Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 13 2014

Flowers in the sun

On the evening of March 18, 2014, an extraordinary thing happened: Students took over Taiwan’s national parliament building, the Legislative Yuan.

If this had occurred in, say, American, Great Britain, Japan or any number of other countries, including China, it would have been instant worldwide headline news. Students take over Congress? Parliament? The Diet? The National People’s Congress? Impossible! Incredible! Of course, something similar happened in Wisconsin, in the publicly accessible part of the building, but that was huge news at the time, and any students making such an attempt on the governmental bodies in many if not all of those countries’ national capitals would likely be attacked and sent to prison, if not worse.

But here in Taiwan, they did it. But there was barely a ripple, as we’re talking about the media black hole that is Taiwan. We had the world’s tallest building for months before anyone noticed, and even when they did, the mention was wrapped in language implying that it didn’t matter as buildings are built all the time and something taller will be along soon. Correspondingly, it took weeks for the media to respond to this story, and even then it was of course wrenched firmly below the fold.

I walked over to the Legislature in Taipei the morning after the students had occupied it late the night before. The front facing courtyard on Zhongshan South Road to the west was the site of a largely hard-core pro-independence faction of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rally, complete with the requisite green color, simulated “national anthems” being broadcast over a portable loudspeaker, and other independence paraphernalia lined up before a gaggle of policemen protecting the door to the building. On the south side of the Legislature, another line of police and several hundred meters of barbed wire provided a backdrop for a protest site for various concerns on Jinan Road. People spoke to the crowd on the street about other concerns such as the nuclear waste storage problem and aboriginal rights, before coming back to the subject at hand, i.e. why the students had taken over the Legislature in the first place.

There are many sources for details on this, but in a nutshell, the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), and the main opposition party, the DPP, had been going through the Trade in Services Agreement with China that the government hopes to implement. The pact was actually signed on July 21st of last year, but the DPP was fighting the KMT at each pass, using every tactic to block the agreement from being reviewed, and the KMT had simply declared the review “over.” Anything put it to a vote in the Legislature is more or less equal to passing it due to the KMT’s superior numbers there. Proponents say economic integration is necessary to keep Taiwan from being isolated, while others fear that giving China too much say in such matters would erode Taiwan’s economic independence and eventually our political status as well.

People were surprised at the KMT’s tactic; students were enraged, and as news of the action spread on Facebook and other social media, they converged on the Legislature, and, well, took it over. The handful of police guarding the building were quickly surprised and overwhelmed as the students infiltrated the building, and after a brief bit of fighting and a few injuries, hundreds of students had taken over the Legislative Chambers of the nation.

I walked to the Northeast gate of the Legislature, where another crowd of protesters occupied the parking lot and the sidewalk. The weather was fine, warm and sunny. I was able to walk into the parking lot with no problem, right up to the front door of the building, where a line of police stood. According to Taiwan’s laws, foreign visitors participating in protests could be in danger of deportation as a result of “not doing what their visa says they’re here for” or something similar, but as I have been a Taiwanese citizen for two decades, I wasn’t concerned with deportation. Arrest, of course, was another matter; some documentarians had reportedly already been taken in for questioning for their activities in recording the actions.  But things looked safe enough for the moment, so I continued, taking photos of the protesters and the groups of policemen who were standing quietly behind shields.

“Would you like to go up?” one of the protesters asked, correctly interpreting my thoughts as I stared at the ladder they were using to climb up to the roof of the portico over the entrance. I nodded and hauled myself up after the student, one of their well-organized system of gatekeepers, gave the ok. On the portico roof, I climbed up another ladder and observed the crowd below. Behind me was yet another ladder over the gap between the portico and the building’s second-floor windows. This was apparently how many of the students accessed the place.

“Could I have a look inside?” I asked, and when approval was given, I found that today was not the best day to have brought my badminton equipment, which hindered my climbing the next ladder over the gap and squeezing into the open window as Republic of China Flags flew upside-down overhead. Inside the breezeway, I put my stuff down and walked over to see the makeshift “press rooms”, full of students staring at laptops and discussing strategies. Beyond were stairwells crammed with furniture, including chairs and tables, huge portraits of Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen, topped with a black bust of Sun Yat-sen staring down the stairs at any approaching invaders. Some of the students played drums while sitting on the coat check counter, and a few reporters sat on the balcony. I thought I saw lawyer Robin Winkler, a former American who became a Taiwanese citizen a few years ago, giving an interview at the end of the second-story hallway.

The students had firm control of the upper floor of the Legislature as well as the chamber, so I was a little surprised when I ventured down the staircase after squeezing past the barrier to find the lobby full of police. Many lounged around on chairs, glancing at me incuriously before returning to their phones, but a unit stood in formation in the middle of the lobby, between the outer doors and the doors to the chamber, which were blocked from within. They took little notice of me, and I walked over to the one accessible door on the south side of the chambers, guarded by students, and into the chambers itself.

It was a familiar sight, though I’d never been inside; it is the site of many a televised Legislative fight that is to many people the face of Taiwanese politics and the butt of many a joke. The scene was changed now, however, the podium and desks draped with the students’ signs and placards, slogans and a large sign declaring how many hours they’d been in control of the Legislature. People were speaking on the floor, political figures from the DPP as well as sympathetic professors, while students texted, lay asleep in the corners, or guarded the huge piles of furniture piled in front of all the other doors. Up on the second-floor balcony a couple of cameras watched and provided a live feed to the outside world.

“Are you concerned about losing focus on your message by including so many different topics? Aren’t you risking losing support you might otherwise have by pushing less popular matters?” I asked a DPP legislator, Hsu Tain-tsai, who had just handed me his card. He might have thought I was a foreign reporter, and I did nothing to dissuade him of that notion. He shook his head.

“We want to include all kinds of subjects, it’s a healthy discussion,” he told me. He’d started the conversation in Taiwanese, but switched to Mandarin not long afterwards. Afterward, I walked around, taking photos, chatting with students.

It was all rather familiar. Twenty-four years before, almost to the day, I’d attended another student protest in Taipei. I was a student at Tunghai University in Taichung at the time, and I traveled up to the capital with some of my fellow students, all Taiwanese, for the Wild Lily Protest of 1990. It was just a few months after Tiananmen, and the crumbling remains of our school’s version of the Goddess of Democracy still adorned our campus. The square in front of CKS Hall, between the opera house and the music hall, was filled with two distinct protests: In front of the music hall was the DPP protest, while the students occupied the area in front of the opera hall. I stayed there for several days, sleeping on the rough stones and eating wax apples donated by local farmers, taking photos with my Pentax K1000 and listening to speeches haranguing then-premier Hau Bei-tsun and the National Assembly and calling for direct elections.  It was a great opportunity to better understand Taiwan’s political situation as well as its people and its spirit.

Some of the students leaders from the Wild Lily Protest went on to become major government players, such as Lin Chia-lung, Duan Yi-kang and others, and it was entirely possible that some of the students leaders from the Legislature Occupation may do so as well in the future; they did seem quite well organized, and, though festooned with slogans and littered with sleeping figures, the Legislature has seen more violence from actual legislators than from the students this time around. These students have never lived under martial law; most of them were born after I arrived in Taiwan a quarter century ago. Perhaps every generation needs something like this, I thought, but as the first generation to never have experienced martial law, and with the end of military conscription approaching, serious changes in Taiwanese society are inevitable.

The crowds of protesters had grown exponentially by that night, overflowing surrounding streets. I heard stories of threatening motorcyclists brandishing weapons and curses, but I didn’t see this myself.

The weather the next day had changed drastically, becoming wet and cold. No doubt this made things more comfortable inside the chambers, where they were relying on the sporadic use of electric fans to cool themselves, but the number of protesters dropped dramatically, and the police didn’t fail to notice this, adjusting their numbers appropriately. Students handed bags of garbage out the second-story windows to police on the first floor, who handed it to other students to dispose of. The entire scene was orderly, if not exactly neat.

This time, I wasn’t invited up the ladder. The guards had a list of people they would let in, and a long line of people wanting to enter snaked through the courtyard. I had no journalist accreditation, but I did have a small book of my photography I’d just printed out, so I handed it to the woman guarding the ladder, saying, “I’m a photographer, and I’d like to get some shots to record what’s going on inside.” She thumbed through the book, called over another student on the roof, and then let me climb up.

The piles of furniture in the stairwells had grown, and I hoped there would be no emergencies such as a fire or earthquake that would necessitate a quick exit. The authorities had been exceedingly lenient, not only in not attacking the students, but even keeping the water and electricity on. Someone at a very high level had instructed this to happen, I felt. Of course this person was the president of the Legislature, Wang Jin-pyng.

“You can go down to the chambers, but unless there’s a legislator around to protect you, the police might stop you from coming back up,” one of the students told me. He had been there since the beginning, and confirmed that they’d planned this all along, though some people had claimed that the students had never thought they’d get this far. “Who knows what will happen tonight? Tomorrow’s the deadline for the vote. The police will have to come at some point to clear us out so the lawmakers can vote.”

“If they come here at all. They might convene elsewhere and get it over with before anyone realizes it,” I said. They knew this.

“Do you think President Ma will show up?” I asked. It was one of their demands, but the students laughed and shook their heads.

“There’s no way he’ll come.”

The second-floor balcony was now crowded with cameras, and many more reporters were roaming the floor of the chambers, which was festooned with even more slogans and caricatures of various politicians on the dais. The main figure in these was President Ma.

There was a commotion near one of the staircases. When I walked over, several students were handing the giant portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek down from the pile to people downstairs. Apparently someone had asked them to do so, as the portraits are quite valuable, and they didn’t want them damaged. “Go find some tables or something to support the barrier,” one of the students ordered. Other students obeyed promptly; the chain of command seemed clear to everyone involved.

I ventured over the barrier just as a Western freelancer arrived through the window, making my way downstairs though the texting police. Legislator Hsu was still on the floor, talking with people. More reports, more older people and activists had arrived since the day before. Speeches continued on the floor, calls for resistance. The more impassioned the speech, the better the response, but the speakers’ voices were growing hoarse.

