Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ghosts

We all know that Taiwan is huge on ghosts, ghost mythology and general superstition about how to deal with (and escape the clutches of) said supernatural powers. Don't swim during Ghost Month, never stand in the corner of a hospital room, avoid the fourth floor of any building, sweep your ancestors' tombs once a year, if you're male, never pick up a red envelope you find on the street, buy a tiger suit for children of a certain age to scare ghosts away, never look behind you when someone taps you on the shoulder, never say anyone's real name after dark during ghost month, etc. etc..

As a result of this belief in ghosts, there are quite a few places in Taiwan believed by locals to be 'haunted'.

I'm not a big believer in the paranormal - the closest I can say that I've come to really wondering about this stuff is in my own home. I grew up in an old, creaky farmhouse in upstate New York that my mother insists is haunted. She's got a point: if there's any house in that town (no, not Sleepy Hollow, though not too far from it) with ghosts, it's ours. But that's an entirely different blog post.

I've known for awhile about a local belief in the haunting of a certain large hotel in Xinyi District. Apparently the site of this hotel was once a cemetery that was razed before construction began. Typical creepy story, probably not true, right? Well, true or not, from what I hear a lot of business travelers from other parts of Taiwan or even other parts of "Greater China" (pfft) won't stay there. That apparently, if you walk into the lobby you'll see two very large pieces of calligraphy on either side, but the calligraphy itself is not of any discernable Chinese characters - and was written by a fa shi (not sure how to translate this term, but something between a priest and an exorcist) hired by the hotel as a talisman specifically to keep those ghosts at bay. From what I've been told, only fa shi and dangki (self-injuring spirit diviners) can write such talismans.

I intend to take a look for myself inside that very lobby in a few days. Until then, this is really only something I've heard.

I've also heard about the supposed haunting of the old building of a very well-known hospital in Taipei (the new one is big and shiny, the old building is still in use and was built by the Japanese. I've worked inside it. It's beautiful on the outside, not so much on the inside). I can see why stories like this would abound in an old building, and a hospital at that. But being inside, it looked so much like a typical hospital that the place just didn't feel, well, haunted.

Another part of Taipei, however, has always felt quite ghastly to me. Until today, I didn't know why. Not being a believer in ghosts, I'm still not entirely willing to concede that "It's haunted" is the reason. But anyway.

I haven't posted about it on here yet, but I've recently acquired a new bicycle from a friend who moved home. It's a typical city-dweller's gearless bike, red and shiny. Living in Jingmei, I'm literally a one-minute ride from the entrance to Jingmei Riverside Park, a small park with a bike trail, sitting areas and basketball/tennis courts. It connects to the much longer Huazhong Riverside Park, with a bike trail that heads all the way to the coast.

Afraid as I was at first to cycle in Taipei proper, I've spent a lot of time whizzing up and down that narrow little path, which for the most part is well-maintained. At Jingmei, a haven for older folks (many of whom are in their 90s and still fluent in Japanese, more so than they ever were in Mandarin), the path is strewn with old ladies walking and clapping their hands to promote blood circulation, and old men riding equally old bikes while playing their favorite Taiwanese old-skool music on little transistor radios. That park runs past Gongguan and spills into Guting Riverside Park, which at the moment is a-bloom with daisies in various shades of pink.

Sometime after Guting, something happens to the park. The grass begins to look wilted and the expanse seems more desolate than family-oriented. There's a very ominous hill - obviously manmade - away from the river a bit. In the distance to the left are mist-covered mountain peaks. The river before you looks sad and weepy.

This is the part where you enter Machangding Memorial Park.

I'd heard of Machangding before, but not with that Romanization. A long time ago, I began reading Death in a Cornfield, an excellent compilation of short stories in English by Taiwanese writers, critiquing and disassembling the bits and pieces of Taiwanese society in the 1980s (for anyone with even a rough knowledge of the history of Taiwan, you'll recognize that decade as being a turning point both politically and economically). In the first story, Mountain Path, a place called Ma ch'ang ting is mentioned. It was an execution ground under the Japanese and again during the White Terror.

Because I'm obviously not a very keen observer , I didn't really realize until I re-read the story today that Mach'angting and Machangding are the same place, and that this place where thousands of people were executed less than 70 years ago is not some abstract geographic location in the whorls and folds of Taiwan's topography. It's not a disembodied place-name that has nothing to do with my Taiwan experience. It's the place where I've been swinging back and forth on my bike and the place that I've found, until just now, to be inexplicably creepy.

