Category Archives: Stories

A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake

A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake is a story that didn’t make it into Formosa Moon, and probably for good reason. Stephanie and I traveled to this fabled tourist destination for the book, and actually had a wonderful time.  Alas, when we started posting little snippets of our lovely experience over the digital herpes machine that social media has become, we were predictably treated to the golden shower of comments from a few of our fellow expatriates concerning their own negative feelings about the place. Overdeveloped, not “the real Taiwan,” too many tourists, yadda yadda…

I suppose this was for the best, as it triggered my aforementioned contrarian nature in two ways:

First, I decided that I was going to absolutely love the place. This proved to be anything but a challenge, as Sun Moon Lake turned out to be the epitome of loveliness, and we got several great chapters from Sun Moon Lake for the book.

And second, being a comedy writer, I decided to use the juxtaposition of being in an absolutely lovely setting and seeing comments disparaging the place on my fairly innocuous social media posts about the area to write some comedy.

Without further ado, “A Nihilists Guide to Sun Moon Lake”

(Though it isn’t in Formosa Moon, I may include it in the audio-book version, but only if I can get Werner Herzog to read it. In my mind, the piece is best read in his voice.)

Nihilist Sun Moon Lake

A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake

Driving through the mountains and valleys of Nantou County, we pass through towns and villages scarred by natural catastrophe, stopping to visit a plaza containing two ornate houses of worship. The first had been destroyed in an earthquake, and the second was built afterwards to house idols rescued from the first. Both are without meaning.

In a nearby market, villagers sell local fruits, teas and tonics for health, unaware of the futility of their industry for buyer and seller alike. After brief repast, we drive to the lake itself.

Thought by some to be among the most beautiful spots in Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake was formed by a cataclysmic strike coming without warning from the endless and indifferent void of space. The blow likely as not destroyed most of the island’s life at the moment of impact, itself a mercy.

Over millennia, the crater filled with water and slowly trees and plants grew around the damp hole. At some point, humans arrived and thought the place pretty. Then as now, this was merely a mental self-preservation construct designed as distraction from existence’s ultimate futility for whatever time it takes to ensure copulation, thus ensuring biological continuation of the ghastly charade. These days, there are many hotels diminishing the lake’s beauty while simultaneously providing a place for human sexual encounters. Contemporary social mores require such encounters be conducted indoors. Why is this?

We stop to visit the Wenwu temple overlooking the lake, inside of which ornate statues represent various folk deities. Local people pray to these idols, but their prayers go unheard. God is dead. On the third level is a temple constructed to honor the sage Confucius, who died alone as do all men. In the attached gift shop, foodstuffs can be purchased.

On opposite sides of the lake lie two collections of buildings, clustered in futility, seeking solace in number. We head to the smaller of these for shelter from the rapidly approaching night, pausing to watch from the pier extending timidly over the water the setting of the sun. The same star that gives our planet life will inevitably destroy it. This is inescapable fact.

Now it is time for evening sustenance.

There are many restaurants, but we choose instead to eat smaller items of foodstuffs from vendors who have set up small stalls in the alleys and streets of the villages. Village vendors wear clothing signifying belonging to the local tribal group, whose ancestors came to the area before those of the island’s current-dominant culture arrived in response to a multitude of political and social pressures in their own homeland, quickly exchanging the mantle of oppressed for oppressor. If the vendors are aware of various theories stating that their ancestors played a similar role with a previous indigenous group, the very existence of which is now lost forever, they make no mention of it. We who enjoy sticks of pork grilled over flame despite our own awareness of the sentience of pigs can hardly judge.

For dessert, we eat shaved ice served with crushed fruit, served to us in a shop in which a young girl happens to be sitting stroking a pet cat. In the natural course of things, both the cat and the girl will die, yet if the cat outlives the girl it will be considered tragic.

Why?

We return to our hotel room to bathe and though procreation is not our goal, we copulate. Despite the presence of road and futility of man’s every endeavor, tomorrow we will take a boat across the lake.

