Sunday, March 15, 2009

Showing in Shanghai as Taiwan, China

An interesting piece in the Taipei Times today:

Care to Join the Party?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Tornado

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

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

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

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

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

Is it that we're both secretly slobs?

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

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

...is....


TA-DA!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

But I'd also really like my earring back.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Beautiful Beipu




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

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

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

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

And now, the photos:


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



Stone carvings with red lips.




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


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

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

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




Pretty lantern


View through a teahouse window



View through a red-painted fence



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

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




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


Through the main temple entrance.




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



Selling dried herbs and bananas.




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



Old brick doorway




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



...are not in such good condition.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One Hundred and One Flowers

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

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

In China, Would-Be Protesters Pay a Price

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

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

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

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

And now this...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I am not wrong.


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


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

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

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

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

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


Monday, March 9, 2009

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

Lots of Chiang

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

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

Beam Me Up, Dr. Sun

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The God of Yin-Yang

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

One of Hundreds of Hanging Cows

Candle in the City God Temple

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

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

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Because "The Chinese" do what now?

Edible Extretions: Taiwan's Toilet Restaurant

Time Magazine recently did a piece on Taiwan's Modern Toilet Restaurant (for those who don't know, there's one in Shilin not far from the night market and one in Ximending. I don't know where the other branches are).

Nobody who lives in Taiwan doesn't know what the Modern Toilet Restaurant is, so I'll spare the description. It is, more or less, exactly what it sounds like anyway.

No, no, the thing that bothers me about this article is the not-so-tacit assumption that Taiwan and China are one and the same. A few quotes:

Toilet creations aren't new to China. The ancient Chinese may have been the first to use the throne — a flush toilet was found in a tomb of a Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 24) king — and they invented toilet paper in the 6th century.

That's wonderful but it wasn't invented in Taiwan! I'm pretty sure the Western Han Dynasty - if I remember my history - didn't even control all of what is now actually China, or even what is now all of Han-dominated China - let alone having anything to do with Taiwan.

The Chinese can take this, Finch muses, because they are more nonchalant about bodily functions, such as burping, farting or even going to the bathroom — an act performed squatting sans doors in some places in China.

Yes, yes, all very true although I never heard a lot of burping in China (though the ones I did hear were ginormous gas-leak burps from an ancient lady at the dinner table, with fish scales hanging from her mouth and coat. Long story). And sure, they spit bones, tea leaves and other uneaten food detritus on the floor - hence the fish scales on this one particular matron's outerwear. Her aim just wasn't up to finding the floor. Ah, Guizhou...

But I digress. Neither of these is a Taiwanese custom. Neither is going to the bathroom outside,. Not even in the countryside have I noticed this, and I spend a lot of time in the central mountains. I'm sure a farmer here or there has let one loose in a corner of his field when he couldn't make it back to the house, but that hardly counts.

I've always felt that in the area of bathroom matters, the Taiwanese picked up most of their cultural heritage from Japan (and let's face it, Japan is a much nicer place to wrestle a brown monkey than China. In Japan, airport bathrooms smell of mint chocolate and the toilets warm your bum and sing to you. In China, I once crapped on a pig.)

So yes - this restaurant is suited to Taiwan because the idea was inspired by a Japanese cartoon robot (it says so in the article) and the Taiwanese seem to love Japanese cartoons and Japanese toilets. It is not suited to Taiwan because birthing a choco-log outdoors is common here. It ain't.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Busy Weekend

Taiwanese opera, the birthday "inspection tour" of Wenchang, the god of education and exams, a party at Citizen Cain, an attempt to hike Huang Di Dian and tofu in Shiding, all squeezed into two days. It's been a whirlwind of excitement.



We arrived back in Taipei mid-week and booked the weekend full of activities with friends. After teaching my first class in 6 weeks this past Saturday, we went to Dihua Street for lunch (there's a famous food stall there that does Tainan-style shrimp rolls over rice and vegetables) and to see at Taiwanese opera with friends. We figured it was a fitting way to celebrate 2/28 even though it didn't involve attending any anti-KMT protests.