I talked with some more students, who seemed impressed that I’d joined the Wild Lily Protest, which to them must have seemed like an ancient legend. They asked me about our relations with the police, with the then-fledgling DPP, etc.

“I don’t support the ROC at all,” one older man, obviously not a student, told me proudly in the chamber, later on. “I refuse to pay any taxes at all! I don’t pay my utilities either!”

When I left this time, I didn’t climb back up and out through the window, but instead surreptitiously joined a group of important-looking people who were passing through the hallway, and I managed to get out without any trouble. Not that the police looked like they would have given me any. Indeed, I wondered if the students were being lulled into a false sense of security by the constant presence of the lounging, texting officers.

The next day, March 21, was the deadline the students had set for the president and/or the Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng to show up and apologize. That day, Ma and Wang were supposed to get together to discuss how to deal with the issue, and I doubt meeting with the students was even on the agenda. However, Wang, whom Ma had tried to have thrown out of the party just months before, snubbed Ma’s calls. It must have felt good, I thought, to say, “Who is that on the phone? Oh, the president? Tell him I’m not speaking to him.”

As I walked over to the Legislature, barbed-wire barriers were being set up around the Presidential Office, as there were rumors that the students would try to besiege it if their demands weren’t met. Policemen manned most corners. The weather was still cool, but at least it wasn’t raining. I could hear the shouting and speeches coming all the way from the Legislature, but when I approached this time, the scene was vastly different. Hundreds of grizzled old people, all wearing the same green vests, green headbands and holding travel bags and green folding chairs, had appeared, along with DPP stands and trucks, spreading from their original spot on Zhongshan North Road in towards the Legislature on both sides. The students had closed off the Legislature as so many DPP people wanted in, and were only letting medical people and accredited reporters inside. I also saw a lot more Westerners around than I had the past couple of days.

I considered trying to get in again, but the change of the scene outside seemed more interesting, and besides, there were already many capable photojournalists inside, including my friend and former co-worker Dave Smith. Outside, I could see people spray-painting Max Igan’s slogan: When Tyranny Becomes Law, Rebellion Becomes Duty” in Chinese on the white tiles of the building. People were handing out sunflowers, which were coming to be known as the symbol of the Legislative occupation. “What is the deal with the sunflowers?” Dave texted me that afternoon. Phone reception was horrible due to the sheer amount of people in the area, all using their phones to communicate.

I skirted the Legislature, going around the west side and to the south as I took some photos of various protest activities. All of the various protests were now dominated by older DPP people, and none other than Su Zhen-chang was haranguing the crowd from a large truck on Jinan Road, warning them in his usual harsh tones how the KMT would beat them and play nasty tricks, and, incredibly, actually stumping for DPP candidates in the next election. I’d heard the speech before. The DPP’s rhetoric and that of the students seemed to diverge with respect to their different audiences: One older, having experienced the White Terror and martial law, less educated and not as enthusiastic these days, hoping to gain revenge for the wrongs done to them over the course of decades; and one younger, energetic, well educated and full of hopes to improving things for themselves and the nation in the future. From the start I feared that the students’ message would be overtaken by that of the DPP’s long list of grievances, but they are the future, and they will only become more and more influential as they come into their own.

That night, sure enough, the student portion of the protest surged ahead as the old DPP supporters tired and went home. I did as well, and spent Saturday away from the protests, though I kept the ustream feed on at home so I could keep up with what was going on. Premier Jiang Yi-hua met with the students at the Legislature, but he didn’t make much progress as Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, the two leaders of the protest, played good cop/bad cop during the talks. It seemed that more students were calling for the complete scrapping of the trade deal rather than simply insisting on due process, as they had before.

On Sunday, I returned to the Legislature. The president had given a press conference in support of the trade deal, and basically brushed off the student’s demands. This came as a surprise to no one. I kept wondering where Wang Jin-pyng was and what he was planning. Was he planning just the right moment, when everything looks bad, when he could appear and “save the day”?

Far fewer protesters surrounded the front courtyard on Zhongshan, where old men were leading the crowd in stretching exercises while the police looked on, smiling. The individual protests on Jinan Road were also far less populated than they had been. The speakers were telling the crowd, “They call us violent! Well, if they’re calling us that, then that’s what we should be!” The crowd seemed confused at the message, which didn’t make any sense to me. I wondered if the student leaders would have approved of that message, which I’d been hearing more and more over the last couple of days.

At the Legislature itself, the nature of the crowd had changed as well. Many Western faces were apparent, including that of Lynn Miles, who famously burned his U.S. passport in front of AIT years back. Some of the foreigners were even wearing headbands and looking around seriously. Again, the speeches in the courtyard were more excited and filled with passion. There weren’t quite as many people sitting in the street as before, and I wondered where everyone had gone. The tone of the protest had changed, there was an ugly current running through the atmosphere I couldn’t place.

I went out to Banqiao in the afternoon, and when I got back to town in the evening, I saw that a group, led not by Lin or Chen, but instead by another fellow, Wei Yang, had gone over to the Executive Yuan, calling on people to join them in storming it. These protesters seemed different from the ones who occupied the Legislature, and I wondered if it was coordinated. As the movement became more popular, more outside parties would want in on the action; I wouldn’t have been surprised if the student leaders were under a great deal of pressure to escalate matters. The Legislature was Wang Jin-pyng’s domain, but the Executive Yuan was another matter; Premier Jiang was solidly against the protesters, and his hard-core response to that could have influenced the response to the entire student movement. I even heard speculation that the Executive Yuan break-in might have been orchestrated for this very purpose.

Riot police were called in during the night, and they cleared out the protesters, who had cut phone lines and computer lines throughout the Executive Yuan’s offices and even stolen items from the offices, I was told by people who work there. The press made a huge deal about the students eating the premier’s snacks, which became a national joke when a government official pointed to a picture of a sunflower and called it a bunch of bananas.

The riot police at the Executive Yuan, however, were no joke; tempers were running high on both sides, and they used brute force and water cannons. Many people were hurt in the process. It made me wonder if the students had thought the police standing by at the Legislature weren’t doing so because they’d been order to but out of the goodness of their hearts. If so, they’d certainly been disabused of that idea; the police do as they’re ordered, and while Wang Jin-pyng and Mayor Hau Lung-bin were on their side, they were relatively safe, as, luckily for the students, both had grudges against President Ma.

It wasn’t surprising that emotions ran high, as it seemed there was an element who arrived later on the scene of the Legislature occupation that wasn’t happy with the peaceful, organized nature of it all. In fact, people I knew were posting calls to action on Facebook, telling the students to embrace violence. For some reason, many of these people were foreigners and overseas Taiwanese, while my local Facebook friends were decidedly less strident.

There was certainly a larger foreign presence at the protests each day. When I went over on Monday night, a foreign man even handed me an advertisement for his tea house, telling me I could “learn about Chinese culture.”

Speakers on Jinan Road were calling out in Mandarin: “Go Students!”

“Go!” yelled the students.

“Go democracy!”


“Go Ma Ying-jeou!”

Silence, then some laughter.

“It seems that Ma Ying-jeou is out of fuel,” the speaker said (“Go!” in Chinese is “jia  you” or “add fuel”). “What does that make him? It makes him the Malaysian airplane, dead in the water!” There were some cheers, but I felt this to be in poor taste.

The pro-independence protest on Zhongshan Road was sparsely attended. Only a few older men sat under the tents listening to the Taiwanese speech. Around the corner and down on Qingdao Road, the Student Protest was largely unchanged. Again, I opted to stay out of the chambers, though I was becoming a little curious to see how things inside were going. “Don’t listen to the lies of the media!” one speaker was saying. “Ma must step down!” They were adding this to their demands more and more, I noticed.

I walked to the Executive Yuan, which was barricaded off. Police strolled around among a few reporters.  People stared from inside buses that were passing on Zhongxiao East Road. The incident at the Executive Yuan wasn’t entirely beneficial to the students’ image, though it certainly didn’t help that of the authorities either.

Some DPP legislators got together and “passed” a resolution to send the agreement back for review, but the gesture was largely symbolic without the ruling party legislators. For its part, the KMT did say it would agree to a line-by-line review, but it insisted on the deal going down unaltered in the end, and that the protesters wanted a law requiring all such legislation be reviewed by a separate mechanism beforehand. Some wanted the premier to step down, as well as the president.

On Tuesday, President Ma agreed to talk with Lin Fei-fan, the leader of the students at the Legislature, supposedly without conditions, but they didn’t manage to actually meet. Things calmed down after the debacle at the Executive Yuan, while people blamed each other right and left. The student leaders kept an eagle eye on the news and responded quickly to all of the developments, positive and negative.

There were fewer people at the protest site on Wednesday afternoon. I walked across to the still-sparsely attended TI protest, and only then realized that they were located just across the street from the Children’s Hospital. I hoped that the constant speeches and music pouring out of the loudspeakers hadn’t affected the kids there.

There were plenty of children at the protests as well, many being looked after by their grandparents while their parents worked during the day. “His daddy will be here tonight after work,” one grandfather, sporting a yellow protest headband just like the one on his grandson’s head, told me. “Here, give uncle a kiss!” The little boy, too young to talk or have any comprehension of what was going on there, kissed me on the cheek. He then made a fist in the style of the TI protesters.

The Legislature courtyard was easily accessed now, much more easily than it had been since I’d started going there a week before, on the first full day of the occupation. Access was still controlled, and protesters were singing in front of the police line, which seemed diminished and almost perfunctory. The ground was covered with cardboard protesters had sat on, and piles of blankets were stacked on the sidewalks. “These generators were made and imported from Germany!” one speaker was shouting.

That night, some of the crowd returned to the courtyard, but not in the numbers they’d had before. The speakers were calling out the same slogans and even messing them up once or twice. “Send back the trade deal! Send back democracy!” occasionally replaced “Save democracy!” The protesters responded, but not as enthusiastically. It is difficult to keep people engaged for such a long time, I supposed.

