Monday, May 31, 2010

711 Homecoming: A Personal Memory

711 Homecoming: a Personal Memory

(TAIPEI) -- The trip's nearly over and we're making loose plans to return to the US. Now, late in the game, comes a long-expected rumble of thunder, signaling not a rainstorm but a possible redefinition of "home." Angela wasn't born here, but here is where she was raised. And she'd like to stay. Can't blame her. It's a wonderful city, filled with intense and vibrant people, hurried people, people who are generous and outgoing and engaged as were the New Yorkers of my own youth.

We may decide, eventually, to divide our time between this place and somewhere in the states. Many people with ties to this island are half time residents. Maybe have the best of both worlds. Angela doesn't want to die in America. This is a sentiment heard from many a newcomer to America, even after living more years there than wherever they were born.

So, where is home? It was easier to adjust to Taipei than it had been to central PA. But neither is home. Home is Queens. Not the Manhattan of birth. Not the Bronx of first residence. Not the Nassau County of longest residence. A father who never was able to put down substantial roots in America. A wife who never was able to put down substantial roots in America. A daughter from Korea who may eventually feel the same.

The question "where is home?" is different from the question "what is home?" That's a tough one to answer. But the people of this city have extended themselves for us beyond expectation. And family and friends here have extended themselves beyond the imagination.

Angela's family has been as giving and warm as it is possible to be. Mentioning each in a long line of cousins and nephews and her friends from the old days doesn't convey the feeling we've all gotten. But there are a few:

Uncle Kung the younger (age classified, but probably older than you are): He is a tall, intelligent, well-spoken, accomplished man of respect, a loving and hearty soul with a gentle exterior and a core of steel. Has to be. He came here in '49 as a young man and made a life for himself and for Angela and for his wife and for his two children. He is a highly regarded retired government official who walks proudly and lives proudly and should.

Cousin Heba (pronounced HEE buh) who is Uncle's daughter, an intelligent and generous woman, respected in her profession and as an educator, and a good soul -- who has spent the month making sure we are happy and satisfied and well and have seen much of what is worth seeing here. If she were an American, she probably would be the head of big company or a professor of something or other.

Angela's younger brother Tn Chi, pleasant and outgoing and -- I'm working this word to death -- generous. it's fascinating to watch the dynamic between the older sister and the younger brother. He tries to dominate. She is indomitable.


Some miscellany that hasn't made it to the page and should:

--Musak, or whatever that kind of service is called here is fond of the American Pop Standard song book in English. So we've heard countless renditions of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "Unforgettable," "Take the A Train," things in that vein. Except near the gondola, where a bunch of places for kids were playing (ever so slightly) younger music -- instrumentals of "Georgie Girl," "Sugar, Sugar," and a bunch of John Denver stuff.


--A company you never heard of is doing something you wouldn't dream of doing in today's economy. The Yulon Group assembles some foreign car brands here in Taiwan... Nissans, Mitsubishis as well as some Chrysler and GM products. They have started building their own brand car, now, called the Luxgene, pronounced LUCK-jeen, a Chinglish name combining luxury and genius. All kinds of tech promises for the road ahead. For now, they're pretty conventional, but home grown.

--Our Chrysler count is up to one. Our GM count is up to two, both of them Buicks. The only American brand with a real presence is Ford. The most frequently seen vehicle is anything made by Toyota, including some models we don't see in the US, like the Corona or the Corolla-Altis. There's a good sprinkling of Benzes and BMWs, plenty of Nissans and Suzukis. But we've yet to spot a Subaru.

--But regardless of brand, the fastest way around town seems to be those pesky, bug-like scooters, which get enough MPG to get you to Mars and back on a single tank. They weave through traffic and scurry up to the traffic lights. But do they really gain any time? The jury is out.

--Electricity is 110 volt ac with the kind of plug standard in the US until the arrival of the two-different-size blade plugs we use now.

--They have some of the oddest museums. One is built around a 100 year old pump house constructed by the Japanese during occupation, and dedicated to the history of H2O in Taipei. The Water Museum. Really. There's a museum of paper making and another of puppets. The home of the American Ambassador has become a movie theater and Afternoon Tea restaurant. We don't AmbassNote to native speakers of Chinese reading this in English: "Ambass" is not a real word, I made it up. to this place any longer. And there's a Customs Museum, stocked with all the illegal stuff the government found without a Homeland Security department, drug sniffing dogs, Bernie Kerik, Rudolph Giuliani or even a metal detector.

This is the final dispatch from Taiwan, or at least the last one deserving of a Taipei dateline for having been fully written here. Thanks for traveling with us. Other stories will follow.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®

©WJR 2010




Friday, May 28, 2010

709 The Maokong Gondola

710 The Maokong Gondola

Gondola pic
(TAIPEI) -- If there's an earthquake above 4.0 in magnitude, service is suspended. If there is wind of a certain velocity, service is suspended. There is no service on Mondays. If Monday is a national holiday, service will be suspended instead on Tuesday. Meantime, don't rock the gondola. Don't expect a car to yourself -- there's room for eight. And please use your subway easy pay card to save time, unless you're old, crippled or a kid, in which case you can stand on line to get a hefty discount. Now, then, what IS this thing?

