Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 22 2021

20 years

Twenty years ago today, after riding my motorcycle back from my job at an advertising company, I sat down in front of my big-ass CRT monitor in my shared apartment on Hsinsheng South Road and began writing this account.

A lot has happened over the past two decades, and hopefully at least some people have enjoyed the ride. Not many people still blog these days, but I still feel the urge to write in here now and then. We’ll see what happens.

posted by Poagao at 11:55 am  
Apr 21 2021

The dangerous idea of danger

A quick scan of street photography workshops online these days will inevitably reveal a bizarre emphasis on fear: “Conquer your fear!” they cry. “Overcome your fear!” or “Get over your fear (in five easy steps!)”

It would seem to be one of the basic tenets of street photography instruction, yet I feel that there is a potentially harmful misconception in many street photography circles that the practice somehow requires photographers to be “brave” and “bold”, implying that one is performing some feat of great intrepidity, engaging in a competitive challenge full of strutting machismo rather than the contemplative exercise I’ve found it to be, where bravery of the intellectual and emotional varieties are much more useful in challenging one’s own preconceptions as well as those of others. The Internet coaches, rather, tend to describe SP in hunting-related terms, making getting the “shot” or “capture” the paramount goal, and videos of famous photographers engaging in aggressive behavior have been both held up as examples to emulate as well as “prove” to others that street photography itself is a questionable pursuit, even at times encouraging violent physical reprisals.

“Oh, I could never be that brave!” is something I’m often told, sometimes in a disapproving tone, when people find out that I engage in candid photography. But truth be told, I am not at all brave; in fact, I’m quite shy. I’m uncomfortable in large groups, and the thought of too much social engagement often overwhelms me; I never know quite what to say in such situations, and I usually end up on the edges of things, listening and watching. The things I am most confident in saying, I tend to say with my camera, because it is more faithful to my thoughts and observations than I can ever hope to be in other forms of interaction.

Robert Capa’s oft-quoted words, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” might have had something to do with this, and adherents of Capa might want to delve a little deeper into the notorious photojournalist’s history before applying his words to their physical street photography practice. Closer to the present, the focus on machismo perpetuated especially by the IT-driven influx of people attracted to the practice of street photography from the mid-2000’s on also had an annoying tendency to remove empathy from the process, turning our focus away from the nature of what we want to say and placing it squarely on the superficiality of how we can dominate others. When I look at work, however, I don’t generally judge it in terms of how brave the photographer might have been in taking the shot, but rather the depth of their perception.

This isn’t to imply that all of street photography has been infected with this point of view; there are still many out there continuing to work from a genuine sense of visual and emotional curiosity. Indeed, it does seem that many if not most of the most perceptive photographers have been introverted individuals who give themselves the space, both mentally and socially, to perceive things that others don’t, resulting in more interesting photography. Framing one’s goals in terms of confidence in one’s perceptive abilities and a healthy respect for one’s subjects seems more likely to take one farther than sheer derring-do, which emphasizes the photographer’s sense of entitlement at the expense of their subjects, throwing the results of the interaction further from our realm of consideration.

This also doesn’t mean that bravado is simply bad, rather a suggestion that it might not be as vital a parameter as we’ve been lead to believe. Courage may indeed be useful, but the best work in my opinion is not about the bravery; it’s about the honesty. Bravery is certainly necessary in the realm of photojournalism, and the conflation of that type of photography with street photography is no doubt at least partially to blame for this approach, but I maintain that, at their best, both genres come down to empathy, introspection and respect more than physical courage.

