Tag Archives: Taiwan

Grace versus brute force: Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan

It’s five in the afternoon at Hsinchu’s Municipal Stadium, inside of which a crowd of about twelve hundred have gathered, their vibe rowdy, but polite. Welcome to the world of Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan.

Heavy Metal music blares over loudspeakers, and around the still-empty battle octagon, anticipation mingles with dry-ice fog.  Outside of the stadium doors an ambulance sits waiting.  “Just in case,” announces an event organizer.

Welcome to the world of MMA – Mixed Martial Arts – in Taiwan

The concept of MMA is simple: Fighters trained in different schools and styles compete. They are matched up roughly by height and weight, but this is generally where their similarities end.  A typical MMA match might see a Kung Fu fighter going toe-to-toe with a wrestler, a judoka may be pitted against a boxer, or a jujitsu master might find himself facing a straight-up barroom brawler.

Grace versus brute force. Strikers fighting grapplers. Pit bulls against alligators.

The first round pits two roughly-evenly matched strikers against one another.  It is over before I can get any meaningful notes.

MMA in Taiwan 1

Mixed Martial Arts in Taiwan, Round One

The second round begins similarly, with both fighters trading blows and displaying beautiful striking form.  However, it’s clear that one of the fighters, a Taiwanese with blue gloves and buck teeth, is more interested in grappling than striking.   In short order, he drags his opponent down gets him in a classic triangle hold with his legs. Pulling him tighter and tighter, the grappler looks like a python taking its time with its prey – and the conclusion is foregone by the one minute mark. Hold broken by the bell, the two men embrace like long lost brothers – a beautiful moment in man-to-man combat.

The crowd is getting more worked up as the third round opponents come out, the first match pitting a local fighter against a western import.  Lin, a freestyle Kung fu fighter looks nervous early on but still draws first blood from his opponent, James, an American whose listed skills include Brazilian jujitsu and some sort of Muy Thai hybrid.  But Lin is a striker, clearly unprepared for James’ plan B, which entails pulling his opponent to the ground and quickly pummeling him into submission.

MMA in Taiwan

“These Kung Fu guys get wiped out”

“These kung fu guys get wiped out,”  Paulo, a NYC native working in Hsinchu says to me as James is declared the winner. “Kung fu is a soft art.”

I agree with him. The other guy didn’t have the eye of the tiger.

It’s in the next round that the meaning of “just in case” becomes clear.  Victor is a Canadian specializing in Taikwondo and freestyle fighting, and his opponent is a shorter, thicker kick boxer with massive legs.

“Look at those legs,” Says Paulo. “The Canadian is going to go for the legs first.”

Paulo’s words are frighteningly prescient, as Victor comes out after the bell and, using his longer reach, begins systematically chopping his opponent’s legs as if they were wood. Both men are strikers, but deprived of his legs the Taiwanese kick boxer is powerless.  Victor lunges with a devastating punch to the head, dropping his opponent like a dead tree.

Down for the count

Down for the count

For a full three minutes the crowd buzzes with nervous excitement as the smaller fighter stays down, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling high above.  It is an ugly end to a brutal match, and a collective sigh of relief is breathed when the smaller fighter stands. He leaves the ring beaten, and possibly concussive, but vertically – proving the maxim that any fight you can walk away from is a good one.

The event goes into intermission. A good excuse for the drinkers in the audience to sneak more beer (Verboten in the stadium, being city property) and for me to get a few photos of the event’s beautiful and scantily-clad ring girls.

MMA in Taiwan

Me and the Beer Girls

The fifth match – the first after the break – is a quick one. Wu and Cheng seem equally matched, being roughly the same size and practitioners in disciplines involving both striking and grappling.  But again, it boils down to that elusive psychological aspect.  The look on Wu’s face tells the story. He seems nervous. His opponent, red-gloved Cheng, seems not merely confident but angry.  Wu gets in a few strikes, but these are matched by Cheng who quickly takes him to the mat.  Wu struggles, striking in so far as he is able, but as Cheng holds him firm from behind Wu’s blows fail to land with any meaning.   After less than thirty seconds of ground struggle, Wu strikes his final blow, not on Cheng but to the ground,  the internationally accepted cry of “Uncle!”   The sound of air filling Wu’s lungs competes with the roar of the crowd.

