Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jan 27 2004

WARNING: LONG-ASS POST It’s a cold, rainy morni…


It’s a cold, rainy morning. I just learned that a phone interview I had scheduled with a radio show in the states called Pacific Time has been postponed, and I really don’t feel like going out in this weather. So, rather than going back to bed and wrapping myself up in a blanket, I’ll tell you what’s been going on recently here.

Everything started closing down on lunar New Year’s eve. Harry and Mark were coming over for some hot-pot at my place, as no restaurants seemed to be open. I even called Dominoes at 3pm to learn they were already shut down. Thankfully Mark got to RT Mart just before they closed and managed to buy enough hot-pot stuff to feed everyone.

It used to be a lot worse. I remember when absolutely everything shut down for at least a week, sometimes longer. It was as if there was a permanant air-raid warning, or a typhoon. Taipei became a ghost town, tumbleweeds and all. No garbage services, no laundry…even convenience stores were closed. Over the years this phenomenon has been disappearing, the time everything closes getting shorter, and more businesses staying open over the holiday.

After a delicious hot-pot session, we went over to a nearby temple to attend their new-year ceremony thing. It was quite cold already. The priests and their devotees put on purple robes and burned incense to the plethora of gods on display, big fat smiling gods, fearsome judge gods, gentle motherly gods and kick-ass gods with swords raised above their heads. The head priest, a guy named Chen who had told me a little about the history of the place, did a little dance at the alter accompanied by the chanting of the other priests.

We set out early the next morning for Xinzhu. Traffic was heavy, but we kept moving all the way. I was on my way to visit my adopted family here, the Lins. I hadn’t been back there in years, so it was nice to see everyone. We piled in my little brother Lin Yi-ping’s car and went around town visiting various friends and family, some of which I knew from before, as well as some I’d never met. It was interesting and everyone seemed in good spirits. Chinese New Year still remains the closest thing they have here to Christmas, spirit-wise. At Christmas people put up decorations and play holiday music, but to them it’s just another western holiday, one that hasn’t really penetrated the culture. Whereas at New Year’s people seem a little happier and generous. It’s a holiday they can get into.

After all the holiday stuff, I went over to Xinzhu’s new mall, called Fengcheng or Windance in English. It’s a huge plastic-looking edifice, with futuristic adornment that will be covered in dust and dated in a matter of months. The interior was packed with people, like me, who were on holiday and just finished visiting relatives. The top floors contained a small amusement park, complete with a small, tepid looking rollercoaster, a mini-go-cart track with electric cars, and several other downsized rides that did far less than they appeared capable of doing. It took me half an hour just to find the exit. It was an uneventful drive back to Taipei.

The next morning Mark, Harry and Mark’s South African friend Lawrence picked me up in Xindian on their way down Beixin Road to Ilan. There are essentially two ways to get to Ilan; you can take the coast road, which winds through the traffic hole that is Keelung, or you can take the Beixin highway through the mountains. A freeway that bores through the mountains has been under construction for many years, and though it’s been held up by collapses, leaks, etc., I heard that they just completed the last tunnel.

Needless to say, traffic was bad, even though the weather was still wet and freezing. “Why is everyone going to Ilan?” I kept wondering. I knew why we were going: Harry wanted to see the main Taoist Temple in Taiwan, the head temple, so to speak. I just wanted to get out of town for a while, and the east coast is always interesting.

We came across a few rocks and several inexplicable accidents on the road in which cars had run into bridge railings and phone poles on the opposite side of the road from where they should have been. It might have been due to the fog, which sometimes enveloped us completely. The little town of Pingxi was flooded with tourists, some, incredibly, on motorcycles (severely uncomfortable I’m sure, but faster as they could and did ride between cars). At one point traffic was stopped for half an hour after someone apparently simply abandoned their car in the middle of the road. It was a relief when the Ilan flood plain came into view from under dark rain clouds.

I knew that Harry’s search for his temple would take us all over Ilan County, but I didn’t mind taking the scenic route so I stayed out of the arguments he and Mark were having over which way to go. They would find it eventually. In the meantime I was just enjoying being in a new and different place. The air and light seemed different. The ocean lay off to the east, you could tell by the cloud formations and lack of haze in that direction, and the mountains to the west, big blue things, were also wreathed in white clouds. Ilan itself looked wet and dreary for the most part, though I could see some improvements had been made since my last visit. The main road was in the process of being widened, halves of houses looking abashed on each side. From the mountains Ilan looks flooded, but when you descend you discover it’s made up of flooded rice fields. All in all, if I were to choose an east-coast city to live it, I’d prefer Hualian, which feels smaller and more three-dimensional.

Eventually we did find the Main Taoist Temple. It was located well out of town up on a hillside and surrounded by forest. A jovial older man was handing out bunches of incense sticks at the entrance, wishing everyone a happy new year. The temple itself was laid out in a traditional courtyard fashion, major gods in the center, less major gods at the sides, and a dragon in the back with spring water gushing out of its mouth for people to drink. I had a sip, and didn’t feel any ill effects. It wasn’t exactly Evian, though.

