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  
Nov 13 2023

Temple visit

After a nice long sleep (a rarer thing than it should be), I awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of drums and traditional instruments coming from outside my window. For a while I deliberated whether I should go out and investigate or just continue to lie in bed. Taiqi practice was cancelled due to rain, and I’d grown bored with the VR comedy stuff.

So, investigate it was. I grabbed my bag, cameras and umbrella and went downstairs to see a procession of young women wearing flowery regalia underneath transparent rain gear striding down the hill in front of my building. I circled down past a trio of straw-hatted men struggling to move ancient rusty tricycles bearing temple banners, past some curious tourists by the bridge, cameras aimed and ready, and then back up the hill to the temple, which I guessed would be the center of the activities.

I got there just as groups of men in face paint and temple regalia were just finishing up rushing around the courtyard with palanquins carrying various gods. It was now time for lunch, and everyone retreated to the piles of bento boxes awaiting them. I was photographing a woman putting a raincoat on her child by the stage facing the temple when my attention was caught by another child running around the stage among the aforementioned men in face paint and regalia. Occasionally one of the men would give him a sip from a brown bottle of whatever they were drinking, Whisbih or something. “Come on up!” one of them called to me.

So I went up, and spent the next hour or so chatting with them as they relaxed, ate from bento boxes, and fixed each other’s regalia. They were all from Kaohsiung, at the other end of Taiwan, a long way to travel. I said I hadn’t known there was going to be an event today. “Oh, nobody knows,” a man with a single tooth told me. “We just show up. By the way, do you know what the main god worshipped here is?”

Usually at such religious events, I’ve found that the performers often don’t want their photos taken when they’re not completely made up and posing, i.e. no pictures of them eating, smoking, chewing betelnet (“The dentist said I shouldn’t stop, my teeth are only held in place by the betelnut by this point,” one told me as he chewed), etc. But nobody here expressed any such concerns. A couple of them had even apparently heard of me, though I have no idea how.

“You’re that famous photographer!” one of them said.

“You’ve heard of me?”

“No,” the man said and pointed at his friend. “But he has.”

“I’m not a professional or anything; I just enjoy it,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” said the friend.

Everyone seemed to good spirits, even though their grass sandals were soaked from the rain, their red-and-white regalia full of holes. “From all the firecrackers, I guess,” I said, and they were surprised that I knew that. One of them, a huge man who could have been a professional wrestler, wanted me to cuss in Taiwanese for him. “This might not the most suitable place for that kind of thing,” I said, gesturing at the temple, and he nodded at what was apparently the right answer.

“So you know what’s up…not bad.” The men had apparently brought their families with them on the trek, and some of the kids had joined in the procession. They told me boys as young as three could participate. Apparently the Whisbih-sipping kid wasn’t quite of age. I spent a very long time refusing one of the extra bentos (they also ordered KFC), but in the end I accepted it because they just weren’t backing down. And I was hungry.

The procession trucks started up, igniting a flurry of activity as everyone donned their crowns and headdresses and other bits of regalia they’d taken off to eat. A minute later they were off again. I had practice with the Ramblers later, but part of me would have liked to have followed them as they continued on their way after lunch, braving the gravel trucks and buses as they marched in the rain up Ankeng Road to the next temple.

posted by Poagao at 12:01 pm  
Oct 17 2023

Looking back, pushing forward

Last Saturday night, the Muddy Basin Ramblers played our last-ever show at Bobwundaye, which is closing its doors for good at the end of the month as the entire block is going to be torn down. The Ramblers have a long history at Bob’s, as we call it. In fact I first played with them, informally before officially joining the band, at the previous iteration of Bob’s about a block away. Three of my very early photos still hang on the walls among the murals and posters from shows over the decades. I Ubered into town with Cristina and Zach to find the place already filling up; I saw some familiar faces and chatted a bit before the soundcheck. The murals along the orange walls exuded melancholia; we all knew it would be the last time we played there. A small film crew consisting of two people was going around with a Sony camera and boom mic interviewing various people about how they felt.

The show itself, a retelling in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of our second album (and first Grammy nomination), Formosa Medicine Show, started slow but quickly gained momentum as the audience dug into the vibe. And after two sets on that tiny, crowded staged, everyone jostling each other to get to our various instruments between songs, the show concluded in several raucous encores and exultant applause. I spent the time in between sets sitting on the curb outside, away from all the chatting, drinking people, just staring at the lights of the evening traffic and enjoying the cooler weather. After the show I had a few conversations, some good and some downright bizarre, before catching a cab back to the Water Curtain Cave to sleep. Hard to believe it’s been nearly 20 years of doing this kind of thing.

