Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Sep 05 2015

…and back

As I said, I got rested up in Ardmore, and probably put on a few pounds. Most of the time it was just me and my parents, but one day both Leslie and my older brother Kevin came to visit. It was the first time in umpteen years that the five of us had been in the same room, and it was wonderful to see everyone together again. Everyone behaved, both at home and at the catfish restaurant where we stuffed ourselves. It was a great day.

But Leslie had to leave that evening, and Kevin left the next morning to go see his daughter in Dallas before flying back to his home in Kentucky. I’d actually shaved off my goatee after days of protests by my mother, but it had turned out that Kevin was sporting one as well. Mom told him he should shave it off. “Not gonna happen,” he said.

But I had to leave as well; I got on a train bound for Norman, this one running a little late, on Monday evening. My parents saw me off, and almost immediately I regretted sitting in the first car, as the train’s horn was rather annoying at such a close range. Still, I did enjoy the sunset ride up into the night. Leslie and Kelly picked me up in Norman and took me back to the old house where I’d been staying. It was unused to me, but still not too spooky. I didn’t sleep well. I’d set my iphone alarm, but it has been known to misbehave, especially as my phone is old and struggles to keep up with modern apps. But I was ready at the door when Leslie arrived the next morning. We got to the airport in plenty of time, as I was wary of shenanigans. They started almost immediately when I was going through “security” and they told me to step into the controversial Rapiscan machine that I’d thought been discontinued due to worries about radiation. “Can I, uh…not do that?” I said.

The woman at the machine sighed and yelled out, “MALE OPT OUT!” to roughly everyone in the state. I was taken over to a corner after going through the metal detector and patted down. It wasn’t entirely unprofessional, and I didn’t mind having to take off my shirt, but I did wonder if they knew how useless and actually dangerous those machines are. If not, they should; they’re standing next to them all day, every day. And of course, there’s that name…Jesus.

I got to my flight in plenty of time, however. As we flew west over the increasingly wrinkled landscape, we began to pass just under what looked like the contrails of other planes. I know those don’t last long, and wondered how close they plan these routes. An answer came not long after when I spotted another small jet flying towards us at 11 o’clock, just a few hundred feet above. Due to our combined speeds, it had passed before I could do more than startle the people around me with a quick “Holy shit!”, but if had been just a little lower and over a bit, I wouldn’t be here writing this. If I’d been quicker I would have gotten a photo, but alas, I wasn’t.  I did get a shot of another jet that passed much further overhead, but that was probably a bit more normal.

Eric Kim had wanted to meet up for coffee in San Francisco, but he messaged, saying he had horrible jet lag as he’d just gotten back from Northern Europe and couldn’t make it, so I bummed around the airport instead, while the city beckoned from over the hills. If I hadn’t had my luggage I would have gone out and back into it for a bit, but I also wasn’t enamored with the idea of taking my chances with “security” again, so I stayed put, having some sandwiches for lunch and buying some snacks to take with me.

The waiting area slowly filled up with passengers bound for Beijing before we lined up to board the big 747 across the Pacific. I was lucky and had just one empty seat beside me, enabling to lay down and soothe the headache resulting from watching three Marvel action movies in a row, before we arrived. It was late afternoon in Beijing, but it felt like morning to me. Falling night convinced me otherwise as I was dropped off at the actual hotel I was supposed to have been staying on my trip over. This hotel was actually nicer, though they didn’t provide water, and the wifi didn’t seem to be working.

I didn’t feel like revisiting that particular sordidity, so I hailed a cab and had him take me to the Wangjing area, where I had some nice Korean food. The roads around Tiananmen were the site of a big parade earlier that day, so I avoided that area. Instead I walked to Sanlitun, past trendy bars and massage parlors, people sitting on the street staring at their phones, and dance clubs hidden in old hutongs. I wonder about living in Beijing; I’d think the bad air alone would put me off. Surely there are much better places to live. I’ve heard good things about Chengdu from Prince Roy. Perhaps I should visit there some time. But Beijing…no, I don’t think so.

I got another taxi back to my hotel, arranged my luggage, and slept. The next morning I got to the airport early, so early that I was sitting at the gate two hours before it opened. But better early than late. I sat and watched the planes and passengers as the airport woke up around me; a group of three young Chinese people took a picture that would have been surreptitious except for the fact that they’d forgotten to turn off the camera sound.

