Sunday, December 31, 2006


Hello from Nangan, Matsu

Just saying "hi" from Matsu (馬祖). My room on Nangan (南竿) island has internet access, hooray! Also, I can see Dalu (大陸, the mainland) from my room window! I'll post more when I get back to Taiwan and put all my pictures up.

Yesterday I zipped around Beigan (北竿) island and saw the very militant Peace Memorial Park (和平紀念公園), the ancient village of Chinbi (芹壁), and the dark forboding entrance of Beihai Tunnel (北海坑道).

Actually there are two Beihai Tunnels, one on Beigan island and one on Nangan island. The one on Beigan island has less protection from the ocean, and since the waves were pretty strong on the day I was there, I couldn't actually enter the tunnel as it was too dangerous.

The Beihai tunnel on Nangan island, however, has more protection from the ocean currents so I was able to take a walk around inside. It's very big! I will have to show you the video I took from within the tunnel.

Also, people here in Matsu do speak a completely different language called the Fuzhou dialect (福州話) or Northern Min (民北語). The Fuzhou dialect and Northern Min are just different words to describe the same language.

By the way, I've discovered that Northern Min is really quite different from Southern Min (閩南語). I'm sure that if you only speak Southern Min and Mandarin, you will understand almost nothing of what is spoken in Northern Min. Anyways, I recorded some people speaking Northern Min. If you are interested, I want to play some of the recordings in class. Sorry for being such a linguist, but it's very fun!

Until we meet again, I'll be "sleeping on spears, awaiting the dawn". ("__戈待旦", I can't type the first character!)

If you're wondering how my mission to buy the renminbi (人民幣) in the ROC is going, well let's just say it's Sunday, so the banks are closed. The boss of this hotel says he'll try and help me tomorrow. I think that's only if he has time though, and tomorrow is my last day in Matsu.

Nobody can seem to figure out why I, a foreigner, would possibly want or need renminbi because they don't typically accept it here let alone trade it to foreigners to take back to the island of Taiwan where it's used essentially never. That being said, the boss of the B&B that I stayed at on Beigan island last night said that it definitely is possible for me to change New Taiwan Dollars (新台幣) into renminbi, but only because the hotel boss here on Nangan island who has heard my request could be willing to use his own name to apply for the purchase of a small amount of renminbi without specifying any upcoming travel plans to the mainland.

Until tomorrow, I'll be sleeping on spears, awaiting the dawn, always on alert. To my readers, family, friends and students, Happy New Year from Nangan Island, Matsu, Lienchiang County, Fujian Province, ROC!

FYI: "Sleeping on spears, awaiting the dawn" is a quotation from Chiang Kai-shek to his faithful army on Kinmen and Matsu to be prepared at any time to retake the mainland. Boy how times have changed, but you'd have to come to Matsu to see how they haven't. Or just take a look at my upcoming pictures, to be posted sometime around the first or second week of January.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Chewin' the Beetlenut 有吃了台灣口香糖

I finally did it. After chatting up some South Africans by chance at the KFC, I went to go pick up some large intestine noodles 大腸麵線 to take back to my gf. If you can imagine, the large intestine noodles were...

sold out! Popular item! No worries, though. There was still a heapin' helpin' of stinky tofu available, so I decided to give the gf a replacement order and get the stinky tofu.

As I was waiting for the delicacy to be prepared, a Taiwanese man with red teeth came up to me and asked me in pretty good English where I'm from. When I said Vancouver, he said that he lived there for one year in a homestay, on Hastings near the PNE.

Not long after the introduction niceties, he asked me if I would like some beetlenut. I said not really. I wanted to explain that if I was going to try beetlenut for the first time, I might as well have my camera on hand to record the event. That I didn't have my camera on me, well, that wasn't gonna stop him from giving me some of the beetlenut, insisting me, in all manner of the warmest Taiwanese hospitality, that this drug was on him.

