning. We gave him some pineapple cakes anyway.

Back at the hotel, we met up with some of the other invited exhibitors, including a photographer from Hong Kong and his entourage, for lunch at a nearby restaurant. After lunch we took a nap and then returned for one last look at Wangjiangmen, venturing into the touristy reconstituted bit. By that point I was so tired I stopped looking both ways before venturing into the street and was tapped by a motorcycle, but aside from some cursing on both sides, a bruised ankle and some spilled documents, nobody came out much worse. I would have liked to have gone right into the bathtub, but I had to process a handful of photos for the exhibit first.

This morning we finally had a chance to have breakfast at our new hotel, which is quite nice, even without air conditioning. I suspect they put us on a floor where the A/C is broken, and they made an excuse that the government won’t let them turn it on until it’s really, really hot outside.

The Hangzhou People’s Photography Festival or whatever it’s called, it being held in a large, interesting old building near Xihu. The printers did a really nice job, and some of the photos have been printed very large. We spent most of the day arranging and directing the installation, and then it was back the hotel. Tomorrow’s the grand opening, in the afternoon, so we can go make last-minute changes in the morning if necessary.

posted by Poagao at 10:57 pm  
May 05 2014

Hangzhou 5

Xitang, it turned out, is a completely different place in the early morning. I hadn’t slept well as the bed was too small, but when we emerged onto the ancient streets that were once tread by such famous historical figures as Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III, we found a quiet, pleasant place. I took some shots of bridges and still water and the like as people began to emerge, mostly people with cameras. Students were on their way to class down one alley, and as it was the first day after the holiday, repairs and construction work was starting up. We had a nice breakfast of egg cakes, dumplings and doujiang at the shop of a fellow who became famous for hawking his breakfast wares on his shoulders through the town every morning. Outside, hawkers from other breakfast shops sounded like wild birds every time a group of new people arrived.

We went back to our room on the canal for a nap, to find someone had taken over the seats on our balcony. It was ok, though; the tour groups had arrived, and the place was becoming a hot mess once again. It was time to leave. We caught a very well-behaved bus to the High-Speed Rail station and dined on cookies while waiting for the train while the completely ineffective security girl ignored each and every beep of her metal detector.

Hangzhou felt familiar and modern after all of the water towns we’ve seen in the past few days. After stowing our stuff at the hotel, we toured what appears to be the last old neighborhood in the city, and it is disappearing fast. The street was an item over a century ago, and is largely unchanged, but is rather run-down. We had some delicious noodles and rice at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and then walked around talking to people. One woman who was hanging things in an alley asked me for prints, and I said I would mail some to her, but she said she’d heard that story too many times, and said to just forget it. We dropped in on a family having dinner in their ancestral home; it was a very warm site, but the neighborhood is being torn down around them, and such scenes will soon be a thing of the past; you just can’t do it in a high-rise, or at least that’s what they said.

We talked with some more people in the area, including a drunken chef who insisted on sharing some beer with us, and then we explored an interesting alley that seemed to have no end, but it was late, and we’ve got another early start tomorrow, so it was back to the hotel.

posted by Poagao at 11:46 pm  
May 04 2014

Hangzhou 4

Despite people carrying on with various crying, singing and chatting until at least 3 a.m., we managed to get up at 5:30 to go out and photograph Zhouzhuang, mostly bridges and the like. I hopped over a barrier, climbed onto a vacant boat and held the Invincible Rabbit inches from the water to get a shot of a bridge populated by photographers who no doubt wondered if my insurance policy was about to expire. We then walked out of the tourist part into Real China, where we had a breakfast of noodles with a side of Serious Disapproval of the One Child Policy by one of the village’s older residents. He said when he was a kid the water was clear, drinkable and devoid of things like automobiles strewn around the bottom.

We tried to visit a nearby pagoda, only to learn that it was in fact an electrical tower in disguise, which I found pretty neat. We then watched a mute, disabled man feed ducks while, across the lagoon, another man fed pigs. The raucous noise was audible even at the “temple” which had a sign proclaiming the grand history of the building, which had been built in 1056, witnessed many historical events, and was promptly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The current temple is not on the same spot as the original, and was built in 1995. We went inside anyway, to find fake monks lounging around in front of the god statues, playing with their mobile phones.

It began to rain as we made our way back to the hostel, where we took a nap before taking a path out of the village, through some wheat fields, to the bus station, where we caught a bus to Tongli.

Tongli was a wash, literally. We didn’t want to pay to get into a place in the rain because it was miserable, so we circled around and found an alley into the area, which was rather a mess due to all the tables and things being covered by hastily arranged tents. I asked a barber if I could take a photo of him, and he said he’d do it for money. “That’s all right, I won’t charge you anything!” I told him, smiling sincerely. I wouldn’t have, either. But he wasn’t happy at this. Oh, well.

Police were trying to mediate a housing dispute near the gate as we finally disabused ourselves of Tongli, taking a taxi to a bus station, where we hired a driver to take us to Xitang. We traveled through half of China on small roads, seemingly, trying to get here, and we were so glad to actually find the place we even bought tickets. Turns out we probably didn’t need to; people can just walk into most of these places provided they’re willing to walk a block around to the side.

