Friday, August 28, 2009

The Butterfly Effect

The following is a somewhat sappy tale, but it's entirely true and, I figured, worth mentioning.

About a month ago, my student's grandfather died. He was 92 and had lived a good life, so while his family grieved, they were also heartened that he lived to such an old age and was in good health for most of it.

He lived in a more traditional time when men ran the household and brought in money, women married young and kept house while popping out babies and children were firmly controlled by their parents up to and often after their own marriages. Daughters were not always wanted, and were often given away to infertile families as open, semi-official adoptions. Some were sent to live with other families with the understanding that they would be raised as daughters (or maids, depending) until they could marry the son of the house. That's exactly what the old grandfather did with his three daughters; he sent them away to live with other families so as to concentrate on raising his sons. The daughters knew where they came from, though, and often came home to visit.

They visited again when the old grandfather died - one a professional swimmer married to another athlete, the other successful in the banking industry and the third a homemaker in name, but everyone knew she was the brains behind the family business. The old grandfather's own family business happens to be fishing; my student was sent to study and work in business while his brother, it was decided, would continue in their traditional industry. They were not typical fishermen, however - they were in the toro tuna business. Toro is one of the highest quality tuna fish in the world; it's used for sushi and sashimi and is widely considered a luxury good. What I mean is, while laying in his casket, the grandfather may have looked weathered and saltwatered from years of fishing, but that casket and the flowers and other funereal gifts surrounding it were quite lavish.

In China and Taiwan, people often believe in something called tou qi - or the seventh day. On the seventh day, it's said, the soul of the departed returns to earth. That soul, apparently, is embodied in a butterfly - hence the famous opera "Liang Zhu" or The Butterfly Lovers.

On the seventh day, just before the funeral, the entire family including the three adopted daughters was in the family's ancestral home in Yilan in an area that does not have many butterflies, even though Taiwan is well-known for being packed with butterflies in general. According to my student, a butterfly flew in through the window and alighted on the grandfather's body - setting aside my own queasiness from the idea of keeping a departed loved one in the house for seven days - that was apparently something big. The butterfly then took off, touching the heads of everyone in the room and the grandmother, now a widow, twice before leaving again.

Astounded, the family had the eldest son throw fortune blocks to ask - Was that you as a butterfly? Yes. Did you come back to say goodbye? Yes. Are you happy now? Is everything OK? Yes. Yes. The family's sadness lifted, if just a little bit.

My own student told me he hoped he'd get to be that old, and vowed to spend more time with his aunts.

Just the other day, at another company, when I asked my student how his weekend was, he looked grief-stricken. Apparently a well-known sales rep at that company, his close colleague, had succumbed to pancreatic cancer and her funeral was held over the weekend. There were both Buddhist and Catholic ceremonies, as she was Buddhist but her husband is Catholic. During the rites, her two daughters began crying "Mama! Mama!", not realizing she was gone. That made everyone begin crying; the woman had been in her mid-30s and had only just begun to build the life that the old grandfather had. Many of the attendees were her colleagues, so the death threw a shroud over daily office life.

I saw the same coworker a few days later after another weekend had gone by; he's the sort who works hard and gets ahead, often skipping activities with his family, even on the weekend when he's off attending conferences and symposia.

"When I was home yesterday," he said on that Monday morning, "a butterfly flew in my house."
"Oh really?"
"I thought about it and remembered those two sad girls cried at N-----'s....her...."
"Yes, funeral. I thought even though the Buddhist person who called her ghost said she was OK, I think maybe she misses her daughters. So I said to myself I shouldn't do that. I shouldn't work so hard and spend less time with my wife and kids. When I am die, if I am die early, I want my family to remember spend a lot of time with me. Now I will work hard, but not work SO hard, and try to have more weekend days with family. Tonight I want to finish my work by 7 so I can go home and eat dinner with them."

