Thursday, April 15, 2021

Book Review: Migrante

 Migrante by J.W. Henley

“Even if your case is closed and they say you can change your employer, it’s like there’s a black mark on you. You didn’t finish your contract, and the next man wants to know why. They think we’re troublemakers. Runaways. They actually think we’re out to cheat them, if you can believe it. Us cheating them,” he scoffed. “Not all of them, but enough.”

— Mak to Rizal, Migrante

Many keys have been pounded in the effort to bring attention to the working conditions of foreign blue-collar labor in Taiwan. At this point, I would find it highly suspicious if anyone in Taiwan was not aware of the way these workers are treated: fishermen worked to exhaustion in life-threatening conditions (in some cases even killed by the captains of their ships), wages withheld to the point that they are more enslaved than employed, rampant physical and sexual abuse. Domestic workers forced to work outside their contracts, seven days a week. Factory workers enduring constant safety violations, including dorms which are little more than fire traps

However, if you think that everyone is aware of these horrors, you would be wrong, as this jaw-droppingly obtuse letter to the Taipei Times illustrates. If you need another anecdote, consider my neighbor, who once insisted that the way Southeast Asians are treated in Taiwan is “not racist” because “they come from poor countries so they are more likely to be criminals”. 

Sometimes it takes a novelization — the closest one can often get to being transported into another’s shoes — to really bring home what a deep, black mark this paints on Taiwan’s human rights record. How utterly unacceptable it is, across several industries. 

Enter Joe Henley’s Migrante. Henley himself takes on an aura of Upton Sinclair in the story of Rizal, a fictional man from the Philippines who comes to Taiwan to work on a fishing boat. If the narrative reminds you a bit of The Jungle, that is clearly intentional. If you are asking yourself why working conditions in wealthy, democratic, 21st century Taiwan echo those of American meatpacking factories a century ago before the concept of labor protection was more common...well, yes, that’s a very good question indeed.

In Migrante, the various experiences of foreign blue-collar workers are teased out as Rizal interacts with his fellow fishermen, women who had been abused and raped as caregivers, staff at a cantina in Zhongli, fellow “runaways” at a shelter and finally a factory floor. (Henley addresses both the reasons behind the choice of protagonist, and why a comparatively well-off Westerner in Taiwan wrote Migrante rather than an actual migrante in the preface.)

Although a great deal of fiction weaves social issues into larger narratives, Migrante is more like The Jungle in that narrating social injustice is its main — perhaps only — goal. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s simplistic, however. Henley uses Rizal’s experiences to show that the story isn’t as simple as “Taiwanese employers bad”. Yes, the labor broker and boat captain are passively and actively cruel in their respective ways. However, Rizal is eventually offered shelter and a chance to change his job; people do show him genuine kindness. Contrast a Taiwanese government worker’s attempt to help Rizal with the way he’s treated by the Filipino broker in his hometown. Neither cruelty nor kindness know national borders.

Migrante also teases out issues that tend not to be sufficiently examined. For example, as bad as the situation is for blue-collar labor in Taiwan, in many cases the conditions they are trying to escape are as bad, or worse. Toward the end, Rizal starts talking like his employers: keep your head down, don’t complain, you’re lucky to have been offered a job. He knows as he says this that none of it is true, but the way he adopts the language of his abusers is chilling. 

I also noted that throughout much of the story, Rizal was showing classic symptoms of situational depression, an issue that affects every stratum of society but tends not to get much attention in the very poor, as issues of more immediate desperation take precedence. This may be why some people think of depression as a problem affecting the comparatively wealthy. Of course that’s not the case. It’s helpful, then, to see it portrayed here. 

I can only imagine that all of these details came out of the extensive research Henley did in order to write this book, including interviews with the workers whose experiences he is drawing upon. Oft-ignored issues like these are far more likely to be brought up when one actually talks to members of a community in order to tell a well-informed story.

If I have any criticism of Migrante at all, it’s that in some places the prose is laid on a bit thick. It mirrors The Jungle in this way, as well. It doesn’t do this in every way, however. There are clear differences in the personalities of Rizal and Jurgis Rudkus, and Migrante does not end with a discordant “happier ending” of an orator proclaiming that socialism is coming and will save us all. This is to the novel’s credit: Henley doesn’t treat us like dumb capitalist puppies who need a good lecturin’, and I appreciate that. 

It would be fantastic if the ignorant letter-writers and racist neighbors in Taiwan read Migrante, although I know they probably won’t. Those of us who are already aware of the situation should step up our agitation for change. Those who unequivocally tout Taiwan as a bastion of human rights are not entirely wrong, but would do well to reflect on areas where drastic improvement is needed. And we should all remember that when we talk about “foreigners in Taiwan”, the vast majority have experiences closer to Rizal’s than to, say, mine. 

Just as Henley did not write Migrante to bash Taiwan, I am not writing this to attack this country. Both of us call Taiwan home, and I assume both of us will continue to do so. There is so much good here, but human rights need to be taken seriously for all workers. Period. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Safety Theater


The hallway outside our apartment created jarring echoes all week. Just before the holiday weekend, we saw a notice posted in the lobby that the government would be inspecting our building for fire safety so everything -- the usual shoe cabinets, umbrella stands and benches -- would have to be stowed outside as it's all technically against code. 

