Bring Out Your Dead

January 2nd, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

The garbage truck pipes its pied tune up and down the streets of town, quarter by quarter, all nights except Sunday and Wednesday. Nine at night is when I’m likeliest to see my neighbors, few of whom I recognize, all lined up in the fluorescence of the corner Family Mart’s sign, their blue municipal trash bags in hand, neatly knotted or blithely bulging and taped over at the top. We’re all in sandals for the five minutes we’ll have to stand and wait, a community of purpose, watching the yellow truck get caught in its sidewalk crawl by the nearest red light. Meanwhile, the recycling vanguard has arrived and set out its barrels for paper, plastic, and pig slop. That’s spoiled leftovers, but nothing too peel, rind, or compost-like for swine to down. For this, many Taiwanese families have dedicated buckets they dump, rush home, and rinse, but with my fruit fly issues I’m loathe to keep rotting food around, even covered. » Read the rest of this entry «

寒流 (Hán Líu)

January 7th, 2007 § 2 comments § permalink

A chilly day in Taipei, though more perhaps indoors than out, in heaterless apartments whose tile and concrete hoard the cold and return it with sullen stony glower, pervading house and dweller with icy damp. Outside: mid-fifties and several shades darker than overcast, though mercifully dry. Today, the good people of Taipei hug themselves and hide their hands while hurrying home to shed their coats and, with grateful sigh, unwind scarves loop after woolen loop onto the wooden backs of chairs. I should be drinking tea somewhere, wearing a cable knit sweater several sizes large, replete with belly rumple—smug, behind my table with spread paper, as a landlord, and lifting my gaze only rarely to peer over my glasses, through the steam from my mug, at passersby.

The Future Will Be Wholesome

January 24th, 2007 § 3 comments § permalink

The first Dunkin’ Donuts in all Taiwan opened here, a week ago, in Taipei, not far from one of the arthouses, giving Nippon’s Mister Donut, hitherto the market giant, a run for its year-old monopoly. I await some titanic battle of the corporate mascots that will lay waste to the metropolis with cheesy effects; blows will be traded and sprinkles rained on streets thronged with screaming Asians. Two versions, with alternate endings, will be shot and released in the appropriate countries. The Taipei Times, organ of finely edited English prose that it is, featured a picture of six comely and miniskirted hostesses in company colors showing off trays of the famous treats glazed, powdered, and otherwise pampered. “Product localization”, the result as ever of discerning “market research”, has, so say rumors, resulted in sweets not quite as cloying as the American originals. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s only Krispy Kreme, a sleek art deco mart of brushed silvers and grays in the heart of ritzy Causeway, continues to pack them in with its HOT! light, a beacon to all lonely wayfarers whom only a life ring of fried and sugared dough will save from drowning. I stumbled on it once, in a light fog, dazed from hours of pointless browsing; its spruce logo and mirrored lettering came to me from that twilight zone of collective cultural memory where still reigns, with all its sweetheart hopes, a peculiarly American sham Shangri-La: the fifties of checkered floors and busboys in paper caps. Inside, I was sure, the help would say “please” and “thank you” and Buddy Holly would be singing of a fool’s paradise. There Father hunkers lovingly over cream fillings that murmur futures, just around the corner past the Joneses’, full of flying station wagons, and breathe not a word to him of impending coronaries. » Read the rest of this entry «

En voyage (d'affaires)

February 20th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

A short stateside tour: popping up at, among other places, NY Comic Con. Forgive the absence–too luddite, or is it lazy? to post from the road. Happy Lunar New Year, best wishes to all believers for the pig days ahead. Snow country, here I come.

Sam Gave Brands to All the Animals

February 28th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

One of the finer pleasures of life in Taiwan is that brands cease to signify.

Apparently, when a shirt has its tag slashed and goes on sale for a third of its American retail in a store generically named “Outlet”, it is also stripped of the ability to indicate social class, taste, or economic standing.

A stout housewife in middle-age brings out all the shapeless frumpiness you’d never guess was in an Abercrombie sweatshirt from its usual setting, draped with calculated provocation across some lithe and nubile teen.

There’s a carnival air to this upending of expectations, which I find perpetually refreshing. Asia really is a parallel universe. The basic criterion for a parallel universe is that everything must initially seem the same, but reveal itself to be subtly different, as though the mirror dividing and begetting the two realms were slightly warped.

The housewife, who is probably engaged in some activity like rinsing her steamer trays with a hose over the gutter of an empty lane, is wearing the sweatshirt because it was cheap, because it was a factory second, because it belongs to her daughter now working in Shanghai, or because it’s not really an Abercrombie sweatshirt at all.

Knockoffs run the gamut from the bald and careless to the fairly meticulous. On one end are those whose blatancy is the obvious product of shamelessness. The athletic brand IKE, above a slightly shorter and less graceful swoosh (ah, for an aesthetics of the swoosh!), can be faulted for laziness and lack of creativity, but not for really giving a damn. At the other end, appropriation approaches self-consciousness: the bakery Just Do Eat has almost entitled itself with punny ingenuity to use of the same swoosh, in its case an stretched croissant. NET, a popular and fashionable domestic clothing chain, fills much the same mildly upscale market niche as The Gap, whose font it apes.

Of course, as is sometimes the case with close-up work, it turns out on taking a step back that, artisan forger though you are, you have been maniacally attentive to the wrong things.

