Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Sep 01 2014

Tokyo 2014, part 3

Rain. And more rain. That was today. It was raining when I got up. My hopes lifted at breakfast downstairs when it let up, and the people on the sidewalk stopped carrying umbrellas, but by the time I was ready to go out, it was raining again. I got in touch my with old classmate from film school, Yas, and we arranged to meet at 4 at his shop.

The museums being closed today, I decided I’d head to Shinjuku for a bit, managing to understand the subway staff’s instructions on how to use the card I’d kept from Osaka. I was looking for signs to the Marunouchi Line from the Ginza Line when an American woman pulling a large piece of luggage asked me just that. “I…uh…” I stammered, as I didn’t know. She stared at me, and then shrugged dismissively.

“No help? Ok,” she said, as if I had snubbed her.

I did manage to fine the right platform. And so did she. It’s not hard if you just follow the signs.

In Shinjuku I walked over and through the Golden Gai, where I’d first met and photographed Moriyama years ago. All the little shops were closed of course. After lunch I visited the shrine that had been under construction the last time I was staying in the area. Rain once again began to pelt the ground as I walked back towards the train station. Dozens of stories above, window washers were no doubt saying to themselves, “Well,  shit.”

I found a Starbucks near a Krispy Kreme whose empty, silent assembly line bore quiet testament to the fact that Krispy Kreme isn’t nearly as popular as it was before they changed the recipes. I’d been told that all Starbucks offered free wifi, but the sign-up process requires that you register at home first. So much for that. In fact, in the year 2014, Japan, which is so advanced in so many other ways, takes a positively medieval view of wifi. It is almost never offered, and when it is, it’s with prohibitively complicated requirements.

Outside, people were struggling with their umbrellas as the wind picked up, adding to the general nastiness of the day. I took the train out to Asagaya Minami, where Yas’ shop is, and completely failed to find it until Yas actually came out and grabbed me. We spent the next few hours talking about his new career as a VJ, movies, etc. It was good to catch up. I showed him some clips from The Kiss of Lady X, and he was astounded that we did what we did for such a small amount of money. He also suggested I watch The Castle of Caglioso, an early Miyazaki work.

I took the train back around 9 pm. The rain continued, unabated. The wind wasn’t helping, either. I had some katsu-don at a nearby place Louis had recommended, and then it was back to the hotel  to dry out my things and take a hot shower. Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow.

posted by Poagao at 10:16 pm  
Aug 31 2014

Tokyo 2014, part 2

The sky was grey when I got up this morning and went down for breakfast at the hotel restaurant, where I had a hot dog and a salad while looking out at the people walking by. The hotel people said they could put me up on a higher floor in a room with a view, so I had to pack up and leave my luggage with them before heading out.

I headed to Ueno Park, where what I thought was a sewer outlet turned out to be water issuing from a well guarded by a huge crow. A light drizzle began as I observed a baseball game, causing the homeless fellows busy sleeping on adjacent benches to sit up. The park is full of cicadas and fresh air, which some of the visitor try to deal with by talking loudly and smoking.

I walked by the Filipino Fair and the art university,which has little glass rooms overlooking trees, presumably for art students to veg out in. The ground trembled every time a subway train ran underneath. At a school next to a shrine the sound of a concert band issued through the windows, and I wondered why they were practicing on a Sunday. Mothers and children on motorized bicycles zoomed around the streets of a temple-laden neighborhood.

I walked back to the park, resting a bit on a bench overlooking ducks and turtles, thinking it was nice to be here when it’s not cold for once. Lunch was at Subway. I’ve been trying to use what Japanese I have, with varied success. I am really, really not used to speaking it.

After lunch I headed south, stopping at a temple of a literary bent, where I took a family photo for some people. Back on the main road, I noted that one of the distinctive smells of Tokyo is a slight hint of diesel exhaust, probably from the subway. That and certain cooking smells.

I stopped at the Kanda Shrine, where statues of horses licking their feet adorn the entrance, and again at the Confucian Shrine, which was rather delapidated. An old man with a mask painted the scene in front…at least I think it was the scene in front. It wasn’t very much like the scene in front, to be honest.

