Sunday, April 27, 2003

written in about 1998.


A few weeks ago, I got Sinkang's bus into the city. As usual, I sat in the first seat and we chatted. Halfway to the city, some man about 70 got on, and asked how much the fare to the city is. Sinkang told him, but the man complained that it was too expensive, he is entitled to a senior citizen discount, and so on. Sinkang patiently explained that, yes, he knew that the man was entitled to a senior citizen discount, but that is really the price, as the sign posted right there says. The old man was a bit rude, a kind of dumb-aborigine-doesn't-know-the-price attitude.

As luck would have it, about seven stops from the end of the route, the old man and I were the only passengers left on the bus. The old man came up and asked, “Does this bus go to the Taipei train station? I want to take a train back to Tainan. so I want to go to the train station."

With a thick aborigine accent, Sinkang said, “Hey, I don't know either. I'm lost!”

“You're lost? Aren't you the driver?”

“Yes, but this is my first day on the job. You know, I've never driven one of these big things before, and it's a real honor to have you here, for my first day on the job. This thing is really hard to drive.” Sinkang kept turning almost all the way around in his seat to address the old man, speaking heavily accented Mandarin spiced with Tayal words. The passenger looked a bit queasy. “Yes, it's a great honor to have you on my bus the first time I try to drive one of these things. I'm not sure if I can control this, but we will see.”

Then Sinkang yelled out to me, “Yugan! My foot's cramping! I can't step on the pedals!”

“Then don't step on them.”

“That's a good idea, because I can't remember. Is the gas pedal the one on the right or the one on the left?”

“Try them both.”

“Yugan! We're doomed! I'm lost! I don't know where the train station is!”

“Don't worry, Sinkang, just follow that bus up there. He may be going there.”

I should explain that the route goes past the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, the National Taiwan University Hospital, and then, to approach the train station, rather than turning left across an artery, turns right, then left, then left again. Soon we reached the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, and Sinkang let out a whoop of joy. “There's the Memorial! I remember somebody told me it's near the train station.” The old man smiled wanly. “But don't you worry, sir, we'll circle around a couple of times. If we don't find the train station before long, I'll drive back to Wulai and try again.” Then a moment later: “Yugan! See that big thing up there? That must be the train station, right?”

“Wrong, Sinkang, that's the NTU Hospital.”

“That doesn't matter, it's big enough, maybe they have trains.”

“Okay, Sinkang, let's try this. Why don't you try making a right turn up at the next intersection?”

“All right, Yugan, if you say so. Umm, which side is the right one?”

“Chopsticks, not bowl.” We were closing in on the truck in front of us, so I said, “Hey, Sinkang, do you know where the brake is?”

“I don't want to use my brake, I want to hear what it sounds like to hit a truck.”

About this time we saw a bus coming the other direction with a big sign on it: TAIPEI TRAIN STATION. The old man excitedly pointed at that and said, “He's going to the train station! Ask him where it is.” With great authority, I told him, “That driver's lost too.” But then a few moments later, we approached the intersection where the route turns left, so I said, “No, Sinkang, I don't think this is the way to the station. Why don't you try a left turn?”


“Bowl. Up there, you see that traffic light? There.”

“If you say so.”

When we got to the next place to turn, I said, “Hey, Sinkang, this is not the way, this doesn't look right. Why don't you try another left?” We turned and saw the landmark, the skyscraper in front of the train station. Sinkang said, “There it is, that must be the train station up there!”

“Hard to say, Sinkang, there are a lot of big buildings in Taipei.” To make a long story short, by the time we got to the end of the route, which is not directly in front of the train station, the old man refused to get off the bus! He wanted us to make a few more circles to see if we couldn't find it! It wasn't until some new passengers got on and assured him that yes, the train station was nearby, that he finally got off the bus: then we saw him asking directions all the way up the street.

