Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Dec 12 2023

A Northern Jaunt, etc.

“Let’s take a drive around the north coast,” Chenbl texted on Sunday morning.

“Ok,” I texted back, still in bed. I’d spent the previous night at the predictably stressful and disappointing Tiger Mountain Ramble, (the ninth one I think? I’ve lost count). Don’t get me wrong, the other Ramblers seem to really enjoy it, as does the crowd in general, but the creepy abandoned temple and relentless expat vibe never fails to put me on edge. I usually arrive late, spend my time there trying to disappear, and leave as soon as I can. Oh, and not get electrocuted on stage.

So I was in the mood to get out of town. I reserved a Toyota sedan from i-rent on my phone, retrieved it from a nearby parking lot, and picked up Chenbl and his parents before driving north. Chenbl’s navigation efforts somehow resulted in us going the opposite direction than we had intended, but this actually later turned out to be a good idea. We drove out of the city and up to the coast, the brilliant blue skies becoming abruptly cloudy after we passed Danshui, and on to the late Lee Teng-hui’s hometown of Sanzhi for a lunch of some of the most delicious noodles I have ever had, at the Yue Lai Ting, a traditional restaurant with photos of various famous people on the walls. The lunch crowd, including the birthday party of an elderly woman who was feeding cake to one of her grandchildren, was just finishing up, so the staff were quite happy to chat with Chenbl’s parents about all sorts of things, including engineering projects and Hakka accents.

We paid our respects at the golden-faced Matsu temple nearby and then explored an open-air clothes-washing canal and veggie garden that featured not only two working water wheels but an enthusiastic older man who was eager to explain the history of the area. By this time I was sensing a theme of the people in Sanzhi being rather talkative, and when I commented on it, Chenbl’s mother joked, “Well, of course they’re chatty; what else are they going to do around here?”

I think it’s nice; I should go back and make a more thorough exploration of Sanzhi. But we had to be getting on, and the sun had come out again in time for us to enjoy the beach a ways up the coast at the Shihmen Arch Bridge. I chatted with some of the Indonesian fishermen on a boat docked at the harbor as elderly black dogs sniffed at us with greying muzzles. Children splashed each other out in the tide pools while tourists took pictures of the green algae on the rocks.

We realized how fortuitous our previous navigation error was as we continued to drive east, the setting sun blasting the drivers coming the opposite direction but lighting the views along the coast in a surreal fashion due to the ocean haze, the amber light illuminating the cliffs and islets in the distance with a glow like something out of a Miyazaki film. The sun had set by the time we reached Keelung, and finding a parking spot in that amazingly mismanaged traffic was a feat we thought nigh impossible until we somehow managed to dip into an underground parking lot without having to line up. “The car ahead was a VIP,” Chenbl’s father surmised. “That’s how we got in. We got lucky.”

It being a weekend, the night market was thronged with crowds. Back-alley sesame dumplings were enough to satisfy Chenbl’s parents, but we also got some tasty sandwiches before getting back on the road and returning to Taipei, Chenbl’s father telling us tales of the construction of the tunnel making highway travel to the port city possible back in the early 70’s. Sinotech, the company where both Chenbl and his father have made their engineering careers, has done (and is still doing) some truly amazing projects that have benefitted Taiwan in many ways.

Thankfully traffic on the way back wasn’t too heavy, as I don’t really enjoy driving at night. I’d reserved the car until 8:30; we got it back just in time. The i-rent system is actually a nifty idea for those of us who don’t really need a car most of the time.

The next day after work I went to the Xinyi Eslite Bookstore, which is set to close for good on Christmas Eve. I had been rather ambivalent about it after the legendary Dunnan Eslite was torn down years ago; I had spent many a late night there all through the 90’s and aughts wandering the creaky wooden stacks to the sound of soothing cello music, looking at photography books, graphic novels, sci-fi, Chinese sword dramas, you name it, so it was a bit distressing to see it demolished. And now, because we’re just getting dumber as a society, the Xinyi 24-hour bookstore is going away as well, to be replaced by yet another vapid mall full of empty shops populated only by fashion items that cost more than most people’s yearly salary. Wandering around perusing the actual paper books, I felt an even greater sense of impending loss; there’s just nothing to compare with an actual, physical bookshop. It’s more than the books themselves; it’s a whole vibe, an atmosphere of people all engaged in the act of wanting to know more, among the dedicated works of people who want others to know more. I can’t help but wonder if anyone will even be able to calculate what we’re losing. Then again, when was the last time I purchased a physical book? Don’t I read books mostly on my aging Kindle Voyage, or, god help me, on my phone? So perhaps I am just as much at fault for this distressing trend as anyone else.

On my way home I found the usually empty Bitan suspension bridge swarming with reporters, police and security personnel. A bearded Western dude with a tricked-out camera glared at me as I passed, as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. “What’s going on?” I asked one of the security dudes, who sported a tactical vest with a badge and an automatic pistol on his hip.

“Nothing, just our routine inspection route,” he lied. I pointed at the gaggle of reporters.

“Why all the press then?”

“It’s Bitan,” he continued with what I wondered was a badly rehearsed prevarication. “There’s always people around taking photos.”

I looked down at his badge and gun. “Uh-huh. Well, good luck with all that,” I said before continuing back to the Water Curtain Cave. I suspected that it might be an executive inspection of the ongoing bridge repair work, and I didn’t want another awkward encounter with the president (though who knows,  perhaps the third time’s the charm?). But it turned out, as my journalist friend Chang Liang-i informed me, that it was actually Vice President/Presidential candidate Lai Ching-te visiting, along with his VP candidate Hsiao Bi-khim.