Sunday morning I woke up to a flurry of discord messages asking if I was down to do the VR improv comedy show I’ve been involved in for the past few months. But no, I was not down; I wanted -no, needed- to go to the park to get some tai-chi practice in. Yes, dear readers, perhaps even those who remember my Monkey Learns to Push blog of yore, I am back at it after a long, mostly Covidian-inspired hiatus filled with intermittent indoor VR-game-driven aerobic exercise and the occasion jaunt up the hill out back. To be honest, aside from the health benefits of practicing tai-chi, I missed hanging out with the fellas in our group at the park. Though Teacher X has long retired from teaching, Little Qin, who studied along with Teacher X back in the day, is still instructing. As such, Little Qin is technically my 師叔, but his style is different from that of Teacher X. In any case, just showing up is an accomplishment for me, and going through the sword form and the empty handed form felt really, really good after all this time, even though I’ve forgotten most of them. Push-hands too, with the delivery guy and a newer student who didn’t know me. It was…ok, though I am really rusty and inflexible after so long away from it. I just need to keep it up. Alas, I am unable to continue my old tradition of going to Gongguan for delicious Lebanese pitas afterwards, as my beloved Sababa closed years ago.

Speaking of returning to things: I’m also teaching photography again, this time at Shihsin University, just for this semester as a guest lecturer, although I might be open to a more permanent arrangement in the future. In any case, teaching university students is…different, I have to say. Previously when teaching at the community college, pretty much everyone in the class wanted to be there (except possibly the sullen band of Influencers who showed up that one semester fishing for Likes and Follows), but, while many of these students, all of them seniors, seem inspired by photography and work to improve their skills, a few seem to be more interested in what they see as an easy credit before graduating. Still, the ones who are interested are quick learners, picking it up faster than most of the community college students did, and that’s just using mobile phone cameras. There will be an exhibition at the end of the semester at the end of the year, and some kind of related event. It will be interesting to see where all of this goes.

posted by Poagao at 11:42 am  
Sep 06 2023

Dusting off the ol’ YouTube page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
Aug 23 2023

Another old video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dog immediately chomped down on the rat.

I said, rather loudly, “Oh shit!”

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

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

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










Thirty years, man. Damn.

posted by Poagao at 12:10 pm  
Jul 28 2023

No Accident

“Look at this!” a friend of mine said the other day, shoving his phone at me. “I took it completely by accident!” 

It wasn’t a bad shot, a tilted, blurry image of some people on a sidewalk. But what had so impressed my friend was that it wasn’t what he usually took, i.e. shots of posed friends eating food, the food itself, sunsets, artsy posters, etc. My friend, in his mind, had just accomplished street photography. He had joined the club and was ready to don The Hat. I appreciated his confiding in me and loved to see him happy; friends are more important than photography after all. But it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the perception of street photography as basically just accidents. 

It’s an easy assumption to make; the very nature of street photography is based on observations of candid, unplanned (by the photographer) scenes. And most people tend to extend that description of the subject matter to the practice itself. Street photography, in their minds, can only happen by accident. Practitioners of other types of photography note the lack of control they usually wield in terms of setting up shots, lighting, models, poses, etc., and conclude that, minus that level of control, one is left completely at the mercy of the universe (although in my experience the universe can and does provide better than I can, so I’m good with that). It also explains the acclaim for photos of actual accidents, mishaps, juxtapositions, etc. within the genre. People posting photos in online critique threads often also add long explanations to their submissions, saying this or that happened “by accident” to stave off any accusations or criticism. It wasn’t their fault, you see, because, well, street, you know…it just happened. By the same token, “Luck” is often used to describe more successful shots, but it boils down to the same thing.

