Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jan 26 2019

Last day

The drive back from Hpa-an was more pleasant than the drive out by far. For one thing, we left at a decent hour, after a decent breakfast at the hotel. Han gave us lyonghi as parting gifts, and we took a group photo by a lake in a park, mostly successfully avoiding the multitude of construction workers building various things.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that I did not have high hopes for, but it turned out to be quite good, with our driver showing us how to eat the more diverse dishes. We stopped in a town called Waw a few hours later to let the driver rest while we walked around for a bit. We saw lots of kids, barbershops, and a small mosque. One of the fellows at the mosque could speak basic Chinese, which he said was gratifying as he didn’t normally have much use for it.

Traffic got exponentially worse as we neared Yangon, and we sat in traffic for a long time before finally arriving at our hotel.

This morning we got up early again and took another route to the train station, this time crossing the overhead walkway and then down to the platforms. We then delved into the adjacent village, which is cris-crossed with incredibly polluted waterways, more trash than water, and what water there is is grey, brackish stuff. I have to say the Myanmarese treatment of their environment isn’t the best.

We walked over to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, and I bought some more Muslim hats at shops nearby before we walked back over to the docks we’d visited before. This time not only were there three boats instead of two docked there, but the water level was much further down. We dodged the passengers and workers on the docks for an hour before the boats were scheduled to depart at 4 p.m. The actual time of departure was more like 4:30-ish, but I made sure everyone was off the boats by 4:00, just in case.

We then walked back towards downtown, admiring the crumbling old buildings left over from the British. There’s just…something about dusk in this country, be it in Yangon or in the countryside or small towns. It’s a combination of the light, the air, the people…I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s often sublime. Of course, I’ve always liked that time of day above all others, but here, it’s immensely satisfying for some reason.

Dinner was at a place in Chinatown, and then back to the hotel. Tomorrow it’s breakfast and then off to the airport. It’s been a good trip…frustrating at times, but all in all a welcome change of pace and a good way of getting out of my head for a while. I can’t bring myself to think about going back to my regular routine just yet.

posted by Poagao at 10:42 pm  
Jan 24 2019

A busy day

We set out in the van with our local tour guide and Han at 5:45 a.m. so that we could arrive at a picturesque monastery as the sun rose. The monastery is located on and around a big, ungainly rock in the middle of a lake. It was postcard stuff, but a pleasant time. As the students squatted on the shore of the lake, I wandered around the adjacent rice fields. After the sun came up, an older monk and a small entourage proceeded across the bridge into the monastery.

The hotel breakfast was good. Hotel breakfasts tend to be pretty good IMHO. It’s kind of like airplane food, in that I tend to be happy that I’m traveling, and thus I have a higher opinion of the food involved, or just happy that there’s food at all.

Next on our list was one of an incredible amount of caves in the area. We had to take our shoes off before entering. The was a cave in the cave, with a small opening and a line of rude French people. The moment I squeezed into the space, which featured the usual bit o’ Buddha, I regretted it; it was stuffy and uncomfortable, and I couldn’t wait to get out again.

We then stopped off at a place where a man would climb trees and drain the fruit to make a sugary drink, and then to a village where we sat in a hut and drank tea with a fellow from Laos who has to go back to the U.S. to maintain his passport every so often. A girl from Taipei sat with him, and we were all surprised to meet each other in this of all places.

Lunch was a spread nearby outside a Myanmarese house. I’ve been noting little boxes, mostly with colored glass, sticking out from the houses here, always on the other side from the door. Han explained to me that there are “Buddha boxes” where figurines are placed, so that the people in the house can pay their respects, but, as the homes are where people live, not Buddhas, the boxes are technically outside the house. It’s quite interesting. I have come to really appreciate Myanmarese house design: Everything is open, it’s like a huge campground, but the porches and LED lighting and the Buddha boxes all make for a very welcoming, comfy feel.

After lunch we went to another cave, which ended up with us getting into boats to float under a mountain and through some rice fields. There were too many dead things in the water for my comfort, but it was a pleasant ride. Then we drove to another cave, but this one had the water feature beforehand. Recent graduates and monkeys frolicked in front as we got out of the van and made our way to some very small, flat-bottomed boats. For some reason, our boat was overloaded, the water only a couple of inches from the edge, and people kept rocking the boat. When the Myanmarese passengers began wondering if this was an entirely good idea, I began to have a bad feeling about all this. Fortunately the boat rower agreed, and we switched to a larger boat midstream before paddling into the dark caves.

They said that foreigners love these caves, but it seemed a little monotonous to me. We’d been seeing the same group of Westerners all day, or perhaps they all just look the same.

We rushed through the cave to a platform on the other side of the mountain just in time to glimpse the last of the setting sun. Winded from the climb, we hung out there for a bit as the sky got redder and redder, and then proceeded back through the cave, barefoot of course, wincing as we trod on every little sharp piece of rock.

