Monday, March 2, 2009

A Busy Weekend

Taiwanese opera, the birthday "inspection tour" of Wenchang, the god of education and exams, a party at Citizen Cain, an attempt to hike Huang Di Dian and tofu in Shiding, all squeezed into two days. It's been a whirlwind of excitement.

We arrived back in Taipei mid-week and booked the weekend full of activities with friends. After teaching my first class in 6 weeks this past Saturday, we went to Dihua Street for lunch (there's a famous food stall there that does Tainan-style shrimp rolls over rice and vegetables) and to see at Taiwanese opera with friends. We figured it was a fitting way to celebrate 2/28 even though it didn't involve attending any anti-KMT protests.

Unlike the open-air operas common at festivals, this one cost $100 NT for admission and was held on the 9th floor of the textile market (#21 in the old market building). I didn't realize that there was a stage on the top floor of this place and would have never thought to look for performances there if it hadn't been for my friend Sasha.

We saw 太陽偏與枝無葉 - Tai Yanpian Yu Zhi Wuye - about two students (Tai Yanpian and Zhi Wuye) who both fail the civil service exam and take an oath of brotherhood. Both are quite poor and on the verge of becoming beggars. They part and Zhi Wuye has some good luck early on. However, the woman he brokered a marriage with (Tan Hua - a kind of flower that is also a metaphor for fleeting luck) ran away because she didn't want to marry a "beggar", and his luck left him. Tan Hua then saw a fortune teller who told her that she would become with, but only if she married a beggar - and that she would have to pursue a match with this beggar. Her servant is told that she, too, will become wealthy. She ran into Tai Yanpian who now looks pretty down and out. They both end up spending the night in a 'haunted house' (I didn't really understand this part) where the ghosts of the house get them both to sleepwalk into the same room, where they've hidden a pot of gold and jewels. The two find the treasure and marry, and become very rich. Tai Yanpian searches for his brother, and Tanhua helps find him (a housekeeper - ? - she is acquainted with knows how to locate him, because she is the one who arranged the marriage that didn't work out. Or something.) They meet, but it turns out that Zhi Wuye has also run into the fortune teller who says 'don't expect grand things from life' and that only through his wife can he own wealth. This means that he's not meant to enjoy the finer things in life and can't ingest meat or wine or wear fine clothes. He resolves to leave and make his own way, and Tanhua and Tai Yanpian give him some bread. He gives most of it away to a beggar family who has helped him and only when he has two pieces left does he realize that Tai and Tanhua have hidden gold inside each one. He laments again his fate of being unable to own wealth. Then Tanhua's servant goes around buying up the bread from the beggars and returns it to Zhi Wuye. As she is the woman he is supposed to marry, and she brought the money to him, he is 'allowed' by fate to have it - the two marry and both couples live a happy, prosperous life.

It was a fun opera to watch, and one part was sung by a very well-known performer whose name slips my mind. Two of the cast members were men, which is interesting for Taiwanese opera (as far as I know, it's mostly performed by women). I'm happy I had Sasha next to me to explain the plot as I have only a limited vocabulary in Taiwanese...and I'm not even sure I could have followed this in Mandarin.

I'm not sure that I care for the main themes, however. I liked the idea that the roles were reversed as a part of the story - women who pursue their husbands or who bring the family wealth, something unheard of in really old school Chinese and Taiwanese culture. I'm not sure I liked the fact that these themes were inserted for comedic purposes ("haha, she's a woman but she's pursuing him!") but maybe I should loosen up; times have changed, after all.

There's also a very Western notion that fate doesn't control your wealth - you and your actions do. The most that fate controls is how much natural acumen you have for earning money and being frugal with it. The underlying theme of this otherwise enjoyable opera was that you don't have any control over whether or not you will wind up rich - either the fates decree that you will be prosperous, or they'll say that you won't. If they say you won't, there's not much you can do about that except follow their directives. Maybe it's a huge cultural difference here, but that just doesn't sit well, you know?

When the opera finished, we came out to discover one of those awesome god processionals in full swing. I asked around and it turns out that 2/28 this year is the birthday of Wenchang, the god of education and examinations.

His processional was a long one, starting at least 30 minutes before the opera ended and an hour later, still going strong. It seemed to be looping from Longshan Temple (where there is a shrine to him), past Xiahai City God Temple and then - we think - heading up to Bao'an Temple.

