Christmas in Taiwan

My friend Carrie Kellenberger, who runs the insightful travel and culture blog My Several Worlds http://www.myseveralworlds.com/ gave me this bar of chocolate, wheel of spiced Camembert cheese and white wine, an excellent-looking bottle of an Italian style, Pinot Grigio, for Christmas. My wife and I plan to crack it open tonight. We're saving the chocolate for a bottle of Shiraz, to follow in the next couple of days. It's Christmas after all.

All the best to you, Carrie, and your husband John, during this Christmas season and in 2010. 


Monga, the Film

I'm looking forward to the release of the government-funded movie, Monga (艋舺), which according to accounts is about the gangsters and prostitution that are rampant in the neighborhood I live in. Here's a quick, cool trailer. Only one word is uttered, an oddly-pronounced "Monga", or Manka.

Directed by Doze Niu (鈕承澤), the film though not released is already controversial, as some don't like it's portrayal (I'm guessing they're getting this from the trailer) of Taipei's ancient borough, Monga or Manka in Taiwanese (Hoklo) and Wanhua in Chinese. The Taipei Times wrote up on the movie last week and the controversy: Here's the link: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2009/12/01/2003459824

I don't really have a problem with Wanhua (Monga / Manka) being portrayed as a gangster and hooker haven. From the accounts of locals that live here, it is / was exactly that. I guess what critics object to is the viewer might not understand that the area had a golden age before all the scum crept in. 300 years ago, Wanhua was one of the Taipei basin's three most important communities. Those communities, Wanhua, Dadoacheng (大稻埕) and Danshui, later merged to create the city of Taipei. At one time, an armada of boats sailed up the Danshui River daily to dock in Wanhua, or Manka / Monga, as part of a trade network that extended to the south of Taiwan, China, Japan and the West. Those days have passed us by, mainly because the river silted up to the point where around 150 years ago, large vessels could no longer make it up river (Wanhua is around 35 km. from the Taiwan Strait).

Over the past 100 years, several prominent gangsters have called Wanhua home. I guess the most well-known would have to be Hsu Hai-ching, who went by the nickname of Wen Ge (蚊哥), meaning the "Mosquito Brother".

The Mosquito Brother died four years ago at the age of 93, after gagging on a piece of raw fish. His story is a long and interesting one. Someone should write a book about his life, as they might get at the workings of the government here, and specifically, how enmeshed it has been with organized crime. The Mosquito Brother started out in Wanhua during the 1930s while Taiwan was still a colony of Japan. He, like any person of his generation, was able to speak Japanese. When Japan fell to the US and Taiwan was invaded by the KMT, the Mosquito Brother simply adapted to a new regime and got on with business. His ability to work with different groups earned him another very cool sounding title: The Final Arbitrator. Hsu's resume was impressive; he had links to the Japanese Yakuza, the Bamboo Gang, the gangsters that Chiang Kai-shek came up with in Shanghai and whom he imported to Taiwan to do his dirty work during the White Terror era as well as more organic Taiwanese clans, from which Hsu came.

I also remember reading about Tsai Tai-ting (蔡岱廷), a pachinko parlor operator, who died a spectacular death in 2007 at a wedding, when an assassin unloaded a dozen bullets into him and then fled after hailing a cab.

My own neighborhood in Wanhua is called Ga-la King after a benevolent gangster who liked to eat oysters, hence the "ga-la", which is oyster in Taiwanese (Hoklo).

More on Monga after I've seen it.


"Foreigners" Getting a Credit Card in Taiwan

Banks in Taiwan generally refuse "foreigners" credit cards. I guess they're afraid they won't be able to recoup money (I would think this line of doubt should be extended to any customer, regardless of his or her skin color). Taiwan's constitution states in Chapter I, General Provisions, Article 5: "There shall be equality among the various racial groups in the Republic of China (Taiwan)." But it doesn't seem to have had much bearing on this issue. The card hawkers who set their tables up at the doors of Taiwan's department stores, outside theaters or even on sidewalks seem to shiver with fear when they see a "foreigner" approaching. I've discussed the absurdity of this with a local friend who works for a bank in Taiwan, a bank that also denies people access based on their skin color. He told me: "We really don't have any way to make locals pay us back any more than we do 'foreigners'. Credit cards should be issued on salary, whether people have collateral, appear normal, etc. But I just don't want to rock the boat".

About a month ago, I was leaving Costco (Cheng Ho branch) in Taiwan. Chinatrust Commercial Bank had set up a booth at the door. Their sales rep., seeing my Taiwanese wife out in the lead, immediately came up to her with an application in hand. My wife, who hates credit cards, turned him down flat. When I had caught up, I said: "I'll apply. What's the process?" These words sent the Chinatrust Bank rep. into a stuttering state of confusion. Aghast, he told me:

"You're a 'foreigner'! It's not possible". Actually, I figured this kind of response was on the way. Several of my friends have been turned down at Chinatrust Commercial Bank on their credit card applications based on race. One friend, who speaks Chinese, was even offered a card. After he'd finished the application, the teller informed him, upon conferring with her superiors:

"We can't give you a credit card because you're a 'foreigner'".

Naturally, the whole "you're a foreigner" stuck in my craw. After considering my options, I decided to write to Costco and explain the situation - namely, they were cooperating with a bank that discriminates against out-groups. I asked: "Do you really want this attached to your brand"?

The next day, and for a week following, I received a flurry of email replies from Chinatrust Commercial Bank, who assured me that their bank didn't discriminate. They told me: "It was just a big misunderstanding. We'd like to process your application pronto". They were even willing to send a rep. over to my office at my convenience. When their rep. did show up, a VP no less, he explained: "It was just a big misunderstanding. They're afraid to speak English!"

"But I was speaking Chinese," I countered, "just the same as I am speaking Chinese to you. Plus I can name people who have been told they couldn't apply at your bank because of the color of their skin".

"It's just ignorance," was the reply. "BTW, let me have the name of the rep. so he can be punished".

"That's not necessary [especially if he's following company policy]." I liked the guy and didn't want to get into it. I could see he was trying, and that he didn't agree with what had transpired.

My application was passed seamlessly. I didn't even have to, oddly, submit information about my salary, assets or what have you. Some of my friends have pointed out that I was just being bought off. I can't really verify this. When I emailed Chinatrust back about statistics, in particular, how many "foreigners" have credit cards at the bank, I received no reply whatsoever. In fairness, I suppose it would be violating the bank's confidentiality code and undercutting security. I do, however, now have another credit card, my first Taiwan-based credit card. Did I receive it to shut the f*&^ up? Maybe. I still believe that it could mean that Chinatrust has had to rethink how it deals with its customers. If so, this is great news.

Let me know if you've had problems with Chinatrust Commercial Bank in getting a credit card. They have stepped out into the light to clarify their position. This post, or an email to the bank, might speed things along.

Note: I've been contacted by advertisers in February, 2011. They would like me to put up this link. I don't have a problem doing so as I've been posting for years out of my own pocket and time. Plus, I don't find their company troublesome in the least. If you do find this concept to the contrary, please let me know. Anyway, here goes: it's for a credit repair company.


