Early rejected works : An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks


Backstory to “Early Rejected Works: An open Letter to Beijing Starbucks: In the Autumn of 2002 I returned to Beijing with the intention of carrying on with the mission I’d started in 1999 at Beijing Scene, namely becoming the Hunter Thompson of China’s expat writer scene. Beijing Scene had met a fairly dramatic end two years earlier, and the new game in town was a magazine called That’s Beijing (which would later expand to That’s Shanghai, That’s Guangzhou and That’s China, before itself meeting its own fairly dramatic end). Anyway, I wrote maybe a dozen articles for them, but I didn’t quite fit in with the editorial staff in the same way as I had with Beijing Scene, and eventually ditched Beijing altogether for warmer, less complicated parts of China.

But during the three or so months I was in Beijing, I churned out most of my articles at one of the first Starbucks in Beijing. I think there were three at the time, which was ironic as one of the stories Beijing Scene had done in 1999 was about how Starbucks had just opened its first branch in Beijing, and was going the put the independent coffee shops out of business. If I recall correctly, it was a cover story, the title was “You Will Be Assimilated”, and most of the people we interviewed eventually wound up working for Starbucks.

Anyway, I hung out at Starbucks because I was living semi-legally in a drab apartment block that was connected to what I guess was then Beijing’s central heating grid, which didn’t come on until Mid-November despite the fact that Beijing starts getting cold in September. So I hung out at Starbucks with my laptop for up to four hours a day, drinking their battery-acid coffee and listening to the two CDs they were officially permitted to play, over and over again.

Being a journalist, I quizzed the folks behind the counter and learned that the music selection had been mandated from the top, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that these two CDs were basically designed to create a relaxed, western vibe without accidently introducing listeners to any dangerous western philosophy. (Wouldn’t want the Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” to give the citizens any funny ideas now, would we?)

The two CDs were “Best of the Eagles” and “Simon and Garfunkles Greatest Hits”, which they played at about a five to one ratio. It eventually drove me nuts, so I wrote what I thought was a funny editorial for That’s Beijing with a bunch of double entendre based on Eagles and S&G songs. The editor, a frat boy type from Conneticut, thought otherwise. I suspect he thought I was a weirdo. Our editor-writer relationship didn’t last that long.

Anyway, I just found the essay on my mystriously long lost hard drive, and since “Bad Music at Starbucks” seems to be trending, I thought I’d put it up as both an example of bad music at Starbucks and also a snapshot of life in a Beijing that’s long gone.

Author’s Note: As with many of the long-lost hard drive articles, “An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks” was slightly corrupted, and the first sentence has been turned into a mysterious mixture of nonsensical Chinese characters and religous symbols. I have left this gibberish intact, having no recollection of what compelled me to begin the article with a sentence ending in the words “unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus”

JSB

An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks

आÀ䘀楍牣獯景⁴潗摲䐠捯浵湥unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus. While some – scruffy hippies and James Dean type uber-individuals, mostly – might disparage your borg-like saturation / assimilation tactics, our feeling is “why argue with success?” Bully for Starbucks!

However, there is one tiny thing that we at the magazine would like to bring up, a matter that threatens to work its way into our collective consciousness and disrupt the otherwise Peaceful, Easy Feeling that exists between us and Starbucks. We are, of course, referring to your, how can we put this, rigidly monotonous corporate musical policy. We all agree that the Eagles were a fine band, and far be it for any of us at the magazine to belittle their contribution to light, apolitical and “socially acceptable” rock and roll that helped western society heal from the jarring social rifts created during the 1960s.  Nonetheless, even Don Henley might be driven to violence after hearing Hotel California two dozen times during an eight-hour shift. After only a few hours listening to the same bland seventies rock songs played repeatedly, we can’t hide our crying eyes. We can only imagine what sort of psychic toll this might take on your counter staff in the long run.  

Likewise, Simon and Garfunkel were a fine folk duo, celebrated both for their harmonious crooning and their wistful take on the deeper existential questions which all much face. However, after hearing Feelin’ Groovy three times during one afternoon’s teatime, some of us have been known to curl up into fetal balls, whimpering “lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai” and cringing at imagined sounds of whip-cracks.  If only it were true that a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.  “Take it Easy! Take it Easy!” we tell ourselves, but still,  Starbuck’s slavish corporate devotion to musical tedium is breaking out hearts, and shaking our confidence daily.

We assume that whoever is in charge of Starbucks, Beijing is not a hard-headed man so enamored with life in the fast lane that he would ignore the pleas of long-time customers and continue a musical policy sure to make us lose our minds.  Of course, ultimately we have the option to simply avoid Starbucks, yet somehow we feel compelled to return. It is as if we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.  Rest assured that such a rigid  corporate musical policy will ultimately take it to the limit, putting us on the highway (to some other coffee shop, if we could only find one) and showing us the sign (that perhaps we should switch to snorting Ritalin).  

So how about some new tunes, Starbucks? C’mon baby…don’t say maybe”

Sincerely Yours,

Joshua Samuel Brown,

Beijing, 2002

Do you want to read more stories like this, only professionally edited, illustrated and much better? Click here to buy my E-book How Not To Avoid Jet Lag, 19 tales of travel madness by Joshua Samuel Brown (illustrated by David Lee Ingersoll)

Early rejected works : An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks
The Author, Beijing 2002

How I landed my first Lonely Planet gig

People often ask me how I landed my first Lonely Planet gig. I haven’t done a guidebook for the company in a few years, but I still contribute pretty regularly to what are known in the industry as T&R, or Trade and Reference books, stuff like Best in Travel and Best in Food, that sort of thing.

Trade Books like these…

So while I more-or-less consider myself a former guidebook writer, writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet was a pretty big part of my professional output for a good chunk of years, and the story of how I got my first Lonely Planet gig seems like it’d make a good blog post – especially in light of a file I just discovered while going through a long-forgotten hard drive.

In 2005, I was living on Lamma Island, Hong Kong, working as a freelance contributor for a bunch of magazines and newspapers in HK and China, including the South China Morning Post, the HK Weekly Standard and a few others. (Long story short, Taiwan was considered a pretty niche destination back then, so I couldn’t sell enough stories about Taiwan to make a living as a freelance writer.)

But my heart was still in Taiwan, and so I pitched what would become my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan to a publisher I’d been writing for pretty regularly since 2001. The publisher – ThingsAsian Press – took me up on the offer, and the next year, VOT was published.

The book I foisted upon Tony Wheeler that landed me the gig.

About a month after the book came out, my publisher at Things Asian Press told me about a book fair that was happening in town, so I grabbed a dozen copies of Vignettes of Taiwan and headed in. One of the speakers was Tony Wheeler, who had started Lonely Planet with his wife Maureen.

Being a brash young man, I approached Mr. Wheeler and handed him a copy of Vignettes of Taiwan along with a business card and comment along the lines of “Imagine what I could do with your next Lonely Planet Taiwan Guide.”

Mr. Wheeler was nicer about it than he needed to be, thanked me for the book and told me that if he liked it somebody from the office would contact me.

A few weeks later, I got an email from a woman named Marina at the LP office in Melbourne informing me that Tony Wheeler had liked my book, and that if I was interested in submitting a sample guidebook chapter the company would consider me for the upcoming Taiwan guide.

Did I respond to this kind offer with an enthusiastic All Right! What’s my next step?

No, I did not.

Instead, I hit reply and wrote something like “How do I know that Lonely Planet isn’t going to just use my sample chapter for some upcoming book?”

Because in addition to being a brash young man, I was also a suspicious young man. And I had the idea that Lonely Planet’s business model might somehow include getting a bunch of sample chapters for free from perspective authors and cobbling these into actual functioning guidebooks.

The author, circa 2006

Marina, who really would have been well within her rights to just delete my email unanswered, instead responded with something like “Do it and the world will be your Lonely Planet oyster!” She attached a template for the project and wished me well.

I don’t have the actual email anymore, but I definitely remember the line “The world will by your Lonely Planet oyster!”

So I did.

I grabbed a then-recent Lonely Planet guide and headed up to Shekou, a neighborhood in Shenzhen, China, and pretty much used it as a guideline to do my own sample chapter to Shekou. I turned it in, and a few weeks later, Marina wrote me back to tell me I’d made the cut (though my mapping skills could use some improvement), and to offer me my first gig with the company, updating the upcoming Lonely Planet Taiwan book.

That was in 2006, and for the next seven years, yeah…the world was pretty much my Lonely Planet oyster. Belize, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, back to China, back to Belize, back to Singapore, and so forth.

Joshua Samuel Brown naked beneath a pile of books hes written.
Me, naked beneath a pile of books I’ve written or otherwise worked on.
The world was indeed my Lonely Planet Oyster.

Anyway, back to the long-lost hard drive. I was going through said item yesterday, and came across a file called “Lonely Planet Shekou.” And while I’ve told the story about pressing a copy of Vignettes of Taiwan into Tony Wheeler’s hands many times, I’d apparently completely forgotten about doing the sample chapter, because my first thought on finding the file was I never did anything in that part of China for Lonely Planet. So I opened up the file and checked it out.

