Showing posts with label japan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label japan. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The same "Mystic Orient/Confucian Values" nonsense that hurts Taiwan also hurts women

You think they're going this way, but they're going that way.

Something struck me as I read this clickbait-reconfobulated piece on women's expectations of salary, both of themselves (as mothers) and their husbands.

What jumped out at me - assuming the piece got the numbers right - was this:

Taiwan’s female workers will not consider entering marriage if their prospective husbands earn less than NT$51,872 (US$1,730)


Asked about the reasonable monthly salary for “mothers,” if to be paid, female respondents expected an amount of NT$53,031 (US$1,769) on average, NT$3,042 (US$101.5) higher than the 2017 figure of monthly income released by the government's Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, standing at NT$49,989 (US$1,668), reported CNA.

Note the discrepancy: women have higher expectations of their own salaries than they do of a prospective husband's salary.

This is awesome: women setting goals for themselves that exceed what they expect men to provide for them. Not only that, women expect to earn a bit more, as mothers, than they expect the father (traditional role: provider) to earn. That's huge! This wasn't academic research (it was a survey by a jobs website) but it indicates a fertile area for research and discussion.

There is a quote by someone from the website that did the survey talking about how women think mothers deserve higher pay, but it's impossible to really parse it, as it's never clarified if any questions are asked about women's salary expectations for themselves independent of marital/childbearing considerations. In any case, it makes little sense that women would expect a salary boost from employers when having children doesn't make them better workers (though it doesn't make them worse, either.)

Yet not only did the article get it wrong - it's not reported whether the survey included a comparison question on what women expect to earn if they are not mothers - but the headline did too:

Taiwan's female workers expect prospective husbands to earn NT$51,872 at minimum: poll

Why focus on that (except other than to create clickbait) when the aforementioned comparison is far more interesting? Why focus on the same old tropes of what women expect of their husbands when the more fruitful discussion is centered on what women expect of themselves?

These problematic and harmful stereotypes about what 'Asian values' are and what they mean, even when stated in the spirit of trying to be 'respectful' of the spectrum of Asian cultures, not only hurt Taiwan but also hurt women.

I've written before about how Taiwan's struggle for recognition in a world that seems determined to ignore it mirrors what women deal with as they struggle for equality and recognition in a world that seems determined to focus on male achievement. I've also talked 
about how so many Western liberals get it so completely wrong when talking about "Asian values" or their version of what it means to be a moral or cultural relativist who "respects cultural differences" and how that impacts Taiwan. This is a country that is best understood not through the lens of what Westerners believe Asians think, but through the lens of universal values: freedom, democracy, equality, human rights and self-determination. 

It's the same regarding women in Taiwan. It's easy to conclude from chaff like this that in Asia, women's expectations and ideas are focused on traditional roles or relational notions of family, role and gender when the discussion is framed specifically to make you think that. In fact, a great deal of wordage is spilled trying to make exactly this point: it's traditional. It's their culture.

This is mirrored in the way discussions on issues like Taiwan's sovereignty are framed in such a way that they often make Westerners, whom you'd think would be supportive of Taiwan's pro-liberal democracy message, see things from a pro-China perspective. China aggressively pushes and benefits from this whole 'we're Asians, we think differently, it's our culture'  worldview. Just ignore those pesky Taiwanese creating all those tensions with their determination to keep their freedom. This is Asia, don't call it dictatorship - call it 'Asian-style governance'.

Let me give you a glimpse of what is lost when we flatten the discussion this way. 

Under Japanese rule, there was a brief period when Japan tolerated some freedom of expression in Taiwan. This was also a period when a small number of elite Taiwanese women studied in Japan or China, and were exposed to feminist discourse there. Granted, many of the ideas originated in the West, but crucially, they were being discussed by Asian women in Asian contexts. They disseminated to Taiwan not from the West directly but via intellectual centers in China and Japan - Asian women talking to other Asian women. While not autochthonous, it was not impossible to conceive of Western ideas of gender equality and individualism in Asian cultural frameworks, though most of this discourse was confined to elite/wealthy social classes. Anyone familiar with the May Fourth movement already knows this.

This was eventually quashed - first by the Japanese and then by the KMT - and didn't return until the 1970s, when Taiwanese pro-democracy and pro-independence activism also experienced a rebirth (emphasis mine) and reanimating burst of activist vigor (if you think Taiwanese identity and independence rhetoric originated in the 1970s, you are wrong on that count, too.) It really took flight - just as Taiwanese activism did - in the 1990s with the democratization of Taiwan, not as a gift from geneous KMT benefactors (don't make me laugh), but at the insistence of the Taiwanese people.

So, please, let's spare each other the embarrassment of a gamut of well-meaning Westerners who flatten Asia and think by doing so, they have understood it. Let's end the implication of such discourse: that Taiwanese (or any Asian culture) are incapable of grasping concepts of equality, individuality and freedom. Of course they are. They're not stupid.

And let's stop pretending that everything in Asia - from Taiwanese identity to women's equality - can be explained, sorted and filed away under outdated assumptions of what "Asians" think. Both in terms of women's roles and beliefs, and in terms of Taiwan.

Nothing is ever that simple.

