Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Aug 23 2023

Another old video

The latest, and possibly final “old” video is up now. It concerns my time as a shoe inspector at factories in Kaiping, in China’s Guangdong Province, in 1993. I had just sustained a serious knee injury practicing Kung-fu in Taipei and couldn’t work as a cameraman for a time, and it just so happened that a company operating out of Manhattan, NYC was looking for people to oversee quality control at the factories of their manufacturers in China. My friend Will Avery and I both interviewed with them; I got the position, in my naivete not thinking too much about why.

I spent several months in Kaiping, living out of a hotel on the wide brown river that runs through the city, being driven back and forth to mainly one factory in Cangcheng, about an hour away, inspecting shoes and communicating with the NY office by fax every day. Every so often I would take a boat down the river from Jiangmen to Hong Kong for a break, staying at the Dynasty Hotel on the Kowloon side of the harbor. I also spent several months in Qingdao doing a similar thing, but for some reason I can’t find any video footage of that time; if I come across any I’ll make another video on that.

It was the classic expat businessperson lifestyle, lonely and isolated, and I missed Taiwan terribly the whole time. Of course I could communicate in Mandarin and did hang out with the workers sometimes, but the folks in Kaiping understandably had poor Mandarin skills, and I had failed to pick up more than rudimentary Cantonese. Qingdao was too close to Beijing for comfort; I did enjoy my time there, but the winter cold was anathema to me.

My “fellow expats”, with the exception of the fellow I was replacing and who soon left, were just annoying, and I avoided their company. One was a grifter trying to scam the company out of as much moolah as possible, and another was a lazy slacker with a drinking problem; he couldn’t even be bothered to get up in the morning to get to the factory, so…more work for me. Eventually I learned that the reason Will had been rejected was because is Black, and while the people back in Manhattan insisted that they were just being pragmatic as they felt Chinese workers wouldn’t listen to an obviously Black man (yet they had no problem hiring white scammers and slackers), I decided I couldn’t continue there and returned to Taiwan.

But all that was 30 years ago, a previously impossible number of years. Will recently visited Taiwan with his wife and daughter, mainly staying at his wife’s family’s place in Taichung, not far from Tunghai University where we studied together in 1989. We found some time to hang out, just like old times. They headed back to Virginia yesterday.

Also yesterday, I decided to walk up to the North Gate for some unimpressive lunch, and then to Dihua Street. The weather was nice up until it wasn’t. I had just bought some bitter tea at the oldest such purveyor behind the Yongle Market when CRACK lightning struck and the skies opened up. I stood on the corner chatting with the tea boss, sipping my drink and watching people run through the typhoon-like wind and rain with their pathetically inadequate umbrellas. The boss treated me to another cup of aloe tea, which unlike other iterations I’ve imbibed was green. “That’s because I included the skin,” he said, claiming that this boosted the drink’s invigorative qualities. It was rather tasty.

I eventually managed to run through the deluge across to the Yongle Market, where a most peculiar scene presented itself: In the middle of the hallway amid the various stalls, a yellow dog was pushing around a cage that held a trapped rat; the sudden deluge had apparently driven some of the rodents out of the sewers. The dog appeared to be quite excited, and I took an Instagram story of it playing with the cage, assuming that the owner would take the trapped rats someplace and release them. Then, just as I finished the video and put my phone away, several things happened in quick succession:

The owner walked over, picked up the trap and let the rat out.

The dog immediately chomped down on the rat.

I said, rather loudly, “Oh shit!”

Other people in the vicinity exclaimed, “Hey boss, what the hell are you doing?”

The owner’s wife ran up, snatched up the dog by the scruff of the neck and hit its muzzle until it dropped the now obviously dead rat. She must have known that, had the dog swallowed the rat as it plainly wanted to do, both animals would have been doomed instead of just one.

The rain outside had subsided, and I suddenly felt that I needed to get out of there; I walked over to the riverside and watched the fish jumping out of the swollen waters as airplanes flew under the departing storm clouds.










Thirty years, man. Damn.

posted by Poagao at 12:10 pm  
Jul 26 2023

Army Days: The Video

A few years ago I was transferring some old VHS tapes to DVDs when I came across footage that I had made during my time as a conscript soldier in Taiwan. I’d nearly forgotten about that video, but watching it again, I was amazed at what I’d managed to capture.