The moral of this story is, if you're going to look down on an aborigine, make sure you aren't the last passenger left on his bus, especially when he has an accomplice.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

written in February 2002

Yes, Wulai's newly famous hot springs draw a lot of money, but little of it goes into local pockets, and what's more, we've lost the privacy on our bus line. Now come winter, we residents who get on at the second and third stop find ourselves standing in to the city, all the seats taken by pink-faced outsiders who have just emerged from the hot springs.

Of course, Wulai has attracted tourists for years: the waterfall, the Aborigine dances, just the sheer beauty of mountain and stream. We have often had outsiders on the buses. But not in these numbers!

Most of the bus drivers are from the Tribe. It doesn't happen often nowadays, but sometimes you'd get a bus with only Tayal, and they'd have a great time going in to the city full of Chinese.

One day I got on at the bridge, as usual. Dhuy waved me on with a smile, not even glancing at my ticket. There were only three other passengers on the bus, three raucous teenage girls sitting in back, shouting at Dhuy, spicing their heavily accented Mandarin with Tayal words and phrases. Taiwan is noted throughout Asia for beautiful women, and in Taiwan, Aborigines are noted for their striking appearance. Some of the young ladies in Wulai are real knockouts. These three are. When I got on, they hollered, “Yugan! Come tama cigay with us!” The windows rattled. All that mountain air, you know, that's why they're such famous singers. Taiwan is also noted throughout Asia for singers, and in Taiwan, Aborigines are, hands down, the best singers. Racing up and down these steep mountains, breathing all that fresh air, may be what does it.

More passengers got on, all Tayal. A girl who got on at Tampya was beautiful even though she was missing one of her front teeth. Her appearance brought a shriek from the back of the bus: “Lmuy! Mwah qani cisan with us!” Lmuy with the hole through her smile walked up the aisle grinding her hips, which won a gale of laughter.

Their excited conversation quieted as the bus brought us closer to the city. No more aborigines boarded the bus. The new passengers were Han, flat-land Chinese from the villages closer to the city. The girls’ Mandarin got better stop by stop as they left their accents in the mountains. No more Tayal words popped into their conversation, and by the time they got off, they were all prim and proper young ladies, walking demurely into the city, no grinding hips, no riotous shouting.

Another day, I was riding Eban's bus with a couple old ladies from the Tribe. Everybody was having a fine time, laughing and joshing back and forth. We reached Tampya, Taiwan's northernmost aborigine village, the last wholly Tayal village on our route. An old man got on to the cheers of the old ladies. “Just what we need! Sing for us! Sing for us!”

Through the uproar ― yes, three old Tayal ladies can make an uproar ― Eban explained to me that the old man is one of the Tribe's best singers, better even than Abus, but he is old now, and long past his prime.

The old man smiled from ear to ear (showing both of his teeth), took a deep breath, and started to sing a Japanese song, karaoke style. Immediately Eban shouted him down. “We don't want to hear that, sing us our own Tayal songs!”

The old man thought a bit, composed himself, and started singing in Tayal. I had never heard a voice like that. I never knew a human voice could be so rich, like velvet. We all clapped time, but his singing glowed so that not even the old ladies would join in his songs.

Gradually the bus made its way out of the mountains, but there were almost no passengers. Our singer was gradually falling silent. Eban explained that he had sung out his voice. Tobacco, liquor, and betel left him a mere echo of the singer he had once been.

“If that is so, Eban, in his prime he must have been divine.”

“Truly it is so, Yugan. You never heard anybody sing like him.”

The old man was silent for a while. As the bus reached Chuchih, he started another song. At the stop waited a passenger from the government old folks' home. Many of the old folks in retirement there were middle to upper level civil servants, and the gentleman who boarded the bus had the air of an strict, efficient administrator who was used to obeying rules, and being obeyed himself.

The song fell silent as this man got on the bus and paid his fare. When the doors closed and the bus left the stop with the new passenger still clinging to the rail, the Tayal singer took up his song again with new vigor. The administrator looked at him in surprise, with the expression of someone who is quickly reviewing the rules concerning singing on buses. In a flash, his puzzlement turned into a brilliant smile. He gave the singer a big thumbs up, took a seat, and started clapping in time.