Everyone is different; some people feed off the energy such anxiety provides, but in general one’s approach will show in one’s results, and outside of the Gildens and Cohens of the world (both of whom could be said to be shy by nature, which I believe has resulted in compelling, introspective work that is overshadowed by the superficial perception of their practices), a large portion of the street photography that is taken under the misconception that “the bolder the photographer the better the shot” is actually rather tedious to look at thanks to a lack of real connection or observation, sometimes even embarrassingly so. Conversely, the imperative that one must be recklessly bold to create compelling work might also have resulted in a contrarian sector of street photography practiced by photographers who have simply gone the other way, eschewing human interaction almost entirely and relying solely on geometric shadows and colors in lieu of the direct portrayal of humans.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps, instead of these attempts to assuage some feeling of guilt that people assume is inherent to the practice of street photography, we should ponder just why that tired trope is given such prominence. What engenders this feeling of fear, and what effect does it have on our work? Why do we fear to express ourselves? Why do we see our own gaze as potentially offensive to others? Are we compensating for a reluctance to examine our own issues?

In my view, it is one of many indicators that attention has been commodified and thus weaponized by certain sectors, starting with the media taking an ever-greater share of our limited notice with its 24/7 presence, followed by social media, which has worked to capitalize and assign a power structure to the nature of our attention. Thus, only certain kinds of attention, e.g. fame and “likes” and “follows” are seen as positive and worthy of pursuit. They hold power and authority in today’s attention market. As a result, other kinds of attention have become vilified and shunned according to this scale. Among these is being noticed in public when one hasn’t specifically asked to be (and sometimes even if one has, but it’s the “wrong” kind of attention). If social media fame and praiseworthy attention hold power, it creates a structure wherein the act of gaining this attention must, in many people’s minds, come at the expense of others. Thus the “hunting” analogy has come into the common street photography lexicon as far as most people were concerned, along with not only an influx of street photographers seeking such a pursuit in such a mindset, but also a flood of thus-inspired photos vying for fame on Instagram, which also increased the pressure to post multiple times a day, regardless of quality, lest users’ “brand awareness” takes a hit. The irony, of course, is that such servitude to social media popularity is the antithesis of bravery.

Be that as it may, distancing ourselves from the entire paradigm might be more effective. Perhaps if people new to street photography were steered away from the redirection of their sense of intimidation, examining rather than avoiding the vicious cycle of questionable behavior and guilt suppression, they could concentrate instead on the nature of their perception. Photographers might be better served by exploring their own motivations, what they have to say and how, rather than investing themselves so fully in the assumption that they are somehow doing something so wrong that they need to summon a certain amount of physical courage to effectively pursue it.

Introspection, however, isn’t exactly a path for the meek. It is much easier to talk about “overcoming your fear” than addressing why the fear is there in the first place. It could be that the bravery we actually need to express ourselves fully through photography or any other medium is emotional rather than physical in nature, and can only be found in the courage to be honest with ourselves. I think Oliviero Toscani, one of the founders of Colors magazine, described this quite aptly in an interview when answering a question about modern photographers’ motivations: “…no one teaches them not to be frightened of being frightened. If you do something without being frightened, it’ll never be interesting or good. Everyone wants to be sure of what they’re doing. Any really interesting idea simply can’t be safe.”

posted by Poagao at 10:34 am  
Apr 14 2021

Revival song

Spring is usually difficult as the temperatures fluctuate so wildly…usually the weather varies between sun and rain, but this year we’re getting precious little rain. Regardless, it tends to put me in a foul mood.

I was all ready to just go back to the Water Curtain Cave and just fall into bed after work today, but one of my students has an exhibition in the space above NOW Coffee on Yanping South Road, so I headed that way to take a look, stopping at my favorite lunch place sandwiched in between two historic buildings near the North Gate.

As I was looking at the exhibition, a raucous chorus of horns and firecrackers announced the approach of a temple procession. I went downstairs to watch it pass, and as they’d neglected to stop traffic on the street, the procession was stop and go. So I decided to hang out. Some scantily clad women danced on top of various vehicles, surrounded by men with cameras, and people in god costumes and people bearing palanquins and banners strode around, stopping at each stoplight.

“Come on, give it a shot!” one of the temple horn players said, thrusting one of the instruments at me. I took it and gave a few blasts, which they seemed to enjoy. I drew the line at the offer to try out one of the god costumes, though. My mood was much improved.

Chenbl called, saying he wanted to meet after he got off work to give me some tea we’d decided to try, which meant spending all afternoon in town.