Many people believe that this place - Machangding - is haunted, and deeply so. That the restless ghosts of those executed there, whom many would say have still not had their fair piece heard, still wander the place and that the hill, where the killings took place, is especially saturated with anger. The area is quite open, allowing the gray days of Taipei to settle in unhidden, the moldering expanse of sky to stretch unbroken and the wind to hiss through unobstructed - this minimal topography only enhances one's feeling that something, to be frank, just ain't quite right about the place.

Now, as I said - I'm not a big believer in ghosts. It's possible - even likely - that Machangding Memorial Park is only chill-inducing insofar as the poor planning of some not-so-aesthetically-inclined city councilman got lazy in designing it.

It could be that Taipei weather is really quite gloomy, and the days I've been there have been the sorts of days where any quiet park is going to look, by default, haunted.

In any case, I'm not sure what to make of my initial chill at cycling through that area, and subsequent discovery of what it used to be.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lehua Night Market


It says "Beer and sausage - definitely good friends". I agree.


Yesterday we headed out to the city of Yonghe, a suburb of Taipei that's just brimming with class and sophistication -

(ahem)

- to check out Lehua Night Market, revered by my students as the best in the Taipei area.

While I disagree that it's the best in the area, I have to admit that as a night market it combines an exuberance of the sacred...

Hey, adorable kids with balloon hats are sacred!

...and the profane...

Look for the new James Bond film, Goldenbum, in a theater near you!

...that I find truly amusing.

And for Yonghe, famous for Yonghe Soy Milk, old waishengren from Sichuan and a fantastic Sichuanese restaurant, at least one organized crime racket known as the Zhu Lian, love hotels and the Museum of World Religion, I have to say it's pretty sizeable and pretty good. Worth a look if you are interested in exploring every nook and cranny that Taipei and surrounds has to offer.

Some photos, for the heck of it:

You know, I've eaten frog. It's not half bad. Rubbery, but flavorful and unique. Does not taste like chicken. This frog, however, looks horrific. Seriously, this is enough to make me go vegetarian. Poor little guy.


Incense burners and lights


Straight from Japan - the world's tiniest hot dog, in gummie form!


My sister, the starving college student, tries on clothes as she contemplates making extra money as a betel nut beauty.


Something about "Grandpa Brand" white pepper powder had me in giggles for...minutes.


Joseph and the amazing deep-fried oyster spinach pie. It was pretty good actually.

The Mountain Dawn

The Taipei Times had an article today reviewing U Theater's The Mountain Dawn, now touring through Taiwan (it was at Taipei's National Theater on Saturday, and is heading south from there).

I'm mentioning this on Lao Ren Cha because I was there on Saturday, and every word of the review is true. I loved it. I realize that Yunmen Wuji (The Cloud Gate Theater) seems to have a monopoly on both international and local fame, but U Theater is almost as good and in some ways - including their percussion skills - better.

Brendan and I bought tickets - a compromise of proximity and price - to celebrate our 2nd anniversary, which we celebrated on March 2nd. Yay us!

If you read the article or the theater program, you'll learn that they began in the 1980s and currently live and rehearse on a mountain outside Taipei. They practice dance, drumming and meditation among other things up there, and their latest show, The Mountain Dawn, showcases the group's feelings about their hilltop home.

The costumes were very minimal - almost monk-like and rather androgynous. The music was also minimal; it reminded me of a cassette I picked up at a secondhand shop years ago, featuring the Washington DC Toho Koto Society, full of traditional Japanese music. The Mountain Dawn shared a lot with this sort of quiet, bare dissonance.

In fact, I saw a very strong Japanese influence in the costumery, the music and the topic: more or less meditations on nature. It only goes to show that art in Taiwan is influenced as much by Japan as it is by China.

The pieces performed included one about bamboo in the wind, one about the cloud sea and one about the power of the sunrise - I can't provide much more detail as that is what I could read of the titles.

More about the show is reviewed in the article, in more lyrical terms than I could ever give it. We contemplated buying the CD, but realized that without the dancing and the atmosphere that the performers created, the music itself might be a let-down. It wouldn't capture quite the mood of the theater that night, stripped bare of its plush red seats, lobby chandeliers and gold-leaf hullaballoo and transformed into a mountain top of cool stones and singing bamboo.