Unlike the open-air operas common at festivals, this one cost $100 NT for admission and was held on the 9th floor of the textile market (#21 in the old market building). I didn't realize that there was a stage on the top floor of this place and would have never thought to look for performances there if it hadn't been for my friend Sasha.

We saw 太陽偏與枝無葉 - Tai Yanpian Yu Zhi Wuye - about two students (Tai Yanpian and Zhi Wuye) who both fail the civil service exam and take an oath of brotherhood. Both are quite poor and on the verge of becoming beggars. They part and Zhi Wuye has some good luck early on. However, the woman he brokered a marriage with (Tan Hua - a kind of flower that is also a metaphor for fleeting luck) ran away because she didn't want to marry a "beggar", and his luck left him. Tan Hua then saw a fortune teller who told her that she would become with, but only if she married a beggar - and that she would have to pursue a match with this beggar. Her servant is told that she, too, will become wealthy. She ran into Tai Yanpian who now looks pretty down and out. They both end up spending the night in a 'haunted house' (I didn't really understand this part) where the ghosts of the house get them both to sleepwalk into the same room, where they've hidden a pot of gold and jewels. The two find the treasure and marry, and become very rich. Tai Yanpian searches for his brother, and Tanhua helps find him (a housekeeper - ? - she is acquainted with knows how to locate him, because she is the one who arranged the marriage that didn't work out. Or something.) They meet, but it turns out that Zhi Wuye has also run into the fortune teller who says 'don't expect grand things from life' and that only through his wife can he own wealth. This means that he's not meant to enjoy the finer things in life and can't ingest meat or wine or wear fine clothes. He resolves to leave and make his own way, and Tanhua and Tai Yanpian give him some bread. He gives most of it away to a beggar family who has helped him and only when he has two pieces left does he realize that Tai and Tanhua have hidden gold inside each one. He laments again his fate of being unable to own wealth. Then Tanhua's servant goes around buying up the bread from the beggars and returns it to Zhi Wuye. As she is the woman he is supposed to marry, and she brought the money to him, he is 'allowed' by fate to have it - the two marry and both couples live a happy, prosperous life.

It was a fun opera to watch, and one part was sung by a very well-known performer whose name slips my mind. Two of the cast members were men, which is interesting for Taiwanese opera (as far as I know, it's mostly performed by women). I'm happy I had Sasha next to me to explain the plot as I have only a limited vocabulary in Taiwanese...and I'm not even sure I could have followed this in Mandarin.

I'm not sure that I care for the main themes, however. I liked the idea that the roles were reversed as a part of the story - women who pursue their husbands or who bring the family wealth, something unheard of in really old school Chinese and Taiwanese culture. I'm not sure I liked the fact that these themes were inserted for comedic purposes ("haha, she's a woman but she's pursuing him!") but maybe I should loosen up; times have changed, after all.

There's also a very Western notion that fate doesn't control your wealth - you and your actions do. The most that fate controls is how much natural acumen you have for earning money and being frugal with it. The underlying theme of this otherwise enjoyable opera was that you don't have any control over whether or not you will wind up rich - either the fates decree that you will be prosperous, or they'll say that you won't. If they say you won't, there's not much you can do about that except follow their directives. Maybe it's a huge cultural difference here, but that just doesn't sit well, you know?

When the opera finished, we came out to discover one of those awesome god processionals in full swing. I asked around and it turns out that 2/28 this year is the birthday of Wenchang, the god of education and examinations.

His processional was a long one, starting at least 30 minutes before the opera ended and an hour later, still going strong. It seemed to be looping from Longshan Temple (where there is a shrine to him), past Xiahai City God Temple and then - we think - heading up to Bao'an Temple.

It had everything :




...tall god costumes...




...ba jia jiang (martial defenders of the gods during their processionals)...




...lion and dragon dancers...




...dancing guys...




...flag bearers...



...that ginormous drum that one temple has which you can hear a kilometer away...





...and of course, midgets (actually children) dressed as dolls disco dancing in a line with a baby frog and a cute demon...



