Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Mar 02 2015

A return to work, post-dream

Today is the beginning of Proper Work, after the Chinese New Year and 2/28 Holidays. I spent the break with the flu, drunk on medicine, half in a dream state. I spent last night battling desperate nightmares, the kind that last until you’re convinced they are real, more real than the life you’re actually living. Now it’s cold and windy, and the streets are deserted, as though nobody’s really in the mood to start up again. I know I’m not.

Friday morning, however, the sun was out, and I thought it would be a good idea to take the crazy bike out for a spin, though the wind was taking things seriously. I went down to the basement, took the dust covers off the seat, and hauled my red ride up to street level to pump the tires before setting off, north as always (there are no paths south, not really). Riding was nice, though tinged with an eerie feeling that comes when the wind is at one’s back; I was pedaling but I didn’t feel any real motion. The riverside parks were crowded with holiday-makers enjoying the fine weather, so I wasn’t going that fast anyway.

At one point I swerved onto a divergent path to avoid crashing into another bicycle, and found myself looking at a massive array of men with cameras sporting huge lenses, spread out in a u-shape in front of an oddly shaped log and a bunch of grass. There must have been 50 or 100 of them, all staring intently through their finders, their motors whirring away at dizzying frames-per-second speeds. Many were decked out in full camouflage, including their huge 600mm lenses. It was quite the spectacle, and I really wanted a photo of them all, but when I edged towards the front of them on the side, several of them waved me off, even though I was dozens of meters away from the log they were photographing. I crept behind the trees behind the log, and even more of them shouted at me to get the hell out of their shots, even though there was no physically possible way I could have been in any of their shots.

“Didn’t you see the bird?” One of them asked me as I returned to the group, most of whom were glaring at me with the utmost distaste, this yokel who was RUINING THEIR WORK. I managed not to wonder aloud how, after spending untold fortunes on equipment, anyone could possibly remain so ignorant of the concept of depth of focus. Instead I managed to grin like an idiot and ask them about the bird. What kind of bird was it? “It’s an Angry Bird!” I was told, i.e. one of those little red birds made famous by the game.

“But how did it get here?” I asked.

“It, uh…escaped!” one of the photographers said.

“Really.” I stared at him. He looked nervous.


“It just ‘escaped’ on its own, eh?” Without having its wings clipped and tossed out onto a log in the park so that all of these frauds could “discover” it in a “natural state” so they could sell the prints to magazines for vast sums they could use to buy even longer lenses, no doubt. Amazing, but not surprising.

I left them to their fun and continued riding up the river, eventually passing the “Water Taxi” docks that proclaimed that the three times the boats left were all in the late afternoon due to the holidays, and up to the Dahan River, where I explored the new Crescent Moon pedestrian bridge, which is very nice, providing access to the old street and temples near Xinzhuang MRT station, a historic area that has witnessed a great deal of inter-tribal strife over the years.

I’d forgotten to bring lights for the crazy bike for night-time riding, so I decided to head back, against the wind to the comfort of home. I’d also forgotten sunscreen, which was unbeknownst to me etching a tan line where I wore my do-rag across my forehead. The wind and clouds made the trip back a low-key affair. The crowds of photographers were still snapping away at their “prize”, several hours later when I passed them on my way home.

Back at the Water Curtain Cave, I quailed at the idea of another night at home. So I called up Chenbl, who was spending the day in Gongguan, to meet up for dinner at the steak house on the second floor of Taipei train station. We’ve gone there many times, and while the service level goes up and down, the streak’s usually good. Also, they have the best creme brule this side of Paris. People staring (more than usual) at me on the subway alerted me to the dual-toned nature of my face after the day’s riding in the sun.

That was Friday. On Saturday, I met up with Xiao Guo and Chenbl at Dapinglin to take the bus to Longtan, the town where Chenbl’s mother grew up. Traffic was bad, as a cold front was threatening the last day of the holiday, and everyone was on the road trying to take advantage of the remaining hours of sun. But eventually we disembarked in downtown Longtan, which Chenbl says looks nothing like it did when he was little and the place was an idyllic farming town with potable water and buildings still not covered with billboards. One of these building’s outrageously awful design was apparently despite the billboards. When I wondered what the hell was up with it, Chenbl said, “Oh, that was designed by children on a whim.”

