Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

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  
Jan 17 2022

Keelung jaunt

As it looked like a nice day on Saturday, I met up with Chenbl at Songshan Station to hop on a train to Keelung to scout potential photography walks with students if next semester happens. Only this time we didn’t go all the way to Keelung, but got off one stop early, at Sankeng, a narrow station in the valley the train follows before it opens up into the city. The weather in Keelung was cloudy, but at least it wasn’t raining, as it often is there. We took the fenced-in walkway towards the city and found ourselves at a railway crossing bordered by two alleys, one creepily dark with shadowy figures moving around inside, and another, leading back towards the station. We took the latter and passed several small rooms, pink fluorescent light spilling out into the alley, each inhabited by an apparently young woman; it was a red light district, but nobody spoke to us or called out.

After some tasty egg-based snacks at a restaurant that claimed to have been opened in 1938, the same year both of our fathers were born, we walked across the tracks and up the hill, passing an abandoned Catholic church, mold growing on the cross on the metal gate. Inside I spotted the discarded box of a synthesizer among the detritus. I wonder how long it’s been abandoned, and what happened to the people who founded it. A religious statue had been built along the street nearby. Most of the houses on the hillside seemed to be abandoned as well, but from the little gardens and terraces it seemed that someone had once seen great potential in living there, though the place seemed quite humid, and the smoke and noise from the old trains constantly passing back in the day would seem to have been unpleasant at best.

We came back down the hill as there was no way on except for mountain paths, and found a Japanese-era tunnel, along the length of which were mounted old photographs of the Japanese military base that had been located in the area in the early 1900s. Closely shorn soldiers stared from the pictures as they stood in their barracks doing various tasks. The ceiling of the tunnel was less than six feet high, and I kept having to duck as we traversed its length.

Dense alleyways lay on the other side of the tunnel as we approached the city. I’d never really explored this part of Keelung before, and it’s quite interesting. We passed under the massive highway bridge, which used to be home to a large market but is now full of people playing sports, and though another street market as we skirted the hillside through the alleys.

An interestingly shaped old building in Keelung

An old building in Keelung

Dusk was falling as we passed by a the huge, Hong Kong-esque Guanghua housing complex and arrived at the river, covered by a highway branch, that we’d seen from a bus on a previous trip. I’ve always been interested in how rivers interact with urban environments, and this was a rather sad example as rivers are too often ignored here, cemented away and forgotten about. Cats abounded, which Chenbl says is a sign of decay while dogs represent prosperity, but as I like cats in general I couldn’t complain; indeed I greeted every one as I usually do, and most were quite gracious about it. I feel like I should keep some cat treats on me though.

We approached an unusually shaped building that seemed to be literally falling apart, featuring several interesting shades of light and a market downstairs, rusted rebar poking out of the frames. People still lived there, though. We then followed the underground stream through the neighborhoods, picking up its traces every so often as it reappeared here and there, often frequented by birds and rats, occasioned by temples, streams of wastewater pouring in from showers, laundromats, kitchens and who knows what else. Every time I’m in Keelung I wonder what living there would be like on a day-to-day basis. Commuting would be a pain, though, at least until they run a subway line out there. It’s a special place, no doubt.

Hungry and tired, we made our way to the Miaokou market, where a guard monitoring the crowds sprayed disinfectant on my hands and camera lens just for good measure. Inside, we lumbered up a flight of steep stairs for a meal of dry noodles, spinach and hot pork soup. It was nice to sit down after a day of walking and climbing, but the throngs of people at the market unsettled me considering the looming prospect of Omicron. I’ve been wearing K94 masks lately for their greater coverage, but it seems more and more people, especially smokers and older people, are just not bothering any more.

After dinner we had some bitter tea from a stand. “Don’t give that to him!” the stand operator scolded Chenbl as he handed me my drink, but I just drank it while staring blankly at the operator.

“It’s ok, he’s fine with it,” Chenbl explained, needlessly. We then walked back towards the harbor, to the new train station. The site of the old station is still swathed in construction; I have no idea what they’re doing to do with it. If it were up to me I’d build a recreation of the old Japanese-era station and make it a tourism/cultural center. That’s just me though.

posted by Poagao at 12:08 pm  
Jun 20 2011

A full weekend

I’d thought that the Muddy Basin Ramblers were meeting up at the Red House Theater in the West Gate District at 1:30 in the afternoon before our 2:05 show at a benefit concert for Japanese tsunami orphans, and I therefore proceeded to enjoy a leisurely morning at home, slowly getting my things together, before realizing that we’d actually arranged to meet at 12:30. One mad dash and a NT$300 taxi ride later, I was behind the theater going through a quick practice with the band, minus Conor who was already on stage with another band.

