Thursday, April 28, 2016

A serious case of Credit Card Head

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So, is it just me, or is this image horribly sexist?

This sort of thing bothers me because while it's intended to be cute or funny, it reminds me of latent sexism that, in other situations, I've been surprisingly able to avoid in Taiwan.

For example, for years I've been sitting on a half-done 'dealing with sexism at work for foreign women in Taiwan' post that I haven't published because honestly, since I left my former job where sexism was something of a problem, I haven't really had to deal with it so I'm not sure what to say about it - and my own attack strategy of saying 'that's sexist, cut it the hell out' might be a tad too direct for readers who maybe are looking for advice on a more nuanced approach.

And maybe I just broadcast how picky I am about not hanging out with guys who say sexist bullshit, but I really don't meet a lot of guys who say sexist bullshit (could be me though, if you know me you might imagine that I might pre-emptively scare the douchebaggier men off - not a bad superpower to have).

And when I look at the staff breakdown of finance and banking offices and see far more women both in cubicles and in management- or executive-level positions than in the US, because women in Taiwan have traditionally been trusted with money and budgets in a way that American women (traditionally) have not.

Aaaaand when I point out things that are obviously sexist to me - like men who are insecure about the idea of their wives or girlfriends earning more than they do (even if they don't have a problem with high-earning women generally or other women earning more than they do) - while a few have admitted to having this insecurity, pretty much all have been able to understand that yes, that is indeed sexist rather than offering up a bunch of evolutionary biology nonsense excuses that are also sexist.

So, mostly wins, no?

But this? This is a loss.

It's the Taiwanese equivalent of all housecleaning product commercials featuring obviously feminine-gender-role-oriented mothers doing chores, except worse, because at least there's a lot to praise about being a parent who can successfully maintain a clean adult home. There is nothing praiseworthy in the idea of being cute enough that you can go shopping and your boyfriend, who is basically a walking piece of plastic to you, will pay for it all so you don't need to worry your pretty little head about it.

Also he'll dress super preppy and carry your bags for you when you buy so much with his money that you can't carry it all. Nothin' against preppy-dressin' guys (hi Brendan) but come on.

Basically I see this as a microaggression - a seemingly small, innocuous thing from a bank I don't even use, but that reminds me of larger issues that most of the time I can safely forget about. Just like the odd local exclaiming how good you are with chopsticks and asking when you are moving back to your home country reminding me that as much as I feel like I live a normal life here, there are people who look at me and don't see another typical Taipei resident, this reminds me that as much as I can pretend people don't see me as different, lesser or in a subordinate role to men in my daily life, that a lot of people do. So many so that either the Hua Nan bank thought this piece of garbage would appeal to them or, more likely, whoever created the ad didn't even realize how laden with assumptions about gender dynamics in a relationship it was, and thought it was just normal, all guys finance their girlfriends' shopping sprees and all gals either let them or expect them to do so.

Which then makes me think, 'how many random guys do I walk past, briefly talk to, have everyday exchanges with who actually think that men are providers and women are spenders, and what does that lead them to assume about me?'

Which is not a productive line of thought, but that's what microaggressions do. Just like wondering 'how many people do I meet every day who treat me normally but actually see me as an Outsider?' because someone expressed surprise that I have more than a rudimentary grasp of Chinese.

And it makes me wonder how many women play to the stereotype - and how I can't even criticize them if this is the life they've chosen to lead (haha j/k I can criticize whomever I want and such women are not a credit to my gender and the judgier, less-nice side of me absolutely judges them even as I try to be better than that). How many women do want to be 'rich housewives', how many do want a boyfriend who mostly exists to look good, carry bags and finance shopping trips, and if you actually like him that's a bonus (then when he treats you horribly you cry to your girlfriends in your Prada dress about how awful men are)? And how many of those women exist, and date and interact with men, who then have a real-life basis for their stereotyping of women as perpetual dependents who exist to spend their money?

(Note: this is not the same thing as being a homemaker as a plan you've come to because it is the best choice for you and your family, I'm talking about expecting men to finance your shopping whims just because you're an attractive woman).

Anyway. I've wasted enough time on this thing. I just wanted to complain about it. It's bad, and its creator should feel bad.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

An Unexpected Sun Yat-sen: Luzhou Wanderings

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So a few weeks ago on a rainy Sunday we decided to trek out to Luzhou to see the Li Family Mansion (not to be confused with the Lin Family Mansion in Banqiao or Lin Antai house near Xinsheng Park, which I just found out recently used to be located very near where I live).

First, I strongly recommend you have a read of the Li Mansion's English introduction - it's just sort of wonderfully off-kilter:

In 1895, the Ma Kuan Treaty was signed, surrendering Taiwan to Japan. To console the sadness of losing their homeland to Japan and to meet the needs of a growing family, the Lee family decided to expand their estate in its current location.

