Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Sep 06 2023

Dusting off the ol’ YouTube page

So I’ve been going through my YouTube channel and adding better thumbnail/title images to help with legibility. Before now I just let the app choose them, resulting in random images with no information, but I figured some housekeeping was in order, so I’ve been selecting appropriate photos I took during whatever trip it was, or barring that, appropriate stills from the actual footage of the videos, and adding big, bright text with the video title to them.

I started using YouTube in 2006, not long after it started up the year before. I’d only started my blog five years prior. Back then the resolution was awful, and videos were limited to just a few minutes until I managed to convince them to let me upload longer ones – everyone was amazed when I started uploading nearly hour-long videos, before just anyone could do it. The resolution was still crap though.

Back in those days I could slap whatever music I liked onto the videos; this was long before the idea of “copyright strikes” became a thing and we were all forced to start using “free” music, i.e. music someone worked hard on and got virtually nothing for (this does not necessarily strike me as much of an improvement). As a result, many of my earlier videos are now inaccessible, and others only partially accessible. Sometimes YouTube would straight out strip all the sound from my videos, because some CEO in a corner office somewhere was worried he might not be able to swing a third yacht or whatever when someone heard a snippet of a song on my video and didn’t pay to listen to it. Being a musician myself (though I don’t rely on it exclusively to subsist), I do know that most artists who sell through producers see very little of the actual money their work makes.

As the years passed I went through a series of pocketable cameras with ever-larger and more capable sensors, and the quality of my videos gradually improved. One-inch sensors with image stabilization seem to be the sweet spot these days for portability and image quality, and I need to have a device that is pocketable if I’m going to use it on trips abroad. I am much more hesitant to add music now, for obvious reasons, and as screens get larger I also need to work on keeping the camera steady so people don’t get seasick.

It’s been ages since I went anywhere, however, whereas in pre-Covidian times I would generally take a couple trips abroad each year, sometimes more (I think my record is four videos in 2018). Eventually I will travel again, I suppose, and start making more of these things. Post-covidian Poagao is likely a bit slower (and greyer) than antecovidian Poagao (then again you can expect roughly twice the cynicism). I don’t have any particular travel plans just yet; Chenbl has been extremely busy this year with work, but you never know what might pop up; just the other day I was taking advantage of trains between Keelung and Taoyuan being covered by the monthly T-pass, and I felt that old travel itch when I spotted the new Matsu ferry docked at Keelung port, right where Prince Roy and I embarked on the rickety old one back in 2008.

As to the future of YouTube, I can see some kind of AI-driven uprezzing/stabilization/content-fill bot feature for older videos being implemented at some point (for a fee, of course), and indeed most if not all new videos being created by AI in the future (including product placement, of course). Just input a few keywords and your likeness and BOOM: instant vacation video of you being all adventurous and world-travelling and stuff. Sure, at first it will look weird and cringe, but soon enough the algorithm will fine-tune itself so that nobody will be able to tear themselves away from watching themselves doing things they never imagined doing, or even did, all to a generic “free” soundtrack that we’ve heard a million times. It might even be better for the environment if nobody actually flies anywhere, but that might be over-extrapolating the situation.

Til then, anyway, I plan on continuing to record actual things that I actually do, and I hope y’all keep watching (but it’s ok if you don’t).

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
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  
Mar 27 2023

‘New’ Video: W&L Days

A while ago I transferred some of my old collection of VHS videos onto DVDs, and probably not in the best way considering I’d need as much resolution as possible to make them watchable (that would require a more serious setup than I have access to). I let them sit for years, thinking I’d get around to the rest of them someday, but lately I came across them and figured I might as well make something of them now.