I wanted to ask about entering the Chambers on Thursday at lunchtime, but the student representatives that had been attending the ladder spot weren’t around, so I asked one of the plentiful Presbyterian Church people, who seemed to be in charge, what was up. They told me the air was going bad inside, and they were keeping numbers down. Indeed, I saw that large orange hoses had been connected to the upper-floor windows.

There was a much larger Presbyterian presence than there had been previously. Or else, someone was handing out Presbyterian vests to everyone, but in the heat it didn’t seem a particularly comfortable item to wear. I walked around the parking lot, which was much emptier again at noon, and then around to the Jinan Road protest, which was the same. I saw several photographers positioning sunflowers on the barricades for pictures. One was even adjusting one in front of a sleeping student protester. I took a shot of him doing so, and he grinned sheepishly.

The speeches in both places were becoming rather repetitive, necessarily. The Presidential Office had said repeatedly that the president was willing to meet with the students, with the media present and recording the meeting. The students I talked to now seemed less welcoming, less enthusiastic, more wary and cynical. The protest was taking its toll, but on the other hand they seemed more pragmatic and mature than they had just a week ago. Many of the students in the parking lot had never actually been inside the chamber.

It had been over a week now. The Wild Lily protest only lasted six days, I think, though I could be wrong as I wasn’t there from the very beginning.

There were even fewer people in and around the protest site when I visited on Friday afternoon.  No one was making speeches on Jinan Road, and I didn’t even see many Presbyterians, though a couple of priests were still sitting on the arcade outside the Legislature. Upon seeing people wearing the “Anti-Trade Pact” T-shirts, I repressed an urge to see if they were made in China. I was certain they weren’t; that would have been too much. The TI speakers were still going on Zhongshan. What is it with trend of DPP speakers having raspy voices? I wondered.

“It’s been quiet these past couple of days,” one of the student protest organizers told me as we sat in front of where the ladder would be if anyone came outside from the chambers. “People are bored, and we’re showing movies at night on the big screens, with the sound off, of course; people have been complaining about the noise.” I wondered if anyone was complaining about the smoke from the burning of books authored by Premier Jiang. Book burning in general is not something I agree with, but burning things is a common theme on Taiwan’s streets, with the burning of everything from oil for two-stroke scooter engines to metallic-edged paper to appease ghosts twice a month.

I asked about the increasing appearance of foreigners at the protest. “Yes, some of them wanted to get inside, but when we told them it wasn’t possible until people came out, they got angry and cursed at us. We felt awful because we couldn’t communicate well enough in English. One of them called us pieces of shit for not letting him in right away.”  She pointed at a fragile-looking trellis on the adjourning building. “Some people were trying to climb up that, but it’s really dangerous; those pieces are hollow, so we covered it up.”

She said that they’d also caught some plainclothes policemen trying to get in. “We opened up one guy’s bag, and he had wiretapping equipment and badges and everything. We asked if he was a policeman, and he just nodded, embarrassed.” It made me wonder if those obvious plainclothes police could be decoys for the ones who weren’t so obvious, and she nodded. “Yeah, it could be. But we just do what we can.”

Concerning the growing mountains of supplies on the streets, she said, “People keep sending food and stuff. We have a washing machine and a fridge inside people gave us. We have too many lunchboxes to eat, and so we hand them out to the police and street people. Sometimes the street people turn around and sell them, which we don’t approve of, of course.”

“Are you going to the protest in front of the Presidential Office on Sunday?” I asked, but nobody there could afford to leave the Legislature unmanned.

“It’s the weekend, so people should be free,” she said. Unlike the Executive Yuan action, which took everyone by surprise, this one is being planned, with permits applied for. She was unclear on what would happen if the permits weren’t approved in time. The section of Katagelan Avenue in front of the Presidential Office was barricaded.

When I went back in the evening, I noticed that the ROC flags at the top, which had been turned upside-down by the students, were now gone. “We aren’t, strictly speaking, in control of the top floor,” one student told me when I’d managed to get inside again.

A young man was playing a guitar on the stairs, and some students were gathered around a table in the 2nd-floor room watching the news on TV. The bust of Sun Yat-sen had been taken from the pile of furniture blocking the staircase and placed on the coatroom counter next to a water dispenser because, as one students said, “He was freaking people out.”  I managed to check one of the Anti-trade-pace T-shirts to see where it was made: Bangladesh. As we spoke some of the students were rearranging the pile of furniture blocking the stairs so that it would be easier to get from one side to the other without compromising its defensive nature. I crawled under and walked to the other room, where students were accessing their computers, playing music, and smoking.

Downstairs in the chambers, a few foreign reporters were taking photos. One of them shot me as I was talking with someone, for what reason I couldn’t fathom. Some notes supporting the protesters had been pasted in an orderly fashion on the wall, from students outside. Some were from Hong Kong.

When I asked about what would happen if the government didn’t give in to their demands, the students said they’d just stay. The place was beginning to feel a bit like a frat house, and some, including Chen Wei-ting, even talked about staying until next year. I found that unlikely, and tried to remind them that Wang Jin-pyng was venting against the president, but once he felt it would serve his purposes, he could very well order their removal, and the police would do their jobs. A “protest against the protest” was going to take place the next day, supposedly led by the families of the police involved. I would have found that pretty embarrassing if I were a cop, personally, but something told me the counter-protest was being supported by other groups, political groups. The students found the concept ludicrous.

The students made statements that Sunday’s massive protest could be avoided if the president made “good-will gestures,” but by late Saturday night, they said the protest would go on.

When I arrived on Sunday morning, half of 2/28 Park, where I usually practiced tai-chi, was cordoned off, as well as the MRT entrance. I had to go around, and met my group by the Chinese pagodas. As we practiced, the crowd kept growing, many people wearing black shirts in protest, as well as headbands, many with the Taiwan Solidarity Union logo.

After lunch nearby, I went back to the park, where police were cordoning off a bit more; I managed to get a photo of the 2/28 Memorial with police tape and barbed wire surrounding it before the circle from which I was photographing became part of the closed area.

I met Michael Cole again; I’d been meeting him here and there as he provided extensive coverage of the whole student movement; he was trying to find a way to get close to the center of the protests, but because the crowds were so dense, he couldn’t and was looking for another way. I ventured out towards Zhongshan South Road, but the crowds were enormous, so I went back through the park to Chongqing South Road. The buildings were throwing some nice light onto a corner where people were busy having their photos taken standing next to the police guarding the barricades. After some time there, I walked down Hengyang Road to Taoyuan Street and down a couple of blocks, where I finagled my way through the barricade and walked through the restricted zone alongside the Presidential Office. It was eerily silent, like a Twilight Zone episode with the last man on earth, except for the occasional Military police or police officer, and one guy sweeping the street. I could barely hear the speeches and shouts of the protest in the background.

In front of the Presidential Office were more policemen. Vans, water cannons and piles of equipment bags lay around the road and parks in front. I went through another barricade, over around the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which sat behind barbed wire, and behind it to rejoin the protests on Chongqing, which was swamped with protesters. Estimates ranged from a little over 100,000 to 500,000, with the most objective sources claiming about 350,000. In any case, it was a record-breaking turnout.

I crossed over to CKS Hall, where the panda exhibit is still going on, wondering if there might be any kind of conflict between the two groups, but they blended seamlessly together, with several headband-wearing protesters taking in the view of hundreds of panda statues inside, and even posing for photos with them. I stood in the spot where I’d sat for several days during the Wild Lily Protests almost a quarter of a century before, and wondered what I would have thought of the situation had I suddenly been transported through time to 2014.

One of my tai-chi brothers predicted that the Legislature occupation would be best served to end that day, if the government gave up enough that the students felt they could leave without losing face. But the next day, the student leaders, emboldened by the huge success of the previous day’s rally, said they would continue the occupation until their demands were met.

There were usually fewer people around the protests in the afternoons, but there seemed even fewer than usual when I approached the Legislature on Monday. Oddly, I was able to walk in the front door, past the police, with the students’ invitation. Inside, the length of the occupation was beginning to show, despite the occupiers’ valiant efforts. Tape outlines of people who had been shoved to the floor during the original action had been placed on the carpet, including the outline of two feet behind the podium. A woman from a group called “One Story” approached me, asking if I was a reporter and wanting to interview me, having seen me around there nearly every day. I said I wasn’t a reporter, merely an independent photographer, and suggested she interview Michael.

I circled the chamber, taking in details like the boxes of drinks, rows of sleeping bags, piles of rope under the desks amid broken chair legs, a girl’s feet sticking out of one of the piles of furniture blocking the doors, swimming goggles in case the police gassed the chamber. I talked with a fellow from Malaysia who had also given up his original citizenship to become Taiwanese. A biochemistry major, he was interested in journalism and people’s stories as well. His original position at the protest was “Door #6 Guard” but now he was part of the story project as well.

While I was there, a disabled man was helped back into his wheelchair from his position sitting on the floor and interviewed while encircled with the cameras and microphones of the media. I got a nasty look when my camera’s shutter went off too close to one of the microphones, so I withdrew. Nearby, a group of black-clad student protesters held a huddled discussion.

I hoped the students had an exit plan. I asked some of them about the dangers of smoking inside the building, but they said they didn’t have a tight grip on the action of the students upstairs, who were semi-autonomous. Another worry was that some well-known gangsters like Chang An-le, aka the “White Wolf”, had called on “people” to take back the Legislature and threatened to “occupy” the home of Lin Fei-fan. Lin had always played second fiddle to Chen Wei-ting, the other student leader, but Lin, who was doing his post-graduate degree at the ripe old age of 26, was coming into his own at this action with his more reasonable tone.

There were again fewer students that evening, it seemed. One of the students in charge of security said, “We’re not afraid; we have a ‘Big Dog’ who will protect us!” The students who were there were watching a Japanese movie on big screens with the sound on this time. Monks wrapped in ROC flags were hogging the space in front of the portico where all the media cameras had been set up, and asking passers-by to take their pictures with the flags.