The show went well, but it was over too quickly. It seemed like we’d barely started before we were playing our last song as the hosts came up on stage. I was taking apart the washtub bass when one of the hosts, a woman, grabbed the tub and held it up for the audience to see. “This is what he’s been playing, if you didn’t notice!” she said. She then asked for a quick demonstration. Now there’s a sentence to boost my search ratings.

We were going out to celebrate David’s birthday that night, so I hung around and listened to the other bands, which included a Japanese family of ukulele players who performed some hits from Miyazaki movie themes like Spirited Away and Totoro. Adorable, if somewhat out of tune. One of the younger kids lost the beat halfway through one song, and within two measures the rest of the family switched to accommodate him. We had planned to find a spot near the Chungshan Hall for a little street performance, but Sandy and Thumper bailed early. A South American group got on stage and played such wonderful mariachi-style tunes I wanted to jump on stage and play along, but I refrained.

Eventually I tired of the booming sound, however, and walked out to the square where the old roundabout and park used to be before they made a boring intersection out of it, and stood in the same spot for about half an hour, just looking at people and things. Everyone had a camera, everyone was taking photos except me. The Golden Melody Awards, which I attended with Chalaw a few years ago (we didn’t win, but he won the next year), were taking place that evening, and one of my favorite bands as well as a friend, Matzka, was up for several awards. I knew from previous experience that he and his band were probably walking down the red carpet at the venue as I stood watching people in the square. Matzka would win the best group award that night. Not bad.

Night fell over the Red House Theater as all the bars and clubs fired up and filled with bears and other demographics. We walked over to the Calcutta. Slim was sloshedly vociferous the whole way. The food wasn’t bad, better than Tandoor, I felt, though I’m not a particular connoisseur of Indian food. David and Robin told tales of their recent honeymoon in Paris, of all the wonderful sights and sounds I missed when I was there, such as Belleville and the bars where Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grapelli played. The Leica Forum is going on there at the moment, attended by many a wealthy photographer (and probably some good ones, too, he said, trying not to sound too bitter).

The others were heading to Bobwundaye after dinner for some jamming, but I had an early start coming up on Sunday, so I reluctantly declined even though I was itching to play some more.

I was awake at 7:20 a.m. the next morning, grabbing the Invincible Rabbit and heading out into the already-brilliant sunshine, across the bridge and onto the subway to Taipei Train Station, where I met up with Chenbl, Terry, Lulu, Sean, his girlfriend Lily and her cousin, who were visiting from Hong Kong. Sean just got his master’s degree from Qinghua University in Disney Studies.

We caught the train to Keelung, traveling along the various construction sites and through the industry, through the mountain range and into the port city in about 40 minutes. Chenbl just failed to catch the bus out to Peace Island, so we waited in the hot sun, shooting irritated-looking passengers. Terry had an even more formidable beast than the Rabbit, a 1Ds, while Lulu, I think, had a 50D. A new liner was docked in the harbor, the Star Aquarius, bigger and nicer than the Star Libra I took to Okinawa. I wondered where it was bound for..Singapore? Hong Kong? Across from it was the Cosco Star that we took to Xiamen a few months ago. It looked small and dirty next to the Aquarius.

We caught the next bus out to Peace Island, which is located across a short bridge up near the mouth of the river. The area by the entrance is still under construction, as it was this time last year when I last saw it. The sun was glaring off the newly laid concrete, and a guard languished deep inside the shade of his shelter at the gate of a military base. We walked out to the rocky coast, where some messy picnickers were lighting fires and consuming bottles of tea. I climbed up on the rocks to get close to the sea, delighted to hear the wonderful sound of the water sluicing through the various crevices.