Dinner back in Hpa-an was good, and then it was back to the hotel. Tomorrow we’re driving back to Yangon, probably stopping once or twice along the way.

posted by Poagao at 11:49 pm  
Jan 23 2019

Mawlamyine and Hpa-an

Our van was waiting downstairs; we set off at 5 a.m. If there are highways in Myanmar, we didn’t take them. The roads were bumpy, and the van lacked a high gear, so it was a lot of vibration and motion. Keith Secola’s classic “Indian Car” kept running through my head. Our driver is a careful fellow, though, which is a good thing as the roads also lack lights. An hour or so after leaving Yangon, the sky began to lighten, and we stopped at a rest stop for coffee and bathroom breaks, and then kept on. The sun baked the front seat where I was sitting, but the view was nice.

The countryside was pleasant, except for where people had dumped trash. People here have that unfortunate habit. The houses tend to be on stilts, LED lights are in vogue on temples, and lovingly garish colors decorate everything. Forests planted in rows, and tolls for every road, though the roads aren’t in the best shape.

We met our friend Han for lunch at a riverside hotpot place in Mawlamyine, workers diving into the muddy water to repair a boat outside the restaurant as we ate. Then Han took us to see a couple of old churches, one Baptist and the other Catholic. The Baptist Church people got mad when I stepped on the altar, and the Catholic church was full of The Story of White Jesus and His White Frenemies. Urgh.

We then drove up a hill to look at the town from above. Exercise equipment was piled to the side of the observation platform, which was bordered by various Buddhist institutions. We met one of Han’s friends and drove down to the market, where everyone spread out to walk around. We found the old part of town, and I found a hat store, purchasing a black hat I liked. When I put it on to walk around the neighborhood, the stares turned to friendly smiles, and the ubiquitous “Hello!” turned into “Salaam Alaikum!”

After meeting up again, we headed down to the waterfront to watch the spinning seagulls, and then we headed to Hpa-an, which happens to be Han’s hometown, as well as where his several businesses are located (He’s in the mobile phone biz). We had dinner at another place on the river before retiring to the hotel, where I’m currently writing this.

Tomorrow’s a full day of sightseeing in the area. It should be interesting.

posted by Poagao at 11:30 pm  
Jan 23 2019

In Yangon

So I’ve been in Yangon, Myanmar, for the past few days. There are 15 of us (!) on this trip, so things have been rather restricted, with super-organized days and a disturbing combination push/pull that is constantly going on when everyone is going at different speeds.

As our flight was at 7 a.m., I had to get up at 4. It felt strange, fleeing in the night like that. One bumpy little 737 ride over seas and shining deltas and we were in Yangon, still in morning garb; we put our stuff in our rooms, and then walked around. I was in an odd mood; everything seemed hectic and out of focus. I was seeing photos I couldn’t get because of the nature of my circumstances, and it was screwing with me. Our friend Han and some of his friends met us at the airport, photographer friends who wanted to meet us I guess, but I wasn’t showing any particular photographic prowess, or any prowess at all for that matter.

We had lunch at a place the hotel, 999 Noodles or something. It was full of white tourists, and quite busy. One plaid-attired dude was showing off his new Nikon camera, which he promptly left on his seat when the group left. “Dude, you forgot your camera!” I yelled at him as he descended the stairs. He went back, sheepish. Are things this desperate here, cuisine-wise, that we have to eat with tourists? I thought. I thought of Vietnam, where excellent food is everywhere.

Later, local photographer Ye Min came out to meet us in the park near our hotel. We walked together through more streets and alleys, ending up at the small but interesting Puzundaung railway station. We then caught taxis to a restaurant, but our taxi got so hopelessly ensnared in Yangon’s incredible traffic that we had to abandon it halfway and get another one. I hope it survived.

There was a band at dinner; they weren’t terrible. Then Ye Min took up up to the rooftop restaurant overlooking the city, where we drank rum and chatted until late.

The next day we headed through Little India to Chinatown, walking down alleys, through markets, over overpasses. It struck me that the Myanmar greeting of Mingalaba sounds like bells. The weather here is a little hot around noon, but otherwise quite pleasant, with no hint of rain anywhere. We passed temples, churches, mosques, hindu temples…it’s a fascinating mix of cultures here. We ended up at a mall, Junction Centre Something, where everyone went off on their own for lunch. Chenbl and I had lunch slurping noodles as an Indian man washed his tires a couple feet away. Han and his friend Myat Thu walked with us over to the riverside, where we walked out onto a jetty and onto a couple of ships that were docked there. That was a fascinating scene, people with huge packages, chickens, goats, families camped out, crew painting things. If I lived here, I’d probably be over there all the time.

After the jetty, we got into taxis to go meet Ye Min, but we’d only driven a block when we hit a traffic jam. Our driver surprised us  by getting out and walking off. We were thinking of just driving off when we saw that there’d been a small accident ahead, actually involving one of our group’s taxis. Fortunately no one was hurt; it was just a trishaw making a bad u-turn.