It's an aerial subway. It's something between a ski lift in a place where it almost never snows, and the City Island Tramway, only lot's smaller -- plus it runs better. You take this thing at a station that's about 1200 feet above sea level. It goes up from there. And up and Up and UPPPPP. It passes weigh stations and platforms and you swear the thing's going to hit the concrete floors of those stations or the metal pillars a few thousand feet up, but it doesn't. You think about amusement park ride accidents but none happens. And you look over the city and you see fairly hefty buildings that look like they're made of Lego bocks. And your ears tell you that you're maybe 10 thousand feet up, but there's no way of knowing.

This system opened in 2007, but it hasn't been operating continuously. There was a 16 month shutdown while safety concerns were addressed. This happened after a Taipei mayor, accompanied by a former Taipei mayor were suspended in midair, in brutal heat and humidity while ground crews tried to figure out what had happened to stop the system. Apparently, they found out.

The ride was supposed to be scary. Riding above the tree tops, stepping in and out of moving gondolas with doors that opened... how? By hand? Automatically? But it wasn't frightening.

The system was built as a joint project between the Metro here and an Italian-owned, French-based company called Poma, which says it's the world's leading chair lift and people mover maker.

Do people actually use this in place of a subway or bus? Not this day. Passenger count was low and nicely spaced. But there's a leading indicator this isn't always so. There are markings for long lines patterned in the same way as airport security lines. That means cramming a lot of people into a small space and moving them expediently. So on weekends, probably the joint rocks. But remember, don't rock the gondola itself.

Shrapnel:

--Not so many years ago, people here washed their clothing in the waters of a moving river, but technology has changed all that. On our balcony overlooking the alley is a fine, new (Korean) washing machine, which when finished pours its water out onto the balcony floor where it (mostly) falls into a drain. So now instead of going to the river, the river comes to us.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 201

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

709 The Smugglers

709 The Smugglers

(TAIPEI) -- Here's our big chance! In today's world the next wave of drug mules from Mexico, north will be little old ladies and little old men driving Corollas or Impalas with their stash on the back seat in Wal-Mart bags and in plain sight. What border patroller would give someone like that a second look?

We oldsters are unlikely to go to Mexico, but here in Taiwan there are some fine opportunities as well. We found out they have a nifty cough medicine here called "Liquid Brown Mixture." How charming and innocent. For the record, we came upon it quite legitimately. Liquid brown mixtures can include some forms of prune juice or pancake syrup, even licorice. This stuff does, in fact, taste like licorice.

How do they get that flavor? Easy. They use something called Glycyrrhiza Fluid Extract. We were happy to learn that while some forms of this stuff contain ammonia, this is not one of them. Good thing, too. Think you can bring this stuff on an international flight? Probably not.

Alright. Also on the list of ingredients is something called Antimony Potassium Tartrate. This stuff's been banned in animal food in the US. It's a compound often associated with fireproofing. Tasty.

Then, Ethyl Nitrite Spirit. Don't light up a Lucky while using this stuff. Don't overdose. Don't worry... people have been using this medicinally for centuries. Bring it on a plane? An explosive? Um... probably not.

But the clincher is the number two ingredient: opium tincture. Take that on a plane? You gotta be kidding. Of course, if we had one of those Corollas or Impalas and a Wal-Mart bag, we might risk transporting it over the border (can a drug sniffing dog pick up this scent?) But to put it in luggage on a flight from here to Washington is not a good idea. You can imagine being taken aside at Dulles and hauled into a little room with no windows and with a metal table bolted to the cement floor while Captain Freedom of the Homeland Security Department or the FBI or the CIA or the DC Police or all of the above question you about your history as a drug smuggler and international conspirator.

This stuff is perfectly legal here and has been in wide use for who-knows-how-long, probably since well before George Washington's administration.

The question is: does it work? Oh boy, does it. But this particular bottle, if there's anything left when we head out in a week, will stay behind in Taipei, regrettably.

Shrapnel:

--Just can't get used to this "no tipping" policy here. Cabbies, restaurant waiters and waitresses, hairdressers, just about everyone who gets tipped in the US doesn't get tipped here. And -- it's been said -- tipping here is an insult.


I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010


Sunday, May 23, 2010

708 No Plastic and One Recent Exception

708 No Plastic and One Recent Exception


(TAIPEI) -- So you’ve got this spiffy Platinum Titanium Gold Silver Super World Card and you’ve been assured by the Exclusive Customer Confidence Center where operators are identified as vice presidents that you will be able to use your Platinum Titanium Gold Silver World Card anywhere in the world.


Wrongo. Of course you know that there are small merchants in places like this that will not take credit cards, even ones issued locally. But you figure that at the better restaurants, department stores, phone rental agencies, cabs, the subway and bus lines and traffic court, they’d take a MasterCard or Visa or Discover, but you’d be wrong.


Anecdotally, American Express seems to have more market penetration here than the others. But, again, that’s not a hard statistic. You feel further misled when all the shops and restaurants at the airports – especially the Duty Free Shops – take the cards or US dollars or Sheckles or Euros or Canadian dollars and probably the gold bullion you belatedly realized you shouldn’t have bought.


