Bin Laden hotpot house

Osama Bin Laden hotpot
A curiously named hotpot restaurant at Qingjing Farm in Nantou.

A friend drew my attention to this curious roadside restaurant while riding through Qingjing Farm 清境農場, an exquisitely awful tourist trap located deep in the mountains of Nántóu 南投. My Chinese reading ability is rudimentary at best so I wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual—but pictured here is Bin Laden hotpot house 賓拉登鍋屋, a restaurant named after mass murderer and terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden. I suppose that must be him on the sign—decked out in the customary cowboy hat of his native homeland.

This would remain a mystery except that I have been able to transcribe the characters and look up some Chinese language blog entries about the restaurant. Most are routine restaurant reviews with no discernible discussion of the peculiar name but this business listing contains enough to piece things together. Supposedly the owner sports a beard bearing a superficial resemblance to that of the restaurant’s infamous namesake.

There’s more. The owner is also a veteran of the doomed KMT resistance in Southeast Asia. In 1961 several thousand troops were airlifted to Taiwan, leaving many thousands more behind, some of whom remain in Thailand to this very day. Some of those troops were resettled in Nantou to begin new lives as farmers. The Bin Laden connection becomes more meaningful when you consider what those soldiers were up to in Burma all those lost years.

The seeds of unrest

A tribute to Dapu
Part of a mural by Taiwanese artist Liu Tsungjung 劉宗榮 in Dapu village.

Last night I went to Dapu 大埔 village in Zhúnán 竹南, the northernmost township in Miáolì 苗栗, for a concert and movie screening commemorating the treacherous demolition of four homes last year. The event took place on the former site of Chang Pharmacy, whose owner, Chang Sen-wen 張森文, was later found dead in a drainage ditch in an apparent suicide. This occurred not long after the government razed his home and business to the ground with all his possessions still inside. In a cruel twist of fate the Chang family was served a bill for demolition equalling the financial compensation offered by the government—leaving them with absolutely nothing. Eminent domain may serve the public interest in special circumstances—but this was outright robbery by the state.

The Dapu incident, in brief1: Miáolì 苗栗 magistrate Liú Zhènghóng 劉政鴻 (pictured above, at left) ordered the expropriation of 156 hectares of land in Dapu village in 2009, ostensibly to build a new campus of the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park 新竹科學工業園區. Only 28 hectares were to be used for the park itself—the rest of that land was intended for residential use. In other words, the government seized land from 9452 households primarily to construct hugely profitable residences next to their shiny new industrial development, an obvious case of profiteering referred to as zone expropriation. Put simply: people’s lives were torn apart to line the pockets of a bunch of greedy politicians and their construction industry cronies, all under the banner of “progress”.

The injustice visited upon the four holdouts spurned protests, violent confrontations with the police, and a massive outpouring of public sympathy all across Taiwan 台灣. While the protests were not enough to stop the government in Dapu (nor save Mr. Chang) they helped to plant the seeds of the Sunflower student movement that blossomed in March 2014 with the nearly monthlong occupation of the Legislative Yuan. In this respect the slogan “Today Dapu, tomorrow the government”「今天拆大埔,明天拆政府」 was remarkably prescient.

The mural in the photograph (above) was painted by Taiwanese artist Liu Tsung-jung 劉宗榮 on the bare wall where the Chang pharmacy used to stand. The figure on the left is Liú Zhènghóng 劉政鴻, widely reviled as one of the most corrupt Taiwanese government officials and the arch-villain in the Dapu drama, with a shoe on his head—a reference to when future Sunflower student movement spokesperson Chen Wei-ting 陳為廷 struck Liu with a tossed shoe as he attempted to attend a memorial service for Mr. Chang. On the right you can see the extraordinarily unpopular President Mǎ Yīngjiǔ 馬英九 in his PRC finery, decked out with a fancy beaded headdress3 typically worn by gods and emperors in Chinese culture. The blood-red star overhead is the emblem of the ruling Kuomintang political party of which both are a part.

I am merely an observer, not a professional, so I can’t say much more, but I will say this: I am glad that the Taiwanese people haven risen up against injustice in Dapu and in other places around the nation… and I feel very privileged to have witnessed some of these actions during my time here.


  1. To catch up on the backstory I highly recommend a series of posts on Ketty Chen’s blog: here, here, here (immediately after the July 18th demolition), and here (the tragic, heart-wrenching outcome). 
  2. I sourced this number from a completely tone-deaf article in the China Post. 
  3. Possibly known a miǎnliú 冕旒. I say “possibly” because I’m no expert in this sort of thing. 

