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Month: April 2016

Longshan Temple and the Night Market (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

Longshan Temple and the Night Market (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

This is a post from Taipei that didn’t get up in time because my battery was dying on my phone and then I forgot to go back and upload it when I had a charge.

We took a free walking tour with Tour Me Away – Taipei to see one of the nightmarkets. This was our 2nd or 3rd night in town.

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This is a lion statue near the Longshan Temple MRT stop, about a block from the temple. I love these things, I never get tired of seeing their slight variations around town.

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This is the entrance to Longshan Temple. The central doors of big temples like this are often closed off and only opened for visiting dignitaries or major holidays. Like most of the temples we found, you enter on the right side (out of frame) and leave from the left side. Each side is guarded by an animal, I believe it is the dragon on the right and the tiger on the left. Going in this order is Feng Shui and gives you good luck because the dragon is a positive luck symbol and leaving out of the tiger is like avoiding its jaws and danger. So going in reverse is just the opposite and bad luck– tiger gon’ eat ya!

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This is an image of some of the detail on the temple.

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Detail of a lantern. My Nexus 5 camera obviously doesn’t do great in varied lighting conditions but I still think this lit lantern is interesting.

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Detail of a dragon statue.

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This is the inner temple. I don’t know what the proper term is but that’s what I am calling it. Inside this structure are the various Chinese gods that the temple goers worship at for luck, happiness, marital bliss, a good crop, what have you.

On the right, out of frame, is a “hospital” area where a person can go buy what is essentially like a lottery ticket. The funds go to the temple to provide alms to the poor and keep up the structure. It’s almost like an indulgence. You get this little lottery ticket and it has a lucky number or some kind of fortune cookie saying on it that is supposed to calm your anxiety and help you on in your troubles.

It’s really smoky inside the entire temple despite so many outdoor areas because people are just constantly burning incense and waving it around.

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This incense urn in the inner temple sports a couple of Dutch colonists who have been condemned to bear the heavy burden of the urn cap. We were told by the young tour guides that this was a kind of damnation for their cruelty during the colonial occupation of Taipei. I guess the locals and the colonists didn’t get along.

In the back of the outer courtyard surrounding the inner temple, more Chinese god statues were being prayed to for various purposes. One common one is a God that grants students success in their tests for school. Another is a God that grants good luck in finding a partner. Pursuants grab a pair of red banana-shaped tokens and cast them on the ground near the idol. The way the tokens land indicate different results in terms of the hoped for outcome. It’s common for pursuants to throw the tokens repeatedly until they get three signals in a row for the outcome they’re after.

Back in the main temple, more luck and gods favor games. This time one with numbered sticks and corresponding numbered drawers with the fortune paper on it. While explaining and demonstrating these processes, one of our guides unnerved a worshipper mightily because she had removed some of the sticks from the jar without using them, thus throwing off the cosmic chances of achieving a particular lucky combination.

All I could think was, isn’t that part of your luck, to not get a fair draw? The irony of using ones rational intelligence and purposeful efforts to influence desired outcomes was completely lost on this person.

The grounds around the temple are now and traditionally have been a kind of safe place for vagrants and the down on their luck. This is because the temple historically has served as a conduit between the charity of the wealthy who provide it and the indigent who are in need of it. It creates a somewhat seedy atmosphere around the temple which is only reinforced by the night market.

Now, night markets are perfectly innocent. They’re mostly markets that are open late with hawker food stands and the odd vendor of trinkets and trash. But there is a reason these vendors are open so much later than everyone else and the atmosphere is strangely marginal. Some people (like the Wolf) find them interesting but I don’t too much, and most of the food just doesn’t appeal to me.

So we walked around, saw the restaurant where people eat snakes and take the 5 shot challenge (snake blood, snake urine,…) Walked down the alley where the brothels pose as some kind of men’s parlor and are tolerated by the community, toured the hawker stands and then went home for the evening. We were bushed and its a lot of excitement to take in late at night.