(Historical source: Chang, D.  - Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan)

Friday, December 15, 2017


Window of the Wen-meng Municipal Brothel

Over the years, I like to think that my knowledge of Taiwanese current affairs and history have both deepened, and as a result some of my opinions have changed. At times, these are changes in my entire worldview. At other times, they are small updates to well-worn beliefs that turned out to have less basis in reality than I had thought.

One such change in belief has been over the "comfort women" issue, although perhaps my feelings have simply become more nuanced.

At first glance, the issue seems fairly cut-and-dried: Japanese-era "comfort women" (a euphemism for women forced into prostitution for Japanese military officers during World War II - in fact they were sex slaves) have received neither an apology for their treatment nor any form of real justice. Obviously, they deserve this, although there are only two known Taiwanese comfort women still alive.

Also at first glance, it would seem to be a good thing that there is a women's rights group in Taiwan pushing for compensation and recognition from the Japanese government for its exploitation of comfort women in Taiwan (link above), and that a museum detailing their history was opened in 2016.

It might even pass the sniff test to the casual observer that the KMT, and former president and creepy mannequin rescued from a department store fire Ma Ying-jiu in particular, sure have a lot to say about the importance of justice for Taiwanese comfort women. After all, they are one of two major parties, and the DPP doesn't seem terribly bothered about the lingering historical injustices of the Japanese era. Besides, the KMT - thinking they are the One True China - still sees Japan as a historical enemy in a way the more Taiwan-centric DPP does not. 

But then the questions start piling up.

Why is the KMT so bothered about Japanese-era comfort women, but doesn't seem to have much to say about ROC-era comfort women, despite a movie having been made about this very issue?

In fact, is there more to the story of the Wen Meng Municipal Brothel than my slim volumes on Taipei's historical buildings let on? (Cue my "sarcastic surprise wow" - of course there is. The twin books were published by the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs.) How many of these 'licensed sex workers' were slaves - not by the hand of the Japanese government, but instead the ROC?

In fact, back when the whole kerfuffle over former sex workers being told to vacate the premises despite its having been named a cultural heritage site took place in 2012, the KMT was in power both in Taipei and nationally. Although the courts are of course supposed to be independent of the elected government because that's how an independent judiciary is meant to work, I doubt there's nothing the city government could have done to ensure the preservation of the building (which is still standing as far as I know as the dispute rages on). Why didn't the KMT-run city government care enough to do something, if they care so much about comfort women?

And why is it that despite this museum having been open for a year, I've never seen it advertised locally, although there are three reviews on TripAdvisor? Why does this museum to comfort women exist, while its founders ignore the pleas of activists trying to save the Wen Meng Municipal Brothel?

Could it be - and I know I'm about to shock you - that the people banging pots and pans over justice for Taiwanese comfort women...don't actually care about comfort women at all?

I'm not the first person to make this case, though I can't find a comparable redux of the issue in English. It seems likely that the conclusion alluded to on The View from Taiwan is correct: the 'comfort women' issue was likely devised as a political cudgel to attack the more Japan-friendly DPP (the KMT, thinking they are the bearers of the One True China, seems to take their assumed obligation to hate Japan seriously) and to try and push Taiwanese voters into hating Japan as much as they seem to hate the Chinese government. Of course, to them it is right and correct that we should spend all of our energy hating a democratic ally, freeing up more headspace to stop worrying and love our Chinese overlords, the Chinese Nation Which Is Rightfully The ROC Including Taiwan its and 5,000 6,000 years of Chinese culture.

Okay, so, case closed, the comfort women thing is fake news, it's all a ruse, time to wash our hands and go home, right?


First, I was curious about the background of the group that pushed for the creation of the comfort women museum, the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (formerly the Taiwan Women's Rescue Association or 台灣婦女救援協會). It grew out of the Awakening Foundation, whose most prominent founders were Lee Yuan-chen and former DPP vice president Lu Xiu-lian (Annette Lu) - known for being a vocal feminist but also for saying all sorts of problematic things.

I could go into this more deeply, but it's well after midnight and frankly there's no need. I was mostly curious if the opening of the comfort women museum was yet another political cudgel, meant to sow division between Taiwan and Japan to serve the KMT's interests. Yet as far as I can tell, the TWRF grew out of an association that did not have ties to a specific party - Lee was born in China, yes, but I can't find anything on her political affiliation. Lu is, of course, one of the greenest of the old-school greens.

Although I should point out this passage in Doris Chang's Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, just as something to chew on:

Most of the Rescue Foundation's members were middle-class professionals from the ethnic Chinese majority. Like the Chinese gentry scholars of the traditional past, members of the Rescue Foundation perceived themselves as the moral-intellectual elite that should offer assistance to the less fortunate members of the society (p. 121). 

I don't know what to make of that vis-a-vis the comfort women issue, though my instincts tell me that the members of this society either come from 1949 diaspora backgrounds and therefore don't want to center the treatment of women by the government they came with (the ROC), or they are from upper-class stock with a longer Taiwanese history who just don't want to rock that boat, because it would seem too "political" to take up this kind of issue while it's still strongly in living memory. Japanese-era comfort women are a safer topic. 