It was a small high, and my new dealer watched with amusement my slow, careful reaction to the odd sensation of having licorice-flavoured red goo cake my teeth. Then they offered me more drugs (i.e. more beetlenut) and their finest Beetlenut-dealing woman (a Taiwanese custom). I politely declined both. Then I put my stinky tofu in the scooter seat, revved up the engine and, while still chomping on the red fibres, drove home which, because Taiwan is so small, was just around the corner.

Tomorrow I'm off to Matsu. It is my goal to buy some renminbi while I'm there, bring it back and spend it here in Taiwan. Maybe I'll only buy 100 RMB, one hour's worth of an native English teacher's pay on the mainland, but I just want to see if it can be done.

My adult students say that bringing renminbi to Taiwan is legal, but they also tell me not to bring too much, because they say that there's not much I can do with renminbi on this side of the strait. That being said, I've heard there may be a black market for renminbi in Taiwan in the very near future if ROC currency controls aren't relaxed soon. Selling or using renminbi in Taiwan might be the most difficult part of my goal. I may have to go to some mainland Chinese tourist areas over here like Sun Moon Lake or Alishan. Apparently some hotels in those areas will accept renminbi.

Other than that, all I know is that it's probably going to be cold, windy and probably rainy in Matsu, and that I probably won't be able to put in a new blog entry until the New Year is already upon us. So if I don't get the chance between now and the 1st,
Happy New Year from the Strange Laowai!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


A Whole Lot of Shakin' 地震來了

But I'm all right. I thought I'd quickly write a blog entry about "the earthquake", because I noticed that it made international headlines at the CBC website and at a website from the Basque region of France/Europe not to mention several others. In the end though, I didn't see any damage in Taichung. That doesn't mean some people didn't get jittery though.

I was at work at the time, takin' a leak
when I noticed the bathroom door started to squeak
I wasn't so sure if my colleagues could feel it
back to the front and the people were reelin

trippin way back to nine twenty-one
Taichung City shakin' all undone
some folks thought T-City mess was fo' real
they hadn't yet seen the even bigguh deal

Way out in the County
Mother Nature took her bounty
Injury, death or sickness
Served up with a quickness

Nantou, Puli, Jiji and Taiping
These are the places without a silver lining
Buildings they crumbled and roads they buckled
Shaken little children weren't up for a chuckle

Even today, if you look really closely
you can see scars on 8-year-old kids mostly
that's why the teachers and the bosses they worry
when the shakin' starts, you take cover in a hurry

The YMCA Beitun branch building where I work during the evenings is a very safe building because it's on the 5th floor of a 9 storey building that houses a major bank. Buildings that house banks are usually built really solid. There are even visible solid pillars at the back of some classrooms, pillars that run up and down through the entire building. By the pillars might be a good place to curl up during shaking.

Running outside is a terrible earthquake strategy in most urban Taiwanese landscapes owing to a lack of open space. In addition to huge buildings with glass exteriors, streetlights, power lines and large Chinese signs that dangle precariously from the building exteriors, there is also the routinely oblivious traffic and the gas stations where people light up cigarettes and leave their engines running when filling up their cars. Heck, there is one such gas station kitty corner to the Beitun YMCA now that I think about it. It's just going to take one explosion, one explosion on the whole island to lead to a nationwide shift in how people fill up their cars. In my opinion, the Taiwanese authorities are mostly concerned with cleaning up after a disaster rather than with preparing to prevent them before they happen.

Anyways, one could get killed by an errant speeding bus crossing the street in any country, that's what they say. I guess I better move to the countryside where the houses are more likely to fall down but the outside environment is just a hair's breadth less likely to kill you in an earthquake.

People in my workplace in Taichung were jittery on the evening of December 26th, 2006, I'll tell you that much. Recurring nightmares of the horrors of the 921 earthquake (on September 21st, 1999), centred in Nantou County, Central Taiwan, are still strongly felt, like the long dark shadow of the Grim Reaper himself (and I'm crass enough to write bad rap about it).