I know. Sounds completely fabricated, like something out of a contrived short story. It's not - these are two stories told to me by two different students.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reason #8 to Love Taiwan!

So what is Reason #8 to love Taiwan?

For its aggregate awesomeness. A whole bunch of little things that add up to one big reason:

- Auntie Wu-style kung fu shoes. Awesome and comfortable (if ugly)!

- A variety of fascinating beliefs, myths and superstitions

- A wide selection of fruit. This could almost be its own Reason - in our refrigerator right now we have red dragonfruit, white dragonfruit, starfruit, lychees, pineapple, apple, grapefruit, an avocado, peaches and a large mango. Until recently we had a large papaya and a pomelo and if we wanted we could also have longan, guava, grapes, pears, watermelon or any other number of fresh, local and seasonal fruits. We have a giant custard apple too. It's a fresh food lover's dream!

- Tiny dogs in bags

- Sales in major shopping centers promoting "One Week Only - Great Discounts on Offerings for Ghosts and Ancestors!"-type sales.

- conveyer-belt sushi as fast food

- Summer temperatures so high that really, they only serve to make people's jaws drop when checking the weather. It's like an exercise in spontaneous combustibility.

- Taiwan's governing bodies are so much more interesting - unlike Congress or the Senate, the Legislative Yuan regularly makes the sports pages with its antics.

- Whatever you need done, ask around and there's always "this guy I know" who does it. Need a metal clip fixed on a handbag? There's this guy I know. Need your formal white beaded shoes washed? There's this guy I know. Not sure how to go about de-virusing stuff on old computers and putting it all onto one storage drive? There's this guy I know. Want a set of curtains that looks sort of like another set you saw, but not exactly? There's this guy I know. Need the doodad on your whatsit fixed? The widget on your dingbat adjusted? The whatchamajogger on your thingamabob re-set? There's this guy I know. And it's cheap, too!

- I actually found good packaged bottled iced tea - there's a brand in 7-11 called "Wenshan Baozhong" that is just that - unsweetened, unprocessed local Wenshan baozhong tea, iced. I prefer to avoid pre-packaged goods but if it's 200C out (see above post and cat regarding the weather) and the only choice is 7-11, then oh well.

- Waterfalls

- Compelling art, both inside temples and out

- Historic buildings and bustling urbana, right next to each other

- Old ladies who are ridiculously direct. About 2 weeks ago it was Old Mrs. Fang, my Hakka neighbor. Translated from Chinese:
"You rode your bike?"
"Where did you ride from?"
"Not too far - Heping-Fuxing intersection."
"Wow, that's so far. Well, it's good. Your ass looks much better now. Last month you had kind of a huge ass, but now it looks great."
"Thanks, Auntie Fang."

- Cheap, delicious seafood. I am a seafood junkie - octopus tentacles, sea urchins, abalone, white fish, basil-stewed mussels, fatty salmon, toro tuna, barbecued squid-on-a-stick, cream crabs, scallop sashimi, eel, oyster omelets, that weird monster-like pseudo-crab thing that's so expensive, big cuttlefish....mmmmm. Seasonal, too!

- Temple parades! Add here random popping-up of Taiwanese opera and bu dai xi puppet shows on the street.

- betel nut girls as cultural icons

- Beautiful mountain views and pretty good sunsets

- I know most people diss WIFLY (Taipei's almost-all-over wireless network) but I love that it's there, and I have used it a lot.

- bamboo hats. I don't have one, but I want one.

- Street food. Really only Bangkok and *maybe* India can come close to comparing to Taiwan for street fare, and Taiwan's is more hygienic and (I think anyway) varied.

- bus drivers who dress up like Santa Claus in December - and while we're at it, the giant Borg Collective-like Christmas tree of silver and red teddy bears that Takashimaya puts up every year. Creeeeeepy!

- funerals that involve huge pyramids and other structures made of canned drinks - from Taiwan beer to Apple Sidra to Pocari Sweat. When I die, forget the flowers - just buy a giant stack of beer and enjoy.

