Friday, October 31, 2008

招財


We weren't supposed to get a cat. The landlady wasn't keen on it (she didn't say "no" exactly, she gave that Taiwanese-style no in which the person stands there and looks uncomfortable until you realize they mean no).

Auntie Wu down the street insists she knows why; apparently our landlady (whose niece we deal with, not her directly, she's too shy about not speaking English and no amount of reassuring the niece that I speak Chinese is going to change that) is quite superstitious in accordance with her advanced age, and cats bring bad spirits. Or something. Maybe she just doesn't like them.

Anyway, we weren't supposed to get a cat.

It's really a shame - and by "a shame" I mean "fantastic" - that a cat got us.

So, everyone, meet Zhao Cai (招財), our lucky cat who beckoned to my sister and came on Halloween.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

More on "Red Asia, Blue Europe"

...or was it Blue Europe, Red Asia?

Whatever.

This Global Electoral College poll from the Economist proves my earlier point...there is no Red Asia. Governments might lean towards McCain, but the people do not.

It's not a very scientific poll...it can really only be taken by people who cared enough go read The Economist online. But it does indicate...well...something.

Notice that Taiwan is specifically a "country" in the selection. Go Economist! Jia you, baby.

The world - be it Europe, Asia, or anywhere else, does not want a McCain presidency. That's kind of funny (and unfortunate for McCain) given his deep knowledge of foreign policy. I deeply dislike the man's platforms, but you can't deny that on world affairs he knows his shiznit.

I am surprised that so much of Africa is "red". I realize that Obama is specifically Kenyan and specifically of the Kenyan Luo people, but you'd think there would be some solidarity. Most African Americans are of West African, not Kenyan or eastern, descent and yet are still mostly pro-Obama.

Oh well. Goes to show that you never know, and I am admittedly quite uneducated about African affairs.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Seafood Noodle Something

I found another great place the other day on Nanjing W. Road, near Dihua Street.

Problem is, I don't know what they're called. I snatched a paper menu with the name across the top but the characters - I tried to look them up by radical - are not in my 3000 character dictionary.

So the title reads to me as 海鮮麵 something-something.

Their specialty - other than, of course, seafood noodles, is extra-large shrimp wontons. They offer regular-size wontons, as well, but they're pretty generic.

Another thing they have that is a bit unique is squid xiaochi (the Hakka-style small plate snacks, usually served cold). I've seen lots of xiao chi in my time, but this is one of the first times blanched, cold squid has been available. It's cooked perfectly - rings of squid that are soft and easy to eat - not even a hint of rubbery over-cooking. The subtle taste of the squid is allowed to come through; in most dishes I find it's used as a base flavor while the tangier, louder flavors of the seasonings form the main crux of taste. Here, it's seasoned with just a bit of sweet soy sauce and coriander, and left to be enjoyed as is. In any other restaurant that would equal tastelessness, but the freshness and well-cooked nature of the squid allowed the understated yet fine flavor to come through.

The large shrimp wontons were, of course, delicious. I got them served with rice vermicelli in a broth that was so light that I thought, disappointed, that it was tasteless. A few more sips revealed that it did have a lovely flavor...it was simply very subtle. In the end I did add some vinegar, chili oil and sesame oil though. The wontons themselves were as promised - huge and bursting with delicious, fresh shrimp. A mottle of ground shrimp was interspersed with small whole shrimp and it was large enough that you felt you were getting real, substantial meat. Most shrimp wontons and dumplings feel as though they're mostly bread with just a smattering of actual seafood inside.

All in all, a delicious meal and highly recommended for seafood lovers who want to try something quieter than a night at a 100-kuai-a-plate seafood&beer joint.

Seafood Noodle Something-Something is located on Nanjing W. Road #157 (north side of the road) not far from the Chongqing/Ningxia/Dihua area.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cho West (Red House Theater) - Part II

...continued from the previous post:

We didn't have time - and just weren't in the area - when Red House reopened for real at the end of the summer. It wasn't until yesterday that we had the chance to go.

We also discovered, behind the theater, that the old row of shops and such has been completely re-done with outdoor cocktail bars and eateries...some of them nice enough to rival the best Xinyi has to offer. Definitely worth a look on a Saturday night. The outdoor seating is in a brick cobbled area with views of Red House, has dramatic lighting and generally looks like a great - if expensive - place to hang out.

In place of the old ad-hoc cafe, they've opened a classy new place called Cho West (町西). The prices are about the same as the old cafe, which means "expensive, but not out of this world". NT 120-200 for coffee and espresso drinks, 190-400 for snacks and meals, a range of tea priced depending on quality, and alcohol (sake, plum wine and other non-Western drinks) for 190 or so per glass, 390-490 for a bottle. Orders of black coffee come with a free slice of cake, and if you order the set they'll let you change the set drinks with only minimal extra charge.

Why are they called "Cho West" when the first character is "Ding"? I have no idea. We asked the waitress, and she didn't know either.

I'll be honest - I didn't want to like Cho West, but it won me over despite its sleekness. Old-style Taiwanese music ebbs and flows below the crowd noise, and the leather chairs are minimalist and yet still comfortable. The wooden tables and traditional-style cups and pots they use for tea lend a softer air to a place that would normally be too chi-chi for me. It actually suits the architecture and color scheme of Red House far more than the old cafe did (though I still miss the old cafe. It practically defined my first year inTaipei).

