Elemental forces

The elemental riverbed
The elemental forces that shape our changing world.

I captured this image from a derelict railway bridge spanning the Dàjiǎ River 大甲溪 in Taichung 台中 while out on a bicycle tour around Taiwan. I remember being impressed by the sheer scale of the landscape I was crossing over, the immensity of the rocky riverbed below. And then to see a long figure, likely a fisherman, out there standing on the rocks next to one of the river’s many channels—I knew I had to capture that moment.

The rivers that tumble down from the Central Mountain Range fan out and grow sluggish when they meet the western terraces and lowlands—but they’re all prone to flooding and earthflows, especially when typhoons strike the island with heavy rains. Apart from Taipei 台北, which spans the highly controlled Tamsui River, there are hardly any significant settlements spanning a major river in Taiwan 台灣. Most riverbanks in western Taiwan are barren, empty places lined with lonely access roads and the occasional corrugated metal shack. There is little interest in building anything permanent next to these rivers—the elemental forces that shape our changing world are likely to destroy whatever works of man happen to get too close.

One thing that intrigued me about this shot is the jumble of discarded concrete cubes, looking much like alien artifacts from some kind of science fiction thriller. The coastlines of Taiwan are littered with concrete pylons designed to prevent erosion and silting—might these be something similar for riverbeds? More likely is that these cubes are the remains of some doomed construction project, though one has to wonder how they got all the way out there. Whatever the reason, I find they add something to the sense of mysterious forces beyond our control.

Taiwan’s lord of the ring

Lord of the rings
Isaac Hou practicing in the riverside park in Jingmei.

Back when I was living near Jingmei 景美 I used to ride into Gongguan by way of the riverside park on a regular basis. Often I would see a man practicing some kind of acrobatics involving a giant hoop—something I had never seen before, and I know plenty of people in the circus arts who use all kinds of equipment. I would sometimes stop, dumbstruck, and watch him spin around this empty basketball court with mesmerizing grace. I wondered, at that time, who he was and what that wheel was all about, but wasn’t about to stop and ask. He looked quite busy!

Months later my questions were answered when this amazing video went viral. Turns out his name is Isaac Hou 胡啟志 and the device you see him using is a Cyr wheel. I highly encourage you to watch the video and see him in action if you’ve got a moment. I am not that into time-wasting viral nonsense but this particular video is worth a look, if only for all the Taiwanese scenery captured in the background.

A rusty old mailbox in Jingmei

Mailbox on the mountainside next to Jingmei
Mailbox on the mountainside.

I’ve always been a fan of gritty textures, peeling paint, rusting metal, and the like. Taiwan 台灣 is a kind of twisted paradise in this regard—there’s so much rundown stuff to explore and capture on film.

Case in point: what we have here is an old mailbox emblazoned with the Chinese word for the same: xìnxiāng 信箱. You may notice, however, that the text reads right-to-left, the more traditional way. It isn’t at all uncommon to walk down a street and see layouts that go in either direction—but you can bet that anything written right-to-left is old (or seeking to evoke a sense of age). I’ve asked many Taiwanese people how they know which direction to read text in and have only heard, at best, vague answers—you’ll just know.

I chanced upon this mailbox near the bottom of Xiānjīyán hiking trail 仙跡岩親山步道 in Jingmei 景美, one of the nicest small hikes in southern Taipei 台北. At the western terminus of the trail network there are a number of old homes perched on the mountainside that are accessible only by climbing a long flight of stairs. It is here, on one of these old homes, that I found this mailbox.

Red rocket

Vintage TTC streetcar
PCC streetcar number 4500, originally built in the 1950s, still plying the streets of Toronto in 2014.

Pictured here is a vintage 1950s PCC streetcar, one of the original Red Rockets, refurbished in the late 1980s for use with chartered tours. Strangely enough, despite growing up in Toronto and living here most of my adult life I don’t recall ever seeing one before today. Imagine my surprise as I was cruising down Bathurst street, eyes peeled for the futuristic new TTC streetcars, when I saw this vintage burgundy and cream beauty pull out of the Hillcrest Complex.

The Toronto streetcar system is uniquely the busiest and most extensive anywhere in North America. Decades ago these systems fell out of fashion (or were deliberately bought out and gutted to encourage automobile dependence), leaving only remnants that are typically nothing more than heritage streetcars for tourists. Here in Toronto streetcars aren’t a novelty—they’re an essential part of transit infrastructure in the downtown core.

Of course, there are exceptions, as I have just learned today. Two A-15 class streetcars, numbered 4500 (seen above) and 4549, are available for charter and can be seen plying the streets of the city for weddings and other special events about once a month. I suppose I should count my lucky stars—I was expecting a vision of the future and caught a rare glimpse of the past instead!

Crazy caterpillar

Crazy neon caterpillar in Shengxing
Crazy neon caterpillar in Shengxing.