Monday, April 14, 2003

written in 1995

By 1980, the Cultural Revolution was over, but the tension remained. The People's Liberation Army still shelled the Nationalists on Kinmen (the Quemoy of 1950s fame), and the Nationalists still shelled them back, but in turn, on alternate days, and with propaganda, not warheads. Every once in a while, a communist frogman would slip in to Kinmen and hack off the head of an unwary soldier or two, and there were communist infiltrators in the mountains of Taiwan, but in general, the situation was quiet.

This was before the days of massive Taiwan tourism and investment in mainland China. (I strongly doubt there are any more infiltrators lurking in the mountains today: any mainlander who can get to Taiwan rushes straight to a factory to earn some money. A month's work in Taiwan, even for cheap-o illegal immigrant labor, earns more than three years at standard wages in the PRC.) Travel in Communist China was considered treasonous. It was rumored that the Red Chinese obliged the Nationalists by turning over the names of any Taiwan passport holders who traveled to the mainland, and there were said to be agents watching the trains into the mainland from Hong Kong.

Old Cheng had come to Taiwan in 1949 with the army. After his discharge, hard work and careful investments left old Cheng comfortable, but then his wife died, and he felt the cold breath of old age blowing down his collar. Thirty years. He hadn't seen his old home in thirty years. It had been thirty years since Old Cheng had heard a whole town full of people speaking his own dialect, thirty years since he had tasted the special taste of fruit grown in his native soil. Old Cheng was overcome by homesickness, desperate homesickness.

“Falling leaves return to their roots,” Old Cheng told his sons. “I want to go home.”

His sons were horrified. “You can't do that!”

“I want to go home to die.”

“You're not going to die that soon, Pa. Take it easy, things'll loosen up in a few years. Then you can visit the old hometown.”

“I don't want to wait a few years, and it may be centuries, anyway. I want to go back to my old home to spend my last years. Falling leaves return to their roots.”

“Pa, what if they found out? They'd put you in jail when you came back,” the younger son said.

“I'm not coming back.”

“You've been in Taiwan too long, Pa,” the older son offered.

“Taiwan is not my home.”

“But you're soft now. You're used to luxuries you can't get in the mainland.”

“I don't care! I can handle any hardship, just so long as I'm home.”

Old Cheng was adamant. He wanted to spend his last years in his hometown, and nothing his sons said could shake his determination. A respectful son does not disagree too strongly with his father. Of course there was the matter that in those days you didn't just get a passport and shuffle off to Red China, so the sons handled the problem with inaction.

But Old Cheng got worse and worse. Every day the sons heard him repeat, “Falling leaves return to their roots.” They even began to worry about his sanity, because constant frustration is not good for old folks' minds.

In the end, Old Cheng won out. Reluctantly, very reluctantly, his sons got him a passport and a visa to Hong Kong.

“Pa, you know that if anything happens to you, we won't be able to get to you. We can barely even write letters to you.”

“What could happen to me at home? The clan will take care of me.”

The older son escorted him to Hong Kong, and put him on the train into the mainland. “Pa, we'll never see you again.”

“Don't worry about me, I'll be fine.” With a light and cheerful step, the father got on the train, going back to the old hometown, and the son morosely got on the plane back to Taiwan...

The phone call came a week later. “I'm in Hong Kong. Come bring me home.”

Delighted, the older son caught the next flight to Hong Kong. Old Cheng was strangely reluctant to discuss his trip to the old hometown, and his sons, ever respectful, were unwilling to press him. But that night, back home in Taipei, he made his first, last, and only comment: “There is not one single piece of toilet paper in the entire People's Republic of China. Bamboo leaves. BAMBOO LEAVES!”