~ Fin ~


A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake does not appear in Formosa Moon, by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman. You should purchase the book nonetheless at Powell’s City of Books, Amazon, or wherever else you purchase books to fill in the time before the inevitable occurs.

The Famous Doctor Ho

The Famous Doctor Ho of Lijiang, 1921-2018. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor

Unable to sleep (damn this insomnia,) I woke up and checked my email to find that the Famous Doctor Ho has, as the Naxi people of Yunnan, China say, “Gone to the Mountain.” 

I wrote about the good doctor for a guidebook I did for Lonely Planet. Later, I wrote a story called The Famous Doctor Ho that I put in my illustrated book of short stories, How Not to Avoid Jet Lag. In honor of the good doctor, I present the story here.

May he raconteur eternally among the celestial scholars!

The Famous Doctor Ho

The Famous Doctor Ho. Illustration by David Lee Ingersoll

The Famous Doctor Ho. Illustration by David Lee Ingersoll

Doctor Ho is a famous Chinese herbalist and physician whose fame is like a perpetually rolling snowball inside of which lies a frozen dwarf clad in bondage gear.

Who put that dwarf in there? Why is he wearing bondage gear? Who started the ball rolling?

Like this metaphorical snowball, a visit with Doctor Ho provokes a series of questions better left unanswered.

Every casual traveler to the outskirts of Lijiang has visited Doctor Ho. And every China-based writer who’s so much as mastered rudimentary use of chopsticks has, at some point, written about him. And this is why Doctor Ho is the most written about Chinese doctor in all the world.

He is also the most talked about Chinese Doctor in all the world, but this is largely because he talks about himself so very much.

About ten minutes into my visit with Doctor Ho it occurred to me that I was a character — played in my imagination by Steve Buscemi-in a Coen Brothers film, with Doctor Ho’s son played by Billy Bob Thornton.

Doctor Ho, of course, played himself.

(Author’s note: the following dialogue is a rough approximation, and should not be taken in any way to be “journalism.”
Also, the long series of periods preceding most of Doctor Ho’s dialogue is meant to indicate actual dialogue that I’m not even going to try to recall, but if I did, would be roughly along the same lines as the dialogue that follows. If you like, you can imagine Doctor Ho saying more things about himself, various permutations of “I am the most famous Chinese doctor in the world,” etc., etc.
However, it’s important to note that the three periods after Doctor Ho’s Son’s dialogue are, in fact, ellipses, meant to indicate Doctor Ho’s son’s actual dialogue, which mostly consisted of a brief summary of his father’s previous sentence.)

I am sitting in a plastic chair, and Doctor Ho and his son are standing in front of me, relating something reminiscent of the following dialogue:

DOCTOR HO
…I study English with Joseph Rock. It is he who told me to become a doctor. In 1994, Mike Wallace came to visit me. Here is an article from a magazine about me.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me a yellowing magazine article wrapped in plastic)
Magazine article about my father…

DOCTOR HO
…Taoist physician in the Jade Dragon Mountains of Lijiang. Mister Bruce Chatwin write this about me in his book.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me photocopy of article wrapped in plastic)
Mister Bruce Chatwin…

DOCTOR HO
…In 2001, film crew from Canada come to make documentary about the Famous Doctor Ho. Also have a newspaper journalist, write story for Globe and Mail.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me photocopy of article wrapped in plastic)
Globe and Mail…

DOCTOR HO
…In 65 years I have treated over 100,000 patients, never charging money. Only donation. I am poor, but happy. Happy is most important. American Medical Association has written a paper about me.

DOCTOR HO’S SON
(handing me photocopy of article wrapped in plastic)
American Medical Association…

DOCTOR HO
…Also Englishman, Michael Palin. Television program with BBC, come to visit me in, 2003, 2004 maybe.

ME
(trying to be clever, interjecting what would be my only line in the whole scene after initial introduction)
…Michael Palin!

It went on like this for close to an hour. After it was over, I went into Doctor Ho’s back room, where he felt my pulse and looked at my tongue (or was it the other way around?) and made as reasonable a diagnosis of my current condition as any good herbalist might.