Postcards from Taiwan

I received an interesting request a few weeks back from a blogger in Malaysia: "How are you doing? I’m from Malaysia. I’m a postcard collector. I’m trying to collect postcards from all over the world. I have not yet got postcard from Tuvalu. I would be grateful if you could send me a postcard from Tuvalu, and I will send you a beautiful postcard from Malaysia as a return". The sender has a blog with postcards from all over the world. I sent him one of National Taiwan Democracy Hall ( 國立台灣民主紀念館): http://kajang-postcard.blogspot.com/2009/09/taiwan-07.html

This is the postcard of I received from Ian in Malaysia

Actually, I'm in Taiwan and always have been. I just said I was in Tuvalu because I'm tired of people asking me where I am from. I am from Wanhua, Taiwan, this city that I am standing in as you are asking me.  Plus I guess I found it amusing at the time.

Ian found me online at my Patrick Cowsill Wanhau Taiwan profile, where I claim to be Tuvalu-based: http://www.blogger.com/profile/12904899672214340947. For Taiwan, Tuvalu has been a good friend. The country was one of only 15 to support a UN resolution last week that Taiwan be treated more respectfully by the United Nations. Can't argue with that.

If anyone out there is in Tuvalu, Ian wants to get in touch with you.


Teenagers on the Playground, No Seriously

This is the scene I've been describing in recent posts: teenagers who actually play on the playgrounds. I took this film on my cell phone a couple weeks ago in Monga's (艋舺) Youth Park. It's all guys; the girlie voice is actually "Pig Boy", a pre-pubescent 14-year-old. There's a sign about five feet from the play apparatus clearly stating that nobody over six years old or 30 kilograms is allowed to play on the stuff. (These guys were playing tag.) The main reason it bugs me is that other parents are afraid to take their kids on the equipment.

The teenagers have told me that they don't have anywhere to go, which is nonsense. Youth Park has badminton, basketball and tennis courts, a beautiful in-line skating rink, a swimming pool, driving range and track. But it does seem I am getting through to the teenagers with my constant whingeing. I know a lot of them now by name, and they seem to stay clear of the playgrounds out of respect. They know it gets on my nerves. Or perhaps they're starting to figure out how goofy, not cool, they're being.


Bo Pi Liao Street in Monga and Its Taiwanese Ghosts

Bo Pi Liao (剝皮寮) Street, some 300 years old, has got to rank in the top ten for oldest streets in Taiwan. Once the main artery in Monga (艋舺), one of Taipei's two oldest communities, the name Bo Pi Liao expresses the chip or skin-the-bark-back process that went on in lumber production a long time ago. The name is based on what was happening in Monga construction at the turn of the eighteenth century, when construction outfits were still importing wood from China to build here in Taiwan. The wood for Bo Pi Liao Street's construction, especially the big timber for its rafters, came from Fu-chou (福州) in Fuchien province, China. When looking at Taiwan's natural resources, especially wood, one could be a little confused about why quality studs had to come from China. The wood was here in Taiwan, in abundance in comparison to the environmentally-degraded "mother land" - there were some beautiful specimens too. But the Taiwanese were afraid to harvest it on the account of the Aboriginal headhunters that lurked in the mountainside forests where the good stuff came from. More costly and inferior in quality, Chinese wood still seemed like the safest bet.
What I find intriguing about Bo Pi Liao Street is the direction or route it takes. Notice it curves at the end, that it tails off to the left (east). There is both a practical and superstitious reason for this. On the practical level, communities with curving streets were easier to defend against pirates and bandits, both of which Taiwan was awash with 300 years ago. For the trespasser, pirate or bandit, they could not see what was waiting ahead. Ambushes became easier to set for the defender; the element of surprise was on their side.
On the superstitious front, the bending street also made sense. First off, I need to explain the nature of the Taiwanese ghost. The Taiwanese, more than many other cultures, have believed in ghosts. The Taiwanese version of the ghost is anything but Casper-like and cute. Ghosts in the Taiwanese imagination are not restless and forlorn spirits to be pitied. In Taiwanese mythology, the ghost is a mean, petty, cruel, terrible (恐怖) little bad-ass that has to be bought off with money and gifts of food and drink. Unappeased ghosts can cause all kinds of mischief, such as drownings, miscarriages, car or motorcycle accidents, stove-gas explosions and rabid dog bites. Ghosts in Taiwan do not respond to common sense or good deeds. It's better to bribe them with gifts and then get out of their way.
In avoiding a Taiwanese ghost, you should always remember the following: they hover in straight lines. Taiwanese ghosts do not turn corners or respond well to zig-zags of motion. That is another reason Bo Pi Liao Street curves. Ghosts, who are normally required to fly straight ahead, cannot get down it. They get log-jammed at the first turn. I remember reading an introduction to Taiwan article a couple of years back. The author was trying to explain to newcomers why Taiwanese do not walk straight, why they meander (which makes them hard to get by on a sidewalk). It seems they picked up the habit from their parents who picked it up from their parents, who picked it up from their parents. This generation believed that meandering was the safest bet to warding off ghosts. Bo Pi Liao Street lends itself to this sort of passage. It was not built for fast walkers. 


Qingshui Temple in Wanhua, Taiwan

The roof of Qingshui Temple. Inside, it's a bit gloomy, the detail around the outside like this is cool.

This god was above the back entrance to Qingshui Temple. I don't recognize him.

According to a temple inscription, Qingshui Temple (清水巖) was built in 1787, 50 years after Wanhua or Monga's (艋舺) best-known temple Lungshan. I think there are only three of this style of ancestor temple in Taiwan: there's one in Danshui and another in San-xia. This temple was burnt down during the Ding-Xia Clan Feud (頂下郊拼) in 1853 but rebuilt by the culprits in 1867.
Until the Japanese arrived, Taiwan was pretty much a lawless frontier, with different areas under the control of local warlords and clans, and Wanhua certainly was not the exception. Writes John Shepherd in The Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier: "[Qing Dynasty] anti-colonization policies had many unintended consequences. Most important, they left the frontier to rowdy gangs of sojourning Chinese laborers that readily participated in rebel movements and communal strife and destabilized frontier society" (Shepherd, 16). The anti-colonization policies that Shepherd is describing go right back to 1683, with the arrival of a Qing government in Taiwan. From the start, China did not want Taiwan. The Emperor Kangxi actually contemplated emptying the island of people, forcing all of the settlers to go back to China, and washing his hands of Taiwan once and for all. His advisers talked him out of it, arguing that without a Chinese presence in Taiwan, it would become a hideout for bandits and pirates. The Emperor grudgingly accepted this advice, but enforced anti-colonization policies so that the population would not grow. One of first things the Qing did was to forbid the immigration of women. The "unintended consequences" were young free men roaming about the countryside, drinking, gambling and carrying on. They didn't have wives to keep them at home and in line. Or, and this is what a lot of Chinese did do, they married Aboriginal women, which then infuriated the Aboriginal men, leading to more rebel movements and destabilization.
In a land of headhunters, pirates, bandits and ship wreckers, without police, order or competent governance, one needed to get connected to survive. This seems to have taken place regularly as seasonal workers who were supposed to have returned to China instead wandered into communities and attached themselves to others on the coincidence of a same last name. They often went as far as to adopt family trees. (I imagine this must have led to scuffles and fist fights on the other side in the spirit world, especially when it came time to accept ghost money, food and drink.)
Clan struggles are what also what led to the burning of Qingshui Temple in 1853. This is how the story goes, I think. A clan made up with individuals claiming to be from three towns in Fujian province in China, Nan-an (南安), Huei-an (惠安) and Jing-an (晉安), controlled shipping in Meng-jia (also known as Manka), the neighborhood around Lungshan Temple in Wanhua today. At that time, Meng-jia was the largest and most prosperous town in northern Taiwan. This clan constituted the "Ding" in the Ding-Xia Clan Feud. Another clan, made up people claiming to be from Tong-an (同安) and Xia-men or Amoy (廈門) was starting to gain traction just to the east. Naturally, this clan, the "Xia" in the Ding-Xia Clan Feud was looking to get in more on shipping, only the Ding was having no part of it. According to what I've read, they asked the clan living between them and the Xia, and in possession of Qingshui Temple, if they could burn it down so they had a direct line to the Xia. They claimed it was blocking the road.
The Xia clan was eventually forced up the Danshui River, to Dadoacheng, about a 20-minute bike ride from Meng-jia. But this turned out in their favor, as the river was beginning to silt up. Within a few years, boats would no longer be able to dock there. I suppose I should empathize with the Xia. My wife is a Cheng (鄭). She thinks that some of her ancestors came from just beyond Tong-an. They came to Meng-jia (Monga/艋舺) in the 18th century.