Saturday, April 05, 2003

written in May, 1997, not long after I moved to Wulai

Ah-Ing, our faithful taxi driver, has helped so much. He drove for us for over five of our years of searching for land, and since he was originally a plumber and electrician, he has helped a great deal here. (When our contractor's original water & electric man wandered off in search of water buffaloes, Ah-Ing took over and finished a lot of the wiring and plumbing here.) When we were finally moving in, he told me he'd like to go up Big Bucket Mountain. I thought, 'Now surely this is something I can do for him,' so I made inquiries about where the trail head is, how much time to allow, and the best season to go. The season being right and the weather permitting, we went up on the 29th of April.

Ha! The good intentions left over from paving the road to hell have been used to gouge up the path up Big Bucket Mountain. When I got information about the path, I should have considered my source, and who made the path—aborigines, who will never go around an obstacle they can clamber over, and who always take the shortest distance between two points. Had I known what the path was like, I would not have taken him; he has no hiking experience to speak of (make that, he had no hiking experience. He sure does now.) It took us a good two and a half hours to reach the top, from an altitude of about 400 meters to 820 meters on a path about 4+ kilometers long. It is useless to say there were almost no level spots on the path; most of the path involved climbing rocks, with hands and feet, grabbing first the roots of trees, then maybe their branches. Virgin, uncut rainforest. I would rate this as perhaps the hardest path I have ever taken, and I have done some pretty rousing paths.

Ah-Ing is a real trooper. During the first part—the easy part—he thought he was going to faint; everything was spinning. Once he got acclimated, he gritted his teeth and pulled himself up. I kept a close eye on him, and gave him plenty of rests, but I have to say that being a vegetarian makes a big difference—greater stamina, endurance, and quicker recovery from fatigue (exhaustion). Ah-Ing is two years younger than I; I don't think a meat eating novice could have made it to the top, but he did, and I'm proud of him.

We were a bit disappointed by the haze that cut our view. About twenty minutes from the summit is a horrible landslide that starts right from the edge of the path (slid out two or three years ago in a typhoon.) The path remains, with nothing on the right side, so we had to go up rocks, a good sixty degrees there, with 40~50 meters exposure (vertical drop) on the right side of our feet. Ah-Ing did just fine. I took a rope for belay, but he didn't need it.

Finally, we reached the summit, where we were welcomed by distant thunder, once, twice. Uh-oh. I told Ah-Ing, "If that comes any closer, we are getting out of here immediately." We ate our noodles, and just as we finished, it began to rain. I judged it wouldn't last long, but the last thing I wanted was rain to make the path all slippery. I said, "It doesn't matter how wet we get, we are going to descend with extreme caution, one step at a time, and for Pete's sake, keep a distance so you don't knock me off too if you do fall.”

I think he was telling mantras with the same concentration as I, because when we got to a section that was easy enough to relax a bit, we were both amazed to find we had already down-climbed for an hour! I simply don't know how an hour could pass so quickly, but shall I tell you how enjoyable it is to climb down steep, slippery rocks beside a landslide when your poncho keeps getting in the way so you can't see your feet?

At one spot, I unintentionally kicked a poor, innocent snake that had been minding its own business. It sure got out of my way in a hurry. Sorry, snake. Unfortunately, the rain brought out the leeches. Fortunately, Ah-Ing's son had learned from the Scouts what to do with leeches: salt them, and they drop off. I was leading, and wearing sandals, so I got about six, but even Ah-Ing got two inside his new hiking boots. Yuck!

When we were about half an hour up the path, we said, "People a hundred years ago would think we are out of our minds to come traipsing up this mountain for no conceivable reason." An hour later, we said, "Maybe there is something wrong with us, to come traipsing up this mountain." Two hours after that, we said, "What is wrong with us? We could be sitting home comfortably drinking tea right now." No wonder we didn't meet anyone at all on the mountain, and the path doesn't seem very well traveled.

Just over five hours, up and down, and now that it's over, there is a definite satisfaction, a pleasure in having been up there. Measuring the slope on my study window sill, I would say it's a steady 45° climb. I have earned a new familiarity with the mountain my desk faces.