I decided to more or less follow the temple procession, drifting off when something else caught my interest. I spent a half hour amid the unbelievable Donki Store crowds looking at cheap Japanese produce, then followed the temple procession noise to the Tianhou Temple, and then deeper into Ximending. Luckily I had ear plugs because the firecrackers were quite loud, not to mention the brass band and drums.

The procession made a large loop of the area, ending up at a temple on Luoyang Street. I went back over to the exhibition to sign the guest book and found my student there with some other photographers. But I couldn’t stay long; I had to meet Chenbl at Houshanpi Station for noodles and to get the tea.

After dinner, on the 270 bus back to Ximen to catch the train, I listened to Blues in C Sharp Minor by Teddy Wilson, a perfect song for old Taipei at night.

posted by Poagao at 8:56 pm  
Apr 08 2021

Clubhouse talks

I’ve been using the (for now) Apple-device only application called Clubhouse recently, mainly for photography-related talks, but also sessions on other topics as well. It’s part podcast, part radio show, part voice chat, and the moderation system allows it to flow relatively seamlessly without most of the usual trolling that occurs in places like Facebook and Twitter. Though such talks I’ve been able to listen to some fascinating views and discover some very interesting work from people whom I’ve never heard of before. Celebrities from several fields have been involved in conversations, allowing access to verbal interactions with them that has hitherto been unthinkable.

So I’ve found it both useful, educational and entertaining. But is it the game-changer people are making it out to be? Some have claimed that direct voice communication creates greater empathy and is more able to actually change people’s minds. Earlier this morning I was listening to a Clubhouse session headed by podcasting luminaries Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ira Glass; the topic was stories about people changing their minds based on a specific CH conversation, and I could actually hear them wincing as person after person was brought up on stage specifically to share such stories, when nearly none of them actually had such a story, or indeed any story at all. As we know, Ira’s podcast work centers around stories, and he seemed particularly exasperated at the apparent and continued lack of stories despite constant and clear instruction that this was meant to be a conversation about such stories. This isn’t to say that the people themselves were not interesting or didn’t have anything to say, of course. But in general they were more interested in what they had to say than addressing the topic.

It was an interesting experiment, but though I had been quite interested to hear such stories as well, they clearly were not coming, so Ira fairly quickly suggested that they were done. Perhaps if they had waited longer, or if they had promoted it even more strongly things would have been different, but it’s disappointing that, even when two of the most renowned and brilliant podcasters in the world put out a call for stories about people having their minds changed by CH sessions, virtually nobody could bring up concrete examples.

What does this say about the nature of Clubhouse conversations? The difference is supposed to be that personal voices elicit closer connections than such conversations can have on text-based social media such as Facebook and Twitter, et al.

But people insist on being people, no matter the medium. I’ve attended several conversations that were supposed to be about street photography, but where the conversations were nearly always centered around non-SP matters such as portraiture, wedding photography, models, clients, etc. I’ve tried to take part in conversations that couldn’t proceed because the moderators of the room didn’t respect ideas different from their own. To be fair, I’ve also been surprised at how welcoming other rooms centered on things like photojournalism have been towards the practice and theories of SP. But if I’m being shouted down in a conversation or if I feel nothing interesting is being said, I will simply hit the Leave quietly button and probably not be inclined to join that particular club’s rooms going forward.

So there is a limit to how effective these conversations can be in terms of influence, especially when rooms are not welcoming of reasonable views that might differ from those moderating the space. Personally, I’ve found that even with VR apps such as Altspace, which has been the most effective media in that respect, only so much can be conveyed. And the cynic in me can’t help but note that Clubhouse has made monetization a greater priority than making it cross-platform, which shows me where their priorities lie. My hope is that it turns out to be more than just be another path to hell, just with witty banter along the way.