The next day was April 1st, the day certain parties had designated to “re-take” the Legislature, and as I left I wondered how much longer the students would be able to hold out. When I walked over that afternoon, police lines had been set up around the Legislature, across Qingdao, Jinan and Zhenjiang Roads. The entrance to the courtyard of the Legislature was lined with police, some in riot gear. They seemed to be leaving the students alone.

I walked north by the Sheraton to Zhongxiao East Road, where a group of pro-pact protesters had gathered. Many were waving flags, but it wasn’t a terribly large group. They were being egged on by people on top of a van. The speeches were classic haranguing in the old blue/green vein. I made my way past them, past the Executive Yuan, lined with police, to the intersection with Zhongshan, where some reporters were gathered. I saw my Swiss friend Daniel Ulrich there. We’d first met inside the chambers on the second day of the occupation, and he’d been covering the protest ever since. We were watching a guy wave a large flag on the corner when a dozen reporters suddenly came pelting past us towards Zhongshan, where a black SUV had just come to a stop. It was quickly surrounded by reporters and cameras as none other than Chang An-le, aka the White Wolf himself, got out. “I got the license number!” one reporter crowed out to his colleague. The group moved slowly towards Chang’s followers on Zhongxiao, while an aerial camera hovered above. Daniel managed to squeeze into the huddle to get a shot of Chang, but I stayed away, more amused by the antics of the reporters than anything.

The police (and, I assumed, “Big Dog”) did an admirable job of keeping the two groups of protesters apart, basically all afternoon while Chang lashed the crowd with withering criticism of the students dripping with condescension. The crowd on the students’ side held signs reading, “Gangsters go home!” Eventually, they did. But nobody knew when, if, or how they could return.

The next day, I listened to the TI protest’s broadcasted songs that they were playing every day as I crossed Zhongshan South Road. Basic lyrics in Taiwanese, reading “China is China, Taiwan is Taiwan, each side one country…” etc. The tune was modeled after old KMT military music, as if that would lend it an air of legitimacy.

At the Legislature, I saw some familiar faces, badminton friends who were sitting in the parking lot. We chatted for a bit, and then I went over to talk to the students at the main desk again. “We’ve been here too long,” one of them told me glumly. “And we haven’t really done anything.”

“Haven’t done anything?” I said, surprised. “Everyone knows about the trade pact because of you, half a million people marched in support of your goals, and you even forced the White Wolf to show his hand and become a national laughingstock. That’s not nothing,” I said. I asked if they were considering their exit plan, and he nodded without revealing details. We also talked about how the students are helping the nation get past the traditional blue/green divide, which in my opinion was the most valuable thing the student could hope to accomplish, more important than individual issues such as the trade pact itself. It was possible that a party founded in the spirit of the Sunflower protests could become more popular than either the KMT or the DPP.

As I walked around to the Jinan Road protest site, it occurred to me that the protest had become a kind of small city, with more tents set up due to sudden showers. One group of tents was the kitchen, some others were clinics, or massage parlors, recycling, or childcare. It was all remarkably well run, and regardless of what you may have thought of the students’ goals or motivations, there was no denying that they were well organized, and the atmosphere was optimistic and forward-looking, in contrast to that of the White Wolf’s supporters, who radiated fear and aggression.

When I went back that evening, I noticed that the TI protest site was nearly deserted. Only a few people sat idly on some of the green stools, as the mock anthems played softly from the speakers. The rows of policemen at the door to the compound remained.

On Jinan Road, the students were holding group meetings on various subjects, in and out of tents. It seemed that, while most of the older DPP supporters had left, some of them had mixed in with the students, possibly recognizing that their brand of political protest was the tune of the day.

At the student protest in the courtyard, a couple of women were complaining about the Chen Shui-bian documentary playing on the large screens. A foreigner was talking with a couple of the students in English.  “What do you call these?” he asked, holding up his card. “Business cards, right? I am so glad to hear you call them that, I hear people get it wrong all the time here! ‘Cause business isn’t necessarily really business, you know?” He had been in Taiwan for five years, he said, and said he was really into the students’ cause. I stood a bit apart, wondering why he wasn’t even trying to speak Chinese to them. When he saw me, he asked, “Are you a photographer? Or do you just like to take pictures?”

“I just like to take pictures,” I said. He was there again when I came around the next day, but nobody was talking to him; he sat on the pavement listening to music on his mobile phone. There were only three students left at the tent by the ladder, but there were still crowds outside on Qingdao Road.

I’d heard reports of suspicious increases in police presence, but I hadn’t seen any myself until I turned the corner onto Jinan Road, where sleeping cops with riot gear bags lined the side of the 7-Eleven. Further on, a line of policemen stood protecting a lane leading out of one of the buildings, and men were dismantling a few tents that had been set up in the front yard of an expensive-looking apartment building. I wondered if students had tried to take over the area and been refused by the building’s residents, or if the police had orders against further spreading of the protest “city”.  Just past the line of police was a man directing traffic and pedestrians away from the cops, and beyond him, by a pedestrian countdown light that hadn’t been heeded in weeks, a mother was bidding her husband good-bye as he left their tent, upon which she took her children inside. It was all quite domestic, and surreal against the background of policemen with riot shields.

When I walked through Jinan Road that night, the police were gone, and I didn’t see the foreign guy at the desk. I then learned that some of the protesters from the Zhongshan South Road protest had lain down on the street in front of cars carrying legislators trying to gain access to the complex to meet and discuss the trade pact. The TV showed a shouting middle-aged woman sitting in the street as policemen tried to pull her up. I saw her later in the chamber; she didn’t seem much happier there.

“That should have been us,” one of the student protesters told me when we were talking about the action in front of the Legislature later. “Why should it be them doing things like that, while we sit here doing nothing?” He shook his head. The action had somewhat galvanized the pro-TI group, and when I walked by a speech was actually being made in Mandarin to the people who had shown up, something I’d never heard there before. The rhetoric was much the same.

A young man was speaking to a group on Qingdao Road about his experience with gum disease: “I treated it myself, I was careful with what I ate, and I brushed,” he was saying. It was a speech about self-reliance. The students were on guard against the White Wolf or his “children” making disturbances. I met my friend Tobie Openshaw in the courtyard; he was talking about making a book of photos and stories about the occupation and wanted to know if I would like to contribute. I also met a Portuguese documentarian, Jose Fernandez, who was an artist in residence at the Taipei Artist Village just down the road. He had a small video camera and was making a project on the protest.

Up the ladders again, another climb through the window. I knew that I’d be busy during the Tomb-sweeping holiday, so I wanted to get another look inside beforehand. The second-floor quarters were finally becoming quite messy, and stinky as well. The people coming in were searched more thoroughly this time, and the students were shorter with everyone than they’d been before. The sign under the portrait of Sun Yat-sen read 418 hours. Would they have a celebration at 500 hours? I asked one of the protesters, who mentioned that Chen Wei-ting was planning to stay at least until elections in the fall.

I chatted with an older man who had also been at the Wild Lily Protest. He seemed confident that just sticking around was a good plan. All the government had to do was give them something, or the students could name something the government could do, and it could end peacefully, having made its impact, before they lost public approval. But I had no idea what they were thinking, and it seemed many of the students were in the dark as well. Many in the chamber hadn’t even accessed news, and didn’t know about that afternoon’s incident, which I found odd as most of them were staring intently at their mobile devices.

Rumors spread on Friday night that the police would attempt to remove the students, but the police denied it, and nothing happened.

I was in Hsinchu during the three-day tomb-sweeping holiday, but I heard on the news that Wang Jin-pyng had finally decided that it was his time to shine, and he entered the Legislature to great applause and promised the students that the review they were demanding would happen before the service pact was decided. The KMT responded with a resounding “Wait, what?” Discussions were ongoing on whether and when to implement the review. On Monday morning, the students took pictures of themselves displaying the victory sign in front of the placard declaring they’d been there for 500 hours. But then again, Taiwanese students make the victory sign for just about anyone with a camera.

On Monday evening, the student leaders announced that they would officially end their protest at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April the 10th. Though some students seemed relieved, it didn’t sit entirely well with some other students I talked to. “We should stay longer, ideally,” one told me. “The media is playing it like we’re defeated or something. Even Chen Wei-ting’s speech was lame. He should have made more demands, showed more spirit.” They knew that there was much more to do, but there was an edge of bitterness in their voices. Many of them were staying to help put things back as they were as much as possible. I wondered if the more computer-savvy students would infiltrate any of the Legislature’s systems, but I was sure they’d check for that kind of thing. Another concern was just exactly how the government would go after the students once the action was over.

A line of policemen stood again in front of the luxury apartment building on Jinan Road, one of them texting on his phone behind his riot shield. A couple of students were making a prepared speech to them.  The stage had been taken over by a gaggle of singing Presbyterians, insisting that it was “ok if you’re not a Christian, we love you anyway.”

The TI speakers had returned to using Taiwanese, but the protest was as under populated as it had been before their action blocking the legislators. In front of the Legislature on Qingdao Road, a small girl was singing a song called “Sunflower” to the crowd as her mother held an umbrella over her head in the rain, while her father played backup music. Her voice was mesmerizing, and even the police manning the barricades smiled upon hearing it. Behind the stage, water was being passed into the Chamber, but some of the long-term occupants were already leaving. There was a sense of ending, and I wondered if many people would miss the festive, hopeful atmosphere, the groups, the discussions, the interaction. I met the man from the Wild Lily protest I talked to on Thursday on his way out, heading down Qingdao Road in the opposite direction, towards the train station. “I’ve been here 21 days,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s enough, especially for someone my age. I’m going home.” Outside in the parking lot, some of the protesters were packing up their soggy tents into backpacks as the police looked on, as ever, from the windows. A large sunflower model had been set up where the monks had been sitting. A student passing the line of police stopped and bowed deeply to them before continuing on his way.

As I walked towards Zhongxiao East Road, away from the dwindling crowd, the little girl began singing, “Never Look Back,” one of my favorite songs from my youth, as protesters blew on recently inked headbands to dry the lettering.