So you come to a worldly town like this with worldly assurances from reliable (vice presidential) sources that you’ll be able to transact all your business as seamlessly as you can in Bellefonte, the Bronx or Boston. Wrongo.


Bring cash. If you don’t have stateside access to Taiwan dollars, bring American and exchange at a bank which will require your passport and give you a lower rate than, say, your hotel’s front desk. Or be ready to debit your checking or savings account. The ATM will cost you more than a currency exchange, but it’s also pretty convenient and you don’t need a passport.


We’ll have a few things to say to the issuers of our Platinum Titanium Gold Silver Super World Cards when we get back.


One of the few places we were able to use the P-T-G-S-S-World Card was at the Hotel Royal Taipei. And royal it is. But the first impression on an American traveler, is likely “This sure does remind us of the Essex House,” the old New York landmark now called the Jumeirah Essex House after its relatively new Dubai owners.


And as was the Essex House in one of its several heydays, it is quietly noted in one corner of the lobby that this is a JAL Hotel. This means, as it did in New York, a local face on a Japanese heart and mind. JAL and the Nikko Hotels it manages are the picture of a place where cranky Japanese business travelers have almost nothing to be cranky about.


Marble and glass and ivory and smiles and multilingual staff members who dress better and more expensively than the guests. Spotless. And when they say “Afternoon tea begins at 2:30 PM,” they mean 2:30 and not 2:29 or 2:31. How Japanese. How wonderful for those of us who are time compulsive.


Afternoon tea is a misnomer bordering on false advertising. It’s a full meal, usually a buffet. And in a joint like this, it’s a meal and a half. We didn’t have breakfast this Saturday morning, and we won’t have dinner. No need.


JAL may be on the verge of bankruptcy, but it still knows how to treat a customer.


Shrapnel:


--Things you can’t get here: Butter, cottage cheese, real American French fries, sour cream, cream cheese, ASA 100 color film, an iPad, and NASCAR posters. As you know by now you can buy a bottle of real American hootch on every corner, but no one except drug stores have Tylenol or anything similar.


I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

707 The Confucian Carnival

707 The Confucian Carnival

(TAIPEI) -- The Confucius Temple here is a confluence of two cultures. There's the 25-hundred year old philosophy of the greatly wise Ultimate Master Educator whose street name was Kongqiu or Qiu Kong, and the merciless and endless commercialism that pervades 21st century Taipei. Y'all want a Confucius notepad? How about a picture of what people think he looked like? Postcards, anyone?

And yet, the faithful come from all over the world to bring gifts of fruits and vegetables here. There are pieces of wood shaped like half moons, and maybe three inches, end to end. You ask questions, shake the pieces in your hands and drop them as you ask a question. Two heads or two tales equal "no," one each of heads and tails means "yes." They are much like the Runes of Scandinavia.

The deities in this complex are rough guys. Confucius is one of many. Down the street from his "house" is the Dalojngdong Baoan Temple, populated by what westerners would likely think of as "graven images." These are the men (and they're all men,) who answer the questions you ask with the wooden moons. What "ism" is this? No one has an answer. It's not an ism, it just is. How Chinese. How Confucian.

They burn sticks of what we New York kids used to call "punk," and wave them at statues and ask for stuff. And all this time, the Chinese sense of justice and humor perseveres. There are wooden beams and dragons and birds and statues. Some of the statues hold up beams that hold up roofs. Most of those statues look like white guys and they are. Specifically, they are Dutch. It was the Dutch who conquered this island hundreds of years ago. In the words of our guide they "did not treat the Taiwanese well." The euro statues are Dutchmen forced to hold the heavy canopies and overhangs in retaliation. Revenge is sweet.

But underneath all this barnumesque baloney, after you get past the jokes that start "Confucius say..." there's real wisdom here. Ideas like justice, fairness, morality (understood rather than defined) permeate his teachings.

What Confucius did was a great deal like what America's founding fathers did. More important than exactly what he said and what he didn't say, more important than what he advocated or opposed, more important than anything in writing, he brought us a key concept, a pivotal premise.

Without actually saying so, Confucius said there is a structure and a meaning to things. There is a place in the world for a correlator of accumulated knowledge, a condenser of wisdom. So is Kong Qiu the ultimate example of Reader's Digest? Yes. His work is a compression of wisdom and knowledge and thought that makes us realize who and what we are, and who and what we aren't.

Meantime, welcome to the Confucian Carnival. Step right up and getchyer wisdom from the bearded wizard, himself.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

706 Radio Taiwan International

706 Radio Taiwan International

(TAIPEI) -- The huge radio towers look sinister at night. Skeletons with red lights stretching to the heavens, sending 15-thousand-plus kilowatts -- more than 15 million watts -- into the ionosphere and then back down to earth in 13 languages, telling the story of this island. Our guide, Rachel Luo says in her perfect, British English "you don't want to know about our electric bill."