I didn't expect much from the food, and yet again I was won over. The coffee was legitimately good - I got a coffee with Bailey's (a good deal for genuine alcohol in one's coffee at NT180 - other alcohol is available) and Brendan got black coffee.

When his cake came - chocolate - again I expected disappointment. It looked so austere, so fashionably non-gooey. But looks can be deceiving, and it was not only quite chocolately but also soft...almost cloud-like.

My set meal came with soup - and yet again, I balked as one of those creamy soups so popular in set meals here was set down before me. I'm used to these being horrid; you know, watered cream and canned vegetables, and you need to add half a shaker of pepper to get any flavor at all.

But again, it was not so. The cream was real cream, and it was enhanced with real soup stock, not water. Mushrooms were...can this be? Actual mushrooms! From the ground, not a can!

It also came with "appetiser plum tea" - a cold, cherry-blossom colored tea with ice served in a bowl-like cup. At first a bit too sour for my taste, it quickly grew on me. I finished it off before my coffee came.

The smoked chicken bacon bagel was fairly standard for Taipei - a raisin-and-corn salad (?!), toasted bagel and diced chicken with ketchup and pepper. Not particularly special, but not bad. The bacon it came with was quite lovely - thick and savory but not too fatty.

The exhibit is open again, but is also a lot better-designed than before (excepting a few English errors...apparently the old market at Red House used to sell cosmetics, umbrellas, fruits, vegetables and deserts), and the gift shop is back, though smaller. I'm sad to see the fish gone, though.

Performances - in various styles ranging from Chinese or Taiwanese opera to more modern plays - are still shown upstairs. You can pick up a schedule (Chinese only but someone will help you read it if needed) at the information desk.

Definitely worth a stop, especially if you're in Ximen on a hot day and want a break. Also an excellent place to bring a date or visiting friends/relatives to show them a classy - but not gaudy - side of Taipei.

Red House is off Exit 1 of Ximen MRT to the left of Ximending.

Cho West (Red House Theater) Part I


I figure it's doubly OK to gank this photo off Wikipedia because I'm pretty sure my boyfriend took it and posted it there.

Many of you already know that I'm a huge fan of the Red House Theater in Ximen. I like the architecture, the history, the location, the food (it's cycled through various eateries and coffeeshops) and the performances. There's really no way to not love it.

A new cafe has opened up inside Red House, and I'll review it later (after a bit of history and my mangled love affair with the place).

Many others might know that the Red House has gone through some internal upheaval recently. When I first arrived in Taipei, the cross-shaped building was closed except for special exhibits, and at times the main hall was devoid of visitors. It housed a hodgepodge of things, all squished together: a gift shop, a mishmash exhibit on its history that was hard to follow, a performance hall upstairs, some smelly star lilies, a cafe and about ten aquariums.

I, personally, liked it that way - fun but not ordered, hidden but in plain sight, and as one person beautifully described in a metaphor for Taipei, popular (depending on tour groups) but not fashionable. The friendly, cozy but not hip, affable but slightly frazzled nature of the place was charming...again, much like Taipei.

I liked the ad-hoc feeling of the old cafe, with its amazing but overpriced coffee, friendly staff and mismatched seats. I liked the seat with the sockets (so I could use my computer) next to an aquarium that had, hanging inside, a plastic covered postcard advertising A Wayward Cloud. For those who don't know, A Wayward Cloud was a very - ahem - visually descriptive movie famous in Taiwan for its uncensored, unsimulated sex scenes. One of which - a pretty graphic blowjob - was on this postcard. For awhile Brendan and I called it "The BJ Aquarium Cafe" and considered it one of those fun, unique things you discover in the course of settling into a new city.

My first Chinese lessons were in Red House. I sat out plum rains in Red House (the staffers gave me free coffee because they knew me so well). It dawned on me that my back problems in 2006 were not going to get any better and I would need surgery while I was checking email in Red House. A big black dog peed on my old computer bag in Red House (and the owner had it immediately dry-cleaned).

In September 2007, I was naturally dismayed when the cafe owners told me that it was going to close. "But, why?"

"It's just not profitable. The gift shop is empty. The cafe is in the red, and when people come to Ximending they aren't looking for Red House."

"But...but...what will happen to it? It's a historical landmark. They can't just close it."

"The Taipei city government decided to auction off rights to set up a shop or cafe inside to a private entity."

"Which one? Who?"

"Nobody knows - it hasn't been auctioned yet."

"What will they do with it?"

"Nobody knows."

At the end of September they held a blowout yard sale, selling off all of the old gift shop and other items at discounted prices. We picked up some tea set items and a dragon batik. For the next few months it opened only for special exhibits.

Fast forward one year, and we are in the neighborhood poking around. A small cafe has re-opened but they only serve tea.

"We're not exactly open yet," the owner tells us. "Come back at the end of August and everything will be done."