Yeah, okay, I'm so sad that one colonial power signed my island off to another colonial power that I'm going to expand my house on that island  makes PERFECT SENSE you guys. Sure.

Anyway, we didn't get to see it. The photo above is not of it. We got to the entrance only to learn that we'd taken the MRT out to the 'burbs for naught: the family was praying to ancestors that day and the home was closed to visitors.

Oh well.

So we decided to see what else we could find in Luzhou. We didn't expect a lot, but what we did find is a testament to how much fun it can be to wander in random neighborhoods in Taiwan. I'm not going to tell you where all of these places are, the point is to wander and find interesting places for yourself. All I'll say is that they're in the vicinity of Sanmin Senior High School (三民高中) station.

We found an old farmhouse in surprisingly good condition, with a brick pattern I associate with Qing-era Taiwanese architecture, an old wooden door, picturesque greenery and interesting old tiles:

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We found a hideous new luxury apartment building construction site, erecting something that is meant to be private residences but looks like a surprisingly unattractive church:

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So beauty!

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We found a giant friendly leopard spotted cat:

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...and as far as I know Luzhou isn't near the sea, so can anyone tell me what's up with the sidewalks decorated with crabs? Are Luzhou crabs famous and I had no idea? Where do they get the crabs?

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We found an old Japanese-era mansion at the far end of a parking lot hidden behind some buildings off a main road:
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And most interestingly to me, we found the crumbling homestead of a family with a sculptor ancestor:

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Basically, I was looking over the gate and pointed out that the courtyard was full of random sculpture as well as a scooter, implying someone lived here despite its somewhat dilapidated state. Take a look just in front of the house on the right - what do you see?

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Well, hello Dr. Sun!

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So as I was taking photos a guy came up and wanted to get in the gate - it was his house. I figured we'd better head out and not bother him (I'm happy I did not lift the unlocked gate to investigate - not a cool thing to do at a private residence) but first I just had to ask how he came to have a random Sun Yat-sen in his front yard.

Turns out his grandfather or great grandfather (it wasn't clear) had been a sculptor and had made it - and the others in the yard.

Finally, in a random lane as we were looking for the first Japanese-era mansion (which was mentioned in some travel literature somewhere), we found another mansion! I'm not sure of the age of this one but it says 1930s or 1940s to me. Something about the color of the bricks and the window shape. I could be wrong, though. I'm certainly no expert.

This place was obviously a private residence with a well-kept courtyard, so we satisfied ourselves with peeking over the fence.

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But of course, Luzhou is still Luzhou, and it wouldn't be the slightly-dinged-up Taipei suburbs without some random thing on the street: 

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Yuck.

I really hope they weren't trying to use that thing to sell ladies undergarments, but somehow I fear they were.

Happy wandering!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Confucian values" are not the problem

So I was reading this article linked to by a friend on what's wrong with Taiwan and its approach to the business in the post-industrial era. 

And I have to say, I didn't care for it. I didn't absolutely hate it, but it missed the mark in a few key ways.

First, I'll give Stocker points for referring to Taiwan as a 'nation' and 'country' and not using the old 'island' cop-out that so many pussyfooting writers do. Thank you for that. More people should be so brave as to speak truth to power or just, I dunno, use language to describe a situation realistically. I don't know why that's so hard for so many writers, publications and weak-willed editors. All it takes is a backbone and some damn principles. And realistically, Taiwan is a country. It is a nation. It is also an island, but using that as the de facto descriptor is devaluing and belittling. I have trouble taking journalists writing on Taiwan seriously who do this, so much credit to Stocker for not doing so.

And he's right to criticize the ODM mindset that lower costs and ramped-up production based on what other people are ordering, absolutely. ODM itself is not the problem, the issue is that Taiwan can't compete on price. It just can't. That's not going to change. It's time to find something new.

In his words:

Taiwan’s four decades of economic development were built largely on a single business model: winning export orders by delivering a quality product at a lower price (aka CP Value). Despite the increasingly uncompetitive nature of this business model, and in spite of sales of millions of copies of books like Blue Ocean Strategy and Value Proposition Model, Taiwan has failed to break its reliance on the CP Value model; not much unlike a college student who continues to rely on mom and dad for money after graduation.


I can't honestly disagree with that.

He's not wrong, either, to criticize the educational system, which sees fantastic scholastic achievement but mostly in the realm of test scores, and even then, much of it is the result of the private after-school cram school industry:

The business environment as far as I can tell is a reflection of the classroom. People are trained into this way of thinking/acting over 16 years, and when the company they join reinforces this mode of operation, people just default to what they are used to.
“When each individual is taking his/her own test, you aren’t going to build a very innovative culture. No experimentation. No exploration. No observation. No conversation. No debate.
Sure, but I'm not sure that's the biggest reason for business problems in Taiwan.