In other news, we recently wrapped up a semester of instructing a course on street photography at Shih Hsin University, which is known for its journalism program. The final exhibition and event was fun, with Chenbl as the MC and attended by several high-level university officials and other professors. Alas, there really wasn’t enough time to do much more than a glossed-over introduction to the art and practice of street photography this time, but it’s been hinted that we might be able to take a real crack at it at some point in the future. We’ll see.

posted by Poagao at 12:05 pm  
Nov 30 2023

Night of the Standard Fish Market

gearWhile waiting for lunch at Kyomachi No. 8, I noticed an elderly man in a pink shirt, two ancient cameras (Minolta and Praktica for those playing at home) hanging from his shoulders, staring intently at the closing notice posted on what had been the camera store next door. Taipei’s “Camera Street” has been decimated by the public move to phone cameras, with store after store closing up, and only a few left to represent dedicated photographic devices. I wondered what his story was, so I went out and started up a conversation. He said he was more of a painter than a photographer despite the heavy SLRs, which tracked seeing that the lens caps were firmly in place. I invited him in for lunch, and we probably disturbed all of the other patrons for the next half hour as I had to speak loudly enough to overcome his poor hearing. We exchanged cards, and he turned out to be the artist Ma Ying-cheh, who studied under the famous Lang Jing-shan and has exhibited all over Taiwan. He also teaches oil painting at his residence in Shilin. We had a nice conversation about our respective styles, approaches, images and what makes them compelling, etc. After lunch he offered to drive me to Songshan Station where I was meeting Chenbl and his parents later, but I demurred, as I like to walk places, plus I didn’t want to impose.

We were meeting at Songshan Station to take a train out to Keelung, which is now included in the monthly T-pass scheme. As we exited Keelung Station, Chenbl’s father, who like my own was a career engineer before he retired, observed that the roof of the new station was constructed like a big tree so that it wouldn’t fly away in a storm, with intricate branch columns, wood beams and holes to let the wind through. Also like a tree, it attracts a great many birds, which unfortunately poop quite generously on the plaza below.  “Bet the designers didn’t see that coming,” Chenbl said sardonically. Across the harbor the oddly named Resorts World One cruise ship was docked, but I could find no mention of Taiwan on their website as a destination so I guess it must have been traveling incognito.

We waited quite a long time to get onto a very crowded bus that involved an argument every time it stopped as the driver tried to convince people that it was actually full. Eventually we reached the large green monolith that is the harbor-side Evergreen Hotel, where Chenbl and I were taking advantage of a coupon he got from his company before it expired (the coupon, not his company) in December. After the setting sun brought a brief but brilliant bit of color to the otherwise dreary skies, we set out for the Miaokou night market, where we had some Ah-Hua noodles under the ministrations of a very forthright young waiter who told us in no uncertain terms where to sit and when to look at our phones (basically just don’t). Chenbl’s father said that the emissions of the powerplant located nearby had reduced the amount of rain in the city, probably the only upside as Keelung is notorious for its excessive precipitation.

Keelung at sunset

After dinner we walked Chenbl’s parents back to the train station and saw them off, and then wandered around a bit more before going back to the hotel to rest up. The reason we’d chosen the Keelung Evergreen over other, superior Evergreens was that I wanted to take a look at the Kanziding Fish Market that takes place in the early hours of the morning. It’s the focus of several city walking tours for tourists, and some of my students have done it as well. My friend Xander (Happy Birthday btw) made an excellent piece on it as well. Fortunately the weather was still nice as we set out again from the hotel around midnight; rain was forecast for later. The night market was wrapping up, the vendors taking everything down and hauling it back to whatever little alley space they normally kept their stalls during non-market hours. The fish market, however, was just getting started; we walked around as trucks pulled up and people unloaded box after box of fresh fish. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colors were on display as buyers gathered and haggled over purchases. For someone like me who is as bothered by the sound of Styrofoam as fingernails on a chalkboard, it was not the most pleasant of soundscapes.

To be honest, photographically speaking, it was kind of just another market. I’m sure there are many interesting stories amid the various nooks and crannies that I’d like love to explore had I the time and stamina to basically turn my sleep schedule upside-down, but after looking at the photos others had taken of it before online, and then seeing it for myself, well…aside from the obvious challenge of exposing photos with blinding white boxes and various interesting color temperatures, it just wasn’t terribly compelling in of itself, at least at first brush; I’d have to go back a few times to really get the feel of the place. I mean, Keelung is cool in general, but Kanziding is rather standard market fare. I maintain my belief that photography can and does happen anywhere, independent of supposed “interesting” events/people/places, so none of this actually makes a difference in any case.

We’d had our fill of the scene by around 2 a.m. or so, so we sat down for a snack of tasty noodles and dumplings sold out the back of a motorized tricycle parked between the market and the neighboring temple, across from the police station. I don’t know if it was the late hour or what, but I don’t remember the last time I had such delicious noodles.

It was beginning to drizzle as we traversed the series of up-and-down arcade levels (even sidewalks are more of a Taipei thing) back to the hotel, passing groups of young revelers along the Renai Market’s veranda while a man unloaded giant pig carcasses onto the counters inside. Across the odiferous Tianliao river, the streets were deserted, the only sounds the thumping music issuing from some late-night cruiser.