Clubhouse and its inevitable ilk definitely have a future, especially once they bring Android users into the fold. What kind of future I can‘t say, but the risk is that once user numbers reach critical mass, the conversations will Balkanize even further into mere echo chambers, and at best we‘ll be right back where we started. No matter what form our communication takes, it seems that with sufficient numbers the specter of tribalism that has governed human interaction for so many millennia inevitably works to direct our conversation, sometimes for the better, but too often, if we let it, for the worse.

posted by Poagao at 12:10 pm  
Mar 15 2021

Feeling a way

Been in and out of various moods lately. Who hasn’t? It’s 2021, the world has changed, is still changing. Nobody knows where things will end up. Reassessing priorities has been the name of the game.

We here in Taiwan, of course, have been fortunate to be living under responsible governance, which makes for conflicting emotions when we see the vaccines we don’t have access to being so widely spread in countries where people felt free to ignore competent advice. They need it more, obviously. But remember, please, why they need it more.

Last weekend revolved around a St. Patrick’s Day gig at Bobwundaye. I don’t particularly care about St. Patrick’s Day, but we hadn’t played at Bob’s in a minute, so it was a long-overdue show. Cristina is getting ready to have Baby Paradise, so it was her last show before the big event. I saw some familiar faces, which was nice and got me back into a more social mood than I’ve been in lately. The show went well, and I shared a late-night/early morning taxi with Slim back to Xindian afterwards.

Sunday was spent recovering. In the morning I chatted with some folks in VR, meeting a fellow from Maitland, Florida, where I grew up, reminiscing about various landmarks. Later I walked down to the area just downstream from the Bitan traffic bridge, where they’re revamping the catchment infrastructure to allow fish to traverse it. I talked with some of people fishing in the river there for a bit before returning to the Water Curtain Cave for a dinner of questionable pasta leftover from my pandemic-induced shopping spree last year. Verdict: Ew.

I’ve been getting on Clubhouse chats lately…it’s a kind of mixture of talk radio, podcasts and chatrooms, with moderated talks where listeners can participate. It’s Apple-product only so far, which has added to its aura of exclusivity for some reason. Rammy, ABC and I founded a Street Photography club on there, and have had a few interesting sessions so far. Quite a few other SP clubs have cropped up, some of which do discussions almost on the daily, but we’ve elected for a quality-over-quantity approach. Still, who knows how this thing will develop.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve also been working, slowly, on a photography book. My floor and walls remain covered in prints, but the work is now largely a matter of presentation. Of course it changes every time I get new advice, but slowly it seems to be taking form. It’s difficult as I am so close to the subject matter and the photos, and objectivity is hard to find sometimes. Also time is more of an issue these days as the semester has started up again. Again with the violin, although I feel I’m stuck at my current level, most likely as I am loathe to practice.

Been feeling stuck in many areas recently. Last week after work I took train out to Keelung to walk around and say good-bye to the old pedestrian overpass by the harbor. Usually walking around with no particular agenda helps me get out of my head and reconnect with the world around me, but it was rough going for some reason. I walked over to where the Taima Ferry docks, and while I was walking away the ship entered the harbor and docked. It was something I would have liked to see, but I missed it. Then, after I walked back over to see the ship and was walking away again, it departed…another thing I would have liked to see and missed. It felt like a metaphor for life lately. I keep missing things. Perhaps it’s time for a reset.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:05 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  
Oct 07 2020

A strange trip

It was a strange trip, this last one in Taitung. I’ve been feeling disconnected lately, and was hoping some time away from the Big Smoke (as nobody calls Taipei) would hook me up again.

Of course it was good to get on a train, especially one headed south through tunnels towards the cliffs of the east coast. The Pacific had just come into view when I learned that Trump had been infected with COVID19. The rest of the trip was spent talking with Slim and looking out the window at the ocean, wondering where we’re all headed.

In Taitung, we took cabs over to the Tiehua Village, dogs roaming around, familiar faces among the staff. The others disappeared; I consumed some fried chicken in the upper window of a nearby KFC as the sun set and the lanterns came out.

The gig was fine. We signed a bunch of CDs. It was a nice crowd, and it’s always nice to have trees growing through the stage. I saw my friend Josh there, along with his girlfriend. He was making a tour of the east coast, and was heading to Orchid Island afterward. The staff were the consummate professionals. A chalk drawing of one of our albums graced a metal plate thick enough to stop a bullet.