“Really? Isn’t that somewhat…irresponsible?” I said.

“How so?”

“I mean, aren’t there construction regulations, safety…uh, things?”

“Oh, well…that was a long time ago.”

We walked over and noted the awful construction techniques, the rotting wooden beams encased in concrete, the purposeless minarets and turrets, the trees growing through the structure. It was amazing it hadn’t collapsed yet. Nobody officially lived there, though there were signs of a previous restaurant and some farmers still using it.

We walked through abandoned fields and up old streets, Chenbl talking about How Things Used To Be when he was a little kid exploring the alleys four decades ago. As he told the tragic story of one of his neighbors being hit by a train, a man walked up who turned out to be the unfortunate neighbor’s father. “Geez, I hope he didn’t hear me talking about his son,” Chenbl whispered after we escaped the awkward conversation.

We ended up buying lottery tickets next door to the temple, which is now protected from the elements by a giant white sail contraption that looks as if the whole thing is about to take flight. The old parts of the town looked like they might have been nice places to live back in the day, or at least they did in my drug-addled imagination.

A very good lunch was had at a traditional Hakka restaurant while the staff gossiped about us at the next table. We then made our way out to the park surrounding the town’s eponymous water feature, where Chenbl’s aunt sings for passersby as a professional street performer. She’s very good. Chenbl is a very good singer himself, but his aunt is in another league altogether. We sat and listened for a bit as the sun warmed the lake and everyone around it. Chenbl’s aunt kept trying to get us to come down and sing something, and eventually Chenbl got me on stage to sing a Taiwanese song, Hai-bo-long, in a duo with his aunt. It was a lot of fun.

The weather had other plans, however, wiping the sun away just as we decided to take a walk around the lake. The sun vanished, the temperature dropping several degrees. By the time we arrived back at the stage, a lovely summer day had become dark and cold. Chenbl’s aunt bravely kept the crowd warm with music, and even got Chenbl up to sing. She also got a couple to come up and perform, the woman singing and the man playing a copper-colored trumpet with some decent amount of skill considering the plummeting temperatures. But rain was falling now, and we abandoned the show to board a bus to Xinpu. Chenbl and Xiao Guo had going on all day about getting some bantiao noodles there, but we were too late; everyone was trying to get back home now that the good weather was gone. The bus driver informed us that traffic was backed up to an incredible degree; we’d never make Xinpu. He let us off in Guanxi, where we were turned away from one popular restaurant before we managed to have some decent noodles (“Though not as good as Xinpu,” Chenbl kept saying). Mist was falling, and most of the stores were resolutely closed. Aided by friendly Hakka residents who let us dash into their bathroom for a quick piss, we managed to board another bus back to Taipei. Fortunately by that time traffic wasn’t too bad, with only a few red streaks on Google Traffic marring the route on my iPad, and in only a couple of hours we were marveling once again at the towering high-rises of New Taipei City (I still can’t stand that name; it is the cause of endless confusion in headlines to this day). Xiao Guo jumped off in the middle of Banqiao for some reason, and we caught the subway from the West Gate.

The trip made me feel I should spend more time exploring the area around Guanxi and Xinpu. Some other time, I suppose. There’s nothing like exploring a new place to jump start flagging dream states.



posted by Poagao at 1:11 pm  
Jan 30 2015


artlandWith my afternoons free of gainful employment these days, I’ve been spending more time wandering about, which is wonderful and yet a bit scary as I’m so unused to it. I feel as if I should be doing something boring and, well, blatantly gainful, as opposed to something that is interesting yet somewhat more subtly gainful. It’s like a steering wheel has been suddenly thrust in my hands, and my response thus far has been less “I will guide this vehicle to the best route!” and more like “Ooh, let’s see where this road goes…this is a road, isn’t it? Or path?”