The next morning we consumed the complimentary breakfast on the 18th floor overlooking the harbor accompanied by a small boy yelling in English, “NO I DON’T WANNA!” over and over while the ladies at the next table tut-tutted about the manners of foreign children. The 30-year-old Cosco Star ferry, which we took to Xiamen in 2011, was docked up the harbor a ways, looking rather decrepit, and the much smaller new Matsu Ferry directly across the harbor. After checking out we headed back through downtown once again, noting that the area of the market had been cleaned up fairly well.

I have always been intrigued by Keelung, it being an old port city surrounded by mountains, so full of history and potential yet suffering from decades of opaque urban and social mismanagement. My friend Cheng Kai-hsiang, also a painter, has been observing the city through his art for a while now; I probably wouldn’t say no if someone wanted to subsidize a sabbatical there to explore what makes that city tick…even though I’ve been visiting Keelung over the course of the last few decades, I feel I’d have to actually live there to get a better grasp of what life there is really like.

Still stuffed from breakfast, we skipped lunch in favor of some snacks at the café in one of the old port buildings before passing back across the harbor square (now unfortunately devoid of those delightful Ju Ming umbrella sculptures), by the media center in shell of the ugly old KMT-era train station, now featuring various AR and VR experiences (I wish they’d reconstructed the lovely old Japanese-era train station and made it into a cultural display arts space overlooking the harbor), up to the shiny new station, and back to Taipei and home.


posted by Poagao at 10:58 pm  
Nov 20 2023

A Good Day

Sunday was a good day. Saturday night the Ramblers played another Formosa Medicine Show 10-year-anniversary gig, this time at the venerable Witch House in Gongguan, the scene of many a late night/early morning jam over the past 20 years or so.  Slim was out with an injury, but we managed to throw down a bop or two despite that, buoyed by the excellent curry dinners they serve there.

So I was tired the next morning, and debated whether I should go to the park for tai-chi practice. The Sunday weather was so brilliantly blue that I felt I couldn’t not go, even though I was late due to the aforementioned gig recovery process.  Some kind of event at the outdoor stage had attracted a lot of people, but I managed to spot our group in the midst of the crowd, going through the sword form, so I took out my retractable sword and joined them. I’ve forgotten so much that I am just following along at this point, though my body does seem to know many of the next moves so there’s something left from all those years of practice. In any case it felt really good to get back into it, and of course it’s nice to be able to chat with the fellas about various things (potential running-mate variations for the upcoming presidential election was the topic of the day) afterward.

Chenbl called to tell me he’d heard that Capricorn Monkeys were predicted to be especially lucky for the next day or two, and that, should I feel like buying a lotto ticket, to be sure to buy one at a shop near a large tree. With that in mind, I set off for Longshan Temple, where I had a delicious lunch sitting outside Tokyo Bike before wandering around the area looking for lotto stores near large trees (it’s as good a reason to wander as any). As usual, the area was full of tourists, skewing towards the usual white male/Asian female pairing. I walked up to my usual herbal tea shop, got a large cup of bitter tea to drink as I sat and just watched people go by.

I didn’t feel like going home just yet, so I walked through the alleys, trying to find any I hadn’t trodden before, back up to Ximen, where a huge cosplay event was going on in the square by the Red House. Photographers were everywhere, so I gave it a wide berth before catching the subway back to the Water Curtain Cave.

It was such a nice day that I couldn’t stay home, though. I headed back out, up the river to the very nice fish ladder they’ve recently added to the Bitan Bridge catchment (or, as the local birds call it, the fresh fish market), carefully traversing the precarious rocks and protruding steel beams that make up the riverbank there to watch the sunset from the water’s edge before heading over to RT Mart to buy apples. I then picked up some salmon sushi for dinner, went back home and prepared for the penultimate session of the photography class I’m teaching as a guest lecturer at Shih Hsin University this semester.

So, nothing special, just a good day. I just wanted to note how grateful I am that they do happen.

posted by Poagao at 10:37 am  
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  
Nov 18 2022

Mixed messages

I had an interesting conversation with a construction site manager yesterday. At least it went better than some of the previous interactions I’ve had with them.

It was a nice, warm, sunny day, and I was wandering along Zhongxiao West Road after a pleasant lunch near Camera Street and then hanging around the North Gate watching a wedding photographer chase the retreating light around the square. “Pretend like you’re running!” he called to the prospective groom, while his bride fiddled with makeup in a tiny tent.

“Like this?” the groom lifted a leg up hesitantly. Clearly he hadn’t been expecting this, especially after putting on a fancy white-and-purple suit.

“No, you look like a dog peeing!” the photographer said, but in a nice way. “Run like a bus is about to hit you!”  This was helpful advice, as buses were indeed zooming by inches behind him.

I walked east and got yelled at by a crazy Chinese monk for taking a photo of the Mitsukoshi Building. “Don’t fuck with me! I am long exiled from Foshan!” he shouted.

I kept walking, ending up on the famous pedestrian bridge at the intersection of Zhongxiao and Zhongshan. A busy construction site where the old round City Council building used to be caught my eye, and I took a few shots from the bridge before heading down to see if the light was nicer from street level.

“You can’t take photographs here,” a site manager walked over to tell me.

“Why’s that?”

“Company rules.” I sighed. This again.

“I don’t work for your company. Your site in is public view from the public road I’m standing on, and I’m not violating any safety rules here.” The manager considered this.

“All true, but we could get in trouble if you post these photos and our boss sees them, especially if he sees our company logo.”

