Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

May 16 2018

Books, photography, albums, etc.

While it’s nice and all that my book Barbarian at the Gate: From the American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army has been listed on Taiwaneseamerican.org’s 50 Books for Your Taiwanese American Library, their description of the book’s content is not quite accurate. But I suppose I’ll let any potential readers out there find that out for themselves. Coincidentally, also listed as well as shown in the lead image of the page is Francie Lin’s The Foreigner, which features one of my photographs as the cover art.

It’s hot and muggy out; everyone is waiting for the plum rains, but the weather just doesn’t seem interested this year. As the water flowing under the Bitan bridge assumes more of a coffee hue from the lack of rain, no doubt drought will be announced soon. I’ve been scanning old negatives at home while listening to podcasts, and am constantly amazed at how poorly the original photo labs printed these shots, cropping out significant portions of the photos and seemingly making exposure decisions at random. I’ve also been busy with my photography course, leading students around various part of northern Taiwan and covering material in the classroom, as well as planning for the upcoming BME street photography workshop in San Francisco that I’m teaching along with Andy Kochanowski. I’m looking forward to seeing the SF crowd again…if I make it into the country that is; I’ve successfully applied for the visa waiver program, but I’ve still got my fingers crossed that I’ll get a decent immigration officer. The Muddy Basin Ramblers’ third album is slowly coming to fruition; the two riverside listening tests we’ve held so far have been promising. Other members of the band have predicted that this one’s going to be big…we’ll see. I’m just enjoying the ride, and regardless of how well it’s received, I’m happy to have been part of it.

Riverside testing our new album.

The catchword for 2018 so far has been “surreal”…everything feels like a loaded plate balanced at the very edge of a table, and half of us just want to see it fall. The transition from winter to summer is usually the most volatile, atmospherically speaking. China has increased its efforts to erase Taiwan from everyone’s awareness, and for all of their crowing about democracy and freedom, businesses, governments and media all around the world seem perfectly happy to go along with the charade. For our part, our precious leadership here in Taiwan, which has become infamous for the many things it hasn’t done since it came to power, has decided that screwing up our air quality is no big deal as long as they don’t have to face any criticism from raising our laughably low utility prices. And the U.S. is…well, you know. Plate. Table. Shrug.

But hey, happy thoughts! I should remember that I have a great deal to be grateful for, many opportunities in the four+ decades I’ve been on this particular rock. I’m lucky enough to have a great place to live, a good employment situation, health and friends. So, as the great Joe Walsh once said, “I can’t complain (but sometimes I still do).”

posted by Poagao at 11:34 am  
Mar 26 2018

Another world

Saturday was the Calla Lily Festival in Taoyuan, and the Muddy Basin Ramblers were playing. Though the event wasn’t far from the high speed rail station, we took a van from the Xindian metro station, listening to tunes on the portable speaker I’d gotten in Vancouver along the way as the driver navigated the traffic both on and off the freeway.

The event went well enough, though there was no cover on the stage; the sun was strong and poor Redman was without sunscreen for the two 45-minute sets. The audience was enthusiastic and the kids were (IMHO) properly ignoring the red cordon around the stage and dancing to the music. After we got back to Xindian everyone split except Redman, Slim and I; we headed over to the river to hang out for a bit listening to the swooning sax music and reflect on the day before heading back to our respective abodes.

On Sunday, I took my photography students on a walk around Linkou. We met at Taipei Station and basically commandeered a bus as it was the first stop and we basically filled the vehicle. The trip out was smooth and fast, up the highway through the valley lined with metal-roofed factories and now impossibly high roadways, past the metro stop to the Zhulin Mountain Buddhist Temple, the next-to-last stop. I figured the wide-open courtyard in front of the temple, with a good flow of people coming and going, would be a good place to go over the basics with our new students, this being the first outside activity of the semester. A few mechanical problems such as buttons stopping working and batteries refusing to come out of cameras had me wondering if we should have informed the temple gods what we were up to beforehand, but thankfully nothing too serious (None of my students use film cameras, alas, even though I’ve suggested that it’s a viable option, and I would welcome such experimentation).

After we were done at the temple, we walked over to the touristy old street for some lunch (beef noodles), and as we were heading out again we bumped into Bin-hou, one of our classmates from violin class. He lives in the area, but it was a neat coincidence. He’s also studying trumpet, and is currently in possession of my old Arban’s book of exercises, which happens to include traditional Chinese text for some reason. When I first bought it around 1981, I had no idea why that was the case, but now I know.

