Thursday, 30 October 2008

Taipei Franklin Graham Festival

At about this time of year Jenny and I as well as our other arts and crafts market friends are making preparations for a government sponsored circus festival, which has been running these past couple of years, held at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. We were all quite puzzled at the decision not to hold the event this year, as it has proven to be very successful in the past. I was walking through the CKS Hall area today, and found that a huge festival is indeed taking place, starting tonight. However it is no circus festival, it is the Taipei Franklin Graham Festival. I had no idea who this Franklin Graham is or why there should be a festival in his name, but it turns out that Franklin Graham is the son of evangelist Billy Graham, and he is on a crusade around the world continuing his fathers work. Franklin Graham has called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion." And on september 14 2001 on CNN he stated "And I think we're going to have to use every -- and I hate to say it, hellish weapon in our inventory, if need be, to defeat these [terrorists]. But let's use the weapons we have, the weapons of mass destruction if need be and destroy the enemy."
This guy seems to me to be some kind of intolerant religious fundementalist nutjob, but I could be wrong. It seems strange that the Taipei government would give such exposure to this kind of crackpot, but perhaps it's on the grounds of religious freedom of expression. I might wander down there tonight to see what it's all about. I wonder if he will be asking people for money.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Xu Xu's big day in Zhuhai

The grand day began in Macau, that outpost of Portugal which still retains so much fine european architecture, the plaster and paintwork constantly under attack from the humid air and rising damp, where a good coffee and a decent slice of bread can be found in the same establishment, that gambling haven now drawing in more bucks and bigger developments than Las Vegas, like The Venetian with it's indoor canals complete with puffy clouded blue skies painted on and european featured employees singing and punting camera toting tourists up and around the bend, while less game punters look on with amazement, content to browse the super luxury brand stores catering to the mega rich or casino lucky or desparate... yes it began here on a local crowded bus, which was unneccesary really, I could have gone to any big casino and boarded a free shuttle bus to the frontier (or to another casino, the ferry or helipad to Hong Kong) but ol' Xu Xu wanted local an' he got it. The frontier pays lip service to the days gone by, there is the old border gate on the Macau side, which is now just a monument, this border (pictured from the Chinese side) is an airport-esque development which during opening hours has a constant stream of mostly mainland chinese coming and going, you might want to allow an hour to get through..... the city on the other side is Zhuhai, gateway to China, and also a "special economic zone". All this meant to me was that I could get a special three day visa to enter Zuhai at the border, without the hassle of getting a normal Chinese visa. Just needed to find the office in the immigration building, fill a form, hand over either HK$150 or RMB$160 (Macau Pataca not accepted) and wait five minutes. Sorry Americans and British, you're looking at about HK$1000 for the same visa. While waiting in line to have passports examined we are entertained by a video featuring Jackie Chan and an Australian family with the message that buying counterfeit goods is a really bad idea and could get you into whole lot of trouble.
Once through (actually before) the plate of hot chillies I ate the night before while half cut caught up with me, so I made for the conveniences. I had heard from many sources about the state of toilets in China so thought I had better use the government's best in the immigration building. It wasn't a good sign of things to come. There was one western sit down type (although I do also like the asian squat), but the seat had been stolen and the last time I had seen such filth was in a small Moroccan town. At least there was a door. No paper though so I decided to wait. Right on the Chinese side is a two storied underground shopping mall. This place is big. As soon as you go down the escatator you will find a miriad of stores selling cigarettes, liquor, food, clothing, bags and watches, the last three at least for the most part being FAKES. If you are in the market for some counterfeit Rolexes, Omegas, iPhones, Louis Vuitton, Prada, you name it, then this is a good place to start. You need to have honed your haggling skills, and quality varies from poor to pretty good, but it's a fun place to spend a couple of hours, the shopkeepers will be constantly calling out to you, some will speak english, many won't.
Perhaps now I will write a few words concerning public behaviour. Living in Taiwan I have become accustomed to a certain amount of spitting, pushing, and general rudeness. Perhaps my standards are too high, but there is no nice way to say this. Many Chinese men are purely disgusting in the way they behave in public. Spitting, swearing, discarding rubbish, pushing, I don't want to generalise, but even if it's only 30% of the population it's more than enough people who show less respect for others than your average street dog or cockroach. There can be an amusing side to this, when in Macau I happened to be walking past a bus stop when a large group of Chinese workers had finished work for the day on a maaasive casino development, and were getting on the bus. The scrum was amazing, I've never before seen people climbing over each other to get on a bus! One bloke would get on, then grab the arm of his mate still three people back, and try to pull him over the top of the others! It actually meant that the bus filled up very slowly, as it was difficult for any one person to get his whole body through the door!
Leaving the underground mall I went for a walk around the local streets. Perhaps I picked the wrong street, as less than an hour later after buying a cache of toilet paper and finding another grotty toilet in a department store I discovered a zip open in the back of my bag and my camera gone. A few days later that pisses me off more than it did at the time, the loss of the pictures more than the stolen camera.
I struck an arc up a narrow alley which took me past a local brothel, the girls lined up outside for my perusal. Macau has it's share of these too, when I'm with Jenny I don't attract any attention but when alone it's a different story. In Macau however the girls merely called out to me, here in Zhuhai I was grabbed by the wrist and prevented from walking any further! It was quite amusing and after a few seconds the girl let me go. Prostitution is open, obvious, and big business both in Zhuhai and Macau. Even in the Venetian casino in Macau, the biggest in the world, I was approached by a girl asking if I wanted a massage.
That afternoon I stopped for a beer in the pedestrian street which is lined with kiosks which double as bars and cafes. The friendly serving girl was from Hunan province and she told me about her time in Zhuhai, about the sort of people who go there, the prostitution scene, the counterfeit goods (a couple of years ago there was a spate of fake beer). She didn't have a passport and had never been to Macau or Beijing or anywhere outside China. She had also had her purse stolen on the same street where my camera was taken, and said it was a notorious strip for pickpockets.
While having my beer I saw a local cop encouraging a homeless man to leave the pedestrian street by kicking him in the arse when wouldn't walk fast enough, a local prostitute finish her carton of drink and just throw it down on the street, not drop it, but but give it a good chuck in a busy street as soon as the straw came out of her mouth.
At around eight in the evening I made my way back over to the Macau side of the border, wondering if they would have any interest in whether or not anybody had stocked up on counterfeit goods. They were not interested, although I never saw any such products for sale in Macau.
Despite having my camera nicked, I actually had a fun day in Zhuhai, and would go back given the opportunity......