Another flight and I was back in Taiwan, skirting the immigration lines to pass through the electronic kiosks practically without stopping. After previous trips to the U.S., I always felt a certain amount of fresh surprise, but not this time. This time I was immediately and indisputably back home in Taiwan. Everything felt normal and welcome, but at the same time, I didn’t feel even a little bit a part of the fabric of American society this time. I couldn’t even fake it. I was simply an outsider. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but it is different. Many people thought that a certain level of paranoia was not surprising after 9/11, but it seems as if the general Fear of Things is escalating regardless. It’s self-sustaining now, I suppose, or at least some people seem to want it that way.

So that was my trip. Now I’m getting back into the swing of things. The fall semester is approaching, and I’m gearing up for the start of the photography course I teach at the Zhong-zheng Community College. This will be keeping me quite busy for a while, but it should be fun.


posted by Poagao at 11:50 pm  
Sep 05 2015

In Oklahoma

Leslie, her husband Keith and I had breakfast at the Diner before they took me over to the train station. I’d gotten tickets online, which was fortunate, as I don’t think the station technically even needs to be there any more. It’s something more like an art space, and only one woman showed up to tell people trains still stopped there. I didn’t see anywhere one could actually buy a ticket.

A few people were waiting there, including one white guy with a confederate flag on the back of his shirt. The handful of black passengers-to-be ignored him, but I can’t believe they didn’t notice it. Perhaps they’re used to such things, but it put a damper on my mood.

The train arrived right on time, and the conductor scanned people’s tickets before letting us on the train. They’d said we’d need picture ID, but nobody asked me for it. That was just as well, as I’m sure my Taiwanese passport would have resulted in more questions than answers for them. Instead, I got on, stowed my suitcase downstairs, and walked up a flight of steps to the upper level, where there were plenty of big, empty seats, complete with electrical outlets and wifi. I waved at Leslie and Keith as the train departed, blowing its horn in what I’m guessing is an attempt to avoid lawsuits should it hit anyone on the tracks. Few people realize that trains can sneak up on you, but they totally can.

It was a really nice trip, gliding southwards towards and through the Arbuckle Mountains, stopping only a couple of times and not seeing anyone else get on or off the train. Fields, cows, red rivers and stone cliffs, an occasional factory, all flashing by. I love travel by train. I’d like to do more of it. I wish the American people were more into trains, it would be better for many people if they’d just realize it.

My parents were just pulling up to the station when I got off, and they took me to their house. On the way we passed a man in a white pick-up truck who was installing a huge confederate flag on the back of his truck, place, apparently un-ironically, next to the U.S. flag.

Over the next week I got a lot of much-needed rest, as they take a lot of naps and watch whodunnits in the evening on Netflix before turning in at around 9 p.m. Ordinary television has become almost unwatchable in the U.S., full of “news” anchors shouting at viewers about whatever threats are the order of the day, occasionally interrupted by “medical” ads shouting at viewers in a threatening fashion about whatever symptoms will let them sue someone. Scaremongering and appeals to idiocy, mostly; I don’t know how anyone can stand it.

Occasionally, tired of the constant televised haranguing, I would take walks around the neighborhood. One day I decided to walk down to where my grandparents used to live, in the house my grandfather built. I had to walk by the side of the road most of the time, as nobody had bothered building sidewalks. I can see why; nobody there seems to walk anywhere, and anyone who does is viewed with suspicion. Just how much suspicion I quickly found out.

I was used to hearing cars approaching and passing by, many of them slowing down for a better gawk at me as they passed, but as I walking towards a convenience store I heard a car drive up and stop just behind me. I turned around and saw not one, but two police cruisers behind me. One officer was quickly out and calling loudly, “You want to tell me what you’re doing?” I could almost hear the mental …boy? at the end.

I was surprised, to say the least. I knew Americans are paranoid these days, but I never imagined how paranoid, or that it seems to be increasing for no reason. “I’m, uh…walking around?” The policeman approached me and told me they had gotten calls, reports of someone “taking pictures.” I wanted to ask if that was my crime or was it just walking around, but I held my tongue. Too many images of recent police violence were running through my head; it wouldn’t take too much imagination on their part for me to become some foreign-looking insurgent on a surveillance mission or whatever they chose to believe. The cops were both stocky young white men, and another cruiser pulled up almost immediately, this one producing a white woman officer. Three police cruisers and officers, all for little old me. I would have been impressed if it hadn’t been so depressing. I wondered how long they’d been looking for me. An hour?