Secondly, I can't just let it go at "this is a purposefully-designed KMT political wedge and you'd best ignore it" - as a woman who cares about justice issues for women...I just can't.

I can't help but think that as much as this issue is being flapped around like an limp puppet by the KMT - who don't actually care enough about the issue to add a little padding to their argument or do anything meaningful - that as a result of it being shambled around by one side, it is being purposely ignored by the other.

A case could reasonably made that Taiwan needs all the allies it can get - even perhaps historically problematic ones like Japan - and as such, that pursuing the comfort women issue is far from the highest priority. It is also notable that even when Japan has "apologized" for its treatment of comfort women, that the agreements are more for the political gain of certain groups or parties and are not really for the comfort women themselves: those who survive often remain dissatisfied. It could be argued that an issue being used for political gain by one side ought not to be touched by the other.

I agree with all of that, and yet...

It feels once again as though women are getting screwed.

One side is using a women's issue for their own gain and doesn't seem to care much at all about the actual women involved, and the other side wants nothing to do with any of it, and will prioritize other matters over justice for less than a handful of extremely elderly women.

It stings because "other matters" always get prioritized over women. We always get told our issues are not the most important ones, if they are acknowledged to be issues at all. Both the Japanese-era and ROC-era comfort women get cheated.

The KMT - the closest thing Taiwan has to a 'conservative' party although the label doesn't fit perfectly - can't be expected to do much better. After all, they are who they are. The DPP - the closest thing we have to a liberal party and yet it's not really despite having "progressive" in their name - is failing us just like every other liberal group seems to. We're important, sure, but never quite important enough. There's always something more pressing. Someone else always needs justice first.

So yes, Ma Ying-jiu is once again being a douche by using an issue neither he nor his party actually cares about to advance some other political agenda. But by then pretending as though the issue is therefore unimportant, the other side is failing women as well. A tool used by one side, ignored by the other. 

As it always has been and as it feels like it always will be. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Women are not your cultural ambassadors

Please "enjoy" this (mostly bullshit) article in the Japan Times.

What he says about his relationships to the women he has dated is striking, if not a bit annoying:

In my early relationships with Japanese girlfriends — I’d dated a Kyoto University student when I was 20 — I’d followed the standard pattern of being the curious Western male being introduced to the intricacies of the Japanese language and culture by a helpful girlfriend. But by my late 20s — when I was a graduate student in Japanese literature at Kobe University — I’d discovered that the dynamic of that type of relationship had started to fail.
Slowly it dawned on me that my language and cultural proficiency had finally come to the point where I no longer needed to be “tutored” by a girlfriend. Liberation!
By then I felt quite comfortable — indeed, slightly bored — in an exclusively Japanese world. I was spending all week in university libraries, taxing my brain, reading Japanese books. The last thing I wanted to do in my spare time, at the weekend, was indulge in more “Japanese.”

I can relate to this guy's desire to want to have his relationship to a culture be on his terms rather than deal with the ins-and-outs of expectations and obligations that come with dating someone from that culture, I couldn't help but feel squicked out by the whole article.

Yes, it is a common enough dynamic: man discovers exotic new world through woman he dates who giggles at his adorable cultural mishaps as she leads him to better knowledge of the secrets of this foreign place. I won't say it's essentially wrong - frankly, what goes on in a relationship I am not a part of is not my (or anyone else's) business. I'm not even sure it's always a bad thing. But there is something icky and 'conquering explorer'-y about it that rubs me the wrong way. 

Perhaps it would be different if a whole raft of gender expectations and stereotypes shaped by culture didn't run right up against a (mostly white male) power differential in terms of white privilege and, in some cases, socioeconomic development. It is impossible, however, to remove those from the equation.

Although this scenario can happen between any two cultures - I could just as easily imagine someone thinking a cute young girl they meet from, I dunno, Amsterdam will introduce them to European culture - I can only best describe what I see in Asia. However, I can imagine someone treating a non-Asian woman this way too, and I certainly don't want to make it sound as though I think all Asian woman/Western man pairings have this problem. The problem is the problem, not who chooses to date whom. 

 I have a lot of Taiwanese female friends and more than once I have heard, essentially, that they are whole human woman, not reducible to some foreigner's Cultural Attache.

What other reaction can one have to a man who says he "doesn't date ______ women" because he doesn't want the "cultural ambassador as girlfriend" role to play out again: why would he decide before he knows her not to date her, based on a role he doesn't want her to play that she likely didn't want anyway because she's a whole person? Why would he assume she would want that role in the first place?

It just bothers me that some men still seem to think women, from anywhere, exist primarily to highlight, change, influence, brighten or complicate the lives of men, rather than those women having their own lives. I am not qualified to comment on what happens when that attitude of treating women as an accessory or catalyst on your own journey, rather than as wholly realized human beings on their own journeys. They're trying to beautify their life paths by adding a partner to it, rather than looking for another person whose own life path is compatible with theirs. A tagalong, not a travel companion.

Again, this is not limited to one culture. I've had (mercifully brief) dating experiences where it felt as though the man was looking more for someone to liven up his journey, rather than respecting mine. Or as though I were there for his benefit, in service to his life plans: to entertain, teach, free or enlighten him, rather than being a full human being who has her own life going on. And I'm a boring white lady, not even a conventionally pretty one at that! And kind of acerbic, frankly. Why anyone would think they could shove that role on me is beyond me - if it happened to me, it could happen to anyone.