We continued walking towards the highway, and an old, half-demolished rowhouse caught my eye, so I went over to have a look. Behind it we found an old tea farmer just finishing up work in the fields. He enjoyed the attention and took us on a tour of the remaining half of his old house, which was built in the 1930’s, and then invited us to his shop for tea. As it turns out, he’s 90 years old, and apparently lives alone with only a Filipina caregiver named Annie. The teas he served got cheaper and more delicious as we went, by design I’m sure, just to prove that expensive tea isn’t necessarily better. If you’re interested in dropping by for a chat and some excellent tea, the place is called Hongyuan Tea, near the corner of Zhongzheng and Jialin Roads in Linkou. Just look for the half of a house.

As we continued to walk, the older buildings were replaced more and more by huge, modern apartment complexes and vast, empty parks; fewer and fewer people were to be found on the streets despite the pleasant weather. We ended up in front of the Mitsui Outlet Park mall, and although class had officially ended hours earlier, most of the students were still hanging out with us. The afternoon was waning, though, so we officially disbanded, and Chenbl and I went over to the outlet mall to take a look.

The mall is basically a Western mall in virtually every respect, surrounded by huge apartment blocks fronted with floor-length glass windows and nary a rack of metal bars to be seen. Occasionally we would see an ROC flag hanging from a luxury balcony. “Foreigners, most likely,” Chenbl commented.

We went into full-on Mall Mode, looking through the shops where everything seemed to be at least 60% off (of highly inflated prices, no doubt); I even bought some baggy jeans as the jeans in every other store I’ve seen are skinny and I can’t stand skinny jeans. Dinner completed the Western Mall fantasy with an actual, genuine god-damned avocado burger that made me feel both intestinally and morally compromised. Half of the mall is exposed to the open air, and the roof is covered with grass; a musical group surrounded by kids was playing the courtyard, under a roof that is apparently meant to collect rainwater. Next to the mall is an enormous parking garage, because of course there is; there are also superfluous pools and fountains. It was all quite surreal.

Night had fallen by this point. Feeling depleted, we walked out the main gate, past the entrance fountains, and along the wide avenues lined with huge, gleaming apartment blocks adorned with art-deco LED trimmings that shot up into the night towards the airliners that flew over every few minutes. “Everything is so big,” Chenbl exclaimed.

“It’s like Banqiao,” I offered, but he shook his head. Banqiao is apparently child’s play compared to Linkou on Chenbl’s scale of Surreal Western Enclavities.

Maybe it was the avocado burger, but the surreal experience of the mall and just the feeling of just not being in Taiwan for a period of time made me look forward to getting on the metro home. As we waited on the elevated platform among the gleaming buildings, though, I couldn’t help but noticed a father yelling at his son while his daughter watched. The kid was playing on the ground, and the father made a sort of twirl, lifting his foot and actually catching, seemingly by accident, the kid’s head with his foot. The boy didn’t say anything, just looking up at his father, but I thought it odd. Then, just before the train arrived, the man lifted a foot and violently stomped on the boy’s toy car, prompting an outburst from his son that the father refused to acknowledge.

As I was looking over at the scene, Chenbl warned, “Don’t stare.” It did seem that the man probably had violent tendencies. I wondered if they lived in the area. What kind of life would that be? All I know is that, if that boy survives his childhood, that man will have a very lonely old age, provided he survives that long either.

A group of loud foreigners in shorts and baseball caps who had gotten on the train with us preceded us at the terminal station in Taipei, so we took our time walking to the MRT station. I was exhausted after two consecutive days full of events; all I wanted was some time in my comfy bed before facing another week of work and classes.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:06 pm  
Mar 19 2018

Sunday

I needed to choose one of two things to do on Sunday morning. I usually like to go down to Taipei New Park and practice taichi/tuishou with the fellas; it’s good to move around, get some exercise, sun, and chat about recent news. But I also needed to practice violin, as I’ve fallen behind after not picking it up a single time during the winter break. Originally I’d thought I could do both, and after breakfast I took out the violin and began practicing with the full intent of just doing some brushing up and then heading out to the park.

Before I knew it, it was well after noon and I was still playing. I’m slowly getting the hang of changing positions; it makes more sense to me than it did when my teacher first introduced the idea, and feels more natural. Though my neighbors no doubt disagree, I actually found practicing enjoyable. But taichi was out, so I had a tasty lunch at the Pancho Cafe downstairs and then crossed the bridge to hang with my friend Casey, who’s got his hands on an interesting apartment on the other side of the river. It’s in the back of a building on a slope, for one thing, and it’s full of junk nobody else wants. Casey hauled out a bunch of moldy old cameras for me to look at…they’re probably hopeless, but I took a couple off his hands to take to the shop so they can have a look. Casey’s also into taichi, so we pushed hands for a while and I didn’t feel as guilty about missing the park.

