Friday, December 29, 2006

JiJi, Taiwan December 2, 2006

On September 21, 1999, a powerful earthquake hit Taiwan killing over 2000 people and causing damage throughout the island. The epicenter was near Jiji, Taiwan. I visited Jiji on December 2 of this year. Earlier this week another strong earthquake hit Taiwan, but it was less damaging than the one in 1999 that devastated Jiji and other parts of Nantou County. I'll refrain from telling about the earthquake on December 26 because I haven't entirely worked that one through in my head yet. Let it suffice to say that it altered my perception about a number of things. Anyway.... here are a few photographs from Jiji. While I did see some remaining destruction from the earlier quake, I did not photograph it. But at some point I do hope to go back to Jiji and maybe at that time I will be able to photograph some unusual sights. The first mistake I made in going to Jiji was in neglecting to rent a scooter to ride around the town. Instead, I walked. After several hours of walking I realized that it was going to take huge effort to get back to the train station on time to catch my ride to Erschui so I could get back to Chiayi City before it got late. I'm not sure why, but I liked Jiji right away, even though the first glimpse of it was almost as if I had entered a cast off Ripleys Believe it or Not carnival scene ---- rather a strange collection of mismatched artifacts from different cultures and different places in history.... including a replica of E.T. adorning the top of one of the first buildings I saw as I left the train station. There was also a snake tamer and what appeared to be some sort of Chinese tomb warriors. Quickly, the appearance of Jiji changed and kept changing further from the train station. In the distance, the mountains were framed by bamboo forests and high on a hill was a huge Buddhist monastery. The streets became empty just a few blocks from the station. Probably the thing that hooked me on Jiji was that so many of the people there were enjoying themselves so thoroughly. Huge authentic smiles were on so many faces that I couldn't help be feel the spirit of the place.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Lukang, Taiwan

On November 28th, Dana (Shu Fen) and I went to visit Lukang. It was a magical adventure from beginning to end. I had a wonderful time there and wish we could have stayed longer. Being Taiwanese, and a delightful storyteller, Dana was able to tell me the tales and legends behind the gods in the temples and describe the way in which people come to worship in the temples and how they ask for guidance from the gods. At the Matsu temple, (Teinhou Kung -- Kung is the word for "temple"), there was even a separate god there for students, to help them with their studies. There, on the offering table, were stacks of exam papers students have given to the gods. Interesting. There were a few times I could have made frequent visits to a god like that.... and very likely, my own god heard humble pleas (desperate begging) from me during those old school days.
Even though the trip to Lukang was a short one, we took in as much as we could during those brief hours. Both of the temples I saw there were intriguing and very different from one another. The first one I entered was Lungshan Ssu (Dragon Mountain) temple. It is one of the oldest temples in Taiwan and houses the goddess Kuanyin. She is the goddess of mercy. The ceiling of this temple is really incredible. The ornate carvings are powerful.
Many of the shops along the streets of old Lukang are occupied by traditional craftspeople, making everything from incense to painted paper lanterns and temple furniture and furnishings. These craftspeople are quite skilled at what they do and use ancient tools as well as techniques handed down from prior generations. One of my purposes for going to Lukang was to purchase some glove puppets for Jimi. I was able to find some of these puppets in a shop that was fascinating for it's historical artifacts which included panels painted by Taiwanese artists years and years ago. In a little cabinet in the back were carved puppet heads from puppets long since retired from service. I doubt those were for sale, and if they had been, very likely I don't make enough money to own one of those. I am told that in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, their historical museum houses a variety of traditional and historically significant puppets and marionettes. I hope to make a visit there before my contract ends in early July.
On this page there is a photograph of a circular window. The story that goes along with this window is that a woman lived in the room behind the window. She was the adopted daughter of a wealthy merchant and she and the merchants son fell in love. The room and the window were made for her. Her lover had to go off on a long business trip away from Taiwan and before he left, he planted the tree beneath her window, asking her to watch as it grew and to know that the branches would remind her of his love for her. Apparently, he never returned, having found other interests to keep himself occupied. So much for sappy love stories. It is a nice window though and the tree grew strong and healthy despite human frailty.
Dana and I took a "tricycle" (rather like a rickshaw) for the last part of our trek through Lukang. The tricycle driver took us through the streets to a number of unusual or historical areas. One of my favorites was a street which had in early history, been the place for poets and literary circle to gather and spend hours of passionate discussion as well as consume copious amounts of alcohol. There was a walkway over the street in which the poets would linger. I long to know of their discussions and dreams.... I long to read their poetry for clues into life there in Lukang all those years ago. Perhaps not knowing is better. Maybe they were rigid, egotistical bards who catered to the wealthy and had only dreams of fame and fortune ---- poetry as rigid and manipulative as they may have been. And on that note, I have to admit something I saw on my way from Chunghua to Lukang.... something disturbing, or at least "bubble bursting." What I saw as we rode down a long road to Lukang was shop after shop after shop which crafted every sort of temple furnishing. This may puzzle those of you who have not cultivated the "dreamer/fantasy" attitude with which I am so familiar. But to me, a mystery was solved, and not a mystery I ever wanted to know. Here, on the road to Lukang, all those incredible temple treasures are mass produced, just waiting for the right amount of dollars and a truck big enough to haul away what will one day become an artifact. What was I thinking? Did I believe that Chinese artists sneaked into the temples at night and carved these treasures unobserved .... or maybe elves came in like in the Shoemaker and the Elves of long ago. It must be too close to Christmas and at the moment I am not positive I ever was able to tell my children that "Santa Claus does not exist" without a pang of guilt, knowing that the truth generally leads another step away from the garden of eden.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Chiayi City International Band Festival