Then it was over, and everyone left, everyone else in Thumper’s minivan, while David and I called a white plate “taxi”. The driver, of the Paiwan tribe, felt that the monstrosity on the beach should at least open and give local people jobs. I guess that makes sense. Better than simply falling into more ruins, which helps no one.

We arrived in Dulan and put our things at the hostel, aka the fish and chips place. The local 7-Eleven was our meeting place, and the Mayor of Dulan, a fat orange-and-white cat the locals call “Little Tumor” presided over the proceedings.

I messaged my old classmate DJ, who is a person of interest in that community, on Saturday. Our soundcheck at the performance space up the coast happened at noon, and we spent the whole day there before playing that night, following some of the indigenous greats such as Kimbo. DJ was getting a tattoo on the floor of the culture space, the artist wielding a small hammer. The show went fine. People danced. The locals and the foreigners all seemed okay with what we were doing. The moon stayed away, however, though Mars made a brief appearance through the clouds. I had brownies with caramel sauce, wrapped in leaves.

A bright Sunday morning brunch at Roen Misak with DJ after meeting him at the house of well-known indigenous singer Suming. He is staying there at the moment, and was on the phone talking about academics with, I presume, another academic when I climbed over the board at the door. Suming’s father sat in a tiny chair in the lovely old kitchen adjacent to the entrance space.

I always go to Roen Misak when I’m in Dulan, so the owner knew me. “You’re back! It’s been a while!” she said. Of course she knows DJ and chatted with him in Amis. I showed DJ one of my photobook dummies, and he got quite a chuckle from it, though that was not my intention. Still, I’ve known him long enough to realize that he is amused by the absurdities of observed dissonance, so I feel like I did get something across. More will be forthcoming.

After brunch (delicious seaweed sandwiches, ice coffee, and waffles with locally sourced mulberry sauce), we walked over to a shop DJ describes as his Amis classroom, introducing to the older woman who runs the store and her son Ah-hsiung, who was watching TV, and a couple of other older women. We drank some beer followed by some coconuts that Ah-hsiung chopped open for us. As we were talking various people would stop by, asking for this or that.

One of DJ’s friends was taking him up to the performance space to see the show that night, but he was leaving right away, and I’d wanted to have some fish and chips with the band before heading over. I should have taken the offer, for the band had disappeared. Instead I wandered around the town, up to the junior high school campus to look at the afternoon sunlight reflected on the trees lining the track. The dimpled mirror by the school that I’d enjoyed making selfies on had been replaced, alas.

It was late by the time the band reemerged, and we called Ah-hsiung to take us up the coast for the show on the final night of the music event. DJ was nowhere to be found, but I had another brownie and walked around the wide grass field and took pictures of the moon, which had deigned to grace us with its autumnal presence. Everyone had their phones out, the field dotted with artificial stars.

Monday dawned, and we were still in Dulan. The reason for this was that David was unable to purchase tickets back to Taipei until that night, so I missed work as well as a violin lesson. I was not upset about this. David and Conor had gone surfing. Thumper was river tracing. Cristina and Zach were camped out above the wind-thrown sandstorm that was the beach. I walked around town and over to the “water running uphill” attraction, which did pretty much what it says on the tin. Then down towards the beach, past the eerie former cemetery with its broken, empty tombs, looking for all the world as if it was ground zero for a zombie apocalypse, and the RV park, which is just as creepy but in a different way. As if all the zombies had one day just decided to change our their cramped concrete coffins for the more spacious RVs. The ocean was whipped up by the wind as I sat on the blanket with Cristina and played the Shostakovich duets Chenbl and I have been practicing recently.

The day had started out sunny and warm, but became cool and overcast as I returned to the hostel. I’d wanted to eat, and ducked into a coffee shop the hostel owners had recommended to ask about food, earning a look of dark annoyance by a white woman reading a book inside. I settled for some 7-eleven snacks, and while I was there I purchased a bright pink brush for the Mayor; she greatly appreciated the gift, as she apparently hadn’t been properly brushed in a long time.