In short, if you have the chance, go see it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Country Hike in the City


On Sunday, the clouds cleared up around noon to reveal a warm, sunny day. We set out from Jiantan MRT and hiked via backroads and little-used trails from Shilin to Neihu. The trip is outlined in Taipei Day Trips 1, so if you want to attempt it, pick up a copy.

The hike begins at Jiantan and heads up lots of stairs, around the backside of the Grand Hotel and through a wooded children's park and karaoke spot (for the parents). There are several temples nearby, all with lovely views of Shilin, the Danshui River, Guanyinshan, Beitou and the revolving restaurant tower (at least that's what I think it is.)



This area has a lot of military installations, which means you can't go far off the path. It also means you will pass a lot of unmarked buildings, old guardposts and even older pillboxes, set up in case of a mainland invasion I guess.



Soon you'll reach the peak of the first hill - hardly a mountain - Jiantan Mountain. Heading down, the stairs give way to a proper trail. You'll go down then up again, finding yourself eventually on a very rural road that winds around. You end up with more great views - on one side, Shilin and the Danshui River. On the other, Neihu. There are plenty of great viewing spots, many of which are probably populated with tai chi practitioners early in the morning.


Later, as the road winds around, you begin to get views of Yangmingshan and the National Palace Museum. The glare was quite high at this time of day, when the sun was at its zenith, so I apologize for the washed-out image with the old crater of Yangmingshan in the background. You don't start getting these views where Taipei Day Trips says you do (there's been some forest growth since it was written), but they do come eventually.

Most of these come as you approach and then top Wenjianshan, which is somewhere above Dazhi on the Shilin-Neihu Road (you can stop hiking here and head down to the road at this point if you want - it's about 5kms to get to that point).


One thing we loved about the hike was that it was almost entirely rural, with real trails and forest. Other than the views over urban vistas, you could hardly tell that you were hiking within the Taipei city limits the entire time.

After Wenjianshan, you take some steep stairs down to a road, head left down it for awhile then head straight up a very steep path through the woods. As we approached the leveling-off of the path, several mountain bikers raced down past us. I heard whooping as they hit the steep part, so I don't know if they made it all teh way down on their bikes.

After the trail levels off, you end up at a well-hidden and little-known stone path. It's quite wide and plenty of locals walk it, but you won't see many foreigners and no tourists. There are no views, but it heads through some lovely woods and is an easy walk for a few kilometers.

After awhile, you end up back at the trail up the final peak - Jinmianshan (Gold Face Mountain) which has views over everything.

No, really...


...everything.
The view is not at the true summit; to get there, you have to walk past the summit and wind your way past lots of bumpy boulders. It's easy to find; you can see the view improving as you head forward and that's where all the people 'in the know' will be.

We lingered a bit too long on the summit, watching the sun go down. We had not underestimated the climb back, it' s just that it was a 10 kilometer hike (so says the book; we think it was longer) to get there, the view was astounding, and we didn't want to leave.

The hike down is over a tricky but fun rock scramble...if you linger for sunset, bring a flashlight. Trust me. There is a rope to help, and it eventually reaches some steep stone steps that could cause a sprained ankle during the day; imagine at night when you can't see (I don't have to imagine, I took a spill here).

The trail lets out in an alley along Huanshan Road in Neihu, very close to Neihu Road. Taipei Day Trips 1 gives the exact address, so if you want to hike in reverse or not bother with the long part and just go for the rocky views, you can start from here (be warned; it's a very steep ascent).

Bring lots of water, especially if you do the full 10 kilometers; there is nowhere to buy it along the way despite there being lots of roads to temples, shelters and recreation areas.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Showing in Shanghai as Taiwan, China

An interesting piece in the Taipei Times today:

Care to Join the Party?

...all about Taiwanese artists and how they deal with China's restrictions on their freedom of expression, or how they are labeled, when showing in China - as well as interviews with some Taiwanese artists who refuse to show in China.

What I found interesting about this piece was that so many artists seem apathetic about how they are labeled politically. How many 'don't think about' (or don't allow themselves to think about) whether they are billed as being from "Taiwan" or "Taipei, China", and what that means to their identity, their expression and their art.

I realize that the argument that art and politics shouldn't mix has some credence, and there is certainly a strong case to be made for separating the two in the name of...well of I don't know what, but something.

That said, I'm sorry but art is political. The only art that is not political in some way is found in hotels or in Painting Technique 101 classes. Maybe some civic sculpture put in place by extremely non-controversial town boards. (A good friend of mine once defined public art as "stuff so bad that nobody would pay for it except a committee of people with bad taste" - I wouldn't go that far, and I've seen public art that I've liked).