One of the results of this view is a general sense that there can’t be much actual skill or technique involved in the practice of street photography; one is just naturally lucky or not. It’s a comforting thought for many people; no one can be to blame for poor results. In my experience teaching street photography, I’ve found that instructing students who see photos but need help refining how to express what they see through compelling work is a completely different endeavor than advising students who simply don’t see photos and complain that “there’s just nothing happening!” I try to meet students where they are, but this is difficult territory to traverse because I can’t tell others what should strike them as photographable beyond, well, just about anything and everything, depending on what you notice and how you perceive it. They assume that such work “just happens” and all they have to do is be at the “right” spot with the “right” camera and boom: ART. Presented with collected works of street photographs that were accumulated, crafted and edited over the course of several years or decades, their takeaway is somehow that all of these scenes must be just waiting for them, in perfect order and wrapped up with a bow, during a single fast-paced stride down the block, Right Camera held out in front of them to capture that inevitable decisive moment. When it seldom happens, or when they miss it when it does, the walk was disappointing and a waste of time. They conclude that they’re just not lucky and either give up or simply take bad photos of unhoused people they deem “interesting characters.”

Not long ago I responded to a post by a well-known photography blogger concerning street photography, including tips and tricks and other advice, some of which I found rather questionable, e.g.: “Have a friend with you…if you’re a larger male, being in the company of a female works wonders. Women in particular seem to think: Well, she trusts him, so he’s probably all right.”

The thing is, said blogger is not a street photographer, his experience largely deriving from equipment reviews, and has never shown much particular aptitude in that respect. Though I refrained from singling him out, I couldn’t help but observe that, unlike other genres, street photography seems to tempt those who don’t really do it very well to tell others how to do it. I never see people telling others how to do, say, fashion photography without at least having done it themselves with some amount of success, but with Street I see it all the time. When said blogger didn’t publish my comment, I thought: Perhaps he is rethinking the matter.


His very next post had my comment pegged in bold at the top, though without a link as if he were protecting me from myself, while he exhorted his followers to just look at the ridiculousness he had to put up with. His answer to my effrontery? “Well, of course! If someone is naturally good at something and has never experienced problems, how would they know what the problems are?” He then posted about how failure was a good thing, and then had some kind of existential crisis before boasting about one of his images making Flickr’s Explore page, with repeatedly updated Like and View numbers for our enlightenment followed by a print sale of said photo for several hundred dollars. This man went on a journey. 

It would seem that even most photographers see street photography to be by its very nature accidental. Anyone can do it, and everyone seemingly does; I’ve seen “Street” listed in the bios of photographers who do everything from salon to product photography. In their minds, there are no problems to be experienced with street photography; it simply is, and the good shots “just happen.”

I’ve listened to people attending exhibits featuring classic street photography works by great artists such as Erwitt, Cartier-bresson, Maier, Parks, Frank, Levitt, Winogrand and Eggleston, and many if not most of the comments centered on the photographer’s “incredible luck” to have been where they were when they were, as if all of these scenes were just occurring all around them all the time. You can hear the frustration in the responses of Winogrand and Eggleston in interviews, resorting to mystic, haiku-like responses, clearly at a loss to describe to others how they perceive the world around them, how they convey their vision and interpretation of culture and society through photography when what people really want to know is how to be lucky.

The only thing one can do, according to the truly astounding amount of “instructional” street photography videos on Youtube by people who for the most part demonstrably don’t know what they’re doing, is increase one’s odds by traveling to as many “interesting” places as possible. Indeed, there is a group of people, mostly older/independently wealthy white people from Western nations who more or less constantly attend modern-day photo safaris held year-round all around the world, mostly in what they call “image-rich” third-world cultures, entering the resulting photos in the slew of online contests that charge for each entry and often “winning” them. And I can’t blame them; it sounds like an incredible life for those who have the means, probably better than sitting around one’s mansion pool snorting coke and yelling at one’s trust fund accountants or whatever else it is rich people do. And if one indeed has entirely too much money, one can attend several Magnum workshops, use the best equipment, and, most importantly, rub shoulders with the people who can get one’s work out there, books published, with gallery exhibitions and articles in the New York Times and The Guardian. There’s a reason virtually all of the internationally published street photography compilations have been compiled by a group of straight white cis British men that could fit comfortably in a single taxi.  

But say as it happens you don’t have access to a shit-ton of moolah, and have to work at a job every day just to make ends meet. You’re not “known” by anyone of consequence, which is a Catch-22: If you’re not known, there’s not much you can do to change that situation. It’s no accident that people such as Cartier-bresson and Eggleston came from wealthy families, or that Magnum members in the early days could ask their friends at lunch at Le Dôme: “Hold on, you’re a photographer, how’d you like to join Magnum?” while Maier’s fame came about only after her unfortunate and sad demise, after she had labored to make the work she did while holding down difficult jobs her entire life, and after her work was “discovered” by a random white dude bidding on the detritus of her life at a public auction. 