The building manager also told us it wasn't clear what day they'd come, so everyone's stuff would have to be kept inside until she gave the all-clear.

It stayed that way all weekend. Early this week, an announcement crackled over the PA that they'd be coming "tomorrow or Thursday, and they're very serious this time", with a reminder to wait for a signal that everything could go back outside. 

Obviously, the inspectors have been warning buildings in advance, to give everyone time to bring their hallways up to code. I gossiped with some neighbors and the building manager, exclaiming that "this is all a play, it's like a game, it's not real safety!" The doorwoman agreed but said it had gotten worse under Mayor Ko (柯文哲).

"Didn't the same thing also happen under Mayor Hau and Mayor Ma?"

"Yes, but Mayor Ko is stricter!" she spat back.

It's true that Ko does have a reputation for being more of a stickler on things like building inspections.  But he has good reason to be: it's all fun and games until a KTV burns down, killing five

That sounds glib, but the point is few take this seriously, even though it's not a joke. People do die.

Plus, she once exclaimed in my general direction that all Taiwanese are Chinese and Taiwan is a part of China when I walked out wearing a 非韓家園 t-shirt (an anti-Han Kuo-yu pun on the anti-nuclear movement) and has made clear her disdain for any politician who is not KMT -- not even Ko is good enough for her -- so that's just like...her opinion, man.

(Despite this we manage to have a good working relationship. I'm honestly not sure how.) 

I tried to point out that Ko can't be that bad, seeing as the inspectors are still calling her in advance, but she cut me off with further insistence that he's too strict and that's bad. I suppose that safety theater was bearable when the play wasn't this dramatic?

Some of the more theatrical aspects of this whole game are so preposterous that I'm surprised they're happening in real life. Brendan and I at least tried to put on a good show, not only moving our small cabinet inside, but also sweeping the area clean. Not all neighbors did this, so when the police arrived, they would have seen very obvious dusty squares where shoe cabinets had recently sat, with the dirt in such perfectly delineated spots that you'd think they weren't even trying to hide the fact that everything had been recently removed. I considered sweeping my neighbors' dust squares too because...c'mon guys, if we have to engage in this massive theatrical dance, can't we at least make an effort?

But I didn't, because that would only fix my floor. Other floors surely have dust squares, too. And this can't possibly be happening in my building alone.

Everyone's stuff is back in the hallway now, except our little chest of drawers. We hardly use the thing; what was the sense of breaking the law just for that? It's currently in our guest bedroom awaiting a clean-up before we give it away.

I am aware that law enforcement officers run the gamut of intelligence levels, from sharp as a knife to sharp as a spoon. This is true in every country. Surely, someone -- if not a knife, then at least a fork --has noticed these dust patches in any one of the buildings they have been inspecting reveal the game for what it is. But since they're calling in advance, my guess is that not noticing is not the reason why they're not reporting.

It's hard to say what the goal is here. Is Ko aware that his own employees are undermining his attempts at improving safety protocols, but understands that changing this mindset takes time? Or does he (or, more accurately, his staff) send them out oblivious to the fact that they're acting exactly as they did back when the KMT was in charge of Taipei and didn't care?

Should the law even exist? My own building is fairly tidy; nobody keeps piles of junk outside their door. A shoe cabinet probably won't make a difference in the event that emergency egress out of the building is necessary. Most people have them: I'd estimate that more people break the law than follow it. These laws feel like they're out of sync with how people actually live, and for that reason nobody obeys them. So why have them at all?

But not all buildings are well-kept, and there are people who do leave heaps of crap in their hallways. My own neighbor once kept a bicycle outside her door. One day I exited the elevator at my floor to hear her calling for help; the bike had fallen in front of the door and now she couldn't open it from the inside. She was trapped until somebody could move it for her. Maybe the laws aren't so silly after all. And although we don't know all the details yet, I'd be willing to bet that if lots of little safety precautions had been followed, the one big mistake by the driver of the truck that hit a train in Hualien, killing 50, might not have turned out the way it did.

So, I can't take a clear position on the whether the laws are reasonable or not. All I can say is, Taipei should make a choice: either have these laws and enforce them properly, or it should change the laws. 

Safety theater hides potential tragedies in plain sight and keeps no-one safe. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

On Freedom of Speech Day, Let's Remember Nylon Deng's Story

Not enough is said about Nylon Deng (Deng Nan-jung / 鄭南榕), at least not in English. The Nylon Deng Liberty Foundation provides a great deal of information in Mandarin, but the only page in English is simply gleaned from Wikipedia. Finding resources can be difficult, as some use the Mandarin form of his name (Cheng or Zheng Nan-rong), whereas most will use the Taiwanese Hoklo version (Deng), and surprisingly, he's not the only Taiwanese person of note with the English name Nylon.

While people who care about Taiwan's history and future certainly know who he was, it would be difficult for any sort of curious Taiwan neophyte to learn more than the basic outline of his story if they were not proficient in Mandarin. 

What is written is often written by those in-the-know for others in-the-know, containing brief summaries of what we assume everybody knows. But they don't, always. 