Friday, 24 October 2008

Back from Macau

I've just come back from a week in Macau (and a day across the border in China). I had a great time there, given the choice of visiting Hong Kong or Macau I would take Macau every time. While many of the Portugese residents left around the time of the handover to China, parts of the town still have a very european feel about them, and the old Chinese streets still have a very "old China" feel. And then there are the massive Casinos, drawing tens of thousands of mainland Chinese every day into Macau to gamble. I don't intend to write about the history of Macau, there is a junk load of information in the net. I was going to put up a couple in interesting photographs, but when I was across the Chinese border in Zhuhai, I had been there less than an hour and a pickpocket stole my camera. I can buy a new camera (in fact I surprised myself at my lack of emotional response to the discovery of the loss) but I lost a shit load of un backed up photos. That is still annoying me, as every day I remember different photos I had stored on an almost full 2GB memory card. Anyway, I'll write more about the trip in the next couple of days.

Monday, 13 October 2008

More on Romanisation of Chinese Characters

Romanisation of Chinese characters in Taiwan is a bit complicated. The "world standard" if there is one is hanyu pinyin, which the government here (KMT) has just declared the official system. The previous govt. (DPP) under Chen Shui Bian was fiercely nationalist and anti mainland China (considered them the communist enemy) and didn't wan't to use the system used by mainland China so stupidly decided to make up their own system called tongyong pinyin. The system itself has both advantages and disadvantages over hanyu pinyin, but as hanyu has become standard in non Chinese speaking countries it put Taiwan at a disadvantage as documents produced in Taiwan using tongyong could only be understood with some difficulty and confusion. There are still alot of companies and schools using older systems as well, such as wade-giles , yale, chinese postal map, MPS II , and others. Complicating things in Taiwan is the fact that city and county governments might be either KMT or DPP, so despite the national government declaring Hanyu the official system, it's up to local government to erect public signage, and individual companies can employ any system they choose, probably depending on what they have historically used or their political leanings. Also, updating romanised signage is not a high priority here, there are not large numbers of foreigners in Taiwan. Students wishing to study the Chinese language in Taiwan for the most part need to learn a phonetic system called bopomofo which takes about a week to learn (that is to say you will be given a week to learn it) and is far superior to any of the romanisation systems. It also can be placed right next to the chinese character so pronunciation of an unknown character can be immediately known without refering to a different text or dictionary. It is also a convenient input method for computers and text messages.
Wikipedia has an excellent article on Romaniation of Chinese in Taiwan HERE.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Getting the most out of your scooter

Taken today in 中壢 city, which depending which sign you happen to be reading is romanised as Jongli, Jhongli, Zhongli or Chungli.......

romanisation of the Chinese language has always been a bit of a problem - sometimes if you are lucky you can see the same street name spelt differently on the same intersection!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