And while there are certainly women out there who do the same thing to the men they date, I've just observed that for the most part, it's men who treat women this way. I could comment on the way this attitude intersects with the whole "Western guy 'finding himself' in Asia" narrative (that is to say, "privileged guy using someone else's country, culture and society as a stage for their personal life drama in which they are the star and the 'foreigners' bit actors" narrative), to the point where this particular writer seems to first categorize all Japanese women as, I dunno, Manic Pixie Dream Asians.

And then, after casting them all in a role they never said they wanted, paints himself as the better guy for not wanting them to play it. Barf. He is even so kind as to acknowledge that there is more than one kind of Japanese woman, before categorizing all of his relationships in them as, well, kind of the same.

Are we supposed to applaud?

But I'll stop there, not only because the commentary coming from that wouldn't be particularly enlightening, and not only because I'm not really qualified to comment, but also because this is just one guy whose relationship to a foreign country and to the women in that country seems deeply problematic, and cannot be used as a treatise against all Western men who live and date in Asia, nor all cross-cultural relationships.

But this guy, creating in his head and then trashing "Manic Pixie Dream Asians"?

Fuck this guy.

Women, of any race or background, are not your cultural ambassadors. You invented that role for them, and it doesn't fit.

So stop it. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

An Unexpected Sun Yat-sen: Luzhou Wanderings


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:


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:


So beauty!


We found a giant friendly leopard spotted cat:


...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?


We found an old Japanese-era mansion at the far end of a parking lot hidden behind some buildings off a main road:

And most interestingly to me, we found the crumbling homestead of a family with a sculptor ancestor:


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?


Well, hello Dr. Sun!


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.


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: 



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

Happy wandering!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The FOB - A Timeless Classic

Just thought I'd pass this along.

Videos like this, while they could be taken one way and seen as offensive, are proof that jokes about culture that make you catch your breath are only funny and reaction-inducing if there's a grain of truth behind it (no matter how small that grain might be). I'll be honest. I know guys who have the Pop Star, and one of my friends used to have the Virgin For Life.

Of course, a video like this is only a.) acceptable and b.) funny if it's done by an actual Asian guy. Sort of like how I can call myself a Polack, but you can't. Unless you're Polish, too (I'm Polish on my dad's side and really look the part). Then you can.

Side story: when I was in high school, I had a bestest-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world (we no longer speak, long story). I was sleeping over - you know, 1950s high school girl style - and we were downstairs laughing and gossiping. Upstairs, my friend's parents were having a conversation about someone they knew. The father said "Oh he's just a crazy Polack!" and the mom said "Shh, honey, Jenna's Polish." They were so scared that they'd offended me or something - what they didn't know was that my head was buried in my pillow because I was trying not to crack up too hard and wake up the neighborhood with my laughter.

Anyway, it is funny, and I make no apologies, and to all my Taiwanese male friends, I'm sorry but it's funny. And please stop with the Pop Star haircuts. Please.

Now this, on the other hand, is actually offensive.

Different dark roast coffees named after different famous black people.

Uhhhhh, no.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Some old advertisements pasted up on one of the walls along Bopiliao

On Saturday, as a side trip to our planned visit to Naruwan Indigenous People's Market (good food and good coffee), we stopped by Bopiliao - a newly restored segment of Qing Dynasty and Japanese era architecture in the historic Wanhua district. Bopiliao is basically a segment of intact Japanese-era shophouses, and behind that an alley of older, one-story late Qing shopfronts which have been turned into an exhibition space with a lot to interest kids (at least, kids who speak Chinese).

To get there, take the MRT to Longshan Temple. You can use any exit, but the easiest way is to head to Guangzhou Street - cross the street to Longshan Temple itself but turn right instead of entering (walking away from Huaxi Street Night Market). Walk past all the shops - this is also a nice area in which to look at cool old buildings - and you'll eventually come to the intersection of Kunming and Guangzhou. You'll notice that around here there are entire sections of shophouses - walk along those until you see an entrance to the inside, which will be directly next to the largest house on the end, which is a children's museum/history learning center.

Alternately you can exit at Longshan Temple's Heping W. Road exit, turn right, pass Sanshui Street and then turn on Guangzhou.

The section of old shophouse facades from Guangzhou Street

This is a lovely, atmospheric place to wander if you're in the neighborhood - perhaps sightseeing at Longshan Temple, but it's too early to head to the night market or dinner (for the record, I recommend the food in the night market along Guangzhou Street but don't bother with the food in the covered market along Huaxi Street unless you are dead set on trying snake - which I have).

The alley behind the shopfronts - main part of Bopiliao

The large building at the end - the only one open to the main street - houses a children's activity area on the first floor - kids can watch cartoons of George Leslie Mackay, James Maxwell and David Landsborough talking about bringing modern medicine to Taiwan. You can also see displays on "your grandfather's Taiwan" and learn about Lu A-Chang, a local doctor who also contributed quite a bit to the development of medicine in Taiwan.