Matsu's next on Strange Laowai's smorgasbord.

Friday, December 22, 2006


A Trip to the Matsu Archipelago 馬祖旅遊

It's a Friday night and I'm enjoying two Christmas gifts my adult students gave to me at the end of this week, just slightly before Christmas:

As you may be able to infer, the household income levels of my adult students at the YMCA, especially the ones at the Sanmin branch downtown, are slightly above the average household income levels for Taiwan. The gifts kind of give it away. Those two gifts are in addition to a fine lunch at "More Gain's Western Restaurant" (摩根西餐廳), but I think the "More Gain's " that's written on the menu should be translated into English as "Morgan's". That would be much more, umm, appropriate, I think.

Anyways, at More Gain's, I savoured a succulent New Zealand Steak Fillet with a side of Butter Omelettes as well as seafood soup, a salad with Passionfruit Dressing, Green Tea, a Fruit Cocktail and Pudding. Harkening back to the slang of my teenage years, "it was awesome".

For Western New Year's, I get a 3-day weekend, so I've decided to live it up. I'm going to go travelling. This time, it's to an itty-bitty archipelago called Matsu (馬祖).

Matsu lies within 2 kilometres of the Chinese border, a fact that's only relevant if you are interested in the military side of politics. Matsu, along with Kinmen, are the only ROC-controlled territories outside of the recognized border between the mainland and Taiwan. The recognized border is geographically half way between Taiwan and the mainland.

The only way that this border is "recognized" is through military "announcements" by the ROC military about where they think the border should be. The mainland spies quietly note the ROC military brass's pronouncements. The Beijing PLA leaders then make sure that their relevant military apparatuses adhere to the ROC definitions of what the China-Taiwan border is so as not to instigate the complete nuclear annihilation of the entire southeastern China seaboard and all of the populous western plains of Taiwan. One false step on either side and it could all be over. Both sides know this too well.

Areas that fall within the Taiwanese border include:

There is a border dispute between Taiwan and Japan about the Diaoyutais (or the Senkakus in Japanese), a small archipelago between the Okinawan islands of Iriomote and Keelung, Taiwan. This particular border dispute is mostly about national fishing grounds, and believe you me, both Japan and Taiwan are fish-loving nations, you can count on that. Anyways, back to Matsu.

Matsu has four main island areas:

I will be staying at a B&B on Beigan Island called Pastoral Villa for at least one night, and I think I've decided to make Beigan home base for the 3-day 2-night trip. At $700/night, ($24.87 CAD), I think Pastoral Villa will be just about right for me. Winter is the off-season in Matsu owing to the high winds. It probably won't get above 15 degrees Celsius, but that doesn't concern me because I'm not going to Matsu for the beach weather.

Reasons why you will never go to Matsu:

So you're not going. Too bad for you. Don't worry though; I'll take lots of pictures so that you can live a vicarious adventure through me to some faroff exotic locale that you've barely heard of before. Hooray for obscurity!

Saturday, December 16, 2006


First. Traffic. Ticket. Ever.

Sniff, sniff. It was beautiful. Pulled over for taking a Canadian-style left turn on my scooter. Taiwanese traffic rules are a bit different, as follows:

So when I say I took a Canadian-style left-turn, I just mean a direct left turn, made in one part from the leftmost lane in my direction. The police, being smart, like to hide a bit further away from where you can see them and watch you as you almost literally drive straight into a traffic ticket. It's so routine it's almost like a roadblock. A normal traffic violation at the wrong intersection, an intersection where the police are hiding/waiting, costs about $21 CAD. Pulling me over for a turning violation could be considered routine, routine, except for two facts:

So one of the four police officers asked me if I have an international license, and it didn't look like he was much in the mood for face-saving lies and neither was I, so I just said in a mix of Mandarin and Taiwanese, "no, sorry," to which the officer replied in a mix of Mandarin and Taiwanese, "This isn't a matter that can be changed by saying sorry." Trust me, feigning legal ignorance or Mandarin linguistic incompetence wouldn't help either, not with four cops standing there with radios.