For the time being, the rest of the interior holds one small store that sells things emblazoned with eyeballs - I still don't get that - and a lot of renovation materials. Wood planks, wires, sawdust.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The 10/25 Protests

We didn't spend as much time at this (or should I say these as it was several protest points all converging later) as we did at the previous green-centric one. There happened to be a religious processional - one of those "God's Border Inspection Tours" where Qi ye, ba ye, the bajiajiang (traditionally costumed martial arts guys in face paint) Matsu's companions and lion and dragon dancers all come out. We hadn't been to one in awhile so tried to split our time between the two.

Speaking of which, if you're a traveler to Taiwan and have never seen one, if you have the chance do not miss it. Those processionals are very rare, if nonexistent, in China...so Taiwan is your best bet and it's one of the highlights of Taiwanese cultural and folk life.

We caught the processional by Shuanglian near the small temple behind the MRT's north exit, and then headed over to Zhongshan N. Road to watch the protest go by and add our own chants of "Daiwan Ga Yu!" (台灣加油!) to the crowd. We sat by Mackay Memorial Hospital's old brick arches with all the patients with IV tubes - some also chanting pro-Taiwan slogans - and the charity ladies selling bread products at a markup (also chanting slogans).

The entire thing was...huge. More people than the last protest if what we saw was only 1/4 of the full number in attendance. More people than the 10/10 KMT rally in 2006. More people than the anti-World Bank/IMF protests on my college campus in...1999? That one resulted in cancelled classes, and still wasn't as big as the one on Saturday.

One guy from the march came up to me and said - and I quote -

Guy: "Daiwan Ga Yu!"
Me: "Yeah, Daiwan Ga Yu!"
Guy: "Taiwan Jia You!"
Me: "Taiwan Jia You!"
Guy: "Taiwan Duli!" (台灣獨立)
Me: "Taiwan Duli!"
Guy: "FUCK CHINA!"
Me: "Damn straight. Err..ah, fuck China!"
Guy: "YAAAAAH!"
Me: "YAAAAAH!"

He then sauntered off to follow the van full of people with bullhorns shouting "Ma Ying-jiu xia tai!", leaving me, Brendan and the IV-tube guys bemused.

Indeed.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Daxi and Fuxing

A group of us went to Daxi and Fuxing last Sunday just for the heck of it...it was a wonderful day that none of us had really planned in advance ("Where are we going?" my sister asked when we got to the train station. "And have you got any aspirin?") and a day trip that none of us had considered before. It seemed too far away to get there and back in a day. How wrong we were.

It's quite easy to go - the only confusion came after exiting Taoyuan train station. The Rough Guide says the bus stop is behind the station, after using an underpass to cross beneath the tracks. It makes it sound like the underpass is right next to the station. It's not. It's a tiny, barely-noticeable entrance in front of the station near the McDonald's.

On the other side there was a whole SE Asian neighborhood - Vietnamese, Indonesian, Filipino and Thai stores lined the streets. Definitely worth exploring someday. The food is probably great. We thought we heard a mosque chanting out the azaan but no - it was a karaoke bar, up and running at 9am.

We spent more time than planned in Daxi - famous for its dou gan (dried tofu which is pretty darn good) and old shophouses. So far, this Old Street and Sanxia's are the only two that have really impressed me in the Taipei area, though I do love Dihua Street and do all my dried goods, tea and fabric shopping there. The bus often lets you off right in front of it - it meanders to the side of the big white gate on the north end of town.

There is a direct Taipei-Daxi bus but it runs pretty rarely. It makes more sense to take the train to Taoyuan and catch it from there.

Some photos:


Apparently this torridness is HOT. (That character is re - the Chinese word for hot).

Me and Brendan in Daxi

More Architecture from Daxi

Becca (my sis) with Adorable Dog

Delicious tofu

We then hopped another bus (heading back to the gate from the old street and walking south to the other end of the main boulevard, where the bus station is located). We considered stopping at Cihu, but...eh. Ultimately we took a pass.

Fuxing was quite pretty, if not as majestic as the scenery on the Central Cross-Island Highway (still my favorite). We did the touristy thing and relaxed in the Youth Center coffeeshop before walking down to the water and crossing the suspension bridge.

The coffeeshop/pub lauded in Rough Guide is now inaccessible from the way we tried. There was a landslide obstructing the path from the end before the bridge. The same path is accessible from the other side of the bridge if you head left and up the hill, turning right on the trailhead past the resthouse offering shaved ice and drinks, but I don't know if the R.G. place is still in business seeing as there's no short trail. Hopefully a new one will be cut soon.

Some notes about the town:

- I don't know what's up with Grand Mushroom Boulevard. Any thoughts?
- Fuxing seems to close down completely by 7pm. The aboriginal restaurant where we ate was one of the few places still open when we caught the bus at 7:30.
- Very good aboriginal food, though it's the Chinese influenced kind (as all of it seems to be). We had delicious mountain pig, snails, freshwater shrimp and vegetables at a restaurant near the Youth Center entrance - the one with the nicest decoration. The owner is a bit fuzzyheaded but very, very nice. His sentences blend together in odd ways. We got a Foreigner Discount, though, so it's all good.

The View from the Coffeeshop - definitely worth an expensive latte or three

The Suspension Bridge - which is mighty scary when it's windy, if you're clumsy like moi

Welcome To The Great Mushroom Boulevard, it says.

Rainbow!