A shower and a change into warmer clothes later, I returned to the 7 to wait for Ah-hsiung to come take us back to Taitung (Thumper was still river tracing and would drive back himself later). Ah-hsiung had already taken DJ to the station early that morning as DJ needs to work on maintaining his visa until his project is complete, and this apparently necessitates a great deal of red tape concerning several different government bodies.

Ah-hsiung arrived with another ride, and I patted the mayor on her head before getting in the car. Dulan is a strange place; I’ve always felt it was different, but this trip had a darker tone than prior ones. Part of this is no doubt due to the passing of our good friend Brian Kennedy, with whom we will always associate that place and time. The weather and my feeling of disconnection also contributed to my discombobulation, but there was something else, a readjustment that has been going on for some time, with the world, with me, with everything, that can only be perceived in relation to the ocean itself.

We stopped for pizza on the way at Pete’s Pizza, across from a bread shop and a blue school designed in a faux Arabic style. Pete himself serenaded us with music and regaled us with stories as we munched on the pies we’d ordered, but I wasn’t into it. To be honest, I hadn’t been hearing much of what the foreign residents had been saying during my time there (with the exception of DJ, who is neither foreign nor local but in his own space as usual). But the shop isn’t far from the coast; I could feel the ocean lurking on the other side of the buildings. It wasn’t saying anything, it just was.

I didn’t talk much on the train as it made its way up the night coast, though the tunnels along the steep cliffs above the dark sea, flashing past villages and through empty stations. I’d had enough, I think. In any case, it’s Double Ten in the Capital, with all the electronic light shows that implies.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Sep 07 2020

A gig in Hsinchu

This last Saturday we went down to Hsinchu for a gig. Our van driver was the ever-reliable Mr. Gao, with his hair arranged in a Japanese-style topknot, and traffic was mostly smooth. Cristina had pulled a muscle in her back and was on pain medication. The weather was fine, Hsinchu’s famous breeze kept things cool…fall came with the arrival of September this year, quite punctually. The air has lost its core heat, and suddenly breezes have an actual cooling effect. Being outside without instantly breaking into a sweat feels quite novel. Chenbl predicts that this means the winter will be especially cold. I don’t think anyone is looking forward to Winter 2020 and the threat of recurring virus waves; all we can do is keep our guard up and trust those in charge know what they’re doing. Which is more than a lot of countries seem able to do, unfortunately.

We arrived at Hsinchu Park on time and did our soundcheck, but they hadn’t arranged lunch, so I went across the street to get ice coffee and a cinnamon bun. Just after I’d ordered, David called and said the organizers had moved things up and we had to go back early.

Alas, I was not back early. Which turned out to be fine as we started on time anyway, but it did become a kind of theme for the day. We did a thing where we played while walking up to the stage, bringing back memories of marching band, and then we had three hours to kill before the main show.

The park was becoming crowded, with too few people wearing masks for my comfort, so I went for a walk around town, first over to the railroad tracks, taking photos of scooters and shadows in the underpass, then over to the train station, where the light on the platforms was exquisite. It was too bad that I couldn’t get on them. I mulled using my Easycard to get on the platforms and then just leaving, but I decided against it and kept walking, taking the tunnel under the tracks and back towards the park, passing the corpses of ancient trees by the rear entrance.

I skirted the park again, heading through nearby neighborhoods, happy to be just out and walking on my own for a bit, when I stumbled across a raised canal running through the apartment complexes. It must have been used for irrigation at one point, but now it was a pleasant little river, with hardly any odor. A man was taking pictures of an orange-and-white street cat while a few feet away a rather large pig snuffled through the hedges. I followed the canal towards a pleasant park filled with artificial wetland bogs, elderly people sitting around with caretakers, a dog and another street cat that had appropriated one of the benches. The canal continued into the back of Chiao Tung University’s Boai campus, but I couldn’t follow it much further as I had to get back. I passed through some older one-story house communities and brand-new buildings with wraparound balconies that would surely be closed off. Developers here seem to think Taiwanese people will love balconies and use them for enjoyment, but hardly anyone ever does. People like the idea of balconies, in that they see themselves as the type of people who would enjoy a balcony if they just had one, but that’s not the way it works out in practice. They most often end up enclosed and/or full of boxes and other detritus.