The school where I work is well know in Taiwan for their music, judged first place in the country, in fact. On December 9th Chiayi City held an International band festival at the cultural arts center, so I drove on over to check it out. Some of my students are members of the Pei Shin Junior High School Wind Orchestra (PSWO) and they were to perform first.
I sat "back stage" with them for awhile before the performance and took some photos. Their conductor is Chiu Wei-lun. He is also the conductor of the wind band at Chiayi University and at another junior high school in Taiwan. I had noticed him at school a few times and always wondered who he was. His appearance as well as his "presence" makes him stand out from the other teachers and at first I had thought he might be a visual arts teacher... but, he was too "clean" and upright for a visual artist. He does a tremendous job with these students. They played seven compositions and sounded great in all of them. Even better, he has cultivated a deep love for music with the young musicians and a discipline to help them thrive. My students who are in the band, are in my class for high level academic achievement. Being a supporter for the arts, I can't resist the opportunity to give a quick "lecture" on the merits of studying music as a youth. America might benefit by looking at how parts of Asia value the arts, and how these arts are not "extras" thrown into the overall curriculum when funds are available, but are rich resources essential to the development of higher order thinking. Educational research demonstrates the connections of studying the arts (particularly music) and increased scores on academic tests. Yet the arts are among the first subjects to be tossed when schools face budget crunches. BUT . . . as we all know... when the demographics of testing in America are shown, the Asians are the ones who top the scores. I am told there are six or seven visual arts teachers at my school of over 3000 seventh through ninth graders. This doesn't include music, dance or drama. We have those subjects here at Pei Shin, but I am unfamiliar with the statistics. Back at my old school in the US, I was the only art teacher for about 2,500 students and I also was required to teach multimedia, health, English, and sometimes child development and tech apps. We had one music teacher as well., but his duties included a heavy dose of administration of web based classroom software. True, there are a number of schools in America that value the arts and have a clear understanding of how arts studio and performance will directly influence academic achievement and increase higher order thinking skills. Unfortunately, those schools are the exception, and not the majority.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Off on Adventures