I am not usually in the habit of photographing insects as I haven’t got a proper lens for that kind of work but this caterpillar was huge, easily as long as my index finger and a little plumper. It was just hanging out on the steps leading up to a restaurant next to Shèngxìng station 勝興車站 in Sānyì 三義, doing nothing in particular as whole groups of people walked by and reacted with understandable shock and surprise.

I did my best to look up some info about this caterpillar and seem to have met with some success (though I don’t have the scholarly resources to verify any of this information). This appears to be an example of Eriogyna pyretorum pearsoni, the larvae of the maple silkworm, if this small set of photos on Flickr is to believed. From this I was able to discover the Chinese name of this creature, 四黑目天蠶蛾, which then opens up a wealth of information in Chinese, for example here and here, as well as a few more photos. There is scant information about this species in English insofar as I can tell—although it would appear that Eriogyna pyretorum has had its entire mitochondrial genome sequenced.

Pants by parthenogenesis

Pants by parthenogenesis
Crossing another item off my “living in Asia” bucket list: having some clothing tailored!

One of the great things about living in Taiwan 台灣 is the affordability of tailoring. If you need to get something fixed or patched up the cost won’t set you back very much, not by international standards anyway. As I learned in Taipei 台北, all you need to do is visit a market or two, look for someone with a sewing machine, and show them whatever needs to be mended1. Drop in a few days later and they’ll have it sewn up well enough—usually at a price that won’t make you think twice.

About a month into living in Tainan 台南, Taiwan’s historic capital in the deep south, I got it into my mind to attempt something a little more complex than mere mending—I decided to have copies of my favourite shorts made. I had worn them out over the many years and hadn’t found anything else with such an ideal fit, arrangement of pockets, and length. I figured any reasonably qualified seamster could probably tear them apart and make a replica—but could I make myself understood?

I knew exactly where to go, having discovered the fabric market on my very first visit to Tainan city 台南市. And, quite by chance, the very first tailor I consulted spoke English2! We negotiated a price with ease as her opening proposal was around what I was looking to pay3. She suggested that I have two copies made up since she was going to the trouble of doing so and I agreed—why not? It was a great deal.

Together we went into the market to pick out an appropriate fabric to use for the project—an interesting cultural experience in and of itself. About a week later I went to pick up my shorts and we wandered around again to have some last minute tasks performed (for instance, selecting buttons and punching holes). With that out of the way I had two new pairs of shorts for less than the cost of the original!

Now, with the passage of months, I can say that these copies are holding up quite well. Anyway, if you happen to be in Tainan 台南 and have need of an English-speaking tailor now you know where to go!

  1. This presumes that you haven’t any Chinese speaking ability. I couldn’t string two words together when I first arrived—but found that gestures were enough to mediate basic commercial transactions like the one described here. Of course, if you’re spending any amount of time in Taiwan you’re better off learning Chinese as best you can—then you don’t have to flub around like I did. 
  2. Her name is Sherry Taylor and you can find her shop tucked away at the northeastern corner of the fabric market near the intersection of Zhengxing street and Ximen road. 
  3. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets but with the cost of fabric and all extras each pair of shorts came to something in the neighbourhood of 1,500 NT. I’m sure I could have haggled but I felt that price range offered good value for what I was getting—and I like to support local businesses in Taiwan as best I can. 

Adding term descriptions to the quick edit box in WordPress

Writing term descriptions for categories, tags, and custom taxonomies can be a real chore in WordPress. It is easy enough to edit term names and slugs with the quick edit box but if you’d like to edit descriptions it will be necessary to open up the full edit screen. This is less than optimal if we wish to write or maintain complex taxonomies with dozens or even hundreds of terms.

WordPress is highly customizable and extensible so there’s a way of making this easier. Of course, this being WordPress, things aren’t nearly as straight-forward as they could be. The problem, in this case, is that you cannot hook the quick_edit_custom_box action without the presence of a custom column. Since description is among the default columns this action is not called and there is no opportunity to modify the contents of the quick edit box. The current solution (as of version 4.0) is a bit of a hack: use a hidden custom column to trigger the quick_edit_custom_box action and output the necessary HTML.

Continue reading →

A sun shower in rural Chiayi

Riding through rural Chiayi county
Riding through rural Chiayi county.

I went out on a road trip through rural Chiayi 嘉義 in May 2014. It was one of those days where you couldn’t be certain what the weather might do next. The mountains to the east were shrouded in thick tangles of dark, roiling clouds, always looking like they might break off and sweep across the western plains at any moment. Thankfully, this was as bad as it got—a light sun shower out on backcountry roads. If you look closely you might even see the faint streak of raindrops as they fall to earth.

Spring Grass Garden 春草園

On the way from Changhua 彰化 to Guānzilǐng 關子嶺 in rural Tainan 台南 I noticed a rundown, seemingly abandoned building by the roadside high up in the mountains just across the border from Chiayi 嘉義. Stopping to investigate, I discovered a countryside hotel in the early stages of decay.

Rural lodging in Guanziling
An abandoned hotel in the mountains of Guanziling, Tainan.

Continue reading →