Showtime had been moved up, of course, so it’s good that I got back to the park early. The show went well, or at least I assume it did as the lights were so bright I couldn’t really see the audience. The Thai chicken boxed meals were delicious and the drive back smooth, but it had been a long day; when Mr. Gao dropped us off at Xindian Station nobody thought of hanging out by the river as we often do.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:41 am  
Jul 20 2020

A weekend jaunt

Went travelling for the first time in a while over the weekend. Chenbl and I met up on Saturday morning and caught a bullet train south to Kaohsiung, complete with window seats and breakfast on the train. Drinking ice coffee and looking out the window at the scenery flashing past at 200mph …just the act of getting on a fast train to the south felt wonderful, and I haven’t seen that lovely port city in a minute.

After arriving we descended into the dark, humid depths of the Kaohsiung metro, which doesn’t seem interested in providing air conditioning or light in as generous capacities as its Taipei counterpart, and headed over to Yanchengpu, where our friend Lee Ah-ming was having his exhibition opening. The weather was brilliant, the sun white-hot but with a breeze unfamiliar to those who dwell in the windless Taipei basin, where the streets radiate heat. Kaohsiung is cool enough if you stay out of the sun, and the sparsely populated streets made me think most were avoiding going out during the hottest part of the day.

The exhibition was interesting, good work on the subject of Taiwan’s beleaguered migrant fish workers, and it’s always fun talking with “the other Ah-ming” as well as my painter friend Cheng Kai-hsiang, who was also there. But I never do well in spaces filled with people on the periphery of art-related activities, so I tend to shut up, lurk and listen.

Afterwards we all walked over, across the Love River, which stinks much less these days (and in fact hasn’t for a long time, but the occasional whiff makes me think some of the tributaries still need some work), to a three-story restaurant, also with no air conditioning. Dinner was good, just sweaty, so we had to order some shaved ice afterwards at the lobby of one of the other hotels where some of our students were staying.

And then to our hotel, the Fullon in Yanchengpu; Chenbl had scored some kind of discount, possibly to entice people to travel during these Covidian times, and we had a large, nice room overlooking the harbor in the distance. Oh the joy of a strong hotel shower and fresh hotel bed sheets! It’s been too long, and I enjoyed it, as well as the generous hotel breakfast the next morning. The place has a pool, but we’d neglected to bring swimsuits, and at any rate it was full of kids.

We walked around the area, taking the light rail to Xizhiwan and then down to the docks. The place where I took a photo of a kid playing on a giraffe statue has changed completely and now features a carousel and small merry-go-round.

Then we took the still stifling subway out to a mall, where we waited some time for taxis out to Qijin, where we were meeting Ah-ming for a delicious lunch featuring sashimi fresh off the boat. Then he showed us around the docks for a while, exploring the nooks and crannies of the area, talking with Ah-ming about the publishing industry and his next book, all the while as a line of storm clouds crept up on the horizon. We timed it just right, arriving back at the High Speed Rail station just as the rain began. A doze-filled hour and a half later we were back at Taipei station having dinner upstairs.

It was so good to get away for a bit, I’ve missed it.

posted by Poagao at 11:46 am  
Jun 05 2020

An afternoon

I didn’t get off work until after 1 p.m. today. I took the subway to TaiPower Building and had a quick but delicious lunch at Sababa, where they know what I want before I order as I always order the same thing there. Then it was off to check out a Black Lives Matter Taiwan event held near the NTU dorms. There, in between the large buildings, was a small group of young people, mostly white, several holding small cardboard signs. A Black woman and an Asian woman were leading the group in singing “We Shall Overcome” followed by “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. People stared at their phones, searching for the lyrics. The leaders spoke and took questions, we knelt for five minutes in silence for George Floyd, and some slogans were shouted before they took a group photo and disbanded. I’d gotten there late and apparently missed the start. Most people left, but some broke up into little groups to talk. My friend Casey says there are more activities planned, but he was busy today and wasn’t able to make it. I felt awkward and apart, as I usually do in groups of foreigners, standing off to the side and listening.