A group of foreigners I passed back on the street were discussing what to do next. “I will talk to the driver,” their guide was saying. I couldn’t help but think to myself, happily, “I don’t have a driver! Ha!”

Just down the street was one of my favorite bits of Tokyo, namely the Shohei Bridge, where several subway lines criss-cross above and below, and a police boat sped by underneath just as I approached. A man was taking pictures on the bridge with the huge, ungainly Sigma Quattro.

I walked over to Akihabara, where the entire street had been closed to traffic. It was rather bizarre. I asked a policeman what time it started and stopped, and he said 1 to 6, and only on Sundays, before he dashed off to blow his whistle at some kids riding their bikes on the sidewalk.

I was really enjoying myself, walking on my own all around the area, stopping to write, or doubling back, or dashing over to take a shot of this or that. It was immensely satisfying, and the weather cooperated, the clouds dispersing, a brilliant afternoon sun illuminating the large white buildings.

I eventually made my way back to the hotel, where they gave me a room on the 11th floor. Sure, it’s next to the elevators, as well as the stairwell of the building next door, but at least it has a view of the outside. I took a shower and then met my friend Louis in the lobby. We headed out for dinner, and after a long walk that got me thoroughly lost, we ate at a Korean barbeque place while discussing politics and photography.

And now I’m back here, listening to the elevators. Fortunately, my apartment bedroom is next to the elevators as well, so it doesn’t particularly bother me.

posted by Poagao at 10:16 pm  
Aug 30 2014

Tokyo ’14 part 1

When I headed out my door this morning, all packed up, it was the first time in a long while that I’ve done so on my own. It was a bit unsettling, in fact. I allowed myself to feel cautiously happy, almost uneasily happy, on the bus to the airport. The weather in Taipei was brilliant and hot, and I wondered if it was raining in Tokyo.

The feeling of happiness grew stronger at the airport, where I lounged around while everyone else lined up to get on the plane. I was happy to be the last one. I’d gotten there in plenty of time, snagged myself a window seat at the rear of the 777, and settled in for a beautiful flight.

It was actually stunningly beautiful…white bits of clouds floating over the blue pacific, their dark blue shadows and white reflections visible in the water. A kid was crying, but it didn’t bother me.

I managed to catch the Skyliner into Tokyo this time, something that eluded me last time I was here, five years ago. Has it really been five years? Man. I was happy again when I walked out of the station into Ueno. I’m staying at the hotel I felt was most appropriately named: the Sardonyx. My window doesn’t do much right now because it’s too low and the building next door blocks any view, but they said they’d move me upwards tomorrow. After dinner at Yoshinoya (oddly one restaurant where the food is much better in the Taipei version), I walked around the area a bit. It’s cool but not unpleasant. So far, so good. No idea what I’m doing,  which, again, I’ve grown unused to, but I’ll think of something.

posted by Poagao at 9:51 pm  
Aug 25 2014

Enter Title Here

My weekend was spent turning the Water Curtain Cave upside-down in search of the warranty for my washing machine, which refused to surrender my clothes the last time I washed anything. I suspect it also hid the warranty, as I can almost hear it chuckling out there on the balcony. However, though there is as yet no sign of that particular document, I did managed to go through a bunch of other stuff, and threw out three large garbage bags of various things I didn’t need. This is one of the perils of buying a place and living in it for a long time without moving; stuff builds up, and without moving there’s no reason to get rid of it. But I need to. I’d also like to get rid of a bunch of clothes and books. My DVD collection will go when I can put them all on a thumb drive, which, according to Moore’s Law, will be possible around *looks at watch* Thursday.  My old PC needs to be donated for parts, and even my “new” iMac is getting a bit long in the tooth at the ripe old age of five. It still works, but very slowly, and my view is mostly occupied by the swirling rainbow.

Being back at my old office is still rather surreal. People, staff members who remember me from Back in The Day hail me in the hallways, which is awkward as I’m terrible with names. And faces. And, well, people. Which is unfortunate because I’m working with people; my boss is only a couple of cubicles away, so I’m really going to have to cut down on the LARPing. Instead of the old clunky PC I used for roughly a decade, I’m now using an old clunky laptop with a yellow screen. I tell myself that this will help my eyesight, but my eyes are having none of it. Luckily my cubicle wall only covers half the window next to me, so I can see a bit of sky outside through the blinds.