“Why would your boss be unhappy at that? It seems like a well-run site. This project has even been shown in the media before.”

“He might yell at us for allowing someone to take photos.”

It was a pleasant, cordial exchange, and while I did not envy this man’s conundrum, I had to tell him: “You might not have noticed, but your site is bathed in reflected light from all these glass buildings next door in the afternoon. That’s going to attract photographers. Also, you’re not only right by a pedestrian bridge that is a famous photography spot, you’re also near hotels, the Executive Yuan and the train station. That means curious tourists walking by. Photography is going to happen. If you make a big deal about hiding the site from them, there’s a chance some of them will be IG influencers, journalists or even members of foreign diplomatic groups.” Someone might even blog about it, I added mentally.

He seemed amenable to this point of view, but he was still in manager mode. “Ok, I’ll let you keep the photos you’ve already taken, including the ones from the pedestrian bridge, but please don’t take any more.”

“There’s nothing you can do about the photos I’ve already taken,” I reminded him, noting that they’d tracked me all the way from the bridge. “But I appreciate your point of view and thanks for being courteous about it.”

As I walked on, I couldn’t help but wonder why people automatically go to some imagined worst-case scenario when they see they are being photographed. Is everyone afraid that their nefarious behavior will get them in trouble? But that can’t be the case, as being recorded by the government and corporations 24/7 has become a matter of course; nobody ever even thinks about it. Then again, government and corporate surveillance is expressly put in place to catch wrongdoing, so is it that far a stretch to imagine that, as such recording becomes more ubiquitous and ever present, the general population just assumes that any kind of photography is accusatory and predatory in nature? People crave attention, but just the safe kind of attention, I suppose. Whatever that is.

To wit: I recently got back in touch with a street photographer I used to chat with back in the early days of Flickr, Joe Wigfall. He no longer even takes photos; he says it had become too much of a hassle, so he paints and writes instead. It’s a shame; he made some very good work when he was active. He noted that when he was out shooting, Black people would give him more shit for photographing them than people from other groups would, and he noticed the same for white and Asian photographers he’d go shooting with. We can give them a pass, but you’re one of us; you should know better seems to be the message they were sending.

I took the subway over to Taipei 101 and walked across Wuxing Street towards the mountains, noticing the imprints of old military villages amid the empty fields as well as the occasional illegal villas with partially demolished balconies. Brightly colored election trucks, cars, motorcycles and bicycles crisscrossed the streets with their various candidates promising various things from mounted loudspeakers. But the sun was setting, so I walked back over to the Tonghua Night Market to meet up with Chenbl for a delicious meal of noodles at a wood-paneled restaurant where the competent young staff played old and pseudo-old jazz. They knew about the Ramblers, and put on some of our music.

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
Nov 03 2022

Tainan memories

Chenbl had got his hands on some hotel coupons, so we decided to spend a couple of days in Tainan, along with his elderly parents. Chenbl’s father is from Tainan, so he enjoys the nostalgia of trips back there.

We took the bullet train, Chenbl’s parents enjoying the plush purple business class seats with complimentary coffee and champagne or whatever it is they serve there, while we watched the brilliant green of the rice fields flash by as we consumed our brown-bag breakfast in the still-spacious blue standard seats. Tainan’s high-speed rail station is rather out in the middle of nowhere, as several of the stations between Taipei and Kaohsiung seem to be, no doubt thanks to land speculation, but no matter: We were going to experiment with the i-Rent online car rental system to save Chenbl’s parents, who are in their 80s, a bit of walking. I used my phone to locate the car, took some photos to show it wasn’t damaged, and then we were off.

It’s been quite a few years since I drove a car, but it didn’t take long to get used to piloting the white Toyota Yaris down the rural roads. The trick, I’ve learned, is not to get emotional while driving. Other drivers will do stupid things all the time, but if you leave enough space and think ahead, things generally work out. Not being able to see the front edges of the car was annoying, however. Never had that problem with 80’s cars, he grumbled oldly.

Chenbl had constructed an intricate itinerary with Google Maps, noting all of our potential destinations, and he used the service to issue navigation orders from the passenger’s seat, occasionally telling his parents to be quiet when they started suggesting oblique routes from half a century ago that may or may not still exist. Our first stop was at a market in an old row of buildings; we parked behind a factory near what was either a motorcycle that had been nearly consumed by weeds or a motorcycle-shaped bush. Chenbl bought snacks while I explored the strange blue-tinted light of the nearby alleys, and when I returned he was talking with one of the shop owners, who gave us free samples of their sausages. Tasty.

Next was the huge, elaborate Buddhist Daitian Temple complex at Madou. The place was very “sensitive”, Chenbl explained, as he is attuned to these kinds of things. The gods were kept behind ornate iron gates to keep them from being damaged by the huge crowds that visit during religious holidays. Behind the main temple is a huge structure in the shape of a dragon, full of scenes of whatever the temple’s founder envisioned heaven looked like in 1979. Chenbl’s father was going to go take a look inside until he found that the entrance fee was NT$40. We went instead, and the experience was indeed probably not worth NT$40, being a series of “It’s a Small World”-esque motorized figures depicting various deities having tea parties on lawns. There was a Monkey statue, however, so of course I had to get a picture with The Poagao, whom I’m fairly sure didn’t pay NT$40 to get in and probably had some tea party paraphernalia in his pockets.