Definitely a freshman attempt at guidebook writing, to be sure. But since I had fun reading it, maybe you will too, so I’ll paste it below in all its virgin guidebook-writer glory.

I wouldn’t advise trying to get anything useful from it, though – China changes super fast, and I doubt anything I wrote about in Shekou in 2006 is even relevant. Still, I think it offers a decent insight into what goes into being a guidebook writer, or at least what went into hiring one in 2006. (Things have no doubt changed since then.)

(I’m particularly proud of having described Shekou as
“A peninsular nipple on Shenzhen’s ever-expanding underbelly” )

Anyway, read further or not, as you like. Bold text is from original template. Mistakes are all my own. If you like reading stuff like this, go buy my book How Not to Avoid Jet Lag and Other Tales of Travel Madness.

Somewhere in a box in my father’s garage is the map I drew with colored pencil and crayon. If I ever find it, I’ll post it here.

How do I get a job with Lonely Planet?
The author as a brash young man, somewhere in China

Introduction

General description of the town (or area within a city) and its attractions, plus any other info of interest. Should be punchy enough to make people want to visit (without sounding like a tourist brochure).

Shining with a playfullyseductive and only slightly jaded light, Penisualr Shekou (translation: “Snake Mouth”) dangles off Shenzhen’s southern coast.   For those entering China via ferry from Hong Kong – a wise move as the port border is a line-free love fest compared to mad crush of the Lo Wu / HK crossing –  Shekou is gateway to the get rich or die trying metropolis that itself is the jewel of the hyper-capatalist Pearl River Delta  

If Shenzen is a yang monolithic glass and concrete statement to the righness of Chairman Deng’s maxim “to get rich is glorious,” then Shekou – the petri dish in which modern chinese capatalism was created – is a more Yin seaside district offering the following sly adendum to Deng’s words:

“…But  have a good time along the way.”

History

Brief but informative and lively history of the town/neighbourhood.

Though Shekou’s history as an inhabited area dates into the Neolithic era (according to archeological evidence anyway), most of this was spent as a sleepy  backwater harbor community overshadowed by more important neighbors.  Exciting moments over the centuries have been few and far between. Legend has it that during the Late Song  dynasty a powerful celestial goddess descended on the site of the present-day Tian Hou temple, and during the opium wars the area again saw some action as Chinese generals used the peninsula as a base from which to harass enemy ships.  But for the most part, history passed quietly around Shekou.  All this changed in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping chose this small nub of real estate as a petri dish in which to germinate the earliest seeds of post-revolutionary capitalism in China, allowing for the first time since 1949 foreign owned companies to set up shop on Chinese soul.  

Once barren hills overlooking the harbor were transformed into the Shekou Industrial Zone, from which “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” quickly sprung forth, quickly growing to encompass greater Shenzhen in the early 1980’s.  Today, with the entire Pearl River Delta region arguably the main economic engine fueling a capitalist China whose market economy Chairman Mao couldn’t even begin to imagine, Shekou has settled into a somewhat more relaxed stretch of harbor front property.

Orientation

Information to give travellers their bearings in the town/neighbourhood.

Shekou is an easy place in which to get around. The heart of the neighborhood is Seaworld Plaza, a brick-paved pedestrian mall stretching south from Xinghua road to an extremely difficult to miss five story high cruise ship moored in concrete approximately a quarter-mile from where the harbor itself begins. North of Seaworld plaza are some lovely hills for light hiking, and east of the plaza lies a somewhat rundown residential and commercial district where most habitues of the more upscale businesses of Seaworld Plaza seldom venture.  Three blocks east of Seaworld Plaza is the Shekou Ferry terminal, from which boats to Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai leave many times daily, and in front of this terminal is the bus station..

Information

Give details of useful sources for travellers ie the tourist info centre, post office, availability of banks, Internet cafes, emergency medical facilities. This should be provided in list format in alphabetical order and comments added if needed. Note that details given after the practical info in brackets should start with a new sentence (not run on from the heading). Include phone numbers and addresses in brackets. 

Bus Station

Located in front of the Shekou Passanger Terminal, the Shekou Bus Station has local busses leading to destainations throughout Shenzhen

Ferry Terminal [2558 8588]

The Shekou Passenger Terminal is an customs crossing point for daily ferries leading to Hong Kong, Kowloon, HK Airport, and Macau. Landing visas are available here with restrictions based on nationality. The terminal also services passenger ferries to Zhuhai.

Internet Café

While the neighborhood lacks an interet café, the Haitao Hotel [No.8 Gong Ye 1st road, one block east of the ferry terminal] has a lobby café with a free internet-ready terminal. Meal or beverage purchase is required for use.

Hostpital

Post Office

Tourist Information

Sights

Describe at least three main sights or attractions and give the following practical info (if applicable) in brackets: phone number, address, entry fee, opening hours. 

Seaworld Plaza

The undisputed heart of Shekou, this brick pedestrian mall is lined with restaurants of varying  ethnicities, coffee shops ranging from kitsch to corportate,  and  more bars than you can shake a stick at, all overlooked by the Minghua, a perpetually docked ocean liner-cum-tourist magnet from which Seaworld gets much of its nautical bragging rights.  The wide, car free mall is a prime spot for people watching, peopled by expatriates of all stripes, tourists from around China, and – increasingly – locals flexing their newfound buying power.  On weekends and holidays Seaworld Plaza takes on a carnival like vibe as it fills with artists painting portraits, merchants selling kites (for flying in the nearby park) and a wide variety of other trinkets and gimcracks.  And in the evenings, the plaza is the center of one one of Shekou’s most happeing bar scenes.

The Minghua

In the center of the Seaworld Plaza sits the Minghua, a former French ocean liner that’s been moored in concrete and transformed into the area’s biggest tourist draw. While the lion’s share of the interior has been transformed into the Cruise Inn, a campy botique hotel, the exterior decks (accessable by gangplanks, manned naturally by sailor-suit clad staff) are open to the public and offer a number of bars and eateries. Naturally the decks have views of the harbor – its that blue bit about a quarrter mile to the south, just over the mini-mall and golf-driving range (themselves built on land reclaimed from the sea).  The Minghua is cool in that quirky sort of way that only a completely incogrious juxtaposition (like an ocean liner surrounded on all sides by land) can be. If you like ships but hate the ocean (or just like microbrew – see our bar listings below), the Minghua is a must-visit.

[Seaworld Plaza, public decks open 4:30 PM – Midnight]

Tian Hou Temple

Shekou’s Tian Hou Temple is a cultural oasis in a town not overly reknowned for its culture, and a spiritual outpost in a city where dollar (or Yuan) worship is the overriding relegion. This 200 year old temple complex honors Matsu, godess of the sea, whose sphere of infulence is chiefly the protection of sailors and fisherman (and presumably the off-shore oil drillers who make their livings nearby).  The temple was built on a hilly spot where the celestial godess herself was said to have visited during the Song Dynasty. Since the early eighties an industrial zone has grown around the temple, and on some days the shipping containers across the road are higher than the temple’s tiled roof. But save for the greying of the blue roof times in the ambiant pollution ubiqious to the area, little inside the complex has changed. Lay worshippers – particularly those who make their living on the sea – place incense in gigantic copper braziers outside the main temple before stepping inside for prayer, and tourists (refreshingly low in numbers) come to visit the temple and the small attached museum documenting the nautical history of the area.  One wing of the museum is filled with statues and other works of art dedicated to the sea goddess, as well as antiques and other objects of art belonging to a bygone age.  The temple offers one peculiar service – for a nominal fee of Y20, worshippers can scribe a wish or prayer onto the interior of a curved clay tile. The tile is then placed on the roof of the temple, where presumably Matsu will be better able to judge the merits of the beseechments.

Common prayers include bessechments for the godess to halt typhoons, or to direct the tides in a way that carry seaborne trash away from high value beachside property.

[#6 Chiwan road][Ph: 26853219][Y15 admission]

Activities

If applicable to the place you’re covering, review activities of interest to travellers and include the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, cost.

Note that Sleeping/Eating/Drinking/Entertainment/Shopping sections feature stand-alone reviews with the first full sentence beginning after the practical information in brackets (see a recent Lonely Planet guide for examples).

Probably the singlemost commonly engaged in activity in Shekou is hanging out at Seaworld Plaza, followed closely by either eating or drinking (or some combination therof). However, the hills to the north of the plaza offer decent hiking activites, as do the hills surrounding the Evergreen Resort. And if practicing your golf swing in the shadow of an ocean liner appeals to you (and really, how many places offer the opportunity), there is a fine golfing range behind the Minghua.

Golfing Range

ACTIVITES

 

Sleeping

Review at least three accommodation places that travellers might use, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, Web site (if applicable), address, cost per night for singles/doubles (use abbreviations ‘s’ and ‘d’ instead of singles and doubles). 