The two best resources to do this are Wikipedia (yes...I know) and Jerome Keating's blog. When one of the best sources is Wikipedia, the pickings are slim indeed. In history books, again, he gets little mention: out of every general history I've read, he is mentioned briefly in Wan-yao Chou's A New Illustrated History of Taiwan, and gets a name-check in the preface of the latest English edition of Su Beng's Taiwan's 400-Year History, and is the object of exactly one sentence in Denny Roy's Taiwan: A Political History, where he is called Cheng Nan-rong.

This is a shame. I would go so far as to say that understanding the spirit of Nylon Deng is key to understanding the spirit of Taiwan. Among foreign residents I know, there seems to be a dividing line between those who've never heard of him and those who admire him as strongly as any locals. Among local acquaintances, again, I have politically-oriented people in my circles who view him as an icon of the struggle for Taiwan's freedom and independence, and others who have to pause at the name to recall who he is. 

I've never met someone who has learned his story and come away unmoved or unchanged by the experience, and so on Freedom of Speech Day, I feel compelled to provide a version of his story that fills in the gaps and perhaps helps to clarify why he is a hero to some, but forgotten by many. 

So, I think it's about time a more complete telling of his story was available online, in English. Let's start with the Nylon Deng Liberty Foundation and Memorial Museum, and then discuss his life and accomplishments.

The Freedom Era office where Deng self-immolated has been turned into a small museum, with the area where he died left untouched. His remains have of course been removed, but the burnt walls, floor and furniture have all been left in situ, behind glass panels. 

I urge everyone to visit: the address is #11 3rd Floor , Alley 3 Lane 106, Minquan E. Road Section 3, Songshan District (台北市松山區民權東路三段106巷3弄11號3樓). It's open during business hours and you can ring the bell to be let in. 

However, rather like most online resources, the museum is also entirely in Mandarin. With advance notice, an English-speaking guide can be arranged, and Freedom Era, the 1990s film about Nylon, does have the option of English subtitles. We were able to view it at the museum and at one of my visits, DVDs could be purchased. But that's about it. Otherwise, if you want to learn more, you're on your own.

Deng was born in Taipei in late 1947, about six months after 228. This may be one of the reasons why he became an active figure in the movement to push for wider recognition of that massacre. His father was Chinese, from Fuzhou, and his mother Taiwanese, from Keelung, and he himself noted both the significance of having one "Mainlander" and one Taiwanese parent, as well as the tragedy of his birth year. He spoke out both of his family being targeted for their background, but also of being protected by neighbors.

He would say of his background that although he had Chinese ancestry, he supported Taiwanese independence, a message that might resonate with many today. No small percentage of my friend circle, for example, have grandparents who came to Taiwan in the 1940s, and yet all of them think of themselves as Taiwanese. Even the ones who aren't particularly 'green' or 'blue' support independence; I don't know many people under age 40 who don't, and data suggest that very few identify as 'Chinese'.

Deng studied engineering at National Cheng-kung University, but found he was more interested in philosophy, at a time when students were still bombarded with KMT propaganda as part of their education. Famously, he transferred from Fu Jen Catholic University to National Taiwan University, but then walked out for refusing to take the then-required class in Sun Yat-sen Thought. This is also around the time he met his wife, Yeh Chu-lan, who became a political figure in her own right after Deng's death. I've heard stories about their relationship, which I staunchly view as none of my damn business.

After finishing school, Deng wrote for several magazines, including Deep Cultivation and Politician, and would spend hours at the Legislative Yuan listening to proceedings (which is not something I had thought one could do at that time!)

In the early 1980s he started Freedom Era, a magazine aimed at fighting for "100% freedom of speech". If you've ever seen the graphic of an open mouth in a prison cell, with one bar bent, this is where it comes from. If you have any familiarity with "political magazines" from earlier eras in Taiwanese history -- most notably the Japanese era when publications such as Taiwan Youth and Taiwan People's News were founded  -- you'll know that Freedom Era was a continuation of the tradition of activist publications in Taiwan.

The KMT government banned the magazine several times, and it was re-opened under a new name each time. It was said that readers always knew where to find it regardless of the name, and in any case, all of the names were similar. Freedom Era racked up 22 publication licenses this way; you can see the stamps for them in the museum. 

Freedom Era included contributions by many leading activists and writers of the day, including the usual Tangwai pro-independence set but also some we might find surprising today, such as Li Ao, a writer from China known now for having been anti-KMT, but also pro-unification. A volunteer at the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum noted wryly that such collaboration did not last. Wan-yao Chou points out in A New Illustrated History of Taiwan that had the democratization movement gone differently, perhaps pro-democracy 'blues' and 'greens' could have worked together more. Instead, they seemed to split among independence/unification lines.

Deng was always clear, however, that he advocated for independence; Taiwan's democratization should not be in hopes of unification, but sovereignty as Taiwan. One of the most famous snippets from his speeches is simply "I am Deng Nan-jung, and I support Taiwanese independence" -- nothing flashy or unique, but not something most people would have dared to say in 1987.

According to the preface of Taiwan's 400-Year History, Deng helped smuggle copies of the book to Taiwan. The book itself is is Su Beng's seminal (and highly editorial) history of Taiwan the first of its kind to give Taiwanese readers the chance to frame their own history as something separate and unique, not a part of any concept of "China" or "Japan". 