The first time I ever appeared on video was in 5th grade in Ms. Vanartsdalen’s English class at Ed White Elementary in El Lago, Texas. I was horribly shy and muttered a few words of introduction into the camera, and that’s all I remember. I already posted our high-school video projects we made for Mrs. Bell’s history class. The next time I had access to a video camera was during my first year of college at Washington & Lee University. I borrowed the school’s camera during one of the breaks I spent on an empty campus in lieu of returning to Florida, filming myself practicing in my room in the now-demolished Gilliam Dorm, or my friends at the now-demolished International House (Are you sensing a trend here? Yeah, W&L is all about maintaining the history it deems worthy, everything else can GFO). I hauled the camera up to the room of one of my few good friends at the time, Will Avery, who had a room to himself due to the fact that his original roommate refused to share a room with a Black student. Another W&L “tradition” I guess.

For some reason I can’t find any tapes from my sophomore year, when I filmed a silly movie for Professor deMaria’s media course I was taking at the time. It was called “Minks” and roasted the frat system, to nobody’s delight at the time. Then I came to Taiwan, only returning to Lexington to finished my senior year, but now with my own big-ass JVC camcorder in hand. I’d picked it up in Hong Kong over the Lunar New Year break in 1990, and subsequent videos I made with it at Tunghai University and when I was doing my army service in Miaoli should be forthcoming if I ever get around to putting those together.

In any case, my senior year at W&L was rather lonely. I missed Taiwan, and most everyone I’d befriended before I’d left had graduated, though Will was thankfully still around, as well as the other Black students living at Chavis House, and one of my suite-mates, Gary Hugh Green III, was cool and fun to talk to (He went on to get his law degree from Harvard; I stayed at Gary’s empty Redondo Beach house at the turn of the millennium after finishing film school in NYC, but we’ve since lost touch). I exchanged letters (yes, letters! Remember those?) with my friend Clar, who was a student at a nearby college, came to visit and made tabbouleh in our bathroom. I had my own room in a suite in the then-new Gaines Hall, due to the fact that a white student didn’t care to be sharing a suite with someone who was a quarter Black (tradition!). The Welcome sign I stuck on our outside door, written in Chinese, was ripped off, covered in racial epithets, and thrown on the hallway floor. But I’d made friends with the Taiwanese cadets at the neighboring Virginia Military Institute, where I was taking trumpet lessons from then-Captain Brodie.

It’s not a long video, just over 15 minutes, but it is a window into my time at that unfortunately (and perhaps aptly)-named institution some three and a half decades ago. Perhaps in the future AI will be able to recreate them in better resolution, but this will have to do for now.

posted by Poagao at 11:22 am  
Dec 07 2022

The New 213 Biscayne

From Google Streetview I gleaned that the house where I spent most of my formative years, a two-story house built in 1960 in El Lago, Texas, has been extensively remodeled, most likely due to flooding damage as the area is pretty much at sea level and sinking. I realize I’ve written about it before, but I recently found a tour of the inside of the old house on a realty site, and hoo boy did they do a number on it.

Outside, the old cracked driveway where our 1969 Buick Electra and 1972 Pinto were parked is now newly laid white concrete. All the tudor-esque 1960’s windows have been replaced with more storm-resistant but rather boring frames. Most of the old trees in front are gone, and many of the backyard ones as well. A patch of bare grass is the only sign of the old shed and pear tree that used to stand there. The concrete semicircle that was once our vegetable garden is now full of trees; one of the photos is taken from where my old fort was located, a place where many delicious afternoons were spent reading and snacking on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches after school. The house is now painted blue, as it has been since not long after we moved away in 1981; no doubt the new owners didn’t appreciate me writing things like “Please take care of Grey Kitty” on the sides of the house, nor the mustard yellow color we painted it (believe it not, that was an improvement on the original dark brown, complete with orange front door, resulting in a very Halloween-esque vibe). Grey Kitty was a local cat who made her home with us when we lived there, and I was quite fond of her. My parents decided she wouldn’t be coming with us to Florida, but the elderly couple who bought the house from us assured us they would take care of her, and as far as I know they did. But I was a sentimental child and wanted to make sure.