The Evergreen Resort 

[2664 6988 / 2640 3988] [1 Quingqing St, Moonbay] [SY680 DY780 / Y880] [comment – this place has a variety of different rooms / prices – it doesn’t quite fit in with the “singles / doubles” format. I don’t know how you deal with this. I mention the smurf houses, which are the cheapest of the accomadations.]

Fans of Taiwanese mountain resorts will feel right at home at the Evergreen resort, a sprawling resort complex opened in 1995  by Lin Mei Kuang, a Taiwanese architect whose prior projects included a similar spa resort at Taiwan’s beloved Yaming Mountain.  Though the rocky hills surrounding Shekou are a far cry from the lush green mountains of Isle Formosa, the Evergreen’s heavy use of naturalistic structural design and organic building give it a serious mountain resort vibe.  Evergreen guests have their choice of standard rooms with ocean views in a traditionally-shaped hote, rustic redwood cabins with gorgeous hardwood floors, futons, and bathrooms with neck deep Japanese style tubs, or of smaller “tree house” structures that vaguely resemble smurf homes. Prices are incredibly reasonable, and a night at the Evergreen can cost as little as RMB 280, which includes the use of the facilities, which include swimming pools, exercise rooms, teahouses, an enclosed butterfly pavilion, and even a small tropical rainforest, complete with trees and flora transplanted from around SE Asia.

Cruise Inn

[0755/2682-5555][ Minghua Ship, Sea World Plaza] [SY680 DY780 / Y880]

Take two parts nautical whimsy, add one part Alice in Wonderland. Top with stained glass ceilings and serve on pearlescent tiled floorsand you’ve got the Cruise Inn, Shekou’s newest (and among China’s strangest) hotel. The Cruise Inn takes up much of the interior of the permanantly landlocked and docked Minghua, the ship that is Seaworld Plaza’s central feature. Accomadations are as interesting as the lobby décor. The “Romantic Seaview” does have a waterbed and harborview, though the presence of a driving range between ship and sea dispels the illustion somewhat.  The captains suite looks out over bar street, and has two plasma screen televisions and a Jacuzzi. Standard rooms are clean, comfortable and, naturally, nautically themed.  

The Nanhai

[1 Gongye Yilu, next to ferry terminal] [2669–2888][1,560 – Hillview Room, 1,800 Seaview]

[comment – this is how rooms are listed here rather than as singles or doubles; also, discounts are available. I’m not sure how you list this.]

The oldest luxury hotel in the area, the Nanhai’s space-age exterior – rounded balconies that look as if they might detach from the mother ship at any moment face out into the harbor. The Nanhai has undergone extensive renovation in the last year, as reflected by the increased room rates (among the highest in the area). Still, if you want to stay in a luxury hotel of moderate class (the brochure calls it a five star, but we think this might be a bit of an exageration) with  a lobby piano bar and attractive seaview rooms, this might be the place for you.

Eating

Review at least three good eateries, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, average cost of main course, meals open for ie breakfast, lunch, dinner and days closed if any.

 

FOODFEAST

[26835678] [First Floor of Seaworld Hotel, Taizhi Road, across from Seaworld Plaza] [Y40] [lunch & dinner only]

Foodfeast is the only restaurant in Shekuo offering genuine Hakka (ke jia) Cuisine, and is thus appropriately named as members of the Hakka clan are reknowned for their love of feasting. Specialties include (get some names). Foodfeast is also the only restaurant in town serving freshly made durian pancakes (delectable to aficionados, but potentially nausiating to those not endeared to the smelly “king of fruits.” ).  If you’re in Shekou and sick of foreign fare, you can’t get better down home cuisine than what you’ll find at a ke jia ren, or “Guest Home People” restaurant – after all, “home” is a Hakka’s middle name.

The Paris French Kiss

[2688 0317][57/58 Seaworld Plaza][lunch and dinner][Y90]

High ceilings and curvacious columns give this restaurant (located in front of the good ship Minghua) a Napoleanic feel.  Fare is european, and lunch specials are an especially good bargain, as for Y68 you’ll get a large main course, soup or salad, fresh brewed coffee, and a choice of crème brule or choclate mousse to top it off.

Drinking, Entertainment (with a nautical theme).

Review at least one drinking venue that travellers might visit, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address. If there is only one drinking venue it can just be listed under Entertainment.

Having long ago fullfilled its original purpose as post-revolutionary petri dish of Chinese capatalism, Shekou has settled into a more mellow groove as Shenzhen’s entertainment pavillion.  The hub of this is the nautically flavored Seaworld Plaza, a brick-paved pedestrian mall lined on either side with restaurants ranging from fast-food (the uniquious Mcdonalds and Starbucks) to cheesy theme restaurants (like XXX, a Brazillian Barbeque where meat is carved right of the spits by waitstaff dressed in full gaucho regalia). Seaworld plaza is the place to see and be seen, both for local expats working cushy jobs in the offices of nearby foreign owned companies and for local Chinese basking in the glory of their newfound middle class status.

Exepting perhaps the view from the roofs of any of these establishments, from nowhere in Seaworld plaza can the sea actually be seen. Seaworld’s moniker comes not from any ocean (or harbor) view, but from the Minghua, a (get size) ship planted smack dab on the Plaza’s (X) end.

Though it presumably once led a life more common to seagoing vessels (i.e., going somewhere on the sea), today the good ship Minghua is thorougly landlocked, floating in a stretch of open water that surrounds the ship’s hull in all directions for about 20 feet before ending in reclaimed landfill.

The Minghua’s multi-leveleled decks have been transformed into a series of outdoor bars and dance clubs, all of which are open and thumping from dusk into the late-late.  The interior of the Minghua has been turned into a the Cruise Inn, a strange and whimsical budget Inn that

Mixes two parts nautical theme with one part Alice in Wonderland to create perhspas Shenzhen’s most tripped-out hotel

With the good ship Minghua as the hub, the entertainment complex of Seaworld Plaza extends in all directions; between ship and sea is a driving range built on reclaimed harbor landfill, making the Minghua perhaps the only ship on the planet from which one can watch revelers on a pedestrian mall from a (term)side porthole and golfers from a (term)side one.  GET GOLF INFORMATION.

To the (x) the mall extends further, offering more clubs, bars and restaurants. To the X, it becomes X park, several acres of harborfront greenery with open fields, quiet paths, and a considerably more sedate revelers.  Offering the best ground-level view of Shekou harbor, this area becomes extremely crowded with revelers and pickpockets during any festival in which firework displays are involved.

Though wealth may have smoothed her rougher edges, Shekou is still a harbor town,  Further south between Seaworld Plaza and the passenger terminal stretches Taizi road, where the gentrified nautical kitch of the plaza melts away to reveal Shekou’s seedier side. Though most of the bars on this street are clearly designed with providing a place for sex workers (many of whom, thanks to the tremendous local economic boom, are actually from the Philipines) to meet and negotiate with customers. There is, however, one noteowrthy exception.

“X-TA-SEA,” according to the bar’s western owner “is not a cheap clip joint for picking up tarts.”  Indeed, with its 100 inch flat screen TV with satellite sports channells on demand, regulation style American pool and foosball tables, X-TA-SEA fills a red-light district’s ecological niche, namely a place to drink and gamble without having to be tempted by more sordid sins of the flesh. X-TA-SEA

No. 2A Taizi Road, Behind Yin Bing Building,

Shekou, Shenzhen

136 9192 2585 2866-7649

Shopping

If applicable, review at least two interesting shops that travellers might visit and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, opening hours.

Though more of shipping than shopping hub, visitors looking to come away from their visit with more than pictures of Matsu or a hangover will have ample opportunity to obtain trinkets at the newly opened mini-mall

Getting There & Away

A penisular nipple on Shenzhen’s ever-expanding underbelly, Shekou is easily reached by boat, bus or taxi. Alas, the new and much touted Shenzehn Metro does not extend to Shekou, ending halfway from the Lo Wu border crossing at the Windows of the World Metro station. All the more reason to take the ferry if you’re coming from Hong Kong, as the boat comes directly to Shekou 13 times a day. Coming from the Shenzen Train Station, the fastest way it to hop a cab for about Y60. Or you could take the metro halfway and grab any number of busses which will let you off in front of the Shekou Passenger terminal. There are also eight boats a day to and from the HK Airport.

Getting Around

Give details on the main transport modes around town, location, frequency and cost etc.

Fairly compact, Shekou is an easy neighborhood in which to get around.  It’s a quick walk from the ferry terminal to Seaworld Plaza. The only places in Shekou that really require taxis are the Matsu temple and the Evergreen Resort.

 

I Get Interesting Gigs: Goats and Gas Masks

Weird spots pique my interest as a travel writer, which is probably why I wound up in Taiwan.

A few months back, my friend Tobie Openshaw forwarded me an email he’d gotten from a German production company called Maximus Film.

“We’re planning a filming trip to Taiwan next month, and we’re hoping to visit a restaurant called “Uncle Sheep” in Chiayi that makes an earth-oven lamb dish. We would love to visit Mr. Chou in his restaurant and see how he prepares the special dish. We would need one shooting day for this story. Do you have time to help?”