Wu and Chang, not so evenly matched.

Wu and Chang, not so evenly matched.

The next match is between a French mixed martial artist / Judoka and a Taiwanese striker.  It is a round completely devoid of foreplay as the Frenchman gets down to business quickly. Any dubiousness I feel about the applications of Judo in a mixed match ring are quickly dispelled. Within the first five seconds the Frenchman has his opponent in a choke hold, and the striker can get neither leverage to break the hold nor opportunity to punch his way out. Before a minute has passed, the striker is pinned, and the Frenchman declared the winner.

The seventh round is a painful mismatch. Sammy is a South African with the build, swagger and paunch of a barroom brawler. His fighting style, according to several ringside friends who know him, is simply “South African.”   His opponent, Wu, while of the same weight class, is close to a twelve centimeters shorter and in reach.  To make matters even stranger, Wu comes out wearing a cheaply made cloth gladiator costume. “Is this some sort of a psyche out,” I wonder. “What sort of a fighter comes out against a monster dressed like a Chinese court jester?”

Remembering the words of Sun Tzu advising the strong to appear weak,  I begin to entertain the idea that this might indeed be a psychological ploy.  This is swiftly dispelled at the fourteen second mark.  Sammy’s first blow, a knee to the face (or, as they say in the back streets of Cape Town, “n Snotklap teen die kop”) knocks Wu unconscious.

Audience Watching the fight

Audience Watching the fight

The South African giant is graceful in victory. “It seems we have a little extra time here,” he begins, before launching into a good-natured soliloquy that ends with an invitation for the audience to join him in a post-brawl barbecue.

It’s during the last fight that the beauty, majesty, and brutality of MMA truly comes to life.  Wu Dongxing  is a Taiwanese brawler, a specialist in a kind of striking and kicking art known as Sanda.  Weighing in at 105 kilos and 175 cm, Wu’s build could charitably be described as portly.  His opponent, American-born Pete, though ten kilos lighter, is also a head taller. A student of Brazilian Jujitsu at a respected Filipino Martial arts academy, Pete (who begins the match with humility, kneeling in prayer in the center of the ring) seems to outclass his heavy opponent.

This final match, and with it the event, seems poised to end quickly.  Faster, more agile, and with more moves than Wu, Pete circles his opponent like a shark, every now and then lunging in for a blow.  The fat man absorbs most of these, seemingly unconcerned with even rudiments like blocking.  Whereas Pete is dancing, using footwork, Wu just stands there, rooted to one spot. Until, that is, the western fighter gets in close.

MMA in Taiwan

Beauty and the Beast

There is a heavy thud, like the sound made by a truck hitting a cow. Wu’s sledgehammer of a foot connects with his opponent’s midsection. As  Pete grimaces in pain, wu stands still, his posture saying come closer, have another.

Pete, chastened, dances more carefully around Wu, carefully aiming blows of varying style and intensity to his heavy opponent’s face, head, and body.  Wu absorbs them all, not seeming to react to any in particular. But collectively, they are taking their toll, and the blows, along with the effort of moving his own weight around the ring, seem to portend the end is near.

Or is it? Wu is striking slowly now, with neither charm nor grace, landing only one blow in three. But each that lands seems to make Pete a little more careful, a little more reluctant to move in for the kill.

A punch is thrown, and caught, and soon the pair are on the ground. Wu is on his back, and at first glance it looks like the heavier fighter is being pinned. Only when I move closer do I see that Wu has Pete in a vicious chokehold, pulling the back of the taller fighter’s head into his fat stomach, growling like a wounded bear.