I used to defend Taiwan's educational system more vociferously, but I've grown more disillusioned with it the more I learn about it. I will not, however, go as far as some commentators do and say it teaches Taiwanese kids to become drones incapable of critical thought. No, it doesn't do that any more than the American public school system, which is still very much in an Industrial Age mindset, does. And anyway, it's not like Taiwanese don't learn to become critical thinkers - they do, just not from school. They learn it from their families, their friends, from life. Just like most other people in the world, including Americans. I was lucky to have a few decent teachers who really were dedicated to teaching us to think, but honestly, I could have gotten through school fairly easily simply memorizing what I needed to know and regurgitating it. Often, I did, and did my real learning in other ways (such as through my parents' extensive library). So, I don't think American public schools were any better at teaching me critical thinking than Taiwanese schools are at teaching it to Taiwanese kids, so please lay off on that stupid stereotype. We are not any better. That's not to say the Taiwanese system is great, just that our pot is pretty black too.

What can I say - one of our most famous folk songs includes the lyrics "20 years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift"!

The same is true looking at testing culture: the West (at least, the US) is getting worse in this regard, not better. If anything, the Asian model should have shown that testing culture doesn't work. Taiwanese schools are more focused on bigger tests (such as the college entrance exam) than the US, though, and that is a problem. Most tests are not reliable and many have deep validity issues.

My one other true criticism is that teachers who study education in Asia, in many cases, don't actually learn to teach. They learn their subject matter well but don't go much into pedagogy, curriculum development, methodology or approaches.

Hell, if the education system were really to blame, Korea and Japan would be stagnating too in terms of brand reach. Both have education systems not that different from Taiwan's. Japan has its own economic turmoil but nobody doubts its international branding, and Korea just seems to keep climbing the ladder, outshining its old Asian Tiger rival, Taiwan in economic growth and global visibility. China, too! China is a bit of a rollercoaster economically, but people are touting it as the next great superpower, and it is already a global economic powerhouse. China's educational system is, if anything, far more repressive than Taiwan's.

So no, there is plenty to criticize about education in Taiwan but it is simply not the reason why business and international brand reach in Taiwan have been stagnating.

As for "no conversation, no debate", has Stocker walked down the street in Taipei on any given day to hear people sitting around outside their homes or the stores of their friends/neighbors debating issues of the day? Has he hung out in cafes overhearing student groups meeting to talk about politics and the way forward for the country? I have. In fact, I feel like I come across this more often in Taiwan than in the US, where "public discourse" seems to now mean throwing insults at each other over Facebook and saying stuff like "it's people like you who..." and "you [insert pejorative catchphrase here] make me sick" and "typical neocon/fundie/liberal/SJW crybaby". (To be fair, I argue with people on Facebook too, but I never stoop to that. It shows a lack of ability to support one's views with evidence).

People do converse, and they do debate. They experiment, too. Have I ever told you about my student who - as a child - would throw cats to determine their mass and velocity and tie firecrackers to lizards' tails to see what would happen? I mean, that's animal abuse and it's wrong, but you can't say he didn't experiment.

As for "Confucian values":

This leads to one of the big three challenges facing Taiwanese business as he sees it: Confucian values.
Says Stocker: “Unfortunately, too many Taiwanese are afraid to tell their boss what is going on and what should be done. Taiwanese employees don’t feel they have the right to make decisions, and for this reason they refrain from communicating (anything) with their superiors. There is no debate, there is no challenging of the status quo; there are no crazy ideas. The boss has to do all the talking, and over time since he/she is doing all the talking, he/she starts to do all the thinking as well. We end up with these incredibly flat organizations, with a boss on one layer and all employees on a second layer. Employees wait for the directive from the boss, and ignore anything coming laterally from co-workers. They also won’t collaborate with other employees to find an idea to work on, because the only relationship they need to attend to is that with the boss. It is very hard to be innovative when the only interaction is boss-to-employee in a downward direction.”
I mean, yes, I do often see a 'keep your head down, do as you're told, don't rock the boat' mentality in businesses in Taiwan. He's not wrong on the results, just on the reasons behind them.

Perhaps I'm just sick of the stereotypical invocation of "Confucian society" as a Western rejoinder to every issue they see in Taiwan. Don't like something or find it different from your own culture? Assume it's worse, and blame Confucius! It's so easy! Certainly all you have to do is go to an expat bar in Taipei to hear it. And I'm sick of it.

Because again, if that were really the problem, then how come the issues uniquely affecting Taiwan are not affecting Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong or China, or at least not to the same degree? They are all "Confucian societies" too, and again, while they have their own economic woes, they're not facing economic stagnation in quite the same way or for quite the same reasons as Taiwan is.

That's not even getting into how what Stocker describes as "Confucian values" are not actually very Confucian at all. Confucius cared about hierarchy and the chain of command, yes, but he also admonished those at the top to listen to their underlings and treat them fairly.

