Studying Wei Chi in Taiwan

I keep trying to engage with Taiwanese society. As an inveterate learner, one way I attempt to be a part of the Taiwanese community is by taking classes. Ideally this would allow me to meet like-minded individuals, create friendships with locals, share our mutual interests and learn something. It never works out that way.

A few years ago I decided to take a Wei Chi  (圍棋). I was first introduced to Wei Chi, or Go, while in grad school by an exchange student from Beijing. I liked it—what little I understood of it. Go is played on a board with a 19×19 grid. Like in chess, two players face off across the board, one with black stones, the other with white stones. At the beginning of the game the board is empty. The black player begins by placing his stone on one of the 361 possible intersections on the grid. Then it is white’s turn to place his stone on one of the 360 possible remaining intersections. And so the game proceeds as the players alternate turns. The object of the game is to control territory. The rules are simple, the game play is infinitely complex, orders of magnitude more intricate than chess. I’ve always had a problem with the pure analytical thought in chess. The greater number of moves possible in a Go game means that pure calculation is not the preferred approach. Go has a greater emphasis on intuitive play based on experience and shape recognition that more suits my brain.

With my language skills finally at a level that I thought could handle a Go class, I signed up for a buxiban (補習班), cram school. I was primarily motivated by the goal of learning, but I had a secondary desire to develop new Taiwanese acquaintances. Even by my own low standards, Go class was a spectacular failure as a friendship making tool.

When I enrolled I was a neophyte and my first class was for absolute beginners. In class there was me, over forty years old, and my classmates, a dozen pre-kindergarten students. There were actually some advantages to this. Obviously it was the correct level for my game play. Also the teacher was partially teaching  his young charges Chinese. Go has its own specific, and pretty funky, Chinese terminology. My Chinese language instructors couldn’t teach it to me. The golden rooster stands on one leg (金雞獨立) turns out not to be in common usage among Chinese speakers. A quite large part of class was learning Go vocabulary, and since the students were so young the teacher included Taiwanese phonetics (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) with the characters, which was helpful. Another advantage was that the students were too young to be intimidated by the hulking blonde Adonis amongst them. Their only experience of foreigners was their big fun-loving English buxiban teachers. With that as their entire lexicon of cross-cultural experience, there was no reason for fear.

Unfortunately, in every other way the class was awkward. Classes had a set formula; a lecture, followed by solving Go problems, and then students paired off to play a game. The age differential caused some issues for me. If I played a game with one of my classmates and lost, I’d feel bad because he was four years old. Of course, four year old boys are not noted for their subtlety. After stomping me across the board I was often treated to a pudgy little hand with four extended fingers being waved in my face. “Ha, ha. I’m only four years old.” That hurt. Conversely if I won—they’d cry, and I’d feel bad. It was a no-win situation, I was either a loser or a cur.

Finally I moved up into a class full of grade school aged students. There were some obvious benefits. The lectures had more strategic content and were more intellectually stimulating. My classmates never cried if they lost a game, though they were more likely to get pissed. Likewise, I didn’t find it nearly as annoying to lose to them; and they wouldn’t ridicule me if I did. There were other issues. The older students were intimidated. Some of it was a natural preteen desire to interact with people their own age. They also attributed to me an intellectual superiority that I simply did not possess over the Go board.

Occasionally a Taiwanese retiree will show up in this level of class. That might have worked well for me, but my class was all children. I eventually quit. I’d enjoyed learning Go, but I was the class pariah. At the same time high-quality English language Go content began being posted on the Internet. I didn’t need class as much. I am considering going back to Go buxiban, not so much for the Go study as for the Chinese language benefits. When learning a language, it is helpful to have an interest that allows you to use your target language in a natural setting, something outside the language classroom. It might be time to try it again.