I was nearing the end of my military service in late 1997. Thanks to the entrenched seniority system tradition I had relatively few duties apart from regular training and managing our base’s Karaoke bar, or KTV as we called it. Some of the officers had become aware that in my pre-military days I had been a camera operator at a major cable network; they called on me to film some official functions and promotional videos, so I was allowed to bring my camcorder, a JVC GF500 that was already eight years old at that point, onto base for a short time.

But it seemed a shame to miss such an opportunity to record the strange, unknown world of military conscript life in 1990’s Taiwan, hidden as it was behind walls and guards, away from civilian life, so one weekend afternoon when the base was at its emptiest, I took out the bulky JVC and walked cautiously around filming things. When I did encounter other soldiers, I’d offer explanations such as “Just making sure this thing works ok” or “Recording stuff to remember this by,” etc. Many thought it was some kind of photographic device as they’d seen me taking still pictures before, something I’d been doing since my arrival at the base two years before. When I was a rookie I’d had to hide disposable film cameras, then available at convenience stores, in my uniform, but eventually I was designated the official base photographer and could take photos a little more openly.

The other soldiers, even the officers, seemed ok with me taking video on base, and I grew more confident, although still only daring to film during leisure times. I recorded the mundane minutiae of military life from a conscript’s point of view, from washing dinner trays and playing sports to guard duty, office work, equipment maintenance and even managing the various cats and dogs that found their way onto base. The KTV was featured prominently as that was my domain, and soldiers could feel a bit more free and open there.

The most interesting aspect of the video was when soldiers opened up to me about how they felt about military service, being made to sacrifice years of their lives in order to counter the threat of attack and invasion that had lasted decades at that point (and continues to this day) due to the PRC’s territorial ambitions. The sons of politicians, high-level gangsters and other rich families could often finagle their way out of service, but most young men saw it as an inevitable part of life at that point, something that could only be endured and put behind them as quickly as possible.

Years ago, when I transferred the footage to DVDs, I thought, “This would be a really interesting video.” And then I put it aside as I was busy with other projects. But recently I dug them out again and decided it was time to make something of them. My first “old VHS” videos were from college and fairly well received, but this one felt different. Surely there is no other such footage out there, I thought. First of all, there were no readily available recording devices at the time that would have been accessible to an ordinary conscript soldier. Even as recently as 2013, a soldier was incarcerated and basically killed by the punishment that caused him to experience heatstroke, all for the supposed “crime” of just having a mobile phone on base, though by that time mobile phones were already common and included cameras. Personal vendettas were suspected in that case; it resulted in a huge public outcry and criminal charges for many of the perpetrators.

Another factor in my decision to publish the video, aside from the fact that everyone in the video has likely since left the military in one way or another, is the fact that the base itself no longer exists. The division relocated at some point in the 2000’s, and the base structures lay derelict for several years, gradually being retaken by nature. I revisited it at that point, entering through a hole in the back wall and spending a few hours exploring and photographing the overgrown ruins. But then in the 2010’s the place was completely razed; nothing is left, and while there is talk of some new development, it remains too far away from Miaoli’s city center for easy access, even though a new wider highway has replaced the old winding two-lane mountain road that existed when I served there.

So earlier this year I spent a month or two going through the old footage, editing it into some kind of order, splicing in photos I’d taken on my last visit before the place was razed. Surely this is one-of-a-kind material, I thought with some amount of trepidation. My previous video about my time as a student at Tunghai University had garnered a bit of attention from the nostalgia crowd as it too is a window to another world, albeit a more accessible one. And some of my photography of military service has been criticized as being a bit too “honest” and showing a side of military life some didn’t feel “appropriate.”

I needn’t have spared the matter that much thought, however. After I uploaded the video to YouTube, there has basically been no response. Which, to be honest, is to be expected; what means a great deal to me doesn’t necessarily mean anything to others. Non-Taiwanese people most likely don’t care and can’t understand most of the language in the video, and Taiwanese viewers might just want to forget those days. Fortunately, I am not a “serious” YouTuber with flashy titles, jump cuts, soundtracks, millions of subs or the whole WHATSUP GUYS SMASH THOSE BUTTONS! shtick. That would be a lot of pressure, and even those folks are getting more desperate as their YT-derived income gravitates increasingly towards AI-generated garbage.