In recent days the weather has sometimes been a bit uninspiring, and those afternoons I’ve been spending at the Artland bookshop on Renai Road, in the basement of a formerly ritzy residence across from the former Air Force HQ. Eslite has some nice photographic books, but most bookshops here tend to focus on “How to Get the Most Out of Your Panasonic FX-3810-B’s Autofocus Algorithms (with Codes for Free Customization Profiles!)” rather than actual photography. And what Eslite does have I’ve seen a million times already, so Artland was a refreshing change. So far I’ve sat on a sofa whiling away many afternoons devouring such interesting work as Uncommon Places, Road Trip, Minutes to Midnight, the Photographers Sketchbook, etc. I haven’t found Eggleston’s Chromes there, alas, though I did get a look at them at the Pompidou in Paris. The light at Artland is nice and there is a speaker just over the sofa so that the music is just distracting enough that I don’t feel the need to keep glancing surreptitiously at the cashier, who can’t but have helped notice that I haven’t bought anything yet and must be tired of the little gasping sounds I make when I come across a particularly lovely print. I am thinking about buying something, though, possibly one of Webb’s books.

It was drizzling out when I emerged back onto the street after a long stint on the sofa this afternoon, and I noticed that most of Taipei has replaced its streetlights with bright white LEDs instead of the ugly yellow lights they used to have. I walked back up Renai and through the knotted maze of a neighborhood in the general direction of Dongmen Station, passing one of the most impressive trees I’ve seen in the city, and a great deal of cats. I love this town.


posted by Poagao at 10:42 pm  
Jan 20 2015

Taichung show

We took a bus to Taichung on Saturday. Well, most of us did. Sandman got lost and couldn’t find the station in time, so he caught the next bus. But David, Slim, Eddie, Conor and I managed to board at the new Taipei Bus Station, hidden in the lofty heights of the Q-Square building, in time to get down to Taichung by mid-afternoon. Every time I travel to Taichung I wonder what it would be like to live there, and note how much it has changed since I went to college there. And every time I conclude that without a metro system I would probably find it quite inconvenient. Hopefully the first new mayor the city has had in well over a decade will do something about this situation. We’ll see.

We were playing at an underground live house, the Sound Garden, where the performance space seemed to be hidden behind a door in the “regular” performance space. I had to ask where the fire exits were, as the place seemed ready-made for disaster with one long tunnel to the exit. After our sound check I noticed that nobody was around, but when I went outside I found a long line of people waiting to get in.

The show was great, even though we were without Thumper, our percussionist. Mojo, who had been waiting for us there, was helping us keep time with some small cymbals, but I had to concentrate rather harder than usual on keeping the bass-line steady, as I could feel everyone leaning a bit more heavily on it than they would have if Thumper were there. The audience reaction was ecstatic throughout the show and encores. The mood was great, and we sat around signing CDs for a long time after the show. This was followed by a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant across the street, which ran long because we were all still high from the show and full of bright talk. It was after 1 a.m. before we caught a bus back to Taipei, and after 4 when I tumbled into the Water Curtain Cave, grateful for my bed.

Our post-gig dinner

Our post-gig dinner


On Sunday I practiced violin. You didn’t know I played the violin? That’s because I don’t, really. I signed up for community college classes that start in March, but I haven’t studied since I was a five-year-old Suzuki student with a quarter-sized instrument in Maitland, Florida. But Chenbl convinced me to give it a shot, and now I feel really sorry for my neighbors. Sure, I play trumpet at home at reasonable hours, but I know how to play the trumpet. A beginner violin student really should be exiled to a soundproof room for several months at least. But the violin is borrowed and the classes are cheap, so if it doesn’t take…well, no harm, no foul.

I saw “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” recently. I kind of had to, as every single friend of mine had asked me if I’d seen it, and, as a photographer, if the movie really resonated with me. It was a strange film, with great camera work, but it didn’t really resonate with me, probably because I was wondering throughout whether it should. Another reason was the way photography was portrayed in the film, and the nerd in me got in the way when I saw Sean Penn trying to act like a photographer. “I just want to be here, seeing it for myself,” Penn says at one point in the film.