“Lin Fei-fan has not only occupied the Legislature, he has occupied my heart!” read one sign I passed on Qingdao Road on Tuesday afternoon. “Even if he has decided to vacate the Legislature, he will never vacate my heart!” It was sunny and warm, in contrast to previous days, and out in front of the side entrance courtyard, an anti-nuclear song was playing. Some people were packing up their things, but many were still around.

Inside, I learned that some people had protested the students’ plan to leave. “Civic groups” had claimed that if the students left, they would take over the Legislature on their own. I doubted if society would have the same levels of tolerance for them. “Some of the TI people don’t want us to leave either,” one of the students explained to me out under the portico. “They think that it’s unfair that they paid for all this, and now we’re just leaving.”

“Paid for what?” I asked. “The Legislature isn’t theirs to pay for, surely?” He waved his hands at the tents, scaffolding and screens.

“They paid for this stuff. They supplied permits. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

“Surely you could have, just on a different scale,” I said. I’d assumed all the stuff had been donated by various individuals. But he shook his head.

“They’re also miffed that we won’t let them into the chamber to push their TI agenda.”

The plan seemed to be to spend the next couple of days fixing the building and repairing most of the damage. The students had brought in volunteer electricians, carpenters and plumbers to try to undo all the damage. This was being paid for with donations. “They donated to our cause, and if that cause meant breaking a few doors, it also means repairing those doors as well,” the student said, philosophically. He had just returned from having a scraping massage at the massage tent. The row of police still stood on Jinan Road, while a man addressed a group about the subsequent steps they needed to take to institute the reforms they thought necessary.

A lone student stood in a line for noodles on Qingdao Road the next afternoon when I returned. The rest of the people in line were old men; a speech in Mandarin was being given at the TI tent on Zhongshan Road. An older woman on the road was trying to hand out Taiwan Independence pamphlets, but nobody seemed interested. Pairs of policemen walked up and down the streets. I counted as many as 17 satellite TV vans parked there.

The loudspeakers were playing punk music featuring Mandarin lyrics, so I stopped by the DJ set up to ask about it. There I met a fellow who knew me from the Black Island concert the Muddy Basin Ramblers had done in Nangang a while back. He taught music with a ukulele.

At the security stand in the courtyard, one of the girls ran up saying that people were posing as students and asking for money at one of the entries on Linsen Road. “Not again!” another student said. They went to investigate. Everything in the courtyard was neater than before, and students were busy cleaning up the interior as well. I talked with “Double”, a student was going to perform the next day, the last day of the protest, at a hip-hop party. He was into Matzka, my favorite band in Taiwan, but he felt Zhang Zhen-yue was passé.

A couple of guys showed up to help with the reconstruction inside, and they were shepherded away. More older people with cameras were showing up, as well as reporter teams. “Tomorrow there will be even more,” one of the students said. I asked him if he was concerned about students being persecuted by the authorities afterwards. “We will take all the responsibility,” he said. “Some students were afraid and wanted to wear masks, but I can’t wear a mask. Anyone who wants to know who I am will find out anyway.”

“Beware of thieves!” a young man was calling along Jinan Road, where the line of police still stood. The students knew that opportunists of all stripes could have been planning their moves before the end of the occupation the next day. “Maybe you should leave a suncake on each of their desks, as a memento,” I suggested.

Students were gathered in circles that evening, in tents and out on the surface of Jinan and Qingdao Roads. The TI base was, for a change, crowded with people, the speaker shouting, “Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother!” As I walked down Jinan Road, I thought I smelled a familiar odor that reminded me of after-gig parties.

Emotion was high, as it was the last night of the protest. The students were leaving the Legislature, ending their occupation the next day at 6 p.m. The scene was festive, though I noticed fewer students out guiding foot traffic and the like. An older TI guy approached the students at the desk in the courtyard, complaining that it was “a shame” that they had to leave. “You should stay and fight!” he said. “Stay until the new year! Don’t let all this…” He gestured around him grandly, “…go to waste!” The students thanked him for his opinion. A mobile phone on the desk lit up with the word “Daddy” and was promptly snatched up by one of the tougher-looking guys. “I’m ok, Dad,” he murmured into the phone. “I’ll be home later. We’re fine here, we’ll be fine.”

I asked if there was a plan of retreat, whether they’d communicated with the police, but nobody seemed clear, and said they were awaiting orders from on high.

Students were busy cleaning up when I arrived on the last day of the protest, Thursday, May 10. It was a bright, windy day, as if a typhoon were approaching, though it seemed far too early in the year for that. Out on Qingdao Road an old man was speaking. “Never underestimate the power of resistance!” he was saying. “I’ve been resisting since I was in the first grade, and I’m still here!” In the courtyard, I asked some of the students where they were going after everything wrapped up at 6 p.m.

“Going? I’m going home, to sleep!” one man said, looking at me as if I were crazy for asking. I stepped inside the chamber for a short time to watch the cleaning, but found a far more interesting scene outside. A group of tough-looking men, many tattooed some with masks, goggles, and bandannas. They reminded me not a little of the group of paintball soldiers we’d enlisted to help us film our movie.

In fact, the leader of this motley gang was none other than “Big Dog,” aka the individual whom the students had said would protect them against those who wanted to hurt them over the past few weeks. When I talked to Big Dog, he revealed that he is in fact also into movie-making, and he showed me some very impressive clips featuring stunts and pyrotechnics that he and his group had worked on. He even knew Eddie, one of our local stuntmen on the movie.

But Big Dog didn’t have a lot of time to talk shop; the students had news that another group intended to occupy the Legislature when the students left, and it was no surprise that it was the pro-independence group who resented their leaving, who had paid for their tents and supported them, but whose message was being largely ignore in favor of that of the students.

Most of Big Dog’s men, one of whom I heard called “EMT” (for emergency medical training, I assumed), were not students; there were, however, largely ex-military, and Big Dog himself was an ex-paratrooper. The largest was huge and covered in tattoos, with his shaved head and fireman’s boots, he presented a most intimidating appearance. “Some people easily mistake us for thugs hired by various political groups,” Big Dog told me. “But we are not affiliated with any party. We heard that people were threatening the students, so we came to provide our services.” The group had also helped out during the flag protests during the visit of a Chinese official a few years before, as they’d been upset that the police were not letting people carry flags. It turned out that the upside-down flags on top of the Legislature had been taken down by Big Dog’s people. “It was sending the wrong message,” he told me. I suspected the flags were at that moment folded neatly in Big Dog’s living room, to be given back to the Legislature after the conclusion of the protests.

“They’re starting to come in,” someone said on one of the walkie-talkies the students used to communicate. They meant the pro-TI people, and sure enough, older men wearing headbands began to wander into the courtyard. After some strategy discussions, some of Big Dog’s men went up the ladders to the second story, pulling the ladders up after them, and the others spread out to other points. The students on the second floor had elected to evacuate at four o’clock, two hours earlier than the ones in the chamber. Already the tubes and fans set up to blow fresh air into the chamber were being dismantled and handed down from the roof.

I walked around to Jinan Road, where students were passing boxes hand-to-hand, and a crane was helping lift things as people packed up. They were going to have one last hurrah before they left, and several more TV trucks were parked there, in addition to the 15 or so on Qingdao Road, for the students would be exiting there. I didn’t know how many students were actually inside at that point, but only 20 or so of them had actually been there the entire time, the rest coming and going for various reasons. The police lined up were now wearing vests that looked to be fairly bullet-proof, and they sweated in the hot sun. Several more police buses arrived on Zhongshan South Road. The churchyard on the corner was filled with empty sleeping bags, while the TI bastion in front was filled with protesters, in contrast to its usual emptiness.

The afternoon proceeded smoothly until an old man tried to bring in a bunch of drinks into the Legislature. Everyone was trying to clean up, so the students didn’t allow it, and the old man, who had been drinking, got upset, spilling the drinks everywhere and trying to force his way through. Big Dog’s largest men rushed over, and one of them put the man in a headlock, whereupon he promptly fainted. I wasn’t sure if he simply didn’t know his own strength, or the man was already about to pass out.

Walking up Qingdao Road to the courtyard just before 6 p.m., I passed a dog with both the DPP flag and the ROC flag in its collar. An elderly man took exception to this, yelling in Taiwanese, “That’s just WRONG!” as he pointed to the mutt, who took no notice as various passersby took its picture.

Police were already on the roof of the Legislature where I’d climbed up so many times over the last few weeks. Occasionally they would throw down coils of wires that had connected the cameras and computers inside to the outside world, making the building resemble a ship casting off its moorings. Most of the tents were being dismantled, but the crowd was growing rapidly. A broadcast from Jinan Road was being projected on the screens, with various speeches. Big Dog sent some of his men to the gates on Jinan Road and other places to head off any potential trouble, as cops lined up outside under the portico. The last of the students had left the Legislature, heading out to Jinan Road, where they joined the rally already in progress. I suspected many of them simply wanted a hot shower and a nice soft bed.

The police stood behind shields, but otherwise didn’t seem geared up for rioting. Some of the students had heard of a plan by the TI people to rush in as the students left, but the police might have been clued in, as they made sure nothing of the sort could happen. On the night the students had first taken the Legislature, there were only a couple dozen police on the site, and nobody inside. Students had overwhelmed them, climbed up a car to the top of the portico, slipped inside as I had, and simply taken over. There was little chance of that now. The students in the courtyard would stay until 8 or 9. 10:00 p.m. was when the police would clear the area entirely, they said. I was hungry, but I turned down their offers of boxed meals on principle; I hadn’t taken anything of theirs the entire time, and now was not the time to start.

I made my way through the crowds, over to Jinan Road, but as I emerged from an alley, it seemed as if the crowd was a river flowing towards the stage as the MCs told people to move up and let more people in. “Occupation is not a crime!” they chanted. I walked the other way, over to Linsen South Road, where I found one of Big Dog’s men standing guard on a corner. We chatted a bit, and he said he had little idea what the politics of the situation were, just that he felt the students needed protection.