The walls of the temple

The walls of the temple
Accidental abstract art.

I have a fondness for capturing the textures of urban spaces in isolation from their surroundings. Small details that would never register on us in our daily lives take on new meaning when they are removed from their natural environment. When it is done well it can become a kind of accidental abstract art.

Take this photograph, for instance. If I didn’t tell you this was taken outside the Altar of Heaven, one of the most famous and important temples in Tainan 台南, you would never know. There is no sign of the sensory overload within these walls—nothing of the gilded idols, elaborate woodcarvings, and fanciful stonework. The only meaning to be found here is what you read into it.

Traces of Japanese rule in rural Kaohsiung

I was off the main road in Dàshù 大樹, a hilly rural district in Kaohsiung 高雄, when I noticed a row of old buildings next to a small temple. Stopping to investigate, I unslung my camera and snapped a few shots, not quite realizing what I was looking at. My mind was elsewhere—a consequence of two hard days of riding in the tropical summer sun. I was, at the time, heading south to the railway line after making it to Qishan the night before and touring through Meinong earlier in the day.

A Japanese-era building in rural Dashu district, Kaohsiung
An old Japanese-era building at the base of the mountains in rural Kaohsiung.

Only later, when I went to develop the photos, did I notice the faint traces of the Japanese rising sun flag in the top right corner of the building pictured above. At one point these stone flags must have been painted bright red, a reflection of Japanese imperial interests in Taiwan.

Competing flags on an old building in Dashu district
Competing flags on an old building in Dashu district

The building next door is also interesting. Here you can see traces of the “sun mark flag”, the modern flag of Japan, beneath the flag of the Republic of China (better known as Taiwan—but that’s another story). Evidently someone saw fit to give this building a new paint job at some point after Japanese rule ended, not that it matters anymore. All of these symbols of national ambition have become blurry and indistinct, melding together with the passage of time, fading into history as one.

The golden tiger general of Qishan

Tiger god brings home the bacon
The Qishan tiger god in the Mazu temple at the heart of town.

After saying farewell to Tainan 台南, where I have been living in for the past three months, I set out by bicycle for Meinong today, but only made it as far as neighbouring Qíshān 旗山. The long stretch of lonely backcountry roads from Guanmiao to Qíshān 旗山 offered no respite from the relentless sun—and without any place to fuel up I ran out of water high up in the hills, a major no-no in this 35 degree heat.

When I finally made it into town I was in no state to be going anywhere—and so here I am, sick with heatstroke in a cheap hotel, but not without at least a small spark of adventure coursing through my veins. I rested for most of the evening so I could go out and grab a bite to eat and see at least a little of this historic town before (hopefully) moving on tomorrow.

At some point after a quick and easy dinner I wandered into a historic Taoist temple dedicated to Mazu, perhaps the most import goddess in Taiwan, revered by Taoists and Buddhists alike. At the very back of the temple, accessibly by a side entrance, I found this handsome god with striking green eyes resting on an elaborate altar before an offering table on which slabs of bacon and cartons of fresh eggs had been left. Oh, and a bottle of booze—all the things a heavenly carnivore might want.

With some help I was able to find out a little more about this particular god, whose name in Chinese is 金虎將軍, or “Golden Tiger General” according to Google. This god has a Facebook fan page where you can see him (it?) touring the country, appearing at various ceremonies, and generally looking quite pleased. Of course there are many Chinese language blogs about this famous temple, for example here, here, and here).

Tonight I rest. Tomorrow I will cycle around Meinong and see how strong I feel after today’s near-disaster. Is there a god of cycling, I wonder? I might leave a sporting beverage behind just in case.

A farewell to Tainan

Moonrise over my neighbourhood in Tainan
The moon hanging over the buildings near my place in Tainan. I shot this from the stairwell next to my room one particularly gorgeous night.

My three months in Tainan 台南 are up. I have had a productive time here in Taiwan’s historic old capital. It feels like there hasn’t been very much for me to do apart from hunker down and get some work done in various cafes around the city. I met a few cool people, went to a handful of parties (and even spun a set at a local club), but otherwise kept to myself for the most part. I am not usually so antisocial but I knew my time here would be short—and I had important things to do. I wasn’t here for sightseeing, though I did manage to see a fair amount of the city and the surrounding area. I moved to Tainan to experience a different side of Taiwan while getting things done.

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My urban exploration photos in Apple Daily 蘋果日報

I was amused to see some of my own urban exploration photos splashed across my news feed tonight. Apple Daily 蘋果日報 picked up a story originally published in Metro, a free newspaper from the U.K., as Harrowing images of 12 abandoned theme parks around the world.