Even a basic landscape can be political; what is in that landscape, and what does it say about the place it purports to represent? Why did the artist choose this scene, and not that one, and how does that reflect on his feelings toward the place he's painting. Someone who chose to paint a traditional-style scroll of cliffs, waterfalls, cranes and bamboo must have a very different opinion on Taiwan than someone who paints a scene of downtown Sanchong.

A sculpture of a naked woman is political, as well. Why did the artist choose this model and this body, and what does his/her technique say about how he views that body? In turn, what does that say about how he/she perceives women and their place in society? How does that compare with the status of women in this artist's home country?

Art is all about expression - art that is merely about aesthetics and not about both aesthetics and expression is, in my humble opinion, less interesting art.

Some of this expression really is free from politics - ideas about universal things such as death and love, for example, although even those can be politicized. See: Guernica. That was bursting with death and yet was also deeply political. Any photograph of modern poverty is just as tied in with death and politics. Love is affected heavily by culture, and politics is also tied into that. So unless you are merely trying to convey emotions of death, love, frustration, boredom, excitement or what have you, and not trying to tie them to a greater cultural entity, even these have a political underpinning.

As such, a good artist has to be careful about things like political labels. It is very telling that some Taiwanese artists don't care how they are introduced in a show; it makes me wonder if they show the same apathy towards their work. Who you are affects how others see your work, so it is really of the utmost importance that you be as honest as you can about who you are. How can an artist do that, if said artist doesn't care how they are labeled?

My Tornado

I've been wondering recently why we can't seem to keep the apartment looking nice.

Is it because I'm in Chinese class and not pulling my weight in housework? You try working and studying - both "full time" - and see how much free time you have to do things like mop the kitchen floor.

Well, that's true (thank you Brendan, for doing your share and some of mine), but I don't think that can fully explain why the place is looking so worn out these days.

Is it that it's an 'old' apartment - long-term Taiwan residents will understand my meaning - and therefore I'm just noticing now that despite our spiffy decorating job, nothing can hide the ancient tile floor, cheap wood and dingy plastic ceiling?

That's true too, but I always thought we did a good job making our accommodations comfortable and maybe even attractive.

Is it that we're both secretly slobs?

No. I mean I hate housework and I really would hire a maid if I felt like paying for one. I'm sure Brendan doesn't like it either. Some people claim to enjoy it; I think they're lying. But we're not slobs. A little messy, sure, but no worse than your average person.

I think, just maybe, the reason our apartment never looks as nice as we intend it to...

...is....


TA-DA!!

Our very own fortune kitty - we even named him Zhao Cai if you remember - who can be very sweet when he wants to be.

But when he doesn't want to be, it's like living with, and cleaning up after, a small tornado that continually whirls around the house, spinning out whorls of destruction as he whips through.

Nothing is safe, nothing is sacred. We recently found a pile of rubber sushi (the little erasers from Japan that look like food; I LOVE them) under one chair, which he'd collected from the bookshelf.

He got hold of my crystal ring; sure, it's not set with gemstones. But I bought it in Prague, it's Swarovski, and it's designer. He batted it around while we were out and now it's missing a crystal.

...and if anyone's seen a silver and amethyst earring from Thailand, let me know.

...and it would be really nice if we could leave our USB drives on the desk and not worry that they'll be batted under the couch.

Don't get me wrong, I love the fuzzy little Tasmanian devil. He's an absolute gem when he wants to be, all cuddling in laps and touching noses with you.

Note: he chose this position on his own. When he's in a certain mood he likes to be held like a baby. Note the "Boxing Panda: Float like a butterfly, sting like a panda" and "Onion Boy: Makes girls cry but good for their health" stickers on the computer, and the demonic green eyes of kitty-head.

...

But I'd also really like my earring back.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Beautiful Beipu




Anyone who's read a guidebook on Taiwan knows where Beipu is and why it's famous. Well, nationally famous anyway. So I'll be short on the commentary (it was a typical fun day trip with the usual suspects) and get right to the pictures.

Beipu is well-known for being a stronghold of Hakka culture. This means Hakka food (yum!), Hakka lei cha or "pounded tea" - apparently not really an 'old' or 'traditional' drink at all, so says Lonely Planet - made with various nuts and green tea, which tastes basically like liquid trail mix to me. Don't get me wrong, I like the stuff.