I once saw “dimberlanT” embroidered on a man’s fleece sweater above the zippered chest pocket. The font was impeccable, just as it was another time, for the improbably lengthy and nonsensical name “Cavalier KillerDiller”, which replaced the comparatively banal Calvin Klein in superimposition over the standard CK initials—also, needless to say, perfectly reproduced.

This last was in the subway, on a hat a stout middle-aged woman was wearing, a candystriped plastic sack of fresh fruit swinging from the arm she kept folded to her chest, her fist clenched over her cardigan. I noticed all these things, despite not being able for several minutes to tear my gaze from her hat. A fascination that she, fortunately, did not remark, as she was shorter and it went quite literally—perhaps also figuratively—over her head.

What gives rise to these phenomena: accuracies of appearance and comedies of content? » Read the rest of this entry «

At Play in the Fields of the Taipei Book Fair

March 15th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

It is one thing to be lulled into a sense of progress, learning Chinese from a book, by readings ingeniously limited to the words each lesson introduces; quite another to be confronted by those words in the wilds of the language at large. That native habitat finds them consorting promiscuously with strange characters in more configurations than were sketched by Bosch: phrases, formalities, compounds and commercial puns, the elaborate titles of common dishes. Walking down the street, my head swiveling at ads, is to see some word I thought to know leering at me from a coupling at whose meaning I can only guess. This induces in me something like the vertigo of chancing on a girl, believed demure, in some obscure debauchery: lightheaded from the loss of some certainty.

Of the 3000 characters Chinese is said to employ on a common basis, I now know, I would venture, 500: which is to say my chances of recognizing a character are roughly those of losing at Russian roulette. I conceived of the 15th Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) as a citadel of language: a chance to glimpse words at work and play in all the possibilities print offered. I would pick up one, maybe two new expressions. Mostly I would wander in studious bewilderment. My first stop was, just past Google, the pavilion of the Bureau International de l’Édition Française (BIEF), to pay homage as a translator of French to this distant outpost of the Republic of Letters. I returned there several times over the course of three visits to the fair, which I never did entirely cover.

Anyone deriving from my orbits some erroneously Franco-centric notion of the floor plan might be briskly disabused thereof with a glance at the map by whose lights, were booth size any indicator of real-world real estate, France, while still outsizing Google’s domain (but only just), would cover less than half the feudal holdings of Japan’s manga emperor Tohan, its shelves heavy with revues thick as phone books. With some geographic justice, none of these in square footage could rival Russia. As this year’s guest of honor, it boasted both the smallest books—a collection of exquisite miniatures, including Chekhov’s Guinness-recordholding “Chameleon”—and the largest pavilion: yards of carpeted steppe, dotted with scarlet cushions, right under where the roof drew like a giant breath up past stacked balconies toward a skylight vault. Of course booth size and location signified no more secret hierarchy than the pecuniary, and certainly not the geopolitical; no surprise to this jaded shopper, who regularly mistakes, while strolling chain bookstores, the piles of sales displays for bar graphs of publisher funding. Still, I would’ve liked, from idle curiosity, to see last year’s floor plan overlay this year’s in some informative animation of who’d shrunk or grown, gone or stayed. » Read the rest of this entry «

So, the baby squid…

April 18th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

…were probably not worth the trouble, but if we only ever did the things that were, would we learn anything? Cleaning them was a slimy affair reminiscent of early biology dissections, so little did I recognize the parts I pulled—taking hold of the head firmly just beside the eyes—from the mantle, yet so clearly were they parts: gills, intestines, even glands and the hearts of whose multiple existence, indifferentiable to my eyes from the innard mass, I had later to be informed by anatomical schematics—though once I swore to have identified ovaries and their smeary roe, if those are the words. The feathered gills I knew from other fish and seafood. I ruptured only two ink sacs (of twelve), and sacrificed several fins to separating skin from mantle. The cartilaginous spine came out easily each time, though I never got a clear look at the beak, nestled among the edible tentacles, to compare it to a bird’s. It too was easily removed, a hard but never really sharp little nodule, in my fingers. I’ve no aversion to fish eyes but for some reason tried not to meet, consider, or even register beneath my fingers these orbs which, I’ve read, contain a hard lens functioning much like the that of a camera or telescope when focusing: “Rather than changing shape, like a human eye, it moves mechanically.” Tentacles, mantles—the tiny clumps and fibrous tops I might’ve sliced into the more familiar rings of calamari—all these I tossed in olive oil with garlic and sautéed. I hacked a pineapple into cubes while waiting. Back home, I would’ve found a pineapple too troublesome. The secret to a pineapple is a sharp knife.

Goodbye, Taipei

June 11th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s raining tonight. I go as though following the sound where it’s loudest to the other room, to watch where, squatting on the single bed, I can push the screen aside and feel, if not drops, the threat of water flicking on an end of wind through the open window instead of catching on fine wire. The streetlights show me rain at the vanguard of a gust driving up the avenue and the puddles at the intersection when I lean out, still beneath the awning clattering as though to boast of how it shelters: and suddenly, the sight of two awnings on the building opposite makes me think to hear the water clattering on them too and, like picking one instrument’s part from a song, the awnings of all Taipei, a city of awnings, of bits of cymbal hatting windows, of canted, corrugated panels rattling in supplication and complaint to some ancient and presiding god of rain. I think of Maokong then, and who might be there at 2 a.m., of rain falling on the leaves and railings, decks and stone benches; the lighted pavilions nestled in the trees, where on tables carefully laid, water is fast disappearing from the sides of clay teapots; the road like a necklace of streetlights lost in the valley’s folds.

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