We met Ye Min at the People’s Park, an amusement park, and he showed us where some students like to practice their dances, and some fountains, etc. Apparently he shoots there quite a lot. The sun was setting as we prepared to enter the Shwedagon Pagoda, which requires that visitors remove their shoes before embarking on a series of escalators up the mountain. This seems like a recipe for disaster; as we were passing through security, I noticed quite a lot of blood on the floor; one of our students had cut her foot on the escalator, and security escorted her up to the clinic to clean the cut. I wonder how often this happens.

The complex is magnificent, truly. All that gold, the statues, all of it. Amazing. There’s not much else to say about it.

We ended up back in Chinatown, on a street that reminded me a little of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but better than that chaos. Ye Min introduced me to a couple of his photographer friends here, but their English wasn’t up to direct conversation, so we had to do a lot of translating. It was fun, though, and the street people finished what we couldn’t.

The next day we walked down to the river to catch the ferry to Dala. On the way we passed what looked like old British government buildings, one of which, it turned out, seemed to have become a mosque. The waiting room was filled with 1950’s songs by the Ventures.

The ferry was by its nature interesting, plying across a river that is soon being bridged. We were met by a barrage of trishaw drivers on the other side, but eventually escaped to walk the dirt roads. We talked with some people from a church, and then were invited to join a Hindu ceremony at a temple, including dancing, good music, and lunch, which was delicious, served on large leaves and eaten with our hands.

We kept walking for a bit; I preferred to stick to the waterfront roads, but the others seemed to want to stick to more inland roads. Oh well. We then took a couple of decidedly air-conditioning-free vans to Twuntay, another fishing village. There we walked around the market and then back down by the river. People kept inviting us in to see whatever they were doing; it was rather fun. We met one boxer to gave us a little demonstration of his skills by knocking Chenbl on the head. Fortunately, Chenbl’s head could take it.

We pretty much literally flew back to Dala; the van drivers had wanted to go back earlier and were trying to make up for lost time, so we blasted past traffic at alarming speeds. The sun was setting when we arrived, lighting up the city on the opposite bank. Some of the students went back first, while some of us remained for some extra shooting as I wanted to cover the waterfront for a bit more. As we walked and looked, a huge red orb appeared on the horizon…the moon. It was time to go back on the ferry.

This morning we got up early again and walked to the old train station, arriving with the sunlight reflected off nearby glass buildings. We checked things out a bit before going back to the hotel for breakfast, returning to stalk the platforms. It felt a little like the station in Bangkok, with the old trains, the people from the countryside with their packages, etc. We hopped on and off trains, and eventually got on one of the trains that ply the circular route. It was like a little market, vendors walking up and down the aisles hawking their wares. We had some fresh corn that was really not bad. The train proceeded at roughly the pace of a middle-aged jogger, but I didn’t mind; I like trains.

We got off at a market; I didn’t realize it was actually a station, as I had to jump off the train while it was still moving, but apparently it was. The market was chaotic, so we walked around the nearly village. A couple of monks at the local temple showed us which statues indicated which days of the week and which directions they faced. Many of the monks I’ve seen here sport elaborate tattoos; it makes for an interesting appearance.

I was all for taking the train back, but the students were hot and wanted air conditioning, so we hopped on a bus that took longer than the train but was cooler.

Back in Yangon, we got off, and a discussion ensured among the others concerning the changing of money and where and how it should be done. It was late afternoon, and I just stood and watched the scene, the traffic, the buses and cars, the vendors and their wares amid the crumbling old colonial buildings. The discussion went on and on, but I was happy because I was free to just stand and observe, not even really taking photos, just being there. The drone of the city resolved itself; Yangon finally felt good to me.

Too soon we had to go; they’d Googled a place for dinner, which turned out to be pretty fancy and full of white hipsters in skinny jeans and boots staring intently over their beards at laptop computers. All I wanted to do was to go back to that corner, or just walk around the city, perhaps down to the riverfront, or wherever I felt like, just looking, but of course I couldn’t do that. So I sat and ate and wondered.

Tomorrow we’re getting up early again, of course, and taking a van to some other placed in the country for a few days. But I thought I’d get this much down for now.

posted by Poagao at 12:36 am  
Dec 03 2018

Dulan, etc.

I was watching the clock all Friday morning, as I had to set out for the train station at noon on the dot so that I wouldn’t be late for our Puyuma Express to Taitung. Fortunately I made it, but it seems that pre-trip trepidation is worse than it used to be.

We gathered in front of the station and spent a few minutes rebuffing the overtures of a lady selling gum before heading down to the train. The journey was lovely; the east coast is so picturesque; the three-hour trip passed quickly thanks to a window seat and conversation. Then it was taxis to the Railyard Village where we were playing. The area’s cool, artsy vibe has increased in the years since we played there last. Soundcheck was thorough and professional, and after a lone dinner at the standalone Mosburger, we took the stage and played a very tight, thrilling show. It was one of our better shows, if I may say myself. Everyone was listening to each other, playing off each other; it was tight and fast, just the way our music should be, and the audience at it up. Our old friend and my old co-worker Brian Kennedy showed up for the show, and we hung out afterwards.