The American is in agony, his neck twisted backwards. He must be running out of air. He lashes out at the only target available, the sides of the fat fighter’s stomach. The clench is held for over a minute, the taller fighter trying desperately to break his opponent’s grip, managing eventually to do so with his left arm.

Wu is still on the ground. Pete is winded.  Both stand up and assess the damage slowly.

More ring work. Wu launches himself head first like a cannonball into Pete’s midsection, smacking him back into the octagon gate. The ground shakes.  Both men are breathing hard. The bell rings, and for the first time tonight a match goes into round two. Wu leans into the gate as his friends try to staunch the bleeding from a cut above his eye. Across the octagon, Pete may be wondering about the efficacy of his pre-match prayers.

The bell rings again, and the fighters come out for round two. Both are exhausted, bloody and battered. Both seem chastened, as if they’d underestimated their opponents. Wu is still breathing hard, and Pete dances around him, launching fist after fist into Wu’s face with horrifying cracking sounds.  Wu is bleeding from both nostrils now, and Pete is grimacing as well.  His body language suggests that the cracking sound just heard was that of his own fist breaking on Wu’s nose.  Wu tries to launch a roundhouse kick but, exhausted and slow, fails to connect. Pete, knowing another kick might be his last, has no intention of getting that close. He continues dancing.

The end comes without drama. Wu, eyes nearly swollen shut, backs into one end of the Octagon while his opponent remains at a distance.  The referee calls a quick pause to inspect Wu’s badly damaged face; whether it’s the fighter or the ref who makes the call is unclear, but the determination is made that Wu should not be allowed to continue.   The crowd screams as Pete is declared the winner. Bleeding but unbowed, the portly Wu exits the octagon with his entourage.

The end came quickly

The end came quickly

Somewhere in my head, I hear the nasal, ghostly voice of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell:

A brutal end to a brutal match in a brutal sport; Not since Santa spent Christmas delivering presents during the great reindeer strike of ’57 has a fat man tried so valiantly to beat the odds. And for that, you just have to give him credit. 

~~

Special Thanks to Tobie Openshaw for suggesting the phrase “n Snotklap teen die kop”)

Taiwan: from Bike Kingdom to Cyclist’s Paradise

One of two articles generated from my recent Taiwan trip, sponsored by the Taiwan Trade Association.  Story begins here, click link to follow on to Topics Magazine, wherein lies the original in its digital glory (with photos):

Taiwan: from Bike Kingdom to Cyclist’s Paradise

“Ni Fengle!” (You’re crazy!)

I remember fondly those words, spoken by my Taiwanese landlady Ms. Yeh on hearing my plan to cycle to Taipei from our shared home in Shuangshi, a small town on the outskirts of the Hsinchu Science Park. She’d never seen a man clad head to toe in skin-tight spandex and apparently found my costume shocking.  But Ms. Yeh was not alone in thinking me mad. Ours was a small town, and as the strange foreign transplant I was often Shuangshi’s unofficial source of entertainment. Before I’d gotten past the betel nut stand marking the town’s edge, several neighbors had come out to wish me well on my journey, with more than a few casually dropping a derogatory comment about the helmet.

It was Spring 1995, and while Taiwan was being called The Bicycle Kingdom…

(continue reading here)

Taiwan as my literary muse

I was honored last month with an offer to speak on the subject of Taiwan in Literature and Taiwan as my literary muse at a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival called  “The Beautiful Island: Taiwan in the Literary Imagination.”

The panel will be held on June 4 at 11:45am, and if you’re interested in showing up, come to the Journey’s Stage at the Osher Studio (map here) in downtown Berkeley.  

The invitation comes at an interesting time for me personally, as I’m working on the second draft of my novel Spinning Karma, a story in which Taiwan plays a major role. (Currently in deep edit of the middle act, or the muddle. Fellow writers will know what I’m talking about.)

Taiwan, due to its strange geopolitical status, can be a tricky muse. Yet its been mine for as long as I can remember. So long, in fact, that I sometimes forget why. An incident a few days ago reminded me.