- hiking trails that are - occasionally anyway - real trails and not stairs

- the guy who hangs out in Guting Riverside Park, just south of Zhongzheng Bridge practicing his - what is it called? It's like a Chinese oboe played at temple parades - at the oddest hours. He's not very good but it's still awesome.

- Spicy food (milder than Sichuan or India but you can always make it spicy)

- butterflies! everywhere!

- 關家婆 - we all live so tightly packed in that everyone is in everyone else's business...which is great because then I can be in everyone's business and it's totally normal. I much prefer it (even with the random comments about my butt) to living in some sterile town where nobody knows anybody else and looking out your window in the general direction of your neighbor's house is considered 'rude'. If we stay here I'll make the best guan jia po (Old Busybody) this island ever saw!

- Obviously, the friendliness of the people - it's so much easier here to make local friends than other places I've visited.

And so much more...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Fairy Temple

A long time ago we visited the Fairy Cave Temple in Keelung. You can get there by bus from the train station; it's in a part of the city rarely visited by foreigners and really quite quiet. Despite being near the harbor the feel of the area is almost suburban.

The temple is unique in that it's situated in what used to be a cave. The temple was built around the stone, and the walls retain that natural feeling. Some photos below:

Lots of visitors have carved their names on the stone walls in the back corridors.

Even in the wider sections of the temple, the walls are the same as those of the original cave.

The walls and passageways are naturally, carved out of a pre-existing cave. They've still got their natural contours.

Lots of carved marble and other white stone statues are displayed around the temple's cave walls.

Painted figures abound in one of the main rooms of the temple.

Idols and icons are carved into the stone walls at the temple.

Statues in the Fairy Temple.

The opening to another section of the Fairy Cave Temple.

Keelung Island (Heping Island?) off the coast of Keelung Harbor. You can see it from the fort near the Fairy Temple on a bluff to the west of the harbor.

Brendan in front of the most beautiful view in the world. We should get our wedding photos taken here!

Keelung Komestibles

Photos from Keelung's famous night market. It's late and I have work tomorrow (Sunday - argh...but I barely worked all week so it's fine) so I don't have time to add much narrative. I'll leave it by saying that this is one of the best night markets in Taiwan, if not the best, in terms of food. It's not huge - barely rates on the scale of Taipei city's major night markets size-wise - but packs more good food per punch than most of them.

Especially seafood. Go there and just eat seafood. And "nutritious sandwich". Despite the name, it is a piece of bread loaded with mayonnaise, ham, egg and tomato. Then it's deep fried. Not joking. Soooo not joking. It's like someone took a non-sugared Krispy Kreme doughnut, injected it with ham salad then stuck it in a deep fryer. Try it. Then call a cardiologist.

Anyway. Photos:

What a playboy!

"Oh, let me try a chicken foot, too."

MMMmmmmmm tentacles.

Thursday, August 20, 2009



We are pretty sure we've found a wedding venue...for real this time:

This is good, because I was getting really tired of Googling and waiting for mom to visit various sites and report back with reasons why they weren't suitable. We want to keep this as close to a 'party' as possible without hosting it at home (our house, while large, can't possibly accommodate my entire family, all of whom I am close to and all of whom are really excited about what is partly a family reunion). That is, NOT a "Wedding". A party. Parties - where you get to see, spend time with, and celebrate with your loved ones - are worth every penny spent on them. In these dark economic times a little fun becomes even more precious, I'd say. A wedding? So not worth the time and effort people pour into them.

As such, planning should be fun, not stressful. The minute it's stressful is the minute it starts to feel like a Wedding...not a party. Google-visit-google-visit-google-visit was starting to become stressful.