Taipei's New Bicycle Lanes

Here are a couple more shots of Taipei's new bike lanes running up and down Dunhua. For more info, there's a great post at "Biking in Taiwan":

The rider at "Biking in Taiwan" thinks they're not working out, that they're not suited for Taipei. I agree with the former point but am hopeful about the latter, and would like to see more. The writer's main issue is with enforcement. It seems Taipei's motorists are already taking liberties. Taxi drivers are turning the strip between Nanking East Road and Bade into a queue. People are parking in them to do errands, like the guy in the above pic. He put on his emergency blinkers. What was the emergency? He needed cash from the ATM. "Biking in Taiwan" writes:
I don't see any of that happening in Taiwan. Ignoring the law is not punished, so the law is ignored.
That being said, enforcement of traffic laws would instantly improve life for everyone, with the possible exception of taxi drivers."
He or she has hit the nail on the head. The police need to get out and enforce these lanes, put up cameras, do something. During the morning rush hour, it's particularly bad. Scooters and motorcycles freely flow down the lanes and block the heads at lights. I've asked several cyclists at red lights how they feel about the lanes. The response is generally positive. But they complain about motorists entering the lanes and blocking them.

Another point "Biking..." makes is that it's like riding on cobblestone - the lanes are not smooth. I don't know what to say about that. They seem to be the same quality as the roads. I just hope this is not a gimmick. The Deaflympics are taking place at the new stadium on the corner of Dunhua and Bade. I want to see more, but am afraid they could return to normal streets once the Deaflympics and "foreigners" are gone.


Sports Illustrated Confused over Geography?

This amuses me so much that I'll post it up here. It's from an article by Sports Illustrated's columnist Lee Jenkins entitled: "For Underrated Angels Outfielder Abreu, Patience Has Always Paid Off". Jenkins writes in the first sentence: "Bobby Abreu spends part of every offseason in Asia, hop-scotching from China to Japan, Hong Kong to Vietnam, Taiwan to Taipei."


The article covers how Abreu turned down a piddly two-year offer from the Tampa Bay Rays for US$16,000,000. Then, when the credit-crunch set in, he stopped receiving offers altogether. Two months later, there was only one offer on the table, from the LA Angels for an insulting US$5,000,000 a year, which he had to take. This year, Abreu is hitting over 300 and has 80 RBIs. Man has he shown us, especially the cheapskate MLB owners!


Security Guards in Taipei: What's the Use?

Teenagers take over the playground inside the courtyard of my apartment complex

When looking for an apartment in or around Taipei, I always check to see how close it is to a main street. My first apartment was over a big street in Yunghe, and it was never quiet - never. At three in the morning, big trucks rumbled by my window. The honking was simply 24/7. The one other issue that I care passionately about is whether or not the place has security. If I see a security guard lurking around the door when I'm apartment hunting, I don't even bother to go inside and have a look. Along with vicinity to busy streets, I learned that security guards make life miserable for building residents during my Yunghe experience. They snoop into your life, impose inane rules on residents, nag about silly stuff and do nothing to deal with outsiders that might cause the residents real grief. It's not like these security guards are trained in security either. They're not ex-cops or martial arts experts. They're usually tea-sipping old men, the kind that would be the first to hightail it out of there if any real trouble arose. Then there's this: you've got to pay them. Take my new apartment in Monga (艋舺) - yes, I have one with security guards again (was outvoted by the wife and in-laws). I pay NT$1700 (US$60) a month for nothing. They don't even deal with our garbage or come when the security alarm goes off in my apartment.

My biggest issue with the security guards right now is they're afraid of teenagers. Teenagers simply love the grounds around my complex, especially the playground, when it starts to get dark. We do have beautiful new ballpark lights. Unfortunately, the security is too cheap to turn them on. So, the place is dark, yet comfortable, with benches, trees, grass, etc. With the teenagers out in the playground in the evening, many parents are afraid to take their kids to play. This is quite clear to me. We have two playgrounds. The one with the slide, which has more natural light, is less popular with the teenagers. They gravitate to the darker one with the monkey bars. You can see families playing in one, but afraid to enter the other. The teenagers that like my complex also swear, smoke, drink and act, in general, like assholes. That people are intimidated by them obviously gives them a rush. They can't even bother to keep their trash off the ground. They just chuck butts and cans into the playground.

Last night, four male teenagers were getting particularly rambunctious. There was only one girl, so I guess they were all trying to outdo each other. When I asked them which one lived in the complex, they answered "No, we don't live here".

"Then what are you doing here?" I asked.


The security guy was up out of his booth to enjoy the scene, so I asked him why he didn't take care of the problem. "They don't even live in the complex," I told him.

"I can't do anything about them. I can just ask them to be quiet and not to litter, appeal to their sense of morality. Sometimes, I pick up their cans and butts and show them how to throw them away." This is something I am quite curious about. Actually, I'm curious about lots of stuff: Why can't he kick them out? Is he just afraid of them or does Taiwan
not have laws for trespassing? Or, are the courtyard areas inside apartment complexes considered public space? Does Taiwan have laws about loitering? I can't find the word in my dictionary, so I am guessing not.

Last night was the second time I had to kick teenagers off the playground because the security guards in my building would not. Can you imagine being
that scared of a bunch of scrawny 14 and 15-year-olds? My grandpa used to say: "When I can't drive anymore, just shoot me."

I'll just say this: "When a bunch of 14-year-olds have me trembling in the knees, just shoot me." I'm going to the police station tonight to see if the cops will talk to the security guards in my building about getting the lights turned on and about doing their job.


Panda on Bing Home Page for Taiwan

Bing, Microsoft's new search engine, is out. I am certain Bing is going to bug people, especially here in Taiwan: http://www.bing.com/ Why? There's a panda (Bing, the Panda, I guess) photo pasted to the home page.

Last year, China lent two pandas to Taiwan to keep in the Mucha Zoo. The pandas were called Tuan Tuan (團團) and Yuan Yuan (圓圓). When we put the words together, we were surprised to get 團圓 or unification in English. For many here in Taiwan, the idea of unification with China is off-putting or absurd. After all, Taiwan was abandoned to the Japanese in 1895 by China. 1895 wasn't the first time China tried to dump Taiwan either. The great Emperor Kangshi, after trying to resell Taiwan to the Dutch in 1683, claimed
Taiwan was nothing more than a blob of mud floating in the sea, a blob that would never be worthy of inclusion within the Center Kingdom. There wasn't anything in his talk about unification.