And, of course, lots of old buildings as well as the usual tourist market and purty temple.

If you want some good food and to otherwise hang out in a teahouse and wander the streets of a quaint old-style town (with lots of newer buildings as well; Beipu is still an active settlement), it makes a lovely day trip for anyone on the northwest coast.

And now, the photos:


A lovely view inside the main temple in Beipu. It looks more or less like almost every other temple in Taiwan, but I love the column, the lighting and the billowing incense smoke in this shot.



Stone carvings with red lips.




One thing we noticed in the temple is that the decorations are rarely just painted on, as with many other temples. This one follows a different style (which I've also seen elsewhere in Taiwan) where the art is done as tiny sculptures. This takes a lot more time, a lot more skill and, of course, a lot more money. Another form of decoration uses bas-relief carvings, sometimes painted.


The old stereotype of the Hakka is that they're a.) exceptionally hard workers and b.) quite stingy with their money, and good at saving it too. That would explain why they could afford such a spiffy temple.

I'm not a big fan of stereotyping based on culture/race (lordy knows Americans get enough of it directed at them - we are not all fat, lazy, undereducated and materialistic, thank you very much), however, so maybe people in this area donate more to temples than elsewhere.

This guy appears to be selling "traditional beautiful food" (can also be read as "American food" but it is quite obviously not that), which seems to be "Zhu Ge Chang" or "Pork Elder Brother Prosperous". Seeing as these are quite clearly glutinous zongzi, the dessert kind most likely...well...anyone better at Chinese than I am care to explain?




Pretty lantern


View through a teahouse window



View through a red-painted fence



Drying herbs on a very low roof (the buildings open out onto a street much lower than the one on the opposite side, so from the road we were on, you could climb quite handily up onto these roofs. Besides, older buildings tended to be far lower. Money was scarcer for building materials and people were shorter.

The one on the right is garlic. The one on the left is some traditional herb used in Hakka cooking. I have a few bundles of them at home . They make a great pork stew but I don't actually know what they are.




It was great, being able to peer through old stone fences and down tiny alleys and come upon pretty scenes of plants and old buildings. We did a lot of that through the course of the day.


Through the main temple entrance.




Window on the old meeting hall, built by the Jiang family, who came to Beipu with the 'mandate' to keep the local aborigines at bay. Hmmm.



Selling dried herbs and bananas.




The area is still a real town, but its main economic bastion seems to be tourism. The area around the temple and square is a huge tourist market, selling toys, balloons, trinkets, souvenirs and lei cha. I kind of like those markets; they're great for gift shopping and I have a soft spot for traditional-style stuff (some of my natural fiber Chinese-style clothes, the tonghua Hakka-style fabric, my flip-flops and my favorite little wooden massage doodad all came from those markets).



Old brick doorway




Some of the heritage homes are kept in good condition, and many still house residents who remain in their ancestral homes. Others, however...



...are not in such good condition.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The CCP Likes 草尼馬

Along the same vein of my last post, a lovely little article from the New York Times on the elusive "grass-mud horse".

Such plays on words in Chinese are nothing new. I'm reminded of the story from Tiananmen Square, where protesters shouted "Ten Thousand Years of [Deng]Xiaoping", but if you change the tones just a little, it sounds like "Smash the little bottle into ten thousand pieces" which is then a reference to smashing Deng Xiaoping in a similar way.

My own name in Chinese is a play on words of sorts. In Chinese, I am Zhang Bai Lian (baise lianhua) or White Lotus Zhang - which is a near-direct translation of the meaning, though not the sound, of my English name.

Change the tones and it becomes White Face Zhang. Haha funny, right?

Anyway, we can only hope that the grass-mud horse defeats the evil river crab. The sooner, the better.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One Hundred and One Flowers

(Disclaimer: the rant below is directed at the Communist Party of China, not the people of China nor Chinese culture. Just in case someone decides to get all wonky on me.)

As if you needed one, here's another reminder of why Taiwan is better than China, and you - whoever you may be - are better off living in Taiwan than China:

In China, Would-Be Protesters Pay a Price

China promised an outlet for protesters and free speech during the Olympics. We all remember - we should remember - how that went down when those elderly ladies attempted to bag a permit to do so. They ended up detained, in jail, and unable to protest:

Two women from Beijing in their late 70s, Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying, were sentenced to a year of reeducation in a labor camp for protesting their forced eviction from their homes in 2001; the sentence was reduced and later rescinded, but the women said in an interview that they are being closely monitored by local police and that cameras have been installed outside their homes.