Looking at it now, I suspect it may be an ancient volcano cone. The day following our escapade was gorgeous. Started out sunny, poured in the afternoon, then had beautiful mists at dusk. Thunder off and on, near and far, for ten hours.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

written in 1996 (you still see the types described in the first paragraph. the supply must be holding out.)


Funny. Every few years on the streets of Taipei, you see someone who looks like he came straight from 1968 Haight-Ashbury: the long straggly hair, bell bottoms, love beads, acid belt, the whole get-up. (This type is invariably accompanied by a hard-eyed Chinese girlfriend with a no-nonsense permanent, business suit, and respectable heels.) More often you see young Americans roving Asia in search of Life and Truth and Adventure with modern plumbing.

It has happened that such youngsters ask where I was, what I did during the 60s. My answer, “LA,” often brings a strangely reverential look to their eyes.

“What was it like in LA during the 60s?” they ask in hushed tones of excitement.

Oh yes, oh yes, chilluns, I was there. Let me tell you about it.

What was it like? I guess the spirit of the decade caught up with me in about 1965, when I was in junior high. My big brother had a chopper. I didn't care much for the bike or the gang, but I loved the boots, so I got an old pair, nice soft black suede, from my brother and wore them to school.

Soon the principal called me in to his office, and gave me a friendly, paternal lecture about the dangers of communist plots. He ended up with the very friendly, very firm order to wear some normal shoes to school in the future, or else. Everybody laughed at me.

A few months later, Jim H, one of the in crowd, came to school in what I thought were really ugly, vulgar, shiny boots: pointy toes, and so tight fitting that they had to have zippers on them. Bet they were made out of plastic. I mean, if a chihuahua wore boots, those are the boots it would wear.

I waited for the principal to give Jim a lecture about the dangers of communist plots, but he never did. After all, Jim did not come from one of the three Slavic families in town, or one of the two Democratic families, either. His father was a rich Republican. By the end of the week, most of the other boys had pointy zippered chihuahua boots, and they laughed at me.

Around the end of 1967, Brian told me his sister and their friends were working for a new party called the Peace and Freedom Party. They needed volunteers to pass out leaflets at the Rose Parade to bring in voters. Would I help? Sure, Brian, let's go.

After dark on New Year's Eve, we went to the Party Headquarters. They gave us each a stack of leaflets and put us on a bus festooned with slogans (comment for the younger generation: in the 60s, it was very very hip to buy an old bus to use for private transportation, especially if you repainted it.)

As the bus crawled along in the heavy traffic on Colorado Boulevard, the parade route, I took a look at the leaflets. There was a very nice picture of a nasty policeman whacking an innocent black man over the head with a billy club, and a few choice words about police brutality and civil rights. The main focus of the leaflet was that if enough people joined the Party, they could get on the ballot in November and stop the war in Viet Nam.

Viet Nam? Wasn't that the place the communists were trying to take over? I was wary of talk about communist plots, but I didn't know enough about the issues to decide, or care, really. I was just there to help Brian pass out leaflets.

We got off the bus and started walking down the blue line passing out leaflets. Traffic was so heavy that we had to be careful not to get too far ahead of the bus. Very few people wanted our leaflets. We got a lot of flack from the crowd. People yelled at the bus.

After several blocks, I happened to look back and saw three tough guys following me. A hundred yards later I looked back, and there were seven of them. When they saw me look back the second time, they started after me. I grabbed Brian and scampered on to the bus. They yelled insults about anti-war commies.

Soon we pulled into the gas station by Pasadena City College. Just as we filled the tank, Brian and I looked back and saw a hundred people moving in on the bus. We yelped. The driver floored it. Seeing us pull out, the crowd started running after us, cursing and yelling.

After a mile or two of fancy maneuvering through the back streets, we returned to the parade route. The happy crowd turned hostile the moment they saw the anti-war slogans on the bus.

None of us felt like getting off and mingling with the masses. They clearly didn't want our leaflets, our slogans, or our party.