I could keep going, adding new points, but I'd rather eat my lunch. I say take the panda down.

NZ Beer Taiwan

The word "organic" was blotted out with a marker by the store. I scratched it off to see what was under.

I found this Green Fern Beer from New Zealand at Jason's. It's a fairly good, crisp lager. I'm trying to think of a beer that tastes like it.

What interested me is the store had the word "organic" removed from the bottle. Actually, it's still there. Someone had drawn over it with a black marker; I scraped it off before I took the pic. They also crossed it out on the top label. Why would advertising organic beer be a no-no in Taiwan? I don't get this: we have organic food here.


Huwei Fort in Danshui, Taiwan

My daughter playing around atop Huwei Fort (滬尾砲台).

My wife (right) outside the entrance to the Huwei Fort (滬尾砲台) in Danshui, Taiwan. The sign is said to have been inscribed by 1880's Taiwan Governor Liu Ming-chuan ( 劉銘傳). I don't understand it: the first two characters read "North Gate". The other two I'll have to look up some time.

We decided to visit Huwei Fort (滬尾砲台) in Danshui, Taiwan today. It's about 15 minutes down the street from Fort Santo Domingo. Huwei Fort is still obscure as Danshui sites go, I guess owing to the point it's an ongoing excavation project, and because not much is known about it. Excavation began in 1991, just 18 years ago.

According to the brochure and sign literature, it was designed by a German lieutenant Max E. Hecht in 1885, following the French-Chinese battle for northern Taiwan. Construction got underway in 1886 and took three years to complete. The excavators are finding that Huwei is in pretty good shape; the fort never saw action, so it was never pounded down by artillery. Like Fort Santiago, Huwei Fort boasts a magnificent view of the mouth of the Danshui River and Guan Yin Mountain in Bali on the other side. For more information, check out eyedoc's interesting blog and this post among others at 漁人碼頭的戰爭 - THE BATTLE OF FISHERMAN'S WHARF: http://danshuihistory.blogspot.com/2009/06/defense-buil-up-in-danshui-1884.html

Our guide told us Liu Ming-chuan built Huwei Fort, but I doubt this. I doubt he lifted not a single brick in its construction. Some Taiwanese like to get romantic about Liu, as he might have not been as entirely incompetent as others who held his office during the Ching Dynasty, and I suspect this was going on today. In recent years, both the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, and once inner-KMT Party rival James Soong (宋楚瑜) have claimed Liu to be their spiritual father: http://rank.blogspot.com/2007/02/rereading-of-liu-ming-chuan-following.html

Ma and Soong often point to Liu's achievements, namely 40 kilometers of railroad track laid and the moving of Taiwan's capital from Tainan in the south of Taiwan to Taipei. There's an obvious irony here. Liu was a Chinese bureaucrat. He came to Taiwan and dutifully served the government in Beijing for less than a decade before returning home.

Next to Fort Wuwei is Taiwan's first golf course, built under the supervision of the Japanese in 1919 (Taiwan was a colony of Japan from 1895, when it was deserted by China to Japan until 1945, when the Japanese surrendered to the United States closing out the Second World War). If you're interested in Taiwan's history, put this stop on your itinerary.


Fishing in Storm Drains

I noticed this guy fishing in downtown Taipei the other day as I was walking to the bank on my lunch hour. He was scooping minnow-sized fish out of a storm drain on Bade Road (八德路) and putting them into a shallow red bucket (see pic). I asked him if all of the storm drains had fish in them and he replied "no". When I asked how he knew this one had fish, he shrugged and replied: "I've just known for a long time."

It didn't occur to me to ask what he's going to do with the fish. They're way too small to eat. I should have asked him what "a long time" is too. I wonder if he means since he was a little boy. I'm sure the area (this was around section three) would have looked drastically different then. But Bade (八德) itself has been around in road form for centuries. I've been been told it's the original north-south highway of Taiwan.


Taiwanese Father's Day

Yesterday was Father's Day in Taiwan. The occasion comes from a play on the Chinese for a date on the Western calendar, August 8th, or 8/8. In Chinese, the numbers in the date 8/8 are pronounced "ba-ba", which sounds like the word for dad. We had a long weekend in Taiwan, courtesy of Typhoon Morakot, which hit the island on Friday. There's a great pic at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Typhoon_Morakot_2003.jpg My daughter also made me the above happy face at her pre-school. It's me, wearing a tie.

My family spent the evening at my in-laws. My wife picked up a tiramisu from Cafe 85 Degrees. I also received chocolates and a Gouden Carolus, a tasty Belgian beer, 8.5 percent alcohol. The label read "Mechelen Sinds 1369". I'm guessing they've been producing it for a while (see pic below).


1.5 Years Later and "Foreigners" Still Can't Buy Train Tickets Online for Taiwan

I get people emailing from time to time, asking about buying train tickets online in Taiwan. Without exception, they're frustrated because they have planned to visit Taiwan and are trying to plan out an itinerary first. They're worried they could be stranded in Taipei, with no tickets to go anywhere, especially down the east coast, which is not serviced by the HSR. The reason I get the inquiries is I posted last year on how the Taiwan Train Administration was no longer allowing people with "foreign"-issued credit cards to make reservations online. Starting in February 2008, only those with Taiwan-issued credit cards have been allowed to make purchases online http://patrick-cowsill.blogspot.com/2008/02/foreigners-cant-buy-train-tickets-on.html Before that, no problem: anyone with a credit card could book train tickets, much the same way they'd reserve a hotel, buy some books, order a live action baseball streamer, get plane tickets or make any other transaction online.

Since "foreigners" are discriminated against in Taiwan when it comes to getting local credit cards (they can't get them), "foreigners" have now gone one year and six months without being able to purchase train tickets online. "Foreigners" coming from other countries as tourists are likewise unable to buy train tickets online. What I'm worried about is this: some of them will simply throw up their hands and go somewhere more sane.

The reason I originally posted on this topic was I don't accept the hypocrisy and/or incompetence behind the decision to no longer allow "foreigners" to buy train tickets online. It came less than a week after the government decided to dump $US30 million into promoting tourism abroad (and made sure every newspaper knew it). I remember writing to complain, but not getting a response other than they would look into it to make "my foreigner experience a lovely one in Taiwan".

I did eventually receive a couple of letters, but enthusiasm for fixing the problem seems to have petered out:

Letter One:
Dear Mr. Cowsill,

This is to acknowledge receipt of your February 25, 2008 email to President Chen Shui-bian, complaining of being unable to purchase train tickets online here with a foreign issued credit card.

We thank you for your interest in touring Taiwan and feel sorry for your unpleasant experience. As this office is not competent for matters of this kind, a copy of your email has been forwarded to our Executive Yuan, which is supposed to refer your case to related agencies for their attention. Your understanding is appreciated.

With best regards,
Sincerely yours,
Office of the President

Letter Two:
Dear Mr. Cowsill,

Thank you for your E-mail to President Chen Shui-bian, complaining about unable purchasing train tickets online here with a foreign issued credit card. Your letter has been forwarded to Transportation Department of Taiwan Railway Administration . Our department is cooperating with the online system contractor to make it improving. We apologize for your inconvenience.

Yours Sincerely,
Jeng-De Yang
Director of Transportation Department
Taiwan Railway Administration
March 20, 2008

Since March 20, 2008, nothing has been done to sort this out. I still can't use my credit card to buy tickets online.