The best exhibit? Clearly the one where you can pick up the receiver of a rotary phone to hear stories about old Taipei - the highlight is watching kids look at the old black phones like they're a relic of deepest, darkest history!

Upstairs there are more exhibits on medicine in Taiwan, mostly in Chinese.

The center is free to enter, but closes at 5pm.

It's a nice place to wander a bit, if only to see the inside of an old brick house, but it would be even better if there was English language signage so that tourists with kids would have it as an educational and kid-friendly choice for their non-Chinese speaking children.

Out back you can also play several easy, old-fashioned children's games, such as old-fashioned pinball:

I am completely in love with the old-skool robots.

...or "fish for the glass bottle" or that stick-and-hoop game:

After that - a pretty quick walkthrough if you don't have kids, don't speak Chinese and aren't fascinated by vintage robots (which I totally am because robots are awesome) - you can head into Bopiliao itself.

The entrance has a plaque in English and Chinese signed by "Dr. Hau Lung-bin". Apparently he really is a doctor (I didn't believe it so I looked it up), despite looking like a Muppet. Oh well, never judge a book by its cover. Apparently he has a PhD in Food Science from UMass-Amherst. Either he got into a PhD program because his father pulled some strings, or he's a genuinely smart guy who would have been a fantastic food scientist - but is just not that good at being a politician (although he keeps winning despite giving off the impression that he's all cotton between the ears). You know how sometimes being in the wrong vocation can make a person seem less motivated or intelligent than they really are? (I would know - I worked in back-office finance and probably seemed to others as about half as quick as I truly am because it was the wrong career for me).

Maybe - just maybe - if he'd stayed a food scientist and his company had hired me as his English trainer, Id've come home after class praising my clever, brilliant, insightful and intelligent student, Dr. Hau.

Or not.

Anyway, just thought I'd share.

Buildings are marked at the front with what they used to house - a tea shop, a barber etc. - and are now exhibition spaces. Most excitingly for foreigners interested in Taiwanese cinema is the room housing sets from the movie "Monga". This is also one of the areas where some of the signage is in English, and if you've seen the movie, you can appreciate it regardless. It is not clear if the scenes were actually shot here or the set was relocated here.

You may remember this set from the film

Nearby is the Daoist shrine where the young brothers prayed, the seating area where the older gangsters would congregate and displays of clothing and weapons from the movie, which I saw without subtitles and could only barely follow.

Not everything was open, but some of the storefronts looked authentically well-restored:

...but others didn't:

I'm glad they saved that Qing Dynasty painting of Astroboy.

The next section of the exhibit focused on famous artists of Taiwan, including an area dedicated to an old guy who makes heads for lion dancer costumes: well as a Taiwanese opera singer, two puppetry masters and a few other people. This was entirely in Chinese so while it was fun to look at, there was nothing to keep us lingering.

The final few shopfronts are exhibits on naming statistics in Taiwan. Did you know that the largest percentage of Taiwanese people are surnamed Chen, with the next highest being Lin?! Wow, that was so totally unexpected! Heh. They also had breakdowns from census data on given names - I found a lot of my friends' names, but neither mine (白蓮) nor Brendan's (百川) were there - probably because nobody actually names their kid White Lotus, and Brendan's name, though much more common, is a bit old and stodgy - it's like the "Harold" of Chinese names.

What was interesting was that throughout each list of Top 50 names, male and female, girls with the most common names were consistently about twice as plentiful as boys. The top name for a girl (淑芬) - Shufen or "refined and pure with a sweet smell" - clocked in at about 33,500 girls in 2010, whereas the top boy's name (志明) - Zhiming or "bright aspiration" only came in at 14,200 or so.

First, I'm not such a fan of the boys getting names reminsicent of willpower, strength, learning and brightness whereas women get a lot of grace, purity, sweetness, quietude, demureness etc., but hey, I guess that's how traditional cultures go. If we ever have a kid (not saying we will!) she's getting a Chinese name that means "Fierce Warrior Dragon Princess Who Kicks Ass" or something!

Second, clearly there is a greater variety of boys' names out there, with a longer statistical tail: either that or twice as many girls were born as boys in 2010 ( So we can conclude that families who have sons have about twice the number of common given names to choose from than families who have daughters - of course with the stroke order, elements, fortune teller etc. issues to deal with, nobody really has that much choice if they follow traditional mores.

A cool old advertisement on a wall in Bopiliao - I like the "Scientific Headcooler" ad.

The verdict? Bopiliao is worth a visit if you are in the area, and great if you have kids who can speak Chinese or are interested in 19th and turn-of-the-century architecture.

Otherwise, the tourism department needs to do a few things to generate more interest in the area. My suggestions:

1.) English signage please - it'll get foreigners interested in Taipei history to linger and help us learn more; and

2.) The exhibits are nice, but stick a coffeeshop, teahouse, restaurant, even a few snack or souvenir shops in there so we can linger and enjoy the atmosphere.

Friday, February 11, 2011


My husband just put up a post from our trip to Kaohsiung about the preponderance of Chen Chu...for lack of a better word...cartoons. He noted that it's a huge political difference from the USA, where this sort of marketing of a political leader in Chen Chu's position (or any position really) would simply not be accepted by the public - at least not if the toys were churned out by a governor's office or worse, the White House.