Radio Taiwan International is a government service, much like our own Voice of America. This means you can't hear it here. At least not over the air. Anywhere else you can hear it. Much of Australia. Russia. Most of Europe. Most of North and South America. Africa. Here on the island, you can't get the programs unless you go to the internet and listen to the streams or the podcasts. Thirteen languages. Down from 18. One anonymous source says "every time there's a budget cut we drop a language."

Rachel offers a copy of the 2009 annual report. It is as impenetrable as anything Exxon, Enron or General Motors can provide. RTI either made a profit or didn't make a profit in 2009. Impossible to tell. One balance sheet talks about surplus, another about loss. Congratulations to the government of Taiwan: you have mastered the American system of obfuscation in financial reports.

Rachel knows the history. Founded in 1928, still the infancy of the medium. Founded in China, but brought to Taiwan when the Nationalists came here. They have a history room. Shows Chang-Kai-shek announcing the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1945. There's an audio console made by RCA in the 1940s, used here until the 1960s or 1970s. They still have cassettes. They still have tape cartridges, called "carts" ("Cats" if you're from ABC.) They still have reel-to-reel tape decks, Studers, made in Switzerland and able to withstand floods, earthquakes, typhoons and ham handed users. They have RCA 77DX microphones, the industry standard from the 1930s to the 1980s.

This is or was Taiwan's Ministry of Truth, up until 1998. It was a propaganda arm largely designed to swill the mainlanders with Nationalist Bumbo. For the last 12 years, says Ms. Rachel, less so. Maybe that's right. Maybe it's become more subtle -- again, like our VOA.

Next stop, the interview. Shirley Lin is Boston educated. She lies somewhere on the scale of interviewers between Barbara Walters and NPR's Robert Siegel. Shirley's done a lot of different stuff in her life. She was a math and economics major. But she insists she can't help her kids with their math homework. She was something or other in an investment firm, but she doesn't have any recommendations this day. She is worldly, sincere and has mastered that interviewers' skill that makes you think she's really interested in you. Maybe she is, maybe not. The suspicion is "she is." She makes the interview into a conversation and 12 minutes in you realize you've told her your life story and maybe more than you wanted to.

Radio Taiwan International is trying to present the case for Taiwan to the world without seeming to be a ministry of propaganda. This is a tough spot. They're really careful about the way they report news. Right down the middle. Guys like Wes Gallagher at the AP and Steve Capus at NBC would approve. But they still have that heritage: it's a government operation, dependent on government funding.


Shrapnel:

--The Chinglish phrase of the day. It's on a woman's t-shirt and apparently is supposed to say "Biker Chick." What it DOES say is "Biker Chich."


I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010
"




Tuesday, May 18, 2010

705 To Change A Light Bulb

705 To Change A Light Bulb

(TAIPEI) -- There's the old joke, and you've heard it. "How many Teamsters does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer: "twenty three. You want to make something of it?" People who dislike unions have always thought they "required" too many people on any given job. So how many Taiwanese does it take to change a light bulb? Lots. And that's good. There is no shortage of help.

The minimum wage here is 17,280 NT, New Taiwan Dollars, a month. That's $542.15 USD. A major expense for most of us is covered, sort of. Universal health care has been in place here for 15 years. And according to studies the system may have its flaws and inequities, but basically it works. So while the wages are low, no one is running around worried to death about the cost of a catastrophic or even minor ailment. The money can be used otherwise.

In America we have become accustomed to endless waiting, usually because there isn't enough help. Here, the hospital has enough clerks and nurses and dental assistants and accounting people. There are what we used to call "Traffic Brownies," people to keep things more or less moving on the street. There are rush hour platform agents in the subways who keep things moving. The banks have enough tellers. The supermarkets have enough check out people. The street side parking garages have enough attendants.

As Americans we may look at this as over employment, too many people. We are so used to insufficient we don't recognize sufficient when we see it. Those of us who remember conductors on buses, full time handymen in apartment houses, two guys behind a soda fountain counter, five clerks on duty in the deli, car inspectors on the subway and rail platforms, beat walking cops, two daily deliveries of mail and street sweepers are jarred back to an earlier time by the abundance of help.

The unemployment rate here is just under six percent. And that's the highest it's been in seven or eight years. So, yes, the global economic woes hit here, too. But there are plenty of jobs available here, and yes, you can make ends more or less meet on that 17-thou a month.

From the perspective of a tourist, especially an impatient New York tourist, you can't do better than this.

Shrapnel:

--Chinglish, as they call it, can lead to some interesting constructions. So you may smile when you see a sink with a sign that reads "automatic sensoring faucet," or puzzle the meaning of a sign that says "visitor stop" over a doorway. But chances are that their English is a whole lot better than your Mandarin.

--In doing some research for the health insurance aspect of this post, one thing leaped off the page. Taiwan has an obesity problem, it said? So where do my fellow fatties hide? Haven't spotted more than a handful in two weeks of walking the streets here.





I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010



Sunday, May 16, 2010

704 Hi, Mom

704 Hi, Mom

(NORTHEASTERN TAIWAN) -- The trip out on a Sunday late morning is like driving in Los Angeles in several ways. First, there's the traffic. Like any major city, Sunday drivers are not the professionals who make a commute every weekday, know where they're going and how to go there and drive like Ben Hogan on the golf course, straight and true. These are the amblers, unsure of where they're going and unfamiliar with the roads.