Many of Deng's remarks became famous both in their time and after. These include"if I could only live in one place, it would be Taiwan. If I had to choose one place where I would die; that place would be Taiwan." And, in a sense of dreadful premonition, "the KMT will never take me, they will only take my dead body" and "I'm not afraid of being arrested or killed, I'll fight them to the end." 

Back to the story. This cat-and-mouse game continued with the KMT, and one can only imagine the extent to which Deng himself was aware of how it might end.

In the mid-1980s, Deng served a few months in prison for violating censorship laws. In 1987, helped organize 519 Green Action -- a protest on May 19th at Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall demanding an end to Martial Law, which was lifted in July of that year. It's hard to say who attended the protest as so many turned their backs to cameras, but one might guess that many were ordinary citizens.

Shortly after Martial Law was lifted, Deng initiated a campaign to push the government to designate 228 as a national holiday. To this day, Deng's brother, co-activists and the Nylon Deng Liberty Foundation and others collaborate on efforts to boost the remembrance of 228, most notably a march through the area where the incident occurred. The march typically covers the site of the Tianma teahouse where Lin-Chiang Mai was beaten for selling cigarettes illegally, the Executive Yuan and the radio station in what is now 228 Peace Park where protesters took over the broadcast and asked all of Taiwan to rise up against the KMT. 

By 1989, the year of his death, Martial Law was well over, Chiang Ching-kuo was dead, and Lee Teng-hui had succeeded him. Lee does not deserve direct blame for Deng's death, certainly the sorts of reforms he pushed through against the protests of a reticent KMT took time (did you know that some Taiwanese political prisoners remained behind bars until the early 1990s? Here's just one example). However, I think it's important to remember that when Deng died, the Chiangs were gone and the man credited with a critical role in democratization was at the helm. The world isn't simple; things don't always make narrative sense. 

In 1989, the KMT moved to arrest Deng for "insurrection", as he had published a proposal for a revised constitution. It is unclear when Deng had begun collecting cannisters of gasoline, but he stayed in his office for about 70 days as friends brought him food and water. Remember, he'd also said the KMT would never take him, only his dead body (國民黨抓不到我的人,只能抓到我的屍體). Anyone with forethought would have understood what he was planning.

Then, a police charge led by Hou You-yi -- now the popular mayor of New Taipei and possible 2024 KMT presidential candidate -- attempted to charge his office. Rather than be taken, Deng poured the gasoline he had collected around his office and set himself on fire. He died in the blaze, which was covered by Formosa TV.

Here is something else you should know: that footage can be seen in the film Freedom Era. It's extremely difficult to watch. I shut my eyes for much of that part; I just couldn't. Even so, I could hear Yeh Chu-lan screaming on the tape. As much as I might like to, I will never forget that sound. 

A few years ago, Hou came under fire for some stunningly insensitive remarks about the Nylon Deng tragedy: that they weren't just trying to arrest a man, but also "save a life". 

There are no words for this. Even if Hou was unaware that Deng had been collecting gasoline cannisters -- and perhaps he was -- he would likely have known that Deng had said the KMT would take nothing but his dead body. Maybe he thought it was a bluff. Perhaps he truly believed no lives would be lost that day. Somehow, however, I believe he was aware that a person with a spirit like Nylon Deng was never going to come quietly. I believe he knew that Deng's words were sincere, and went in anyway. 

This is the man who might run for president in a few short years. As long as I've lived here, I don't think as a foreigner if it's my place to show up alone at a Hou 2024 rally carrying a massive sign which is simply a picture of Nylon Deng, holding it silently in the air. But if he does run, and any of my Taiwanese friends want to do it, I'd be happy to help both make and hold the picture. 

Deng's funeral procession was massive: there's a film about this too. Thousands of people turned out despite threats of violence, and if I remember correctly, much of the organization was handled by the Presbyterian church in Taiwan. I don't recall if Deng himself was Christian, but he'd worked with the Presbyterians before, and a pastor had met with him shortly before his death (link in Mandarin). Apparently, at that time, he pointed at a cannister of gasoline under his desk, announcing his intent to self-immolate if the police attempted to arrest him. 

As the funeral procession got underway, not only was Deng's daughter, Deng Chu-mei, attacked with acid (she was unharmed), but Chan I-hua 詹益樺, a fellow activist, also self-immolated on what is now Ketagalan Boulevard, in front of the Presidential Office, when the police would not let him pass.

Although I can't remember the source, I have a memory of photos of Yeh Chu-lan and Deng Chu-mei soon after Nylon's death, as Yeh stepped into politics. It's heartbreaking. Deng, in elementary school when her father died, also drew a picture of him in Heaven, asking him not to smoke or eat too many sweets, along with a poem: "My father is like the sun; if the sun is gone, I will cry and cry, but still I cannot call it back."

A friend of mine once told me that Nylon Deng knew that his self-immolation could be the spark that would ignite pro-democracy and pro-independence activists and get done what needed to happen for Taiwan. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that despite admonishments that Deng is being forgotten, not everyone has let his memory slip away.

His death has inspired the spirit of independence activists who came after him, many of whom visit the museum annually. I wouldn't be surprised if some were to go there today.

Taiwan in 2021 sits at the crossroads of what seems like an impossible situation: China refuses to renounce the use of force to annex the country, but the consensus of the 24 million people who live here is that this can never be allowed to happen. It is unclear to what extent the world would step in if China were to invade, and I think it's likely they are intending to try eventually (although it's difficult to say when). 