Snakes & Whores: Snake Alley Then and Now

A visitor to Taipei’s Snake Alley could be forgiven for questioning why such a lackluster night market has become a staple of tourism in Taiwan. The answer is—it wasn’t always mundane. I first came to Taiwan thirty years ago on a study tour put on by my home university to study Chinese folk religion. We traveled to many temples and festivals as part of the class. We also visited the main tourist attractions, including Snake Alley. It was an eye-opening experience for this nineteen year old prairie boy.

Snake Alley was a raucous zone where the seamier elements of Taiwanese society bubbled to the surface, a place with the feel that anything might be possible for a price. Snake Alley, formerly known as Huaxi Street Night Market, was Taiwan’s first international tourist zone, and dates back over fifty years. Snake Alley is located in the Wenhua District, Taipei’s oldest area. It is near the historic Longshan Temple, and is nestled among other night markets. The structure of Snake Alley helps distinguish it from those other markets. At the alley’s entrance there is a Chinese style gate, which is hung with traditional red lanterns. It gives the feeling that inside you can expect to see some distinctly Taiwanese sights. The alley itself extends for two blocks and is covered, which gives it an intimate arcade feeling.

Snake Alley has evolved, or devolved, a lot in its lifetime, depending on your perspective. The first time I visited Snake Alley was thirty-odd years ago, as part of the aforementioned school excursion. Snake Alley was just about to begin its decline, but there was no doubt why it was an international tourist destination. Whores. Lots and lots of whores. The alleys just off Snake Alley once housed legal brothels. In its glory days Huaxi drew international sex tourists, locals, along with American servicemen from the American air force bases in Taiwan or on R&R from Vietnam.

My classmates and I walked the Alley in 1987. As a group, we, collectively had our heads on swivels, constantly turning to gape at each new piece of foreign oddness—let me tell you there was a lot to stare at. There were multitudes of snake restaurants, which gave the street its name, most with a worker out front drawing crowds by charming the snakes, selling shot glasses of snake’s blood and bile. When a customer chose a likely looking snake, the luckless reptile would be pulled from its cage and hung by its head from a chord, and quickly slit open, along its underside, from anus to gullet, the still live snake dancing wildly on the gibbet as its intestines fell out. The chef would step up to the writhing snake and milk out a couple ounces of blood and a bit of bile. These were offered for sale to the gathered crowd, purportedly great for male vigor, but almost everything in Chinese culture is, while the person who actually ordered the meal went into the restaurant proper to enjoy their repast. The foods available inside the restaurant included snake and herb soup, a cold weather favorite, baked or fried snake, snake penis wine, snake gall and possibly even snake oil pills.

The snake restaurants were only part of the vibrancy on offer as we walked down Snake Alley. There were also turtle meat restaurants, at least one of which offered televised dog fights to ease their customer’s digestion as they ate their turtle soup and turtle’s blood. Another eatery, not to be outdone, offered televised cock-fighting for its customers. To add to the otherworldly experience of the place there were sex shops and small stalls selling local pornography, of the hint of areola with a touch of butt cleft variety mandated by law, but not so discrete inquiry quickly revealed the good (foreign) stuff hidden inside the vendor’s cart.

All of this was fascinating and possibly culture shock inducing, but it was not what left myself and my classmates stunned. We were floored by what we saw when we reached the end of Huaxi Street. Nineteen naïve prairie jaws hit the not so clean Huaxi asphalt, for at the end of Snake Alley, there were small streets branching off to the left and right. It was nothing but whorehouses as far as the eye could see, and each house seemed to have a dozen or so, young girls hanging out of the windows and doors waving and yelling what I assume was their only English, “Hello,… hey djyou,… hey American, djyou want?…” Amongst this cacophony of noise and activity some of the younger girls were playing a game of tag—chasing each other from brothel to brothel, shrieking and squealing as they ran past madams, their Triad protectors, and customers alike. The effect was as if the old lady who lived in a shoe had decided to open a red light district.