Inside, as is seemingly mandatory with houses these days, any potentially offensive colors have been removed, and a few walls have been knocked down for that “open” look that is currently all the rage. Flying in the face of fengshui, the front door is now visible from the back of the house through an opening where the coat closet used to be, and the stairs, which once turned 90 degrees into the kitchen where a coffee bar is now located, now lead right into the back door, which is bad news for anyone pummeling down the stairs in the morning. The dining room, with its romanesque murals and fancy silverware, where so many people looked up at me towards the end of Christmas dinner to exclaim, “Oh that’s right, today’s your birthday, isn’t it?” is gone, turned into a home office and laundry room, which is reasonable as we mostly ate by the kitchen in what is now the “dining area” anyway. The puke-green carpet of the living room is now wood floor, no doubt an improvement visibly but much worse to sit on when opening Christmas presents, and a door to the garage has been added, which makes sense as we always had to go outside to get to the garage. All that remains besides the basic floor plan is the brick fireplace in the corner of the family room, where I used to play with my Matchbox cars, and the place where our huge Zenith TV stood how boasts a large flat screen that takes up not only that space but the space where our desk full of old National Geographic magazines and board games stood.

Upstairs, my room (formerly my sister’s room before she left for college) looks basically the same, though it’s grey now instead of bright blue. I don’t recall if the doors were cut to fit the ceiling’s crop; I wasn’t tall enough to notice then. I suspect the back of my old closet still has a secret entrance to the space over the garage. I’m a bit surprised no one has put an extra room in there. My brother’s room is also largely the same, except of course grey. There is one photo taken from my room with the door open and looking down the hall to my brother’s room, and I recall that view and listening to whatever he was playing on his stereo, which could have been anything from classical music to the latest rock. When he was practicing the flute, or I was practicing the trumpet, however, the doors would of course be closed.

It was kind of a shock to see that most everything had been cleared from the house, no reminders of the place that it once was, but then again, if it remained in the 1970’s it would be more of a museum piece than a place anyone would want to live in the 2020’s. The world is so different today! I understand why the old round-ended kitchen bar with the ceramic cookie jar that was filled with treats is gone, why the fake brick linoleum has been removed, as well as the thick rope rug where I used lay watching the Muppet Show, MASH and WKRP in the evenings and cartoons on Saturday mornings. I know why the shed is gone, that little corner of shady horror full of rusting metal lawn instruments ready to inflict tetanus on any unsuspecting intruder. I can see why the mullioned bathroom window of my parent’s bathroom is now a featureless glass square. I understand all of this; it makes all the sense in the world. But I am a sentimental man and kind of wish it wasn’t all gone.

posted by Poagao at 7:52 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  
Nov 16 2020

15 Years in Bitan

Fifteen years ago this month, I purchased and moved into my current residence, aka The Water Curtain Cave. Looking back at pictures I took then, it hasn’t really changed that much. Shortly after I moved in I changed the curtains and painted it, and then bought the low-res Sharp LCD TV I use to this day. My old PC on which I edited the movie has long been dispatched in favor of a couple of iMacs, the place now features natural gas lines instead of relying on canisters, the wifi is probably faster(?), I have a washer/dryer combo so I no longer have to use the laundry room downstairs, and that’s about it. The water still gurgles through the pipes, and the shouting neighbor couple have become quieter after the elderly husband died last year. Oh, and 15 years ago I might have been mildly surprised to know that I’d be able to ask verbal questions and get answers from various devices in there.

But 15 years is significantly over twice as long as I’ve lived anywhere else (the second closest was Florida, where I went to junior high and high school, but that was only around six years), and I remain happy with it and thankful for the opportunity to live where I do. Though occasionally I wonder what it would be like to live downtown again, and am sometimes tempted by fantasies of getting a place on Dihua Street with big windows and high ceilings with wooden beams and tea cabinets that could only manifest by winning a lottery or two, nothing comes close to crossing that bridge and looking out at the mountains at whose feet I sleep every night.