“You have any ID we can see?” the cop asked. I didn’t; I hadn’t imagined I’d need any, but at the same time I was glad I didn’t think to bring my passport, which surely would have raised entirely too many questions. I did show him my Taiwanese driver’s license, but he just shook his head in incomprehension at the Chinese text and handed it back to me. I could see this wasn’t going well, and told him what I could of my family history in Ardmore, that I was visiting my elderly parents, I wanted to see my grandparents’ house, etc. “So you’re taking pictures?” the cop said, looking at the camera hanging on my side. His blonde hair was in a short crew cut.

“Yeah,” I said, and adding, because I couldn’t resist, “…I like to take pictures…but I’m not from Google Streetview or anything like that.”

Thankfully the cop didn’t take this the wrong way. I’m not entirely sure he even understood what Google Streetview is, or else he would have seen the irony of people reporting someone “taking pictures” in their neighborhood to the police. The police went over and called in the information I’d given them in. Perhaps they were looking up my grandmother. Whatever it was, eventually they came back and told me that, even though I didn’t have a real ID, they weren’t going to arrest me. I had the idea that had my skin been even a shade or two darker, things would have gone very differently; it was a close call as it was.

I walked away before they could change their minds, as the fellow in customs in San Francisco had done, heading towards the convenience store to get out of their line of sight. Once inside, I felt more like a person again, and bought a candy bar to calm my nerves. I kept the wrapper to remind me that, though America is full of open spaces, it is also full of walls, most of them invisible, and far more damaging for it.

I didn’t stray far on my subsequent walks. I guess that’s the idea.

posted by Poagao at 10:29 pm  
Sep 05 2015

To Oklahoma

So after San Francisco I flew to Oklahoma and spent a few days visiting my sister Leslie, who lives in Norman. As I mentioned, the flight was delayed, and the pilot told us that he would go as fast as he could. “We’ll put the pedal to the metal,” he said, which I found alarming; I just wanted to get there in one piece. The sun was shining in my window onto my tray in a fashion similar to the way it did in one of my favorite photos by William Eggleston, so when the drink cart came around and the stewardess asked me what I’d like, I said, “Something red.”

“Apple juice?” she asked, puzzled.

“No, something where the liquid is actually red.”

“Bloody Mary?”

“Close, and uh, tempting, but I’d like it to be transparent.” She would have been excused for backing away and calling the air marshals or whatever they are at this point, but she remained determined to get me the drink I wanted.

“Cranberry juice?”

Bingo. “That’ll do, thanks.” When I got my drink, I put it on the tray and took a few experimental shots. Thankfully the seat next to me was empty, but the people in the adjacent seats were sending curious looks my way. I tried putting my hand in the shot as Eggleston had, but it just didn’t work, so I just had the drink on the tray and the window. The planes of Eggleston’s day apparently had either higher trays or lower windows or both. When the stewardess passed by and happened to see one of my shots on my iPad, she smiled.

“So that’s what you were up to,” she said, nodding. “It’s nice.”

reddrinkI’d gotten the arrival time mixed up, so Leslie had to come to the airport twice, and then I’d forgotten about the security barrier, so that she had to wait even longer until I recalled that ordinary people can’t get anywhere close to gates these days and walked out to the arrivals hall. I can be a very trying traveller if you’re the one stuck trying to pick me up.

I was fortunate to be able to stay at the home of her friend Kim’s elderly mother-in-law, who was moved into a nursing home nine months ago. The house, a 40’s rambler that was apparently the scene of decades of family life, felt slightly spooky when I first arrived, as if I was violating someone’s most intimate chambers, but over the several days I stayed there it grew on me. All of the stuff, the furniture, accoutrements, knickknacks, abandoned toys and other inexplicable yet obviously personal paraphernalia are still there, as if parents and children could burst in at any minute. Wistful signs of the elderly woman’s final days dotted the house as well, i.e. rails on beds, abandoned wheelchairs, furniture moved out of the way, etc. The way the midwestern sun peeked into the house in the mornings and afternoons, illuminating the bright 40’s turquoise-and-blue bathroom tile and dusty shag carpet from the 70’s aroused my interest, and I couldn’t help but take a few photos while I was there. The house may be haunted, but the ghosts are largely welcoming once you stay with them a while.