The day had started out sunny, but it was cloudy as I made my way back across the crowded bridge to put the cameras away before heading out again. I hate crossing the bridge in the evenings these days, as Bitan is doing its inane fountain festival thing, which is basically a few water spouts on the paddle-boat docks going off while huge speakers boom out “Time to Say Good-bye” and the theme to Pirates of the Caribbean every half hour. This somewhat-less-than-spectacular display manages to attract roughly half of Taipei to see it, and the bridge strains and bucks under their weight. To make matter worse, I forgot my phone and had to make the arduous trip twice, cursing as I did so.

The reason I was heading out to the city instead of spending a comfy evening scanning old negatives and listening to podcasts at the Water Curtain Cave was that David Chen had invited me to see the last show of the Gypsy Jazz Festival at the Eslite Spectrum theater. I took the subway to the City Hall station and got a bite of pork rice before heading up to the bookstore to read more about the background of Koudelka’s Exiles before heading to the theater to meet David and Vincent, who organized the whole thing.

The concert was amazing. It was a simple setup, with Tcha Limberger on violin and vocals, Antoine Boyer and Denis Chang on guitar, and Kumiko Imakyurei on double bass, and the resulting music was ethereal, like a dream. They played many Django Reinhardt tunes, including a version of the little-performed Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure that is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I looked it up later but couldn’t find a version that came close to the one they played. Tcha’s violin sang and wept with him, and Antoine, who is amazingly accomplished for his age, played as if he was possessed. Virtually every song was mesmerizing, and at the end they had all of their workshop students come up and play a phrase during an extra-long version of the Tchavolo Swing. Some were better than others, but all of them were good. Vincent has done a great job organizing this thing, and I look forward to seeing where it goes in the future.

So it was a good day. I’d needed a good day.

 

 

 

posted by Poagao at 10:58 am  
Mar 07 2018

3/4: Return to Taipei

Up in the morning…we’d packed the night before, so after breakfast downstairs and saying goodbye to Pamela (Ozkar was asleep) and the cats, we headed out into the…what was this? Hail? Freezing rain? Damn. Time for us to leave. Apparently the homeless dude who lived in front of the metro station thought so, too. “Fuck you!” he shouted at us repeatedly, elaborating on this theme as we passed. Finally, a blunt Canadian, I thought.

The usual inspection routine…Chenbl’s bag got inspected hard because of the portable speaker he’d bought. We were lucky enough to be on a sparsely populated flight back to Taipei, and we had the last two seats in the back of the Dreamliner, so in effect a little room of our own. Chenbl claimed the row in front of us, and I stretched out on our seats and watched Selma, Boyz in the Hood, Thor 3 and a few other movies, while sleeping periodically. I still wasn’t feeling great, but just getting a bit of rest finally had a good effect, and the Dreamliner has a lower air pressure as well, so my ears were fine.

Back in Taipei, we went straight from the airport to the ENT doctor for our little bags o’ pills. Work the next day, as well as the first class of the semester. I’m still feeling loopy AF, but I got a gig tonight at Huashan, so I need to get my shit together.

All in all, an interesting trip. One thing I noticed was how little I missed the Internet when I was in Cuba. Other than feeling stupid for not being able to look up things at random, it was refreshing, and I will try to cut down the time I waste on social media now. Wish me luck.

And that was that. Hope you enjoyed the read.

posted by Poagao at 2:55 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/3: Vancouver

The weather was nice again today, sunny and not as bone-chillingly cold, so we took the subway to Waterfront and then lined up for the ferry across to North Vancouver. I snapped a picture of two guards, one Filipino and one older white dude. Of course the old white dude had a problem. “Why did you take my picture?” He demanded.

“Because you’re a great-looking dude!” I lied.

“You have to ask me before you can take my picture, you can’t just take it without asking me,” he said.

“My bad,” I said, before walking away.

The ferry trip was nice, smooth, as if the ferry was on rails. I imagine many people use it to commute on weekdays. On the other side, we walked through the inevitable market with the inevitable seagulls and the inevitable lecture on the intimate relations of bees. We then got on a bus up to the Capilano Bridge, which Chenbl wanted me to see. “Excuse me,” I started to ask the driver, but he cut me off.

“Wait til I sit down,” he ordered. I stood and waited until he had arranged himself in his seat. When he was done, he said grumpily, as if he expected a litany of problems, “Ok, what’s your trouble, sir?”