Next to the exit of the Heaven experience was a gate to the Hell experience, which was also NT$40 and probably didn’t include air conditioning. We declined the Hell experience and went back to the main temple. Chenbl pointed at a palanquin parked outside, surrounded with surly young men in temple garb. “Someone is visiting,” he said. We went back inside to see a couple of elderly mediums shaking and shouting and pounding the table, while other devotees standing by interpreted all of this. After this we went to another structure, a large round edifice with very nice statues of the four Directional Deities inside, each one a different color. I hadn’t known about the Directional Deities; Chenbl’s father was filling me in when Chenbl suggested we take our leave due to my photo-taking causing a few mutterings from the staff.

Our next destination was Laotanghu, an “art space” out in the middle of empty fields. Apparently some enterprising painter had gotten the land for cheap and assembled the place out of stuff he’d found in an old village. Large buses disgorged tourists into the complex, where you could have your picture taken dressed up in cartoonish “traditional” garb, and a musician played guitar by the banks of the “lake”, which was most likely an old rice field. We got on a small boat to go out to a peninsula on the other side of the water, manned by one of the staff. When we’d all gotten on, the young man called out to the tourists at the front of the boat, “Hey! Start pulling the rope! This boat won’t move itself!” It was a neat trick; Tom Sawyer would be proud.

On the other side we encountered a group of Real Photographers surrounding a model in one of the traditional costumes. They saw me with my camera and beckoned. “Now you try!”

“Thanks, I’m good,” I replied, as I’d already been taking pictures of the scene, and I didn’t want to get in their way. They laughed.

The sun was edging towards the horizon, so we headed out to the coast to see some piles of salt. This is apparently a huge photography spot, and the area was swarmed with people hauling some serious gear around getting shots of an array of small piles of salt as sunset approached. The actual sunset was rather disappointing, as a passing typhoon was making Tainan’s usually sunny skies overcast and grey. We walked out to the windbreak, where a young woman posed for selfies and an older man shot invisible birds with his slingshot by a small earth god temple.

We set out again for a Michelin-rated restaurant Chenbl had read about, the Dongxiang. It was also in the middle of nowhere. We arrived just in time, though, as almost immediately a large tour bus pulled up, flooding the place with dozens of Women of a Certain Age, all chatting loudly. When the food came, I could see why they were so highly rated. The oyster noodles in particular were so good that Chenbl ordered another after we’d finished the first plate.

Driving back to the hotel at night was smooth, though again it had been a long time since I’d driven at night, so I was especially cautious, leaving plenty of space for the inevitable scooters weaving in and out of my lane. We were staying at The Place, which had been connected to a mall pre-Covid, and the severed connections had yet to be re-established, so we took an elevator to the basement, walked a few feet to another elevator, and then went up to the mall. There we did mall things until we tired, and went to back to our room to sleep.

The Place has an expansive breakfast that we took full advantage of the next morning. Outside, unfortunately, pouring rain had thrown a monkey wrench into the day’s plans. We set out, me driving even more cautiously in the rain, and found a small temple that Chenbl’s father had known when he was a young man. The table top in front of the altar was scarred from generations of mediums’ pounding. Chenbl’s father said that the temple had barely changed over the last 60 years. Almost every place we stopped required me to dig out my old parallel parking skills from high school. Thank you, Coach Munson, for teaching me an actually useful skill.

As we drove on, Chenbl’s father would sometimes point out spots he remembered. “That’s the stream we forded when we were fleeing the Americans’ bombs during the war!” We stopped at another old neighborhood to find the first house he had purchased, the last one in a row of two-story structures. After walking a short distance, Chenbl’s mother knocked on a door in an alley. A middle-aged woman answered, and she turned out to be Chenbl’s cousin, and one of his father’s family members with whom Chenbl’s mother had gotten along with the best. She even remembered Chenbl, even though he left Tainan when he was a small child. The group had a nice long chat in the alley, asking about this relative and that.

We then stopped by the house they’d lived in next before moving up to Taipei, finding the old well they used back in the day. “That used to be a machine shop,” Chenbl’s mother pointed at an old Japanese-era wooden house nearby. “I had to borrow their telephone to call the hospital when the kids came down with fevers. We didn’t have one of our own.”

The original plan had been to drive out to walk around several seaside villages, but due to the rain we limited our choice to just one. Chenbl’s mother stayed in the car after we looked at the inevitable temple facing the harbor. A bunch of local people hung out at a shop next door, chatting and laughing, and a group of students practiced violin nearby. We wandered the adjacent alleys in the rain, finding old wells that apparently represented Dragon’s eyes according to the fengshui masters, and chatting with some of the people we met, me testing the limits of my Taiwanese language abilities. There weren’t many people around; the area seemed largely deserted, with the foundations of long-demolished houses here and there. At one house we passed a large black dog, its age showing in its grey muzzle, barked furiously at us from through the mail slot. Its owner, a middle-aged man, told me not to take photographs after I took a few shots of the dog. “I’ll bet he uses that dog to intimidate people,” Chenbl muttered as we walked back to the car.

We drove around a few other interesting villages, but the rain showed no signs of letting up, so we gave up and drove back to the high-speed rail station, returning the Yaris early and trading our original return train tickets for earlier ones. The whole i-Rent experience was smooth and reasonably priced, and I can see using it more in the future, especially if they further expand their network.