So clearly, "Confucian values" are not the reason.

What do I think are the main reasons?

Because what I think is important, at least on this blog?

They are wage stagnation, exhausting work culture, brain drain (a direct result of the first two) and China.

So here we go:

1.) Wage stagnation

Stocker almost gets it, here:

To the converse, if you as an individual do come across a good idea, you are going to keep it to yourself, and when the timing is right you will ‘start your own company’.


Do you, Mr. Boss Man (because you are probably a man, maybe you even have a top had and monocle or just secretly wish you did), want to know why your employees aren't sharing their great ideas with you?

Do you think it's because of "Confucian values" and all you have to do is tell them to make more decisions, talk more to each other and be responsible for their own roles as they play into the success of the company? Is that why, Mr. Boss Man?

Let me speak for Mr. Boss Man: "Yes, that is why. I shall tell my employees to talk more and make more decisions when we have our next annual meeting."

To which I say, no. That is not the reason.

The reason is that you don't pay them enough to make it worth their while to tell you their great ideas. 

I know this because I used to be someone's employee too. I used to have great ideas for how to improve our materials, our seminars, our support, our non-existent training. Years later, holding a Delta (meaning I'm now qualified to professionally assess the quality of my previous ideas), I still feel I had some great input.

I never bothered to share it with the company, though, because they didn't pay me enough to make sharing it worth it to me. I wouldn't see a pay bump, or a promotion. There wasn't a job to be promoted to. I would see precisely no benefit from sharing my thoughts with that company...why should I have given them my creative output for free, so they could profit and I could stay in the same place?

No, I kept my ideas to myself, created my own materials, syllabuses and teaching style and used it to build my own freelance business where I charge a rate commensurate with my abilities - a rate my former employer would never have paid me.

And that was the smartest thing to do.

I don't know anybody in Taiwan who would think "I have a great idea but I'm not going to tell the boss because she really cares about the chain of command and will see my speaking out as insubordinate."

No, every decent boss, "Confucian" devotion to hierarchy notwithstanding, knows a good idea when she hears it (there are plenty of bosses who aren't so decent, but let's assume enough of them get to be bosses by having some sort of talent) and if it is going to make her money, won't care where it came from.

More likely that worker thinks "I have a great idea but I'm going to keep it to myself because these people don't pay me enough to give a damn how successful their company is. It doesn't benefit me at all to help them make money while I continue to be underpaid and overworked, whereas I could stand to benefit a great deal from pursuing my idea on my own".

If you pay someone peanuts, they will give you monkey work. They may not actually be a monkey, but you will not be motivating them to talk to you with their most innovative ideas. Did anyone else read Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, in which one of the protagonists invents the idea of advertisements on chopsticks through screens that can cycle through different images/ads? And he notes that that invention made his company billions, and all he got was his regular paycheck as always?

That's how it feels when you give your best at work, throw your crazy, wonderful ideas to the boss, and watch the company make scads of money while you are consistently underpaid. You might get promoted, but wages are so stagnant in Taiwan that not even that job is going to pay you what you are worth and what you might expect in literally every other developed country in Asia, if not the world.

Again. There is no incentive to do anything but save your best idea for yourself when you know you will continue to be underpaid even if it takes off wildly after telling your boss.

And no amount of "tell your employees to collaborate and speak openly!" is going to change that, Mark.

Pay.

People.

More.

PERIOD.

Until companies do, they can expect more of the same. You can't just tell people to hand you their good ideas if you show them through their lousy paycheck that you don't value them. They're not going to, because they're not stupid.

Final note - if you beg the question in your article with an assumption that people in Taiwan don't think/experiment/debate/collaborate/innovate, and then go on to say they take their ideas and start their own companies, doesn't that contradict your first point? Doesn't striking out on your own with your own idea require a huge amount of chutzpah, experimentation, thought, collaboration and innovation?

If Taiwanese really were indoctrinated into being mindless drones who always listen to their boss in the hierarchy, they would be happy to drone on in their jobs. But they're not - they're starting their own companies. This is clear evidence that they aren't educated to just obey the system.

And I say good for them!

2.) Exhausting work culture

I think this one speaks for itself - how are you going to come up with your best ideas and find creative new innovations, solutions to problems in the company and market, or come up with the next big thing, if you are constantly exhausted? If you are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week for less money than you'd be making in - again - every other developed country in Asia if not the world, constantly on the verge of nodding off, you just aren't going to be an asset.

In fact, studies show that more than 6-8 hours of work per day leads to decreased, not increased, productivity. And working people much more than that leads to a steep decline - you get literally no benefit, and in some cases you start to feel a deficit, in productivity from pushing your employees to work longer hours.

How can we fix this?

Simple - hire more people. Stop asking Ah-Chen to do the jobs of 3 people and then knowingly lie to him about it being possible to finish in a normal 8-hour day. A-Chen knows you're lying and you do too. (Again this may be a reason why he's not giving you his best ideas - you overwork him. You don't appreciate him so he doesn't appreciate you. What did you expect?)