It had everything :

...tall god costumes... jia jiang (martial defenders of the gods during their processionals)...

...lion and dragon dancers...

...dancing guys...

...flag bearers...

...that ginormous drum that one temple has which you can hear a kilometer away...

...and of course, midgets (actually children) dressed as dolls disco dancing in a line with a baby frog and a cute demon...

...with another disco dancing guy on top of a truck.

After all this excitement, we headed back to my place and got ready to go out. Our friend finished her school contract recently and threw a party to celebrate the horror of buxiban life finally being over and done with.

I completely empathize; Kojen made me want to do the same thing. I wouldn't recommend buxiban teaching for more than a year for anyone, and I don't know how some people manage to keep working at those places without turning into serial killers. I'd have thrown the same sort of party but working there, I had so little free time that I really had no good friends in Taiwan save Roy and my boyfriend. I didn't start to have a social life until I got a better job and more than one day a week off.

No good photos from this though - we were all enjoying ourselves too much to take lots of snaps. Citizen Cain isn't my favorite place but it's perfectly OK - they seem to make all their money from organized group get-togethers because every time I've been there it's either empty, or full with a huge group and almost nobody who is there independently. They do a decent enough hummus and babaghanouj but mine is better!

Then we headed out to Party World, which is heinously overpriced on weekends. I don't think I would go back; at least not to one in a popular area like Zhongxiao Dunhua and not on a weekend night. On the upside, I learned how to sing "Super Star" and "Hey U Mr. Q" and did a pretty hilarious rendition of the opera singer in "Fearless". I also learned "Taibei Bu Shi Wo De Jia" (Taipei Is Not My Home - apparently the singer's jia is Lugang, where there are no traffic lights).

Heading home at 3am, we woke up again at 8am and took Satan's own bus, the 666, to Shiding. It was damp and drizzly, but we still had some horrid notion that we could climb Huang Di Dian in such conditions. We were wrong.

Entrance to the Stupid Stairs That Go On For Something Like 200 Hours

We took the wrong way 'round because nobody bothered to read their Taipei Day Trips before setting out, and the locals among us didn't see anything wrong with climbing stairs for hours. Yay! Stairs! Why so many people in Asia think that a natural trail is a horrible thing and it is much better to replace mountain paths with freaking stairs is beyond me. People normally wake up thinking, "Today is a lovely day. I'd like to go hiking and get some fresh mountain air." They do not wake up thinking "Today is a lovely day. I'd like to go outside and climb some stairs." So why? Why?! Maybe we can start an NGO with the mission of tearing down all those freaking stairs on mountains. Who's with me?

Oh, and it was cloudy so there was no view. At least the air was fresh.


After "hiking" up stairs for a few hours, we realized it was too wet and dangerous to actually make it to the ridge near Huang Di Dian and we turned down another fork which took us down some more goddamned stairs to get back to Shiding.

And all this on 4 hours of sleep.

Shiding is a lovely, if small, town that doesn't really have a lot of historic buildings or anything else to recommend it architecturally, though it does have a lovely stream and some mountain views. There are some old houses, though most aren't much to see from the outside. You can explore inside one of them, located in the covered market area.

Candlesticks in an old Shiding House

The food was, of course, delicious and there weren't many tourists, either. A few of them crowded through in the afternoon, but they were all gone by 4 and we had the place to ourselves. Shiding is near several good hikes, including some Pingxi-like ascents and Erge Shan, which we never made it to the last time. (I assume Huang Di Dian is one of these good hikes, but I wouldn't really know as our attempt ended in abject failure).


Shiding is famous for tofu, and with good reason. The various kinds of tofu available there are excellent - all with a soft, silky texture and a bit more natural flavor than average tofu. We got red-sauce cooked tofu, fried tofu and a silky tofy in thick broth, all of which were fantastic. The wild chicken and sweet potato leaves were also excellent; the chicken was soft, juicy and flavorful and generously meaty. I'd recommend stopping in Shiding, if anything, to eat a big, tasty meal. Afterwards we retreated to a nearby teahouse to play cards for a few hours and nurse our stair-climbing sore limbs. well as looking around a little bit to soak up the small-town atmosphere.

Some Interesting Things in Shiding

After all this, we headed home and while Emily packed up her overnight things, Brendan surfed online and I crashed on the couch, not to awake until the next morning.

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