Sunset Begins

Delicious Mountain Pig

Sunset Continues

Heejin with Another Adorable Dog

We had hoped to continue up to Xiao Wulai that day but sadly, it was not meant to be. There isn't enough time for all three unless you're on the train by 6am.

On the way back, try to get the driver to take you all the way to Taoyuan train station. It is certainly feasible to do, and yet our driver refused to do it. It's not a long walk, but not a short one either after you've been walking around a lake and up a hill all day.

More on Zhang

You know, I don't like this guy. He almost makes me want to change my Chinese name (Zhang Bai Lian - white lotus, not white face though it's a great conversation starter at parties).

Though I'm still not an advocate of beating him up while he was visiting the Confucius temple just because beating people up is what the Evil side does, and I'm all for Good (in this case, Taiwan) - beating people up is what the CCP does to dissidents and what the old KMT did to dissidents, too.

Here's a video of what went down - literally -



I dunno. Some people say it was pushes, kicks and punches plus an attack on the car. Some say it was a 'fall' and no violent action. Some say it was a push, but not with punching.

Looking at it, I see a push, and the guy who picks him up doesn't want to help him; that's dragging. A different guy leads him away. I do see what appear to be a few kicks and some raised fists, but it's true that there aren't any actual punches.

There's definitely an attack on the car, but it wouldn't have done bodily harm to anyone inside.

At the end, it still makes Taiwan look bad - whether or not that's fair, which it isn't, that's what's happening in the press - and that's still not going to help the cause.

I do have to agree with the shouting dude though. Taiwan bu shi Zhongguo de. Right on.

"Blue Europe, Red Asia"? Methinks not.

This stunning piece of tripe appeared in the Taipei Times today:

Blue Europe, Red Asia

...and I am agog with...well, not just with surprise at the inaccuracy, but with the generality of it, the lack of attention to detail in the overall assessment, and with then supporting those generalizations (when dealing with entire continents one has to be general, fair enough) with precious little evidence.

Anecdotally, it's pretty clear to me that Asians do not, in fact, generally support McCain. Looking at Taiwan, despite the fact that there is a line of argument saying that McCain would be better for Taiwan (something I disagree with, but hey, I covered that in a previous post) the general public consensus is that Obama is the better candidate.

At least when the author discusses China, she uses the term "may very likely" - as in she may very likely not have enough research and is basing that assertion on conjecture. The Chinese people hated Bush - this was all too evident during my time in China, and not just anecdotally. Many now seem to see McCain as an extension of Bush. Whether he is or is not is not worth getting into just now (I think he is, but that's a personal opinion).

I've spent quite a bit of time in India and keep in touch with plenty of people there. This is again anecdotal, but so far the questions I've asked my desi friends about the general consensus of the Indian populace - if there can ever be such a thing - is that Obama is far and away the better candidate.

Of course, surveys awhile back on the Indonesian opinion of Obama held him in favorable regard, and that does not seem to have changed.

So where are these "Red Asians" who lean towards McCain for all of the reasons listed in the article (a preference for traditional security measures, traditional US involvement, and being able to snatch the "mantle of hope" from the USA should McCain be elected)? I certainly don't know any of them. I'm sure they're out there - Asia's big, in case you haven't noticed - but the generalities expressed in this article seem questionable at best, blatantly false at worst....rather like the assertion that McCain will be better for Taiwan just because the party platform language contains more wording about Taiwan. Very shaky indeed.

I won't address Japan - I know precious little on Japanese foreign policy and public consensus so have nothing to add there.

Moisi may have a point that there are governments out there who favor McCain. I could see the Chinese government doing so, though I don't know for sure (I'm not sure anyone really knows for sure; can one really trust anything the Chinese government says about its policies, actions, alliances or...frankly, anything at all?)...I'm less convinced about India. I could go into detail as to why, but this is a blog on Taiwan so I would rather not devote the space to it here.

But the people? Sorry honey...but no. It doesn't seem as though Dominique Moisi has even been to Asia, or she'd have a much better general idea about how people feel here. Even then, it would only be very, very general.

This, however, is brilliant. Very wordy and dense article on alternatives that Asian institutions have at saving their financial markets in lieu of the bank bailouts currently in vogue in G7 countries. Quite intelligent and I have nothing to add lest I sound like an uneducated boor. [name drop] Plus I know the guy who wrote it, and he's a smart fella. [/name drop]

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Zhang Mingqing Incident

As I commented on The View From Taiwan, I'm disappointed in the perpetrators of the attack on Zhang Mingqing.

Don't get me wrong - I don't like the man's politics. I am also, however, a strong believer in the civilmindedness of Taiwanese society - there will always be bad eggs in any population but it seems that in general, Taiwan is much less hotheaded and self-serving than some other countries I could name (*ahem* China, the USA - I'm looking at you).

The attack - whether it was just a push, whether it was a push and a punch, or as my Chinese teacher said, a push, punch, slam to the back of the head and attack on a car - projects a very poor image and an even worse example. Taiwan should be seeking to maintain its image as being more developed, more civil, more reasonable and more civically oriented than Big Red. It is all of those things, but it sure doesn't show in the light of this incident.