In other news, the Xingtian Temple, one of Taipei’s most venerated temples, is going green; no more incense, no more tables full of awful junk food meant as offerings. And right in the middle of Ghost Month, too! Personally I think ghost money burning is far worse a problem than incense, but it’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully the trend will catch on.

Theoretically I should be planning my trip to Tokyo next week. Chenbl has been urging me to have a detail plan, hour-by-hour, with subway charges and meals all planned out. He says this because that is the only way he ever travels, and is horrified when he hears that I basically just show up in whatever city and wing it. This time, I’d like to meet some old friends, and possibly with some publishers, but other than that, I don’t really know.

 

I’m not really sure where I’m going lately, with photography, writing, filmmaking, etc. Mostly because I can finish projects but am allergic to self promotion, so things are done and then just…lie there. But when I look back at my earlier entries, I feel like I’ve really slacked off lately. It would be easy to blame certain other parties for this, but I really should take the responsibility myself, and try to live in a way that is at least worth blogging (and that’s a low bar if I ever saw one), and making my own mistakes, because embarrassing failures are much more interesting to read about than surrogate success.

posted by Poagao at 2:19 pm  
Aug 18 2014

School concert

The concert, such as it was, went ok, I guess. Managing to miss the downpours, I arrived at the school at around 4pm on Saturday so that I could video Chenbl’s flute group, which turned out to be larger than I’d anticipated. I was forced to set up the camera further back to get all 17 of them in, as they were spread across the “stage”. This, however, didn’t work out so well in the actual performance department, as nobody could hear anyone else, and the sound guy was a bit touchy whenever anyone point out any flaw in his microphone arrangement. “If you don’t like it, why are you playing here?” he asked.

Our trio was later, so we went to the basement to practice a bit, and Chenbl’s niece showed up to help video us later. They laughed at me sliding around the room in my socks while the others practiced. It was muggy and hot outside, and I was surprised so many people showed up. It seemed most of them were local elderly folks who lived nearby and had no choice but to witness the cacophony, and they figured they might as well do it right. Kudos for that, anyway.

I set up the camera in the area in front of the stage, and after watching Chenbl try to keep his sheet music from flying off his stand by using an elbow, I dashed in for the third song, “Summertime”. The people seemed to like it. Afterwards we had dinner at a nearby Japanese joint with Chenbl’s parents joining us. Chenbl’s mother grilled the waitress on her braces, while Chenbl asked me if he’s finally ready for the big time, by which he meant playing charity gigs, and I said, “not quite”. It’s impressive what he’s managed to learn in such a short time, but he still has a long way to go.

That was Saturday. On Sunday I spent most of the day at home putting some final touches on a couple of photo books I’ve been working on, so that I can get some samples printed for people both here and in Japan. Re-thinking the sequencing to conform to some concrete ideas and themes rather than going purely by feeling alone seemed to help. Also helpful was reading and looking at a book I borrowed from my friend Brian WebbTales of Tono by Daido Moriyama, the text of which seemed to have been written by a long-lost twin, especially the parts where Moriyama expresses his joy at setting out for the hinterlands after a long period of stewing in Tokyo. In the meantime, my book has five reviews on amazon.com now, mostly positive. I haven’t asked anyone to review it, or promised free copies or anything. I’m sure my lack of SEO awareness is not a good thing in this case, but perhaps things will be different when the print version comes out.

Dinner was at Evan’s Burger on Dunhua. I’d never been there, so I dragged Chenbl there to give it a try, for which he got revenge by telling me things like, “You can’t help but like the food you ate before you were 19. You will only like that food more and more as you get older. It’s biology.” This was his way of saying he doesn’t like hamburgers. He had fish and chips.

posted by Poagao at 12:20 am  
Aug 15 2014

Return

I’ve been looking back at some of my older entries, and I have to admit I’m rather shocked at how much I wrote back in the day. And when I say “back in the day,” I mean before around 2008. After that, I mostly spent my time tooling around on Facebook, etc. and feeling sorry for myself.