My Encore Garden photos in Apple Daily
Encore Garden in Apple Daily. Photo credit: not Apple Daily!

What amused me a little less is that Metro failed to credit me properly for my work. They almost got it right, I will admit (“flickr/AlexanderSynaptic” is not the form of attribution I require in my terms of use), but Apple Daily seems to have lost something in translation: 翻攝英國《都會報》. Taken by Metro newspaper, U.K.? I think not. Last I looked this Apple Daily story (popularized by four of my photos) was liked by 45,375 people and shared by 2,180 on Facebook. The traffic payout for me, the creator of these works? Absolutely nothing.

To set things straight, here is my original post about Encore Garden 亞哥花園, the theme park in question, and here is my entire set of photos on Flickr.

I have also updated my terms of use, which I had originally only hosted on Flickr and my official homepage. It looks like the original photos were probably taken from Flickr—a service that recently buried profile pages (where my terms appear) in a redesign. I can understand overlooking that information in the first place but it would be nice to have the situation remedied after the fact. An attempt to set the record straight via Twitter has yet to see any results.

I release almost all of my photography under very flexible licenses precisely so they can be reused on the internet. All I really ask in return is proper credit and a link back to my main site so that at least I have the opportunity to connect with new people. I don’t think this is too much to ask.

An old school breakfast shop in Ximending

An old school breakfast shop in Ximending
A popular breakfast shop in Ximending across from an elementary school.

Finding decent food in Taiwan 台灣 is simply a matter of looking for where people go. Popular shops tend to be better than empty ones, naturally. Since most restaurants are open to the street all you have to do is keep your eyes open and take your chances should you notice a crowd forming.

I found this particular breakfast shop one rainy morning in Ximending 西門町 prior to heading out on an urban exploration road trip with a friend from the Netherlands. It is located on Chengdu road just across from Xīmén Elementary School 西門國小. From the sign overhead you can see that this shop was established in Minguo calendar year 74, or 1985, which means the owners have been doing something right. It turned out to be pretty good, actually, and it was amusing to me to be introducing my friend to the wonders of Taiwanese breakfast: dànbǐng 蛋餅 (egg pancake roll), hànbǎo 漢堡 (not really a hamburger at all), and so on. Not a bad way to start the day’s adventures!

Dashicons on the WordPress front-end

Dashicons is an icon font designed for use on the WordPress admin panel. You may be tempted to use these icons in front-end theme and plugin development—after all, it’s easy to include Dashicons as a dependency when enqueuing your stylesheet.

There are several problems with Dashicons, however. Steve Ush has penned an excellent critique after opening an issue on GitHub outlining some of these problems, most of which pertain to the non-standard use of default CSS and various quirks of sizing and alignment. The authors of this icon font don’t seem to really grasp what the problems are—or maybe it is the WordPress community that is out of touch, recommending Dashicons for use on the front-end where it doesn’t belong. After all, one of the authors outright says it’s not intended as a general use icon font in this comment. (This might not have always been the case; see this Make WordPress thread for further discussions of Dashicons in the lead-up to version 3.8.)

The truth is that Dashicons are optimized for use in the WordPress admin panel, not the front-end. You are, of course, free to use this font in the front-end, but I would not advise it, particularly not with all the other options out there (check out Font Awesome, Genericons, Fontello, or IcoMoon for some options). The default CSS is annoying to override and there’s no real help for the weird alignment issues. There are, perhaps, a few valid use cases like this one, but on the whole there’s no advantage to using Dashicons on the front-end despite it being baked into the WordPress core. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you should use it.

An ice cream shop in Tainan

Tiramisu ice cream in Tainan
Tiramisu ice cream in Tainan.

Posting photos of ice cream to social media is a big thing here in Taiwan 台灣. Of course, now that you can get soft ice cream at just about any convenience store nation-wide this trend has only accelerated—but why? It isn’t special if you can get it at any old 7-Eleven.

This, however, is quite special: tiramisu-flavored ice cream from a famous Japanese-style shop near the fabric market in west central Tainan. They rotate their selections, serving two different flavours made fresh that day—and on a hot, sunny afternoon like this there’s dozens of people milling around, contentedly licking away and enjoying a brief respite from the relentless tropical sun.

I sometimes stop here on days like today when I’m heading out from a late lunch to a cozy cafe for another work sprint. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what the name of this place is. I’d say I have a knack for finding good places to eat in Tainan but there’s really no secret to it—just look for the crowds!