It's down-to-earth, a bit rustic without being inconvenient, affordable, scenic and friendly. Couldn't ask for better, really!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Creepy Dolls

In my last post I ended with the creepiest of the modern-style puppets (布帶戲)on display at the Red House Theater in Ximen. He was sort of a Chucky Meets Puppet Clown Meets Eastern Orthodox Priest Zombie, and utterly terrifying:

"Take your Communion, little Josef, and then I shall EAT your BRAIN."

But that exhibit had plenty more than Happypants the Exorcist Clown above. There were placards and signs with history and artistic notes on the puppets, but I won't repeat anything here. You'll have to go see for yourself.

There was also this guy:

Regal as he can be with Christmas lights on his head. And this guy:

...who is thinking very unhappily of something. Near him is one of the puppets that actually resembles traditional bu dai xi:

This guy and his monster/goblin/immortal/spirit brethren show up a lot in antique puppets and traditional shows. Unlike the guy below, who is quite unique:

...and seems to happy to have a foot on his head. Not nearly so serious as...

...this guy, who really needs a vacation. As for the puppet below, I once took a photo with far too much flash of a statue of Chiang Kai Shek, and it came out looking somewhat like this guy:

No really, it did:

Well, I think it did, anyway.

The guy below reminds me a lot of the demon Ravana from the Indian epic the Ramayana (sort of like the Odyssey of Indian literature. I consider the Mahabharata to be more like the Iliad, and it makes one wonder if the tradition of two great epics, one about a war and the other about a dashing adventure, has some sort of subconscious basis (but then Chinese literature has for epics and they don't quite fit those roles), or if those stories are rooted in extremely ancient Indo-European myths that are far older than we ever imagined.

Anyway, Ravana, Taiwan-style:

And for good measure, a random missionary?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wanhua Wand'rings

But first, my awesome, kick-butt, really cool (and within our budget) engagement ring:

It's got a dragon. I bet your engagement ring doesn't have a dragon. As one friend so rightly said:

"Check out my diamond" - boring. "Check out my kick-ass dragon" - AWESOME!

I've recently made a few other jewelry purchases - things I'm planning to wear when we get married but didn't buy specifically for that purpose. First, a pair of antique jade and gold-dipped earrings, which used to be ornaments on a Qing-era headdress (or so the dealer said, and I don't think he was lying):

And second, a hand-carved hair pick of fragrant wood, which I found at an artisan's stall at the craft market outside of Red House Theater:

And now, I present photos from some of our wanderings around the more historic parts of Wanhua District, my favorite district in Taipei (I'd totally live in an old shophouse if it were easy to rent out the top floor of one.)

The best walks begin at Longshan Temple MRT Station. There is a lot to see in this area - the Guangzhou Street Market connecting Guangzhou Street (duh) and an old Mackay medical clinic, now a restored building with free exhibits and fantastic architecture, and Longshan Temple Park, the park itself full of old folks enjoying themselves:

...Longshan Temple, which is always worth a stop, Mangka Gate and further along, the Naruwan Indigenous People's Market and the old Xuehai Academy, now a family shrine.

In the other direction, you can head up to Guiyang Street. On the way you'll pass lots of shops specializing in temple stuff - embroideries, idols, costumes, tall god costumes etc.. Lined with historic shops in turn-of-the century buildings (many of which have been continuously in business), you can turn one way and go to Qingshan Temple, where the God of Green Mountain resides - it's said that when immigrants from Fujian brought over his image, as they carried it down what is now Guiyang Street, it became too heavy to carry and then they knew that that was where the god wanted his temple to be. (Stories about idols and other sacred objects becoming too heavy to lift as a sign of that god's will is quite common around the world - read In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh for a few examples of this).

More information on the God of Green Mountain can be found in Private Prayers and Public Parades - a book available in Page One that every Taipei expat should own.

Guiyang Street during a festival.

Tall God Costume being prepared outside of Qingshan Wang's temple.

Ba Jia Jiang during the festival of Qingshan Wang's birthday on Guiyang Street.