Hire 3 people to do the jobs of 3 people (I mean for Christ's sake the math isn't even hard, come on guys) and pay them fairly, at internationally standard rates. Sure, this will cost you money, but you'll get it all back and more as your company roars to life.

Also, when you are expected to stay late as nothing more than a show of loyalty, or expected to do more than you can reasonably do in one work day, you tend to rebel, don't you? At least I do. Taiwanese employees don't sit on Facebook because they're lazy or unproductive. They're rebelling in the only way they can - by giving monkey work to employers who treat them like monkeys, regardless of how creative or innovative they actually are.

I don't blame them. I would too.

You want better work? More innovative staff? Start treating your employees like people. Give one person the work of one person, not 2 or 3.

3.) Brain Drain

This is a direct result of the first two problems. Again I don't blame those who leave - if office work in Taiwan were the option I was looking at if I stayed, I'd leave too. No thanks. Pay me what I'm worth and let me go home at 6, or I'll go abroad. Bye!

4.) China

I won't spend too much time on this, but I do think it's a factor. What does every country not have to deal with that Taiwan does? China openly and actively trying to undermine its economy to make annexation easier. Few people seem willing to admit this, fewer still are willing to debate it. It's obvious to anyone who cares to look - I mean hell, China admits it openly! They can and do interfere with Taiwan's ability to negotiate economic agreements with other countries and are quite open about the reason being that a weakened Taiwan is a Taiwan that's easier for them to take over. They are quite open as well that economic talks are, for them, an entry point to later political talks that they aim to "win".

This is not news.

China is actively trying to repress Taiwan's economy so as to render it both hopeless and economically dependent on China, for reasons that are obvious to everyone with two eyes and ears and a brain to process input with.

And that's why we can't seem to get the economy off the ground.

Why am I so sure it's these issues, and not the ones Stocker points to (real issues though they are) as the true mechanics behind Taiwan's economic stagnation?

Because they are the only ones unique to Taiwan. Wage stagnation is not a problem on the same level in South Korea, Japan or Singapore, and even China pays competitively now on the relatively prosperous urban east coast. (Hong Kong is another matter - wages are globally competitive but the cost of living has skyrocketed, especially vis-a-vis housing, to the point that it doesn't feel that way to locals). It's the same for the threat from China. Brain drain doesn't seem to be much of an issue for other competitive Asian economies - if anything they're the ones getting Taiwan's best and brightest.

Exhaustion at work is an issue common to other countries in Asia, and as such may not be the key driver, but I felt I should mention it because it is such a massive problem.

Want to fix whatever is holding Taiwan back?

Start here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Wen Meng Municipal Brothel (文萌公娼館) and a Datong photo walk

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So this past Sunday, despite the crap weather, we decided to get some exercise and hang out in a part of Taipei I love, but don't get to return to often: Datong/Dadaocheng. I have a 2-volume book kicking around called Historical Sights in Taipei that I often use to determine landmarks by which I plan my urban roving, and Brendan and I came across an entry I was quite curious about: the Wen Meng House (文萌樓) at #139 Guisui Street (歸綏街), just west of Ningxia Road (Guisui is a little bit north of Minsheng). It's closest to MRT Shuanglian, and you can get there by walking through a fairly atmospheric old warren of streets if you stay off the main roads - though in this 'hood, even the main roads have crumbling colonial architecture.

The Wen Meng House was apparently opened as a municipal brothel in the 1950s - back when sex work was legal in Taiwan. It was closed in the late 1990s when sex work became criminalized, but the women of COSWAS (a sex worker association) are fighting to keep it open as a historical site and small museum. You can read more about it here.

That article was from 2012, and writing from 2016, I can say the building is still around and still marked as a historical brothel, so it seems no final decision has been reached on the fate of the property. It is, however, locked and nobody is around to let visitors in. There is an active shrine/temple next door but I didn't want to ask, though in this country I'm not so sure a temple would be morally opposed to sex work. They do have sexy temple dancers, after all.

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As a sex-positive person and pro-historical preservation urban dweller, I obviously side with the women trying to preserve the site. This is an important part of their history, and is one of the things that makes an urban place more human - by remembering how things were in years gone by as well as acknowledging that sex work, well, exists. It has always existed and will always exist.

Though obviously I acknowledge the rampant exploitation in the sex work industry, and am well aware that a huge percentage of prostitutes are exploited or enslaved, I'm not in theory opposed to legal sex work provided by unexploited escorts of any gender, and legalizing it would make it easier to find and punish traffickers. 

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The bandanas tied to the door say "pardon sex work", and I assume the photos below are of the press conferences and political activities of the sex worker association as they fight to preserve the property. Godspeed!