The grand finale (#travel)

The grand finale (#travel)

We returned to the US and the first text I received when I turned my phone on was a friend notifying me that Andrew Jackson is being replaced by Harriett Tubman on the $20 bill.

If this country’s main priority for improving things is to debate which racially charged historical figure should be on the toilet paper money, then this country has problems.

More images from Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

More images from Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

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Creative outrage at Chinese Communist party social priorities.

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Graffiti temple dragon murals

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Pagoda and pond in a park, or as the signage refers to them as, a “sitting-out area”

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Burning incense bells in a street side temple

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Another small temple

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A view down a street in the hills

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More towering buildings and density

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“Dog parking” in Stanley

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“Dog latrine”

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Chungking Mansions, “the most globalized place on Earth” reportedly home to people representing over 130 nationalities and a notoriously seedy public housing project turned marginal trading post

Passing through Taipei (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

Passing through Taipei (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

We’re on the second leg of our trip home, connecting from Singapore in Taipei. I remembered that I forgot to share about our visit to the Taipei Municipal Water Museum when we were here last week.

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This building and pump system was constructed by the Japanese administrators after Taiwan was transfered to Japan by the Qing Dynasty. It was constructed around the 1920s, maybe earlier, I don’t remember. We have to assume the city didn’t have anything like this prior to the Japanese building it as I saw no mention of it replacing any previous water sanitation system.

The system is fed by gravity from a canal that diverts water from a nearby river. The dirty water is pumped up an incline to create pressure where it is gravity fed into a filtration system below. The water passes through various sand compartments and is filtered of particulate. The clean water then enters the second half of the installation and is pumped back uphill to create pressure and is then gravity fed into the distribution network of mains around the city.

The project is fascinating for its technological complexity. It required knowledge of hydraulic engineering, metallurgy, electricity, biology, physics, masonry, and mechanical engineering to construct. It undoubtedly took the labor of hundreds of people to construct and operate. While the pumping station has been replaced by modern equivalents, the filtration system is still in use and has been expanded and the general principle of operation remains the same.

The Japanese left many legacies like this behind them. Setting aside the brutality of their occupation, they left many cultural, edible, and practical social improvements behind them that the Taiwanese admire to this day.

Why did the Japanese feel they must expand their influence through militarism and conquest? Why couldn’t a Japanese engineering firm have been hired to construct this project on the basis of market principles and freely entered contracts?

How much different could history be, and how much further ahead socially would southeast Asia be, if the Japanese had been captured by a more peaceful ideology?

Singapore cabbie anecdote (#travel, #Singapore)

Singapore cabbie anecdote (#travel, #Singapore)

I had a conversation with our cabbie on the way to the airport in Singapore that was worth memorializing. It’s one man’s perspective so the anecdote must be put in that context, but it’s still interesting.

Our cabbie told us that rents for nice 1 and 2BR apartments on the outskirts of town run S$3500+, and the same apartments in the CBD are closer to S$5000+. He said many foreign manual laborers were earning S$1-1500/mo ten years ago and make about the same now.

Foreign expats who come to take corporate jobs are often on contract and sign up to make S$10-12,000/mo by his estimate. While they could choose to live outside the city and save money, many live in the CBD and obviously rent consumes a substantial portion of their income each month. As a result many feel that Singapore doesn’t offer the opportunity they imagined and look to leave when their contract ends.

He said that if he didn’t have a wife and kids, he’d be looking to move to Australia, New Zealand or another economy like that as he thinks the job and living standard opportunities are better. But he thinks it’s too hard to do it if you’re not single and flexible. I thought this was interesting because to me it says a lot about a place if people want to immigrate in or emigrate out.

I asked about the press. He said the press was completely controlled by the government and they painted an often comical picture of reality compared to alternative views people can now freely access on social media. He said they don’t seem to understand how that has put the truth to their lies but nonetheless it is not a free press.