Some time before 9 p.m., Big Dog showed up with the rest of his EMT crew. “It’s time to wrap up,” he told me. “The police have everything under control, and people are starting to go home.” He pointed to the busy sidewalks as people headed towards the subway station. I asked him where they were off to now. “We’re going to Ximending and sing Karaoke, want to come?” I said maybe next time. They left, and I walked around a bit more, somehow reluctant to leave the site, but eventually my hunger got the best of me, and I walked away from the speeches and singing for some food.

Most of the protesters were gone by 11 p.m. The Jinan Road and Qingdao Road sites were cleaned up. Not surprisingly, the TI protesters in the courtyard in front of the Legislature on Zhongshan were a bit more truculent. They were the ones who had urged the students to stay; they’d maintained a tent there for years, barely manned at all, seemingly by a single homeless person; they’d paid for a lot of the students’ protest infrastructure and supplied permits, and they had had to sit by and watch their cause gain little attention while the entire nation sat riveted to the students’ protests and deliberations. In the wee hours of the morning, the police said they wouldn’t force the remaining protesters out, but instead “persuade” them to leave. By 9:30, however, they resorted to physically removing the protesters from the site. Fortunately, no water cannons were employed this time, though scuffles ensued when the protesters struggled with policemen trying to carry them physically out of the compound.

A small group of protesters remained outside the main gates on Zhongshan South Road when I walked over on Friday afternoon. It was a brilliant day, as hot as if summer had arrived. I didn’t recognize any of the protesters there. One of them, a portly woman, shouted at the police lined up on stools just inside the gate. “You must return to us what is rightfully ours!” she shouted through a handheld loudspeaker. “I’m happy with my job, are you happy with yours?” The others milled listlessly around murmuring, “Down with the trade pact.” Some lay asleep on the sidewalk. There were nearly as many reporters there as protesters, and they rushed over whenever anyone said anything. The woman ran out of things to say, and the reporters put down their heavy cameras to rest out of the midday sun.

I left the gate and walked over to Qingdao Road, which was completely blocked off, then around to the parking lot where I’d spent so much of my time over the last few weeks. The police were taking no chances; the entire intersection was surrounded by barricades, manned by police lines. Far away, it seemed, I could see that the protesters’ revolutionary slogans had been washed off the building’s exterior. No flags flew there, however; perhaps someone had “forgotten” to return them. Police were only letting Legislative employees through the barricades, but aside from a couple of homeless men cursing each other softly as they lay on the street in a drunken tangle, hardly anyone else was around. It was a jarringly different scene from that of the night before.

Over on Jinan Road, traffic had resumed, and all of the flowers, placards, posters and messages had been removed from the barricades. Only the slightest of evidence scattered here and there, things such as a solar blanket, or a sunflower cutout, or a protective talisman, lay on the ground beneath the iron structures. It was hard to imagine that a small city had once sprung up there.

Police were taking down barricades in other parts of the city, now that the “threat” had apparently disappeared. I was sure the student leaders were meeting elsewhere, and making plans, but the Legislative action was over, for now. I felt oddly purposeless as I walked down the empty streets, after spending all my spare time at the protests for nearly a month.

But the Legislature would never be the same, not just for me, but for many people throughout Taiwan. It had gone from being another faceless government building to not only the site of a historic movement that would influence the nation’s future, but a shared experience that will influence us both as individuals and as a society. Perhaps it would be the time historians would point to and say, “This is when Taiwanese finally got past the old blue/green/local/mainlander /Minnan/Mandarin divide and starting thinking about their future in practical terms.”

On my way home I passed a student walking the other way. I spotted the top of the protest slogan, “Don’t give in,” a play on the Chinese abbreviation for the trade pact, peeking out of his jacket. He caught my glance and nodded.

One can hope.

posted by Poagao at 11:59 pm  
Feb 05 2014

Photography gods

I spent most of our short new year holiday down south this year, as we only had six days off; a trip abroad wouldn’t have worked, especially as airfare prices tend to skyrocket. I’ve also made a couple of purchases lately that make me a bit hesitant to spend any more. One of these was an iPad Air, purportedly to use for writing but really to read comics on, and the other was the first camera I’ve purchased in many years (The last one I bought was the GF1…the Invincible Rabbit and the Oly EM5 are going back to their owners, who had graciously let me use them for long periods of time at a stretch).

Chenbl and I took the bullet train to Kaohsiung at noon on Friday, the second day of the holiday. We checked into the same hotel I stayed at the last time I was there. The weather was fine, and it was good to be in a different city -a port city no less!- for a time. We met some old friends, had tea and cake by the Love River, rode some of the rickety one-speed rental bicycles, took the ferry to Qijin, and had some seafood. We took side trips to Gangshan and Qishan. We spent Monday, the last day of our trip, in Tainan, which is where Chenbl’s family in from. We even bumped into one of his relatives at a local temple.

Tainan is famous for the density of its temples. There are temples everywhere, big and small. When I visit such places, I usually have little conversations in my head with the local gods, and I continued this practice at one small temple on a side street. One of the door gods, the dark-skinned one that is always on the left side as you face the temple, was looking sternly at my camera, almost as if in alarm. I walked over to the main alter and asked the main gods what was up.

“Just what do you think you’re doing with that camera?” they asked.

“I take photographs, mostly of people,” I said.


“Uh, I like the compositions?”

“You can see good compositions any time you like. Why do you take photos?”

“Because I like to.”

“That’s a cop-out. You like to? Ha! Forget about that. What gets you? Think!”

I thought for a while. They weren’t going anywhere anyway. Eventually I said, “What gets me…is showing people how they are. Everything moves so quickly, these moments of clarity, where everything just fits, come and go and they’re gone. Not just the moments, but the people as well.”

“What about them?”

“Their environments, their characters…”


“So I want to show them.”


“Because they don’t know.”

“Know what?”

“That they’re beautiful!”

“Ah! But how do you know what they know and what they don’t know? Who are you to say?”

“That’s true. Who am I to say? They’re the ones to say. They’re the ones who do say. But I’d like to think I’m giving them another option, another angle, another choice.” Their painted expressions softened. At least they did in my head.

“It’s ok. Just remember that it’s not about you. It’s about them. Remember that, and only then will your work show who you really are.”

Chenbl had just finished talking with one of the temple employees, and came over to where I stood in front of the altar. Always concerned about my finances, he said, “Ask them about your job.” I did.

“Your job? Weren’t we just talking about your job?”

“No, my day job. My office job.”

Silence. They had nothing to say. I walked back to the door god, who was still staring at my camera. But this time, it was no longer a warning, it was a beacon. At least in my head.

posted by Poagao at 11:47 am  
Nov 26 2013

Osaka, part whatever

Christmas music was playing in the hotel lobby the next morning. Too early.  The breakfast was decent, and the weather was clear. We took the subway to the big castle nearby, even though it was just down the street. The place was full of tourists, and I was a bit disappointed that they hadn’t kept the interior of the place, which is really just a big tourist center inside…

You know, I have a bunch of cryptic notes about this trip, but I can’t recall a lot of it at this point, to be honest. We were just so busy and so tired that it was all really just a blur. It was one of the most exhausting trips I’ve made, and definitely not my favorite mode of travel. We were rushing here and there, with barely enough time to take quick snaps here and there, and probably nothing decent. It’s been years since I’ve had a proper vacation.

Apparently I was yelled at by a cop. I have no idea. We went to Umeda and took the ferris wheel, as it was one of the coupons in a book Chenbl had bought, and we were going to do all the things in the coupon book because it was Cheap. Anyway, only when we were halfway up did Carlos reveal the fact that he is very afraid of heights. Chenbl made fun of him and rocked the carriage, but I didn’t think it was that funny. The view was nice, though. Later we went up to a nearby high building that I’d gone up on my last trip, and it made me miss that trip, which wasn’t really that great a trip, but at least I had some time to myself.

That night we took a short boat trip at Namba, under the bridges, while the guide made some patter, and then some good food. The others were really concerned about food, but I really didn’t care that much. Later we went to a sauna out somewhere that was included in the coupon book. The sauna was nice, partly outdoors in the cold. I enjoyed laying on the stone mats that were covered with just a bit of hot water, looking at what I thought was Mars.

What a mess. I really should look at the little video I took as well as the photos before I continue this.

posted by Poagao at 10:57 am  
Nov 15 2013

Osaka, part 1

I haven’t written anything so far on my trip to Osaka because we’ve been busy running around every day, rain or shine, and only now have I had any time to write. And I don’t have much time at the moment either. I didn’t even have enough time to take many notes, so this account will be sparse. Oh, well.

My traveling companions this time include Chenbl, his co-worker Xiao Guo, and Chenbl’s Guatemalan friend Carlos, who is visiting. I was running late getting out the door, only to find Xiao Guo eating an ice cream cone at the Xindian MRT where we’d arranged to meet. Xiao Guo loves ice cream and is always posting pictures of himself making funny faces at various kinds of ice cream on Facebook.

We had plenty of time, though, and the flight to Osaka was delayed, so we could sit and contemplate the wonderful weather we were leaving from the departure lounge, amusing ourselves with some old pictures of Xiao Guo from when he was considerably larger.

The flight was fine; we took the long subway train into Osaka as Chenbl issued reams of various coupons for travel and sightseeing purposes. When we got to the Toyoko Inn Higashi where we had reservations, we learned not only that they had screwed up our reservations and only booked one room instead of two, but every other hotel in the tri-city area was completely booked solid as well. We blame Autumn. They managed to find another room for me and Xiao Guo for a few days, but for the next couple of days, we will all be staying in one tiny room.

It was raining when we left the hotel the next morning after an ok hotel breakfast. We took the subway out to Universal Studios, which was packed solid due to a Halloween event. I personally can’t be bothered with Halloween, but Chenbl seemed to think it was worth dealing with the crowds for. The way the Japanese arrange and rearrange the line ropes is an art unto itself. Despite the Game of Lines, however, the crowds were just too much, in addition to the rain. We lined up for incredibly long lines, though a cheap fast pass would have made it much easier to bear. We tried to see a Shrek 4D show, but misread the poster and instead were dealt a Sesame Street show. After another line supposedly for The Mummy ride, all we got was a lame walk in the dark with employees jumping out from behind curtains. I was in no mood for this. Next was the longest line yet, for the admittedly impressive Spider-man ride, though it apparently broke down for a bit in the middle. After that was the Back to the Future Which Cannot Utilize Micheal J. Fox In Any Way Due To Contract Issues ride, but the console dash screen was so bright the huge image that was supposed to reflect reality was dim and murky, and as all the rides were in Japanese, we had no idea what was going on.