Fenchihu, Taiwan, 11 November 2006. About 30 of the teachers at my school headed up to Fenchihu one weekend in a chartered bus. Fenchihu is about half way up the mountain toward Alishan. The seventh grade class will be going on a field trip there during this first week of December. The school takes a group of teachers here before the students make their field trip. The purpose is to help the teachers learn about Fenchihu so they can prepare the classes, making the experience more meaningful for the students. There is a guide there to give information to the teachers, but the guide speaks Chinese. So.... as we arrived in Fenchihu, I grabbed my camera and wandered the streets of the town, checking out a little of the culture. I did not walk the trails with the other teachers. I am sure it was beautiful and that I missed quite a bit of the natural beauty of the area, but, I had a passion to see the buildings and the people and the way of life there. Time passed too quickly there and I was only able to see qlimpses of life in that tourist town. I would definitely like to go back one day. A number of craftspersons were working there on the streets. A shoemaker was one of the people who caught my attention. Although he was not a "shoemaker" in the sense that we might use in the United States, he was most certainly a shoemaker here in Taiwan. Basically he assembled a type of wooden soled sandals to the customer specifications. He did this in a matter of minutes, delighting the customers and entertaining the onlookers. As with much of Taiwan, preparation of food is often done in the outdoors along the streets. Fenchihu was no exception, although the streets here seem to be pedestrian only, which is a very nice change of pace. It seems the food is prepared as an art form, and packaging in Taiwan is often done with great care and attention to aesthetics. It never ceases to amaze me. At first, I would collect the ornamental boxes and bags, studying the designs and intricate folds. Soon though, I remembered that one of the reasons I came to Taiwan was to "unload" years of collecting. Now I just look them or photograph them and let go.
It is hard for me to even guess at some of the food and drinks here. The Taiwanese make use of what is available to them and often combinations of foods surprise me. I never know what to expect, so I find myself cautious, occasionally asking for a general sense of the food.... is it sweet? spicy? what sort of texture will I find inside? Hey, before you roll your eyes and frown at my skepticism, let me warn you that it is not unusual to find chocolate stripes on a pastry bun hiding bean and meat filling, or french fried sweet potatoes with a cinnamon and mild pepper spice coating. Recently a co-worker offered me some sort of marshamallowy dessert that was filled with what looked suspiciously like insects. And in a recent report on Taiwanese food, written by one of my high level 8th graders, bats, rats and insects are common ingredients.
In one of the little shops, a young Taiwanese salesman came up to me and asked if he could help. I think he just wanted to practice his English, which was definitely a bit rusty, but I could tell that at one time he had worked on stockpiling an impressive English vocabulary..... most of those treasures having faded from lack of exposure. He told me that it had long been his dream to travel, to become a citizen of that paradise called America. "What a pity," he said, that he would likely never be able to know his dream of being an American. I wasn't sure what to say to the young man, as I looked at the incredible mountains behind him, with the sea of clouds stretching through the trees. Maybe at this stage of my life I know too much.... or perhaps I only think I do.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Up to my old tricks....

Ah! I found them! Dancers to photograph! One of my teacher friends, Shu Fen (Dana), learned of a performance by the dance troupe from one of the local girl's high school s at the cultural arts center. Then she set about finding a way for me to attend the rehearsal and somehow managed to know someone, who knew someone else and so yesterday Pei-Ling and I spent a couple hours watching a private performance. Here are a few of the photographs. What fun! Next week my own school has a dance performance, but I have classes during the time they perform. I did photograph the students practicing a few weeks ago, but without lights, make-up and costumes... and with a cluttered dance studio, the chances of catching just the right moment are much slimmer. So, I was delighted to have the opportunity to photograph a rehearsal. I wish there was a way for me to be able to photograph Taiwan's premier dance troupe, Cloud Gate. From what I have seen, Cloud Gate is incredible. They will be performing in Chiayi in December and I have a ticket. Second row, front and center (my favorite), but of course, photography is not permitted during actual dance performances. It would take some real manipulation to be able to photograph their rehearsal, and I am not going to hold out any hope of sneaking my way in for that. A month or two ago I saw the Taipei Ballet. I was not able to photograph them either.... but, for some reason, I still have hope for being able to photograph them. Their performance was more like a work of art than a dance performance. Here in Taiwan, dance is just beginning to be accepted and appreciated by the Taiwanese. The heavy stress of academics has not allowed young people to dedicate enough time to the art. So that is how I have spent my weekend so far.... sitting at the computer playing with photographs. It was only hunger and an empty refrigerator that inspired me to take a break, grab my scooter and helmet and go off in search of whatever I could find for dinner. Rice, chicken, bamboo shoots (really good!) and several weird vegetables that weren't too bad.... plus some milk tea. It may be that by the time I get back to the United States, I might kick the coffee habit and drink tea instead. Tomorrow, I am going off to the mountains with some of the teachers. It should be a good time and of course, I am taking the camera along.