In fact, the more Internet companies move away from real content, and by “real” I don’t just mean non-AI-generated content but honest, candid, empathetic connections with any level of subtlety, the more I miss those days, back when I would lay on my bunk in the barracks reading articles in WIRED magazine about a dreamy, net-connected future of equality and thoughtful discourse that, almost three decades later, has disappeared into the encroaching overgrowth as inexorably as the old base itself.

posted by Poagao at 3:25 pm  
Apr 04 2022

Space-age childhood

Recently my friend Sean Lotman tweeted about a Richard Linklater movie he’d seen that he said gave him nostalgia about growing up in the states, so I took a look, expecting a generic childhood in some random American town, but when the flick started:

“The time is spring, 1969,” the narrator, voiced by Jack Black, says at the beginning of Apollo 10 1/2. “The place is Ed White Elementary School in El Lago, Texas.”

I went to Ed White Elementary in the late 70s/early 80s. We lived in El Lago for six years. Damn.

I waited for someone to pick me up from school many times on this portico.So I’m just going to go through the film and comment on what stood out for me. From the start, it’s interesting what they got exactly right and what seemed off. The sound of the kickball game is exactly right, but their depiction of the school doesn’t look quite right. I know it was supposed to be 1969 and I only started there in 1976 or so, but still, it doesn’t look like they had any actual alumni on staff, and the school’s been added to over the years. It was from that kickball court that I watched the first space shuttle fly on the back of a 747 over the school, possibly while I was wearing my puffy silver astronaut’s jacket, complete with patches, but I never had any aspirations in that direction. They did get the big fields next to the school right, but the hallways had windows at the top that don’t show up in the movie. I remember being so frustrated that I kicked my bright red plastic lunch box into those walls so hard that it broke into pieces. I also remember the beatings that the film passes off as just the way things were then. To me, Texas was a different world from Florida where we’d lived prior to that. Toxic masculinity permeated the entire society. From what I read on the news, it still does.

The houses of El Lago look different in the film too, smaller, simpler, with simpler, smaller yards. That doesn’t seem like it would have been too hard to research…you can go on Google Maps and look at them to know what they look like; they’re still there. Ours was built in 1960, like most of them, but the movie claims everything was being built in the late 60’s, which I don’t think was the case. It said there were no trees in 1969, but if that was the case the large trees we had everywhere grew very quickly in only seven years. We even had treehouses. Perhaps Linklater grew up in Houston, but I don’t think he grew up in El Lago.

I do remember the Astrodome games and the electronic sign. The interior decor of the film’s family’s house looks a bit too modern, too stereotypically 60’s. I can’t say whether our decor was in step with the times, but it seems to me from seeing other people’s houses that our Ethan Allen standard wasn’t too far from the norm. We certainly did have that coiled rug though; I spent many an evening and Saturday morning lying on that thing watching our big Zenith.

I remember the occasional flooding; to this day I get nostalgic about walking on grass with a few inches of water over it. The U-tote’M, yeah I remember that place where I spent my allowance on Mad Magazines and Hubba Bubba bubble gum. I also remember the rocket in the playground. I think one of them is still there actually, according to Google Maps. The TV shows and cartoons seem largely the same, though the ones we saw were largely already in syndication by the 70’s. These kids, though, they were allowed to stay up til midnight? How?

I remember “sewage park”, though we never called it that. It was just a field by the plant; we had to ride our bikes through the fenced-in bottleneck between the two to get to and from school without going miles out of the way. You can see it here, complete with some kid riding their bike towards the bottleneck after school. Substitute that red bike for a black Huffy Bandit and it could have been me. It was, alas, a great spot for bullies to ambush kids, which I managed to avoid until my last day of 5th grade, when I was attacked and all my stuff from my elementary school career trashed and strewn around that damn field. In fact, there was plenty of trauma during those years.

I don’t recall the fumigation trucks, and certainly nobody thought it would be cool to ride bikes behind those things. As for “Big bike adventures”, I would explore the woods nearby, finding an old cemetary that I now realize probably should have been a protected historic site, and unwisely hid in a storm drain in the rain. It’s all condos now.