Official Chen Chu toys (I bought the cell phone charm)

I agree, but take it one step further: this is a peculiarity of southern Taiwan - yes, you can buy Ma Ying-jiu bobbleheads, Chiang Kai-shek bobbleheads (which make him look like a kindly old grandfather, which is so deeply inappropriate), Chen Shui-bian and even Mao Zedong bobbleheads. In fact, one of my favorite things to do whenever I visit the Chinese Handicraft Mart on Zhongshan S. Road is to go to the Politician Bobblehead display and make it so Bobblhead Ma and Bobblehead Chiang Kai-shek are making out.

I know, I'm immature. Whatevs. :)

It's worth it to note that politicians don't always directly resemble their cartoons:

From the Taipei Times: what I love about Chen Chu is that she always looks like she's having fun. Ma - not getting into how I disagree with his policies - always looks like an annoyed zombie.

I would like to point out here that Chen is the poster girl - literally - for a major cultural difference between Taiwan and the USA. Chen is not a beautiful woman, but she is a fiercely competent one. In America, a Chen-equivalent female politician would be the object of invective-filled debate and comments regarding her appearance. American female politicians can't win: either you're a MILF, you're an outdated, unfashionable old pensioner (despite being the most prominent female public figure we have who actually has a job she can do!) or, even worse, you are a woman with a "fat ****" - despite the fact that Michelle Obama is not, technically, a "politician".

Correct me if I am wrong - in fact, if I am wrong I'd love to hear it in the comments - but this just doesn't happen with Chen Chu despite her being one of the most prominent female public figures in Taiwan next to Tsai Ying-wen, former Vice President Annette Lu and of course a small gaggle of former presidents' wives.

The worst I've heard is a student who said that it's "hard to recognize her from her cartoon because the cartoon is least the hair is the same". Maybe a little unfair, but hardly scathing. In general, I've found people take or leave Chen based on her politics and her record, not her looks. This is a cultural tic that I certainly hope the USA can acquire.


There's a key difference between Taipei and Kaohsiung here: in Taipei, the politician toys and cartoons stay in a few souvenir shops and only come out en force around election time, when they're everywhere. Otherwise, I don't know about you, but I don't see Cartoon Ma Avatars, or even Hau Lung-bin ones, all over Taipei or any other city in the north. Chen Chu has really spearheaded this effort to get her "face" - her cartoon face, at least - out there to the point where you can't not notice. I have to wonder if there's something of a cultural difference between northern and southern Taiwan here, or if it really is just Chen Chu doing her Chen Chu thing (I think she's awesome, for the record).

I also can't help but remember this piece from the New York Times, which I read back when it came out. Outside Kaohsiung and with no elections looming, Taiwan may not have that many politician cartoon avatars. Like Japan, however, Taiwan has cartoon policemen, cartoon military officers and cartoon postal workers. It seems to be a fairly clear cultural influence, at least to me.

Postal Worker Bobbleheads on sale at the Taiwan Post Office, from Dave Espionage

And, as I link to below in the caption, using cartoons to "cute-ify" authority is fairly popular in China, too.

Police Cartoons from Global Voices - the article is worth reading

But you know? I won't lie. I totally bought a Chen Chu cell phone charm.

If Chen Chu finds that this kind of exposure helps her, then more power to her. We need more competent female politicians in Taiwan and abroad, and we certainly need more beloved and competent politicians from the DPP these days.

I mean, hey, who can fault the woman? She's certainly accomplished. She's an experienced rabbit hunter:

She's an airline pilot:

She's a farmer:

And she's...a Broadway dancer? A character from Mad Men? A Vaudeville scheister? A member of the Rat Pack?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

漁泊食堂 (Yu Bo Shi Tang)

Yu Bo Shi Tang
Lishui Street #5-5, Taipei
Just a little west of Yongkang Street, between Xinyi and Jinhua Roads

We tried this place out yesterday with Joseph and it was delicious - the setup was Japanese style, with wooden plaques hanging from a series of hooks on a wall indicating the menu (also a popular method in Taiwan), a high hutch between the serving area and the diners, and a long bar-like counter at which one eats.

Front to back - meaty rice, my husband's hands, our delicious fish, the bowl of snails next to the wine-stewed eel, more rice, someone's drink.

As you can guess, the specialty here is fish - when you ask about fish, a giant basket of the catches of the day appears, and you pick the one you want. You can ask for recommendations (for example, if you want a firm or soft-meat fish, with normal or few bones, etc) and get prices - most fish seem to cost approximately NT 500, give or take a hundred kuai.

Our fish, which was firmer-fleshed with fewer bones, came cooked with crispy, flaky skin that had no taste of bitterness, delicious seasoning and a fileting that left one side bone free. Digging into the remnants, Joseph said "I've done all I can to this fish without actually picking it up and chewing it" as he held up its spine and fins, picked clean.

Considering that when we sat down, the man next to me (who had left by the time the comment was made) was doing more or less just that, I'm not sure it would have been a big deal if he had.