“No, you’re not seeing it for yourself, that’s a frickin’ 400mm lens!” I say to the TV and any neighbors who are listening in. “And Ben Stiller just screwed up your focus anyway!”



posted by Poagao at 10:13 am  
Jan 06 2015

The wind

I went down to the company headquarters in Hsinchu for the first time on the last day of the year to sign the papers; one of the projects I’ve been working on for many years has been cancelled, and so I find myself with a schedule I haven’t had in years. They’ve promised to treat me fairly. We parted on good terms. Afterward, as my train back to Taipei was hours away, I wandered around the high-speed rail station, among the huge apartment blocks and new construction. The day was clear and cold, and hardly anyone was around as I walked on the big grass field behind the station, the wind whipping at me from various directions. I felt great, free, even though my income will take a hit. After over a decade in one position, one secure, steady position, part of me is excited at the change, though another part of me has become unused to such things. Right now I’m preparing for a photography talk I’m giving later this month. Then there’s always writing and photography and just general wandering that all call to me. I’ve also signed up for violin classes for some reason. I went to the community college near the Death Star Mall last night to listen to the teacher, and she seemed to know what she was doing. Chenbl has a spare violin that his niece discarded after losing interest in music, so it won’t be much of an expense. I find myself wanting to sell the Water Curtain Cave and move back into the city, maybe sell off all my things and live in a tiny room downtown, maybe get an electric scooter. To be honest, that’s not a very practical plan, financially speaking. And I have to admit that, even after all these years, I still love walking over that bridge, though the load of worries I toss over the side each day seems to grow all the time.

Simplify should be the word of the year. I should get rid of a lot of stuff, even if I don’t end up moving into a micro-apartment above Q-Square or something. I should put all my old DVDs onto a hard drive, all my books (well, most of them, aside from my photobooks) onto a Kindle, and ship everything off to second-hand shops. Travel will probably be a bit sparser in 2015 than it was in 2014; I made four trips last year, which is about twice as many as I usually take, but the photo festival paid for my trip to Hangzhou in the spring, and the trip to Tokyo in the fall was purely to regain a portion of my sanity, so I consider it a fair trade.

Right now I have photography instruction, the print version of my book, the final DVD/blu-ray package for the movie, recording a third album with the Muddy Basin Ramblers (plus playing shows), revamping this entire site, and a photography book or two on my plate. Will things get a bit more “normal” this year for me? I don’t know; there are powerful forces at work to prevent such development, but you never know. I want to live a life that I can write about, and that hasn’t been the case for a while now, resulting in very sparse posting, but I just may claw my way back into something resembling such a state eventually. Go me.


posted by Poagao at 11:21 am  
Nov 24 2014

Paris, etc. conclusion

The weather on the day of our departure was, of course, wonderful. After so many days of rain and gloom, Paris thumbed its nose at us with lovely blue skies. We packed up everything, checked the apartment for stuff left behind, and made our way to the train station. On the way to the airport, I was taking pictures when one of the train attendants told me something in French. “Sorry, I don’t understand,” I said.

“You cannot take photos of other people without their permission,” she said. “It is illegal here.” From what I understand, that’s not entirely accurate, but I just nodded and started taking shots of Xiao Guo and Carlos, asking them pointedly, “Will you permit me to take your photo?” each time.

It’s odd, this (perhaps French, perhaps Parisian?) fear of being photographed. A homeless man wanted five Euros because his dog was in my shot. A man in a shop warned me about taking photos just because he saw a camera around my neck (the camera was off and the lens cap on). What exactly have Parisians been doing with photography that has instilled so much fear in them? Have photographers been photoshopping people into compromising situations and then extorting money from them, on such a wide scale that everyone lives in fear now? I saw many people with cameras, and there were international photography shows, including many street photography exhibits in town at that point. But the feeling I got was definitely uneasy, not just about photography, but just public safety in general. Perhaps it’s because I come from a country where things are generally safe and free.

Anyway, we got to the airport, where the authorities apparently thought that the service desks should resemble the U.S. embassy in Saigon as the Viet Cong approached the city, and I utilized my American accent and visage to get us over to a counter where the woman had no idea how to check us in. There were no window seats forthcoming.

The leg from Paris to Shanghai was long, and filled with movies. In Shanghai we sat at a place called the Acting Cafe (the actual cafe was off that day, I guess), and watched a couple of French woman be appalled at the lack of mayonnaise. On the flight back to Taipei, after another delay (of course), we were carted out to the far ends of the airfield to board presidential style, whereupon we found ourselves seated behind one of China’s “Little Emperors”. The boy chattered and screamed throughout the flight, and his parents and grandmother couldn’t have been more delighted at each utterance.