I remember the Baskin-Robbins (damn, it’s still there too?), but not the bowling alley or arcades. Then again I didn’t really have many friends, got into too many fights, and my brother and sister were too much older to want to have much to do with a little kid like me, so I was alone a lot of the time. We did have that same stereo cabinet to play records, and I had a small radio to listen to music to make things seem ok late at night. We never had parties either; perhaps my parents also didn’t really have friends, or, as they both worked and were raising three kids, they were just too tired.

Astroworld I remember going to but not much else other than that it was across from the Astrodome. I have much better memories of concerts in the park and at Jones Hall. Our station wagon was a 1973 Pinto Squire, baby blue with fake wood trim, but the family car was a 1969 Buick Electra 225, gold and white two-tone. We called it Burt, or at least my sister did, as she was a fan of Burt Reynolds at the time.

Then again, the film Apollo 10 1/2 is about the summer of 1969, and things were different by the time I came along. I missed the moon landing, and by the time we were living in El Lago moon missions had stopped, Vietnam was over, and indeed the whole culture was undergoing huge changes. We left in 1981.

It’s nice that Linklater is nostalgic for his childhood, but it was apparently very different from mine. The film, while light-hearted and interesting, just brought back too many ghosts, and I kind of wish he’d picked somewhere else.

posted by Poagao at 8:37 pm  
Jan 13 2022

Movie Sign!

A week or so ago I watched a movie in a theater for the first time in literally years. Chenbl had a couple of free tickets, so after work I met up with him for a lunch of questionable quality at the chicken place next to the previous location of the Vie Show Sun theater, which has sadly been torn down. It’s particularly sad because it was an IMAX theater, and now we have to go elsewhere, such as all the way out to the Miramar Cinemas for IMAX movies. Fortunately for us, the free tickets weren’t for the demolished Vie Show, but the Shin Kong theater in the old Lion Plaza building, that golden monstrosity on the corner of Xining and Wuchang Roads. The escalators up past the first few floors of little shops weren’t working, so we took the small, blue-lit elevator up to the completely empty lobby. The theater was big enough, but the projection and sound weren’t great. The movie was Spider-man: No Way Home, which was…fine. I mean, it was fun and entertaining, and the extended cameos were fun (though sadly missing my favorite version of Spider-man), but it became more about them than about the current Spidey’s character arc, which really only the first Tom Holland movie explored to any degree. I enjoyed the nostalgia, just as I also enjoyed The Matrix: Resurrections and Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Encanto is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, though). But the whole time I was thinking: I’d rather be watching this at home. Note: I do not have a terribly big-screen TV, just a 16-year-old 37″ 720P set that cost a pretty penny in 2006 but now just emits static in one speaker whenever I watch Star Trek due to the ship’s engine rumble, so I tend to watch things on my iMac. But the point remains: I wonder if the age of theaters is on the wane, due to be something only old people remember.

My views on the future of theaters and public gatherings in general are perhaps biased by the steadily growing number of Omicron cases pouring in from everywhere but mostly the U.S. Americans seem to have just given up on any preventative measures and are just watching case numbers explode. Some Americans in Taiwan, well, white dudes in particular, it seems, think that Taiwan should just roll with it as well, pooh-poohing any attempt at controlling spread of the disease. But I’ve noticed an interesting, or perhaps obvious correlation: The expats who feel the most entitled to a consequence-free lifestyle here are the ones who rail the most against any kind of COVID-based regulations. “I can’t take another months-long lockdown!” I heard one such dude say, apparently unaware that we’ve never had a real lockdown, let alone one that lasted months. Most people just go along with it, but to him, it’s an egregious affront to the “freedom” to which he feels entitled.

Fortunately Omicron has yet to overwhelm our system, though it’s being sorely tested as so many incoming passengers have it these days. It has inspired more people to get vaccinated, though, and the government has changed the previous 5-month time between 2nd and 3rd shots to 12 weeks, meaning I can likely get a booster next month. Older people seem to be the holdouts, for the most part. It remains to be seen how the government and the CDC will alter their protocols to deal with the nature of this latest wave. We’ve scheduled the photography course to resume next semester, but we’ll have to see how things develop and where we are by March. One thing that helps immensely in planning photo-related excursions is the partial return of Google Maps’ 3D capability; this is wonderful for getting a feel for an area before actually going out to the area in question, I’m glad it’s back and I hope it is expanded more around Taiwan in the future.