Xitang is rather commercial. We were passed in a rather rude fashion by a fellow in a tricycle hauling dishes, only to find him up ahead with most of the dishes strewn on the ground when he tried to take a bridge too fast. We walked and looked at hostels until we found something cheap and by the canal, and then had some unremarkable dinner before heading out to walk around the place. There is one street here that I can only describe as Holy Shit It’s LOUD. Each bar had a band and dancers and each was trying to out flash and out blast all it’s neighbors. One even had an animatronic dinosaur flying over the bar, which I’m pretty sure was manned by some kind of alien.

We walked some more, but all this walking makes for some really sore feet. We’re going back to Hangzhou tomorrow, and that fine, as I’ve kind of had my fill of ancient Chinese watertowns for now.

posted by Poagao at 10:19 pm  
May 03 2014

Hangzhou 3

The Family Mart in front of our hotel in Suzhou was like a little piece of Taiwan, an oasis of civilization, with pleasant clerks, a clean environment and a good selection of goods. We sat at the little bar by the window and ate breakfast while watching Chinese people watching us back in a wary fashion. One group of men kept yelling at one of their number who dared enter the store, though they stayed outside with their cigarettes, as if by coming inside they would be violating some kind of code.

We took the subway to Mudu. Most people in Suzhou would wait patiently on either side of the doors, but as the train entered, a young woman munching on a piece of chicken strode up to the middle, blocking all of the people trying to get off, forcing her way in and promptly blocking an old man from taking the disabled seat. Chenbl made a marked comment about people being fined for such behavior, while I reminded him that we were no longer in Taipei, and the woman put her chicken away.

We took the bus from the station to the old part of Mudu. There were so many people on the bus that I was basically sitting in the windshield next to the driver. I therefore had a great view of all the people rushing across the road against the lights. We walked past many photography salons where people dress up in garish facsimiles of traditional garb so that someone can take their picture with a Canon 350D and sell a print to them. On the way I stopped at a public toilet, which I noticed lacked partitions of any kind.

Mudu was packed with people, vacationers from other parts of the country as no self-respecting Suzhou person would visit. When we got tired we walked inside a Buddhist temple that Chenbl claimed had been abandoned by the gods because the monks were lazy. Past the enormous statues was a quiet, if messy courtyard, where a monk knocked a piece of wood to declare lunchtime. Then he fished out his iPhone, no doubt to post lunchtime announcement texts for those who had missed the knocking.

Tired of the crowds, after a lunch of tasteless cold noodles, we walked to the outskirts of the old town, where we found great swaths of devastation where entire neighborhoods were being torn down. Chenbl got a back massage, and then when we went back to the touristy part of town, we both got foot massages by two Chinese women who seemed very interested in my love life.

Dusk was falling as we got some rice and noodles from a roadside vendor, to eat as we watched, alongside most of the neighborhood, the replacement of a lightpole which seemed sure to cause disaster. It didn’t, and we walked along a nearby road that turned out to be Mudu’s red light district. The area was emptying of tourists, and we chatted with a barber in his shop alongside one of the canals about his ancient barber chairs, which were around 80 years old and looked every bit of it. He said he made about 200 yuan a day.

We took the bus back to the station, and then the subway to Suzhou’s ritzy district, full of malls and fountains and the like. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is the prevalence of the word “civilized” in public signs: “Be civilized! Don’t (fill in the blank)!” Right next to one of these proclamations, a man was filling his buckets with water from the fountains.

We walked to the riverside and through the old gate, along the road past a series of Halal restaurants and a fruit drink shop where a cat was evading capture by a pack of small dogs, and back down to our hotel. Chenbl praised the construction site’s setup, and he knows what he’s talking about.

The next morning we had more breakfast at the Family Mart after checking out of the hotel. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason Chinese people don’t patronize the chain is that they don’t like the inconvenience of having to follow the store’s rules, like not being able to smoke in the store, not being able to demand instant service from the clerk despite being the last in line, etc.

We took the subway to the other end of the line from Mudu and found a surreal, empty expanse of fields and distant apartments, where we took a bus to Luzi, another “water town” in the area. The carefully manicured landscape gradually broke down into construction and environmental issues galore as we approached our destination, whereupon we were beset by tricycle drivers who claimed they could get us inside “for free”. Turning them down, we instead followed them to a side alley and found our own way in without paying, and walked around the alleys, munching on green bean/red bean snacks and getting name poems written. I saw the first Western faces for many days, a European family, and I wondered what they were eating for lunch. Photographers were everywhere. Everyone in China seems to have been issued a 350D.

Out past the touristy bits, we found another strange phenomenon: The old buildings, I mean the really ancient, centuries-old buildings that would be designated historical landmarks anywhere else, were being torn down and replaced, Stephen Wright-style, which exact replicas.

After a surprisingly delicious lunch with genuine sweet-and-sour chicken made with fried pork dipped in vinegar, we took a tricycle out to a remote bus stop, where we hopped on the bus headed for Zhouzhuang. This bus, which was apparently equipped with GPS, stopped and opened its doors at every. single. stop along the way, regardless of whether anyone was getting on or off. I assumed that if the driver did not do so, the station named would be off, or something.

At Zhouzhuang, we found to our pleasant surprise that the hotel we’d booked was actually inside the old part of town, and on a canal no less. The people rowing the tourist-filled boats sing as they ply the canals, which is fun. There’s a trendy disco-filled canal a ways away, which we are thankfully not staying near. The place isn’t nearly as full as we’d expected, given the fact that it’s one of the most well-known touristy bits in the area. We wandered around town a bit, had some dinner, and plan to get up early tomorrow to see what’s going on. That is, if the owner of the place ever stops chatting outside our window.

posted by Poagao at 10:54 pm  
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