Suddenly, glass started flying as the windows on both sides of the bus were smashed. The bus was filled with curses and spit. We left the parade route directly.

A young lady on the other side of the aisle was particularly proud that someone had spit right in her face. Brian and I left our leaflets on the bus when we got off to go enjoy the parade.

Within two years, the anti-war movement was in full swing. It had become popular, the chic, daring thing to do. Let's go protest the war. Aren't we righteous?

On Moratorium Day, we had a very significant protest at Pasadena High. The school authorities even provided microphones and loudspeakers.

Joseph, who was very rebellious because he had long hair and a mustache and wouldn't let you call him Joe anymore, came to the mike and read us a very long poem from a book he cradled in his left arm. I think it by some politician like McGovern or McCarthy. I just remember that the refrain went “And tell me lies about Viet Nam.” Every time Joseph got to that part (he had it down by heart), he would scowl ferociously at the crowd. He cut quite a figure up there with his book, hair, mustache, jeans, and pointy zippered chihuahua boots.

I think I got a fair whiff of the 60s. I soooooeeeeed when I saw a police car (not too close), went to the light shows and love-ins, hassled the school authorities as much as I could without getting expelled, and sat on the ground with a circle of friends going Ohm Ohm Ohm and wondering what the hell we were doing that for. I was naive enough to be shocked, and hurt, when a student politician highly regarded for his liberal, even radical, views on civil rights and race relations told me privately that chiggers weren't good for anything but singing, dancing, and stealing watermelons. One of my best moments came when the school band marched through the halls to drum up pep for The Big Game. With strategically placed trashcans, I barricaded them in a dead end hallway. They marched in place, tooting away outside the German classroom until the Herr dashed out and attacked them with blackboard erasers. Too bad their uniforms were white anyway.

I gave my ears and heart to Judy Collins and Janis Joplin. I jeered at all the plastic people, but I was also uncomfortable with the flower children. First, I detested Bob Dylan because I always thought he was a phony. (The same goes for Joan Baez.) Second, I never used dope. I heard all the talk about opening doors in your mind, but I never met a doper who could say anything profound. (“Hey, man, like, did you see what that spider did? It wove a spider web, man, a spider web, can you grok that, man?”) Frank Zappa never doped, and if he had had any more doors open in his mind, he would have had to hang a 24 HRs sign on his forehead. Dope sounded like a pretentious, self-righteous substitute for booze.

Do people in the States still say “Love it or leave it”? I said, “Love it and leave it.” As soon as I graduated from high school, I went to Viet Nam to sell pizzas for my uncle's bakery. I learned enough Viet Namese to get along, and I quickly formed a strong affection for the country and its people. Delivering pizzas, I traveled all over the country, wherever there might be a base with soldiers who wanted pizzas. I was dumb, eager to learn, and unarmed, so our Viet Namese drivers took me places foreigners were hardly ever seen. I found out who was telling us lies about Viet Nam: American reporters.

By this time, all my high school friends were demonstrating against the war. I wrote, telling them what I saw. They laughed at me. “That's not what George McPolitican said, and he made a fact finding tour to Viet Nam. He spent a whole two weeks there, and he knows.”

I remember a picture I saw of that fact finding tour. He was on Tu Do Street, in the touristy part of town I stayed away from. (He never got out among the people of the country without an escort of armed guards and photographers, and the Viet Namese I knew hated him; he insulted their people and was insensitive to their culture.) I couldn't see clearly from the photo, because he was surrounded by VIPs and bodyguards, but I swear the pointy boots he was wearing had zippers on them.


Wednesday, April 02, 2003

I actually began this blog on November 6, 2003. However, I am using the Archives to post older pieces, symbolically dating the first entry on April Fools', 2003.

Many thanks to Tasaw for encouraging me to do this, and to Donna for pointing me in the right direction. Great gratitude to for providing this blog.

This is mostly in English because I don't type Chinese very fast.

If you have any roses, donations, or bricks you wish to aim in my direction,

Thanks for coming.