We walked up the coast and inland to a small group of houses whose occupants no doubt rely on hot, sweaty tourists for their livelihood. A group of aboriginal children surrounded us, trying and failing to guess who among us was Taiwanese and who wasn’t. “You’re the only real Taiwanese here,” I told them. The kids were apparently big fans of the hit TV show Rookie’s Diary, and weren’t entirely convinced that I knew Ye Da-tong, Lai Hu, Luo Gang, and Yang Hai-sheng, and I thought it was a shame that my friend Fu Zi-cun, who played Yang Hai-sheng and who is not a bad photographer himself, didn’t come along this time. He’s busy filming a new series down south though, and couldn’t make it.

The kids were playing around on a laundry rack comprised of a bamboo stick on two poles as we talked to them, and suddenly the bamboo stick, which was obviously quite old and moldy, broke. Almost immediately an old man in a white shirt came rushing up, yelling at this travesty, and the kids scattered. The old man took off his shoe and threw it at the kids several times, cursing them. At one point he actually got his hand on one of them and raised a heavy club to hit him with, but Terry stopped him, saying, “There’s no need for that.” I wondered if we would see that old man in the Apple Daily some day.

We walked down to the nearest bus stop and, 15 sweaty minutes later, caught a bus back to the train station, where we’d arranged to meet up with the Taiwan Photo Club, or at least part of it. Craig and Selina were there, of course, as well as Josh Ellis, Gillian Benjamin and a few others. They were waiting at the Starbucks on the harbor, and we had a quick lunch at the Burger King next door, enticed by the free ice cream sundaes, before boarding another bus out to the Fairy Cave.

I don’t think I’d ever been to the Fairy Cave before. Flocks of birds swarmed around the cliff face above the cave’s entrance, which was accompanied by ever-shy monks and a great deal of religious paraphernalia as the cave contains several temples. It was cool and misty inside, and several side caves branched out from the main one. One of the side branches became quite narrow, and some people came back claiming it was impossible to get through. I tried it, and though I had to crouch over and turn sideways, both the rabbit and I managed to get through fairly unscathed, though my shoulders were scrapped and muddy. Inside was another altar enveloped in a heavy mix of mist and incense that an ancient fan in the corner failed to alleviate.

We explored the neighborhood around the cave, waking up dogs and cats and a strange kind of wasp that attacked Josh because it really didn’t want to be on Facebook. Then Chenbl led us on a long trek across the valley and up another hill to a nice view of the sea right next to a power plant. As we recovered from the climb, which included the toxic fumes of a house painted entirely in tar the owner probably won in a game of majhong and didn’t want to waste, a lone paraglider sailed over the smokestacks of the powerplant, his shadow flitting across the field overlooking the sea.

The walk back down was much easier, and we luxuriated in the air conditioning of the rickety bus back downtown. Terry, Lulu, Sean, Lily and Lily’s cousin had to leave; the rest of us crossed the bridge over the other side of the tracks. A couple of aesthetic homeless men populated the bridge, lit by the late-afternoon sun in a way that even I couldn’t resist taking a shot, though I generally don’t like to take too many such shots. Craig was taking phone pictures the whole time, unburdened by a heavy DSLR. Probably a smart move considering the heat and all the hills we were climbing that day.

We wound our way through the steep alleys and stairs, passing and occasionally photographing the local residents. One man sitting on his scooter smoking glared at me as I took his shot. “Sorry,” he said, pointing to his cigarette. I refrained from pointing out that he would look just as thuggish without the cigarette, and walked on.

The whole of Keelung was laid out in the light of the approaching sunset as we reached the big KEELUNG sign, whereupon the mosquitoes decided that Chenbl was the only really delicious person on the site. Everyone except Craig and Selina climbed up to the top of the hill for an even better view. Josh and I stood atop the summit, on a circle of an old structure, noting the approaching clouds and thunder that meant it was surely raining in Taipei. The Aquarius had departed, off to wherever it was headed, a voyage of good food, swimming pools and gambling. The Cosco Star would be heading out later that evening.

Rain began to fall as we descended the hill, often going in circles as Chenbl tried to make the walk more interesting. We recrossed the bridge, noting that the homeless men had changed positions, and walked over to the Miaokou Night Market, which was mostly closed due to construction work. I didn’t see anything I liked. The harbor city was taking on its nocturnal form, its nights darker than those of other cities, its streets and alleys closer, wetter. I was game for more exploration, but I could feel the group’s gravitation towards the train station and our comfortable homes, so I went along, telling myself, another time: Keelung will still be there.

posted by Poagao at 12:01 pm