And these roads, the roads leading to a large cemetery are much the same as the alleyways leading from central LA to Laurel Canyon. They twist. They get narrower as you go along. We get there in an hour's time and then walk down some winding steps to get to Mom, Mrs. Wang. Angela's mother.

Mrs. W has been gone for about 12 years and she is buried in the Muslim section of a huge and sprawling mountainside cemetery carved out of rock and trees and heaven knows what-all else.

Her son, brother Tien Chi, is there, along with his two sons. There's Angela, who's real name is Ying Chi, and her son Terry. There's Mrs. Wang's brother, Ishaq Kung, whose Chinese name is Chi Chi. A lot of Chis in that family. Chi Chi admits to being 80. Two of the grandsons light cigarettes and place them on the tomb. Mrs. Wang smoked. This is a tribute.

I hope she'll understand that her daughter, raised Muslim, is married to a Jew and that if there is a future, this is what it has to look like.

In turn, we each get on our knees and bow three times. Uncle says it is not necessary for Americans to do that. So what?

Mrs. Wang and I have a lot to talk about. But I am overcome by the moment, by the emotion, by the tears of my wife, by the willingness of my stepson to do the bowing thing, reluctantly at first, but then with enthusiasm and apparent love. The other grandsons have no such reluctance. They bow with gusto. So, we don't talk. Maybe another time. Or not.

But Angela introduces me to her mother. And to several other relatives who are buried there. And I don't have the heart to tell her that I know I'm familiar to them as she is to my long-gone relatives.They all turn their backs and I leave three pebbles on the tombstone, one for Angela, one for Terry, one for myself. A Jewish tradition. It says. basically, "hi, mom."

Shrapnel:

--Law & Order, RIP. No, that's not yet another spinoff, it's a wish for the best TV program ever about New York as it fades into the sunset after 20 years, 14,000 acting assignments with only one major error -- casting Fred Thompson as an NYC District Attorney. But make no mistake about it: this program captured the real New York unlike any that came before it.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010


Friday, May 14, 2010

703 Our Parents, Ourselves

703 Our Parents, Ourselves

(Taipei) -- There is no Ellis Island here. There is no place where some pre-minimum wage bureaucrat will stamp your credentials, assign you a name much like but not exactly your own and send you on your way, even if you don't have a way. It's different now, even for people who are visiting. You get to keep your name. And if you don't have a place to call temporary home, you don't get past the guy with the smile and the stamp.

But here, once you are beyond the entryway, your experience will merge with those of your parents or grandparents who came to America without the language, without a feel for the culture and with a bunch of preconceptions, some right and some wrong. Here, if you don't have the language, you're on your own. This is not Hong Kong where the British imposed their ways on the Chinese for a century or so and English shares Mandarin for top billing in language.

This is Taiwan and while they go out of their way to be good to tourists, there are limits. You'd figure that a major bank in the midst of a bunch of decent tourist hotels would have some English speakers. Nope. You'd think one or two of the zillion convenience stores would accept Visa or MasterCard or Discover and maybe even US dollars. Nope. Only the Subway is fully bilingual.

These are people in a hurry. These are people with thousands of years of doing things their way. And while the island is only about the size of Maryland and Delaware put together, there's an awful lot going on here and not a lot of time to curry the favor or good will of strangers. Texas can fit this place in the back pocket of its jeans and not even notice the bulge.

So this is what it was like when mom and pop popped off the boat from in New York after the trip in steerage from Europe. It's like losing one of your senses, most likely hearing. You know stuff is going on, you know sounds are being made, you have no clue what they are.

Shrapnel:

--You see people here with shirts that say "New York," or "A-Train to Queens" or "Los Angeles" or "Minneapolis." The temptation is great to wear a shirt that says "I'm From Idaho." Impossible to find that around here, at least so far.

--As we've pointed out, you can buy booze, wine and beer on every corner here. The convenience stores have it all -- practically unregulated. But those same stores are barred from selling aspirin, Advil, Tylenol or anything like it.

--Taiwan revolutionized its criminal code in 2003. Many of the changes were based on the American system, including granting Miranda rights to the accused. Apparently, if you stay away from certain parts of the island -- though no one will tell you directly which parts those are you're unlikely to be a victim.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

702 Two Surprises

702 Two Surprises

A version of this item appeared in the Centre Daily Times newspaper of State College PA.



I. Would You Eat Here? Yes and No.

(Taipei) – We have our share of restaurants, local, national, fast, slow, good, bad indifferent. But here there are things no one back home would think of. Or if they thought of them, never would actually bring them into being. So, would you eat here? First, there’s the

Yes:

It’s called “Forker’s.” The natives probably don’t understand the word play, but Dennis, who started the joint and another one like it does. Dennis may not be his name, but he looks like a Dennis. He’s from Windsor, Ontario, which is in Canada, but south of Detroit. He came here from Windsor to coach amateur hockey. When he thought it was a good place to stay, he became a teacher of English. More lucrative, he says. Then, the restaurant. Big, juicy, American style burgers, real fries, real cake. Yummy. The place is in an alley. The alley is very much like Calder Alley, in that it’s not just a pathway, but a mini-street with commerce. Dennis says his biggest problem is staffing. The waitress girls of Taipei don’t have the maturity or the work ethic of the North Americans. Maybe D should visit his home town to double check that observation.