I do view this as a women's issue, and an issue of women's rights. Not only should sex work not be stigmatized or penalized (though traffickers certainly should be), but women should be free to do what they want with their bodies - we all should, in fact! If that means selling sex for money and that's what they want to do, let them do it, regulate it, tax it, protect the workers who choose to engage in it, and otherwise, stay out of the bedrooms of others.

And I do think this is possible in Taiwan - first of all, it's less controversial than the "comfort women museum" (which despite controversy I actually support - women's stories too often get shunted to the side, especially if they are doing something others find 'unsavory' such as sex work - puppets get their own museum but not women who were legitimately forced into sex slavery?) And secondly, as I've explored in the past, Taiwan is not the sheer bastion of conservatism that many believe it to be. Commercial sex work was legal until 1997 after all.

And by all means, let the women have their historic site!

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Historical Sights in Taipei, by the way, has a hilariously awkward English rundown of the site:

The indoor compartment or layout of this well-preserved house also reflects the spacial needs and functions of the early-time sex business with the particular atmosphere of a public whorehouse still emanating.

Great, except I wouldn't know what the atmosphere of a public whorehouse is? And if you look over to the Chinese, it gives you the Chinese word for, specifically, a public whorehouse (公娼館)...did not know that was a word in Chinese. Nice.

Anyway, just wandering up from Shuanglian along Wanquan (完全街) Street and assorted lanes yields all sorts of interesting sights of a slightly crumbly, gritty neighborhood:

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And some tiny alleys lead to interesting things indeed, including antique stone tools in private courtyards (photo taken with permission of owners but not their angry little dog):

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...and cool syncretic temples that feel kinda Dao and also kinda Buddhist:

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...and I thought I was the only Taipei resident to have a Chen Chu spring scroll (I have one from the year of the horse, with Chen riding a bicycle, which those who know what it would mean for Chen to be depicted riding a horse - perhaps with stirrups - might find as a missed opportunity, albeit purposely so). Chen Chu is the well-liked mayor of Kaohsiung, not Taipei!

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By the way, I don't have one for year of the monkey. If any Kaohsiung resident has one lying about that they want to send to me...

I also liked this lovely hand-painted sign:

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Sunflower sympathies run deep in Datong - Mr. Hong here was just one of several campaign posters and banners we saw evoking the symbols of the 2014 student movement that occupied the legislature for over two weeks. The actual student activists are not necessarily comfortable with this association or possible appropriation of their name by DPP candidates (I have no idea how close Mr. Hong here is to the student movement). 

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...and Datong wouldn't be Datong without its weird little asides:

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There are legit other sights too, if you want to walk around the neighborhood. Further north along Chongqing you'll come to this old facade, with an ugly building behind it. The facade itself seems to hold a Starbucks, which I gotta say is a pretty cool Starbucks...for a Starbucks:

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...and a turn onto Ganzhou Street will lead you to a Presbyterian church built in the early 20th century, with an ugly-as-actual-sin newer church attached behind it like a tumor that has grown larger than its host. The address is #40 甘州街.

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And you'll pass the requisite temples and shrines, of course. This area is also quite near a well-known Earth God temple you may want to stop at. 

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If you want to head westward, to the very end of Taipei, walk back to Guisui Street (a bit to the south of Ganzhou) and take it all the way to Lane 303, which is quite literally the last tiny little lane before Huanhe Road, the seawall, and the river delineating the city limits. Turn right and you'll reach the Koo family mansion at #9 Lane 303 Guisui Street, which is now a kindergarten. This was built back when Danshui River trade was much bigger than it is, and the ground floor was used for commerce. The Koo family resided upstairs. This, and the Chen residence further south (on Guide Street between Xining and Huanhe, south of Minsheng) are the only two surviving mansions along the river that I know of, and they don't even border the river anymore. The hideous Huanhe Road does. 

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Along the way, the walk is a veritable choose-your-own-adventure of crumbling architecture. Dihua Street of course holds many of the best-preserved examples, but quite a bit exists along Guisui, Guide, Ganzhou, Anxi, Xining, Minsheng, Yanping, Chongqing, and other roads. Just take a wander, See what's out there.

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The theater of the lovely little puppetry museum on Xining Road just south of Minsheng: 

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...a falling-apart building on either Minle or Anxi Street:

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A lane off of Anxi Street:

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The old Chen mansion, on Guide Street (#73貴德街). The backside visible along Xining over the wall, in a mess of overgrown shrubbery and trees, is creepy in a haunted-house sort of way. You could probably keep a hermit in there.

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An old house along the park where Anxi and Minle meet above, and a crumbling edifice on Anxi below.

This whole area, especially the park to the east of Dihua Street where these roads meet, is starting to show the early signs of gentrification, with cafes and bookstores beginning to pop up. 