With the delicious fish, we got some slightly overcooked but still good and well-seasoned green veggie topped with sesame seeds, a bowl each of something akin to lu rou fan (rice with a meaty stew) but served with pink pickled ginger and seasoned onion slices, red wine cooked eel which was spectacular (seriously - get it. 紅酒鰻魚) which was big and fat and meaty and not slimy with tiny chewy bones the way most sushi eel is. We also got spicy snails which were delicious.

Sake, Coke and water are available (the sake is tasty and a good deal) and the owners friendly.

All in all, a great option in the Yongkang area, which I'd previously found a bit disappointing despite its reputation as a culinary mecca.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Taiwan overtakes Japan in living standards

Fascinating article from The Economist on living standards. I agree with it for the most part. The Japanese make more, but thanks to high prices they can afford less. Neighborhoods look nicer (and are so clean you could eat off the streets) but living spaces are tiny and housing prices are so high as to make Taipei's somewhat shabbier neighborhoods* be a far better deal at a fraction of the cost...for more space.

And it's true that if you go out for a good meal in Taipei, even for Japanese food, you're looking at maybe $10 USD per person, possibly $15. The grand total for a bill for 3 is $30-$45. (We're talking a "good meal", not a "super expensive hotel buffet" meal, which isn't even all that good most of the time.) You'll spend that per person in Japan on a good meal, and get less food.

But I disagree with the swipe at stinky tofu. I love sushi but come on. Stinky tofu is WHERE IT'S AT. What-ever, Economist. You just don't know good food when you try it. The more like ripe gym socks it smells, the better it tastes. End of debate.

Also, sushi is not the main food staple there. Duh - most people eat noodles, rice-based dishes, seaweed, cooked salmon and tuna dishes, plus egg. Sushi is a special occasion food in Japan, so comparing proletarian stinky tofu to patrician sushi is ridiculous.

A few notes on comparisons between life in Japan and Taiwan, with a focus on the lives of female expats, if only because I'll be comparing myself and a female expat friend who lives in Japan.

Living Space
It can't be denied - Taipei residents, as much as they complain about high real estate prices, can afford more space than the average Japanese urbanite. We're talking mostly about urban life here because most Japanese now live in towns and cities and really, what is Western Taiwan but one giant unfurled length of urban areas, connected by skeins of towns and settlements? Both countries have rural areas, but urban life is the default for most residents of both countries, as is fitting for developed nations.

I live in an older apartment in a sixth-floor walkup (which I am fairly sure is illegal - shhh). It's not a "pretty" apartment although we've decorated it well. Look under the sisal rugs and you see peeling linoleum better suited to a 1950s elementary school. Look past the big rice paper lantern lights and you can see where we installed them with electrical tape, and how the ceiling above is plastic. The bedroom is quaint until you realize that it's an add-on; what was one big room was converted to a one-bedroom with, basically, painted plywood. Our kitchen is huge but is just as outdoors as in (don't ask). We did our best with the paint, using epoxy primer on tough spots, and still got wall cancer (wall cancer is that thing you see in Taiwan where humidity makes the paint and stucco bubble and flake like tumors).

My friend's apartment is comparatively nice, with a tatami floor bedroom, sturdier walls and a kitchen that can be confidently described as "indoors". She's said that, compared to most apartments in the Tokyo area, however, it's crap. It's old and ugly (I think it looks fine; clearly Japan has a different threshhold for "old and ugly").

That said, hands-down I have more space. My living room alone is easily the size of her entire apartment. In her own words, "I live in a shoebox. It drives me nuts". Plastic ceilings, ugly floors and all, my apartment doesn't drive me nuts (usually). There is more than enough space for me, Brendan and the cat. I am not sure a cat could survive in my friend's place - not that they can have one.

Her rent is stratospheric compared to Taipei rent - for all that extra space we spend a grand combined total of US $400 per month. I'm not sure that would pay for my friend's living room in Kawasaki.

I live within a one-minute walk of Jingmei MRT station in Taipei. She's a 20-minute walk from the nearest subway station in Kawasaki, outside Tokyo.

We both have convenience on our side - she doesn't have to walk up six flights of stairs, but restaurants, convenience stores and other shops abound in her neighborhood as they do in mine. I have a night market naaa.

Her neighborhood is better looking, though.

I can't compare real estate because I've never looked into it in either country, but it is safe to say that Tokyo real estate dwarfs Taipei real estate in price.

Not much to say here, and it's hard to compare as she's just finished grad school and that cost a pretty penny.

She makes more. Depending on the month (I work on contract, see) she makes between 30% and 50% more than I do.

I, however, can afford more. We don't worry about price so much when we go shopping. We don't come back from a day in Taipei wondering where all our money went, clutching a tiny bag of barely anything (ah, Japan, the great Money Suck). The article is just right here - prices are absolutely punishing in Tokyo. My salary is lower but prices, in general, are an order or two of magnitude lower than that, giving me higher purchasing power overall.

You can see it in our travels, though this is not really a fair comparison: we specifically work and save to travel, and she worked and saved to go to graduate school. We jet off to the Philippines or Hong Kong because we *can*, and she's admitted that traveling just for the sake of it isn't so much her thing; she likes to live in different places and experience them in-depth.

That said, this is not a fair comparison at all. She did just work her way through graduate school at Columbia's Tokyo campus. Regardless of relative salaries and PPP she'd have less money after that - I've had no such major expense.