The neighborhood has changed a bit over the time I’ve lived there as well. Most notably, some friends have moved away, and others have moved in. The nice shady area around the stream that feeds into Bitan is being “greenified” which apparently means cutting down all the trees there and pouring concrete all over the area. The convenience store downstairs became a pharmacy, but we now have three other convenience stores. A church moved in under the police station. Favorite cafes such as Pancho and 1974 have come and gone. Livia’s Kitchen still serves a tasty weekend brunch one can enjoy in the company of friendly dogs, and good pizza is now available at the other end of the bridge from The Shack. A new mini mall is opening at the metro station building (“Coming Soon”, it will have a grocery, a Muji, a coffee shop and 17 hot pot places), and of course we have the usual compliment of Starbucks/Louisa/KFC/Formosa Chang over there, but not on my side of the bridge. Until recently, neither Food Panda nor Uber Eats delivered here, but I think at least one of them does now. Likewise, scooter-sharing services such as Wemo and Goshare draw the line at the river, declining to serve us heathens.

But civilization is just a bridge away. I get the feeling that things have been like this for a while. Most people in Taipei see Xindian as this far-flung, hard-to-get-to wilderness, a decimated mess leftover from Taipei County days. Further out than places like Danshui or Beitou, even. And before that, it was literally the wilderness, indigenous territory not to be ventured into. Now it’s a 20-minute trip on the subway to Xindian from Taipei Main Station. But it’s hard to change people’s minds.

Granted, that might not be a bad thing. “It’s very…local down there isn’t it?” one long-term expat asked me with a great show of concern around 2003 when I first moved to Xindian. He lived in Tienmu and only spoke basic Mandarin after living in Taiwan longer than I’d been alive at that point. I didn’t know how to answer him, but I did realize it’s probably far better for everyone concerned if expats of that sort just stay in Tianmu, so I nodded.


posted by Poagao at 12:17 pm  
Jun 09 2015

Good-bye, IHOP

It seems my dear alma mater, Washington & Lee University, has decided not only to tear down my freshman-year dorm, Gilliam Hall, but also the place where I spent most of my time when I was at W&L, aka the old International House. The IHOP, as we called it, was an old two-story white wooden structure just two doors away from Gilliam. It must have been built very long ago, as it was already old and rickety when I first saw it in the late 1980’s. But it was a godsend for me.

ihopAlong with Chavis House, where I also spent a lot of time, the International House was the most interesting place on campus, a welcome oasis of multicultural influence in a desert of entitled white fratboys in polos and khakis with beers glued to their hands. If it were a fraternity I would have rushed it, but it was more of an anti-fraternity. Anyone was welcome; it was more about embracing than exclusion. And the people I met there were my best friends during those days. I keep in touch with many of them to this day. I honestly think that if it weren’t for them I would have left W&L altogether.

It will come as no surprise that I didn’t get along terribly well with most of the other students at W&L. That included my freshman-year roommate, Todd, which is not intended as any kind of negative reflection on him. He just became good friends, not with me, but instead with my high-school friend Garrick, who also attended W&L. We ended up having some kind of falling out over something that apparently neither of us can recall. It was ugly, but to me the entire fraternity culture was ugly.

The saving grace of W&L was the wonderfully kind and brilliant faculty, most of whom would bend over backwards to help students. But the International House made it home. I moved most of my things there and more-or-less lived there full time in a side room nobody happened to be using. There was one bathroom in the hall under the stairway, and the kitchen, with an oddly slanting floor, was an addition in the rear; the house had apparently been built before indoor plumbing was invented. Victor Cheung, from Hong Kong, lived upstairs in the master bedroom with his girlfriend Junku, from Japan. Members would have parties there, trips to places like Washington, DC, and occasional fights over who ate something out of the pantry that didn’t belong to them (I’m sorry Outi; I just love pop-tarts and I was hungry). Taiwanese cadets from the adjacent Virginia Military Institute would come to the parties as they knew they would be welcome there. There was always something going on, be it a midnight game of strip poker or just someone studying while the TV was on.