“Is this the bus to Capilano Bridge?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

It was a nice drive up, through pleasant neighborhoods. The Capilano Bridge itself is a large suspension bridge and a system of walkways through the forest canopy…it’s quite impressive, and the air was very fresh, if still uncomfortably cold. Some of the walkways are transparent, and I from their reaction, I’m guessing some of the people were afraid of heights. At least no kids were jumping up and down on the thing like they do in Bitan.

After we were forested out, we got on the free shuttle bus back to Waterfront, which featured a driver with a radio announcer’s voice. Then we took the subway out to what we’d suspected was a mall near the airport. It was disappointing, and we went back to Metrotown to pick up some electronics at Best Buy. Dinner was Vietnamese near our hostel.

Tomorrow we’re going back to Taiwan. I really wish I’d met this city under better circumstances.

posted by Poagao at 12:11 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/2: Vancouver

The place where we’re staying is home to a family of cats. We spent some time this morning after breakfast playing with them and talking to the two Mexican assistants, Ozcar and Pamela, who are a couple. They’re bright young people, hoping to see the world. The flight to Vancouver was their first time on an airplane. They have no days off and are very tired.

It was grey and rainy, so we took the subway to a large mall at Metrotown. Before we could get there, the announcer said there was a “medical situation” at the station, so we waited on the tracks for a while before proceeding.

I got my mall fix done and done at Metrotown. So done. All the little fountains, all the shops, the tepid food court…all of it. We did find a bookstore called Chapters, where I picked up Stuart Franklin’s “The Documentary Impulse”. Chenbl and I caused a little scene when we were carefully measuring out cough medicine from the bottle to my water bottle’s cap, causing a few stares and a visit by the manager. “You guys doing ok?” he asked nervously, eyeing our suspect behavior.

“We’re doing fine,” I said, staring at him. His smile faltered and he left.

I still feel awful. I’m on vacation in Vancouver, and all I want to be doing is lazing around home watching Miyazaki movies in my pajamas.

Vancouver is quite international but not terribly diverse. Lots of Asians and Middle Easterners but hardly any Black or Latino people. There’s a strange kind of tension in the air here, a kind of desperation I can’t put my finger on. Perhaps if I lived here I might be able to pin it down, but I really don’t want to live here. It’s probably just because it’s winter and I feel like shit. But still.

We had dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant because it was there.

posted by Poagao at 12:06 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/1: Vancouver

I was feeling slightly better but still in a haze this morning as we walked down to the water and along the banks to Granville Island, which I’m assuming once meant having to cross some kind of water to access, what with the name and all. On the way we passed an encampment of homeless people, one of them pissing on a tree in the chill air, and then we were walking through an elementary school’s recess yard. Some workmen later on asked us if we worked there, “there” meaning the construction site where we were currently trespassing, and politely told us to get lost when we answered in the negative. I keep feeling like I’m always doing the wrong thing here, in the wrong place, with the wrong goals, etc. Out of sync in a way I didn’t feel even when I was in Cuba. Chenbl, however, is happy; he loves Canada, and has been here five times.

Lunch was some tasty shepherd’s pie at the Granville Market. Then we took the tiny ferry across the water and walked up to Stanley Park. Vancouver looks like the fantasy of someone who really likes blue-green glass towers, composed of immaculate little glass boxes full of trendily sparse furniture that is completely unable to reflect an actual life. Dudes threw sticks into the chill waters so that their shivering dogs would have to go fetch them. We walked over to the array of old totem poles, situated facing their modern counterparts covering Vancouver.

Ten years ago I was in Tokyo, and as happy as I’ve ever been. It was cold then, too.

A man in a business suit was bragging into his Bluetooth: “Yeah, of course we’re on the radar as you’d expect.”

“I dunno,” I said loudly to Chenbl as we walked by the marina among the pretentious people and their tiny dogs. “Do you really think we need another yacht? Isn’t 12 enough?”

“Stop it,” Chenbl said. He knows when I’m in a snippy mood. The full moon was rising over the docks as we approached the subway station at Waterfront. We took the subway to the bus/train station to ask about the bus/ferry to Victoria. The area was empty and spooky, and a man was shouting obscenities in traffic. We could have taken the subway but, but I wasn’t as desperately tired as I could have been, so we walked. It took roughly forever, and my cold was not happy.

posted by Poagao at 12:03 pm  
Mar 07 2018

2/28: Vancouver

The cold medicine I got while shopping last night worked well enough to keep me asleep all night, but today was mainly spent in nearby shopping malls and restaurants. It’s cold and rainy outside anyway, so outside of mall stuff there’s not much to do, and I need the rest.

T.I.’s “Live Your Life” was playing at the health food shop, while the disco version of the theme from Star Wars was playing at Safeway. A nice young man named Nathan at the pharmacy told me that there’s not much you can do for a cold, except wait it out.