There is madness in the town square

Sign advertising a pool hall near my house, Shilin, Taipei

The U.S. government last week decided to sell Taiwan $US6.5 billion in military hardware,
including advanced interceptor missiles, Apache attack helicopters and submarine-launched missiles. China is furious and had threatened to cut military cooperation with the U.S. China regards the Taiwan issue as a domestic affair, and considers arms sales to the "renegade province" as a deep insult to all Chinese people. Taiwan has been pushing the U.S. for a huge arms purchase for some years, and for the U.S. this is great timing to push through the deal. The Bush regime is on the way out, and any new government can easily distance itself from the decision without reversing it. Also, it will give Taiwanese 18 to 20 year old boys some new toys to play with, as Taiwan still has a policy of compulsary military conscription. It also goes a small way to counter the more than 1000 ballistic missiles that China has pointing at Taiwan. Perhaps it will also help to support the crippled U.S. economy for an hour or so. It's interesting to note that the U.S. dollar has remained strong during the past few days of market carnage, while other world currencies have taken a hammering, despite the fact that the federal reserve has had the printing presses working overtime producing dollars out of thin air. This is in China's interests as most of China's foreign reserves are in U.S. dollars, $ 1,808,828,000,000 as at June 2008. This gives China the power to destroy the U.S. economy by flooding the foreign exchange market with U.S. dollars, but they don't want to do this as it would most likely destroy their own economy as well. They had an opportunity to shore up the U.S. markets when they began crashing a couple of weeks ago, but now that there is panic and madness in the town square it is too late for that now, it's "every man for himself", to quote the prime minister of Iceland, whose country is at risk of bankruptcy. Icelands currency has become all but worthless, and it's three largest banks have been nationalised to save them from bankruptcy. Hundreds of thousands of English investors as well as English town councils have billions of pounds invested in Icelandic banks, due to agressive promotion there of high interest accounts. They are now unable to withdraw their money, causing quite some diplomatic tension between Iceland and Britain. Perhaps the Chinese will wait until all is lost in the U.S. and Europe then come in with their stash o' greenbacks and buy up what's left. Up to now they have been buying large shares in western companies at top prices, now they can scoop up some real bargains, but only as long as the U.S. dollar remains strong.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Why I had to Move House / Renting in Taiwan / English Teachers

Renting a place short term can be a hassle in Taiwan. That is if you want live alone or share with some locals. Finding a room in a shared apartment with a bunch of foreigners who are most likely north american english teachers is easy, just look at the advertisements on the ex-pat websites. Personally I don't like living with other foreigners here, aside from the fact that you will always be speaking english with them when you should be speaking chinese, english teachers living in Taiwan can be a weird bunch, and for the most part are only here for a couple of years at most, not so interested in local culture and customs, very interested in what's going on "back home", complaining about Taiwan, making money, partying, talking about themselves etc. Often their only qualification as an english teacher is that they are a native speaker. In their home country they wouldn't teach english, they only do it here because it's a kind of "default" job. These are different to the long termers who have decided to make Taiwan home, who tend to be far more interesting, can speak Chinese, and have made a profession out of English teaching, but if you're looking to rent a place you are more likely to encounter the former group. Renting your own place poses a couple of problems. Most landlords will only want to sign a 12 month lease, which isn't much good if you don't plan to stay that long. Real Estate companies can help you locate an apartment, but usually charge half or a full months rent as their fee. There are also two types of landlord. Real landlord (房東) and second landlord (二房東). You need to ask the person you are dealing with which one they are, if you don't know. In Taiwan it is very common for a person to rent a house or apartment, then sublet the house or apartment or individual rooms in order to make a profit or live rent free themselves. My classmates in Taipei were surprised to hear that this was relatively rare in New Zealand as most landlords want to know what kind of people they have living in their property, they were also surprised to hear that alot of landlords and rental agencies want to see references from previous landlords or agencies.
Renting from second landlords can be convenient and problematic. Convenient in that it will be easier to negotiate a short term deal. Problematic in that tenancy laws become blurry, also in that you will probably never meet the real landlord or even know his or her name, so if the house has a serious problem that you feel needs fixing and the second landlord is unwilling to bother the real landlord over it, there is little you can do.
The reason I had to move house was the lease (which here is a standard red booklet which both parties have copies of and which details the terms of the lease) that I had signed with the second landlord for three months was broken by her when she decided to emigrate to the United States of America a month earlier than planned. While it was she that broke the lease, I wasn't sure what recompence I was due, so had a couple of people look over the lease, which is all in Chinese. Apparently every clause was there to protect the landlords rights, and nothing was stated regarding the tenants rights. There are laws protecting tenants however, so to cut it short she refunded me a months rent. I was still without a place to stay. It was looking like I'd be back on Chicago Stu's sofa, when one of the waiters at my local drinking hole, Orange Cafe, said I could stay at his place, as he was spending all his time at his girlfriends house. Great. So I'm now staying there. It's not the sort of place I would rent by choice. It's what's known as a "suite". I've looked at such places before and rejected them immediatley. Basically the front door opens onto a corridor with a number of doors. In this place there are seven rooms (at least here they all have windows). They are all sublet seperately, and as is usual in Taiwan, the tenants don't know each other nor do they have any interest in knowing who the other tenants are. There is no common area. People just come home and go into their little room. There is the most basic kitchen facility, and a shared bathroom. This kind of living arrangement is common in Taiwan. To me it is a miserable existence but it will suffice for the three weeks or so I have left in my semester.