I understand the anger and frustration that led to this happening - I'm not even Taiwanese and I feel the same frustration at times. It hurts, it really does, to see Taiwan so often sidelined. Not by China - being yanked around by them is kind of like being manipulated by a gaggle of sorority girls...you know they're beyotches and what they do only reflects that fact. Rather, by the rest of the world who ought to know better - who does know better - but parks Taiwan on the bench because they have to play nice with the sorority girls of Commie Commie Sig. It's saddening. I get that. It sucks. I get that. It sucks giant hanging balls off a stray dog in Xinzhuang. I get that.

Unfortunately, you still can't vent all of that frustration and sadness by punching an old guy in the face when he's on his way to the Confucius temple for personal, spiritual reasons.

It just doesn't make you look good, and it doesn't make Taiwan look good. Who are the grownups here? Taiwan ought to show that it's them. Fight for real - don't punch an old dude and pretend that it does your cause a jot of good.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reason #3 to Love Taiwan

Inexpensive beauty care! I got a full facial and upper back massage today for $600 NT, about 1/3 the cost of one in the USA. Maybe 1/4.

I had a particularly stressful day today, capping off an almost-complete stressful week. Six new one-on-one social etiquette and writing skills classes (six!) at the Taipei offices of a major IT firm have just started, and I'm well on my way to breaking my monthly earnings record at this job.

Although that's not normally a priority - free time and quality of life are at the top of the list - it's certainly welcome cash as we plan our trip to Egypt, India and the USA next year.

As a special treat to help me unwind I stopped in the beauty care shop in Jingmei Night Market (towards the southern end, just before the food stalls) and got The Works.

First they wiped me down, laid me down on a comfy massage bed and covered my face in sticky goo. Then they covered the goo with layers of paper until I looked (and felt) mummified. While chatting in Taiwanese they rubbed that Icy Hot stuff all over my shoulders and gave me a good old-fashioned pounding until I relaxed and my vertebrae cracked into place. It feels nicer than it sounds.

"Don't talk while it's drying!" they insisted in Chaiwanese - that night-market-centric language that seems to be half Chinese and half Taiwanese.

After it dried, they pulled it up, bringing lots of gunk with it, covered me in more lotion and proceeded to use an electric scrapey thing to coax even more gunk out.

Lovely.

After I'd been scraped down like an Orwellian torture victim, they painted me with runny, milky goo.

I won't tell you what that reminded me of. Heh.

Then they covered me in a face-shaped felt thing and let me sit for about 10 minutes while they pounded me some more (which felt really nice, but slightly violating considering what my face seemed to be covered in).

Then they took that off and wiped me down again.

My skin has never looked better or felt cleaner, and the tension I've carried in my shoulderblades all week is finally gone.

I might just have to get this done every month...

GAH!

So I received and sent in my absentee ballot from the Virginia elections board - I bet you can all guess who I'm voting for.

The envelope the ballot came in was addressed to me in "Taipei, Taiwan, Province of China".

GAAAAAH!

The one I got from Arlington Democrats before the ballot came (funny, I was pretty sure I chose "independent" as my affiliation when I registered to vote. Huh) was just as bad, if not worse: Taiwan, PR China.

PR China! For effing eff's god-forsaking goodness gosh-diddly-arned I-wanna-swear-so-bad sake! Never have the letters "W", "T" and "F" been so appropriate.

Again, GAAAH!

It happened awhile back, but coming across the envelope again, I'm still annoyed...and I'm not even Taiwanese!

I checked my boyfriend's ballot envelope from Maine, and they just addressed it as "Taiwan". I'm waiting to hear on the address noted for my friend registered in New York, and wondering what other states use the offensive designation of "China" in their election mail.

I realize that there's some "standard" list out there that has Taiwan down as "Province of China" - that's something I dealt with on my favorite message board, as well (they changed it; they hadn't noticed it and when they did it was also offensive to them). That doesn't mean it's right, doesn't mean it's fair, and really does not mean it's OK.

I'll have to write to Virginia and Arlington Democrats (may as well stay on their mailing list, I'm "independent" but pretty much never vote Republican 'cause I'm far too socially liberal and all the socially liberal Republicans seem to be in Maine) after the election, when they have time on their hands and at least register a complaint.

Might not change anything. Probably won't. But I have to try.

If anyone cares to leave a comment letting me know what their state designates for Taiwan on absentee voter mail, I'd love to hear it. If I can find that many states do not use the ire-inducing "Province of China" moniker, it will build a stronger case.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Camotes


Obligatory Beautiful Sunset, Mangodlong, Camotes


As I mentioned a few entries ago, Brendan and I spent Double Ten weekend back in the Philippines. I haven't posted about it because I have been too lazy to upload my photos until now. We went to the Camotes, which is relevant to Taiwan in approximately zero ways...

...well, maybe one.

Many people who find themselves based in Taiwan are interested in visiting neighboring countries such as China, Japan and - yes - the Philippines. Writing about our time there is a bit of information that can help people get a feel for the place if they haven't been to Southeast Asia before. What I love about the place, though, is that it's totally unlike the rest of SE Asia. It's been influenced more by Western colonialism (English is an effortless second language for most Filipinos and the country is overwhelmingly Christian) and Oceanic cultural norms than the rest of the SE Asian subcontinent.

Oh, and the beaches are better.