I took advantage of the pre-Omicron state of affairs to finally meet up in person with Alexander Synaptic of Spectral Codex last week at a cafe in Xindian’s Dapinglin. I have long appreciated the wealth of information encapsulated in Xander’s online exploration pieces, and he has helped me out a lot with website advice, but we had never actually met IRL. He showed me an old map that showed that my old army base used to be an even older Japanese landing strip, which explains how the area “Big Flat Top” might have gotten its name in the first place.

In other news, I’ve been asked to perform in an ensemble paying tribute to the late Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five group. This is both an honor and a challenge, as I consider Satchmo to be the GOAT. I will need to put in some real work to get ready for that level of syncopation, range and just cool-ass 20’s jazz. Again, nobody knows where we’ll be by March; we’ll just have to see.

posted by Poagao at 11:18 am  
Mar 18 2016

Ranger Poagao

My friend Azuma recently got revenge on me for casting him as a policeman in The Kiss of Lady X (not to mention a thug in Clay Soldiers) by asking me to play a park ranger in a commercial he’s involved in making. Fair’s fair, I agreed, and found myself checking into a backpacker hostel over the Wellcome supermarket at Guting last night, as we were heading out at 5 a.m. the next morning.

I slept poorly, not just due to the unfamiliar roar of traffic 12 stories below, but also because I kept waking up thinking I should be waking up soon, and was it time yet? Better check the time…no, but it would be time to wake up soon so I shouldn’t sleep too soundly, etc. Then I woke up and it was 5:20; no morning call had come. Rain was now beating at the window, so I figured the shoot had been cancelled. Still, I called Azuma, who confirmed. “Get some rest, you can still go to work today,” he said. So I fell at last into a deep sleep.

…and was woken up 20 minutes later when he called again. “The director’s decided to go for it,” he said. So I packed up and went downstairs for a quick McDonald’s breakfast and a drive through the muddy basin up into the clouds of the mountainous Yangmingshan area. There we waited along with the other cast and crew in our cars in the parking lot for the rain to ease up. Then we waited in a tourist center for the rain to ease up. Eventually it did, and I put on my park ranger uniform, complete with patches, a badge, and a semi-automatic Glock pistol replica. An actual Taiwanese park ranger arrived at the station soon after we did, which made me feel a bit silly in my fake uniform, but the others seemed to think  it was pretty accurate. The other actors were doing their scenes first, so I figured I’d take advantage of the uniform to make some silly Vines while I had it. I was already embarrassed as it was, so I figured a little more wouldn’t hurt.

Then it was time to shoot. The director and most of the actors were also bilingual, which gave the on-set banter another interesting dimension. I don’t envy the editor who has to reconcile all the different lighting conditions, however, as the weather was flickering between weak sun and near-complete darkness.

Still, we managed to get a lot done before the rain began again in earnest. The crew was working more or less as we’d done on our films, and I realized that I kind of miss film-making; it was fun and interesting, more purposeful than my usual wanderings with cameras. Maybe I’ll do a little something sometime.

posted by Poagao at 3:46 pm  
May 10 2012

Korea, the video

Hope you like it.

posted by Poagao at 2:37 pm  
Nov 08 2009

Shibuya and people who hate it.

I slept in this morning, puttering around my room and posting the previous day’s journal before finally heading out at noon. This time I walked around the other side of the park, through the alleys that skirt the edges, past old wooden houses along dead-end lanes. The weather was cloudy gray, and hardly anyone was around. I thought about Louis’ opinion that Taiwan is both Japan’s past and its future; the shiny veneer that I found so antiseptic when I first visited Tokyo in 1991 has worn off. It seems much more used and lived in now, closer to Taipei in feel than before.

I’d told Louis that I’d meet him at Sendagaya Station again, as I couldn’t remember where the cafe was, but as I walked I recalled various landmarks, and I got close enough that I could call from a payphone, and he walked out to meet me. Back inside, he introduced me to the photographer whose book Louis had sent me last year. The older man was holding a Ricoh GR1 and seemed to be in a rush to get somewhere else. “I like your photography,” I told his back as he left. Louis said one of the guys at the next table was the lead singer of a famous Japanese band that I had never heard of; I guess that cafe is popular among famous people. I had lunch there, chicken noodles and rice with some delicious soup. The waitress was very talkative; she told me she had visited Taipei once.