As far as I know, there is only one way a "foreigner" can book tickets for a train now. He or she must go to this Web site and find the train number:

Then, he or she must plug it in here:
http://railway.hinet.net/etno1.htm He or she can use either a passport or an ARC. I just tried, and they both work. Here's the kicker. You only have two days to pick them up. What I do is print out the information and then go to the post office to get my tickets. I need to translate the details, as the printed copy is only in English. Plus I need to pay an extra NT$10 (about 40 cents US). I'm sure these advance tickets could also be picked up at any one of the train stations.

The reason I'm back on this topic is I just received an email from a prospective tourist to Taiwan. Here's his itinerary:

1. Airport-Keelung
2. Keelung-Badu-Rueifang-Shihfen-Jingtong-Rueifang-Hualien (day trip on Pingshi line)
3. Hualien-Taroko-Hualien-Taitung
4. Taitung-Chiayi
5. Chiayi-Alishan-Chiayi-Taipei (day trip on Alishan line)
6. Taipei-Airport

He also asked me this: "I have all the trains (numbers and arrival/departure times) figured out (I think), but can't seem to make reservations. Are reservations necessary?" I think some are definitely necessary. For example, if he goes from Taipei to Hualien directly. Or for when he wants to return to Taipei from Taitung. If I were him, I'd then grab the HSR to Chiayi. Which brings up another point: does the toy train up to Alishan have assigned seating? I can't remember.

When he called the Taipei Train Administration, they had nobody on that could speak English, so he didn't receive any help. This is never going to work if Taiwan is actually serious about promoting tourism. US$30,000,000 - you'd think someone would have gotten an English class.


New Bicycle "Only" Lanes in Taipei

I grabbed this shot of a mail truck blocking the new cycle lane on Dunhua my cell phone

The Taipei government has recently had bike lanes put in along some of the busier streets in the city, like this one running along Dunhua (敦化) Road. Sometimes they're painted red and sometimes they're in green. I've noticed a pattern: The red ones are usually barricaded off from encroaching cars and scooters by a little rubber rail. A motorcyclist trying to get over the bump to ride in the bicycle "only" lane would probably end up on his or her butt, while a car could get caught straddling the bump.

For some reason, the lanes are not completely barricaded off. This morning, I noticed several breaks in the railing, like near bus stops and around Pateh (八德). At these breaks, motorcyclists rode freely in the for bicycles "only" lane. I also saw a mail truck (see above picture) parked in the lane, forcing cyclists back out into the traffic. I counted a dozen violations in less than five minutes.

Can I get a ticket for parking if I'm a mail carrier? Do mail trucks ever get towed in Taipei?


Conscription Versus Volunteerism: Taiwan's Commitment to WWII

My MA. Interestingly, it states I was born in 1970. Usually in Taiwan, they'll say I was born in 59. This means 59 years after the Chinese Revolution (the one that got rid of the Ching Dynasty, not Chiang Kai-shek). Some of the people I know in Taiwan will appreciate this. They believe this date is not relevant here as Taiwan was a colony of Japan in 1911, and would remain so for another 44 years. I'll have to check with my local classmates to find out if this is now standard.

I concluded the red tape on my MA thesis this afternoon. The title I wanted to go with was: "From Volunteerism to Conscription: Taiwan's Commitment to the Second World War". But I guess I forgot to inform the IMTS secretary at National Chengchi University (國立政治大學), so it's back to "Conscription Versus Volunteerism: Taiwan's Commitment to WWII". The working title should be fine (though the Chinese title doesn't match). I'm just glad to be finished. Now I can read non-academic books and hang out with my family and friends. For the last four months, I've been working 9-6, babysitting 7-10 and writing 10-2. I'm just happy to be done. For the next little while, I'll be academically detoxing.

After deciding my topic, I realized there was a shortage of source material. Thus, I had to collect oral histories on my weekends. My friends suggested writing a book report, but this just wasn't possible. Another logjam I encountered was a lot of people in Taiwan found my topic taboo. Simply put, China fought wars against Japan; that Taiwan joined Japan to fight in China and also took on China’s allies in Southeast Asia was an uncomfortable memory for those with an affinity to China.

I'm interested in the idea of identity formation. Many of the older generation in Taiwan get sentimental about the Japanese, who built their infrastructure (banks, railroads, hospitals) and brought relief from the frontier chaos of incompetent Ching Dynasty rule. But I stayed away from this, instead focusing on mechanisms that allowed the Taiwanese to serve Japan's creation of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Second World War brought forth items and emotions I think some might want to not re-stir, such as Taiwanese celebrations for a Japanese "victory" in Nanking. This is what the British Consul reported in January 1938: “monster celebrations were organized to [celebrate] the fall of Nanking, in which all classes loyally participated”. Around the same time, 200 prominent Taiwanese businessmen gathered to pass a resolution supporting the provisional Japanese government in Northern China.

Anyway, I'll put up my abstract below:

This thesis paper tracks the development of the draft in Taiwan leading up to the Second World War and through its conclusion. In the mobilization of Taiwan as part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, many factors played a role in first encouraging and then pressing the Taiwanese population into service, including the propagation of mass paranoia labeled spy fever, Japanifized education policies, assimilation projects, general media stresses, social organization allowing for a police state, economics and the weight of Taiwan’s own unique frontier history. All of the routes created a certain frenzied (for lack of a better word) atmosphere and deserve attention in understanding the processes that led young Taiwanese males, and females, to first volunteer in the Imperial Japanese Army, Navy and Air Force and then comply to institutionalized conscription. The story of these individuals remains overlooked in the current reconstruction of Taiwan’s history. The era has been overshadowed by the turbulent events following the Second World War and the landing of half a million Chinese immigrants in Taiwan upon defeat in China. This corner of Taiwan’s history is still inappropriately relegated to the sidelines.

With the Second World War generation and in particular the 200,000 who served both in Taiwan and overseas as volunteers and conscripts beginning to die off, the need to get their first-hand accounts recorded and preserved for posterity is pressing. In maintaining their information and stories, the interested historian can do service by adding to the historical record. Knowing this, “From Volunteerism to Conscription: The Mobilization of Taiwan for the Second World War” does not seek to score political points in plotting such a course. The thesis paper simply attempts to better comprehend the mechanisms that worked to pit Taiwan against her ancestral China and to comment on the plight of the survivors, bringing up their influence on Taiwan today. So, this paper will delve into 13 years of history, from 1932 to 1945, when Taiwan sat at the side of Japan as a colonial possession, and did its part in an unprecedented modern territorial expansion. The thesis paper wants to explain more about those who served, and why their service and its outcome might remain relevant in shaping Taiwan’s story at this very moment.


SPCA Taiwan: I Am Adopting a Dog

A colleague, Sean McCormack, works for SPCA Taiwan, a nonprofit organization that take in dogs http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2009/05/05/2003442831

I've listened to him talk about it before. A lot of the dogs have been abandoned and have suffered abuse at the hands of their owners. Some are mutilated and scarred. They are, I guess, pretty traumatized. The other day, I had lunch Sean and another friend, who was looking to adopt a second dog. I sat there listening, half in a daze, wondering why my Vietnamese noodles and spring rolls were taking so long. It didn't really occur to me that I could also adopt. I have been planning to get a dog, but my intention had always been to wait until my daughter was a little older. I envisioned explaining responsibility and then seeing if she was up to the task by giving her extra chores, like washing the dishes, doing laundry and basically cleaning the house from top-to-bottom. I imagined myself cracking open a cold beverage and resting wisely on the sofa in front of Saturday morning MLB and someone doing work - two things I never get tired of watching.