I’d acted as a fixer for TV crews in Taiwan before, and was intrigued by the idea of a family restaurant with a unique method of food preparation. As Tobie didn’t have time to make the trip, I offered to help Maximus out. The gig seemed pretty straightforward. But in Taiwan, things often go from straightforward to unpredictably complicated quickly.

My first inclination of how weird things were going to get came when I called up Mr. Chou, alternately known as “Uncle Sheep” and “Uncle Goats”. He was delighted at the idea that a TV crew from Europe wanted to do a segment on his restaurant. He seemed particularly happy to be receiving visitors from Germany.

“This is great! But I need to ask them to bring me something from home.”

Figuring he wanted strudel, I said I was sure this could be arranged.

“What do you need?”

“Four new fángdú miànjù.”

Having no idea what fángdú miànjù meant, I kept the conversation going, hoping for clarification through context.

“Four fángdú miànjù…” I said. “For cooking?”

“Yes, yes. Fángdú miànjù are a vital part of my cooking process. The ones I have are worn out, and without them, I can’t cook my signature dish.”

Still in the dark, I passed the phone over to one of my colleagues.

“Mmm…uh huh. Yes. Mmmm,” she said to Mr. Chou in Mandarin, then said to me in English:

Fángdú miànjù are gas masks. Mr. Chou needs four gas masks.”

I took the phone back.

Taiwan liaison in gas mask

“Gas masks? You mean like what police and soldiers wear?”

“Exactly! I need them for my cooking process! My special dish is made inside of a walk-in oven, and you can’t go inside for even a minute without a gas mask. And the film crew will need to wear gas masks to film my process, so might as well bring four of them. The best come from Germany. Of course, I’ll buy them after the filming.”

I communicated this unusual request to the film crew, who said they were willing to bring four industrial-grade gas masks if it would secure the arrangement. After a bit of email back and forth, a date was set.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about eating a meal whose preparation required a gas mask, but I was certainly looking forward to writing about it.

Before continuing, readers may be a bit confused regarding the genus (“ovine” or “capra,” for those looking for a bit more book knowledge) of the signature dish, being that the restaurant’s name is “Uncle Sheep”, its website is UncleSheep.com.tw, while Mr. Chou’s Facebook handle is “Uncle Goats Chou“.

The Chinese word for sheep is羊 (pronounced Yáng), while goat is山羊(Shānyáng, literally “mountain sheep”). However, Taiwan isn’t as big on mutton as China (most Taiwanese find it a bit strong, though its consumption is considered medicinal), so in meat-form the two are sometimes confused. In any event, Uncle Sheep’s signature dish is goat hot pot. So back to the story.

Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

On the appointed day, I met up with the show host and her videographer in Chiayi city, and we were soon off by taxi to see Mr. Chou, AKA Uncle Goats, at  Uncle Sheep Restaurant in Chiayi’s Minxiong Township. Located in a rural area about 20 minutes out of Chiayi (a town best known as a gateway to Alishan), the restaurant itself is a series of traditional Taiwanese houses. Pulling in a few hours before the lunchtime rush, we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Chou and his wife.

After a brief and culturally-required pause for tea, fresh pineapple, and name-card swapping, we got down to business. For the next three hours the crew filmed Mr. Chou as he engaged in the daily ritual of preparing easily the most labor-intensive dishes this side of the infamous turducken (a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey), whose 12+ hour prep time is a bowl of microwave popcorn compared to Mr. Chou’s 7-day slow-cooked goat hot pot.

The recipe had been passed down from his grandmother, Mr. Chou explained as he placed several pounds of goat meat, a multitude of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs and eleven bottles of rice wine into a massive earthenware pot. But it wasn’t the ingredients that led a TV crew in search of good television across the globe, it was the method itself. After putting the lid on the pot (which now weighed close to twenty pounds) Mr. Chou carried it into the courtyard for the sealing process, wrapping it first with a layer of industrial-grade aluminum foil, then slathering it with a thick coating of mud, nearly doubling its weight.

From there, video camera rolling, Mr. Chou carried the heavy mud-slathered clay pot into the outer layer of what the German TV crew would dub in their show  “die Höllenküche” – the kitchen of hell. Past this point, gas masks would be required. As we donned ours, making sure the seals were airtight, Chou explained the absolute necessity of wearing the masks inside of the smoke-filled walk-in oven.

“Even with the mask, I try to keep my time inside to just a few minutes per day,” he said. “Even that is bad for my health.”

Fully masked, we were ready to enter the hell kitchen, the heart of Chou’s operation. Though my job was to translate between crew and chef, within seconds of walking into the oven (where the air registers at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, appropriately close to 66.6 degrees Celcius) it was clear that communication was hardly possible.

Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

Movement itself was difficult. As the cameraman filmed from the doorway, the host and I stood to one side and watched Mr. Chou performs his daily ritual of burying the sealed earthenware pot in a hole in the oven’s dirt floor, covering it with rice husks and setting the pile on fire. He then quickly checked on the other pots, shoveling burning embers here and there before donning a thick pair of gloves to remove one of the pots furthest from the door. Moments later, we were extremely grateful to be able to follow Mr. Chou out of the walk-in oven.

With great delicacy, he placed the dried mud-encrusted pot, visibly lighter than the one he’d brought in, on the stone table.

“This one is our lunch today,” he said, hanging his gas mask back on the wall hook as we did the same. “This pot has been cooking for seven days inside my oven, where temperatures can exceed 1000 degrees Celsius!”

As the cameraman repositioned the camera, Mr. Chou brought the superheated pot into the courtyard, where he broke off the baked mud and peeled back the blackened foil before opening the pot itself.

Despite the heavy seal, the liquid had reduced to about 70%.

We followed Mr. Chou and the pot into the kitchen, where he scooped the stew into six smaller serving pots. At this point, his dining room was full, his customers having started on appetizers. The main course could now be served.

Taiwan_Scene_Chiayi_Uncle_Goats_2
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

So what does goat stew that’s been cooked for seven days taste like? Savory, delicious, and distinctly healthy, with the broth heavy with herbs and rice wine. The meat, heavy with flavor, was nearly butter-soft. Mr. Chou described it as “the best goat hot pot in the world,” and on that point, he’ll get no argument from me, or from the German TV Crew, who seemed to enjoy thoroughly a dish they’d traveled across the globe to taste.

Below is the TV segment that was shown on TV in Germany (in German) about Uncle Sheep Restaurant. For viewers who don’t speak German, don’t fret. Most of the dialogue from the segment has been largely covered in this article, and it’s worth watching both to get a glimpse inside of Mr. Chou’s kitchen and to see the look on the host’s face as she finally gets to taste his signature dish. (Keen-eyed viewers may spot your humble narrator inside of the oven – I’m the guy with the purple pants and gas mask!)

If the film and story have piqued your interest, Uncle Sheep’s Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner four days a week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Click here for details. As you might expect from a restaurant whose signature dish has a 7-day prep time, advanced reservations are suggested.

 

To Boldly Go Where Tour Busses Fear to Tread

The author, traveling by carnival rabbit. 

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

~ Lao Tzu



The same could be said for a good travel writer, and as a member of said fraternity I’ve always interpreted Lao Tzu’s words as encouragement to travel for travel’s sake, considering destination merely a by-product. But how to put the emphasis on journey over destination?

My go-to method is to employ whenever possible non-standard modes of transportation which either extend travel time, are nerve-wracking enough to make time feel slower, or (with unreliable modes of transport), require a flexible concept of destination.

As a reader of this column you’re comfortably en voyage mid-flight yourself. Barring unusual circumstances (of either random celebrity spotting or flight attendant dumping a salad on your lap variety), the most memorable moment of this leg of the journey might be a toss up between finally watching Batman Versus Superman on the in-flight entertainment system or (for those with even less patience for convoluted narrative), reading this article.

You’d have no time for the former and barely enough for the latter were your current trip on a six-seat puddle-jumper flight, though the experience might feel longer. Such short-range flights are generally memorable. Engines (or engine, as the case might be) sounding like an overpowered coffee grinder, small-plane flights almost always guarantee personal contact with the pilot. You may be sitting next to them, though do resist the temptation to initiate mid-flight conversation. (A small gratuity for landing the plane in one piece, or at least at the agreed upon spot is always appreciated.)

Boats are an equally unforgettable way to travel, though not always in a good way. In the neighboring Philippines, Indonesia and other nations comprised mostly of ocean with a few scattered islands, water taxis are ubiquitous, indispensible and largely unregulated. Larger inter-island ferries usually have enough life preservers to go around, making diesel poisoning and seasickness the only real hazard. But travelers heading to less-trammeled Blue Lagoon locales may find themselves skirting islands and open ocean on single-engine speedboats. Operators of these tuk-tuks of the sea are generally more interested in speed than safety, which is partly economic and partly a function of maturity: Like their terrestrial tuk-tuk driving counterparts, many speedboat captains are barely out of adolescence. Anchors away!