I took some pictures for Harry, and some for myself, and then we were just standing around, spending time to make ourselves feel it was worth it to come here all the way from Taipei. It was a nice temple, but really just another temple. But at least I got to get out of Taipei and spend a few hours on the east coast. I should take a long weekend and do it on my motorcycle some time, weather permitting.

It was night by the time we headed back, stopping along the way to pick up some local snacks. I got peanut cookies with sesame filling; two great tastes and all that. But it was really cold, the temperatures were down in the single digits, and I was glad to get back home and into a hot shower.

Saturday I got a call from Shirzi, who is back in town. We arranged to meet at City Hall Station, from which we proceeded to walk around Taipei 101 and New York New York, where Dean joined us. Shirzi broke out his “Christmas gifts”, which turned out to be a strange Japanese alcoholic drink called Chu-hi or something. It tasted lemony and delivered a real kick.

We had some lunch in the area and retired to Dean’s place to show Shirzi the Clay Soldiers DVD, and then we watched some other movies while drinking more Chu-hi, switching to home-made vodka cruisers later. I don’t drink often; I’ll have a drink with friends, but for some reason Dean and Shirzi find the Drunk TC a facinating person. I don’t know why this is; when I’m drunk I tend to discard what little reservations I have against speaking my mind and just start saying things off the top of my head, things most people would consider rather insulting.

But that’s the way I am sober, too. Hmm.

Sunday was wonderful. I went back to Xinzhu because it was the fourth day of the new year, and the whole family would congregate at the Lin’s house. I had worried about getting a train ticket, but all I had to do was take the MRT to the train station, stand in a short line, and Viola! I had round-trip tickets to Xinzhu, window seats both ways. By the time the train surfaced just south of Banqiao, the sun had even come out. I was in the mood for travelling, and setting out on a train on a cold clean morning is a wonderful feeling.

Instead of heading directly over to the Lin’s house, I walked around downtown Xinzhu for a little. The place has really changed in the years since I lived there. The canals have been cleaned and not only have live fish in them, but paths have been constructed on each side. The East Gate’s been surrounded with walkways and an underground space with the foundations of the old bridge on display. City Hall is hidden under a big canvas with the likeness of city hall on it while it goes under rennovations. The old theater’s been converted into a stately museum, and some of the roads have been repaved with cobblestones. New department stores have opened up in addition to Windance, including Sogo and Mitsukoshi. Even the train station itself has been repainted in a more conservative stone grey more befitting its colonial facade.

The city is developing towards the west, in the direction of the science park (my old basic training center has been completely surrounded by factories by now), so the eastern part of town where the Lins live is pretty quiet these days. The whole extended family was gathered for lunch at their house by the time I got there, including Lin Yi-ping, his wife and three kids (Yeah, I’m an Ah-bei now. Urgh), his brother and two of his sisters, their husbands and respective children, as well as Lin Yi-ping’s mother, her husband’s sister, her husband, and other assorted relative. The crowd turned into a riot when the adults produced a big box full of little covered compartments, each of which held a small toy. The kids attacked the box and soon each child was surrounded by a small mound of small plastic toys. They were really cute, and I was in such a good mood watching them open their presents I didn’t mind the chaos one bit. It felt like Christmas, it really did.

Later on I visited another old friend, Zhong You-ding, who runs a watch-and-glasses store nearby the Lin’s house. His legs don’t work, so he uses crutches and a motorcycle with extra wheels. His mainland Chinese wife is visiting relatives in the mainland at the moment, so it was just him and his father running the store. I was surprised he was open over the holiday, but he said he didn’t have much else to do. By a strange coincidence our mutual friend Chen Che-kang, with whom I used to work as an assistant cameraman back in the day, and who now lives in San Jose, is in Taiwan getting officially married at a Catholic church in Xindian on the 8th.

I went to Eslite and bought the last two copies of my book they had in stock (“You don’t look like the picture,” the clerk said, but they gave me an author discount anyway), and gave one copy to You-ding and another to a friend of his and Che-kang’s who was visiting. The friend, Yang Qi, is a colonel in the air force and wanted a copy to read and show his friends at the air force office in Taipei where he worked.

We chatted for a while, and when I commented on the new motorcycle You-ding told me some asshat had stolen his old one. Now who would steal an old and very used, beat-up motorcycle with training wheels, one that obviously belongs to a handicapped person? Amazing.

I went back to the Lins for a nice hot meal, more chatting and roughhousing with the kids. Lin Yi-ping’s older son, who is kindergarten-aged, looks just like him, while his daughter, almost in textbook fashion, resembles her mother.

My train was at nine, but I took a little time to walk around a bit more before boarding. The area was full of people, including many southeast Asians. Xinzhu seems much more international than it ever did before. I decided I should visit more in the future.

Yesterday was the last official day of the holidays. It’s back to work for most people today, and the weather’s turned cold and rainy once again. What now? I have no idea, but at least I had a great Chinese New Year.

posted by Poagao at 3:26 am  

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