After that I walked over to the NTU gates and up through the campus, wishing I could take a dip in the campus swimming pool due to the heat, and then over to the neighborhood where I used to live in the early 90’s after I graduated from college. There, at the old abandoned Military Police station, I saw two women on a scooter looking at one of the basement windows. Inside was a mewing grey-striped kitten with a smudged nose and grey eyes, one of them half open; they were trying to get it to come out through the grate. They had put some nuts on the ledge to entice it, but it wasn’t having it. “They sell tuna in cans at the 7-Eleven over there,” I said, pointing across the intersection. So they went off to buy tuna while I sat with the kitten on the side of the derelict building. So I told it a story:

“You know, little cat,” I said. “I was once in a bit of a fix myself here, long before you were born. It was 1991 or so, and I’d just lost my first job. I had no money and had never lost a job before. I didn’t know what to do. So I walked over to this spot, which was then a fully operational Military Police installations, in the middle of the night. It must have been 3 or 4 in the morning, and there was a single guard on duty outside. He couldn’t have been much older than I was.” The kitten meowed, so I continued.

“I told him I was feeling down, that things weren’t going so great. Here I’d thought things were going pretty well, even though I was struggling to work on a native-level position with less-than-native-level Chinese and even worse Taiwanese. But I’d failed, it was my first big failure, and a disaster in my mind. I would find another job, but I didn’t know that then. But just being able to talk about it with someone was an enormous relief, you know?”

The kitten didn’t say anything.

“So now I see you here in a jam, all alone up here on that ledge. It could be that your family isn’t around any more, and you’re on your own. Maybe you need someone to talk to as well? Oh, I know you need more than that, but it’s all I got for now. I hope you can have a good life, but it’s likely that if you get through this there will be even greater challenges in the future waiting for you. People will try to help you, but you have to accept their help, so please take a few steps and have something to eat, ok?”

The kitten turned around and meowed. I blinked slowly at it, and it slow-blinked back. It seemed drowsy. Maybe it was exhausted. The women on the scooter came back with the tuna, and they placed some on the ledge, but the kitten didn’t move. A young woman walked by and suggested that we were scaring the kitten. “Well, we tried!” the women on the scooter said, and took off. I sat down with the little furball for a while, but it wouldn’t come near the grate, so I pushed the tuna as far as I could towards it. “Good luck, little cat, I wish you well,” I said.

I checked out my old residence nearby, a tiny room I’d rented for NT$3,500 a month, recalling the haphazardly put-together Wolf 125cc motorcycle I’d been riding at the time (the one on which I’d scared my friend and roommate Boogie into never riding another motorcycle again). Walking alongside the school where the old shanty town used to be, an older man hailed me in English. After I responded in Chinese and we’d exchanged a few sentences, he suddenly realized he had someplace else to be.

I walked up to Heping East Road, where I was passing a cafe when a young man stood up and called me over; it seemed he’d seen a recent interview I’d done, and we sat down to chat on the sidewalk for a bit. It was very pleasant. He wore a white Tiananmen baseball cap and seemed well-travelled. But I couldn’t stay long, as I was meeting Chenbl and his parents at the Surviving Eslite near City Hall. Chenbl’d spotted a good deal on some Bluetooth headphones, and as my phone’s port has been annoying me, I needed some.

Later, on my way back across the bridge to the Water Curtain Cave, I spotted the misty full moon, and wondered how people were doing. It pains me to see what’s going on in the U.S. these days. It’s pained me for a long time, the needless slaughter and indifference. I speak up when I can, but it’s hard to cut through the noise. We can’t stop trying, though.

posted by Poagao at 10:39 pm  
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