Later the building served as the university’s LGBQT Center, I saw to my astonishment when I visited a few years ago. But now it’s gone. Farewell, old friend.

posted by Poagao at 12:29 pm  
Jun 24 2014


This anniversary felt different than the one just five years ago. The weather’s different, for one thing; it was grey and moody when I got out of the office around six, cooler and wetter than that hot summer night so long ago. I walked through the park to Chongqing South Road as the sun peeked out from under the clouds, illuminating the traffic on Zhongxiao West Road, before it sank into the hills of Linkou to the west of the city.

I felt time as a cycle, somehow, and that everything had come full circle. “I’ll be arriving by bus from CKS at around 7:30,” I thought to myself as the city darkened, the neon lights springing to life. This, I felt, was the city before my arrival that day, a perfectly normal day. A work day.

I strolled over to where Zhang Cai had had his photography studio, back in the day. He’d still been alive when I arrived. Li Ming-diao as well. So many people…but I couldn’t go down that alley. The city was dark; it started to rain. I walked back to Chongqing, now the site of a massive construction site, to roughly where I’d gotten off the bus. I’d been encumbered with two heavy suitcases. Dr. Hill had led Boogie and me off towards Zhongxiao, up and down the now-absent pedestrian bridges. I followed our original route more or less, and the scenery that I see almost every day was transposed on a thin film bridging the decades. Here, on this corner, we’d stopped for some reason. I’d forgotten that until today. What was it? Boogie was lagging behind, I seem to recall…we waited for him to catch up. It was my first sight of Taiwan, really. The sights, sounds, smells, right on that corner while we waited.

I went to the Y, where we’d stayed, took the elevator up to room 507. The sound of the TV came from inside. Had I arrived yet? I guessed I had. I couldn’t knock, of course. Instead, I put my hand on the doorknob, and then took the elevator back down to the lobby.

The past stayed with me, though I’d meant to leave them at the hotel. It followed me to the Japanese ramen place nearby, to the park, even on the subway, which hadn’t existed back then. Only when I crossed the bridge at Bitan did I retake my place in the present. That bridge has always been powerful, and I needed it tonight.

posted by Poagao at 11:48 pm  
Oct 05 2011

US trip, part 10

Another beautiful day; Keith had to go to work in the morning, so Leslie and I foresook the collection of exhuberantly depressing medical ads that comprises US television programing and went out for lunch at her favorite Mexican place, home of good, genuine food and smexxxy accents. I had flautas with beans and rice, and was immediately taken back to times when we went out for dinner when I was a kid, and I was the only one in the family who didn’t like Mexican food. Well, I like it now, though I still don’t take to spicy stuff.

After lunch we drove to downtown Norman and walked across the railroad tracks along Main Street, stopping by at a hippie-themed store where half of the Taoist symbols were upside-down, with the black yin part on top instead of the white yang part. I mentioned this to the owner, but she just rolled her eyes. They also had the Gayly, a homosexual-themed monthly newsletter that manages to cover the five most homophobic states in the union without the aid of a proper editor.

After stopping at a Sonic for soft drinks roughly the size of the late Herve Villachaize, we went back to Leslie’s place, where the dogs, predictably, had forgotten who I was. Then again, they forgot who I was if I changed shirts or turned around while they weren’t looking. I got my stuff together and we set out for the outskirts of Ardmore, where our parents now live. It was a nice drive; the sun was setting over the big “Ardmore Tigers”-themed water tower as we pulled into the driveway. Leslie stayed for dinner and some chatting on the back porch before she departed for home again.

It’s odd to be in this house, which I have never seen before, yet filled with objects familiar from my childhood. Lamps, furniture, knick-knacks…things I’d forgotten all about, yet hold little shocks of recognition from another life.

posted by Poagao at 11:41 am  
Next Page »