I'll write more about the trip later; we have to get up early tomorrow and I have to go to bed soon. But here are some photos:


Danao (Cebu Island) Coral Stone Church




Sunset on Pacijan Island




Little Girl Who Laughed - Then Cried (Danao)



Adorable Kid on a Banca (motorized passenger boat)



Mangodlong Rock Resort - Pacijan Island



Kids and a Bike, Danao



Kids Behind a Fence, Tulag Island



Grandmother, Tulag Island




Tulag Island Village



More Tulag Island



Green Lake Flowers



Green Lake Tree



Altavista View, Poro Island




Two Boaters, Mangodlong, Pacijan Island
(This isn't a very good photo from a technical point of view, but I am drawn to it. I don't know why I like it so much.)

Things You Never Knew Until You Looked

We decided to spend the day - sun! Finally! - lolling about Dihua Street and looking at the puppetry (bu dai xi) museum one block over (coming from Nanjing E. Road, turn left at Xiahai temple on Dihua and it's at the end of the lane on the right).

Afterwards we got shaved ice at the old-skool place under the old Dihua market facade; the famous one with only three flavors of ice - red bean, green bean and almond - and coffee around the corner. That's when I noticed that the ugly newer building behind the old market facade had businesses in it! I'd assumed it was closed because the only other time I looked, it seemed abandoned.

The only market I knew about was the fairly small one that doesn't seem to be connected to this one, also with lots of fabric vendors, but including fruit, meat and religious item stores as well.

It's not abandoned - the inside is a massive fabric, clothing making, alterations and clothing accessory/bead/feather/ribbon/string market. You can buy any cloth imaginable - from silver tutu fluff to elaborate Chinese silk to fake black fur with white fur hearts on it to old-fashioned floral-print cottons. You can get the cloth made into almost anything, or get old clothes altered or repaired.

And to think - I used to believe that the best way to shop for fabric at Dihua Street (well-known among locals and in guidebooks as a mecca for cloth) was to go into each separate store and vet their inventory!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

When It Rains

Sometimes, when the weather in Taipei is just unremittingly crap - when it drizzles for days on end and the sky has been bleak for as long as you can remember - I wonder what the hell I'm doing here.

The feeling rarely lasts long because I genuinely love this country, but it does come. I really don't like overcast skies. Rain is fine, as long as it's good and heavy, or a relief from humidity...and thunderstorms are, of course, awesome. But a gray sky and a light drizzle? Ick. It's unfortunate that this seems to be Taipei's dominant weather pattern.

After chugging a CC Lemon (I need my C) I usually cheer up, but yesterday that wasn't doing it for me.

Then, after our workout, Brendan and I met my sister at Zhongshan to get something to eat. We took the bus to Jilin-Nanjing, planning to go to Ali Baba or Silverfish Thai (such an unfortunate name). Both were closed before the dinner rush.

We ended up in an alley on the north side of the road, by a 7-11...I realize that doesn't help much direction-wise. We had beef noodles under an umbrella, sitting on damp stools.

Those noodles were delicious. They weren't overloaded with MSG, weren't too thin or cheap but not gummy or fat either. I'll take gummy and fat over thin noodles anyday, though. The soup was hearty and the beef chunks were high-quality without being too fatty.

And that - a typical Taiwanese dish that you can find on any streetcorner for 50-90 kuai - cheered me up immeasurably.

You can find the beef noodle guy near the Nanjing-Jilin intersection, north side of Nanjing, by turning right at a 7-11. I realize "turn at the 7-11" is not very clear as there are usually 5 or 6 of them to choose from, but it's not hard to find. Facing Nanjing at Silverfish Thai, it's to the right.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Asian Canada

Inspired by this hilarious video on Slate (and since I just got back and have nothing else of interest to write about until I get back in the swing of things):











I thought about when exactly I started planning my move to Taiwan. I arrived approximately two years ago, but began planning the move about two years before that...which was just six months after I returned from China, but that's another story.

Basically, I started to plan this move right about the time that Bush was elected to a second term of office - I made good on that pledge to get the heck outta Dodge if we put that yahoo back in office.

And that got me thinking, in many ways, Taiwan is like the Asian Canada. Yes, it's true that Taiwan is small and Canada is big. Taiwan is crowded and Canada is (mostly) sparse. Taiwan is hot and muggy, and Canada is cold and snowy. But bear with me. It really is the Asian Canada.

Think about it:

- Taiwan has national healthcare
- Taiwanese society is generally openminded, at least when compared to its propagandatastic neighbor
- There are a lot of Canadians here - though some of them look a bit worse for wear
- There's some big ol' mountains in there somewhere
- Maple syrup is available
- Both have indigenous people
- Lots of Asian folks
- Things are safer, cleaner, healthier and friendlier than in some nearby countries we could name

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Camotes Here I Come

See y'all on the other side of this crap Taipei weather...

...we're off to Cebu tomorrow morning to enjoy some time in the Camotes (tiny islands in the middle of the Philippines).



The Bacuit Archipelago, Palawan






Kid on a rickshaw skeleton, Intramuros, Manila




Sunset in El Nido, Palawan


Curious Kids in Brooke's Point, Palawan


Sunset on the Islands, Bacuit Archipelago, Palawan

Monday, October 6, 2008

Yuanlin Rouyuan (員林肉圓)

Ever found yourself on Fuxing S. Road, wishing you could have a nice, hot, local meal that was flavorful, hearty and cheap? In an area dominated by Starbuxes and fake-o Mongolian joints with fancy lanterns, that seems impossible.