Leslie took me to places like IHOP for breakfast, which was a real change for someone whose breakfast tends toward a simple piece of toast and an apple. While we were there a huge ambulance pulled up outside, lights flashing. EMTs walked calmly into the kitchen in back, but nobody batted an eye. We also went to a little place called The Diner on Norman’s Main Street, for breakfast a couple of times. The food was good, and the portions, as seems to be typical these days in America, were simply too much. There’s just no reason for that amount of food for one person. We also went to an alcohol store, which was stunning in its range and variety, and a farmer’s market, which was somewhat less stunning in those respects, but still interesting (They did have quite a variety of retro sodas. And squash).

Leslie’s friends who let me stay in their mother’s house were for some reason suffering from several minor calamities. Kim had twisted her ankle, and her husband and son had to push his boat to the dock when the engine failed. Nonetheless, they threw a nice little get-together for me in their backyard one evening, with good music, food and conversation punctuated by train horns. Later we played Cards Against Humanity in the living room, which was fun and evil.

One day we went out to Blanchard, Oklahoma, a small town where another of Leslie’s friends, Kelly, lives with her family in an old house and two small, molecule-like dogs bouncing around inside and out in the yard. We had dinner in a dining room decorated with a lovely old green mixer, and then played CAH into the night. I was slightly abashed to win so handily, but I’m sure it was beginner’s luck. Right?


posted by Poagao at 10:56 am  
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; fortunately I brought a jacket. From what I gather, some people basically live there. I can understand that as 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 along 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 to the staff. 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 full of lovely, lovely caffeine. 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 modest Todd Hido exhibition, and also tea at a coffeehouse with a wooden boat in front of it, startling a young white woman from Austin who was wearing dog-themed pantyhose. As we walked towards a grafitti-themed alley, a young black man shouted from his car, “Respect the arts! Y’all 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, and the conversation was on point. 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 occasional tasty pastries . 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 spit on. 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 now.

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 I will do that 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 industrial 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 oh 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 should 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’ll have to confiscate 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, uninvited, but knowing how things work in China, that wouldn’t have been a huge surprise.

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; traffic was heavy in the skies.

The immigration line stretched over a few football fields, but the real fun didn’t begin until I met with the officials. The immigration fellows 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 went along. Eventually they realized I wasn’t up to any funny business and let me go through. I thought that was it, walking towards customs, where a bored official was taking customs forms from passing travellers. He took my form as I passed, but I’d only taken a few steps when I heard him call harshly, “Hey you! Passport!” I returned and handed him my passport. He scrutinized it for a moment as other travellers passed by. Eventually he said, “You don’t have U.S. citizenship?” He knew I didn’t; it says in my passport that I renounced it.

“No,” I said, explaining that I’d had to renounce to obtain Taiwanese citizenship.

“So, ” he said in a strange tone, “You don’t feel like enjoying the many obvious advantages of U.S. citizenship, huh?” The …you ungrateful son of a bitch went unspoken, but I heard it just as clearly. I didn’t know how to answer that one, so he made a little mark on my customs form and pointed me over to another officer, this one wearing a holstered pistol at his side. Both were white. The last time I’d gone through customs in San Francisco I’d been lucky enough to encounter an Asian officer who immediately understood my situation and let me though without a problem. Before that, in LA on the way to film school in New York, the customs official, a black man, had simply muttered “Now I’ve seen everything,” before waving me through.

But not this time. I spent the next half hour or so answering questions about my background, my life, my work, etc. before the armed officer finally went back to consult with the form-taking official, who was looking at me with apparent dislike. Officer Pistol explained something to him, but what it was I couldn’t say as they were out of earshot. Eventually the form-taker relented, and the man with the pistol came back and said I could 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. The meal was delicious, 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 tasty desserts. Then it was another Lyft back to the hotel.

What a day.


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, that 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 puts it into next year. We’ll see. Our bus was 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 swank 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 saying. 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 anything mid-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 me up and down 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 happily standard 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 on 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. Landing airplanes periodically loomed overhead.

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


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  
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