Tang Xuecheng, an entrepreneur in his 40s who had gone to Beijing to protest the government's seizure of his mining company, was detained by local officials and sent to a "mental hospital for mental health assessment," according to a public security official in his home town in Chenzhou city in Hunan province. Tang was released several months later.

Zhong Ruihua, 62, and nine others from the industrial city of Liuzhou who tried to petition against property seizures were arrested and have been charged with disturbing the public order. Zhang Qiuping, Zhong Ruihua's youngest daughter, saw her mother for the first time since August on Feb. 23, during her trial.

And now this...

In the end, official reports show, China never approved a single protest application -- despite its repeated pledges to improve its human rights record when it won the bid to host the Games. Some would-be applicants were taken away by force by security officials and held in hotels to prevent them from filing the paperwork. Others were scared away by warnings that they could face "difficulties" if they went through with their applications.

Why didn't this get more media attention when it was happening? Why isn't it getting more media attention now? It's toward the bottom of the Washington Post website although the page marker is fairly front-and-center in the print edition.

Why did people expect any different from China? The government is made up of liars and fascists. I am so tired of blog posts, commentators and even politicians explaining away China's disdain for human rights. I am nauseous about people who apologize for their horrific, oppressive regime. I am sick at heart that the realpolitik of the day (I'm looking at you, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. I had some faith in you) overrides the freedom, liberty and basic rights of millions - no, billions of people.

It is sick. Tear-running, face-reddening, blood-racing, black-moodening sick.

Ji has spent the past eight months in various states of arrest and detention. In January, he was sentenced to three years in prison, the maximum penalty allowed, on charges of faking official seals on documents he filed on behalf of his clients. Ji is appealing.

We all learned in History class about Mao's "100 Flowers" period where intellectuals were encouraged to speak out; and then were subsequently detained, investigated, interrogated, jailed and at times executed. It doesn't take a genius to see that the charges are faked, and that Ji, like others, is being detained because he dared to admit he'd like to protest against the power-gobblers who run his government. History is again repeating itself.

It's happening again and there just isn't enough rage out there. There isn't enough desire to do good. There aren't enough good people and those that exist are doing nothing in the name of national debt, geopolitical interests and profit margins. It actually makes my fingers shake - literally shake - to see a world so blithe to the national interest and defense of a functioning (if at times eccentric), prosperous, good country like Taiwan - yes, country, you Commie bastards - silently enabling Big Red across the strait to wreak its worst crimes against humanity.

There is a reason why the Falun Dafa protests where Chinese tourists are near. There is a reason why the National Democracy Memorial Hall is awash with Tibetan freedom activists. There is a reason why "terrorism" on the part of the Uighurs is seen as such a threat, and Uighurs across Xinjiang deeply despise the Chinese autocracy with a righteous venom. (I don't call it terrorism, by the way. Most "terrorist" claims are false, and those that are real should be considered freedom fighting. My great-grandfather was an Armenian freedom fighter against the wave Turkish genocide in 1915 so my own family lore knows this as a well-trodden story).

There is a reason why I left China a few years ago, after a year of teaching there. Nevermind that the water was so acidic that it rotted my teeth (I now have three crowns). Nevermind that the air was so grey that I could barely breathe, that I got bronchial pneumonia twice from the pollution and dirt (and don't say I'm weak; I've lived in India and I was fine there), that you can't trust the food supply or that the CCP is obviously corrupt and makes only the most superficial of gestures to hide it. Nevermind that despite being equal under the law, women are treated in an infuriatingly sexist manner - even in the cities. I left because I couldn't stand the lack of freedom. I couldn't stand that my boss was worried enough about my many trips to the hilltop temple - only because it was the only attractive and authentically old place in town, not because I was going all Buddhist - that he'd ask me not to go so often lest I attract the attention of the police. It bothered me when I told my local friend that I was disappointed with the lack of civil uprising, she 'shooshed' me. It stuck like a pin in flesh when the boss's brother - a man I didn't even really care for as a person - broke down in tears after drinking a few too many and told us about how he saw his best friend get shot in the face by police at Tiananmen Square, and the police had insisted later that they had done no such thing (if they had done no such thing, why was he dead? They couldn't, and didn't bother to, answer that). It stung that I couldn't access basic websites such as Blogspot, Google, Hotmail (at times), the Washington Post, the New York Times...most of those are available now, although some only are because they censored their content. They aided and abetted evil (Google, I'm looking at you). It bit, knowing that everything on TV and in the newspapers was propaganda trash. You couldn't get your hands on a fact - an honest-to-god fact - to save your life.