What resolve can one muster in the face of this, if not indomitable spirit to keep fighting and refuse to let the CCP have this country? Whether you think self-immolation was the right choice or not, Nylon's will to not give in is what has continued to inspire admirers from his death until today.

In the 1990s, the Freedom Era office where Deng died was opened as a museum, as mentioned above. It's free to visit, but only open for limited hours as the staff are volunteers.

In 2014, not long before the Sunflower Movement, students at Cheng-kung University in Tainan fought with the administration over naming a public square after Nylon Deng. The administration rejected the students' vote, and one professor even likened him to an "Islamist terrorist". Yeh Chu-lan and Deng Chu-mei invited the NCKU president to the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum, though I doubt he went. 

In 2016, the Executive Yuan named his death Freedom of Speech Day, although there's no accompanying day off as with other national holidays.

Over the years, Deng's words continue to be enshrined in Taiwanese music. "If I could only live in one place, it would be Taiwan, if I had to choose one place where I would die; that place would be Taiwan" can be heard at the very end of Dwagie's Sunflower, and "Nylon", his song focused on Deng -- which takes on the rhythm of a Buddhist sutra more than a rap -- uses many of Deng's own words, including the darkly prophetic quote about his self-immolation, and features vocals by his widow, Yeh Chu-lan. Chthonic also has a track (Resurrection Pyrehonoring Deng, with what I believe is a fan-made video. Indie rapper Chang Jui-chuan included him in "Hey Kid", a song about those who fought for freedom in Taiwan and the lessons a father hopes to pass on to his children about their struggle.

In addition to the tributes by some of Taiwan's most well-known musicians linked above, Deng has also been memorialized in visual art. Most recently, a now-closed exhibit at the Tainan Fine Art Museum -- Paying Tribute to the Gods: The Art of Folk Belief -- imagined Deng and Chan as guardian gods. Their neon likenesses reminded one of Matsu's Thousand-Mile Eyes 千里眼 and Ears on the Wind 順風耳 as they stood guard over a ceremonial palanquin at the center of the final exhibition room. Around the palanquin, one could read paper-based ephemera from their lives, as films played on screens at the back. One of the films, of course, was Freedom Era. 

I'm not sure exactly why I'm telling you all this. I'm not from Taiwan. I suppose I have no cultural or ancestral right to consider Nylon Deng a hero, but I do. I can see why new generations of politically-minded Taiwanese do, too. 

So rather than complain that not enough people are aware of Deng's legacy, or that his spirit is not being suitably honored, I figured that the best I could do was to recount the story on Freedom of Speech Day 2021, in English, in as complete a form as I am capable of, so that more people might know. 

Try to remember in 2024, when it will really matter. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Review: The Lost Garden

As with the fictional garden in the title of this novel, it's hard to know where to begin with Li Ang's 1990 classic, not always clear which path you're on, nor where it will bring you, nor where or whether exactly it ends. If other writers use framing devices, spiraled time or narrative parallels in their work, Li Ang turns her story into a literal garden path. 

Li Ang 李昂, not to be confused with the famous film director, is the pen name of Taiwanese feminist writer Shih Shu-tuan 施淑端. Well-known in Taiwan, most notably for her 1983 novel The Butcher's Wife, very few of her works have been translated into English. She's known for her frank engagement with politics and criticism of the KMT, her feminist critiques of patriarchy in Taiwanese society, and her even more frank exploration of psychosexual themes and female desire. 

The two main stories -- the first of protagonist Chu Yinghong's childhood in the garden with her spendthrift father Chu Zuyan, worried mother and household staff, the second of Taiwan's booming real estate market and the seedy nightlife of the nouveau riche that boom created -- gracefully curve around toward each other, then away in a series of figure 8s, or infinity symbols, or two garden paths that intertwine in places but may or may not connect at the other end. 

Yinghong's childhood is partly the honey-hued memories of a child: the gossip of the staff, looking through carved windows shaped like vases, her father spending time in different parts of the garden, her mother's perfumed nightgowns. And it's partly the dark undercurrent of Taiwan's White Terror: her father had been sent to prison, only freed because it was thought he would die, and is still being watched. 
Smaller stories wend themselves away from this central path as well: how the garden came to be, the odd names of some of the pavilions, such as "Flowing Pillow", the flowers themselves, a teacher at school, a fire deliberately set, her father's purchases, something Yinghong once wrote in an essay which places her character as the inheritor of Taiwan's older and often crueler history. Some are dead ends, some meander back into the story. Some look as though they are going toward one pavilion but then turn abruptly toward another. 

On the other path, an adult Yinghong resolves to win the affections -- marriage, though perhaps not love exactly -- of real estate tycoon Lin Xigeng, despite his known carousing and previous marriages. Metaphorically, the story works: Lin is the 1970s "Taiwanese Dream", the new real estate boom, the Asian Tiger moneymaker. One reviewer described him as seeming like a 'white phoenix' rising from the ashes of the old Taiwan Yinghong knew, as well as Gatsby-like in his chasing of his gold-plated dreams. I'm not so sure about that, as Lin doesn't appear to have any sort of inner life; if he does, from Yinghong's viewpoint we get no sense of it. The main thing she seems to want from him is the funding to renovate her family's garden.