He said that the different races mostly get along, and there are no ethnic political parties, they’re all mixed, but he said it wasn’t so simple as everyone getting along with everyone else and there is definitely some stigma toward the darker skinned manual laborers from India and similar areas.

He said life is not bad in Singapore, but it just isn’t quite like the official story and a lot of people are beginning to struggle to get by and can’t manage to save, and the government doesn’t seem to have a good plan for managing this.

Why do we travel? 4 (#travel, #philosophy)

Why do we travel? 4 (#travel, #philosophy)

This may be the last in the series as our trip is coming to an end and my interest in blogging about it may be as well, I fear.

Today we got a late start. We work up around 7 but didn’t really get our act together and find food until around 830. We ended up picking up some bagel sandwiches and cappucinos (called a white here, as opposed to a black or straight coffee) from Two Men Bagel House. The bagels were outstanding, crispy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside as promised in the reviews and the sandwiches themselves were creative and filling. Our quality coffee escapades continued, I found my cappucino extremely satisfying as did the Wolf.

We ended up watching the rest of “Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Netflix with breakfast and by the time we finished it was almost 1030. The day was fast getting away from us and we hadn’t decided what to do yet and were seriously considering just staying back and relaxing. But somehow this felt like a copout. We came all this way and we still knew so little about the city. The Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest seemed interesting but we just didn’t feel much excitement about potential sun and heat exposure… It’s really, really warm here.

We were working on narrowing down a short list of air conditioned history and art museums when my friend from LA started texting me. It led to an interesting exchange which I thought I’d partially relay here as its relevant to the subject of why we travel.

The first thing he asked is if I think this is Asia’s century. I’m borrowing some logic from a book I read on the way over, “Asian Godfathers” by Joe Studwell, but my answer is not really. Taipei is an industrious, commercial environment but I didn’t see much in the way of economic trends noticeable back home and I didn’t see any brands or businesses I could imagine dominating the US or Europe. It seems their role in the value chain is to add manufacturing technology exports to branded finished products and serve their domestic markets with largely unconsolidated product and service businesses, at least for now.

When it comes to Western brands in HK and Singapore, financial services dominate but there are also some inroads being made most conspicuously by McDonald’s, Starbucks and purveyors such as Marks and Spencer. Global fashion brands have done an outstanding job of penetrating all of these markets. There is a 3story Apple store in HK in the IFC Mall but I don’t know where one is in Singapore or Taipei, probably somewhere though as I saw authorized resellers.

Again in HK and Singapore, I don’t see anything that looks like it could become an emergent global brand. So this is Studwell’s point– these economies are dominated by raw materials monopolies granted to local cronies and their near captive financial institutions, and none of these businesses face competition from global firms which also means the local entrepreneurs aren’t being challenged to produce brands that are exportable.

No exportable brands mean no “Asian century”. The demographics may be on their side but the political systems are trapped in the mercantilist past. That’s weird to say as a person who is skeptical of the idea that the West in general and the US in particular have not seen their power and prestige eclipsed.

But for now I’ll say, based off the limited experiences of this trip the Asian century is not upon us. But I don’t know what is. It also doesn’t mean I’m calling for stagnation or economic collapse in this part of the world (China the possible exception, that place is weird.)

I also was raving about some of the food we had had so far, here and the previous locales and my friend asked if I’d consider it best in the world or how I’d rank it. I think that question kind of misses the point. We decided to skip an opportunity to eat at one of the “Top 50” restaurants in the world here in Singapore despite securing a reservation months before our trip. That kind of restaurant caters to food innovation and the experience of dining. I’ve been to places like that– they’re amazing, you often feel entranced and delightfully confused about how food can be what it is on your plate or in your bowl or what have you. But that isn’t about eating so much as it is about imagining, in my mind. There’s a time and a place for it but I wouldn’t judge a place and its food culture by trying to rank it against experiences like that.