On Thursday, Sean asked me if I could take a beagle called Luna. Sean found her at a hut in a field on the way up to Wulai (烏來). The hut is a popular dump site for people in Taipei who have grown bored of their pets. He said the dog, an eight-month-old beagle, had a scar or stain around her neck. It seems the previous owner kept her leashed with a wire noose. I told him I'd have to get back to him, that I had to talk to the wife, etc. At the time, I figured this was a good-enough brush off. For the rest of the day, I just couldn't get the scar out of my mind. Plus, why wouldn't I want to adopt this dog? My daughter is crazy about dogs. I think I know dogs (I grew up with them.) We go to the park by my home every night it's not raining - a great place for walking a dog. More importantly, we can help this dog.

By the time my wife came home from work, I had come up with a whole resume for this beagle. It wasn't necessary. She was on board from the moment I brought up the topic.

Sean says he goes through a certain process before signing off on an adoption:
1.) He interviews potential adopters for suitability.
2.) He has a chip embedded in the dogs. I'm not so sure about this one. I think it has to do with controling dog populations.
3.) He has the dogs vaccinated.
4.) He house breaks the dogs.
5.) He has them fixed. I don't what Animal Taiwan's policy is here. I need to get more information.

Sean also provides a dog obedience, maintenance class if he decides a suitability exists and decides to get the ball rolling on the adoption. It is worth pointing out that he will take any dog back if things do not work out with an adoption.

Sean will probably bring Luna, the beagle, over in the next couple of weeks. There are some things to work out still.


Hotwheels '69 Corvette ZL-1 Taiwan

I just tonight noticed the above Hotwheels toy car in the Japanese convenience store called Family Mart (全家) by my home in Manka (艋舺), Taiwan. Naturally, I picked one up for my daughter. Besides the flashy packaging, it was completely the same as when I was a kid. The weight is the same. The smooth spin of the wheels is the same. Plus it's made of metal, not plastic. I remember Hotwheels toy cars used to be around a buck (this was 1977). In Taiwan in 2009, they're NT$69 (two bucks and change).

People have been asking when I'll put up another post. I'm so busy with school right now that I can't imagine putting aside an hour for this thing. Tonight I had a few beers, so my sense of urgency on the thesis front is gone. When I get back to blogging (early July), this is what I'll be up to:

a) Interesting people and items I met collecting my thesis research
b) The historic area of Monga (艋舺), Taiwan. I've been collecting info. People have also been sending it to me - thanks for that.
c) How I'm paying NT$1700 a month (US$55) for security guards that do nothing but smoke, drink tea and occasionally piss me off. I'm really going to go to town on these guys one of these days.

Back to the toy cars:

The top of the package reads 007. I was trying to figure it out - when did James Bond have a '69 Corvette? I don't think he ever did. What on earth would James Bond want with an American car? Then it hit me: the goofy silver thing behind the label must be a Corvette too. James Bond was driving it when he had to swerve off a winding road to avoid hitting Eva Green, who played Vesper Lynd (for my money the hottest Bond girl ever) in Casino Royale (for my money the best flick in the Bond franchise). Besides killing people instead of just karate chopping them, it seems the newest James Bond also drives a Chevy.


Taipei Has Public Bike Transport

I noticed Taipei has a public bike system up and running around Taipei 101. We swipe our Go-cards and can then take a bike (see above pic). I'm not sure about the time limit. We can return them to one of several posts in the vicinity (there's a map). The area seems better spaced than a lot of Taiwan's older districts, so it should be pretty easy / safe for non-experienced riders to give it a go.

I've often wondered about Taiwan's bike laws - is it legal to ride on the sidewalks? The bikes do not come with helmets, so be careful. The city is now enforcing helmet laws. I think it's NT$600 a pop.


Ga La King, Monga (艋舺) Taiwan

I took these pictures near Youth Park (青年公園) Sunday in Ga La, Taiwan. For those who are not familiar with Ga La, it's the neighborhood near the Hsin Tien River and Huazhong Bridge (華中橋) in Monga (艋舺). Every weekend the park fills families from all over Taipei. It probably has the best, and most, playgrounds in town. There's also a terrific circular sandpit. A market activity has sprung up around the kids, with vendors selling plastic shovels and buckets, balls, Frisbees, plastic baseball bats and all kinds of snacks. Every now and then, a cop will slowly wind through the park on a scooter to scatter the sellers, but they're back in an instant.

The shots above are of a traditional sausage stand on the sidewalk right outside the park. The pinball machines were antique, with nail grooves and steel ball bearings. For NT$5, diners can try to win something. We played three times, accumulating points that went toward a discount on NT$10 sausages. The boy next to my wife was so engrossed that he didn't notice the vendor had given him a broken sausage. Half the meat had fallen off. She rammed it back on the stick when nobody was looking.

BTW, I found out from a taxi driver that I live in Ga La King (Taiwanese language), not Manka. Manka is over by Lungshan Temple while Ga La King accounts for the neighborhood around Youth Park. According to the taxi driver, it was named for a benevolent gangster, who had many wives and who liked to eat clams, or ga la. When the gangster died, people in Ga La King put on black T-shirts and took part in a funeral procession through the neighborhood. When I told my wife, however, she wasn't going for it. She said it's simply Ga La. That's what they call now, and way back when her grandma was a girl.
I wrote about how teenagers had taken over the playgrounds of my previous neighborhood, Wenshan, Taiwan. We've moved, but there seems to be a trend. This guy must weigh 75 kilos, but he still wants to ride a plastic seahorse on a metal coil in Youth Park (青年公園). The instructions clearly read "maximum weight 30 kilograms". So I asked him what the appeal was - if people could see him now, they'd definitely think he was a wanker. He told me "no, it's a lot of fun". My two-year-old daughter seemed to agree. She immediately ran over to the adjacent seahorse and had a bit of a competition, to see who could get theirs going "back-forth" faster.


Try Minding Your Own Business

For some reason, this man was running the exhaust off his scooter down at Ma Chang Ting (馬場町) in Manka (艋舺), Taiwan this morning when I was taking off for my bike ride. I understand that I'm going to be labeled as a fusspot or gwei-mao (龜毛) by some for not minding my own business. Others will say as a "foreigner" I have no say in Taiwan's environment or anything other problem for that matter, but I'm going to post this anyway. I went over and asked the guy what he was hoping to achieve by polluting our country, to which I received a snappish "Gan ma? (幹嘛)?" or "What the f&^%?"

I'll be the first to admit I don't get mechanics. To me, running off your motor as a means of remedy when it has some serious exhaust problems does not fix it. Instead, it simply pollutes the neighborhood and makes everyone uncomfortable, "foreigners" and locals alike. The simple solution is to get the scooter fixed.


English Teachers in Taiwan

I get letters from people who want me to promote Taiwan or, more specifically, their Web sites, to prospective English teachers. I don't really know how to respond other than to say Taiwan really doesn't look like a good proposition. Here are the facts as I know them:

1. Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. There aren't enough kids to go around.