Overland travel generally offers more in the way of less nerve-racking transit options, but the savvy traveler should be on the lookout for opportunities to make one’s journey more memorable by eschewing convenience and certainty for discomfort and adventure by hitchhiking.

Hitchhiking, generally looked down upon in wealthier nations, is an essential form of transportation in the developing world. In the United States, thumbing a ride is against the law in most places, so hitchhikers need to be on the lookout for police. The situation is somewhat reversed in Belize, where hitchhikers are advised to give up their seat for any law enforcement officials also thumbing a ride.

One interesting exception to the developed/developing world hitchhiking dichotomy is Taiwan, which is unique in that it’s both wealthy and hitchhiker friendly. But thumbing a ride in Formosa comes with its own peculiar price tag; many a westerner visitor to Taiwan has found themselves holding impromptu English classes in the backs of pickup trucks winding through the mountains. Some of these journeys have resulted in lasting friendships, and in at least a few cases, marriage proposals. This may not have been the experience originally intended on setting out, but it does come close to fitting Lao Tzu’s travel philosophy.

Perhaps it was witnessing similar experiences that prompted Confucius’ most well known travel aphorism “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”  China’s greatest sage was no stranger to travel, and spent much of his life on the road in an era where options for overland travel were limited by the technology of the day. Were he alive in this era, perhaps he’d also choose non-standard modes of travel, dispensing wisdom from a hovercraft or hot air balloon. But it’s equally likely that he’d employ the same mode of travel today as he did in his own life during the warring states period, namely walking. Though slow, walking allows for extended contemplation, which is well in line with both with the sage’s overall character and his second-best known travel aphorism: It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.

~~~~

“To Boldly Go… ” Appeared originally in EVA’s inflight magazine, Autumn, 2016 .

Looking to plan an unusual journey around Taiwan? Click here for more details about my work as a travel consultant.



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.

Formosa Moon Launch Party!

Joshua Samuel Brown (Vignettes of Taiwan, Lonely Planet Taiwan) and Stephanie Huffman cordially invite you to a book launch party for their latest book, Formosa Moon, at Taipei’s Red Room! Published by Things Asian Press, Formosa Moon is a romantic and geeky cultural journey around Taiwan undertaken by a couple comprised of a seasoned guidebook writer intimately familiar with Taiwan and a first-time visitor who agreed to leave everything behind and relocate to Taiwan sight unseen. Along the way the couple lose themselves in Taoist temples, feast on street food and explore Taiwan’s breathtaking scenery while also engaging in less typical expatriate activities including filming a clandestine puppet show in a hijacked hotel lobby, accidentally taking up chicken farming in their residential Taipei neighborhood, and allowing themselves to be briefly sucked into a local religious cult…all in the name of cultural immersion. Part travelogue, part guidebook, part memoir, Formosa Moon is a dual-voice narrative offering practical travel information about this young and vibrant democracy while commenting hilariously on their often unusual travel experiences around the country, ultimately inspiring readers to explore Taiwan on a deeper level. Join the authors of Formosa Moon for a reading, live reenactments, book signing, food, drinks, puppetry and more at the Red Room on Saturday, October 27, starting at 5pm. Admission is free, and a good time is guaranteed!

What: Formosa Moon Launch Party

When: October 27, 2018 – 17:00 – 21:00 (5pm-9pm)

Where: The Red Room, Jianguo S. Rd. Sec.1 #177 (1st building on the left, 2F)   建國南路一段177號 (入口左邊第一棟灰色大樓2F),

Click here to RSVP through Facebook!

Can’t make the party? Order your copy of Formosa Moon online!

The Red Room is an ever-expanding community exploring and extending the boundaries between audience and performer through events centered around the spoken word, music, visual arts, theater, and family friendly activities, Red Room is a community hub where participants can explore their passion with other artists and creatives.

What people are saying about Formosa Moon

“I don’t know if this is the most exhaustive book ever written in English about Taiwan, but I feel like it might be the coolest and weirdest. It’s definitely a lot of fun.”

Freddy Lim, New People’s Party Legislator / Chthonic Lead Singer

“Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman have pulled off something remarkable: A love letter to Taiwan grounded in deep experience and fresh eyes. A beautiful book for the beautiful island. “

Andrew Leonard, Salon.com

“What a delight! Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman offer readers an affectionate, clear-eyed view of Taiwan that highlights its complexities, its eccentricities, and its wonders. A must-read for both returning and first-time visitors to Taiwan.”

Shawna Yang Ryan, Author Water Ghosts, Green Island

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.

 

Wind Warriors of the Pescadores

On the subject of windsurfing in Taiwan, one of the strangest years of a life with no shortage of strange years was spent living on an archipelago called Penghu, halfway between Taiwan and China. It’s a remote, beautiful and extremely windy spot. Like most of the other strange places I’ve lived, what brought me to Penghu was a combination of travel writing (my first guide for Lonely Planet had me covering the outer islands) and a woman (my girlfriend at the time, Laurie – who would later become my wife for an amusingly short period – was offered a teaching job there).

I haven’t been back since 2007, but I’m hoping to return in the next month or two to re-acquaint myself with the place, continue my windsurfing lessons and maybe write a few more stories.

This story originally ran in the Hong Kong Weekly Standard: Words and images by Joshua Samuel Brown. 

Wind Warriors of the Pescadores

(Windsurfing in Taiwan)

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan, 2006

It’s eight AM on the first day of the sixth annual Penghu ProAm windsurfing tournament, the first stop on the 2006-2007 Asian Windsurfing Tour, and the event promises to be a veritable sailing whirlwind.  The crème de la crème of the windsurfing world are gathered by the harbor, preparing to do precisely what sixties mystic troubadour Donavan once advised against; to try and catch the wind.  The sun is bright, there isn’t a cloud in the sky, and the archipelago halfway between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland,  statistically among the windiest places on the planet, seems custom made for competition windsurfing.

But by the water the faces of the sailors show concern, for one crucial element has failed to appear in expected quantity: wind.

“Last year at this time the winds would’ve blown your tits off, they were forty, maybe fifty knots,” says Dirk Michielsen, a Belgian designer of sports eyewear who’s made his home in central Taiwan for over a decade. “But this year, ach, it’s strange. There’s no wind.”

“No wind” isn’t quite accurate. There’s a fairly steady breeze of perhaps 15 knots blowing in from the Chinese mainland. But on Penghu, where farmers encircle their fields with walls made of interlocked coral to protect their peanut crops from being blown away and wind speeds that would send most Middle Americans running for the root cellars are the norm, 15 knot winds barely register as a breeze.

“Anywhere else in the world this’d be considered excellent windsurfing conditions.” Says Larry Davis, a long-time island resident slated to compete at the Masters level.

“But in Penghu, windsurfers call this bicycling weather.”
Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
Weather is a fickle mistress, and for windsurfers this can be especially frustrating. Wind, unlike snow, cannot be manufactured.  For this reason, professional windsurfing circuit events generally last ten days. But the Penghu Pro-am, an event that brings professionals and amateurs windsurfers together, is a three day event.  While the professionals have sponsorship, equipment makers like Neilpryde, Starboard and AB+,  most amateurs find taking ten days off to chase the wind an impossible luxury.  Before the events are slated to begin, local event organizers, who have a vested interest in making the name Penghu synonymous with windsurfing, head down to the nearby Matsu temple and make offerings of pork, chicken and fish to the goddess of the sea.

Perhaps the supernatural offerings are to thank; obviously there are more scientific expiations. Regardless, by 9 AM the winds have picked up enough to make competition possible.  An announcement comes over the loudspeakers, first in Mandarin, then in English, and the first round of competitors sprint for the water carrying their rigs.  Once immersed, the sailors hover next to their boards, waiting for the shrill blast of the air horn that will announce that the first heat, which, wind permitting, will be the first of many, is on.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
The first heat is a slalom run, its competitors big name sailors of the windsurfing world like Swede Anders Brigndal and Austrian Chris Pressler. The shrill sound of the starting air horn is followed quickly by a second sound, this one the galvanic crackle of sails inflating, straining against carbon fiber frames held fast by champion riders. Organizers and future competitors alike gather on the beach to watch as these champions of the windsurfing world attempt to outdo each other in a completion in which they’ll be judged both on speed and grace.  After five slalom runs, clear winners emerge, and first place is taken by Australian Jesper Orth, with second and third going, not surprisingly, to Brigndal and Pressler respectively.

After the event, Pressler, who is in Penghu for the first time, seems pleased with his performance, and says that the unexpectedly low winds should not detract from the overall competition.  “Everybody competes in the same wind,” says the Austrian. “These conditions are excellent for kinds of sailing that higher winds would make impossible, and I think a lot of the less experienced sailors will find them ideal.”  Nonetheless, Pressler says he is eager to test his skills against higher winds; he has already made arrangements to stay after the end of the three day competition to take advantage of the extreme winds which should come to Penghu ahead of a forecasted typhoon moving towards the Philippines in the next week.