So anyway, I’m back, and busy trying to get back into the swing of things. It’s been a rather trying trip, though it had its highlights. But I could really use a vacation now.

posted by Poagao at 11:06 am  
Nov 22 2014

Paris, etc. part 9

Today we went to the Monmarte area. Breakfast was surprisingly bad at a place just across the road from the entrance. We took the funicular or whatever up, just in time to witness a young woman in a scarf scoop up some water from the gutter into a bottle, which she proceeded to splash people with. A harpist was playing on the veranda overlooking the city. We slipped into the church, which has changed since I was there last in ’09. Back then, we could just walk in and sit down, but now worshippers are segregated from observers, and men cannot wear hats. Why only men can’t wear hats I have no idea. They also say no photography, but everyone inside was snapping away with their tablets and phones. I suppose that makes sense, when I think about it. The singing was very nice, though.

We walked around the area a bit and then, after a merry game of I’m The Only One Who Knows Where We’re Going, we found the Two Windmills, i.e. the cafe featured in the movie Amelie. It was very cool to sit inside and eat. The food was very good, and the service impeccable. I asked the waiter where the fruit stand in the movie was, and he told me, but we didn’t find it. Instead we took the subway to the Cite stop and boarded a boat for a cruise up and down the Seine. It was nice, but a bit cold. I couldn’t help but wonder who lived in all of those brightly lit windows, and what their life was like.

After the tour we took the subway to the Eiffel Tower, but the line going up was so long we abandoned any hope of doing so, and instead took the underground back to the apartment. Dinner was takeout, and delicious. We also stocked up on groceries, which is going to make tomorrow’s flight difficult.

Yes, we are flying back to Taipei tomorrow. Paris has been interesting, if frustrating at times, but those are all my fault. Maybe I’ll come back someday in a more appropriate state.

posted by Poagao at 5:58 am  
Nov 21 2014

Paris, etc., part 8

We went to Versailles today. The train trip was long. Versailles was magnificent. French people, I’ve noticed, get really upset if you try to pay for things with large bills. I’m not talking about little stands and the like where someone might have trouble, but large businesses.

After we got back we had dinner at the Dome, the restaurant where many famous people hung out back in the day. The other patrons glared at us, but the food was good.


posted by Poagao at 7:30 am  
Nov 20 2014

Paris, etc, part 7

It’s been quite a few days since I wrote in here. Things have just been too busy. We had the show opening at the gallery, which was a big success; wall-to-wall people. I met a lot of people I’ve known online for years in person for the first time. Hanging out with the other Burn My Eye members and just chatting has been a blast.

Paris is…well, it’s Paris. Either everyone has the same style beard or a man who can change his height and age but not his beard style is following me everywhere. We climbed to the top of Notre Dam just as the weather cleared in a rare moment of sunlight. French people really do carry loaves of bread around with them. Wifi is not as hard to find as it is in Japan.

It’s been raining a lot of the time. We went to a dessert place that sports 300 years of history, and there I had real creme brule for the first time. Well, I didn’t have it there; there were no seats, so we snuck our snacks into a nearby Starbucks where the bathroom required a code.

I joined Fred, Jack and Justin for a workshop on Sunday. It rained all day. We got soaked, but it was fun to watch the others shoot and give advice to students. Justin got bar mitzvahed on the street, and mixed it up with a stylish gentleman before we headed back to review the shots.

The collective show and videos were last night, and I talked with Richard Bram a bit. I’ve been getting some good advice from a lot of people on various projects. I missed Paris Photo because I’d thought it would last for more than a few days. Oh, well. I also missed meeting quite a few people I’d hoped to meet. Again: Oh, well. The price of travelling with a group, as always.

Today we went to the Louvre. It was brilliant, of course. I found some paintings I’ve always loved, and it was nice to be able to examine them up close. Chenbl and Carlos got lost, of course, but we eventually found each other again. Afterwards, outside, I looked back as we walked up the street by the park to see Chenbl and Carlos in conversation with a stranger who was apparently asking directions. I was on my way over to tell them to cut it out when two “policemen” appeared flashing badges. They wanted to see passports, and Chenbl handed them over before I could say anything. Then they wanted wallets. “Don’t give them anything,” I said in Chinese.

