One last sunset in Taiwan

One last sunset from Xiangshan 象山
Another in an endless series of last moments.

Last night I hiked up Xiàngshān 象山, or Elephant Mountain as it is known in English, to catch one last sunset before shipping out. Today I am leaving Taiwan 台灣 for the foreseeable future. I say “foreseeable” with intent, for I know so little about what might happen next—and I don’t want to rule out the possibility of returning, which I would gladly do. I tend to just go with the flow these days—so don’t ask me when I’ll be back or what I plan to do next. I really don’t know, and I’m okay with that.

I have come to love and appreciate Taiwan and its fledgling democracy, perpetual identity crisis, idiosyncratic history, ample natural wonders, and immense cultural wealth. I feel like I have come to know Taiwan on a very personal level despite the language barrier, which is a significant hurdle to making real connections here. If I return I hope to do so with greater working knowledge of Chinese, for I recognize how necessary it is to speak one of the local languages to really understand what is going on around here (or anyplace else). So, for now it is goodbye, but I can’t say I won’t be back, even if the likelihood of returning in the near future seems rather remote.

In the weeks and months to come I will continue to post content from my time in Taiwan. I am presently about three months behind in processing photos and still mean to publish the rest of my bicycle journal from last year—as well as many more experiences that I have had since then. I have been slow to get some of this stuff done as I have been splitting my time between work and further adventuring while I still can. Once I am settled back in my homeland I expect I will have much more free time to churn through the backlog of stuff I would like to share of my experiences here in Asia. Hopefully I can make good headway on such a project before wanderlust strikes again!

Waves of dawn

Wave mechanics
Pacific waves at dawn from the eastern coast of Taiwan.

I spent a night at Niushan Huting 牛山呼庭 in Hualien 花蓮 a few months ago for a music festival. After having been up all night (and playing what was probably my lousiest DJ set in Taiwan) I wandered down to the shoreline, still hearing the distant echo of music over the pounding surf and the sound of pebbles rolling back into the sea after every crashing wave. It was not long after sunrise and a most serene quality of light filled the air, illuminating the rocky, windswept coastline with a majestic ambiance. I wet my feet, letting the ocean wash over me, and did my best to capture the magic of this primal scene.

Downgrading WordPress alpha from nightly builds to the latest stable release

Recently I noticed that one of my WordPress blogs was running an alpha version, automatically installing nightly builds. It seems I am not alone in noticing similar behavior, though I don’t think I was affected by the exact same bug.

At any rate, since I am not actively testing WordPress I went looking for a quick way to downgrade to the latest stable release without manually re-installing everything. I found this article, which offers a succinct solution: open up wp-includes/version.php and modify the $wp_version string to 3.9.1 (or whatever the stable version number is at the present moment). Back in the WordPress admin panel simply navigate to Dashboard > Updates and click Re-Install Now.

Beyond the walking streets of Singapore’s Chinatown

Exploring the alleyways of Singapore's Chinatown
Exploring the alleyways of Singapore’s Chinatown.

Two days and three nights in Singapore was not long enough to get a real feeling for this unique multicultural island state but I did manage to take a few nice photos while I was there. I captured this particular image while walking down an alleyway somewhere in Singapore’s Chinatown, known in Chinese as Niúchēshuǐ 牛車水 (literally “ox-cart water”). I think it might have been behind Pagoda Street but I am not so sure any more—and I wasn’t there long enough to really familiarize myself with the lay of the land.

Out in salt country

Out on the fan-shaped salt pans of Qingkunshen
Out on the fan-shaped salt pans of Qingkunshen.

The western coastline of Tainan 台南 is a desolate place, a manufactured landscape of salt pans and aquaculture ponds stretching as far as the eye can see. It is not conventionally beautiful by any means—but there is something about it that speaks to me on a level beyond language and conscious thought.

I took my first spin through the area while on my round-the-island bicycle tour. It was far too hot to stay and explore—but I vowed to return one day. About a month ago an opportunity arose to undertake a road trip from Tainan 台南, where I was living at the time, up to central Taiwan.

Along the way I stopped to explore the Qingkunshen fan-shaped salt fan in Jiangjun 將軍, a minor attraction that I had previously seen from a distance. Up close the fan-like structure was revealed to be a series of rings connected by crumbling concrete channels like the one pictured above. There wasn’t much to see, as it turns out, but the feeling of being so remote from the rest of civilization in both time and space made the detour worthwhile.

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 neither academic nor journalist so I can’t say too much more (better leave that to the real experts)… 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.