Quality/Price of Goods
There is a misconception out there that women are bad with money, that we're out-of-control shoppers who need to be told how to manage our finances.

My friend and I, as well as any independent expat women out there who managed to get themselves abroad and manage their finances well enough to maintain life abroad with regular visits home are a slap in the face to this theory - as for us two, neither of us overspend on "stuff" - including clothes and makeup.

I recently bought a pile of new, high-end makeup for my wedding, but with that I learned how to use it and do use it for work. My friend doesn't wear makeup. Neither of us buys clothes in bulk; neither of us can, really. I have far too many curves to ever fit into clothes typically sold in Taiwan for slender-boned, boyish-framed girls here. My friend isn't quite as voluptuous but she is tall - taller than me, in fact, and I'm no shorty. Buying clothes in Japan is just as hard for her, doubly so because everything is that much more expensive.

So, given the fact that neither of us is a big spender, we've got a lot of cred for accurate reviewing when we do buy something.

In department stores, prices are almost the same, especially when it comes to high end goods that are popular with upper middle class women in both countries. Designer items are particularly expensive in Taiwan due to import duties. Outside department stores it's a different story.

Thanks to shoddy but cheap products from China flooding the market here, stuff is dirt cheap. When I wanted to buy a coffeemaker, I went out and bought one. It wasn't the best quality but hey, if it ever breaks I can buy a new one (not good for the environment, I know, but even the expensive ones here seem shoddy). When I need new clothes, I can go out and shop carefully, and if I find something I like I'll generally buy it without too much worry as to the price.

If I lived in Japan I wouldn't do any of these things - partly because stuff would last longer, and partly because "not worrying about price" is a recipe for disaster in Tokyo. You may as well drop your pants and bend over. I'd have to be very circumspect about what I bought and how much I spent.

So all in all - her stuff is of better quality and is longer-lasting. Mine is easy to come by and I have more leverage to buy it, but it won't last that long because it's all Made in China.


It's hard to compare transportation in Taipei and Tokyo, as both have their upsides. Tokyo is awash in transportation, with a web-like system of subways and trains that covers virtually every inch of the metro area. Public transit in the countryside and smaller cities is similarly good. Even in Shizuoka town I never had to worry about how to navigate without a car. In Taiwan, traveling to the countryside carries the question "once we're in the town, how will we get around?" You can get a bus to almost anywhere (with some notable exceptions), but once there it can be very hard to do anything. Ever tried to explore Taidong without a car? There ya go.

Transit in Taipei is cheaper though - I can afford to ride the MRT and buses because they don't cost a mint. It's easier to figure out with more English help and signage and is more logically organized in one clear system. Even the buses, which are run by different companies, are integrated. In Tokyo, without a SUICA card, you're at the mercy of the different private subway line companies. It's impossible to figure out and I've screwed up more than once trying to deal with the subways there.

There's also the fact that in Taiwan, taxis are exceedingly affordable. If the transit connection between buses or trains is too much to bother, you miss the last train for the night or you're running late, a taxi is a real option that won't break the bank. I wouldn't even try to take taxis in Tokyo because I like to not be poor.

This is the most painfully apparent in airport transit. Getting into town from Tokyo Narita costs easily $12 US per person. Getting into town from Taipei Taoyuan costs...$4 per person. For the cost of the train in Tokyo, you could get a taxi from the airport in Taipei. Lower salaries or not, this means that Taiwanese can afford to see Japan's offerings and go one better.

The cost of transportation in Japan is one of the main prohibitors for traveling around the country. Our high speed rail is half the cost of theirs. Our trains and subways, too. Our buses leave theirs in the dust cost-wise, and if we need a car, chartering a car and driver is within our budget in a way that doing so in Japan could never be, even with a higher salary.

Rural Life

As little as I can focus on rural folks in this post, it is true that the average rural Taiwanese person is still poorer on a very real level than the average rural Japanese.

Food and Nightlife

Hands-down cheaper in Taiwan, and just as good. It's silly to compare sushi with stinky tofu, but you can compare one of our favorite pub cafes (Zabu in Shida) with the little izikaya we had dinner at the last time we went to Japan.

The food at the izikaya was spectacular (except for the weird mayo-relish-caramelized onion chicken thing) and we each had three glasses of sake/umeshu. We tried chicken sushi for the first time - yes, that's raw chicken. The bill came to about $35 USD per person. In Japan that's not bad. In Taiwan we could have enjoyed the entire meal with alcohol for that. At Zabu we regularly get a selection of good food (I particularly like the salmon flake citrus rice balls) and 2 high end imported beers each, and spend maybe $30 USD in total. With food and drink that much cheaper, it's no wonder that Taiwanese can go out more.

Anyway, there ya go. With a strong bias towards Taiwan as I'm writing this and not my friend, but that's my comparison of observed expat life in Tokyo as opposed to Taipei, keeping Purchasing Power Parity in mind.

*I don't mean that Taipei looks shabby. It's just that compared to Japan, if you don't have a shiny silver robot and hovercar, you look shabby. Next to Japan, America looks shabby.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Nikko, The End

The final set of assorted photos from our trip to Nikko - all the stuff that didn't get posted before!