But it's not.

I had the pleasure of discovering a new restaurant out of the blue today - and on a very busy intersection to boot! Usually the best places are hidden in the lanes or tucked away in a maze of tiny vendors, but this one was right out in the open.

I'm talking about Yuanlin Rouyuan (員林肉圓) It's right off the intersection of Heping E. Road and Fuxing S. Road, next to Sheng Li - the discount store with the green sign and the giant scary baby cutout perched on its roof.

It's a small unassuming restaurant - well, not so much a restaurant as it is a "joint" - with blond wood tables, disposable chopsticks and old ladies in hairnets shouting orders in the delightful nasal plops and slips that make up the Taiwanese language.

Their specialty is, of course, mba wan (rou yuan) - Taiwanese rice gluten dumplings stuffed with pork and served with gravy. In the night market, these usually come with a pink sauce and are topped with coriander. The women of Yuanlin Rouyuan dispense with the pink sauce and greenery and give you a hearty helping of artery-clogging gravy, topped with cubes of delicious young bamboo and mushroom slices.

And they are absolutely delicious. The gluten isn't too sticky or weird, and the pork is savory and delicious. I miss the pink sauce, but the young bamboo more than makes up for it.

On a rainy, bleak, typically Taipei day, it's a hot meal reminiscent of something a hearty ol' farmer would eat after coming back from the fields. Not that I know if farmers ate mba wan, but they probably do/did.

I also had their lu rou fan, another Taiwanese treat. It was savory, soft and delicious as lu rou fan always is, but I had to add a little soy sauce to amp up the salt.

They serve far more than those staples - a small menu boasts several standard-issue rice and noodle dishes, all of which are served piping hot and ready to combat the city's relentless drizzle, and xiaochi in environmentally unfriendly plastic contraptions. I had the broccoli - cold and garlicky. Yum.

And all for 90 kuai.

Beats eating mediocre pasta at Dante anyday...and those ladies in hairnets are extremely friendly.

Yuanlin Rouyuan 員林肉圓 is next to Technology Building MRT Station on the brown line. Exit the station and turn left - it's past Starbucks and Cosmed, but before Sheng Li discount store and the Heping E. Road intersection.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Taiwanese Pride

I'm loving on this letter in The New York Times regarding the recent article on food in Taipei:

To the Editor: As a Taiwanese-American journalist, I was excited to see Matt Gross’s article on Taiwanese cuisine. At last, I thought, thousands of American readers can see the beautiful, vibrant side of my childhood home.

But my heart sank when I saw that the headline read, “Feasting at the Table of the Other China” (Sept. 21). The New York Times Travel section dismisses the hard-won democracy in Taiwan by calling it “the other China” and by calling Taipei “the Chinese capital you haven’t heard much about.”

Taiwan’s culture, politics, and yes, its cuisine, are an amalgam of Asian influences, and distinctively its own.

Taiwanese citizens have fought and won many freedoms that have never existed in China, including the freedom to vote and to speak their minds. My Taiwanese family shares the same love for food that Mr. Gross describes of his in-laws, but we are even more fiercely passionate about our unique Taiwanese identity.

Eugenia Chien
San Francisco

I couldn't have said it better myself - which is good, because I didn't. This letter is much more reasonable and levelheaded than anything I would have written. Also, it's great to read such a letter written by an ethnic Taiwanese person; there's more impact than if it had been written by a foreigner who simply really loved Taiwan because it's great, not because it's his/her home country.

It would be great to see more of this in the media. If that were the case, Westerners and Chinese mainlanders alike might start to get the message that not every Taiwanese person considers themselves "Chinese", and even those that say "I am Chinese" (or "I am a Chinese" as the case may be) generally speaking do not want unification....

...and even those that do want unification - fewer than you'd think - don't want it right now.

Yay Taiwan!

Reason #2 to love Taiwan

Safety.

I occasionally hear people talking smack about Taiwan and life in Taipei. There are folks who seem to think that this is a dodgy city, or that it's mean&dirty in some way. That you've got to be tough to hack it here.

Uh, no. My great-great grandma's sitting room is more dangerous than Taipei.

You want a dodgy capital city? Try Manila (though I like it there) or Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. Thank your lucky stars you don't live in the latter:

In 2004, Port Moresby was ranked the worst capital city in the world to live in the Economist Intelligence Unit's ranking of 130 of the world's capital cities . High levels of rape, robbery and murder and large areas of the city controlled by gangs of thugs, known locally as "rascals" (Tok Pisin raskol), were cited. According to a 2004 article in the Guardian newspaper, unemployment rates are estimated to be between 60 and 90% and murder rates three times that of Moscow and 23 times the rate in London.[2]

(From Wikipedia, that bastion of truth and accuracy)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pingxi Peaks

I've long been a fan of the hiking on offer in Pingxi (that's the small-gauge railroad area that used to be big on coal mining), and surprised that not many other foreigners seem to venture out to the peaks there. They're small peaks when you compare to what you can climb in central Taiwan, but in terms of beauty and in some cases, the sheer vertical drop of them more than makes up for their stunted height.