The trip back was spent dozing. I’ve always enjoyed driving, but spending all day keeping my attention on the road was tiring as I’m not used to it. We’ll have to go back in better weather to get a better look at some of those old villages, or even, dare I say, one of the larger piles of salt. One can hope.

posted by Poagao at 12:16 pm  
Oct 11 2022

Weiwuying Gig

So the Ramblers played a show in Kaohsiung on Double Ten day, at the Weiwuying Arts Center, taking the bullet train down from Taipei at noon for an afternoon soundcheck. David had shown us photos, but nothing prepared me for the actual sight of the place we were to play. “That’s no stage…that’s a space station,” I couldn’t help but whisper as we were ushered into a giant atrium that looked like we were hovering underneath an upside-down starship. Hard, curved surfaces everywhere. Surely the acoustics were impossible? But somehow they made it work for the soundcheck. And they provided bento meals, which we took back to our hotel, which was about a half hour’s walk away. Once outside, I pulled down my mask for a moment to inhale the mix of small- and medium-sized industry fumes and scooter exhaust with just a hint of coal and thought, yes, this is Kaohsiung alright. Each city has its peculiar scent. Take out the coal and humidity, and then add a bit of incinerator smoke and you’ve got Taichung. All of these take me back to the days of my youth, inevitably.

I sampled the free hotel ice cream and took a nap as night fell, before heading back to the arts center for the actual show. I took a circuitous route through the park and around the large outdoor stage with its pop show and screaming fans. The show went well enough, but, possibly because some of us had consumed way too much caffeine, we played nearly ever song about 20% faster than usual, resulting in a rather frantic pace. Afterward some fans came up and told us what they thought of the show, and it was mostly nice things. Then back to the hotel, putting instruments away, plugging in whatever needed charging, relieved at wrapping up another gig. Some of our foreign fans had come to see the show, and everyone ended up in front of the nearest 7-Eleven, drinking, chatting and sampling questionable convenience-store versions of fancy cuisine. I didn’t stay; I was tired and not feeling talkative, so I went to bed, actually sleeping better than I do at the Water Curtain Cave.

Of course that might just be a function of traveling, of being in a different city with the prospects of the kind of discoveries that only aimless, solitary wandering can achieve. Even just a few hours of this can do wonders for my mood. Would it be so hard to just take a train south for the weekend, just to decompress and unwind, spending a night or two in a cheap business hotel? I used to do it; perhaps covid has thrown a wrench into such things, but I miss doing that kind of thing. Chenbl loves to plan everything Just So, with itineraries and restaurants and things to see all at certain times, but my ideal day is just open and unplanned. Perhaps this is why I have failed to accomplish so many things I otherwise might have, but I can’t help but brighten at the thought of what might happen if I just allow the space for it. But yes, that does usually involve some amount of planning.

The next day dawned bright and warm, and I went out for a walk around the area, crossing across parks and alleys in the areas and exploring the interesting Guandi Temple with, for some reason, statues of large-eyed Europeans in crusade drip at the foot of its stairs. Inside were huge, marvelous god statues, though. But I had to get back, have some hotel breakfast and a shower before we caught a mosquito-ridden cab back to the High-speed rail station at Zuoying where our train departed just before 11 a.m., speeding north through brilliant rice fields, towns and, eventually, mountains. An hour and a half later and several degrees colder we were parting ways in the grey, indefinite climate of Taipei Main Station, them to who knows where, and me back to the office. We’ve got lots of shows coming up; it seems that many of the gigs that were put off during covid are coming back now, and October is always a busy month regardless. At least I’m playing so much that practice is virtually guaranteed.

As per my last post, I did sign up for TinyLetter for a newsletter-type setup, but for some reason this has made me extremely hesitant to post. It all still feels pretentious to me; I feel that if people are waiting for me to write things, with Expectations and all that, they will most likely be disappointed in the random rambling accounts that have dominated this journal for the past two-plus decades. Then again, everyone has a Substack account these days, so is it really all that different from the original blog era? Perhaps, but in any case, screw it; I write what I write.

posted by Poagao at 3:37 pm  
Aug 15 2022

4th shot

So the student exhibition of work from the last semester is up and running at the Ren An Hospital Museum exhibition space on the second floor. I made a video about it, using just my iPhone and a little stabilizer unit which turned out to be surprisingly effective. It’s going until mid-September, so if you’re looking for some good street photography and are baffled at the confusing art pieces that crowd Taiwan’s photography galleries these days, go have a look.

One day before the one-year anniversary of getting my first covid vaccine, Chenbl and I went to a clinic on Sanmin Road to get our second booster shots. It was a rather casual experience, just a few people waiting around instead of the strictly organized lines and zones I’ve encountered elsewhere. When we were at the counter a woman came in with a form to show the nurse. “You don’t need to show me that,” the nurse said, rather brusquely. Chenbl gave me a look.

“What’s up?” I said. He glanced at the women, who was now heading upstairs.

“I think she’s a covid patient getting meds,” he muttered. “The nurse didn’t want anyone to see her diagnosis.”

“I’m just going to wait outside,” I said. He laughed.

We were getting the Novavax vaccine this time, though my first three were Moderna, and Chenbl got BNT. Just for a little variety, to keep covid guessing. And a little payback for it keeping us guessing, I guess. My shoulder was sore for a few minutes, and I felt a little drunk for the next couple of days.