We had some pizza standing up, as there were no seats, and made our way through the shivering-yet-smiling-gamely parade participants to the Jurassic Park ride, which featured “Zhenzi”, a character from a famous Japanese ghost movie who is supposed to be scary. She is dressed in white and has long black hair hanging over her face. All the TVs in the park seemed to be playing clips of her, and she would be standing near paths looking creepy. When our boat went by her standing on a rock during the Jurassic Park ride I shouted, “Get a haircut, ya hippie!” which somewhat ruined her Startling Lurch(c), but honestly, she was getting rather annoying.

The last straw was the Backdraft show, which I was looking foward to as it supposedly contained flames, and I needed to dry off from the rain and being splashed on the Jurassic Park ride. Yet after another knee-achingly long line, we learned that, not only could we not sit down for it, but it too had been completely co-opted by Zhenzi, with the stages remaining sadly flame-free, while the staff turned the lights off and on. At one point the lights came up and Zhenzi was standing right next to me, but all I could do was glare at her with all the distaste I could muster as Chenbl grabbed me, screaming like an eight-year-old girl.

We eventually saw Shrek 4D, which involved a lot of donkey spit, before we headed back to the exit. The whole fake atmosphere of the placed weighed on me, and I mentally dared any of the “zombies” roaming the street to try something. So much for Universal Studios.

posted by Poagao at 9:59 am  
Oct 24 2013


During my lunch break yesterday, I hauled a framed print of one of my photos onto a bus headed for the eastern part of town, getting off at Yanji Street. At the feet of a towering apartment block, I called three times before Huang Bo-ji answered.

I’ve known Dr. Huang for a while now, after meeting him at a series of local photography symposiums. He’s the photographer who took one of my favorite shots ever, “Swordsmen”, which depicts two boys play-swordfighting underneath Japanese swordsmen movie billboards next to a bridge in Sanchong in 1965. The scene is a wonderful depiction of the intersection of reality and fantasy as well as a portrait of the spirit of those times. After finding that I was a fan of that shot after a photography talk I gave recently, Dr. Huang generously offered a print exchange, as he was a fan of one of my shots of a television repairman in southern Taiwan.

swordsmenAt around 80 years old, Dr. Huang still practices medicine. “I like to keep busy,” he said. It’s definitely paid off, I noticed when he invited me into his spacious apartment, all the more impressive for its Ren-ai Road address. His living room features an impressive collection of classical LP’s, but his television is modern. He brought out one of the few remaining copies of his photography book, “Reflections on Days Gone By“, which features mostly work from the 50′s to the 70′s. We went through each photo, and I took the opportunity to ask him every question I could think of, such as where the photos were taken, who the people were, what they were doing, what he was doing, if he talked to them, his shooting habits, etc. It was wonderful to be able to hear the stories behind the shots, to gain insight not only into his experiences, but Taiwan at that period of time as well. Dr. Huang was critical of the printing of the book, and took out his own prints to show how the photos should have looked had the printer done his job better. His prints did indeed look much better, with more contrast. The photos included the smokestacks of factories at Yingge (“It smelled awful,” Dr. Huang said), a family picnicking on a median in the just-opened Minquan East Road, and even some from the Southern Airport area I visited and wrote about recently, and showed some of the old apartment buildings, the first of their kind to be built in Taipei, just after they were constructed. The structures stuck out of the surrounding rice fields and shanties in a most incongruous fashion. It was amazing.

It does seem a bit sad that Dr. Huang didn’t pursue photography exclusively; it’s obvious that once he became well-known in medical circles that his photography dropped off. But then again, had he done so, chances are that he wouldn’t be where he is today.

As a special treat, Dr. Huang brought out the old Nikon Fs he used to shoot the photos. He uses digital cameras today, but the old cameras still work, and it was great to handle and take a few shots with them, as they weren’t loaded. Makes me wish I’d kept my first camera, a Pentax K1000.

Dr. Huang liked the print I’d brought, and was talking about where he’d like to hang it as I gathered my things up; I had to get back to work, but after I bade him farewell, I couldn’t help but take a stroll down Ren-ai Road, at least as far as the traffic circle. The office, I felt, could wait.

posted by Poagao at 5:45 pm  
Sep 09 2013

Wanhua wander

“Where should we go today?” Chenbl asked me on the phone. I’d just finished a nice lunch at Sababa, helped by the fact that they’ve gone back to their crispy pitas, though the prevalence of cilantro was still disturbing. I had to have a slice of their delicious lemon pie to rid my mouth of the taste.

“I dunno, let’s go west somewhere…lessee, Banqiao?”

“How about Youth Park?”

“Ok.” I was walking up Hsinhai, to the Youbike stand where three girls hovered around the single bicycle left in the racks. They yielded to my onerous presence, and I pedaled up to Heping East Road, turning left and westwards into the sun, but on the shady south side of the street.

The ride, while nice, didn’t take long. Some of the shops on Nanhai Road seemed to be in the process of clearing out, and I wondered if the area is scheduled for demolition. I looked at the moldy old bags filled with the detritus of years of living, and wondered what kinds of stories they held.

Wandering back through more alleys, I passed old wooden two-story houses shrouded in vines, through early apartment blocks straight out of a Hong Kong movie, past old women and their Filipina caretakers. Chenbl showed up over an hour later, and the sun was low in the sky as we walked through the park, being warned by the Indonesian hairdressers on the sidewalk not to take their photos as they clipped the grey hair of old veterans. We walked through an ugly concrete community and out the other side, along a side street where a portly man in blue was repainting the statue of a goddess with real gold paint, past old buildings and new skyscraper apartments.

On our way back towards the park, we heard firecrackers and drums, and presently came upon a religious procession, with palanquins and tall god costumes with swinging arms, and devotees dressed in yellow and red. It was the birthday of one of the gods. We followed them into one of the old Hong Kong-style apartment buildings, to find a small temple in the courtyard. Piles of ghost money burned on the floor, and the palanquins were carried over the flames. A god medium, stripped to the waist, took various weapons from an assistant to brandish amid the firecrackers. I found myself between the palanquins, the medium and the alter, but when I tried to get out of the way, one of the men in red ushered me into the alter room, where the medium, in a trance, instructed the followers what he needed: some paper and ink to sign it. Then he read a woman’s fortune, all in a high falsetto that somehow didn’t contradict his bare-chested authority. “Do you want him to ask him anything?” Chenbl asked. I thought that perhaps one had to make an appointment or something, and demurred, but then I decided, why not?

“So…” I began, while the medium listened, ashes and other firecracker-related materials dusting his bare shoulders. A couple of days’s stubble adorned his face. I asked a few questions about a few things, and the response was cautiously positive.

“You should come with us down to Xinying,” the short man who had invited me into the alter room said, as the medium came out of his trance, collapsing into the arms of a burly assistant, seemingly chosen just for this duty. Back in the normal world, he seemed smaller, almost mousey.

Dinner took the form of vegetable rolls at the Southern Airport Night Market. Of course there hasn’t been an airport there since Japanese times, but the name persists, which I find rather cool. The old public housing persists as well, with winding stairways leading up from betelnut stands.

I’ve always liked Wanhua. It’s another world.

Temple medium

posted by Poagao at 11:16 am  
Aug 15 2013

Long enough

I didn’t know what to do with myself after lunch today. I have lunch almost every day at the same buffet place of Guanqian Road. I’ve taken every possible route there over the years, and every possible route back to my afternoon job.

Today I couldn’t face the walk south on Guanqian Road again. It’s been too long, and I’m numb and lost from insufficient wandering. I walked north and ducked into a stale electronics store, the kind where boxes are piling up and the staff wander aimlessly or stare at their phones while the merchandise beeps and flashes automatically. The new Microsoft Surface tablets held the center spot, but nobody was interested.

When I walked out the doors, the rain had started, hard and uncompromising, but it felt right to me. There should be rain right now, I thought. I walked up to the intersection of Guanqian and Zhongxiao, where the big yellow tiled building used to look out over the old train station back in the day when it was the tallest building around.

I walked a block over, wondering who lived behind the curtained windows lining the upper stories, and stopped at the intersection of Huaining and Kaifeng. There I stood, watching people cross the streets, some running, some limping, most with umbrellas. An umbrella vendor called out “Buy an umbrella!” every so often, in Taiwanese. I stood under the eaves of the least interesting building on the intersection and looked at the scene. The brightly lit office windows of the bank building towering over Chongqing South Road, the old, worn cafe where, one night years ago, I was convinced to buy my first digital camcorder. The faces of girls staring out of the second floor of Starbucks. A black-and-white cat eating leftovers from a Korean restaurant. Travelers, from places like Europe and Japan and Singapore, striding to and from the nearby hostels. An albino woman with long white hair lit up the scene like a beacon as she strode across in her bright pink dress and white umbrella, smiling at everyone she saw.

I’m not sure how long I stood there. Maybe 15 minutes or half an hour. My camera was around my neck but I didn’t take a single shot. I was just looking, at the people, at the details, at the rain in the puddles, and listening, to the bits of conversation, the cars and scooters. That intersection has seen things. I stood there so long I felt I was looking at a webcam, before I realized I could move.

The wet walk to my office didn’t take long, unfortunately.

posted by Poagao at 2:54 pm  
Jul 17 2013

The city and the river

(This is an article I wrote on the dysfunctional relationship between Taipei and its rivers for Village Taipei URS magazine)

It is said that fengshui has strict requirements on the positioning of cities. The central axis is supposed to run from north to south, with its north end pointing towards a mountain that runs from east to west and acts as the guardian of the city. A winding river around the city is said to be an auspicious feature. Even the Forbidden City in Beijing was built according to these rules. And at first glance, the city of Taipei conforms almost exactly to these conditions as well, surrounded by winding rivers and bordered on the north by Yangmingshan. But something happened along the way, a kind of divorce.