Wasn’t social media supposed to change all of that, to spread the opportunity a bit wider? It certainly has changed a great deal, but access remains a problem. The Instagram account “Photographers Photographed” typically features well-known photographers caught in the act of photographing. But if you yourself are not well-known, it doesn’t matter whom you caught photographing; the account’s owner only communicates with “known” photographers; your message will not be read. You might have caught a wonderful moment of ol’ Henri himself taking a rare photo with his Leica in 2003 on the streets of Paris, but if you’re not on the list, it might as well not exist.

So in a way, accidents and luck do play a huge role in success in the street photography world, just not the kind of accidents most people have in mind. One can work for decades improving one’s craft, vision, observational and photographic skills to create a compelling, emotive body of work. That part isn’t luck; it’s work, effort and practice. What is luck is belonging to a class, demographic and culture where one’s privilege, means and connections allow for a relatively easy path to success. I personally have had access to opportunities other photographers did not through no fault of their own. Women street photographers have only recently made significant strides in this respect, and while it is not only amazing that it took so long to make even that amount of progress, such longstanding prejudices remain not only pervasive but are largely ignored by those in power. Why do African street photographers struggle to find representation in an international street photography sphere of influence essentially run by a handful of white British dudes? That, I’m sorry to say, is no accident.

posted by Poagao at 8:09 pm  
Jul 26 2023

Army Days: The Video

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Poagao at 3:25 pm  
Jun 12 2023

Two Stages

So I performed on two very different stages this last weekend.

Hauling my instruments across the bridge in the wind and rain to Chez Paradise wasn’t pleasant, but we had to practice at least once before we headed down to Longtan to play a show in the large covered square in front of Longyuan Temple. Practice? you say incredulously. Yes, dear reader, although we usually wouldn’t need to go to such extremes, the Ramblers were down three players this game, as Cristina, Zach and Thumper were all off in distant lands, frolicking with familial folks and whatnot. We called upon the Auxiliary Rambler Forces, namely Sylvain and Hu Chun, who have come to our aid several times in the past, to fill in. But we needed to practice. I’d thought I was running late, but it turned out that I was the first to arrive (after David, who is house-sitting at Le Chez). Slim was under the weather and didn’t appear for another couple of hours, but he was looking sharp (if tired) when he did.

Our driver Mr. Gao, top-knot well-coifed as usual, met us in the alley; we packed into his van and headed down the jam-packed highway. Soundcheck was at 4:30, and we were met in front of the temple by Chenbl’s “Little Aunt” (his mother’s youngest sister), who is herself a famous street singer in Longtan. Her nickname is Xiao Long Nu (小龍女), known for her melodious singing voice. Everyone remarked at the family resemblance, not just in looks but in singing voice; Chenbl also loves to sing and is quite good as well…his aunt told us, “Chenbl was always singing Teresa Teng songs as a kid!” which is eminently believable. David, being the coffee aficionado that he is, had sniffed out the best coffee stand at the street market in front of the temple, so I joined him in sampling tasty some ice coffee, along with a cinnamon bun from a neighboring stall.

We went through soundcheck for all our instruments; I had clip-on mics for my trumpet and baritone, and the bass mic was booming nicely. We had to wrap up quickly as the gods, upon their palanquins and accompanied by lion dancers and various high-level officials, were returning, their imminent arrival heralded by the usual fury of fireworks. We had some time before the show, so I threw caution to the winds and left my umbrella in the temple green room, setting out for a stroll up the street and around the eponymous lake of Longtan where people were paying to take dragon boat rides across the water under the big white bridge.  I took a detour through a covered side market when it started raining again, by an old camera shop whose window contained the same camera that we had when I was growing up, an Argus Seventy-Five. It was the first camera I ever knew, and one which I was always walking around the house with, looking down through the glass viewfinder. When I got around to researching it, I found that it was actually not that great a camera, but I had fun with it before I got my own camera (a Pentax K1000) when I was 15.

Chenbl's aunt took this pic of us playing on the stage at Longyuan TempleOur show was supposed to start at 8:30, but the stage was full of Very Important Politicians/lion dancers, so we didn’t get on stage until a little later, and our show was cut so short I didn’t even play the baritone, and the trumpet for just one song (At least they didn’t cut our pay). Chenbl’s aunt sat in the front-row section reserved for Very Important People (“Everyone here knows me,” she said, and I believe her), making videos and taking selfies with us in the background, and the crowd seemed to really enjoy the music. And while we were still the Muddy Basin Ramblers, it was a rather different experience minus the missing members…softer, less raucous. Not worse, just different. Sylvain and Hu Chun played wonderfully, of course, but you can’t replace saxophone and violin with guitar and mandolin and expect the same sound.