There was a circular route through this area that tourists walked. The circuit was perhaps like walking around a city block. This stroll had lots of tourists walking it, many Japanese and some Westerners, along with the expected locals. My fellow university classmates moved closer together, for mutual protection, and moved through this as a collective blob, with each member scared to detach themselves from the relative safety of the group. On each side of us there were girls beckoning, yelling, grabbing at us to try to pull that person into their den. As aggressive and scary as that was for this milk toast nineteen year old, the area we walked through had relatively wide streets and less aggressive girls, but there were many side alleys branching off the main drag. They were much smaller, the girls standing in their respective houses on either side of the alley, and waving, seemed to be virtually touching finger tips. The thought of walking down one of those smaller side alleys was truly intimidating. Each whorehouse seemed to have hundreds of tentacles, prepared to reach out, trap, and devour anyone foolhardy enough to venture off the well-trodden path. Or, as my classmate said, “I think if you go down there, they might pull you into the house, rape you, and then demand payment for services rendered.” That is about how it felt.

The reason Snake Alley became a famous tourist destination is that it was a legal prostitution zone and attracted Japanese sex tourists along with Vietnam war era American servicemen. In 1986, Snake Alley was already in decline, but still amazing. I’ve lived my entire adult life in Asia, visited many Asian countries, seen their red light districts, but I’ve never seen anything to match Snake Alley in its heyday.

Recently, one of my dear friends, who was also on that university trip to Taiwan thirty odd years ago, came to visit me in Taiwan. It was his first time back. One of the things we did was return to Snake Alley to compare present day Snake Alley with our memories. Despite living in Taipei I very rarely have cause to go to Snake Alley, maybe four times in the last twenty years, so returning to Snake Alley was a return to the days of yore for both of us.

Things seemed similar as we walked through the gate announcing Huaxi nightmarket, but that’s where the similarities to our memories ended. Huaxi Street itself was a pale imitation of its former glory. Where once there had stood multiple snake restaurants with large crowds in front being entertained by the snake charmer or bartering for a glass of snake’s blood, now there were only two snake restaurants with no crowds in front. There were no snake shows happening at all. Instead, each restaurant had one or two tables of customers inside, quietly slurping their snake soup. The snake shows disappeared as public health concerns grew around the practice of drinking raw snake blood and bile. There were concerns that the practice might be linked to hepatitis.

“Well, that’s kinda sad,” my friend noted as he looked around the alley, “It’s actually pretty dead here.” He was right, at best Snake Alley is a shadow of what it was thirty years ago. Gone are the large boisterous crowds. Gone are the cheering people watching televised dog and cock fights while enjoying their meals. Whatever you may think of the practice, those animal fights definitely added a lot of local color to the street. Though there are still a couple of sex shops plying their wares, they are pretty sad looking businesses, without much in the way of customers. Gone are the large crowds of gentlemen perusing the latest electronic aids to love making. I suppose the Internet is what killed that. Although the unlibidinous feeling of modern day Snake Alley can’t have helped.

As we strolled down Snake Alley there was an unmistakable feeling of decay. That the things that had once made Snake Alley great—or at least worth a look were gone. What replaced them? Mostly foot massage shops and a handful of average, everyday, Chinese restaurants.

As we approached the end of Huaxi Street, my friend leaned over and reassured me, “Don’t worry we’re coming up on Snake Alley’s reason for being—things are bound to get more lovely when we get to all the whore houses.“ I was pretty sure my friend was in for a rude awakening. At the end of the alley my his mouth practically fell to the street. He was as gobsmacked this time as he had been last time, but for entirely different reasons. Expecting to see the seemingly hundreds of whore houses and thousands of prostitutes of his youth he was stunned to find nothing. Where once had thrived a virtual city of sin, now there was literally nothing. At the end of the street there was simply a deserted lane that went off to the left and right, a small nondescript lane that didn’t even hint at what it had once been. “Well, that’s a disappointment.” Not that my friend was looking to engage the services of a prostitute, it’s just that without them Snake Alley isn’t really Snake Alley anymore.