But Facebook isn’t terribly good at looking back, and it feels a little cheap and mean. I kind of miss babbling on about my day on here, just me and maybe a couple of readers. They say blogging’s dead, but my keyboard still works. So here goes:

So my job is moving again. I’ve spent the last couple of years at a particular office that reminds me of an old, slightly seedy hotel that was once grand. Chipped wooden doors, musty old carpets, formerly high ceilings now covered with tiles, tarnished brass fittings, faded lacquer…that kind of thing. I’ve enjoyed it, as my friend Guo-xi is in the next cubicle, and it’s fun to chat about stuff sometimes. Also, we’re on the first floor, and there are nice things like trees and birds just outside the tall, barred windows. There are also not-so-nice things, like when the cleaners brush up all the dust in the carpets, or another co-worker’s daily fight with the printer.

But now we’re moving back to our former digs, more or less. In fact, everyone who’s going has already gone. I’m the only one left, because my computer, an ancient PC dating from the Bush years if carbon tests can be believed, isn’t going with me. Who knows what awaits me there? I’ve been in this position for over ten years now, so perhaps a little variety wouldn’t hurt. Fortunately there is lots of wood around here to knock on as I say this.

In addition to becoming tired of Facebook, I’m also getting a little tired of Flickr. I’ve administered HCSP for years now, and I have to admit I’m somewhat frustrated with the whole thing. It’s repetitive, dealing with wave after wave of people coming in to knock down some Aged Pillar of the Street Photography they’ve imagined is Blocking Progress by Not Recognizing Their Genius or something. It’s just a flickr group, after all, and to be honest I was never actually solid in my commitment to street photography, which I personally think is not even a real thing, or shouldn’t be, as all of the definitions of it that mean anything describe what it’s not. It’s mostly become an excuse for bad photography for the great majority of its practitioners.

In any case, I’ve made most of my photos private, and I’ve parred down the groups I belong to as well. Too often I feel, in the context of “real” photographers I encounter there and on FB, that I am just faking it. I’m not really a photographer, because I can’t bring myself to be interested in most of what they’re talking about. I enjoy good photography. I enjoy the emotions I have when I see good photography, and I enjoy taking photos. That’s about it. Everything else just seems…extraneous lately.

Or perhaps I’m just tired; it’s just been a long, hot, muggy summer full of record temperatures and seemingly frequent disasters, including plane crashes and exploding cities. I need a break. Fortunately, I will be doing just that at the end of this month, embarking on a trip to Tokyo for a week. Why, you ask? To be in Tokyo for a week. To do what? To be in Tokyo. That’s it. Oh, I’ll walk around, and perhaps take a photo or two if I see anything, but mostly just to see what it’s like in warm weather. Oh, and I also plan to meet some people I know there, such as my old film school classmate Yas, my friend Louis, and some other friends I met who are in the publishing business there, and possibly Daido Moriyama, if he’s around and up for it. I wish my attempts to pick up some Japanese had stuck, alas.

I’m also going to Paris in November, but that will be more business stuff, because we’ve been invited to exhibit at Paris Photo. We’ve also been invited to the MAP festival in Toulouse as well as the Brighton Biennial, but I only have so much time off, so Paris it is. Also, Chenbl and Ewan are tagging along, so it’s probably going to be a crazy ride full of touristy travails a la our last trip to Osaka. Also, it will be cold.

The Ramblers are once again on the scene after David came back from his six-month-long journey around the world, so we’ve been busy with shows lately. It’s good to get back into that scene; I was getting a little tired of just playing along to Spotify playlists at home, worrying that my neighbors would complain. In fact, Chenbl’s been inspired to take up not only the flute but also violin, and I’ll be accompanying him and a fellow student this weekend for one of their student concerts. The venue is a horribly echo-ey school atrium area, and it’s bound to be both swelteringly hot and cacophonous, but, well, it’s just another one of those things I never talked about. Until now.

posted by Poagao at 4:57 pm  
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

Quarter

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  
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