DOCTOR HO
You aren’t sleeping well, and this is making your immune system weak. I’ll prepare some herbal medicine for you to take with you.

(Doctor Ho putters around the shelves of his apothecary mixing this powder with that before giving me a fairly large bundle wrapped in cloth.)

DOCTOR HO
Drink lots of water with this.

He didn’t ask me for any money, but I felt it best to donate a red Mao hundred yuan note.

He was, after all, a famous doctor.


The Famous Doctor Ho is one of 19 illustrated stories from How Not to Avoid Jet Lag and other tales of travel madness, available through this link.

 

Taiwan Fight Club

Mixed Martial Arts in Taipei

Taiwan Fight Club. (Photos by David Hartung)

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

It’s a hot August night in Taipei, and I am about to be beaten up in public.

Standing across the ring  (if you can call a cement square taped on a cement barroom floor a ring) stands a teenage kid with a mean, hungry glint in his eyes. He is pounding his gloves together in anticipation, his message clear:

“You’re going down, white boy.”

My last shred of confidence evaporates.

Where did this madness begin?  Was my strange, self-destructive approach to journalism somehow involved? Did I really need to ask myself that?

I’d heard about the club from some friends in Taipei who told me about a local bar that hosted an amateur boxing night every Saturday. They’d said the participants were generally overworked Taiwanese businessmen letting off steam in a completely controlled environment, with regulation gloves and padded helmets.

I’ve made many a Taiwanese businessman burst into tears simply by refusing to let them pick up the dinner check. How hard can it be, I’d reasoned,  to beat one in a boxing ring and then write a Hemingway-style story about it?

My friend Kyle came along, also intending to fight. True to character, He insisted on belting me several times on the way over.

“It’s for your own good,” he’d say with each blow, seeming to be enjoying himself a bit too much.  “You need to be able to take a punch.”

It was only by sheer luck that we managed to spot the silver letters “VS” inlaid on the round handle of a silver door located in the far corner of the lobby of a nondescript Taiwanese office building. The place was locked up, but the doorman told us to come back after nine.

We got back around nine to find the chest-high VS sign up and the door leading into the basement open. It was still early, and the place was quiet. Kyle sat down and ordered a coke while I scoped the place out. A decent sized basement club, the VS was separated into two rooms. Over to the left of the coat check counter (which doubled as a weigh-in station on fight night) was a large chill-out space complete with low-slung chairs surrounding a dozen or so tables and some plush couches over by the walls.

Behind the bar was a stunningly gorgeous bartender named Jo who was glad to talk up the positive aspects of the club’s most popular event.

“It really isn’t violent at all. Most of the people who compete are just regular people, businessmen mostly, though sometimes women fight, too.” She said, “Amateur boxing helps them to let off some steam.”

Vincent Dai, the club’s manager, told me that the club had been holding Fight Night every Saturday for about six months.

“The event has become increasingly popular with westerners living in Taiwan.” He said “They think it is like that movie Fight Club, with bare knuckles and no rules, but that isn’t at all the case. All our fights are two minutes, opponents are paired by weight class, and we use regulation ten-ounce gloves and padded helmets.”

There was some prize money involved, he told me, a few thousand New Taiwan Dollars for the most wins accumulated at the end of the month. But everything about the club was strictly amateur.

“And most importantly, it stays friendly. No grudge matches.” In addition to the professional referee, the club also employed two bouncers.

“To make sure everything stays friendly,” Vincent assured me.

At around eleven, people began to arrive, and by midnight, the place was packed. I scanned the faces of the patrons, seeing among them not one who looked like they’d ever even owned a tie.

These were no businessmen. These were hardened street punks. My bravado faded like a cheap dye job.

If the sight of my potential opponents shook my poise, the next person I ran into shattered it. He was a stocky, well-groomed American who bore with the look of a man who had broken many a brick in his life. But his appearance wasn’t what scared me. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he hadn’t come to brawl. It was what he said that threw me into a blind panic.