Specifically, a friend of mine got run over. By a truck. In Taiwan.

(No, this is not the stuff of usual travel writing!)

So as not to risk burying the lede, this friend is fine (at least as fine as can be expected after such an event) and already planning his return trip to ride around Taiwan in the autumn.

I met Jeff Barth last year after taking a gig as consultant and tour guide with a company called Bicycle Adventures.  We led two tours 11-day together through Taiwan last autumn, and got to know each other pretty well. (Spending close to a month in hotel rooms with a guy you’ve just met will do that.)

Though I couldn’t do the spring trip, Jeff and I have remained friends and I’ve been following his current cycling trip through over Facebook, happy to see that a new group of people are learning to love cycling in Taiwan.

So naturally, I was concerned a few days ago to see a photo of Jeff laid up in a hospital bed. The photos had been posted not by him but by one of the drivers from the group, Simon Lee.  I made a few calls and found out what happened. Near as I can tell, the details were Windy road, fast descent, and a truck driver who….well, Jeff said it best on his own Facebook post a few hours later:

“He is a good man who made a terrible mistake.”

Jeff made the quip after the driver came to visit him, both to make amends verbally through a translator and to work out a reparation plan. The post was beneath this photo.

Inline image 1

Jeff, shaking hands with the driver through a hole in the bicycling jersey he’d been wearing when hit.

 

For me, the take-away from this is that decency is so ingrained in Taiwanese society that even an incident as objectively awful as being run over by a truck can end on a positive note. Something…life affirming, even.

Which brings me back to thoughts of Taiwan as my muse.

Though it’s been ten years since I wrote my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan, it remains the one I’m still most proud of. Some of the stories in it are more of the travel journalism variety, while others are more personal vignettes. Of the latter category, about half fall under the category stories about things not going as planned.

These include

The Unhappy Affair at Happy Kids Kindergarten (Getting hauled in by the police for teaching at an unlicensed school)….Fight Club (having my ass kicked by a kid half my age, in front of an audience no less)…Shotgun Wedding (a cultural misunderstanding turns a first date very awkward).

These things were not fun while they were happening. (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they didn’t suck as much in the moment as, say, two bone fractures requiring surgery; in my defense, the cop who interrogated me for four hours in Hsinchu didn’t offer me codeine first.)

But the events made for good stories, made all the more good by the fact that they a) taught me things, and b) ended well.

Taiwan has never bored me, often taught me, and has yet to kill me.

Could anyone ask for a better muse?

Get well soon, Jeff, and see you on the road!

48 Hours Around Taiwan – Travel Journalism By Bicycle

Cycling in Taiwan

Taken somewhere on the road from our 2015 Taiwan cycling tour.

48 Hours Around Formosa – Travel Journalism by Bicycle


My most recent travel journalism article – with many excellent photos -just came out in Road Bike Action Magazine.

It began with a countdown: San…er…yi…

And with an air horn’s blast they were off, 186 cyclists determined to test the upper limits of their endurance by riding close to 1000 kilometers in 48 near sleepless hours. They came from both sides of the Taiwan Straits, with a couple of European riders thrown in for good measure. If pre-race chatter was anything to go by, there was little in the way of cross-strait tension in the air. Whether from Beijing or Taipei, Shanghai or Kaohsiung, each knew they’d be facing the common enemies of pain, cramping and sheer exhaustion as they attempted to ride the perimeter of Taiwan. What would differ from rider to rider would be their own inner voices. Whether it told them jia you! (keep going!) more often than ...bu neng! (…cannot!) would make all the difference.

(Continue reading at Road Bike Action)

 

Two in the morning…

   …on tour bus with a number of the cyclists who have dropped out of the 48 hour marathon ride around  Taiwan. Like them, I am pretty much beyond exhaustion at this point, having woken up this morning jetlagged at 3 AM, and been on the move all day following this marathon 48 endurance slog, 980 km of fun.   Very few photos that are uploadable from my phone, as I have largely been focused on shooting high resolution photos for a possible photo essay for outside.com. An interesting combination of lenses, angles and camera settings, and hopefully some good timing will make some of the photos good enough to show.