That, and sex. Li Ang explores the different ways their sex life manifests, and the feelings it engenders: trepidation, titillation, desire, dissatisfaction. There is perhaps a sense that she ends up trading her sexuality for an unsatisfying marriage to a fundamentally unappealing man in order to get what she wants for her family's legacy, which is tied up in a curse handed down from one of her ancestors. At the end, Yinghong realizes exactly what it is the curse has taken from her. 

Before that, though? Reader, there is quite a bit of blowjob. It do I say this -- very much a lot. These pages explore Yinghong's inexplicable combination of desire and reticence or even perhaps revulsion, and they are exceedingly graphic. To this reader, that much time spent with an unappealing man's penis also felt like the literary equivalent of an unsolicited dick pick. I suspect, subtextually, this might have been intentional. 

Everything about Lin and his 'set' is portrayed as crass: superficially glittering (in one venue the ceiling is literally spray--painted gold) but ultimately cheap. Where she begins to see a marriage with him -- the old and the new together -- as a path forward for a modern Taiwan, she ends by realizing that she alone is the true inheritor of Taiwan's past, and he is means to an end. Look for this in one of the final scenes: he may carry on affairs and act like he's king of the island, but in that garden he is lost without her. 

That Chu Yinghong is portrayed as more sympathetic than Lin Xigeng (who feels more like a cardboard cutout than a man -- that is, a cardboard cutout with an exceedingly annoying penis that just keeps popping out whether you want it to or not) is the inevitable result of a narrative that contains semi-autobiographical elements. Li Ang, after all, was born to a wealthy Taiwanese family in Lukang which stood against the KMT. 

The garden path I most enjoyed meandering down was the political one. Rather than explain in dull detail how Li Ang uses botanical metaphors to achieve this, I'll share a passage: 

Ignoring objections from elders in the clan, Father went ahead with his plan. He disagreed with their practice of imitating Mainland garden architecture, including planting similar trees; the saplings they had taken so much trouble to find on the Mainland would not necessarily thrive in Taiwan. 

‘Why plant trees that won’t do well in the local climate? It’s better to grow indigenous trees and flowers,’ Father continued in Taiwanese. ‘Your children may be born in the year of the dog or the pig, but they’re still your own flesh and blood.’

Pines from the frigid zones baked in the harsh sun of central Taiwan for nearly half the year and lost the resilience of evergreens in the snow, where deciduous trees wither till the spring. They manage to put forth anemic needles on shapeless branches. The pines were dug up and replaced by star fruit trees. 

The star fruit trees came in mature forms, though many leafy branches were trimmed for the transplanting process. When spring arrived, tender, green, delicate leaves sprouted with impressive vitality. With the autumn wind came blankets of red flowers, so tiny they weren’t particularly attractive by themselves, but the concentration of many shades of red presented an eye-catching yet sorrowful beauty, especially when blown off to the ground by strong winds. The ground was covered with small flowers, like blood-red tears. 

With the arrival of winter, the tears disappeared, as if they’d shed their last drops of blood, and were replaced by small star fruit hanging on the trees like tiny green stars....but soon afterward, the starlike fruit began to fall, until not a single one was left. This time Medan explained that the newly transplanted trees needed time to recover from the uprooting and branch trimming before they could properly nourish the fruit.

Oof, right?

Comparisons are drawn to many of the historical gardens and homes across Taiwan. You can see in the description of the garden and the family that inhabits it -- as well as its placement in the distant suburbs of Taichung -- something of the Wufeng Lin family mansion. In the 'old Taiwan' aesthetic and silted-up port, you see Li Ang's hometown, Lukang. In the meandering garden paths and pavilions, perhaps a shade of the Banchiao Lin family garden. 

These implicit comparisons invite the reader to consider the ways such old families have shaped Taiwan, especially when Yinghong is asked why she chose a private management trust for the Chu garden rather than donating it to the government. Notably, the Lin Family Garden in Banchiao chose to work with the government (which is why the entry fee is so low). The Lin Family Mansion in Wufeng chose to continue private management. 

Chu Yinghong explicitly addresses this, asking why she'd give her family's garden to the government that oppressed her father. 

It's a good question, and teases out the ways that politics, money, cultural heritage and love (or lust) can shape individuals, families and a nation.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Updates! Get yer hot, fresh updates!


This is just a quick maintenance post to showcase some updates I've made. I've been going through my pages (pinned to the top of the main page) and updating them one by one, with the Best of Taipei page getting the most love. The blog roll and Books About Taiwan pages have received minor updates. Look for Indian Food in Taipei to be updated shortly with reviews of Moksha, Nataraj and Janny Curry House.

I've given this post about the temple to Chiang Kai-shek in Hsinchu a thorough overhaul, as well, as I had the opportunity to visit not long ago. I've included important things like a name and an address for the temple, which I hadn't bothered to do before because I was a terrible blogger. 