Anders Bringdal is also planning to stick around to test his skill against the coming high winds. “Really the optimum speed for windsurfing is 30 knots,” says Anders Bringdal, who came equipped for higher winds. “Once you get above that, it’s a shit fight, you need a small sail to keep stable.”   Though he’s done well with his borrowed lower-wind board and sail, Bringdal seems eager to test his own high-wind equipment in the coming storm.
Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
Professional windsurfers aside, most who have gathered in Penghu for what they hope will be three days of sun and high winds are talented amateurs, devotees of the sport who’ve come from across the globe. One group of Russian surfers hails from Vladivostok, Russia’s windsurfing capitol, where cold winds make sailing without a wetsuit impossible for most of the year, and seem happy just to be wearing shorts and tank-tops in late November.  There are also a few competitors from Hong Kong. Kowloon native Chou Siang Min, who winds up earning a respectable 3rd place showing in beginner’s slalom, has been to Penghu many times. “Hong Kongers mostly train in Sai Kung,” says Chou, “but anyone serious about windsurfing in the region needs to come to Penghu.”

Wind conditions combined with equipment limitations conspire to keep some from competing entirely.  Dirk Michielsen says he expected last years 30 knot winds, and came prepared accordingly. “You need high winds to push a 6.6 meter sail and narrow board like mine,” says Michielson. “I even brought my 5.1 meter sail in case it got higher, but in a breeze like this I’d sink like a stone with that kind of gear.”

Nowhere else is matching gear to wind conditions as crucial as in competition windsurfing, where having just the right size sail, or perfectly suited board can make a huge difference in speed.  Though an asset in high winds, a smaller sail doesn’t allow for enough forward velocity in a low-to-medium blow. Even variations over the short run (like, say in the course of an individual slalom heat) forces each sailor to make constant adjustments to their individual sailing techniques. Though the winds generally stay in the high teens for most of the morning, even gusting into the twenties at times, there are still periods when riders mid-heat find themselves faced with brief lulls. A sailor in this situation does whatever they can to keep themselves upright, jerking the sail like the handle of a water pump.

But occasionally the opposite happens; a sudden gust catches sails flagging mid-heat with a series of electric cracks, and within seconds boards, sails and sailors are skipping across the surface of the water like flat stones.  From that moment, the race is truly on, and as long as the wind keeps up, and again, remember the words of Chris Pressler, that all sailors share the same wind, the competition is entirely about each individuals skill and instinct.

Handling the board, knowing precisely how to tilt the sail to achieve maximum speed without sacrificing stability, is at the heart of competition windsurfing. Watching equally matched sailors compete in a slalom heat, one can’t help but be reminded of world-class track bike racers competing in a velodrome, each racer cyclist a course within a narrow band, tilting to shave inches and seconds off their end speeds.

But the crucial difference comes in strategy; whereas a cyclist knows the benefit of dogging an opponent, of conserving energy by drafting in a fellow rider’s wake before passing at a crucial moment, in competition windsurfing the strategy is almost entirely opposite. For nothing will kill a sailor’s speed more surely than getting too close behind a fellow sailor at the wrong angle.  A talented sailor with a slight distance edge can capitalize on this, especially while cornering around the buoy demarcating the turnaround point for the slalom course – in sailing parlance, this is called jibbing. With the right timing, the lead sailor can literally take the wind from the sails of the trailing sailor; the effects are instant, and often devastating. During the morning slalom runs on the first day at Penghu, more than one trailing sailor finds their sails deflated by the lead sailor rounding the curve. The move is known as “rolling your opponent,” and the sailor who’s been rolled knows they’re in trouble.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

An opponent gets rolled in Penghu

Windsurfing is not an old sport, at least not professionally. Whereas it’s well known in the surfing world that tribesmen on various Pacific islands took to the notion of standing upright on crude board hewn from tree trunks long before the phrase “hang ten” was ever uttered, the combination of surfing and sailing is something that really only came out in the latter half of the 20th century. The first windsurfing boards looked, more or less, like the mutant offspring of a regular longboard and a small sailboat. Cumbersome and difficult to master, the sport nonetheless attracted enough devotees to encourage the development of lighter, faster, and easier to handle equipment. encouraging more neophytes to take to the wind and waves.

Technological breakthroughs have made windsurfing accessible to those who might otherwise be intimidated by the taken martial arts devotion mastering the sport might have taken in decades past; nowadays the tourist can come to a place like Penghu and, after a few hours in the water with a moderate breeze and a good instructor like Alex Mowday, who operates Liquid Sports, Penghu’s oldest windsurfing club & pro shop,  should be able to harness the wind well enough to want to keep coming back.

“The equipment is better, and beginner boards are wider, more stable,” says Mowday. “In Taiwan, the sport is really picking up.”

Considering the fact that, during the days of martial law, and even for several years after, private sailing vessels were forbidden by law, water sports in general have come a long way in Taiwan. Nowadays surfers are a common site on Taiwan’s east coast beaches; two decades ago the few westerners brave or foolish enough to attempt to surf in Taiwan often found their fun curtailed by warning shots from an ROC coast guard boat.  That the local government of a key strategic area like Penghu should be so enthusiastic about promoting windsurfing on the island is a good indicator of just how far the ROC government has stepped away from its traditional defensive war footing.

Penghu has another potential ally in its bid for international recognition as a windsurfing training grounds, albeit one not old enough to shave.  At 16, Penghu native Chang Hao already shows many of the hallmarks of a champion.  With a lithe, compact frame built for speed and an islander’s instinct for the water, Chang Hao handily beats old older, more experienced sailors to take the gold in the morning Masters section on the first day.  The buzz locally and on the circuit is that Chang Hao is a sure pick for either the 2012 Olympics, and possibly even the 2008 competition, which is to be held in Qingdao.  If true, if this native of Penghu gets the chance to go for the gold on the international stage, Penghu’s position as a world class windsurfing training grounds, on par with the Canary Islands or Hawaii, seems assured. Chang Hao, who has already traveled internationally for the sport, takes it for granted that his home island is well on its way to sailing fame.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

“Penghu is better than the Canary Islands, and once word gets out windsurfers will be coming here in greater numbers, to train and to compete.”

It’s a brash statement, based at least partially on local pride. But it isn’t necessarily untrue. Penghu is perfectly suited for windsurfing, thanks to its fengshui – in the most literal sense. The three main islands of the archipelago, flat stretches of land connected by bridges, form a near-perfect horseshoe, with two narrow inlets to the north and one wider one to the south. The arrangement combines perfectly with the prevailing – and usually fierce – winds blowing from north to south, and for most windsurfers, this would be enough.

But for the true speed chasers, Mother Nature herself requires occasional augmentation. Enter the trench.

The trench is basically what it sounds like, a smoothed underwater channel constructed to provide ideal conditions for speed sailing. The local government is currently considering constructing one on one stretch of beach on the east side of Penghu’s main island. If completed, it’s hoped that the trench will become a magnet for the sailors seeking the holy grail of sailing – the thus far elusive speed of 50 knots (the current record, held by Irishman Finian Maynard, is 48.7 knots). Conditions need to be absolutely ideal to allow for this degree of speed, and the water must be absolutely smooth. To facilitate this, a section of the ground beneath is flattened and maintained regularly. Very few areas offer facilities like this for sailors, and by doing so Penghu hopes to increase its profile in the sailing world.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

Surfing the Trench, Penghu, Taiwan

But terraformed ocean floor and just-right winds aside, no record can be set without a champion sailor equipped with the right rig.  In a way, both the current competition and the speed trench project is a lure to try to entice the best in the sport to help transform this barely-known vacation archipelago into a serious destination for water sport enthusiasts. Clearly the local government, already considering a number of schemes to vastly raise Penghu’s profile as potential vacation destination, chief among them less wholesome offerings, such as 24-hour casinos and legalized gambling, is looking at the wind as a major draw.

“We’ve always made good use of the wind, what with our windmills and so forth,” says Caroline Lee, a bilingual young Penghu native acting as a liaison and coordinator for the event. “Its only natural that we should use this asset to attract windsurfers.”

Luckily for all involved, Penghu has other assets besides wind, because by the end of the afternoon Matsu seems to have all but shut the tap, and the forecast for the next two days calls for calm wind and clear skies. While today has been one of judged and scored competitions, it’s likely that the next two will consist of just-for-fun, non-scoring events.  The assembled windsurfers, some of whom have either been on Penghu for several windy days prior to the competition, and others who are planning to stay for the very promising storm currently heading in from the east, take it in stride.

“This is part of the sport,” says Russian Igor Balabashir. “When there is no wind, we wait. Sometimes we play volleyball.”

His countryman, Yuri Markedonski, gets in the last word.

“Also, we drink.”

~~~

Wind Warriors of The Pescadores ran originally in the HK Weekly Standard, 
December 2, 2006. Words and images by Joshua Samuel Brown.

Interested in coming to Penghu to windsurf, kitesurf, bicycle or just enjoy the landscape? Drop me a line.

Interested in more adventures around Taiwan? Formosa Moon is now available for pre-order.