As the night wore on, we piled into taxis out to Dulan, where Tim and Conor headed out camping, Slim and Cristina headed to one hostel, and David and I to another. The next morning I got up first and found some breakfast at a local place, and then wandered around the town for a bit. I followed the sound of loud music to the temple, in front of which an aborigine wedding was taking place. I took some photos and texted my old college roommate DJ, who is familiar with Dulan as he stays there when he’s in Taiwan. It turned out, no doubt to the surprise of no one, that DJ knew the happy couple as well as many other people there, and I talked to many of them, including Suming, the singer. It was a lovely, warm atmosphere, so much so that I had to leave at one point to get my bearings, have some coffee and walk around some more on my own, talking with some people I met.

By the time I returned, the party was over; a few people remained taking down the settings, but they soon piled into a truck and left. Suming sent me a message on Line that they were at the groom’s house, though he had to leave for another gig. I walked over the bridge and to the groom’s house, where the party was in full swing, with joyful, coordinated dancing that was so much more fulfilling to watch than the usual tourist dances that they always seem compelled to do.

But we had another show to play, so I walked back to the hostel and got my things to take to the Sugar Factory. It was kind of strange leaving the aboriginal wedding group and entering the backpacker/expat sphere that is another component of the town. We played a one-mic show and it was again a wonderful performance. I drank rather a lot of mead, and afterwards we talked into the night while sitting on benches by the highway, accompanied by a very nice cat.

Our train back to Taipei on Sunday wasn’t until evening, so after some nice pho with David, he and the others all headed out on various ventures, some went river tracing, others to the beach. Slim and Brian sat around the Sugar Factory talking with the two couples who sell coconuts and quiche, respectively. Unfortunately, some of the conversation brought back some of the BS that I’d wanted to escape recently, so I went for another walk around town. I walked to the junior high school, empty on Sunday except for a few students, and then up towards the mountains for a bit. Then I walked back down through town again, to the sea, where I watched the waves. A miniature expat drum circle provided unwelcome musical accompaniment to the waves, but the light was very pleasant.

Then it was back to the factory, where we’d gathered up to go back to Taitung, onto the train, and back to Taipei.

posted by Poagao at 11:36 am  
Nov 17 2018

The unkept promise of mirrorless

I’ve had some time in the afternoons this last week due to having to be in the city for other engagements, so I’ve been taking advantage of the fine weather (of course it’s raining today, Saturday, resulting in me here at home, writing this) to wander around, which is generally my favorite thing to do.

After finishing a radio interview on our latest album, after David Chen caught a Youbike to another part of town, I walked up to the Syntrend Center to see what was up. The VR arcade has been redesigned; it’s now just a big empty pen that can be used for any type of game rather than the rather specific WWII setting they had. This might herald the new generation of wireless headsets that are coming out. The camera stores on the third floor had some of the new mirrorless models I’ve been hearing so much about, so I took a look. The Nikon store had the Z7, which felt nice enough. Startup time was quick, probably quick enough but I couldn’t be sure without really trying it out in real-world shooting. The shutter felt ok, with a definite half-press and a decent sound/feel. Too bad Nikon didn’t see fit to release any smaller lenses for it. But a nice enough camera, it seemed…there’s potential there, even if I’m not as big a fan of Nikon colors.

Then went over to the Canon store, and while they did have the new EOS R, I didn’t realize it at first; it was sitting in between the 5DIV and the 6DII, and didn’t stand out. It’s a big camera, and doesn’t really trade on the promise of size reduction mirrorless can offer as much as it might have. I realize that all the posters on DPreview are over all that “small camera nonsense” and just want the highest specs possible, but this was the main reason I went to mirrorless in the first place. The R’s startup time was ok; it didn’t feel as fast as the Nikon, and the shutter didn’t feel as nice, though of course better than that of my A7r (it would be hard to be worse than that). The R had the 24-105 lens on it, of course; I’ve never seen anyone in the reviews actually show the small 35 f1.8 IS, which would be the lens I would choose to use with it. Suddenly everyone’s into big cameras again for some reason; perhaps the chiropractor lobby is behind it. I joke, but it just proves the point I’ve made elsewhere, that most camera consumers are only interested in photographing predetermined subjects at certain places and times, so size and weight and battery life aren’t their main concerns. They have phones for everything else. But as for the R, the on/off switch is located so that I would need to reach over with my other hand to turn it on instead of just turning it on with my holding hand in one motion. The R’s rear screen is another problem; in order to tilt it up or down, you have to first pull it out and away from the body, so forget using that with any degree of alacrity. It’s a shame, because I do miss Canon colors; the Sony has never quite done it for me.

Next, of course, was the Sony store, but they only had a few ratty first- and second- generation cameras there, the guys at the counter too busy chatting to realize that marketing old cameras is probably not their best strategy. Of course Sony has also made their mirrorless cameras bigger and heavier with each iteration. I don’t need IBIS much; in fact, that little bit of resistance the frame gives when I’m trying to get a precise composition is rather irritating. Just an original A7r, even with the same sensor and viewfinder, but a nicely damped shutter and new firmware to make it more snappy would be just the ticket.