This might have affected my views on the two plays we went to see on the following two days. The first was at the National Theater at CKS, a grand affair. We were sitting on the very side of the theater above the stage in a box with a single file of seats, oddly not facing the stage but forward, necessitating a certain amount of rubbernecking. The play, featuring the complicated life of a woman from the 70’s to the 90’s and featuring a great deal of jumping around in time, was by Wu Nian-jen and was entirely in Taiwanese, so I missed a good portion of it as my Taiwanese is rather basic. Still, it was quite moving. The second play was up at the big new traditional theater complex near Zhishan Station in Shilin, and featured the marriage-related travails of a family of women. It was also quite good, and it being in mostly Mandarin I didn’t have to guess at any of the meanings. Afterward Chenbl and I walked over to an old neighborhood for dinner, and then back to Shilin Station, where they have unfortunately cut down all the trees to widen the road. That’s a shame.

I’d thought I was done with the after-effects of the vaccine, but after a couple of days feeling drunk and posting ill-advised rants on DPreview, I started just feeling exhausted, like bone-tired on an existential level. This is the first non-mRNA shot I’ve had for covid, and it was not playing. Fortunately it only lasted a day or so, and I got by by watching the excellent new season of The Orville. The BA4 and 5 variants are making their way into the general population, and cases, which had been falling, seem to be on the rise again. More people are maskless outside, and I suppose I can understand why in this spectacular combination of heat and humidity that, if I hadn’t come up in Florida and south Texas, might be unbearable. I took a bike ride along the river the other day and took my mask off to do so, as that is now allowed when exercising outside, and it did feel good. I’m keeping my (color-coordinated) mask on in crowds, though.

In other news, I’m looking at making a photography page for this site…well, not poagao.org, but poagao.com. Squarespace is looking like the best option for a technically impaired person like myself. In a way it would be coming full circle; when I started this site in 2001 my aim was to just have a place online where I could put my photos, that being before the photo sites had started up. Then came this blog, and the photography kind of just did its own thing. But now people are abandoning flickr and sites like Instagram are focusing on becoming TikTok, so perhaps it’s time to make a page on here where I can showcase various projects and topics. Feel free to let me know which particular photograpic websites you like most; I’m looking to keep it simple, but I’m open to suggestions. In any case, I’ll let y’all know when I get something up.

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Aug 02 2022

Busy days

Things are getting busy again, on several levels. Despite all the Twitter-based hullabaloo about Pelosi’s upcoming visit to Taiwan (most of which can’t even be called journalism and completely misses the point), life goes on as normal here as ever.

Last week the Ramblers played a three-day-long gig at the Lin Family Gardens in Banqiao, in a courtyard out in front of one of the old halls. My instrument cart no doubt scuffed several of the centuries-old stone door frames on my way in, but I’ve always liked the place so it was nice to play there despite the oppressive heat. The staff were nice, providing us with tasty bento dinners, souvenir photos of us playing in cute frames, and even umbrellas when a heavy downpour followed our second performance. Thumper and Red Man missed the first show, so Sylvain filled in. Our old friend Chalaw worked wonders at the soundboard to make us sound good, and despite not having played in a good while we managed to put out three solid shows in three days. In between the brutally hot soundchecks and the shows later in the evening I would walk around the neighborhood exploring the various alleys and bridges, the markets and temples. Police on scooters zoomed around checking people’s IDs. After the shows it was cool to be able to wander the complex at night, when it’s usually closed, imagining all the shenanigans and goings-on that happened there back in the days when it was an oasis of culture and taste amid empty fields and swamps. Now it’s an oasis of culture and taste amid apartment buildings and shops of every description.

On the morning after the last show, I met up with Chenbl  and his parents at the Taipei high-speed rail station; we had breakfast on the bullet train south, arriving in Taichung in short order. Chenbl’s parents were staying at The Lin Hotel, a ritzy place near the National Theater, whereas we were staying at a place called simply The Place in another part of town. The neighborhood is crammed full of  swank high-rises now, totally unlike when the Ramblers performed at Tiger City so many years ago, the bitterly cold wind blowing across empty lots as we played. We took a train to the impressive Nantian Temple, which features a giant statue on top, and then a bus to the Second Market, a hexagonal affair, where we had delicious noodles for lunch.

We then strolled through the city through the artsy West District. It’s been too long since I visited Taichung; I miss it. Chenbl’s father commented that Taichung seems to have more potential these days. While Taipei’s been content to rest on its laurels as the capital, Taichung these days seems more about exploration and experimentation. It’s also more physically spread out, which makes a second metro line a must  if the city’s going to continue developing.  Residents apparently don’t even have to pay for bus trips under 10 kilometers. We walked to the Place where Chenbl and I were staying, put some stuff away, and headed out again when what had seemed like imminent rain did not manifest.

As a lot of walking was going on, we all packed light, though Chenbl’s father insisted on carrying several heavy bottles of water in his backpack. I only brought one bag as it was just one night and all I needed to bring besides what I usually have on me was an extra shirt. After going through a series of cheap bags whose zippers would break almost immediately, not to mention a Domke that eventually disintegrated, and on the recommendation of some local photographer friends as well as the badge of approval of DPreviews’ Chris Nichols and Big Head Taco, I recently spent bag to get bag from Wotancraft, a local company, and so far I like it a lot. It looks heavy but is actually quite light and comfortable.

Sunset was seen from the odd and interesting roof of the National Theater, which reminded me of that of the Casa Mia apartment building in Barcelona. Chenbl’s parents were fine dining at The Lin’s popular restaurant, so Chenbl and I headed over to the food court at Tiger City for some excellent beef rice bowls.