After lunch we walked towards Shibuya, which Louis doesn’t particularly like. “Couldn’t you just stand here and take a book’s worth of street photography?” I asked him, but he pooh-poohed the idea as too easy, basically shooting fish in a barrel.

“It’s almost as bad as Harajuku,” he said. I figure I’d do it, but I’d probably get tired of it quickly enough. The light was nice, though. At one point we passed a forlorn-looking man sitting at a desk in an empty lot on a deserted alley, presumably waiting for a passerby to inquire about the property, even though it seemed nobody was around.

SubwayWe walked towards Ebisu, through alleys lined with former used clothing shops that had closed. One place sold the very same Olympus Pen that we’d seen at the flea market for a substantially greater price. The whole area became very expensive looking, with glass-walled premium shops. As we passed an art gallery/bruncheon crowd of fashionable women nibbling snacks while surrounded by paintings/photos of dancers, I burst out in a scathing monologue mocking the art patrons. “Are you speaking into a microphone?” Louis asked.

We crossed a pedestrian bridge, from which Louis shot a series of photographs of three motorcycle policemen standing below, and then down to another neighborhood with a deep canal running through it. “Nice,” I said. “It doesn’t even smell.”

It was getting dark, and I was getting tired, so I was grateful when we stopped for some pie and drinks at a cafe open to the sidewalk. My apple pie and ice cream was delicious, and the orange/mango smoothie just the thing after a long walk. Louis had to go work on some snags in his upcoming book, so I took the train back to Shinjuku, from where I called Yas, who was out putting up flyers for his upcoming film festival. We arranged to meet at the Alta screen at ten, so I walked around the area taking a few pictures and just enjoying the atmosphere. I paid yet another visit to the Yodobashi camera store, this time playing with the Sigma DP2, which, while faster than the DP1, is still finicky and slow.

Yas was facing another long night of editing, so he had coffee at a crowded Doutor while I drank fruit juice. We talked about perhaps cooperating on a project in the future, probably a short film, and about directors in Japan and Taiwan. He said he might be able to find the Japanese film I worked on in 1994-5 under Edward Yang; he thinks it’s Director Hayashi Kaizo’s third detective film. I’ve never seen the finished product and would like to see how it turned out.

Yas hates Shibuya as much as Louis, if not more so. “It’s full of stupid kids,” he told me. “I wouldn’t go there at all if there weren’t some good independent theaters there.”

I took another route back to the hotel than I usually do, this time straying a bit too far into the hustler zone. Tall black men walked with me, trying to hand me cards for bars with scantily clad Japanese women on them. Luckily, my hotel is far enough away from that area; I don’t think I’ll be going there again.

Actually, my hotel, the Shinjuku Urban, has been great; I love the smell of coffee and creme in the plush-red carpeted hallways, the 60’s feel and the convenient location between several subway lines and near the Shinjuku JR. I would definitely recommend it.

Tomorrow is Monday, and everyone is going back to work. I’m thinking I might go to Yokohama and Roppongi if the weather’s nice.

posted by Poagao at 11:25 pm  
Jun 02 2009

A boat trip and Ennio Morricone

I didn’t want to go home immediately when I arrived back in Taipei from Tainan; it was too nice a day, so Chenbl and I walked up Dihua Street, which was much less crowded than I recall it being before Chinese New Year, and over to the Dadaocheng Wharf to see what was going on with the “Blue Highway” service that began a few years ago. There we boarded a small boat that was headed up the Danshui River to Guandu. Down below a guide was talking to a group about Dadaocheng’s history, but I preferred to stand up on top of the vessel, just behind the pilot, enjoying the wind and scenery. Fish jumped out of the water occasionally, one actually hitting the side of the boat before falling back into the water, which was muddy but did not smell as I was expecting.