In short, the digital camera world has not seen anything like the original Sony A7r, before or since. I would have been happy if they had simply updated the sensor, viewfinder, shutter and battery, keeping something like the original size and shape. But they didn’t, and the other manufacturers saw this and decided they could now get in on the game. It’s all moot as my five-year-old model still works (for now, knock on wood), but I can’t help but think what might have been, and be happy that I never sold my M6.

posted by Poagao at 1:49 pm  
Oct 29 2018

Hong Kong ’18

I felt a certain sense of unease, almost antsy, in the days before we left for Hong Kong on Friday. There wasn’t much to pack; it was just a weekend jaunt, and all I needed was some clothes, my trumpet and cameras. Though our flight was scheduled to take off after noon, we met up at Xindian Station just after 8 a.m. I’d slept poorly, waking up every hour and only sleeping again with difficulty, but I somehow made it on time. I should have been able to relax at that point, but something still felt off.

We got to the airport in plenty of time, David and I having lunch at the Mos Burger upstairs after the quick and efficient customs and immigration. The others wandered off during the time before we met up at the gate for the Hong Kong Airlines flight, a brand-new Airbus A350 waiting at the gate. “Excuse me, could you let us by?” A middle-aged white woman said as she pushed past us on the way to the gate, where nobody had even begun to line up for boarding. It reminded me of those people pelting down the escalator at the subway station, risking life and limb so that they could be at the platform in order to wait eight minutes for the next train to arrive.

The flight was smooth; a couple of hours later we were taxiing into the gate at a new terminal at the airport in Hong Kong. Vast swaths of construction constituted a theme that would continue throughout the weekend. We caught a double-decker bus into town, alighting amid the familiar canyon of Nathan Road. It had been years since I’d been there. Hong Kong, with its rough edges and agrophilic tendencies, will always feel surreal to me; I’ve lived there in relative luxury and destitute squalor, as an overseas company employee and a stateless, homeless migrant; it always messes with my mind.

We made our way to our hostel, the Hop-Inn on Mody Road, dropping off our things and heading out again. The air was heavy with smog, the view across the harbor obscured as we walked along the promenade marveling at all of the massive construction sites and new buildings. We circled around the old clock tower and then headed back to the Chungking Mansions, where Slim thought he remembered a good Indian restaurant. Though the exterior has been renovated, the interior of the building retains most of its old character, and Slim’s memory didn’t let us down; we had an excellent and filling meal at The Delhi Club.

Then we all got on the MTR out to Diamond Hill, where we made our way to an interesting space in an industrial building that Gloomy Island festival organizers Tomii and Andrew have made into their creative space. They’d bought a plastic tub and stick that we needed to try out before the show the next day. The tub, made in China, wasn’t quite up to par, but the stick, while a bit too long, thick and heavy, turned out to work well enough after I sawed a few pieces off of it. Tomii, Andrew and the other residents of the space that night are all musicians, so we jammed and talked into the wee hours of the morning before catching cabs back to Tsim Sha Tsui.

Sandman and I were the first up on Saturday morning, most likely because we’d elected to go to bed after returning to the hostel the night before rather than going out again as some of the others had. As we were waiting to cross Nathan Road, I noticed a group of photographers on the mid-road pedestrian island, all with at least one and in some cases several cameras, shooting each other. I took a couple of shots of them, and they smiled. Apparently at least one of them recognized me and messaged me on Instagram later.

Sandy wanted to walk over to the Marks & Spencer to look at the food there, but it didn’t open til 10 a.m., so he accompanied me through Kowloon Park and over the skybridge to the Pacific Place towers where I stayed during my days with ESO, taking ferries to the interior of China to inspect shoes, me no doubt boring Sandy to tears as I went on and on about those days. I took another selfie at the same place I did back then, but I don’t know if they’ll match up. On the way back, we passed a guard outside an expensive shop holding a pump-action shotgun. Then, at M&S, I bought a sandwich and a yogurt, which I promptly dropped, covering the floor with a combination of blueberries and black current. This, you see, is why I hate backpacks. Every time I need to use them, I have to take off my camera, take off the bag, open it, use it and close it while holding my camera, put it back on, and then put my camera back on. Messenger bags are much better IMHO.

After returning to the hostel, everyone had different yet equally vague ideas of what they wanted to do that afternoon before the gig, so I set out alone, walking down to the clock tower and boarding the Star Ferry for Hong Kong island. It was splendid to be on that old vessel again, bobbing and weaving across that magnificent strait. There is a smell to Hong Kong harbor that is unique as far as I’m concerned. The Hong Kong side pier isn’t the one I knew, and feels crassly commercial, but I suppose they had to move it to deal with the more-or-less constant land reclamation that will most likely result in the crossing becoming a matter of stepping over a large puddle.

I walked through Central, various sights bringing back memories. Markets, crosswalks, buildings, etc. I entered Pacific Place across the same pedestrian bridge I did back in the days when that mall was my way to escape my rather desperate predicament, and took the escalators up to Hong Kong Park, which made me sad and nostalgic. None of the frolicking tourists or kids catching Pokemon could ever know about those days.