“Hey!” shouted one of them supposed cops. “Speak English!”

“You want English?” I said. “How’s this? I’ll speak whatever damn language I want with them. How’s that?”

The “cops” got friendly and sent us on our way  after that. But I was in a bad mood the whole night as a result. Tomorrow we’re going to Versailles, I guess.

posted by Poagao at 7:37 am  
Nov 15 2014

Paris, etc., part 6

The morning was bright and clear on our last day in Quimper. We walked over to the old city and walked around. The cathedral was closed, which was a shame as the sunlight would have been beautiful inside. As I looked at the complicated system of canals, I wondered if you could extract any data about a culture’s attitude towards democratic ideals and social management from the differences in design of such things.

The rain came and went, and we took refuge at tables in squares. The wet pavement made for nice light when the sun came out again. Crepes for lunch at a little blue restaurant where the waiter, who was otherwise very friendly, expressed horror at the idea that anyone would want another minute to decide on their meal.

Back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, and then onto the long-haul TVR to Paris. Luckily we scored a compartment with big comfy seats so the journey was very pleasant. We even had sandwiches in the food car, ourselves sandwiched in between a group of laughing young French people and a morose, dreadlocked black man in a cool hat.

Once in Paris we got on the metro and made our way to our stop, got conflicting directions from a couple of local girls, and finally made it to our apartment, where we were met by Fred, who is also staying here. The area’s a bit run down, but full of trendy bars surrounded by mobs of young people. Later we went out to meet some of the other BME folks and others, and I met Don Hudson, Jason Penner, Justin Vogel, Kramer O’Neil and many others for the first time, and it’s always interesting to meet people you’ve only interacted with online for many years. There was a lot of talk and handshakes and wine, and then we were outside to catch the last train.

posted by Poagao at 5:21 pm  
Nov 14 2014

Paris, etc., part 5

Our hotel room is straight out of a rejected line of Ikea showrooms, minus the style. The shower drains out onto the floor, which of course has no drain, and is about a quarter the size of a regular shower.

The sound of howling gusty wind and heavy rain through the night did little to raise our expectations of the weather, but the rain wasn’t too heavy when we finally emerged and walked to the bus station, where they told us that the first bus to Pont Aven was at 12:15. So we walked towards what we thought was downtown, until we realized that we were holding the map upside-down, upon which we turned around and found a bakery with amazing cherry crumbles. Then we explored a market, and I had to wonder why anyone would buy most of the sweets and other foods in the markets here when freshly made versions are readily available in bakeries and shops all over the place; I wonder if the supermarket versions are actually decent. It was refreshing to be surrounded by unadulterated food.

Then we actually went downtown, along the central canal, which is crossed by an amazing amount of bridges for some reason. The weather was nice and nasty in quick turns, and when we took refuse in the massive cathedral, we found the interior under construction. Alas. The combination of wind and rain made us realize why most people here don’t bother umbrellas.

We caught the bus out to Pont Aven, which took around an hour. Pont Aven is an amazingly beautiful little village criss crossed by streams and rivers, all cleverly shunted this way and that, surrounded by lovely woods and hills. We kept running into a group of older people, who greeted us enthusiastically each time. One of the trails led up a hill to the Church of the Yellow Christ, a lonely stone church that told the sad story of Gauguin and how nobody liked his paintings when he was around. I have to admit that the thought of living in one of those houses by the meandering river was attractive. At one point we came across a couple of very large geese, whom Chenbl prompted to attack me. Chenbl can be very persuasive. Around another corner a bunch of cats were playing with a dead mouse.

We tooled around the village until sunset, visiting the port where we fed seagulls and wondered what the big old stone houses were like at Christmas. Then we bought some sweets and then took the bus back to Quimper for a rather poor substitute for dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant. Why were we there? I suppose Chenbl and Xiao Guo were somewhat homesick for Asian food, but I’m sure that desire has been crushed because it wasn’t very good. Chenbl kept trying to speak Chinese to the owner, who turned out to be Vietnamese.

Tomorrow we plan to walk around a bit more, and then take the train back to Paris.

posted by Poagao at 5:32 am  
Next Page »