We passed under bridge after bridge, the banks and people riding bicycles on the riverside paths sliding past; it was very pleasant and relaxing, and I wondered if boating activities would ever make a comeback on the Danshui, which had for so long in the past been crisscrossed by residents in their small vessels from Taipei to places like Sanchong, Xinzhuang, Banqiao and Yonghe. As if in answer, a few residents of Shezi Island dumped garbage into the river as we passed by.

We crossed the Keelung River entrance and docked at Guandu, next to the steamboat used for weddings and other big occasions. In addition to fishing boats, I saw some private speedboats flitting about under the Guandu Bridge. Once on shore, the guide told us that back in the 60’s after a huge typhoon flooded most of the Taipei basin, the army blew up a promontory that had jutted out into the river on the Bali side, effectively freeing up the floodwater from the bottleneck there. After that, however, saltwater from the ocean was now free to flow up the river, changing the entire nature of the environment.

Rather than take the boat back downtown, we caught the subway. I was meeting Ray and Gordon later for a concert; Ennio Morricone, the man who composed and directed the music for some of my favorite films, was directing a concert of his own work at the Little Giant Egg on Dunhua North Road. Though Morricone is over 80 years old now, he moves like someone decades younger, though it was hard to see too clearly from our seats in the stadium. From that vantagepoint, however, the orchestra and choir appeared as some giant organism on the stage, manhandled, wrangled, poked and caressed by Morricone’s baton to do his bidding. Some of the pieces I didn’t recognize, but many I did. Tingles went up my spine when the orchestra played the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but for me the highlight was when Morricone brought out a soloist who sang the unearthly tones of the music played during the scene when Tuco is running around the graveyard towards the end of the movie. I was on the edge of my seat, imagining the scene over 40 years ago when Morricone was recording the music for the first time.

The audience was ecstatic, though there were large empty patches in part of the stands. People yelled out their appreciation in Italian every time Morricone appeared on stage. Three or four encores later it was apparent that no new pieces were forthcoming; the theme from Cinema Paradiso was the only encore he had prepared. The rest were repeats, but the audience was in love with the old Italian, and it was amazing to see him in action now, after all these years, directing music for movies that were made well before I was born.

posted by Poagao at 12:53 pm  
Feb 19 2009

The Osaka Video

I got a new computer last month, just before Chinese New Year: an iMac. I figured that, as I do a lot of media-related things such as photography, video and music, I’d give the whole Mac thing another shot (I had a Powerbook at one point a few years ago, but things didn’t really work out between us). I’m keeping my old PC around and have been using both, but since I got back from the last trip I’ve been gradually migrating to the Apple machine. The above video was done on iMovie, and I have to say the experience was much, much nicer than it ever was in Windows. First of all, the iMac recognized the .avi format of my little Canon SD800IS immediately. I had painstakingly imported the clips to the PC via Windows Moviemaker, the only Windows program that recognizes the format. I used to go through that and then export to one media file which I would then open in Premiere, but this time the PC steadfastly refused to export, coming up with error after error and taunting me, egging me on each time to “Please try again!” It might as well have been wearing a blue dress and holding a football.

iMovie was much easier and smoother, and I learned my way around it while slapping this thing together. I felt I didn’t need to use Final Cut Pro as my travel videos are just thrown haphazardly together for the most part and don’t require very detailed production tools. The more I use this system, however, the more I appreciate the lack of BS I have to put up with to get things done. It’s so much closer to the experience I want when working with media that I find myself missing the Mac when the PC grinds to life, Windows taking roughly five minutes to fully load and looking so primitive. Which it is, I suppose: it’s an old, loud machine with XP, and old, loud OS. Both are stable enough I suppose; I guess I must have drunk the Kook-Aid. It’s true that the iPhone is a gateway drug. I’m afraid I’m becoming addicted.

But enough crazy fanboi talk; I’m sure I’ll find plenty to bitch about with the Mac in good time. I am pretty happy with the video, however, which, in a first for me, is available in relatively high quality on Youtube and Vimeo. I did the same thing as I always do when I’m traveling alone, i.e. periodically take the camera out in public and talk to it unabashedly with no regard to the strange looks I get. I’m loathe to do this kind of thing when I’m traveling with people, but you’ll be happy (or sigh in annoyance) to know that I managed to take quite a bit of such self-absorbed and pointless video on the trip to Spain and France as well, despite the presence of actual friends. I’m curious to know how that turned out as I also got a new compact camera for such things: a Panasonic LX3, to replace the Canon, which I sold. The LX3 has a wider, faster 24mm f2 lens (and admittedly looks cooler) than the Canon and in a pinch could be used for street photography provided the light is sufficient. The IS seems to work differently from the Canon, but once I got used to it it seemed fairly smooth.