I continued walking towards Wan Chai, stopping at another large construction site to take photos, and down towards the harbor where another even-larger one greeted me as I walked over to the Wan Chai Star Ferry pier. Another lovely trip later I was back in TST, arriving back at the hostel in time to take a quick shower, get dressed, grab my trumpet, and head with the others over to Fortress Hill, where the Gloomy Island festival was taking place. We changed trains at Admiralty and arrived for our soundcheck before 5 p.m.

The festival venue deserves special mention, as the MoM Livehouse is located deep within an underground, apparently dead shopping center. A group of men were playing cards in the hallway, and empty shops sported rent signs. After soundcheck we chilled for a while on the hill opposite, and then Cristina and I tried and failed to find a good place to have dinner, only coming across several promising restaurants after we’d already spent too much on some mediocre egg shrimp and beef noodles. Alas.

Before the show, I walked down the road to Tin Hou, at the edge of the big sports park. It was where I stayed when I first arrived in Hong Kong to renounce my U.S. citizenship. I looked up at the building, imagining that tiny, windowless room a quarter of a century ago, and then a the scar on my hand from a piece of glass that had finally worked its way out when I was staying there (I’d cut it on a window during a typhoon in Taipei years before). I thought about selling my sci-fi books for food money, running in the park to get into shape, and watching newfangled “DVD” movies in storefront windows.

And then, 25 years later, I walked back up the road to play a gig at a jazz festival. It went pretty well. The other bands were very good, including both Tomii’s and Andrew’s bands, as well as an enthusiastic Filipino band. We were last, and wrapped everything up. I lingered and chatted with some of the other bands as the place emptied out, and soon it was past midnight and we were standing out in front of the empty center, behind an old building shrouded in bamboo scaffolding.

We caught the last train back to Kowloon, put our instruments and ties away, and rendezvoused back at the clock tower after picking up some hamburgers to munch on. There we sat and drank and chatted through the night. Silhouettes of ships floated across the twinkling lights of the city across the harbor. We talked about oceans, and people, and music. We’d done what we’d come to do. I had, anyway, and by that I mean to play music and visit a few ghosts.

The sky was glowing towards dawn when we left, ferries bringing workers over the waves before the Star Ferry began service again. On our way back, inexplicably, Slim decided to traverse an alley behind the Chungking Mansions.

I woke at 10:30 and started getting my things together. Something had changed over the weekend, over the night. I’m not entirely sure what that means yet. I had a big tasty breakfast at the coffee shop downstairs, eventually joined by Cristina, Sandy and David. One quick walk to the store later, we were once again trudging up Nathan Road, instruments in hand, to catch the bus back to the airport. After three days, I’d lost that frantic edge that had built up before the trip, but it had been replaced by something darker.

The mere aroma of the Popeyes meals everyone else bought at the airport made me regret not getting one myself. I don’t know what I was thinking, but the scraps they did toss my way were delicious. The late afternoon sun was throwing lovely golden beams through the airport lounge as we boarded the plane, but someone forgot to tell them that they needed a little truck to tow them out to the runway, so we waited around for an hour while they looked for one, possibly on EBay. I sat and watched the Han Solo movie, which I enjoyed for the most part, until we managed to finally get dragged out to the runway and take off.

Back in Taipei, the flight ended just before the movie did, so now I have to rent the damn thing to see the last five minutes. So I felt unresolved as I got off the plane, waited for the others to get their luggage, and met up at the food court downstairs, where we sat down to examine the Liberty Times article about us that had hit newsstands that day. We oohed and aahed over the full-page piece, noting a few mistakes, but generally happy that it happened.

Then, because none of us could face the long journey back to Xindian via the subway, we piled into a cab. It was dark outside the cab, but we knew what was out there.

I was the last in the cab, after Slim and then Cristina were dropped off at their respective domiciles. It was a quiet, empty drive across the bridge, as was the climb back to the Water Curtain Cave. Things have been revealed on this trip, some good things, some ugly things, but all real things. Maybe I will sleep well again, but maybe I won’t.

posted by Poagao at 9:10 pm  
Oct 22 2018

The real source of good photography

“Going out to take photos?”

“Get any good shots?”

Even though I’m often asked one of these two admittedly innocuous questions, my first reaction is usually puzzlement: Do they know something I don’t? Then I realize that the questioner is looking at the ever-present camera on my shoulder and thinking that today is special, that I’m going out today to specifically capture certain images that I already have in mind. Or that have just returned from doing so, mission accomplished.

“Not really,” I say. Usually I leave it at that, and watch as the puzzlement volleys back into their court.

“But you’re carrying a camera-”

“This is true.”

“Are you not going out to take pictures?”

There’s not much I can honestly say at this point without causing them to look around for escape routes: “Maybe!” or “We’ll see!” or “Ya never know!”

Mostly I just lie, because I realize most people are just making small talk, and talking to a person who is obviously going out shooting but steadfastly refuses to say so can’t be a pleasant experience.