On Monday morning we took a bus over to The Lin, and then walked to Taichung City Hall, a trim and efficient pair of buildings linked up in the middle. We browsed the exhibition and then took a bus at one of the failed BRT “stations” to another part of town to look at Literature Museum which features a huge old tree in the courtyard. As we were wondering how old said tree was, rain began pouring down. Chenbl’s mother was the only one of us with the sense to bring a real umbrella; she took refuge in a small pavilion while Chenbl’s father and I moved to a tin structure where we could feel the rain pounding on the roof reverberating throughout the entire structure. Chenbl had found a handy arcade. There we all waited for the rain to ease, and it did after about an hour. Chenbl’s father is always full of interesting stories and advice, so the time went by quickly. We then walked to the old martial arts hall, and then took a bus back to the train station, where we spent the rest of the afternoon having ice cream treats and dinner at the Miyahara Confectionery, previously an Optometrist’s office but now more like a rebranded Harry Potter exhibition with cookies. At one point Chenbl and I popped out to get some of the obligatory suncakes. Chenbl refused to be seen carrying the other store’s suncakes into the confectionery, as apparently there’s some rivalry going on there, so he made me carry them instead as I apparently DNGAF about such things.

Chenbl’s parents were itching to get back home, so we took an early train from the huge new station, dwarfing the stately old one next to it, back to the high speed rail station, and then back to Taipei and home. It was good to get out of town for a bit; we need to do it more often. Chenbl and I are scheduled to get our second booster next week, and case numbers are dropping steadily, though I still suspect that when the new variants might arrest that trend, but most people seem to still be wearing masks (despite all the white dudes on those sites howling in protest all day), so perhaps we can still get through all of this ok.

posted by Poagao at 12:00 pm  
Jul 08 2022

Their Way

I was planning to meet Chenbl later yesterday at Jiantan, so instead of getting my usual salmon bento to take back to the Water Curtain Cave for consumption, I had a pleasant sandwich/coffee/carrot cake combo at the Metro Cafe on Chongqing South Road. As it does just about every day in summer, the weather went from bright sun to threatening skies during the course of my meal, so I went back to my office to get an umbrella, planning to take the subway up to Jiantan to have a look around before meeting up with Chenbl after he got off work.

The sound of singing that was entirely too awful to be a recording, however, drew me to the square in front of Zhongshan Hall, where a large group of mostly elderly people huddled under tents as rain began to pelt down. Most of them were wearing vests sporting various military-themed logos, and they seemed to all know each other. The songs being sung were old-timey patriotic/nationalist songs (plus the first part of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with the phrase “the final curtain” replaced by “the final battle”(!), and even more disturbing: Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me”); the KMT was in heavy presence, as were various police officers, obviously armed, with one sporting a clump of white zip ties on her belt. I didn’t know what they were expecting; there were no counter protesters and hardly any media around.

They held a ceremony consisting of people lining up to lay yellow flowers on the “Monument to the Victory of the Anti-Japanese War and the Restoration of Taiwan” plaque opposite the hall. Several speeches were made conveying the disturbing message that the “real enemy” was the DPP, not the CCP. A Buddhist monk spoke, as well as various KMT officials. I walked around the edges of the crowd, taking a few photos but not daring to get too close as entirely too many of the old people were maskless and sitting clumped together under the tents. A few of them gave me some strange looks but mostly I was left alone as they probably assumed I was just some random tourist. It all felt a little sad and desperate, the last gasps of a disappearing world. But it would be dangerous to discount this demographic; although they are diminishing in numbers, especially due to covid, they still wield substantial financial and political power.

“Are you a photographer?” an unmasked Asian American man who looked to be in his 40’s asked me. As always, I didn’t know how to answer that question, but he wasn’t concerned with my lack of a definitive answer. He was, he said, a YouTuber, and a quite well known one at that, focusing on political analysis of both the U.S. and Taiwan. I didn’t contribute much to the conversation, mostly listening and nodding at his rather, uh…unconventional views. He stressed, with no prompting, that he wasn’t a fan of Trump, though I hadn’t asked or even mentioned Trump. That always strikes me as odd. But when he was talking about the “mystery” of Republicans gaining ground in Florida, I couldn’t help but ask if perhaps DeSantis’ agenda had been having an effect. “Who?” he asked, puzzled.

“Ron DeSantis?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“The governor of Florida,”

“Oh, I don’t know who any of those people are,” he said, dismissing such knowledge as unimportant. The real issue, he said, was the DPP stuffing ballot boxes. I asked if he had participated in the voting process here, but again, no, he wasn’t a citizen; his source was…and you might want to sit down for this…a mysterious friend with connections to U.S. intelligence. I only hope I haven’t said too much.

The sun had come out again at this point, and Chenbl said he was on his way, so I caught the subway up to Jiantan. While Chenbl got his hair cut, I walked over to the river and spotted a nice puddle that would surely, I judged from the top of the flood wall, reflect the sunset and skyline. As I approached, another man approached from the opposite direction, a large DSLR around his neck. Surely he will see that reflection, I thought, so I adjusted my path to let him approach it first, but he didn’t. When I crouched down to get my shot, however, I heard the clack of his shutter and looked up to see him photographing me. So if you see a photograph of me crouching by a puddle, 1) this is probably what I was doing, and 2) this is not a rare thing for me. My fellow BME member Don Hudson always points this out, and I am not ashamed of my inability to resist the attraction of a reflective surface. I’ve been doing this shit since the Mirror Project of yore and even before, and I don’t plan on stopping.

posted by Poagao at 12:08 pm  
Next Page »