Recently I entered into a partnership with eFrame, a newly launched fine art photography portal. They sell a curated selection of premium framed prints from a variety of different photographers, myself included. If you’ve ever wanted to get my stuff in physical form, browse over to my gallery and have a look!
As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being. If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable?
But suppose you could answer, ‘It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.’ How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?
Slightly more than two weeks have passed since I left Taiwan 台灣. Already my sense of the daily experience of being there is slipping from my mind the way a dream dissipates in the hazy minutes after waking. We write a dream down when we want to remember it—which should explain why I have invested as much as I have into documenting my experiences. I remember more clearly those events and impressions that I have captured in words and imagery. The memories themselves, however transformed by the passage of time and the idiosyncrasies of human cognition, remain accessible because I have cut myself these keys, many of which I share with you here.
I captured this photograph in Taoyuan International Airport prior to my departure. This vintage postcard, originally published in 1955, depicts various landmarks and products from around Taiwan. Looking at this map, with its many unfamiliar romanizations, I can trigger memories: riding a scooter into mango country in Tainan 台南; encountering water buffalo by the seashore in Taitung 臺東 in the midst of a typhoon; aimlessly wandering around the fishing harbour at Badouzi 八斗子; surfing at Waiao 外澳 and partying next to the beach in Fulong 福隆; enjoying that first free pineapple cake in Nántóu 南投; bicycling across the red steel bridge connecting Yunlin 雲林 and Changhua 彰化; attending a protest in front of the Presidental Office Building in Taipei 台北 months before the Sunflower Student Movement exploded; and, of course, visiting Taroko Gorge, the most awe-inspiring place I have ever been—a place far too grand to be captured by my lens or described with any degree of verisimilitude by my virtual pen. While I generally try to avoid collecting souvenirs I will admit to keeping this postcard as a memento, something physical to remind myself that no, it was not just a dream…
Rediscovering the lost art of small talk.
TCRC Bar is a hip cocktail bar inside a beautiful old historic home in back alley Tainan city 台南市. It is an extension of TCRC Live House, short for The Checkered Record Club, a small live music venue located just around the corner that is also worth a look. Although it isn’t strictly a speakeasy TCRC Bar is about as close as Tainan gets to a place like Ounce in Taipei 台北.
I didn’t plan my tenth day on the road very well. I woke up in Sanmin district 三民區 on the north side of Kaohsiung city 高雄市, got ready, and went downstairs to find breakfast. I had only a vague idea of where I might go and what I might do. The plan was simply to see a little more of what Kaohsiung 高雄 had to offer—and maybe make a small detour to Liuqiu 琉球, a small coral island off the coast of neighbouring Pingtung 屏東, but I hadn’t really thought it through.
I’d love to see a beginner’s guide to temple culture in Taiwan 台灣, something that explains the significance the objects you’re likely to see when you step across the threshold and explore any of the thousands of temples scattered all across the land. Exploring temples is one of the best things you can do in Taiwan—and local people are generally very friendly and welcoming to outsiders. That being said, if you’re limited in your ability to speak one of the local languages—and especially if you are an outsider to East Asian cultural traditions—much of what you find inside Taiwanese temples is likely to leave you completely mystified.
Since I am intensely curious by nature and enjoy a good puzzle I did my very best to learn as much as I could about temple culture during my Taiwanese sojourn. I had a little bit of help along the way, particularly when wandering through temples with Taiwanese friends and acquaintances, but I found most Taiwanese people reluctant to explain the basics, probably because temple culture is so normal and maybe even boring to them. For a lot of stuff I was left to my own devices, to keenly observe and make inferences that occasionally led to hard-won insights. I have a scientific background so I am comfortable with competing hypotheses—and for many things I saw that’s all I had.
This particular photograph was captured on the second day of the year inside Qijin Tianhou temple 旗津天后宮 (more info in Chinese), one of the oldest temples on Taiwan proper. These lights can be found in temples all around the island in various forms: as a wall, a straight column, or tapered like a Dalek. Their purpose remained inscrutable to me up until I drafted up this post and started to ask around. For the longest time my working hypothesis was that these lights venerated ancestors, a common practice in Chinese folk religion, but this turns out to be dead wrong.
These objects, which are called guāngmíngdēng 光明燈 (literally “beacons of lights”), represent a modern spin on an old tradition: making an annual donation to a temple to have the monks or nuns light a candle or oil lamp for safety and good fortune throughout the year. These electrified pillars are obviously much more convenient and cost-effective for everyone involved—and I suppose it matters not what kind of light it is as long as it shines.
I captured this photography on the afternoon of my departure from Taiwan 台灣 at Taoyuan International. Down in the basement I found this curious reflective display showing times from various cities all around the world, some of them inordinately obscure. I couldn’t find Toronto but I did see Godthåb of all places flash before my eyes when the English translation came up. How many of these places have I been and how many will I visit before this life is over?
Walking away, I was left with the sense that one lifetime might be enough to see the world in passing—but there’d be no way to experience all these far-flung places as deeply as I have experienced Taiwan. Our consumerist culture tends to fetishize quantity-over-quality tourism, relegating our experiences of the wide world beyond the borders of our homeland to a growing list of places we have visited without regard for how much we lived and learned and loved in those places.
I would much rather adhere to this more personal metric, one that emphasizes depth and quality of experience, than live my life trying to make a number go up, though I certainly won’t disparage anyone for having different priorities. I’m just glad I decided to stay in Taiwan awhile rather than move around as much as some people do—and I look forward to being able to continue my explorations, either in Taiwan or some other place, whenever the opportunity arises.
But for now it appears prudent to stay somewhere I already know quite well—and experience it like an outsider, with new eyes.
Markdown is an awesome shorthand system to format text on the web. I have been using it for slightly more than a year now and absolutely love it. Peruse the syntax and you’ll see why—it’s easy to pick up and builds on many existing patterns of usage.
Using Markdown with WordPress is fairly straight-forward. You’ll need a plugin, of course, and there are many to choose from, as always. I currently use JP Markdown, a repackaging of the Markdown module from Jetpack, Automattic’s sprawling mega-plugin, which I am otherwise not interested in using.