...with another disco dancing guy on top of a truck.


After all this excitement, we headed back to my place and got ready to go out. Our friend finished her school contract recently and threw a party to celebrate the horror of buxiban life finally being over and done with.

I completely empathize; Kojen made me want to do the same thing. I wouldn't recommend buxiban teaching for more than a year for anyone, and I don't know how some people manage to keep working at those places without turning into serial killers. I'd have thrown the same sort of party but working there, I had so little free time that I really had no good friends in Taiwan save Roy and my boyfriend. I didn't start to have a social life until I got a better job and more than one day a week off.

No good photos from this though - we were all enjoying ourselves too much to take lots of snaps. Citizen Cain isn't my favorite place but it's perfectly OK - they seem to make all their money from organized group get-togethers because every time I've been there it's either empty, or full with a huge group and almost nobody who is there independently. They do a decent enough hummus and babaghanouj but mine is better!

Then we headed out to Party World, which is heinously overpriced on weekends. I don't think I would go back; at least not to one in a popular area like Zhongxiao Dunhua and not on a weekend night. On the upside, I learned how to sing "Super Star" and "Hey U Mr. Q" and did a pretty hilarious rendition of the opera singer in "Fearless". I also learned "Taibei Bu Shi Wo De Jia" (Taipei Is Not My Home - apparently the singer's jia is Lugang, where there are no traffic lights).

Heading home at 3am, we woke up again at 8am and took Satan's own bus, the 666, to Shiding. It was damp and drizzly, but we still had some horrid notion that we could climb Huang Di Dian in such conditions. We were wrong.

Entrance to the Stupid Stairs That Go On For Something Like 200 Hours

We took the wrong way 'round because nobody bothered to read their Taipei Day Trips before setting out, and the locals among us didn't see anything wrong with climbing stairs for hours. Yay! Stairs! Why so many people in Asia think that a natural trail is a horrible thing and it is much better to replace mountain paths with freaking stairs is beyond me. People normally wake up thinking, "Today is a lovely day. I'd like to go hiking and get some fresh mountain air." They do not wake up thinking "Today is a lovely day. I'd like to go outside and climb some stairs." So why? Why?! Maybe we can start an NGO with the mission of tearing down all those freaking stairs on mountains. Who's with me?

Oh, and it was cloudy so there was no view. At least the air was fresh.

Clouds

After "hiking" up stairs for a few hours, we realized it was too wet and dangerous to actually make it to the ridge near Huang Di Dian and we turned down another fork which took us down some more goddamned stairs to get back to Shiding.

And all this on 4 hours of sleep.

Shiding is a lovely, if small, town that doesn't really have a lot of historic buildings or anything else to recommend it architecturally, though it does have a lovely stream and some mountain views. There are some old houses, though most aren't much to see from the outside. You can explore inside one of them, located in the covered market area.

Candlesticks in an old Shiding House

The food was, of course, delicious and there weren't many tourists, either. A few of them crowded through in the afternoon, but they were all gone by 4 and we had the place to ourselves. Shiding is near several good hikes, including some Pingxi-like ascents and Erge Shan, which we never made it to the last time. (I assume Huang Di Dian is one of these good hikes, but I wouldn't really know as our attempt ended in abject failure).

Shiding

Shiding is famous for tofu, and with good reason. The various kinds of tofu available there are excellent - all with a soft, silky texture and a bit more natural flavor than average tofu. We got red-sauce cooked tofu, fried tofu and a silky tofy in thick broth, all of which were fantastic. The wild chicken and sweet potato leaves were also excellent; the chicken was soft, juicy and flavorful and generously meaty. I'd recommend stopping in Shiding, if anything, to eat a big, tasty meal. Afterwards we retreated to a nearby teahouse to play cards for a few hours and nurse our stair-climbing sore limbs.


...as well as looking around a little bit to soak up the small-town atmosphere.


Some Interesting Things in Shiding

After all this, we headed home and while Emily packed up her overnight things, Brendan surfed online and I crashed on the couch, not to awake until the next morning.