And I can’t blame them. Photography has in recent years become so wrapped up in itself at the expense of its very purpose that such conversations usually end up going nowhere fast. I also suspect it might be much worse if I were a Real Photographer.

So many people are looking through the wrong end of the telephoto lens, so to speak. These conversations might continue on to things like “So what camera/lens do you use?” followed by endless listing of specs and the kind of loyalty statements usually reserved for sports teams, then moving eventually, perhaps, to “Where/when/what do you shoot?” and almost never to “Why do you shoot,” much less “Who are you?” Ironically, mall security and cops tend to be the ones asking this last question, though I’m not sure if they’re really interested in the answer unless it involves letting them arrest me.

Whether it’s out of politeness, caution, social mores, or simply an unspoken fear that one hasn’t even bothered ask oneself these questions, the result is that we rarely actually communicate on this subject. Photographers are often so ill at ease with social navigation that we resort to photography as a primary means of communication. That, of course, doesn’t excuse resorting to a similar amount of shallowness when working in one’s chosen medium.

In a nutshell, who you are determines what you notice, the questions you ask, your doubts and inspirations. All this is constantly changing, and simply saying “I’m going to shoot different photos now” is an oversimplification of that process. The photography is incidental, more of a result than a cause.

People often express a desire to improve their photography, their desire to take “better” photos; that means taking different photos than the ones they’re taking now. Changing the location or equipment involved will most likely not result in fundamentally different photos; you can’t take different photos until you see different things. And that, in turn, won’t happen until you are different than you are now in some fundamental way. You see the things you see because of the person you happen to be at this moment.

And you are always changing. Some say travel changes a person, some say switching jobs, some say switching partners, some say limitations engender creativity…when it comes down to it, life changes you constantly, by definition. At some point, some that youness might intersect with photographic expression for an undetermined length of time. Or it might not.

So try not to distract yourself with the superficialities of gear and travel. Photography, as Jay Maisel once wrote, is about everything else. The most vital variable in the mix is you. You are the genesis of your photography; start with that, and everything else will follow.

posted by Poagao at 11:45 am  
Sep 18 2018

Photography and Personing

Are you into photography? Do you like to person? Do you like to do both at the same time?

When I say “into” photography, I don’t mean someone who has/desires a great deal of gear, or someone who knows all the best places to find the best birds/orangutans/fire escapes, nor am I talking about dudes who take thousands of photos of women models in studios and random parks. I’m talking about people who are afflicted with the condition where they can’t not see photographs everywhere they go, even if they don’t have a camera at hand.

Another group I’m not talking about: Those who “got into” photography when it became the hot thing with the popular kids a few years ago (featuring skateboarders, that oft-used demographic every large corporation knows is perfect for bringing “the youth” into the fold for effective consumerism). I won’t waste my time because soon enough you’ll be saying things like “I just haven’t had time to go out shooting” and “There’s just nothing going on here” when something else comes along. Whenever I hear those phrases, I recall my ophthalmologist’s advice that I really need to stop rolling my eyes. Just admit it: You are not really into photography. But hold up: That’s great! It’s not an insult; it’s a compliment. Congratulations, because, as it turns out, being really into photography (as opposed to being a professional photographer, which is often a different thing), can be rough.

What could I possibly mean by this? Isn’t “everyone a photographer” these days? Don’t most people have a capable camera in their phone or around their neck? How do these people people, as it were?

Let’s say you are with other people. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking, eating, in a car, on a bus, in a meeting, having sex, or paragliding, or all of those at the same time (which admittedly sounds like one hell of a party). Do you remain committed to maintaining your interaction with them, or do you remain open to all of the potential photos happening around you?

Most normal people opt for the former. Obviously. Even in the unlikely event that you can engage with your companions as well as paying sufficient attention to your surroundings, what happens when a photograph become apparent to you? Do you maintain eye contact? Try and keep the conversation going? Think up an excuse to leave suddenly?

Again, for most people, the conversation is their literal focus. Most non-photographers, regardless of the photographic machinery they may have on hand, aren’t even looking. Of those who are looking, most ignore it. Of those who can’t ignore it, most watch helplessly as the photograph disappears while they try to keep their attention on the other people. Of those who make an attempt to socially disengage in order to make the photograph, most will be too late as well as flustered from resisting the ancient DNA-level code of Not Being an Asshole to one’s tribe. And those who just go take the damn picture are of course rude, self-centered malcontents who think their so-called “art” is more important than the actually important matters their companions are earnestly discussing with them at the time of the aforementioned abscondment.

“But TC,” you say, “I’ve found the Perfect Friends/Significant Other who is perfectly fine with me shooting anything I want at any time!”

That’s great! I’m sure they’re very nice, lovely, accommodating people who are really into you, and willing to put up with this behavior in order to be around you. I’m jealous, truly I am. Perhaps they even point out little scenes they think you’d be interested in, even though you aren’t because they can’t actually know what you see, and by the time you’ve followed their pointing finger and excited, slightly patronizing tone that of course has alerted the denizens of said scene to your attention, it has vanished. But I’ll bet a reasonable amount of money that they in fact hide their dismay when you display in a most abrupt fashion how much more devoted you are to some imagined, phantom scene than you are to really being truly “with” them.