Monday, November 13, 2006


I was delighted to learn of the American elections last week! There IS hope. As an American living in Asia, I have to admit, it is often easy to forget some of the political issues back home. But the election results brought undeniable joy for me. The politics here are quite different. Taiwan is probably unique in it's complex identity to the rest of the world. As a foreigner, I've tried not to form too many political opinions. One opinion which I cannot escape though, is that I do not wish to see Taiwan become so "Westernized" that they take on the social characteristics of America. The "traditional values" here are genuine traditional values.... unlike the same label some of America uses to oppress people and thoughts different from their own. This blog is not the place to discuss too much on political viewpoint, though, so let it suffice to say that here in Taiwan, people are very kind to one another and respectful. Here, someone could turn his garage into an exotic bird sanctuary, walk down the street barefoot and in his underwear, carry all his worldly belongings strapped to the back of his scooter, or sit silently at the edge of the lake for hours contemplating the desire of Gods.... and he would be treated with all the respect and kindness offered to any other human being. Perhaps in the eyes of the ancient Gods, money is a temporary thing. Ghost money burns daily here. A symbol. And while Taiwan was probably never the "Garden of Eden" entirely, I can see that somewhere in this country, someone has tasted the forbidden apple, and innocence is being traded for the upscale high-rise super mall, and the culture of the lesser gods is being emulated. These photos are from a temple near where I live.... I visited it on Sunday when I was practicing driving my scooter. Ah, my scooter. I am not sure I mentioned that earlier. It has been a few weeks or perhaps a month now that I have had a scooter. I try to drive it every day, but so far haven't taken it too far from home... it would be fairly difficult to describe the driving and traffic situation here in Taiwan. The independence I feel at owning the transportation here is huge. But I can't help but remember the words of my grandma back in the my teen years... reminding me wear clean underwear and socks without holes each time I went off on a risky adventure.... and when I'm driving down the roads here where traffic laws are made to be broken and bumper cars come to mind as vehicles park in the middle of the street, cars drive on whichever side of the road that is empty at the moment, and four lane highways have 6 vehicles, Grandma's words seem a lot more weighty than back in the old days when I would joke at her worry as I kissed her goodbye.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Oh no!

I spent Saturday in Taichung, Taiwan with 4 other foreign teachers from the United States. As I flipped through the photos to post some for you to see, I realized that 85% of them could probably be mistaken for photos taken back in the States. With the exception of a few tropical trees, some Chinese signs, and an abundance of Asian population, many of the photos could have been taken in a quaint little upscale boutique area of Columbus, Ohio, or in an artsy metro park there. I don't really know what to think about that. Maybe the people I was with were feeling a bit homesick for the good old USA. But as close as it was to election day, I wasn't feeling too nostalgic. The few photos posted today show more typically Taiwanese influenced things such as the "jen jew nye cha" (as it sounds, but not as it's really spelled) which is milk tea with "bubbles" of large circular tapioca. And, honest, this is a photo of the fire department we walked by as we were leaving the restaurant where we had lunch. As you might imagine, I prayed no fire would develop during the night in our typical big city hotel in the budget range across the street from the train station. I am not sure how much trust one can put in the seriousness of fire fighters who look all too much like cartoon characters.
We did see some cool statues at a park and listened to some Taiwanese music in a very nice area near the park as we had bubble tea and just relaxed. I was fascinated by some artists who had wandered outside their gallery to hear the music. The shop appeared to be ceramics and paintings or calligraphy. It was quite beautiful and I daydreamed of "someday" when I can spend my days creating art. Sadly, I am beginning to realize that those days may never come. That's not an easy thing to accept.
Then we visited another area of Taichung which is a pedestrian shopping that resembles Europe (I am told). I woke before sunrise and took a few photos from the hotel window overlooking the train station. This weekend was also the weekend of the All Soul's Procession back in Tucson, Arizona. Last year I spent a few days at the procession and the day leading up to the procession. It's an incredible thing the artists do there. Ah, sounds like I also was feeling a bit nostalgic and missing some of the things I remember about America.