 In the meantime, some numbers of interest:
Number of cyclists starting the ride 14 hours and roughly 400 km ago: approximately 200 (have been unable to get a verified account from race organizers who are busy with other things at this point).

 Number of cyclists checked in at first meal break at Zhunan, 3.5 hours and 119 km after start: 89. (for this reason I am dubious about the first number, and less there were just a bunch of people who signed up just to ride the first hundred or so kilometers.)

Number of cyclists still competing at Mailiao rest stop, 140 km and 4 hours later: 49.

Number of cyclists leaving the checkpoint following the 30 minute break in Tainan, 110 km and 4 hours later: 36.

The number for cyclists I just got from the tour organizers. Time and distance is from the route guide, and may not be 100% accurate as I am far past the point of being able to do simple math, with or without a calculator. 

 

48-hour Taiwan Cycle Marathon – Taiwan Journalism

Cycling in Taiwan

Co-leading a tour around Taiwan with Bicycle Adventures, October 2015.. This shot taken in the Rift Valley.

48-hour Taiwan Cycle Marathon – Taiwan Journalism


The Taiwan Cycling Marathon is a tenacious 1000 kilometer slog around the perimeter of the leaf-shaped subtropical island. The race draws 150 of the crème de la crème of the Asian cycling scene to Taiwan each year.



I had to be aggressive from the start, literally leaping over my seatmate on flight 31 from Vancouver. We’d both spotted the empty row of seats to the right at about the same time, but I’d been slightly quicker. She was from Shanghai, and I needed to stretch out and sleep more than she did. I needed to bank the rest desperately for the race, 48 hours around Taiwan.

The race was a marathon, the second year it was to run, bringing 150 of the crème de la crème of the Asian cycling scene for a tenacious 1000 kilometer slog around the perimeter of the leaf-shaped subtropical island, and, having scored a place on a team’s support vehicle I was committed, specifically to somehow being as close to several places simultaneously as possible. Yes, the Taiwan Trade Association had invited me, sprung for a fine hotel close to the convention center with a generous meal stipend in exchange for which I’d be writing up the show itself, four days of the finest, latest and shiniest in the bicycle kingdom.

But there was the matter of the race itself, which was, as these things go, connected with the show in the ethereal way that connections often exist in Taiwan. The race would start at the Cycle show mid-way through the first day before taking off in a sprint to circle the island. And somehow I’d be following it, while at the same time maintaining something of a presence at the show itself, or at least showing up with enough energy 48 hours later, which would be midway through the third day of a four day event, to cover the final day and a half of the event.

So the reader can understand why I jumped with great aggression at the chance for a halfway normal night’s sleep on the plane, risking the stigma of rudeness to do so.

After a brief rest and brilliant breakfast at the Proverbs Hotel in Taipei, I headed out to Nangang to start work, attending the opening ceremony for the show. In the midst of listening to a presentation, leather-clad arms grabbed me from behind. It was Vicki, with whom I worked last year, and who was now expecting me to ride shotgun for the increasingly detrimental to my sanity 48-hour race around the island. She pulled me away from the main convention over to the north entrance, where some riders had already gathered for the pre-race laying out of rules, about which I’ll write with greater clarity when I’m back from the race, which kicks off in 3 hours.

Off to the convention center for a few hours of business journalism before being sucked southward in a whirlwind of extreme marathon sports journalism, followed by what promises to be an extremely disheveled return to the Taipei Cycling Show for another day and a half of business journalism. I should have been born twins. Follow this spot. Tell your friends.

Hengchaun Wall Taiwan

On the wall in Hengchuan

 

 

 

 

Aside

Packing and otherwise getting stuff together in preparation for my upcoming trip to the 2016 Taipei Cycle Expo, once again a guest of the very gracious folks at the Taiwan Trade Association (TAITRA for short). Need to head out to … Continue reading