Then there’s the

No:

We didn’t actually go to this place. But here’s the ad the restaurant placed on a tourist map:

“Modern Toilet. A unique restaurant featuring bathroom and toilet equipment. Enjoy a truly innovative and revolutionary dining experience.” This is followed by pictures of ancient and modern potties and sinks and bowls loaded with Chinese food. Modern sanitary measures were employed; we’re sure, in purifying the porcelain. But some risks are not worth taking. For more information, hurry on over to their website: www.moderntoilet.com.tw The thought of scooping food out of an American Standard Bathroom urinal is… um… unacceptable.

Now, for Surprise number two.

A Fast but Leisurely Rush Hour Trip on a Bus In Rush Hour Bus

A What? Yes, a fast but leisurely trip on a rush hour bus. The machine was made by Isuzu. Its nine feet tall. Its seven feet wide. It’s more than 50 feet long. Bigger in every dimension than a CATA bus. Bigger in every dimension than a New York City Transit Authority bus.

This is Taipei bus #605, Young Mr. Han at the controls. This machine is king of the street. And in rush hour on a Wednesday evening, Mr. Han, about 35, is squeezing this monster between tightly packed lanes of cars, missing them by maybe a foot on the right and three inches on the left. The notorious scooter drivers apparently know better than to fool with Mr. Han and his Isuzu. At this hour, 6pm local time on a Wednesday, the subways, good as they are, are packed wall to wall. Mr. Han’s bus is not especially crowded.

In New York, we have a saying, “Do you want to walk, or do we have time to take the bus?” Implication: it’s sooooo slow. Here, no worries. Take the bus. Its fast, it’s comfortable. And even for those of us who dislike buses on principle, this is as good as it gets. At least until they come up with an aerial pogo stick.

Like the Taipei subway, this burg does traffic control right.


I'm Wes Richards. My Opinions are my own but your welcome to them.®

©WJR 2010


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

701 Here's Your Future, ABC

701 Here's Your Future, ABC

(TAIPEI) -- The cement heads from ABC should come over here. Here's where they can learn to do what they really want to do: television news without spending anything close to actual money. Taiwan television is a pioneer. These guys know cheap. They know that you don't need to spend money covering "news" any more than you need to spend money on first-run programs. Well, it's not REALLY news, but in today's world, it'll do.

ABC thinks its pioneering a new way of delivering the events of the day. Nuts. It's going on here already. News = anything you can record on a security cam or a cell phone cam. It's not even as technically sophisticated as the guy on Saturday Night Live who made fun of TV reporting by outfitting himself in a helmet camera/transmitter and who announced his "standup" while trying to focus the picture on something that had anything to do with the story.

Here, the news is mostly about guys in SUVs crushing guys on motor scooters. The cameras are everywhere. What isn't covered by a security cam is covered by a reporter or witness with a smart phone, outfitted for video. Watch the cops administer a breathalyzer moments after a driver mows down a biker who probably has 16 kids and is trying to send them all to college. Watch a sumo sized guy stick up a convenience store. Watch an abandoned hotel imploded intentionally in Las Vegas. Or someone winning a lottery.

The Shaky Cam lives! News on the cheap lives.

Walking up the steps of the National Palace Museum, we're accosted by a TV "reporter" who is "interviewing foreigners who visit..." This is a huge hall and boasts 8,000 years of cultural and precultural treasures. It is the best place in Taipei to examine the excesses of the great dynasties. And the progress of art, calligraphy, pottery, clothing, textiles, architecture and painting from before the Bronze Age. And without too many words it demonstrates by the extremes of the dynastic emperors why Sun Yat-sen's civil war succeeded in bringing something akin to democracy to China.

The "reporter" is a giggly girl, awestruck, apparently, by the response to her question "where are you from?" and the answer, "New York." She can spot a non Asian American easily enough. Everyone can. But she doesn't really understand the answers she videotapes. That's okay. If it makes air, no one watching will get it either.

So you guys at ABC -- and your counterparts at CBS and NBC, take heed: this is where you are headed. ABC, at least, admits it. The other traditional biggies are going to be watching carefully as the professionals move out of the way for the guys wearing the solo-cam helmets.

And the public? The audience? The "consumer?" Well, who needs professionals to tell us the truth when we have those cellphone videos?

Earth to Roone Arledge: get back here. We need you.

Shrapnel:

--Joe Galloway's picture should be in the dictionary next to the word "writer." And his retirement as the military affairs columnist for the McClatchy Newspapers leaves a canyon of an opening in our understanding of matters of war and defense and common sense. Another guy who percolated in the greatness that once was United Press International.