 

Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man

Author’s Note: Outside of my work for Beijing Scene in 1999, Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man was probably my first serious bit of journalism. The brief backstory is that in 1998 I was hired by a company called Cal Safety Compliance to act as a compliance inspector, i.e., Sweatshop Inspector in factories in Taiwan, HK and China. It was an emotionally grueling job, and I lasted less than a year.

Eventually, I went slightly mad and floated around SE Asia for a couple of months before winding up in Beijing to work for Beijing Scene Magazine (where my writing career really started).

In 2000 I was back in the USA, writing for a couple of local magazines in Colorado, and felt like I had the chops to try to get my sweatshop story in front of a wider audience.

I pitched Dog Meat Man to The Nation and was surprised when they commissioned it from me for a whopping $300 bucks. I wrote the story you’re about to read for The Nation in the middle of the year, and though the editor who’d commissioned it swore up and down that she loved it, for whatever reason The Nation kept delaying publication. About a year later, the editor wrote me to tell me it didn’t look like the story would run at all, but she encouraged me to float it around elsewhere. (They still paid me, which was nice.)

So I sent it to an online publication called The Albion Monitor, who ran it with one change. The Editor of the Monitor (who’d I’d go on to write many more stories from China for in the coming years) liked the story. However, he felt that my original title “Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man”, which was inspired by the Chinese phrase 挂羊头卖狗肉 (“Hang sheep’s head sell dog meat”) was a bit too obscure and changed it to the somewhat more direct “Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector”. The article eventually found its way into some academic publications, about which I’m quite proud, and I got letters about it for a few years.

The Albion Monitor continued publishing until the mid-2000’s, but they’ve kept the website up for posterity. This article is still online (as Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector). 

Otherwise, this is the original article. Unlike much of my earlier stuff, I’ve resisted the temptation to re-edit this article (except for including a few new sub-headers). I think it’s still pretty good after all these years.


sweatshop badgeHalfway over the Pacific, it dawns on me that I have no idea what my job is.
It’s October 15, 1998, and twelve hours ago, I was in the southern California offices of an independent monitoring company that inspects factories for safety violations and human rights abuses throughout the world. I had been hired over the phone a few days before. My sole qualification for the job? I speak Chinese and have a friend already working for the company. I assumed that there would be some sort of lengthy training process to teach me how to be a human rights inspector. There wasn’t.

Arriving in Los Angeles, I’m taken to Denny’s by another inspector, then back to the office, where I putter around for a few hours before being driven back to the airport to catch my plane to Taiwan. I tell my manager that I feel a bit unprepared for the task ahead.

“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine,” he tells me, handing me a suitcase full of folders containing the names and addresses of 23 factories in Taiwan and $26 a day for meals.

“You’ll meet your partner in Taiwan, he’ll show you the ropes,” he says, passing me the company handbook. “You can learn about OSHA regulations and the manufacturers’ codes of conduct on the airplane.”

First Day on the Job

My partner’s name is John, but everybody calls him Heart Attack. I find him sprawled on the floor of our Taipei hotel room early the next morning. Pieces of reports, violation sheets and photographs of factories are scattered over the floor. John is rooting through the mess, whining that he’d been awakened by a call from Marty at 4AM, something about a “failure to assess back wages in Saipan.” Heart Attack looks extremely tense. “Back wages, John,” he babbles in a mocking falsetto. “Assess the back wages, don’t forget the back wages.” I introduce myself, telling him I’m to be his partner, and he’s supposed to train me. He looks up at me, eyes wide with loathing.

“Training you?! Me? They’re going to fire me over this Saipan thing, but first they want me to train my own replacement, right? I’m not going to dig my own grave, no thanks!”

Things are tense, and I haven’t even dropped my suitcase yet. I try to defuse the situation by offering to buy him a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby, assuring him that I know nothing about Saipan, or of any plans to fire him. Heart Attack seems to relax.

“Sorry about that,” he says, getting up to shake my hand. “Nobody trained me to assess back wages, you know.”

Not even knowing what he means by “back wages,” I nod dumbly. I’m to spend the next two weeks learning how to be an inspector from Heart Attack. Despite his apparent neurosis, he has the instincts of a bloodhound and proves himself an excellent inspector. On the job just over three months at the time, he’s already considered a veteran at the company.

“This company has a turnover rate higher than most burger joints,” he warns me over coffee.

Learning from Heart Attack

I’m learning from Heart Attack how this business works. Inspectors go into factories all over the world looking for signs of worker exploitation, egregious safety violations, child labor and quota violations. We are paid by our clients, major manufacturers whose stores and products are household names. On a good day, our company earns thousands of dollars from a few international inspections. The inspectors themselves are paid minimal hourly wages, with no benefits. Inspectors are expected to work 70-hour weeks and to be on call 24 hours a day for calls from the L.A. office. The worse a factory is, the more often inspectors are sent, and the more money the company makes.
My first day on the job, Heart Attack and I perform two surprise inspections. The first factory is a re-audit of a factory producing goods for Kmart.

“Man, the last guy they sent really botched this inspection,” Heart Attack says. “Look at this report.” The report is for an inspection performed a year ago. It’s written so generically that the writer could easily have been describing half of the medium-sized cookware factories in Taiwan. The factory had been given a low-risk assessment, ending with the often-used line, “The inspector was unable to find any violations that would be considered a risk at this medium-sized factory.” I think that maybe we were at the wrong facility because the one we are in is an unmistakable hellhole — a dark basement factory with poor ventilation and dangerous equipment. There’s no first-aid kit, and the fire extinguishers expired around the same time as Chiang Kai-shek.

We interview the workers. They tell me they’re paid only half of what they had been promised by contract, and one of the Thai workers confides in me that he wants to run away, but the boss keeps all his documents locked in a safe. I ask them why they didn’t tell this to the last inspector, and they stare at me blankly.

“A foreigner visited last year, but he didn’t talk to us. Was he from your company?”

I bring these problems up to the factory manager, and he looks at me as if I’m insane.

“What problem?!” the manager says. “The last guy say everything OK! I sign paper, he leave! Why you bother me again!?” Later I call into our office and ask a manager just how the previous inspector could have given this sweatshop a low-risk rating. “That guy didn’t work out,” I’m told.

A few days later, Heart Attack and I are in central Taiwan, and I’m learning a lot more about the business. There seems to be an absolute lack of consistency in the attitudes of inspectors working for us.

“Everybody has their own focus,” John tells me. “Like, there are some who I call eye-wash inspectors. They can go into the worst factory in China and head straight for the first-aid kit. They’ll ignore all of the other violations, and write three paragraphs in their report about how there was no eye-wash in the kit. Then they come back home and brag about how they can do five factories a day.” I ask him why these eye-wash inspectors don’t get fired for incompetence. He smirks and rubs his thumb and forefinger together in the universal symbol for payola. “This company cares about quantity, not quality,” John says. We approach the factory, a place producing belt buckles for Calvin Klein. The facility has been under inspection for quite some time, and not by slacking eye-wash inspectors. This place has been thoroughly raked over.

Damning Violations

“Look at this last report!” Heart Attack hands me the previous inspection team’s violation list. It has some pretty damning violations:

  • Dangerous metal-melting chemicals being mixed in vats by workers wearing flip-flop sandals;
  • Overtime not being paid at legal rate;
  • Imported workers denied access to their passports
  • 90 hour work weeks

There is a tacit agreement that what we write in our reports will be read by the manufacturers, who are supposed to pull out of those factories found to be continually in violation of their codes of conduct. Were this truly the case, we would not even be here: This factory has been on the high-risk list for two years. I ask Heart Attack if he thinks the client will pull out of this factory soon, and he snorts derisively.

“We’ve been here five times already, and every time the factory gets a high risk,” says Heart Attack. “Calvin Klein won’t pull out of this factory until we find 9 year-olds chained to arc welders and strung out on speed. The boss knows that we’re only paper tigers.” Nonetheless, I try to convince the boss to mend his ways. Heart Attack is a crude man, a rare breed of sinophile, able to speak Chinese without an ounce of Chinese manners.

I, on the other hand, have spent much of my adult life in Asia. I understand the use of polite shaming. I appeal to the boss’s sense of patriotism and reputation.

“News crews might come here one day,” I tell him, switching from Mandarin Chinese to the native Taiwanese dialect. “The poor conditions we’ve found here might cause a loss of face to both you and the Taiwanese business community. Mainlanders will look at you and tell the world that the Taiwanese have no heart.”

The boss nods politely, promises to make the improvements suggested in our report and invites us to have dinner with him. We decline, explaining that it goes against our own company’s code of conduct. We are forced to give this factory yet another high-risk rating. The owner signs our findings sheet without a glance.

Two weeks after our swing through Taiwan began, Heart Attack and I are trying to get all our reports in before returning to America. We have been awake for 30 hours straight. He tells me we’ve had a successful trip. Of the 23 factories on our list, we found 22 of them and were only denied access to one. Tallying up our profit and loss sheet, we figure that we’ve earned the company more than $20,000 in profit. I’ve been working 13-hour days for two weeks, and am looking forward to reaching San Francisco for some R&R.