What I am after in eating is intensity of flavors and simple food made from timeless, cultural recipes that speaks to the incrementally developed genius of a people and their place and how they turn their culture into what they eat. I’m talking about the stuff people eat day in, day out, that I’d be happy eating with similar frequency. Some people call this “local”, whatever you call it, it’s not cuisine and it can’t be ranked.

Some of the meals we’ve had in this sense have been superb. The purveyors aren’t trying to impress or win accolades. But they sometimes do both in the course of making their traditional dishes.

Another thing we discussed was the purposelessness of this trip. We didn’t come for work. We didn’t come to see friends or family. We really don’t know much about the history or culture of these places. It is a bit of an existential crisis initially to arrive somewhere without anything to accomplish besides “seeing” it, and then, not knowing much about what you’re seeing or what you might keep an eye out for.

Having visited these three cities now and noticed their similarities and differences, both compared to one another and to places and ways of life back home, I feel confident in saying we could live here if we wanted to and we’d be quite comfortable. I’m sure of that. But at this point I’m still not certain why we’d want to move.

There are some things that are far ahead of where were from that are wonderful– the cleanliness and efficiency of mass transit, the cheapness and ubiquity of mobile communications technology, the attitude of cooperation and community. And there are some things that are unique, like some of the food spots that it will just be hard to find something of similar quality back home even in a diverse place.

But other than that, I haven’t seen anything that really appeals to me in some deep way, that I can’t get where I come from. These places aren’t freer. It isn’t any easier to start a business. Or even to grow wealthy– no El Dorado here, as far as I could see. Why pack up and go across the globe for what would essentially be an economic and financial reset?

P and I have remarked several times how fun it would be to raise children in a foreign place and let them learn new cultures and languages from their friends. But it would also be great to raise them in a uniform culture were familiar with, hopefully amongst a community of like-minded progressive parents like us (not big P progressive, mind you!!) Those are tradeoffs to pick one over the other and I’m not sure why we’d come all this way for that particular trade-off.

Living and working in Hong Kong and Singapore in particular seem like a young man’s game. If we turned back he clock ten or fifteen years and I was just about to make a go of it, and I knew of these places, I’d probably head this way and try to make my fortunes on my own, especially if there was greater opportunity for a Westerner looking to take that risk. Without a spouse, without family obligations and without a routine and a financial basis for myself back home I’d quickly set out for a place like this and see if I could try. The only reason I didn’t when that was the case was that these places simply weren’t on my radar.

But now, it makes less sense. Without some compelling economic reason, why come here versus continue on roughly where we are? That choice seems rather arbitrary.

One of the reasons we travel, and here in particular, is to see if we feel like we could make a go of it some place else. And I guess I’m a little disappointed to realize these last few times that we could, that we’d be happy, but I can’t find a compelling reason to jump.

A few views of Singapore (#travel, #Singapore)

A few views of Singapore (#travel, #Singapore)

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This is looking Southish and our building, while tall, is hidden somewhere in the background.

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I think this is at the corner of Anson and Enggor.

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This is an empty undeveloped field (I don’t think it’s a park) near the apartment with what looked like three stray dogs laying about. We were told by a tour guide there are no stray dogs in Singapore. Bullshit. I have also heard there are no homeless people, but despite the welfare state entitlements there are clearly still people who want for care and comforts. Last night when we were walking around to our dinner place a man in his late 60s who was physically handicapped came awkwardly lurching down the street. He had a clutch of chip snack bags hooked to his pants and was hobbling about looking for people to buy them for change. It was very hard to watch. I don’t feel responsible for people like that but I imagine life is extra challenging to live with that kind of pain and disfigurement. I’m impressed he was making a go of it, I’d imagine I’d feel quite sorry for myself in those circumstances.

Singapore may have a lot of things figured out but it isn’t a perfect paradise, despite what you hear from its proud propagandists.