Then the government wonders why it faces so much scrutiny? Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore, asks why people laud India's development but abhor China's? India is free, or mostly so. China is emphatically not. The Chinese government is not facing nearly enough scrutiny. If that makes them uncomfortable, well, tough.

There is a reason why so many who are wronged by China, or see others being wronged by China, revile their government like a fang stuck in their hearts.

Because - not to put too fine a point on it - the Chinese government sucks and they need to be deposed. NOW. I don't care if that "hurts the feelings of the Chinese people" (which it doesn't). I'm sick of playground diplomacy and bratty tactics. "You want to meet with the Dalai Lama? Waaaah! Nooo! You hurt my feeelings!"

Only 77 applications were officially filed. Even so, all but three were subsequently withdrawn, the state-run New China News Agency said, after authorities "satisfactorily addressed" petitioners' concerns.

Yeah, right. Satisfactorily my lilly-white arse. They were bullied and pushed into withdrawing them. Then the state lied about it the way they lied about TiananmenAnd what about the thousands - hundreds of thousands - who would like to file such a petition but are afraid to do so, for exactly the reasons why the applicants of three non-withdrawn petitions have been harassed.

Why is this OK? Why do we live in a world where this is OK? Why is a situation allowed to exist where a free and functional country like Taiwan- exactly the sort of system the US has lied about trying to foster around the world and exactly the sort of country China should aim to emulate - is pushed aside in the name of "pragmatism"?

Before you get all realistic on me, I submit that it doesn't have to be this way. The USA insisted on having its way in Iraq and it still has enough sway with China - our economic crisis is their economic crisis, after all, and their trade profits are our trade deficits - to tell it to stop. Just...stop.

Panama - Panama, for crying out loud - recognizes Taiwan. Let me repeat that again. Panama. They have a nifty canal, if you recall. That canal is enough of a counterweight against their rebuttal of Chinese governmental deathmongering, and yet the entire might of the USA, as weakened as it might be, isn't? Come on.

Instead, we get the optimists of China, the best and the brightest that that grey, bleak political wasteland has to offer, being stomped down with a fury that the rest of the world should not tolerate:

But at his core, Ji was an optimist and believed that change was possible from within the system. He decided he would learn the letter of the law so that he could help laobaixing, or ordinary people, deal with their grievances. He took on cases for free and lived on 3 yuan, less than 50 cents, a day....

When Ji went to Beijing in August armed with carefully prepared documents about a dozen local cases -- including one about a man who died in detention and others about illegal land seizures -- he was convinced that because China had passed a law allowing him to file a protest application, nothing bad could come of it.

He had recently been evicted from his home office in Fuzhou on suspicion of trying to incite people to petition in Beijing, friends said, but even then he didn't waver from his conviction that China's central government would keep its promises to allow public dissent during the Games, according to his sisters and friends.

If the USA and the EU got together and said "Hey China - stop it. Now. Be nice to Tibet and Xinjiang, let Taiwan decide its own fate, stop stealing the property of the poor for the good of the rich and for goodness sake, stop arresting and killing people"...guess what? China would stop it. They'd have to.

No, I am not wrong.


Yes, we on the 'free', liberal democratic end of the spectrum, the end that Francis Fukuyama once called the final destination of human civilization, do have the power to make it end. We don't even need to fire a bullet.


"Everything is fine here, please don't worry! Please believe that I only have done good rather than brought harm to our people and country. I will win the lawsuit in the end," Ji wrote.

His sister Ji Qiaozhuang said she has been surprised and disappointed by how he has been treated because he has never advocated controversial positions such as the end of one-party rule.

"He's not a revolutionary, a young man with anti-government feelings," she said. "He's an old man who just wants to help others. China needs people like him to progress."

Indeed. It's too bad that the Chinese government refuses to recognize that. They'll need to if they want to become the sort of country they can become and should become. A country like Taiwan.

While evil is allowed to exist, why do good 'men' do nothing?