While I am excited by my new job, I’m beginning to wonder just whose needs I’m serving. Am I helping the industry clean up its dirty laundry, or just to bury it a little further from the noses of the American consumer?

Going to China

November 15, 1998

There is a long trench with imposing razor ribbon fences on either side, and one bridge running across it. This is the path that leads from Hong Kong to China. This is where I’ll be spending the next three weeks.

It’s my second trip as a sweatshop inspector and my first trip into mainland China. Before leaving the office in L.A., one of the senior inspectors took me aside and told me that “no factory in China should ever get a low-risk rating.” It was explained to me that all factories in China were so far against the clients’ stated codes of conduct that if one were to be given anything other than a high-medium risk, whoever reviewed the report in the office would assume the on-site inspector hadn’t really looked. I naively asked him why we even bothered inspecting factories if we knew that they’d fail; the senior inspector looked at me like I was nuts.

It is also the first trip for my Hong Kong partner, Jack Li. Despite the fact that I’ve been on the job for only one month, I will be training him. Before I leave the office, I’m given a chunk of cash to pay Jack’s salary. His pay is half of my own, with no overtime pay. His per diem food allowance is $6 less than mine. How ironic, going overseas to uncover disparity in the workplace while committing it myself on my employer’s behalf.

I feel disgusted with myself, and decide to split the difference of our per diems between us.

Jack and I inspect a typical Chinese factory a couple of days later. We find almost every violation in the book. The workers are pulling 90-hour weeks. The place has no fire extinguishers or fire exits and is so jammed full of material that a small fire could explode into an inferno within a minute. There are no safety guards on the sewing machines, and the first-aid box holds only packages of instant noodles. Most of the workers are from the inland provinces, so I conduct the employee interviews in Mandarin while leaving Jack to grill the owners in Cantonese.

With the bosses out of earshot, I fully expect the workers to pour out their sorrows to me, to beg me to tell the consumers of America to help them out of their misery. I’m surprised at what I hear.

“I’m happy to have this job,” is the essence of what several workers tell me. “At home, I’m a drain on my family’s resources. But now, I can send them money every month.”

I point out that they make only $100 a month; they remind me this is about five times what they can make in their home province. I ask if they feel like they’re being exploited, having to work 90 hours a week. They laugh.

“We all work piece-rate here. More work, more money.”

The worst part of the day for them, it seemed, was seeing me arrive. “I don’t want to tell you anything because you’ll close my factory and ruin any chances I have at having a better life one day,” one tells me.

I ask if they feel like they’re being exploited, having to work 90 hours a week. They laugh

Jack and I tell the owner that she needs to buy fire extinguishers, put actual first-aid supplies in the first-aid kits, install safety equipment on the sewing machines, and reduce worker hours to below 60 per week. We figure if she takes care of the first two tasks, we’ve helped to make the world a slightly less ugly place.

The Dog Meat Men

It’s too late to hit another factory, so we sit down for some tea with the owner. We’ve just finished faulting her for just about every health, safety, and payroll violation in the book, but she remains an excellent host.

“Thank you for caring so much about our poor Chinese factory workers,” she tells us. “But really, it’s all about profit. If I paid my workers more money, I’d have to raise the price to my buyers, the people who are sending you here to inspect my factory. Do you think they would accept that?”

I try to explain to her that a new consciousness is developing among American consumers and that all of the American garment producers are trying their best to clean up their factories.

Gua yang tou, mai gou rou,” she replies, quoting an old Chinese proverb.

Translated: “Hang a sheep head but serve dog meat.”

“Calvin Klein, Wal-mart, Kathie Lee: They all want the same thing. Chinese labor, the cheaper the better,” she smiles, pouring the tea. “They all want to project a smiling face, to appear to be caring and compassionate, because that makes people feel better about buying the products that have their names.

“But we both know that all they care about is money,” she continues. “If I did all the things you told me to do, my clothing would become more expensive to the manufacturers. Then they would just use a cheaper factory, one in Vietnam or someplace even less regulated than China.”

Finally, it hits me. I understand why my employer doesn’t care if we do a good job or not. We aren’t here to help change anything; we’re only a PR prophylactic. Hiring an industry-friendly “independent” inspection company is the most cost-effective way for the manufacturers to maintain their profits while claiming to care about the people on whose sweat their profits depend.

Jack and I finish our tea, thank the owner for her hospitality, and head back to our hotel,  just a couple of sheep heads working for the dog-meat man.


Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man ran originally as Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector at the Albion Monitor, 9/1/2001. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Inspector Heart Attack, please contact the author at josambro AT gmail.com.

I Get Interesting Gigs (Follow Alana)

Follow AlanaI get interesting gigs here in Taiwan, and since I already can tell this is going to be a series I’ve decided to go with the format “I Get Interesting Gigs” (Name of Gig in ellipses, in this case Follow Alana). I can already tell the little SEO / Readability widget is going to bitch about this. Fine. Every time I look at that damned thing, Henry Miller’s ghost moans louder.   

But read on if you like. Or skip right down to the videos, if you’re more visually inclined.

A few months back I got an email through my day job at MyTaiwanTour from a production company here in Taiwan that does a TV program called Follow Alana.

The long and short of it was that they wanted me to act as on-camera tour guide to the host, a beautiful and charming young woman called Alana who’s made a name for herself here in Taiwan doing a travel program despite the fact that Alana, who is technically speaking Taiwanese, can neither speak nor understand Chinese.

There are sound medical reasons for Alana’s unique state of being, and clicking here will open up a new browser window for the story I did about her for Taiwan Scene Magazine (the aforementioned day job) that’ll explain everything.

Suffice to say, she’s an interesting person.

I was initially too busy to do take the gig, so there wound up being a lot of back and forth. One of the things Alana’s production company was interested in using me for (besides I assume my good looks) was my expertise in Taiwan as a writer and my experience cycling around the island. There was some back and forth through email. I threw out a few ideas, they through out a few ideas, and in the end they decided me that they wanted to use me for their show in which Alana goes to Hsinchu. This turned out to kind of make sense, because while Hsinchu isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when I think of Bicycling in Taiwan, It was one of the first places in Taiwan where I lived for any length of time, so even though this was way back in the 1990’s, I can make the claim to know the place.

So after some more back and forth and trying to align schedules, we set a date to head down to Hsinchu to film the show for a Saturday in March. The day turned out to be unusually chilly for spring in Taiwan, chilly enough to warrant both of us dressing for the weather. Alana wearing a puffy sort of ski jacket, and me being the apparently excellent boyfriend I am, wearing my girlfriend’s hand-knit woolen pink hat with pigtail tassels, along with a long-sleeve black shirt and purple sweatshirt vest.

As we got closer to Hsinchu, the weather turned uglier, and by the time we arrived there a cold rain was falling. The director made the call to film the segment out of sequence.

Whereas in the episode we ride around exploring coastal Hsinchu before stopping off after lunch at a factory making traditional rice noodles for an impromptu cooking lesson, in reality we did the noodle part first.

Josambro and Alana View the Noodles

Viewing the Noodles

A good time was had by all, everything came out fine, and I learned that making rice noodles from scratch was way more complicated an endeavor than you might imagine.

But when we finished the noodle segment, even though it was still early afternoon, the weather was still pretty foul. Filming the cycling sequence just wasn’t going to happen that day. The production team asked me if I was willing to come back to do it later in the week, and being already committed, I said sure.

A few days later I got a text saying that the shoot had been rescheduled for Wednesday, and that it was vitally important that I wear exactly the same clothing as I’d worn on Saturday.

This is where it gets interesting, because on Wednesday morning  I left my Taipei apartment wearing the same sweatshirt and ski hat combination under full tropical sunshine at like 7:30 AM. By the time we got to Hsinchu, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty degrees Fahrenheit.

Follow Alana Josambro

I met up with Alana on the coast, where we would start off by picking up a few bicycles for basically a half-day of cycling along the ocean. It was definitely no longer puffy ski-type jacket and woolen hat weather, yet to maintain appearances, we had no choice but to shoot all of our scenes that day wearing the same clothes we’d worn inside the noodle factory.

Josambro cycling with Alana

Cycling in the shade with Alana

We wound up cycling under the hot sun in ski wear into the early afternoon, when we switched to kite flying. (I’d brought my own kite, about which I am extremely proud.)

Shooting a travel segment isn’t exactly what you might imagine; it isn’t like we were just doing our own thing while being filmed. There was a whole lot of “Ride up that hill again, but this time tell Alana about the Mangroves” and “Let’s try riding that road again, only this time you need to be on Alana’s right side so we get a better shot.

For Alana (a stone-cold professional) it was just another day at the office.  For me, not so much. Every time we stopped to get new directions, I took off the knit hat and unzipped the sweatshirt. The production crew were pretty cool about it.

A few days ago I got two files from the production company, the first a promo that’s currently running on Taiwan TV for the segment:

And the second, a four-minute clip they cut together for me:

Finally, a few months later, and *voila* ~ the full episode.

(For the record, I have no idea where they got the idea that my nickname was “Windchaser” – though the kite is my own.)