This also feels like a good time to make a post pointing out that I've been writing for Taipei Magazine for awhile now. I never bothered to mention it because I had thought the content was print-only. It turns out it's available online, so I'll be linking to it more. That's professional work that I do for pay, so the tone and content will be different from Lao Ren Cha

Here are a few of my favorite pieces for them: 

Of Paper and Leaves: Extraordinary Taipei Oases

Pick Up Your Weapon, Even If It's A Pen: a conversation with Taipei illustrator A ee mi

Flowers for All: recommended routes for flower-viewing day outings in Taipei

Finally, this is a good time to announce that I'm considering changing platforms. I like the features of Blogger that allow me to have pinned pages at the top and a sidebar archive, but the formatting is a mess. If you've ever noticed weird line spacing, font spacing/sizing issues, random font changes or stretched-out photos, this is entirely due to problems with the platform. I want something better and less stressful, as once those issues appear in a post they're difficult to fix.

I don't want to monetize; I do this for free for a reason. So don't worry, I will never move to a platform that will force my readers to pay for content.

I haven't made any decisions yet, but Lao Ren Cha might be moving! 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Chiayi: Taiwan’s Underrated City


Through the years, I’ve written up accounts of my travels to different parts of Taiwan, though not every trip. But through all that, I had managed to spend 15 years in Taiwan making only the most cursory visit to Chiayi city. It’s just not a place I’d thought to spend much time. I was aware that there were things to do there, but the lack of local public transit in what is a reasonably-sized town and the attractions of places I know far better kept getting in the way.

I had an 'errand' to run, really more of an excuse to head to the city and poke around. Knowing my primary destination (the Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles) was small and would not take all day, I also picked out a few other things to do in Chiayi before meeting a friend for dinner in Taichung. I chose a weekend when I knew I’d have to be in Taichung on Sunday, so that my HSR tickets would be reimbursed.

The Chiayi Koji Pottery Museum appears to be permanently closed — a shame, as I had been able to enjoy such an excellent exhibit on it only a few weeks previously in Xuejia. However, I put the City God Temple, the Japanese-era prison, a Japanese residential area (now the “Hinoki Village”) and the Kagi Shinto shrine (now a cultural center, but the building is still intact) on my list. The train station is also worth a quick moment to admire.


In addition to the museum, I only made it to the City God Temple and the shrine; there just wasn't time for the prison and old residences, but it was a day well-spent and I now have reasons to return! 

I took the overcrowded but free bus from the HSR station, which is inconveniently far from town. Dropping my overnight bag in a locker at the train station as the regular left luggage counter was closed for lunch, I headed off. The museum is a short but somewhat unattractive walk from the train station. 

I didn't head that way, but I want to point out that near the train station, just behind the tracks, is a neighborhood called Fanzigou 番子溝 which translates literally to "Savage Ditch" -- I bet there's not much to see there now, but I suspect that's where the border ditch would have been between Indigenous and Han territory, perhaps not that long ago.

The Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles 臺灣花磚博物館

Recently, I’ve come to really appreciate the work of the Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles, which produces its own Taiwan-made Majolica-style tiles. The originals can be found on old farmhouses and mansions across the country (there are some good examples in my last travel post, about Xuejia). The museum/company not only saves tiles from old houses being demolished, but produces both factory-manufactured and hand-made tiles, as well as a variety of products using the tiles or their patterns. Although there are branch shops in both Taipei and Tainan, I resolved to visit the museum’s main location in Chiayi. 


I had a mission, too: I knew that they sold bathroom mirrors with tile borders, and I wanted one if I could get it in a custom size, to fit my space specifically. The Taipei store in Ximen’s Red House market assured me that the manager, Ms. Liou, would be able to help me with a custom order. 

I had Ms. Liou's Line, but figured that this would be a good excuse to check out the museum itself. Although she isn’t the founder (that would be James Hsu), she seemed involved enough that if I popped down there, she’d likely be around.


The Museum of Old Taiwan Tiles is small but very much worth a visit. Hundreds of vintage tiles are preserved in frames or in rooms furnished with vintage furniture in a lovely old building that was once a timber shop. 

You can touch the vintage tiles, but not buy them (everything for sale is new, but of very high quality — some machine-made and quite affordable, and some hand-painted and far pricier), and there are a few places to sit and just enjoy your surroundings. Many locals come to take posed photos with vintage backgrounds. A few tablets discreetly placed upstairs detail aspects of tile making or the history of decorative tiles in Taiwan; one is bilingual. One can really admire the commitment to preserving the original tiles from structures that have been torn down and incorporating them into the museum, as well as making affordable, newer and made-in-Taiwan versions available for sale. 


Fortunately, I did manage to meet Ms. Liou, and indeed discussing the specifications for my mirror didn’t take long as I already knew what size and tile pattern I wanted. It was an expensive purchase, but I think worthwhile to support the museum’s work. They would begin immediate work on my custom mirror, and I could expect to receive it at my door within a few weeks.

Some more photos:







From there, I headed up Minsheng Road towards the City God temple, stopping at Chiahe Turkey Rice 家禾火雞肉飯 for lunch. It’s not famous, but frankly almost any turkey rice place in Chiayi with decent Google reviews are going to be good. 

Another option would be to head back to the train station and walk up Xirong Street 西榮街 or Zhongzheng Road 中正路, stopping to admire the architecture of the Chiayi Pharmacy 嘉義藥局 on the way. I don't know the history of this place, but the Art Deco design is lovely. Then eat at the well-known Yanjing Turkey Rice 眼鏡火雞肉飯 (not sure why it's called Glasses Turkey Rice) before heading across town. I've been that way before, and it's a pleasant walk through atmospheric streets.