--It's really hard for a former AP guy to keep praising UPI, which in its legit years -- long gone -- was a great competitor. Often, they beat us in speed and clarity, but rarely in accuracy or gravitas. And they had guys like Galloway and Helen Thomas who understood the use of color and simplicity in language.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010




Sunday, May 09, 2010

700 Our Cell Phones, Our Cells & Easy Money

700 Our Cell Phones, Our Cells. And Easy Money.

(TAIPEI) -- How we come to depend on our mobile phones and learn to love our dependence or captivity. But traveling abroad forces some re-thinking. Of course, everyone here has at least one, usually a Blackberry or other “smart phone.” But for travelers?


Of course we brought our dumb phones along. Even made ‘em usable here by jumping through a few customer service hoops and about an hour of begging. Experimented. “To call America,” says the instruction message, “dial 0051 and then the area code and number. Easy enough. We are sitting next to each other. One of us dials the other. 0051 to call America. Then the area code and number. And sure enough, the signal bounces from one phone, to a cell tower down the road, to a satellite, then down to a cell tower in Nassau County on New York’s Long Island, back up to a satellite, back down to the Taipei tower and into the second phone, which is maybe two feet away from the first one. That’s over 14,000 miles of travel. But it works.


The carrier charges two dollars a minute for roaming. They have a funny way of doing arithmetic. Here’s what’s called the Verizon Equation: 60 + 1 = 120. That’s right, one minute plus one second equals two minutes. There’s a second version: 60 – 45 = 60. So a 15 second call is one minute.


We “rented” a local phone, so the local relatives and friends can get hold of Angela easily and we’re not paying Verizon skumpty eight million dollars to hear someone say “Nee how mah,” which is “hello.”


Easy Money

Not only easy, but cheap. The “NT,” the New Taiwan Dollar is worth about 3.2 cents, USD. So when you see a pair of shoes on sale for the low, low, bargain-low price of $1800, that jolts you. Even if you’ve been here long enough to get used to the figures.


Forty five minutes of clothes drying costs 30 dollars in the Laundromat. You can get a really good meal for under 300 bucks. Notice, there are no “cents.” Everything is rounded, kind of like Verizon minutes. Taiwan beer (excellent, by the way, eat your hearts out Augie Busch and Davie Yuengling) is 41 dollars for 500 ml can. (That’s 16 ounces.)


Okay, many of us are familiar with the Yen and with the former Italian currency, the Lira. But it’s still tough to buy a cup of coffee for $100. To remind, that’s about three bucks. On the other hand, a $100 pack of Marlboros is a bargain and a half in a country with a government that knows smoking is a death sentence, and figures it can’t be bothered with acting as the “Health Police.”


Shrapnel:


--Here, you can buy almost any car made -- any Asian brand, most European brands and one from America: Ford. Have yet to see a GM or Chrysler vehicle. And they don't need Consumer Reports here to figure out why.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

Saturday, May 08, 2010

699 Dr, Sun Never Sets

699 Dr. Sun Never Sets

(TAIPEI) --Dr. Sun Yat-sen is both the George Washington and Abe Lincoln of the Republic of China. He’s revered as we Americans revere our founders. For us, it is 1776. For the ROC it’s 1912. That’s when the last Ching Dynasty emperor, age six, abdicated and a long struggle ended.

That’s what they call it. Civil war. Not to be confused with the Maoist Revolution across the Strait in what most of the rest of the world calls the People’s Republic of China, the mainland.

Dr. Sun was cut from the philosopher king mode and the Taiwanese say he established the first true democracy in Asia. His memorial site is a seven story pagoda surrounded by gardens and fountains and statues. Two of those statues are live. Like the breathing mannequins who guard Buckingham Palace. White uniformed soldiers who guard a Lincolnesque seated statue, far larger than life. The guards guard the statue. The statue guards the guards.

There are calligraphied wall hangings of his writings. There are photographs. Even a phonograph record of his speeches. The books he wrote, translated into French and Spanish and English and who knows what all else.

As American high schoolers, we read Dr. Sun’s writings but never really knew why. Here’s why: this is one of the places that picked up on a pretty American form of government, de-anglicized it and made “Power to the People” an Asian way of life. At least until 1949 when Mao’s boys took over. Mao had some pretty significant help. The Soviet Union was at the ready with guns and men and money and more. Chang Kai-shek didn’t get a lot of aid, or so say the natives here.

In any event perhaps a visit to the National Palace Museum would have been a better first stop than a second. It is there that we learn of the emperors, especially those of the Ching Dynasty, their love of luxury and the suffering of the common people. With that as a preview, Dr. Sun’s life and purpose would be all the sharper in relief.

The Palace Museum is settled in part of the city from which you can still see mountains and the cell phone towers that top them. It advertises itself as a treasure trove of eight thousand years of history. The audio tour (pick your language) is helpful but a bit overblown and braggart. But the funniest line of the day came with the mention of one emperor’s “Hall of Celestial Purity.” It was situated in the palace of his concubine.

The title of this piece is kind of flip. It might even be offensive, but no more offensive than the Delta Airlines advertising flat screens on the walls of the pagoda.

Shrapnel:

--We travelers from Pennsylvania are having blonde withdrawal. There are few here as there are many there. And when you see one here, assume Clairol.

--Chinese restaurant food in America is nothing like Chinese food here. Mystery objects abound. And maybe we don’t want those mysteries solved.