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Gentrification, to my mind, is kind of okay as long as local residents benefit (though usually they don't), though I have to say it's a bit of a shock to see my old walking grounds, where I was the only non-neighborhood local around, just me and some old folks and kids, now being full of walkers and tourists on a Sunday afternoon. I'm OK with economic development and all, it's just...weird. At least it means these old architectural treasures are more likely to be preserved. If they draw crowds they're not as likely to be razed by developers. As long as they don't turn into some crappy uniform "Old Street" selling the same shoddy souvenirs as Daxi and Sanxia...

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We ended the day by being tourists ourselves, stopping at 217 Manor (in a block of old gray shophouses on Dihua Street north of Minsheng) for coffee to perk up and then a beer to wind down.

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Independence indeed!

And then walked down to Nanjing Road to catch transportation home, stopping along the way in my favorite Chinese medicine pharmacy to play with one of their many pets (they also have another cat, an overweight dog and a surly gray parrot).

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Monday, April 18, 2016

An East Rift Valley and Taimali Adventure

I'm going to apologize in advance for the vagueness of this post - I took this trip over a year ago but, due to the vagaries of life (having to return to the US yet again for my dad's surgery, finishing the Delta etc.) I just didn't get around to dealing with the photos, which means I didn't post anything about it. When I finally did have time to do a photo-heavy post I opted for Kinmen, because it was so unlike the rest of Taiwan.

I'm ready to fix that now, but this trip happened so long ago that I'm now a bit fuzzy on the details. So, I can't actually direct anyone to the places I visited - good travelers experienced in Taiwan should have no problem, though! That said, this post is just not up to the level of quality detail I try to bring to my travel posts, and I'm sorry about that.

So, here goes:

About a year ago we took the train to Taidong, rented a car, and wandered the southern East Rift Valley before taking a scenic road over the mountains to the East Coast, driving down to Taimali before returning to Taidong, dropping off the car and taking the Puyuma Express home. We had four days in total, two of which involved train trips, one full sightseeing day which was merely okay (it poured on and off) and one which was amazing.

On the train down I couldn't help but note the tendency to put factories in some of the most scenic spots:

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We got to Taidong, went to the night market (at least Brendan and I did, our friend Joseph stayed at the hotel), woke up in Taidong, rented a car from CarPlus and were on our way. Or, at least we were in fits and starts thanks to wildlife blocking the road:

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I believe, but cannot be sure, we took the 197 from Taidong up over the mountains to the southernmost edge of the East Rift Valley - we missed the turn-off for the bridge to Luye (鹿野) and ended up on a stretch that was more like a forest trail than a road - completely unpaved and grassy in spots. Storm clouds loomed overhead. It was pretty scenic though.

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We passed a few aboriginal villages and came down a steep set of switchbacks to another bridge, which I drove across screaming with my hair in my face thanks to the open window, and headed south back to Luye. The main thing to do in Luye is to go to the Luye Gaotai (Luye Pavilion, or 翱翔飛行傘鹿野高台) where in theory parasailing and hot air ballooning are possible, tea is grown, and the scenery is supposed to be nice. You can also sled down a grassy slope, which looked kind of fun. Given the weather, we didn't see any sort of air-based sports. The scenery was nice, but honestly I was a bit underwhelmed. Also, we couldn't find a decent meal in the whole town and got some underwhelming noodles.

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We then drove up to Guanshan (關山)  where we checked into our next hotel - a homestay, really, well out of town and off the highway. You'd need a car to get there. I can't find it on Google Maps and I can't remember the name, so you'll just have to trust me that there is a pretty good homestay in Guanshan if you have your own transport (it would also be easy work for cyclists).

In Guanshan it rained on and off - the most interesting thing I noted was how you could see far down the valley and across to the mountains on the other side, so you could see the storm cells moving about like mobile fire sprinklers. The advantage of this, other than being lovely and scenic, was that you could tell when you were about to get soaked.

Guanshan has a bicycle trail for tourists that is quite popular, so we walked around that - the on-and-off rain made cycling unappealing, and from our homestay we weren't near the place to rent them - and saw some more local, uh, wildlife.

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Rain making its way down the mountains near our homestay.

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The train passing through the valley as it rains on the mountain ridges.

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I imagine this is what it's like living in a flat area, such as the Midwest, and watching rainstorms come in - something you can't do where I'm from, with hills blocking the view.

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Just before we ourselves got soaked, we spotted this interesting-looking building out in the fields. We determined it was a Hakka restaurant, and our homestay owner said it was pretty good. The rain made us not really want to go back out once we returned to the homestay and changed into dry clothes, but it's not like you can get pizza delivery in Guanshan, so we got in the car and drove out here for dinner. It caters to larger groups but overall it was quite good.

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Whereas this is just terrifying:

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GOOD LORD JESUS:

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...apparently this is some sort of thing owned by the Guanshan Farmers' Association - kids come here on field trips to learn about rice farming, I suppose.