In the other direction are several shops and old shophouses. One of them is a coffeeshop that doesn't get a lot of business, but is run by a friendly old family who is quite hospitable to guests (the coffee is pretty good, too, and they have food).

I call this "Welcome to Taipei" - old shophouse arcades, scooters, a brightly lit fruit stand and a dude with no shirt on. Ahhhh, yes. That says it all really.

Old Shophouses - some neglected, others not - line Guiyang Street.

Walking farther, you'll reach Qingshui Temple, set up by immigrants from Anzhou in Fujian. The gold work inside is quite amazing, as is the stone carving and painting. It's been rebuilt since burning down in the 19th century but is no less gorgeous:

The path to Qingshui Temple is lined with small eateries and locals hanging out.

Above and below: just some of the lovely artwork inside.

Sun sets as we leave Qingshui Temple headed towards Ximending.

Along the way we passed some more rows of old buildings, mostly in disrepair. The area also has a branch of NTU hospital and one fairly nice hotel (which seems to be just above an underground love hotel). There are several ways to walk from this area to Ximending, and the whole area is worth exploring.

Once in Ximending, you can enter via Chengdu Road - along the way you'll pass Calcutta Indian food, which has some great curries, a shopfront-sized temple that is gorgeous (and a bit smelly) inside that I believe is dedicated to Matsu, goddess of the sea, and Fong Da, a fun and retro vintage coffeeshop with Formica tables, strong coffee and big ol' diner-style sundaes. It's famous, and yet you can almost always get a seat.

You can also enter via Neijiang Street, which will bring you right to the main intersection of the pedestrian shopping area, which is of no interest to most people over the age of 20. It's called "Little Shibuya" by some, for its resemblance to the massive commercial center in Tokyo. There are some small hidden treasures in here, though, and even the Starbucks is in a historic building.

Head in the other direction, and you'll come to several crumbling temples far from the lights and activity of the main shopping area. Their locations are outlined in Rough Guide Taiwan and they're well worth a brief stop. A few are not in the guidebook at all but are easy enough to find with a little wandering.

Across the street from the huge intersection above is my personal favorite spot in Taipei, Red House Theater:

With theater and music performances upstairs, exhibits and a fancy coffeeshop (they have alcohol, too) downstairs and a funky independent artist's market outside and in the long adjacent building, there is no excuse not to pay a visit. Behind the theater is a newly-built but thriving outdoor bar strip that's quite popular in the gay&lesbian community. It's probably the best place in Taipei to grab a drink and sit outside on a pleasant evening.

At the moment, there's an exhibit going on inside on Taiwanese puppetry, focusing on the weirder styles of modern puppets. Most puppets (bu dai xi) look like this:

But these terrifying objets d'art look like, well, this:


(My next post will feature some more puppets from that particular exhibit. They're One dude has a foot on his head.)

From Red House you can walk up Hengyang Rd. or over to Wuchang Street, passing Zhongshan Hall - built by the Japanese, and a fine place to catch a concert if you're into the fine arts (we've seen two there, it's always a pleasure and we prefer it to the gaudy Look At Us We're Rich Mainland-style architecture of the National Concert Hall).

Along Wuchang Street in one direction is a covered market with all sorts of fun stuff, including traditional Chinese clothes and funky jewelry and handbags. In the other is Taipei Snow King, with its hundreds of flavors of ice cream ranging from basil to sugar apple to pig knuckle to honey to Gaoliang rice wine to Taiwan Beer to kiwi. It's locally owned and makes its own ice cream as it has for decades. (Even further along is an area packed with movie theaters).

If you turn toward Taipei Main Station along Zhonghua Road from there, you'll pass the old post office, the North Gate (my favorite of the still-standing city gates, it wasn't 'redecorated' during the KMT martial law period), a block of shops specializing in cameras and another in stamps, and yet another in luggage. Keep heading north on Yanping and you'll come to Dadaocheng and the Dihua Street area, which is worth an entirely new post, so I won't cover it here.

Happy walking!