“The mouthpiece isn’t there to protect the teeth, it’s to protect you from biting your tongue in half when you get hit in the jaw…I’ve seen it happen. Very hard to stop the flow of blood from the tongue.”

Bill (full name withheld by request) was a lawyer and former kickboxing champion. He’d heard about the club, and wanted to see if the place was as colossally stupid as it sounded to a man with years of experience in competitive fighting.

“Even in a controlled situation, with experienced fighters, padded rings, and professional referees, injuries are bound to happen.” He said gravely “Here, a barroom situation with concrete floors, no mouthpieces, and untrained combatants. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

It was too late for me to back down, so Bill offered to bring me upstairs for a quick sidewalk sparring session, an offer I gladly accepted. He drilled on a few basic blocks and jabs, all the while giving me useful pre-brawl tips.

“Keep relaxed, keep a good posture, and keep your mouth shut so you don’t bite your tongue off.”

After a half an hour, I was confident of being able to survive this thing in one piece, and not much else. We headed back downstairs to find that the dance floor had been cleared and a makeshift boxing ring had been marked with white tape on the floor. The air was charged as the referee pushed through the crowd and began the big wind up. He laid out the rules in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

“No hitting below the belt. No elbows, knees or feet. No back of the head blows. Cross the white line once, a warning! Twice, disqualification!”

The Ref turned to address the crowd.

“I see that we have some foreign friends signed up tonight. Very good! We love watching our foreign friends fight here at the VS club, don’t we?”

The crowd cheered wildly, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the first combatants were called into the ring.

The first contest was between two young, scrawny teenagers who looked like they were barely out of high school. They didn’t “box” so much as flail wildly. I began to feel encouraged, figuring that I could have handled either of them. As I was contemplating this, the referee spoke up again.

“Uh-oh, our next match-up is between a foreigner and a Taiwanese – the best kind of fight!”

Which brings us back where we came in.

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

The crowd is screaming as I press my way into the taped-off ring. One of the bouncers fits me into a sweaty pair of gloves and sparring helmet. I size up my opponent. He is taller than me, with a vicious look making previous two fighters seem downright angelic. The bell rings. I gulp. He snarls and runs at me swinging.

The strobe lights are blinding. Forgetting everything I’ve been told, I just try and block my face. A punch lands on the top of my head. I retaliate and miss. Another hits me on the jaw, rattling my teeth through the mouthpiece.

I am not having fun.

More punches hit my head, hit the back of my neck. I start grappling my opponent blindly.

The referee pulls us apart.

“You OK?” He yells.

I remember Bill’s last bit of advice: “If you’re clearly outclassed, don’t wait to tap out!”

I am clearly outclassed.

My opponent is declared “winner by surrender” and given his prize: A large beach towel with the Tiger Beer logo. I am handed a thin washcloth with the same logo and slink back into the crowd.

It is up to Kyle to regain some lost prestige for Taipei’s foreign community. Still breathing heavily, I watch as he matches the other fighter blow for blow before pushing him out of the ring. The crowd seems less than pleased.

Kyle emerges clutching his prize beach towel.

“I watched the other fights and realized it was more of a sumo match than anything else. So I just let him tire himself out before pushing him out of the ring. It hurt like hell, but was worth it.”

The fighting over, a floor show featuring bartenders juggling bottles of flaming alcohol begins. It seems like a bad idea in a crowded basement filled with alcohol, drunks, and no fire exits. I say goodnight to Kyle, still basking in the afterglow of victory, and leave the bar with teeth, tongue, and self-esteem more-or-less intact.

I’d done what I’d come to do, and if I didn’t get the story I intended to get, it was only because the actual facts had intervened. There’d been no thrill of victory, and no real agony in defeat. Only a reminder of what I should have known all along.

I was too pretty to be a prizefighter.

~~~

Taiwan Fight Club ran originally as Late Night Taipei Smackdown and is one of 33 stories featured in Vignettes of Taiwan.