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 dies a little more.   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 uniquw 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:

The full show will be on YouTube at some point, and I’ll post a link.

Alpacas and Kitties and Coffee (Oh My)

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 2

Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe was someplace we’d been meaning to visit for almost a year but hadn’t made it to for a variety of strange reasons. We’d heard about it last year, a large cafe and restaurant in Sanzhi, a town located about 30 minutes north of Taipei city’s northernmost MRT stop in Tamsui. Though you’ll find it online by searching any variation of “Alpaca Cafe Taiwan,” the name of the place is Oia Art Cafe. The Chinese name 草泥馬, pronounced cǎonímǎ sounds dirty if you say it fast, at least according to our friend Candice who accompanied us. But Taiwan Alpaca Cafe would be a good name as well, since it’s a cafe whose claim to total uniqueness is the fact that a pair of extremely friendly – maybe even overly friendly  snow-white Alpacas wander the floor entertaining diners.

Pet Cafes in Taiwan

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 10

Animal-themed cafes aren’t a new phenomena in Taiwan, and while I’ve been to several good cat cafes (not as many as my friend Pauline, who’s chronicled a bunch of them at her blog The Neighbor’s Cat ), I’ve also visited a number of spots claiming to be animal cafes on fairly thin grounds. A bored house-cat or two, a few bits of dog-related artwork, that sort of thing.

Our group of four got there mid-day on a Saturday, and within ten seconds of walking through the front door it was clear that Oia Art Cafe wasn’t just going to live up to its reputation, but totally exceed it. The place was crowded with couples and families with kids, all happily eating ice cream and french fries, sipping coffee and soda as Snow and Li Bai wandered from table to table like celebrity restaurant owners interacting with customers. As our hostess (who spoke pretty good English – we found out later that this was her first day on the job at the Oia) weaved us towards our table, Snow, the larger of the pair came over to check us out, and I could almost imagine it sizing us up to see how many carrot sticks we’d be good for.

We sat, ordered lattes, fries, waffles and a few other items, and long before our items had arrived Snow had already decided that one of us had something that she wanted. The someone turned out to be Tobie, and the something, apparently was salt, or to be more specific, sweat. Tobie had been out all morning at an outdoor wedding, and while hardly odoriferous in any way, Snow’s keen nose detected that his shirt contained nourishing electrolytes and proceeded to chew it gently on and off for the duration of our stay.

Alpaca Cafe Tobie Shirt Collage

My own garments were worth barely a sniff.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 1Prized by knitters, alpaca fur is cloud-soft and known for its durability and warmth-retaining properties. As an integral part of an animal that’s nuzzling your armpit and demanding cuddling, its pretty safe to say alpaca fur is the creme brule of animal fur in general. As we sipped our lattes (which were strong and excellent) and ate our food (which was pretty good pub fare), both of the Alpacas made the rounds and nuzzled us before moving onto other customers.

 

After finishing our coffee, we headed out back to a larger area housing a small flock of brown alpacas on one side and a tribe of goats on the other. Both animals were friendly enough to be pet, but clearly not hygienic enough to be allowed inside of the dining area. I’ve long had an affinity for goats, and while alpacas are Oia Art Cafe’s main attractions, I found the pygmy goats friendly and seemingly some of the more intelligent of the cafe’s resident animals.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 3

 

Meeting The Alpaca Godfather

Heading back inside, I was approached by a man sporting a magnificent mullet. This was Michael, the Oia’s owner, and while chatting about what inspired him to open the cafe in the first place, my first thought was that Michael may well be a contender for the title of “World’s Greatest Dad.”

“My daughter really loved alpacas, and we used to watch films about them on the internet. The more we watched, the more she fell in love with them, so we flew down to New Zealand and imported some.”

You can watch the rest of the interview in the film below (most interesting not so much for the noisy multilingual conversation as for the fact that you can watch Snow and Li Bai greeting customers in the background). But if you’re more into bullet points from this and later conversations with Michael:

  • The Oai has been open for almost five years.
  • Some of the alpacas were imported from New Zealand, and the younger ones were born in Taiwan.
  • Snowy and Li Bai are the two who have been raised with humans the longest, and are therefore the only two “House Alpacas”. They get bathed and groomed a few times a week, while the ones in the back lead a bit more of a hippie lifestyle.
  • Michael has been a lover of unusual animal-related business ventures for most of his life. An earlier animal-related business endeavor involved raising donkeys to make Pule, a Serbian cheese made from the milk of donkeys which, at over USD $1,000 per kilo is probably the most expensive cheese in the world. (I’d never heard of Pule, and asked Michael how his came out. “I was not successful,” he answered.)
  • In addition to the alpaca cafe, Michael also raised a small group of very unusual Mangalica, woolly pigs originally from Hungary, on a farm he owned in the mountains. (“They are very cute, but also quite delicious,” Michael told me, mentioning that he also sold sausage made from the unusual, apparently tasty, swine.)

Of Course There Were Cats

Michael turned out to be a wonderful host, and in addition to the indoor alpacas, their outdoor brethren, the pygmy goats and the off-site woolly pigs, he also counts among his extended menagerie a pride of Savannah cats bred from a group he’d brought from the United States. I’d seen a few of these when I came in, but it turned out he had many more upstairs in the floor below his living quarters.

“If you like cats, I can take you to visit them.”

How could we say no?

A criticism that’s been made against certain American situation comedies involving 20-30 year old’s living together in generally super-expensive cities like New York and LA is that their apartments are way too big for any actual 20-30 year old’s to ever be able to afford. The space that these cats had was kind of like that, if it had been designed by cats. The area, about half as big as the cafe downstairs, was mostly taken up by an enclosed area with huge windows and a series of catwalks leading to perches, ledges and other feline walkways. There was even an old sofa that had been turned into a massive scratching post.

Inside, abut a dozen of the most beautiful cats we’d ever seen sat, lay, reclined, played and otherwise were doing what cats do.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 6

“Just don’t let them downstairs,” Michael said. “They can be naughty.”

We went inside for a visit with Michael’s feline family while he told us how he’d fallen in love with this specific breed, which looked like miniaturized leopards, on a trip to America. The cats were typically cat-like, alternating between demanding attention, rubbing against our legs and ignoring us entirely.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 8

Heading back downstairs, Michael asked us if we wanted to head to the farm to see the woolly pigs.

“Let’s save it for the next visit,” I said. “I get the feeling we’re going to be regulars here.”

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 11

Getting to Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe

The Oia Art Cafe (Oia伊亞藝術咖啡館) is located in Sanzhi in
New Taipei City. The address is Sanzhi District, 252新北市三芝區後厝里北勢子12-1號. Your best bet if you’re not in a car or on a bike is to take the MRT to Tamsui (also spelled Danshui) and hop in a taxi or on a bus to Sanzhi. The trip from Tamsui station takes about 40 minutes.

Visit them on Facebook

Like reading heartwarming and somewhat off-kilter tales about Travel in Taiwan (often involving animals, puppets and the occasional funeral? We’ve got a whole book of ’em called Formosa Moon! Buy it at Amazon now.


 

Taiwan Fight Club

Mixed Martial Arts in Taipei

Taiwan Fight Club. (Photos by David Hartung)

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

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

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

“You’re going down, white boy.”

My last shred of confidence evaporates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ref turned to address the crowd.

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back where we came in.

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

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

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

I am not having fun.

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

The referee pulls us apart.

“You OK?” He yells.

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

I am clearly outclassed.

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

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

Kyle emerges clutching his prize beach towel.

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

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

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

I was too pretty to be a prizefighter.

~~~

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