Monday, March 9, 2009

The Temple of Chiang Kai-Shek (and Xinzhu food)

Lots of Chiang

We tried (and failed) to escape the unceasing rain yesterday by heading south . We went to Beipu and Xinzhu. More on Beipu later - I'm going to start by talking about the few wet hours we spent in Xinzhu, exploring the old street, the night market, the old city gate and - the most fascinating by far - the temple dedicated to the worship of the Taiwanese "deity", Chiang Kai-Shek.

(If Qingshan Wang, Grandfather Seven and Grandfather Eight, Lin Mo - that's Matsu to you - and Baosheng Dadi were all real people, and most believe that they were - then I see nothing wrong with worshipping someone whom we know to have been a real person. I wouldn't pray to him myself, mind you.)

Beam Me Up, Dr. Sun

We didn't linger long in the temple, partly because we aren't big Chiang fans, and partly because the temple isn't very big. It's more of a shrine room, filled with statues and pictures of Chiang Kai-Shek, another general whose name escapes me, and (apparently) Sun Yat-sen. I didn't see anything for Sun, though the guidebook says he's there.

Apparently, this little temple in Xinzhu, not far from the Qinghua University campus and night market, collects a lot of the old decommissioned busts and statues of Chiang and uses them in this temple as god-idols. Other ones seem to end up at a spot along the North Cross-Island Highway.

There are other gods and figures present, mostly in the form of woodcarving - the kind you can see in many temples across Taiwan.

These guys are big Ma fans, as we could see from the Ma bobbleheads decorating the temple. The toy cranes are there because the man we spoke with also runs his own construction company and he really likes cranes.

We only spoke with one person, but it was clear that the people tending the temple are mostly from the Mainland. The guy we talked to was born near Shanghai and came over with his family when he was 16 (which would make him about 75 years old). Although he still remembers how to speak Shanghainese, he's picked up a Taiwanese accent in his Mandarin and can speak Taiwanese as well.


Nice older gentleman from Shanghai. Note all the different flags surrounding the main shrine area.

As we didn't tell them where our true political beliefs lie, they were extremely friendly and happy that we'd stopped by. As important as it is (for me, at least) to own one's own beliefs and moral code and not shrink from admitting them, maybe standing in the temple of Chiang Kai-shek is not the best place to tell people around you that you think he was a murderer and a traitor to Taiwan, especially when those around you are genuinely friendly people.

We were given some fruit and made our way, drippingly, to the night market where we had lumpia - those crepe-rolled burrito-lookin' things with meat and vegetables inside which are a specialty in Xinzhu, and mba wan. The lumpia were better than anything I've tried in Taipei, where they skimp on the meat and savory flavors and add lots of veggies or worse, rou song (which I can't stand). We loved the many-textured innards of these lumpia, replete with lots of richly marinated meat, peanuts, bean sprouts, greens, carrot shavings and other tasty bits and pieces.

The mba wan were very different from Taipei - they're on menus as "Xinzhu Rou Yuan" and are fried rather than steamed, and filled not with regular ground pork but with purple chunks - real chewy chunks - of marinated pork and cubes of young bamboo served in a spicy, flavorful pink sauce that I normally see on vegetarian sticky rice. The bamboo reminded me of Yuanlin Rouyuan at the Heping-Fuxing intersection in Taipei, where they serve it in brown gravy with cubed bamboo and mushrooms.

Sesame noodles (not the cold kind) and Xinzhu fried mba wan

Then we headed into the city god temple - the most important one of these in Taiwan - where tall god costumes we haven't seen in Taipei were on display.

We've never seen this god before, and don't know who he is.

For anyone in or planning to be in Xinzhu on Friday, the Xinzhu city god's birthday is this coming Friday (3/13/09). If you want to see a cool procession, head over to the temple and inquire about the time (they usually start at 1:30 in my experience).

The most interesting of these tall god costumes - called big dolls in Taiwanese but the actual words escape me - is the god of yin and yang, to whom you should pray so that you "always do the right thing" and have a proper balance of, well, yin and yang.

The God of Yin-Yang

We also saw all the pinata-like decorations from Chinese New Year - identifiable because most of them involved depictions of cows - hanging from the ceiling of the temple. It was quite a sight; there were hundreds of them.

One of Hundreds of Hanging Cows

Candle in the City God Temple

We then took a quick venture through the old street - which has a few old buildings but not many, but at least one interesting place to have some tea or coffee and one good mashed-taro dessert joint, a pass by the old city gate and a stop at the old moat to feed the fish (but actually ended up feeding the geese). We passed one of the two Matsu temples along the way.

No photos of this part because it was dark - my camera is not up to taking good night shots.