We ran back to our homestay as the rain really set in. This guy, however, continued working.

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Fortunately the next morning brought perfect weather and azure skies. We got to see our homestay's garden and pet peacocks before checking out:

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We then drove up to Chishang (池上), which is something of a tourist destination. I liked the old cluster of houses downtown, which we walked through very peacefully, and the views on the drive.

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I was less impressed with Chishang's main tourist draw, the "Mr. Brown Highway" (which to me just sounds like a euphemism for a butthole, but hey). Apparently it was made famous in Mr. Brown coffee commercials, and then if you cycle down it enough you get to the "Takeshi Kaneshiro Tree" (金城武樹), because Takeshi apparently made a famous movie where he waits at that tree. The tree was knocked down in a typhoon but apparently has been re-planted. Because it's famous.

We, however, were not that impressed - it was pretty, yes, but the views just driving around were prettier, and it was clogged with tourists and annoying family bikes. So...we got a cup of coffee - interestingly, there was a Lavazza Cafe but not a Mr. Brown which is just a missed advertising opportunity - and went on our way.

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We got lunch further down the road in a no-name town (in fact I'm sure it did have a name, but I can't remember it nor be sure what that name is on a map) where we happened across a shop that makes those god-and-other-celestial-being statues for temple parades.

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HELLO!

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Then we took a turn up the mountains on Dongfu Road (東富路), which I think (?) is Highway #23? that led over the mountains and through paradise (including a place known as "Little Tianxiang" - 小天祥 - after its supposed resemblance to the famous Tianxiang in Taroko Gorge). Unable to stop at Little Tianxiang (there aren't many places to pull over), we stopped at this rickety little pavilion to enjoy the view:

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This time, I was more impressed. We passed mountain ridges, betel nut palms, rocky gorges and green valleys, taking a break at an area along the way known for its troupe of monkeys that can usually be found hanging out by the side of the road. These monkeys are so famous that tour buses actually stop for them. 

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We wisely locked the doors to our rental car.

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Dongfu Road comes down from the mountains and hits the coast at Donghe, which is something of a foreigner-populated surfer town. We continued south and took our next break in Jinzun (金樽), where there is a coffeeshop conveniently called Jinzun Coffee (金樽咖啡) with a stunning view of the beach.

I mean, look at that.

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We walked down the cliff - there is a trail and stairs - to the actual beach - and it was nearly deserted (but not great for swimming). 

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We then made our way down to the foreigner enclave of Dulan, where we didn't go to the beach as it was getting late, but we did stop at the Dulan Sugar Factory (a little post-industrial spot now filled with cute shops) to pick up some beer for later from an expat who brews it before having a cold drink and some dessert at a little cafe run by a Frenchman.

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At this point the sun was truly setting, so we continued on past Taidong to the tiny aboriginal town of Taimali.

I didn't know what I wanted to do in Taimali, but I'd passed through on the train years ago and thought it'd looked just peaceful and lovely and scenic. We ended up at an unexpectedly great homestay, which from some Internet sleuthing to jog my memory I believe was this place - 濾池畔民宿. Afraid we were going to have to drink our Dulan beer in some dank little love-hotel like room with absolutely no charm or even proper lighting, we were delighted to get a large, breezy room with a strangely fantastic bathroom and massive balcony, with light and chairs.

So we showered, cracked open the beers, listened to music and talked until it was time for bed.

The next day, after a surprisingly good breakfast (toast and fresh fruit and French press coffee!) we drove through Taimali - not a lot to do but we got some good shaved ice, drove down to the beach, walked around a bit, found an old temple and chatted with a 94-year-old Mainlander who came with the KMT diaspora, married a local aboriginal woman and settled here.


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Downtown Taimali isn't exactly hopping:

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Then we drove up into the hills behind the town looking for lunch. Joseph had read in a local guidebook that there was a well-known aboriginal restaurant up here. On the way we passed an adorable little church:

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And some murals.

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The restaurant was called "Good Place" (好地方) which I love for its simplicity. And it really was good - it's the sort of place where you don't get a menu, they just bring you enough food for your party. What's sad is that I can't remember exactly what we ate - although I know I avoided the dish full of bitter gourd - but that it was damn good. I'd recommend it, if you can find it. Perhaps not for dinner when the karaoke starts up though.

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Nearby are more aboriginal settlements, some in government-built housing. We didn't linger, though I did stop to admire some particularly inspired artwork.

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With some time to kill we drove up further into the mountains for some great views before the roads got too narrow and we had to turn back.

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Our train left that evening for Taidong but we still had time to kill - so we drove a bit north of the city to a place called "Little Yehliu" (among a few other stops). I was really less than impressed:

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I mean it was fine and all but regular Yehliu is way cooler.

So, we turned around and headed back to the train station, dropped off the car and hopped on the Puyuma.

All in all I'd say it was a great trip!