We had a week of wonderful weather after I got back from Europe, and I’ve been feeling very glad to be back in familiar territory. Two weeks abroad is long enough to get far enough away from one’s usual surroundings to get some perspective on things, just long enough to start missing home, making both the voyage there and the trip back happy occasions. Typical Taiwanese Spring weather has returned this morning, however, with a cold front bringing a barrage of rain that is far more suited to the current economic predictions than the sunnily hopeful blue skies of last week, forcing men with jackhammers to stop their outdoor frolicking and return to drilling nearby walls in my building.

posted by Poagao at 5:34 pm  
Jun 12 2008

A night at the NSO

concert hallMy friend Chumble got some free National Symphonic Orchestra tickets, so I went over to CKS Hall last night to attend the first classical music performance I’ve been to in years. When I asked him what was on the program, Chumble said, “Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms,” which sounded nice. We met up with a couple of Chumble’s friends, a young Canadian man and his Taiwanese girlfriend, who nearly ran and hid when she was introduced to me. Meh, I’m used to it.

We got what we thought were reasonably good seats, but in addition to the chairs on stage was a large whiteboard. It turned out that this was going to be a classical music concert with lectures. Many people in the audience had brought notebooks. The short woman in glasses sitting next to me was all ready with a multicolored pen.

Ever since the debut of Taipei Philharmonic Radio in the mid-90’s, it seems that many people here have become interested in “understanding” classical music. There are programs dedicated to “explaining” all kinds of classical pieces, and game shows where you guess the piece and its composer. You can even buy expensive CD series to listen to in accompaniment to your favorite classical tunes, telling you just what it is you’re listening to. Other CD series are aimed at younger listeners.

The musicians walked out to take their seats and tune, and then conductor Yin-fang Zhang, a young woman, came on stage followed by a man in a white suit. This was professor Chu-wey Liu, and he began to explain the piece. The orchestra would play a bit, and just when I was getting into it, they’d stop, and the professor would talk a bit about phrasing, themes and motifs. I found it incredibly annoying. All of the emotion of the piece was lost. As if that weren’t enough, the woman next to was letting off silent farts every few minutes. Actually, I’m not sure it was her, but the wind was from that direction, and she just seemed guilty. Her pen clicked on and off as she took different-colored notes on the music, and she clapped between movements.

The full orchestra came on stage for the next piece, and I was relieved by the appearance of some very nice eye candy in the second violin section. During the intermission a concert hall employee came over to tell Chumble’s Canadian friend to stop moving his head during the show as it was apparently distracting the people behind him. I turned around to see who could be so easily distracted, but nobody met my gaze.

The final piece, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, was picked apart once more, but I love Brahms and managed to enjoy the last part when the orchestra played through it in its entirety despite the waves of noxious odors coming from my left. The conductor didn’t seem to have a very firm hand on the orchestra, which was loose and often out of tune, especially the woodwinds, but the sound was quite nice and made me want to upgrade my stereo. It’s been forever since I played in a classical group; I played in high school with the local youth orchestra and once with the Florida Symphony Orchestra, and in college with the Central Taiwan Orchestra, both excellent groups, but I haven’t done anything like that since. I kind of miss it.

b/w leapThis morning on my way to work I saw some people spreading a net across the underpass on Zhongxiao West Road, underneath the pedestrian overpass. There was an ambulance and some policemen walking around, so I went up to have a look. I couldn’t see anyone in trouble and thought for a minute that a baby had inexplicably gotten caught underneath the overpass somehow, but it turned out that they were shooting scene for a made-for-TV movie. I asked one of the crew if it was difficult to apply for that particular intersection, but he said it had to be there, as the movie was based on true events, and someone had apparently done something of note while perched on the outside of the overpass. So it had to be that one, and they had to get the shot then, because they weren’t going to get a second chance. I took some pictures and left, wishing them luck.

posted by Poagao at 9:33 am  
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