This is not the Chiayi Pharmacy, just another interesting old building I happened to photograph.

From my direction, I turned on Zhongshan Road towards the center of town. The traffic circle features a golden statue of a baseball player, a tribute to Chiayi’s place in Taiwanese baseball history. There are a few 'circles' on the map near here which also hide some interesting lanes and alleys; just have a nice wander around.

I did quickly come to appreciate Chiayi’s compactness on this walk. If you don’t drive in cities (and I try very hard not to), in a place like this you basically have to go on foot. Fortunately, you can make it from one end of town (the train station) to the other (the Shinto shrine at Chiayi park) in about 45 minutes of determined walking, with only one hill. 

Chiayi City God Temple 嘉義城隍廟

The City God temple is indeed quite beautiful, and situated easily in the most interesting part of town. This neighborhood is worth wandering around in; around the temple and the circle, there are several markets, market streets and streets full of stores specializing in various wares. Not surprisingly, between the circle and the temple is a long street full of shops that sell temple items — tall god heads, incense burners, palanquins, embroidery and more. There is some priceless Koji ceramic work in temple itself, but it’s hard to see as it’s well above human height and behind protective glass. It’s an atmospheric place to spend a few minutes, however, and as with most temples, there are several benches where you can sit and take a rest. 



Sadly, the priceless ceramic works are difficult to appreciate and photograph

This temple dates from the early 18th century, and is among the most well-known in the area. It was renovated in the Japanese and ROC eras. The aforementioned pottery sculptures of the glaze and type made by Ye Wang 葉王 as well as those from another glazing method, from a different master (Hong Kunfu 洪坤福). If I'm reading the history right -- and I might not be -- the two sculptors' whose work features there (Lin Tianmu 林添木 and Chen Chuanyou 陳專友) -- were respectively the grandson and apprentice of these two great artists.

The temple is one of the few remaining ones where a ritual "atonement for sins" ceremony takes place (with participants wearing symbolic paper "cangues" rather than actual wooden stocks). 

Backstreets and under-appreciated architecture

I recommend first enjoying a wander around the backstreets in this neighborhood, then eventually taking the road that runs along the side of the temple on the left (if you are facing the temple entrance) and staying straight on it. This road will take you directly past the baseball stadium to Chiayi Park. 

An under-appreciated aspect of Taiwan's architectural heritage are its more decorative mid-century houses. You will pass many fine examples on this road; take your time and enjoy them.

Then, hoof it up the poorly-shaded hill past the stadium -- there is a Donutes cafe that is fancier than it has any right to be if you need a pick-me-up, and a few benches on the way up.

Chiayi Park and Relic Shrine 嘉義市史蹟資料館

Soon enough, however, you'll find yourself at Chiayi Park, which overlooks much of the city. The park itself is attractive, and in addition to the former Kagi Shrine, a Japanese Shinto Shrine built in 1915 and renovated in the 1940s. The main hall was turned into a Martyrs' Shrine by the ROC and later destroyed, however the arch remains. The temple office and water purification hall remain and are open to the public as a museum space and historic site. 

Nothing here is in English, and I'm self-conscious about my slow Mandarin reading, so I tend not to read museum signage. However, it was worth a look around. It also houses a cafe and small shop stocked with locally-made souvenirs. 

The cool breezes rustling through the trees at the park and golden late afternoon sunlight on Japanese-era relics gave the whole area a feeling of being lost in time, despite it being somewhat crowded. This is a good place to take a rest after a long and likely sweaty walk. 

The park also houses the Sun Shooting Tower (the design was inspired by an Indigenous myth, though I have to say I don't find it particularly attractive), the Chiayi Confucius Temple and other things to see; a walk around is worthwhile. I was tired, however, and chose instead to drink iced tea the Chinese-style pagoda nearby, admiring the Japanese architecture from afar. 

Had I been planning on dinner in Chiayi, I certainly would have headed to Chu-ju Teahouse 竹居茶樓. I have no idea if the buildings are truly old or not, but it looks stunning. If I hadn't gone alone that is -- it's set up for groups more than individual diners. But I had plans in Taichung that evening, so I called a cab from Chiayi Park, picked up my bag at the train station and grabbed the next available train north. 

A Denouement 

Over the next week, Ms. Liou and I discussed the size, layout and borders of my custom mirror through Line. Soon after that, there was a knock at my door back in Taipei: my very expensive mirror had arrived just before Christmas! It would be New Year's before we could get it hung, but once we did, it tied the whole bathroom together, including the painfully-oudated orange and green tiles that were original to the mid-80s construction of our building. 

It was worth it to not only make my bathroom look intentionally retro instead of just old and cringey, but to support a local business and historic preservation initiative.

Because I haven't spent a lot of time in Chiayi, I'm not able to write the sorts of in-depth posts I can offer for Taipei and even Tainan. However, I enjoyed my time there. The food was delicious and unpretentious, the weather pleasant, the city walkable, and cabs (as well as rare city buses) exist for when the distance is just too far. It's an underrated city; I recommend checking it out for its own merits sometime rather than using it as a stopover on the way to more famous places like Alishan.