--No tipping. Honest. None except where it’s built in.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

698 Are We There Yet and The High Cs

698 Are We There Yet and Life On the High Cs.

(ABOARD UNITED FLT. 803) -- We’re 32,000 feet over Toronto and heading northwest at almost 600 mph. At this rate, we’ll be in Tokyo about an hour earlier than scheduled.


Ever been to Dulles Airport? It’s well named. It is as convoluted and impenetrable as the Brothers D., complete with an ultra modern Subway to nowhere and more twists and turns getting from one gate to another than the combined minds of these gentlemen. People movers that don’t move. Four trillion gates. But bright and airey.


It was raining heavily as we left "home" in a Saab/Fairchild puddle jumper, one step up from a crop duster. In Washington, the sky began to clear.

This Boeing 777 to Tokyo is large and comfortable. The flight attendants speak English and Japanese. The video system is on the fritz. And it’s cold. But not nearly as cold as outside. Fifty nine below zero according to the Too Much Information screen.

Like almost any flight these days, this one takes longer to exit than it does to enter. There’s a system for entering, but exiting is chaos. That’s the bad news. The good news is the people movers at Narita Airport, Tokyo move. And the security checkpoint people speak English, more or less. That said, their English is far better than our Japanese.


The Tokyo security checkpoint is jammed but like most major airports moves quickly and smoothly. Of course, there’s one poor elderly Japanese woman who gets her own personal pat down, reason unknown. And the lady from Atlanta who is worried about making her connection – in two and a half hours.


(TAIPEI) -- Talk about your "city that never sleeps. This place looks like Queens, smells like 32nd St. and runs at all hours and at warp speed. The main mode of transportation, at least so far, seems to be motor scooter. Dodging these bug like two-wheelers is what we now call "a challenge," but which more accurately are hell on wheels.


Day and night, these bugs are running over the highways, the alleys and the sidewalks. They park in herds.


The night market is not a formal place. It's a bunch of street vendors who gather after dark and sell everything that is legal, and probably some stuff that isn't. It's hard to tell the difference. But it's not just street vendors with carts full of cloth or hot noodles or souvenirs. It's brick and mortar stores as well. Want to buy a Honda at 10 PM? No problem. When last passed at that hour, there were no customers in the showroom, but it WAS open. How about a bridal gown at midnight? Two places to choose from, and both of them high end. Need a suit? How about an all night tailor. Or an auto repair place with "mechanics on duty 24/7?"


It's May. It's hot. It's humid. This is the tropics, afterall. But the Taiwanese have a trick to make you feel better about it. They -- as most of the rest of the world -- use the Celsius temperature scale. So when it's a sweltering 95 degrees, the local thermometers read a casual 35-ish, maybe even a little on the chilly side.


I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®

©WJR 2010

Some of this material has appeared in the Centre Daily Times newspaper of State College PA.


Sunday, May 02, 2010

697 The Long and Winding Road

697 The Long and Winding Road.

As you read this, we are on our way from the US to Taiwan for a month's exploration. And the preparations have seemed endless, as do the new requirements for getting on and off and aircraft, or in this case, at least three aircraft. There's a puddle jumper from central Pennsylvania to Washington, a second from DC to Tokyo and a third from Tokyo to Taipei. On paper, counting layovers, the trip is about 30 hours. That's if everything works perfectly.

Nothing works perfectly. As far as is known, we're not on any "watch lists," we are carrying nothing the Transportation Safety Administration rules ban and our passports are current and in order. The weather projections are for a more or less clear sky along the whole route. But nothing works perfectly.

A regular aphorism on these pages says that when the "game is in the board room, it can't be won on the field." And right now, United, our carrier, and Continental are more focused on their so-called merger than they are in getting people from "here" to "there." (So-called merger because it's really an acquisition -- as are most so-called mergers.)

People interested in this trip ask "why don't you fly from New York?" The travel agent talked us out of it. First, there's the six hour drive to JFK. Then, coming back, it's either a six hour drive after a 30 hour flight or a stay in a New York area motel and THEN the drive back. More expensive. Nominally, less convenient.

Scoping out the Mount Tantamount Airport a few days before takeoff, we found... nothing. It was about eight in the evening on a Friday. No one in the building. No ticket window or baggage claim or snack bar open. But at least we got the lay of the land ... learned how to get an "e-ticket," and how to weigh baggage on an "official" scale. This probably is more accurate than standing on the bathroom scale at home, then standing on it while holding a suitcase.

Even earlier, we over-cautiously called and asked where we'd go through customs. The instant answer (didn't know there was such a thing as an instant answer in air travel, did you?) was "not here." Very helpful. So at this point we don't know whether the gifts we're carrying for relatives amounts to smuggling or whether we can just waltz through the gates with them. (There may be a huge underground in smuggled fish oil, vitamin pills and chocolate candy, you never know.)

The TSA has more rules and regulations and do's and don'ts than any mere mortal can count. Let's hope we've guessed right.

If you'd like to keep up with our "adventures," we are posting short items on the website of the Centre Daily Times newspaper. Here is the long and winding link. Caution: this is not the world's fastest loading website.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010