So we ate so-so ramen and watched the nearly incomprehensible humor on TV, noting that Canadians don’t seem to trust umbrellas that much. Keebler products are absent from Canadian shelves, but I did see a few pop-tarts and Little Debbie products. Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow, and hopefully I’ll be feeling better as well.

posted by Poagao at 11:55 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/27: Havana – Toronto – Vancouver

I’d had a bad night. My head hurt, my nose was blocked, and my cold was running full tilt when I finally got up in the morning on the day we had to leave Havana. We walked over to 5th and 8th to the Catedral Café for a nice breakfast. At the next table, a middle-aged white dude talked condescendingly at a couple of black Cuban guys. Back at our place, an 80-year-old man basked in the sun on the porch of the ruined house in front while a three-year-old girl played beside him. Our taxi to the airport was, of course, a green 50’s American car with bouncy seats to compensate for the lack of bounce in the shocks. From what I understand, the reason all of these cars have retained their original colors is that the color of a car is one of the main things you can’t change without government permission. Other things can be changed, from LED lights to Toyota steering wheels, but the color must stay the same.

At the airport, the Air Canada check-in system was down, and the long line didn’t move for an hour until they fixed it, while even the Aeroflot line next to us moved swiftly. That’s gotta hurt.

My sinuses did not like the flight to Toronto. There we got in the wrong line and nearly got involved in the U.S. fuckery that pervades even non-U.S. airports for some reason. You could tell it was the particular U.S. brand of fuckery because the agents at the gates in their little glass shed were all young blonde people dressed in full battle gear, standing in sleek black booths festooned with intimidating machinery. Fortunately we escaped the area to find an actual Canadian immigration officer, a pudgy Sikh bear who smiled warmly when he said, “It’s good to travel with your best friend.” But our misstep made dinner a hasty burger before the flight.

My sinuses, still reeling from the last flight, hated the flight to Vancouver. Although we were lucky to have a whole row to ourselves, my nose and ears were afire most of the time from the pressure changes. By the time we stepped into the cold Canadian air, I could barely hear from my right ear, and I felt like shit. I wanted to go right to bed, but Chenbl had shopping to do, so I shuffled vacantly around the store periodically waking up from and returning to my stupor until we were done and could return to our place, which is a nice old house in a residential neighborhood near city hall.

posted by Poagao at 11:53 am  
Mar 07 2018

2/26: Havana

We took a bus to the neighborhood around Eric’s other place and wandered around taking photos in the alleys before a grabby Cuban man had us heading inside for some breakfast and to meet our guide for the day, a handsome, tall woman named Chaneti. After telling her where we’d been and what we’d seen, she led us out to the Malecón, where we walked along the seashore listening to her tell us stories of her childhood swimming in the abandoned swimming pools there. It was a beautiful day, the sky a brilliant azure and the sea a deep, calmer shade of blue. Before the revolution it had been quite luxurious, but people swam there up until the 90’s, when Cuba’s economy crashed after the fall of the Soviet Union meant that funding from that country dried up, and the government banned all sorts of things, including seaside activities, rather than trying to regulate them. We walked over to the old district to a cigar shop located in a lovely old mansion to buy some cigars, because that’s apparently what one does here. It was hot, and I was beginning to feel tired even though it was early in the day. In addition to the usual 35mm lens I always use on my old Sony, I brought the big, not often-used 16-35mm f4, just to have it in case I needed it. I kept it on the camera during the day, switching to the prime at night, and while it is useful in crowded, narrow alleys with lots of people, it is a big, heavy mofo of a lens, and makes the setup not a little ungainly when wearing it all damn day. It’s smallest when at 35mm, so that’s usually where I kept it.

Our first attempt at lunch was thwarted by the lack of most of the items on the menu, but our second was successful and featured a house band that wasn’t bad, but mistook Chenbl’s request for “something traditional” for a desire to hear “Stand By Me”.

As we walked over to the harbor to take a bus, Chaneti talked about Cuba’s prospects and the gradual opening up that has been burgeoning since Obama’s historic visit. I felt a cold coming on, but for some reason I hoped that the hot sun would somehow prevent it. We got on a crowded bus that traveled via tunnel across the harbor and to a small seaside town where, Chaneti told us, the fisherman on whom Hemingway based his book The Old Man and the Sea had lived. Apparently they were friends. We walked out to the seaside, where a group of kids were practicing baseball. Out on the shore, an old man sat on the rocks, facing the ocean.

I was feeling poorly by the time we got back to Eric’s place for some very nice pesto noodles, and went to bed immediately.

posted by Poagao at 11:49 am  
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