The Singapore creation myth (#mythology, #Singapore, #travel)

The Singapore creation myth (#mythology, #Singapore, #travel)

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This caption stand from the National Museum of Singapore summarizes neatly a variety of causal myths explaining Singapore’s growth and modernization. Is Singapore one of the world’s first (or at least few) planned economy success stories?

It’s really tempting to think so. But then you start reading a little deeper. For example, take the government’s HDB, Housing Development Board. They acknowledge in the museum propaganda that they first built cheap flats for the citizens, then decades later began building them with more amenities and other considerations. Why? If they have such a beautiful modern vision, couldn’t they have seen peoples demand for convenience and modern appliances?

The answer is simple– they were constrained by scarcity, like all economic actors, and had to make tradeoffs based on their political evaluation of what would be pragmatic.

Now if that is a necessary reality even the Singapore government faced, why did they need to be building the housing? Why couldn’t this be left to the market like any other product or service? Why wouldn’t the profit motive work here to provide more and better housing?

Notice also how population growth is concerned a problem from the standpoint of managing employment rates. Why? More people means more labor supply. It means more projects can be carried out, allowing for a greater division of labor and therefore more real wealth. It’s only a problem from the standpoint of a central planner trying to “balance” various political-economic goals that are competing for scarce resources.

This is the creation myth of modern Singapore– that somehow the government was responsible for Singapore’s economic success as a singular cause.

A couple awesome meals from Singapore (#travel, #Singapore, #food)

A couple awesome meals from Singapore (#travel, #Singapore, #food)

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We’ve had a lot of great food here in Singapore on our short stay. But two in particular have stood out.

The above is from Shahi Maharani, “North Indian Cuisine” which was in the 3rd floor of the Raffles City mall. It was BOGO and we were terrified we made a mistake when we saw it was a buffett until we started walking through and looking at the food. I’ve had a decent number of Indian food styles and restaurants so far including food in California and NYC, this was probably one of the better I’ve had. I would’ve stuffed myself but I knew we were going to be walking for hours at the National Museum afterward. It was tempting, though.

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This eclectic mix of Malay/Indonesian food was from a halal shop also near City Hall off the Bugis stop. The place was called Hjh Maimunah. I couldn’t repeat the names of all the dishes but there is a potato fritter on the far right, beef rendang next to it, the yellow dish is a curry coconut milk chicken on the bone and the far left is a chili chicken on the bone (which was out favorite and not as spicy as it looks) and then the top is spinach.

We also got a cup of lime juice which tasted like a lime popsicle. While normally that flavor would be sickly sweet and gross me out, this totally worked and was so refreshing in the heat.

Here’s the neighborhood:

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The Singapore success story (#travel, #mythology, #development, #Singapore)

The Singapore success story (#travel, #mythology, #development, #Singapore)

At the National Museum of Singapore, we learned about the islands history from the time of the Melaka Empire to European colonialism, Japanese occupation and finally independence. The story goes that because Singapore was an island country with no natural resources to speak of, it needed visionary guidance from the “Founding Fathers” (this is actually what they’re referred to as here) of the People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew and his English and American educated Peranakan technocrats to develop it’s economy and provide all the people with a first world standard of living.

I find this myth fascinating, mostly because everyone believes it, but also because of two related observations:

In mainland China right around the time Singapore was struggling for independence and then climbing to first world status, the idea of economic guidance by benevolent central planners was being tried and failing miserably. There, the excuse was that China had been exploited by a series of colonial and external players not to mention left purposefully backwards by the Qing rulers so a strong central government was needed to push a modernization effort.

Why did this fail in China but succeed wonderfully in Singapore?

Here’s my other observation. The town where I come from is not economically self-sufficient and is also on the ocean. We too do not have an abundance of natural resources and must trade with others to survive.

But no one used that as an excuse for establishing sovereignty or central planning by a one-party state.

So what makes us different if a lack of abundant natural resources is not the issue?