2. The market is over-saturated. There's a struggling English cram school on every block.

3. Taiwan has some pretty tough visa policies. An English teacher will be asked to undergo a physical annually in order to obtain a work visa. This work visa is quite restrictive. You'll become more or less an indentured servant to whatever school signs for you. They will hold the work visa over your head, constantly threatening to revoke it if you do not agree to work split shifts (early mornings and evenings, plus Saturdays). To add injury to insult, you'll probably be asked to pay for the work visa and even the physical, which includes a blood test and X-ray, out of your own pocket. If you ever want to break free, and embark on the process of getting permanent residence, you'll undoubtedly find the process maddening. You'll be subjected to all kinds of strange behavior and, basically, the whims of the bureaucrat processing it. You should also keep in mind that the total of Westerners that have ever obtained citizenship is less than a hundred.  

4. Taiwan has a new tax law for "foreigners", namely, they must surrender 20 percent of their income (a very high tax bracket for Taiwan) for the first six months of every year. Considering they will only earn somewhere around US$30,000, this would probably be pretty tough to bear. They should keep these points in mind: Locals in the same financial situation will only be asked to fork over six to 13 percent. Also, this seems to be a violation of Taiwan's constitution, which states in Chapter I, General Provisions, Article 5: "There shall be equality among the various racial groups in the Republic of China (Taiwan)."

Today, I received a letter from a recruiter asking me to put my blog (they must be desperate) behind his efforts. In all sincerity, I am the last guy he should ask. First, I haven't worked in the cram school racket for some time, so any positive comments by me on the matter would be disingenuous. Second, I have my visa through my Taiwanese wife, which is sort of like a Taiwan green card. Therefore, I'm more or less exempt from the visa BS anyone else coming from overseas would surely encounter.

Please note that the mandate of this blog is personal amusement, meaning a bit of history, day-to-day anecdotes and whatever else pops into my mind. Recruiters stay away. I am not interested in "sharing the belief that living and working abroad is a unique and amazing opportunity to travel and see the rest of the world." I am not interested in being part of a "recruitment process [that] provides candidates with as much information about living abroad as we can". I am in Taiwan for the long haul. I love being here and I couldn't leave if I felt otherwise. I am not interested in people looking to get their rocks off on stints overseas while they find themselves. In fact, this kind of voyeurism disturbs me.


Multipurpose Playground

In my last post, I talked about 14-year-olds taking over the playground by my home. I'd never been to the park during the daytime as I have to work. On a day off, however, I took my daughter out for a stroll. As evident from the above the pictures, the local laundromat has also put the grounds to use.

That very same evening, we returned to the playground. This time, an old man was splayed across both slides smoking. We played around him for a while, until I asked him: "Why don't you get off the slides?" What gives with the Wenshan playgrounds? Really, I don't get it.


Strawberry Generation X in My Backyard

There are four parks within minutes from my home in Wenshan, Taiwan. They all have monkey bars, slides, rocking turtles and teenagers. For some reason, the teenagers in my neighborhood congregate in playgrounds. This is a concern for parents with infants as the older kids weave their bikes through wobbling toddlers, practice throwing fastballs with rocks at anything colorful that can serve as a target, slam dunk basketballs between the monkey bar grates and persist in all other kinds of stupid and dangerous stunts. They also litter cigarette butts and empty drink boxes on the ground where the smaller kids are playing. I really don't get why the playgrounds are so popular with teenagers, but every single one in my neighborhood comes with them.

I took the above shot a couple of Sundays ago. Notice how teenagers have taken over the jungle gym - the kids in the picture are 14 and 15 years old . I was telling myself I'd do something about it if my daughter tried to climb the stairs. Then another two-year-old beat her to it. He didn't get far as the kid with his ass hanging out dropped a couple of rungs, oblivious to the little boy he was impeding and about to land on, and continued with his attempts to impress the young ladies inside. When I went over and asked them if they were little kids, or if they weighed 30 kilograms or less like the sign said they needed to be, he became even more sarcastic than I was being and a bit hostile. "This is not a joke," I warned him. "Get lost." After the teenagers had returned the playground to the toddlers, a mom came over and thanked me. There was a nice wimpy-looking man nearby and his face was beet red. He was the little boy's father.

I go to this park almost every evening after I pick my daughter up from the babysitter's. The teenagers are always there. It has more or less the same crew; sometimes it swells to ten or even 15, and then there are some new faces. On occasion, the teenagers borrow my cell phone to call up more buddies to come over. I'm starting to get to know a few, like Andy, who's 14, and his chain-smoking girlfriend Amy. I once asked Andy if he had to study or something. He said he did from time to time. "Come on," I prodded, "you're not that diligent" and he agreed.

Actually, I'm finding when I talk to Andy and a few of his pals that I like them. I hear a lot of talk about how this generation, labeled the Strawberry Generation (actually they're post Strawberries as they were born from 1993-96 - Strawberries are the 1980s), is pretty useless. According to people my age (I'm 38), they're selfish, lazy, wasteful, unfilial and what have you. Taiwan's birthrate, which is less than one now combined with a high divorce rate, 35% and increasing last I heard, are the main culprits for spawning these non-Confucian mutants. Parents do one of the three: spoil them as they're only children, neglect them as they have to work 24/7 to keep up with the country's high cost of living or simply ignore them as they're divorced and back in the dating game. The tag Strawberry speaks to the character of this generation. It's easy to bruise.

The reason I think I might kind of like post Strawberries is they seem less inhibited, freer and a lot more fun. They can be pretty friendly, in a real way. I see this in Andy, the before-mentioned ringleader of the park invaders. He often comes over to talk to me, between smokes, and not just to bum my cell phone. He plays with my daughter and even scolds me for not teaching her better English.

When I mix new Taiwanese like my daughter (20% of Taiwanese babies have at least one "foreign" parent) in with the Strawberries and post-Strawberries, I can see that Taiwan is soon going to be a radically different place. That's more than OK by me. In a way, the presence of such a generation is "sweet" and satisfying, so long as it's not in my local playground.


No Hubbub about Pandas

We didn't think the pandas were on display yet. That's why we went to the zoo today, to enjoy it before all the hubbub. We also went because it's 10 minutes from our home and my daughter loves ostriches, hippos, monkeys, gray wolf and zebras, which she has started calling "zemas". We timed the pandas wrong; the circus is already up and running. Note: if you do want to visit the zoo and do not want to be counted as one among the fawning masses, make sure you say "I don't want one" the minute you swipe your MRT card to get in. I didn't know what was going on, so when the ticket checker thrust out her arm and abruptly said "Please wait", I did exactly that. A moment later I was holding a stub with the time 4:10 - 4:19 for a panda viewing. I wasn't asked if I wanted to see them, but I'm sure I'm being counted as one (three counting my wife and daughter) out in support of this scam.

The reason I find this so offputting is the pandas are named Tuan Tuan (團團) and Yuan Yuan (圓圓). When you put the words together, you get 團圓 or reunification in English. To suggest that Taiwan and the PRC are being reunified is disingenuous, especially since the PRC didn't even exist until 54 years after China threw Taiwan to Japan. That's just part of it. In 1683, China tried to sell Taiwan back to the Dutch. Around the same time, the Emperor Kangshi said that Taiwan was nothing more than a blob of mud floating in the sea, a blob that would never be worthy of inclusion within the Center Kingdom. Historically speaking, the Taiwanese have never shown an interest in being a part of China either. The numbers speak for themselves: during 212 years of Ching rule, they revolted 159 times. When I showed my wife the stub, she gave her usual spit of disgust: "We don't want to see any damned pandas!" My wife blames President Ma for all of this and even calls him a traitor or a mole, like Matt Damon in The Deceased. Personally, I'm not one to take sides when it comes to politics. The last eight years have proven to me that no matter who's in power, I'm still going to be labeled as an outsider (I'm white) and have my rights limited for this reason.