Taipei used to be all about the rivers surrounding it. Trade poured in from overseas as ships plied up and down the rivers, bringing goods and passengers to the riverfront districts of Dadaocheng and Wanhua. For hundreds of years, the pristine water supplied to the Taipei Basin by the rivers was the source of health, livelihood and transportation.

But the focus of the city was destined to move inland as it expanded. The authorities built a walled administrative center halfway in between the two main business districts, and then the Japanese tore down the walls and built what is now the Presidential Office, facing away from the river, away from the old business districts, towards the eastern plains that were the subject of elaborate plans for the development the city. Nonetheless, ships from Taiwan still traveled all over the region under Japanese rule.

But that would not last. When the KMT began administering the city, under the cloud of the threat from mainland China’s communist forces, the sea and everything close to it became off-limits, mirroring on a smaller, civic scale China’s retreat from the sea in the late Ming Dynasty, another tragedy on another scale. Personal craft were banned, military installations took over the shorelines, and ferry services dried up and disappeared. The island was repurposed for the use of small industries, whose pollution was deliberately overlooked so that quick profits could be maximized. Purportedly for flood control purposes, huge walls were built separating the rivers from the city, hiding them from view, cutting off access. The government widened the bottleneck of the Danshui River in Guandu, allowing saltwater to flow inland and completely change the ecosystem, which was already under severe attack from the unregulated pollution flowing into the river from the city’s primitive sewage systems and countless small factories. The path of the river was changed, and, as if to add insult to injury, dredging the river ceased; with no ship traffic to accommodate, it soon became too shallow for all but the smallest, flat-bottom boats. The shallower rivers flooded even more, of course. Even then, the reek of pollution made this a somewhat less than appealing notion, and fishing was out of the question for the same reason. Waterfront property wasn’t for living any more; it was for factories and junkyards. Stray dogs had better views than the majority of the expensive high-rises in downtown Taipei.

Gradually, the people of Taipei forgot about the rivers surrounding them. Rivers were just things one caught a brief glimpse of when hurtling across a bridge from one part of the city to another, if one were brave enough to take one’s eyes off the whirling maelstrom of scooters for a second or two. The prohibitions against coastal uses combined with local beliefs that water was dangerous, not just during Ghost Month, but all year round, a self-perpetuating and most vicious cycle, as the more people believed that swimming and other water activities were dangerous, the fewer people engaged in such activities, and with almost nobody knowing how to swim, the danger of drowning became all the more severe for those who did venture into the water, reinforcing the belief that water was dangerous, and so on. The polluted state of the water did not exactly help in this regard either, and the government actively discouraged any riverside farming or settlement. Again, “flood control”, a problem exacerbated by the very measures implemented to control it, was the driving force behind such actions. However, in Taiwan, the difficulties in dealing with the pragmatic realities of life resulting from ill-advised policy are almost always dealt with in the same fashion: Under-the-table practices with little of no enforcement. Thus, the farms and other river-related activities, became part of the unofficial mythology, like the rivers themselves.

For decades, this was the state of things in Taipei. The old waterfront districts of Wanhua and Dadaocheng languished, falling into disrepair as the city’s focus moved further and further inland from the forgotten rivers. The old districts were now bordered not by the river but instead faced huge concrete walls that allowed no scent or sign of the river it concealed. Hidden rivers were not just easier to ignore, they were also much easier to pollute, being out of sight as well as mind for most of the populace, and without any public impetus for reform, factories were free to continue dumping whatever chemicals they liked into the waters. The results of these pollutants entering the riverside farms and fishing, a world that didn’t officially exist, were likewise ignored.

Starting a decade or so ago, however, some of these things began to change. Recent administrations have opened an eye towards the existence of the rivers, raising enforcement of environmental standards to the point that the water isn’t as toxic as it once was. A certain amount of fish and other flora and fauna have returned. Boats now ply the waters between Dadaocheng, Guandu and Danshui, and there is talk of a new ferry down the coast to Hualian. The riverside has been transformed into a place for bicycling and sports.

But the huge walls still exist. More important than the physical walls, which remain necessary for flood prevention, are the mental walls the people of this city have built in their perceptions of the rivers over the many decades since the two parted ways. The government can spruce up the riverside paths and place a few boats on the water, but all it takes is a glance at the picture windows of many a riverside dwelling to see that they have their work cut out for them. For more often than not, the expanses of double-glazed glass do not present the views they were made for, but rather buttress stacks of boxes, clothes and other household detritus.

Chinese architecture traditions are partially to blame for this, after centuries if not millennia of courtyard-style buildings with no real windows facing outside, but when a magnificent view of the river, winding its way from the mountains to the sea, is placed on the same level of value as the concrete wall of the building next door, the reality of priorities influenced by decades of ignorance becomes apparent.

There’s no easy answer; government authorities can encourage riverside and seaside development, and some progress has been made on Taiwan’s east coast. Kaohsiung, having always been a port city, has also made great strides in this area. The aura of an international port has kept it open and alive, though just as, if not even more polluted than Taipei, over the years, and parts of the Love River have ceased to smell like cesspools. Current construction methods, floodways, underground storm water reservoirs, etc., make the existence of primitive floodwalls unnecessary, and with Taiwan’s population growth slowing, there simply isn’t a need to cover up the rivers with concrete and buildings; there is space for wetlands, for floodplains, there is space for the river.

But that would only be the beginning. The participation of the rivers in the existence of a city is an indicator of more than physical presence; rivers are the opposite of walls; they connect us to the rest of the world. Taipei tore down one wall but built many more, the most important of which were in the minds of its residents.

It’s high time those walls came down.

posted by Poagao at 11:08 am  
Jul 07 2013


After some reserve stuff this morning and afternoon, I went down to the Taipei World Trade Center to meet up with Chenbl at the musical instrument expo that was going on there. Thankfully, the downpour that nearly engulfed my bus had eased somewhat, so I didn’t get too wet before I made it to the door, but it was still a puddlicious experience.

Inside, the area devoted to musical instruments, just a small part of the cavernous hall, hosted a cacophony of various bleats, blats, and 74 amateur drummers all doing the same thing on every drum set in sight. I tried out a fiberglass sousaphone at a mainland Chinese stall, then gave the general public a preview of the songs on our upcoming album using some other brass instruments I’d never played, at least the ones with valves. Neither I nor they were much good, though a lot of people took my picture as I was playing.

Chenbl was looking for flutes and violins, and as he haggled prices with seller, I grew quite weary of the constant bad drumming and other noise, and by the time we left I had the beginning of a migraine, which didn’t put me in the best of moods as we waited for one of the u-bikes to become available at the bike stand on the other side of the street. We were both taking bad pictures of Taipei 101 when I spotted an elderly fellow in front of me take a shot with his cellphone. He then turned to me.

“You have to delete that photo,” he said, in accented English.


“You must delete your photo,” he repeated. I was confused.


“Because of my right to privacy, you can’t take a photo with me in it without my permission.”

“I’m fairly sure I can.”

“No, you must respect our laws when you come here, just like us Taiwanese.”

“Uh, I am Taiwanese.”

He switched to Chinese at this point. “Have you ever heard of personal privacy? Come on, we’re going to the police.”

I thought, oh boy, do you know who is standing next to me? Sure enough, as soon as we switched to Chinese, Chenbl, who had been uploading his own 101 shot to Facebook, joined in. “And just who are you?” he said. “Why should do anything you tell us to? You want to go to the police? Feel free.”

“How do I know you won’t be gone by the time I get back?” the man said.

“You don’t. Why should we care? You have no evidence of anything; we haven’t done anything wrong.”

“So, if someone were to throw something at you, and you didn’t have any evidence, it wouldn’t be wrong?” he said. I looked at Chenbl.

“Is that a threat?” I said, glaring at the man. Up until now the conversation hadn’t been particularly hostile, but it was taking a nasty turn. Chenbl held up his phone.

“If anyone throws anything, I have this conversation taped, and I’m pretty sure it would implicate you in any such act.” The old man laughed harshly.

“You guys are really something. You win this one, but it’s a small city; we’ll meet again.” Jesus, this is straight out of a comic book, I thought, and all because he thought I’d taken his picture. The man walked to the other side of the street, playing with his phone and hopefully not calling 20 of his best friends to resolve the situation. We didn’t hang around long enough to find out, electing to find bicycles elsewhere. We’d been planning to go see some friends play at Huashan, but my headache convinced me to go for a massage at the underground mall instead.

posted by Poagao at 11:52 pm  
Jun 10 2013

Long weekend

It was a long weekend. Not literally, unfortunately; it just felt that way. Saturday was spent recording songs for our second album at Soundkiss Studios. This is usually a lot of fun, and this time was no exception…except, well, one of the songs was one I’d been practicing over the previous week, not only to work out what I was going to play, or at least options to choose from, but just to increase my stamina so I could play longer without tiring out. This didn’t really work, for we had to go through the song several times just to make sure everyone was on the same page, and although my first couple of takes were good enough, my performance started to fall off, just in time for the other players to hit their stride in getting used to the song and honing their performances. I don’t envy David when it comes time to choose which edition of the song makes it to the album.

Sunday I gave another talk, this time on travel photography, at an art space near Dihua Street. There were four speakers, of which I was the second. The other speakers did well, but, as usual, I had too much material to get through in the short 18 minutes allotted. Afterwards I just wanted to go off somewhere, but those were the days, my friend.

You might have noticed that I don’t write here much these days, and when I do, it’s about relatively impersonal things, which I describe in a perfunctory nature. That’s just the way it is. A few of you know what I’m talking about, though I’d be surprised if anyone still reads this. Eventually I’ll either be able to write about my life again, or I’ll just stop. We’ll see.

posted by Poagao at 4:47 pm  
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