So he wrote me two tickets, one for the turn, and the other for the lack of a license. Then he told me in pretty certain terms to go take the test and get a scooter license ASAP. Anyways, the left-turn ticket was a reasonable charge of about $600 NTD ($21 CAD). I can make that back in an hour of teaching.

The cost of the no-license ticket, on the other hand, was not so reasonably priced. At a cool $6000 NTD ($210 CAD), the ticket is like a bite that hurts about 10 times more than a $600 nibble. You can eat numerous very excellent dinners in classy restaurants for 6000 New Taiwan Dollars. Think of 6000 dollars worth of sushi, or perhaps beer.

The fine officer need not recommend that I go take the scooter license test. $6000 NTD is motivation enough! That very afternoon I went to the written and road exam, a process that goes as follows:

  1. Applicant undergoes a health test at a private clinic just outside the test centre. The health test is just a quick test of vision, color vision as well as a measurement of your height and weight, and a request that you do one squat. I guess one sort of does have to have sufficient squatting ability to be able to ride a scooter normally. Three photos need to be produced by the test-taker, one of which is eventually stuck onto the licence. Health test fee: $91 NTD ($3.23 CAD)

  2. Applicant then takes a written test. The test can be administered in several languages, including English, although I must say that the hardest part of the written test in English was just trying to understand what the question was trying to get across. I passed at 87.5%. Minimum is 85%. Written test fee (includes road test): $250 NTD ($8.88 CAD)

  3. Applicant then takes the road test. Fun! No, seriously, it's actually pretty fun. The test instructions are in Chinese, so watching other people take the test first is quite prudent. Test-takers take the test on a first-come, first-serve basis, so if you line up, eventually you'll get to the front, but if you just want to hang out around the side of the test arena and gawk at other people taking the test, then nobody's gonna stop you. You can watch more and more people go through the test indefinitely, as many times as you want, until you know where it's easiest to screw up.
    By far the easiest spot to screw up is on the slow-crawl balance test. It's 15 metres long, 60 cm wide and you have to stay balanced on your scooter within the sensors for at least 7 seconds. It's actually not that hard if you're comfortable with the scooter you're using.

  4. Assuming you passed, you wait about another 10-15 minutes, then they call you to a window where pick up your newly laminated license. License printing fee: $200 NTD ($7.10 CAD)

  5. Total Cost: $541 NTD ($19.21 CAD) plus whatever you paid for 3 photos

Compare the cost of the test compared to a 6000-dollar no-license traffic ticket. Considering how much I drive my scooter, it's a good thing I went to the testing centre ASAP, took the test, and passed. At least I won't ever get one of those tickets again, not until my license runs out next year and I decide to do an illegal turn in the wrong spot without re-passing the test beforehand.

In other news, my grandparents came to visit to me in Taiwan in early November. They took an East and Southeast Asian cruise starting from Japan and spent a day in Keelung. I somehow made it all the way up there and took them sightseeing a bit. Keelung's not particularly interesting but the scenery around it definitely is. I'd love to post a picture of them in Taiwan but I'm not sure about how they would react to seeing themselves on the internet. I'll just ask them when I get the chance.

Work is good. I will be teaching a Music Appreciation course at the Dadun Community College in spring 2007. The college is run by the Taichung YMCA. I do some private teaching on Saturdays, but let's face it, teaching English is a pretty deadend job. A FUN deadend job, but still pretty deadend. Given the amount of profit some business owners make in the ESL biz, I need to be in business for myself before I'll feel like English teaching is actually rewarding. Skype is the future.

The videoblog below is only of first-take quality, but should be moderately entertaining nonetheless. The cameragirl did a fine job. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Scooter Videoblog

Sheng Kai Ao, the Strange Laowai, reports from Dakeng, Taichung City, Taiwan about recently acquiring a scooter along with other miscellaneous personal news items.

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