I'm really not picking sides when it comes to President Ma and the previous administration. I can't stress this enough. After all, it was Chen who scapegoated "foreign" laborers as the reason for Taiwan's escalating unemployment rate, who went off on a xenophobic tirade about having an American grandson, who did nothing to overturn some pretty racial immigration laws, etc. But I am noticing a pattern with Ma, that perhaps my wife is right when she says he playing Matt Damon to a Jack Nicholson Beijing. In The Deceased, Matt Damon is groomed by Boston gangsters to infiltrate the police department. When he gets older, he goes through the police academy, enters the police department, moves up the chain of command. All the while he's feeding the gangster organization he truly works for anything they want. For me, this whole panda thing shows something about Ma's intentions.

Ma's maneuvers also remind of something I saw seven years ago, when I was at the 2002 Asian Championships for Women's Soccer at the old stadium on the corner of Dunhua and Nanking in Taipei. China was playing the Philippines and it wasn't a great game. She had already scored ten goals and was now controling the ball to run out the clock. I was there with a couple of American friends. We had a chest of beer, so we weren't about to leave even though the game was out of reach for the Filipinas. I remember there were some Taiwanese patriots in the stands waving Taiwan flags. A few had banners, reminding the Chinese about Tibet and Tianamen, and anything else they could think of. Suddenly, the cops showed up and started confiscating flags and banners. My friends and I were stunned. We couldn't imagine someone having their country's flag confiscated by their own police. So we started to shout down to some people directly below us who had a flag, giving them words of encouragement.

The police were making their way toward us and flag bearers were anxious. "Come sit with us," they pleaded. "The police will be afraid of you." That was a bit hard for us to believe. It probably would've been within the powers of the police to take our beer and write us up for public drunkeness. Plus our message to them was "Stand up for yourselves!" After the cops had made off with their flags, we walked down to find out what had transpired. It seems the cops weren't that happy about the task, but were acting on the orders of then Taipei Mayor, Mr. Ma.

At the end of the day, I can't understand why two pandas in Taiwan with a combined name that seems to undermine the country's sovereignty is not offensive but free speech, which is protected by Taiwan's constitution, or the Taiwan flag are.


My Cute Family to Receive Tawian Tax Vouchers

According to the explanation provided above, I'll be receiving a "tip" (the same word, I think, as they use in restaurants for good service) of NT$3600 this coming Sunday from Taiwan's government, which is in the process of "tidying up Taiwan's economy". I'm a bit surprised, as I didn't think I'd be getting a whiff of the money the government is doling out. But it seems all I have to do is show up with my ARC (Alien Resident Card) at an elementary school in Wanhua (萬華) and I can collect.

I'd heard that "foreign" spouses would be eligible, but when I mentioned this to local friends, it was explained that a "foreign" spouse meant a woman from Vietnam, Indonesia or China, not me. The tip has been called a tax credit or tax rebate by some, but as my American friend Craig has bitterly pointed out, many "foreigners" who pay taxes in Taiwan will not be included. He counts himself among the disenfranchised. He's been paying taxes in Taiwan for 21 years and won't get squat. My daughter, on the other hand, who has never paid taxes or for anything else in her life, will be making off like a bandit. My in-laws received a list of family members who'd be collecting come Sunday. The list included my wife's grandma, my father and mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law, my niece, my wife and my daughter. Even though I am listed on the official family registration from which these names were drawn, I received a separate notice.

From what I can understand of this letter, I am encouraged to spend, not bank, this money on myself, my cute family or someone else that I love. Details on how I can collect are given in Vietnamese, Indonesian, English, Thai and Burmese. It's been a killer year. The cash will be nice to receive regardless of the terms.



Back Up to Wulai

"In 1964, the Wulai Feng-ching Ch'u Kuan-li So or Administrative Office of the Wulai Scenic Area (AOWSA) in Wulai was founded. It is estimated the number of tourists coming to Wulai has averaged about 3,000 per day since the mid-1960s. Tourist revenues have become the most important economic resource in Wulai. Although the government has actively encouraged the Atayal residents to plant firs and mushrooms, the great majority of this indiginous group, especially the women, continue to depend on the tourist industry...." -Hsieh Shih-chung

When I read something like this, I wonder why the government doesn't encourage Taiwanese people to plant mushrooms and then work on the Atayal (泰雅) Aborigines to open shops and become prosperous. It's like when Chen was targeting Filipino and Indonesian workers, saying they were stealing labor jobs from Aborigines. He never said, "let them have them, because I'm going make sure every Aborigine goes to university to ensure he or she can make more than NT$16,000 per month, maybe less with forced days of unpaid leave off."

Anyway, Wulai (烏來), though crowded, is great place to visit especially if you're like me, even on a busy holiday like this (see above pic - I think there must have been three times the average for visitors, amazing for a town with a population around 2,000). First of all, it's right up the road from Wenshan (文山) where I live. Second, they've got a lot of cheap, tasty dishes. It's also in the mountains and the scenery is beautiful. Finally, they've got hot springs everywhere; it can be quite relaxing (although we ended up paying NT$1800 or US$60 for a 1.5-hour soak). The waters and fresh air are a nice way to recover from any new year-party hangover.

Normally in the Wulai (烏來), the shopkeepers will do anything to attract your attention. They'll wave at you, talk broken English or stick food samples on toothpicks in your way. This Indian restaurant was different. If it hadn't been for the Indian guy working the upside-down woks, where they heat up Indian springroll shells, I never would've noticed. According to the owner, an Indian man from the Punjab, they've been in business for a year. That means I've walked by this place on several occasions without taking the slightest notice.

Wulai is actually supposed to be Atayal (泰雅), the name given to Aborigines of similar traits and a shared language some 101 years ago by Japanese anthropologists. In truth, it's a hodgepodge. The last I heard, the town was 98+ percent Taiwanese owned. The Aborigines who work in the shops for the gratifiction of Aborigine-seeking tourists come from all over, though most of them do come from from a town just beyond river. The owners have asked them to bring stuff from home, to make the shops look more authentic. That's why you can seen pictures of Bunun (布農) Aborigines on the walls singing in religious ceremonies or clothes that might be Kavalan (噶瑪蘭). There's a really good variety.
I had this after the Indian spring rolls. It was supposed to boar meat, but when was the last time you saw a boar in Taiwan? Whatever it was, I couldn't complain. Fried with chilis and lots of onions, a serving only costs NT$100 (US$3) and really hits the spot.
This line, which stretched out on to the bridge with Taiwan flags, was for sausages . (See the sign? They contain boar meat!). There were about ten stands selling sausages in Wulai, but this was the only place you had to wait for a half an hour to get one. I asked my wife what was so special about the sausages. She couldn't really be brought to believe that the sausages were that much better or worth a thirty-minute wait. She hadn't seen anything about this place on the news, etc. "The thing that is special," she explained, "is there are a lot of people waiting to get a sausage. If you stand in this line, you could get something other people can't and that makes you special. Plus, these people are bored." I didn't have anything to do either. That was why I was in Wulai. But I wasn't about to wait this long unless they were giving the things away. And even then, I 'd still probably decline. I do know that if I ever open a food stand, I'm going to get my friends to stand out front. Or, I'm going to organize 10 to 15 food stand owners, so that we take turns rotating from stand to stand to drum up business.