That they’re willing to go through that for you is admirable. But perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll eventually get to wondering exactly why you can’t deny yourself this stupid photography shit in order to be with them. It’s not like you’re exactly famous or really any good at it. Which is most likely true, because in their eyes you can’t be good until you’re famous, and becoming a Famous Photographer is not only nearly impossible, it almost by definition disallows continuing to be into photography, because you need to person. If they don’t want you to give up photography for them, they will almost certainly try to steer you into a more lucrative, “useful” form of it. Again with the personing, extreme personing in this context, because lucrative photography is generally more about the lucrative part than the photography part. Can you schmooze? I mean, are you really good at it? Here, I’ll just take that camera; you won’t be needing it. Your attention is elsewhere. Go person.

This condition, of being disconnected enough from the tangled skeins of social obligation in which most people are ensconced that you are able to readily observe the things around you, can wear you down if you let it. Someone is always in the way, if not physically then mentally, assuming that you are engaged in the conversation or whatever else that may going on. People see you as off in the clouds somewhere when you are actually as present in the world as they are, just in a different way. They don’t notice the man quietly sobbing in the corner, the cat perched precariously on the railing, the estranged couple maintaining an awkward distance in the park, or the factory lazily polluting the river. And you don’t notice the latest gossip, that thing we have next week, or that horrible insult someone said that might mean something else. You’re there, but not in the “right” way. Not for personing.

Some extremely talented photographers in the past have obviously been the kind of “difficult” individuals I’m talking about, but by definition and due to survivor bias, the ones we know of are the ones who had special ways to deal with it. Many, such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston, were independently wealthy when they started out, and just DNGAF. Others like Robert Frank, Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand failed spectacularly at maintaining the relationships in their lives.

Of course there are many successful photographers who are friendly, engaging, well-adjusted individuals with happy friends and families. That’s great. I’m happy for them…mystified, but happy. The rest of us are left with a sense of not quite belonging to the world we are so intent on observing because, were we capable of belonging, we would no longer see it. Some of the photos resulting from this state might happen to be interesting, but nobody will know or care because we cannot person*.

So what can we do? Don’t worry; all is not lost. While we may not be able to ignore the draw of photography, we might be able to control how much we care about superficialities, things that are on the surface at least tangentially related to this Thing We Can’t Not Do, but in reality just drag us down…things like social media addiction to likes and faves, trying to be noticed and published, things like gear obsession and one-upsmanship. Take that time and use it better; instead of clinging to the impossibility of being universally adored, try to make friends with a few like-minded souls instead of just anyone you think will advance your social status. Recognize, explore and embrace your own instincts and inclinations. Be there for yourself. Person for yourself.

If we simply value being as open and genuine as possible, we might stand a chance of getting through all this with some semblance of sanity. And maybe, just maybe, collect a few good shots along the way.

 

 

*Of course, if you’re “lucky”, after you’ve died someone might buy your photos at an auction and “discover” you, now that your difficult ass is safely beyond having to deal with.
posted by Poagao at 10:46 am  
Jul 17 2018

Bangkok, return

When I woke up this morning, I lay in bed, thinking it would be nice to walk over to the train station, have a donut and spend the morning shooting, then meet up with some people…but no, we had to leave. Rammy was nice enough to offer us a ride to the airport, so after saying good-bye to Barry in the lobby, we trekked over to Rammy’s car, which happened to be the site of a monk overseeing the painting of a building. It would have been a good scene to work, but we had to be on our way. On the way, Rammy informed us about Thailand’s recent political issues, which was fascinating. By the time we reached the airport I’d learned a lot about the situation. But we had to go.

We scored some exit row seats, though we had to check a couple of pieces of baggage after Chenbl’s mass shopping spree last night. I just managed to avoid the Rapiscan machine when they turned the infernal thing off just before I reached that part of the line, and we had a leisurely lunch at a Japanese place while other people on our flight ran past us, hollering “Wait! For! Us!” But Chenbl was serene in the face of potential tardiness, a trait I assume has rubbed off on him from me, and an encouraging sign. We shooed away some hopefuls from our seats, sat down, and were soon jetting back to Taiwan. Most of the flight was filled with another viewing of Kung-fu Panda 3 (“Now with Real Chinese Producers!”) and Batman vs. Superman (“Face it: You’re not here for clever dialogue”).

Down on the ground, immigration and customs (Chenbl got held back so they could look through Tavepong’s new book and make sure he exposed everything correctly, I assume), we hopped on the train back to town to meet one of our students at Main Station for dinner. After I took the MRT to Bitan, I found it was raining, and after almost no consideration I elected to take a taxi across to the Water Curtain Cave, which I’ve spend the last couple of hours airing out as I unpack.

It’s been a bizarre ten days or so. I’m glad I went. I’ll have to go back sometime.

posted by Poagao at 2:07 am  
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