I see lots of tourists on the railroad and in the towns - leading one to wonder why the towns don't have better food, although Jingtong has one decent coffeeshop with a singularly awful name - but few ever think to go hiking there. I have students who didn't even know you could go hiking there, and don't know the names of any of the mountains there, either.


Good coffee, but I guess they don't realize what they are implying about the flavor of their coffee.


As for foreigners, a lot of great hiking in Pingxi was covered in Taipei Day Trips I and II - I do wonder why fewer people check it out. Even Lonely Planet (the old, crappy edition) covers some options there. We've been on several trails in that area and never once seen another foreign hiker. What's more, the locals seem to be in-town locals, not domestic tourists.

Below is a short run-down of my three favorite hikes in the Pingxi area - two in Jingtong and one in Pingxi itself, which is next to yet another beautiful hike that I haven't tried yet.

1.) Shulongjian

The summit of Shulongjian

Shulongjian (also known as "Little Fuji" for its conical shape, reminiscent of Mount Fuji in Japan) is visible from various points in Jingtong. After our hike, as storms began rolling in from Muzha, we watched the clouds grazing the peaks from our guesthouse on the edge of town. There are two routes to the top - one via a back-end trail and the other up lots of stairs as is usual in Taiwan. Only the stair route is well-marked and well-known. The other route, though much more challenging, has a troupe of monkeys that hang out in the early morning and late afternoon not far from the top.

Another bonus of this mountain are the abundant and beautiful butterflies, mostly yellow and black or light purple and black, though I saw two bright blue ones and at least one that I believe was a monarch.

Another bonus is that you can see Taipei 101 from the top - that's effin' cool considering how far away it is. You can also watch storms rolling in from Muzha, which is what we did until it got too close for comfort.





To get to the stair route, follow the Pingxi-Muzha road away from Jingtong town in the direction of Muzha. The entrance is near a small shed-like building, leading through a small parking area and to a flight of stone steps. The steps pass through a village before beginning their ascent.

To get to the other route, find a local to help you.

2.) Stone Bamboo Mountain


Stone Bamboo Mountain - we think

OK, full disclosure: we never actually made it all the way up this one. We started too late in the day, hadn't packed enough water and were feeling vaguely ill...and were not sure why. The view over it is beautiful, though. While Lonely Planet claims it's visible from Jingtong, we couldn't see it when we arrived.

The trail to Stone Bamboo (we do know how to get to it, we got pretty far) starts off the same as the trail to Shulongjian, but after awhile you come to a T-junction and have to head in the opposite direction. This trail is not stairs all the way; there are entire sections of actual trail. Made of dirt. That you have to hike up, instead of step up! Wow. After the first bout of "real hiking" there is another T-junction - on the right is the trail to Stone Bamboo mountain, which heads downhill for awhile. To the left is a short trail that ends at a cell phone tower, near which you'll find a good place to break for lunch.

If you want to climb both peaks but don't want to do it on the same day, there is one guesthouse we know of in Jingtong run by the Wang family. It's outside town, follow the road past the old Japanese teahouse restaurant and turn right, the guesthouse is on the left. It's next to the site of the first mine (coal or gold, I forget) opened by the Japanese. Their two black Formosan dogs, Da Wang and Xiao Wang, are very friendly. They have two rooms and are not cheap at $1600 kuai a night (the rooms are quite nice though), which includes free Taiwanese breakfast on the patio.

3.) Dutiful Son Mountain (Xiaozishan, which I'm too lazy to key into my bopomofo keyboard)


Joseph at the rocky precipice near the final climb to Xiaozishan's peak

Xiaozishan is a beauty - and the craziest part of that beauty is that nobody seems to know it's there except for the Taipei Day Trips guy, and one old guy in Pingxi who likes to take pictures of it.

It's not a hard climb, easily done in half a day or less. The top is a jagged pinnacle of rock - literally a pinnacle - like something out of a Road Runner cartoon - accessible only because of a system of carved steps, metal handles and ropes. Most of it was put in by one of Chiang Kai-shek's old bodyguards as a hobby. There are two ways up - one will probably kill you and the other probably won't. Just in case it does, however, there are lots of statues of Guanyin and other deities to make sure your mangled corpse is watched over by the right folks and your soul goes to the right place:

Just in case you die, the gods are right there, ready to help a brutha out.

The other plus is the gorgeous view of other jagged, stunted, pinnacled and cut-up peaks in the area, framing the skyline. It's especially compelling on a misty day, though I wouldn't attempt this in the rain (we did, but we're dumb).

To get there, take the bus or train to Pingxi. From Pingxi town, go to the Pingxi-Muzha road and turn left (across the street from the creek). There is a sign for Ruifang and just after that, a small bit of stone steps next to a tiny waterfall. Walk up this to a giant temple with a friendly, fat white cat and a monk who loves to feed people sweet potatoes, and after that hang a left. You'll find yourself in a clearing with several trail options. To the left is Xiaozishan. To the left is Cimushan (Loving Mother Mountain).

Earlier on (towards Muzha) there is another entryway if you are driving, turn right just before Pingxi town and you'll find yourself at a convenient trailhead where five trails converge.

4.) Loving Mother Mountain (Cimushan)

That one's next. Trailhead is right next to the one for Dutiful Son.