Mr. Gao whisked us back to Xindian much more quickly after traffic had died down in the late evening, though it was still raining. I hauled my gear back to the Water Curtain Cave and went straight to bed. It had been quite a day.

Then I woke up on Sunday morning and wondered if the comedy show was going down.

Allow me to provide a little background: A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on one of the VR groups I belong to, inviting people to attend a VR recreation of the famous improv comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” called, imaginatively and no doubt for copyright reasons, “Whose Turn Is It Anyhow?” I’ve long been a fan of the show, so last Sunday morning I showed up at the space in Meta Horizon Worlds, and while talking with the organizers, was invited on stage to participate. I demurred at first, wanting to see exactly what they were doing, and although some of the younger participants had, uh, questionable taste in their choice of jokes, it was actually an interesting experiment. So when they asked me again if I wanted to go on stage, I said ok.

And I gotta say, it was a blast. They organized mostly the same games as the show, with four players on stage, and while there were some technical issues, it went pretty well. I had to really think about what I was going to say, but also react quickly. The organizers and the audience both seemed to like what I was doing and invited me back. I said we’ll see.

So, back to Sunday morning, just out of bed after a long day in Longtan, drinking coffee to revive and recover: I thought, I need to take it easy today, but…what the hell, let’s see what they’re doing. I went back to the space, inviting my friend Sean, who also grew up in Florida, and immediately felt a little foolish when we arrived as the place was empty. “I guess they’re not doing it?” I said, disappointed, thinking, but it had been such a good idea.

The Whose Turn Is It Anyhow stage on Meta Horizon WorldsThen a bunch of avatars popped in and waved to us. “You’re in the wrong instance! We’re at the new space!” Oh, ok. We ported to the new space, and it was full of people. I was curious to see if the first time had been a fluke, but no; I spent the next couple of hours on stage doing improv with the other three players, and again, it was SO much fun. We did the alphabet game, the bachelor game, and Questions Only, where I was a little too good, leaving my partner stranded on the sidelines for nearly the entire time (That was rude of me btw; I will try not to do that in the future). The organizers had wanted to do Props, but the mechanics were wonky so they held off on that one, which is a shame as that’s one of my favorite Whose Line games. One of the player’s native language wasn’t English, but despite being out of the loop regarding certain cultural references, she did a great job. The room stayed maxxed out (which isn’t saying a whole lot as the Meta Horizon rooms are only able to hold 30-something people), but someone was streaming it on Tik Tok, so there was that.  The jokes definitely got more than a little risqué, and I’m sure that the Meta staff were “observing” the space, but at no point did anyone get out of hand or disrespectful. Horizons is the best place for that kind of thing, due to the fact that the Meta avatars are better and more animated than avatars in other spaces (so far…we’ll see what happens when Apple really gets into the game; their first attempt at a headset, the Vision Pro is already amazing in so many ways, not least of all price). The way my mind works, I have been thinking of better versions of what I said on stage, which is a little concerning, but then again, probably better to be fixated on that than my usual array of anxieties.

People have told me they could never get on stage in front of people, and I get it. Slim, as animated as he usually is on the stage, is always muttering “Heebie jeebies!” before shows, even though we’ve been doing this kind of thing for literally decades. I don’t really get that nervous in either case, but it was interesting to compare the two experiences. I actually felt more exposed on the VR comedy stage than I did on the real life musical stage. Perhaps that is because I’m used to playing music on stage and more or less know what I’m doing, whereas I’d never actually done improv before this. There are also many common elements between the two, e.g. reacting to other players, coming up with new lines, responding to the audience, timing, volume, tone, etc. Both leave me feeling emotionally drained and high at the same time, weirdly.

Perhaps in the future, as more of our lives move towards online experiences, and virtual and actual worlds meld into each other with MR and AR development, the whole concept of “being on stage” will evolve into something entirely different than how we think of it now. Certainly with the disappearance of “mainstream” media as the defining factor in what and whom we chose to engage with, the way we move socially in any space is being redefined.

There is of course the potential for all of this to devolve into a massive dumpster fire, but then again it might actually bring people closer together. In any case, it should be interesting to see where all of this goes.



posted by Poagao at 3:42 pm  
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