In 1991 the Taiwanese government banned prostitution and Snake Alley lost its status as a legal red light zone. That effectively spelled the end of Snake Alley’s glory days. Despite now being illegal, prostitution continues in Taiwan, as indeed it does in the environs of Snake Alley. To see this, my friend and I ventured slightly north of to a short block that time seems to have forgotten. As we turned down this small side street we were immediately confronted with what could only be termed urban blight. Both sides of road are lined with the bleakest of brothels. Each house was little more than a doorway looking in on a hallway with a dozen or so doorways off it. Behind these doorways were dark rooms only large enough to hold a small cot. The wallpaper and other furnishings seemed to be unchanged since our last visit in 1987. “Sad, I’d hate to see this place under UV light, the glow could probably be used to guide planes into the airport.” He had a point, the idea of even approaching one of those cots with anything less than a level D hazmat suit was positively revolting.

Unfortunately, the people we saw on the street hadn’t held up to the ravages of time any better than the buildings. Standing on one dark corner of the lane was an old Taiwanese woman, I’d say she was seventy if she was a day, complete with tattooed eyebrows (poorly shaped, so she looked constantly surprised) and the eponymous Brillo Pad perm favored by that age group of Chinese women. Like a gothic gargoyle protecting what remains of this street of whores, she was perched near the entrance to the alley. As we walked into the lane, she reached out, grabbed my arm, and gave me her sales pitch, undoubtedly honed when she was an already long in the tooth prostitute for American servicemen. “Hey Joe,” delivered with a lewd, and extremely disturbing flicking of the tongue up-and-down inside her wrinkled mouth. “Come to my house. Love you good, Joe,” followed by another display of her tongue’s erotic dance.

I should have chatted with her, got her price and a little sense of how she manages to survive. I’m positive that her prices are ridiculously low, but even so,… just… no. Though I was curious about these things, my overwhelming emotion was a strong desire to get away—I just wanted to rip my arm out of her clutches and make haste to anywhere else. My friend was as unhelpful, as best mates tend to be, he stood to the side, out of the harpy’s reach, making encouraging signs and lewd gestures simultaneously. Finally I managed to extricate myself from her grip—none the wiser about the life of a prostitute in Taipei, but plenty scared.

There is a hierarchy to prostitution, and as we walked through the red light district, it was clear we were plumbing the bottom rung of that hierarchy. Most of the girls we saw on the street or inside the brothels were older, not like my near paramour, but pushing middle age. They were generally less attractive than what you might expect to see in one of Taipei’s other red light areas, too fat, too thin, haggard, too old, etc. Some seemed like they might have been doing the same job, in the same red light district, even perhaps inside the same house, with the same wallpaper and mattress, since our first visit. I guess it is good that they found a career, not just a job, but the whole scene was not very seductive.

After a quick walk down the street, we turned off to head back to modern clean Taipei. With whore’s catcalls fading behind us, my friend observed, “It is so sad when you see someone you haven’t seen for decades, and you see how much they’ve aged, and how poorly, and it makes you feel old and sad. That’s how I feel now.” Snake Alley is like one of the old whores working her street. Her rouge is faded and can’t hide the lines anymore. She struggles on trying to find her place in modern Taipei. But, it is hard for her to compete with the new young shopping districts and the latest, hottest, night spots. Still they carry on reminders for many of a Taiwan they either never knew, or would rather forget.

Vignette #5: Ho, Ho, Ho, It’s a Very Taiwanese Christmas

My wife likes to tell the story of when she discovered Santa Claus as a child. Excited by his midnight journey around the world, she grabbed a sock out of her drawer, and hung it from her bed post. Her family told her that Santa only brought gifts to white kids. Undeterred she put her faith in the Western hype machine and believed she’d wake to find a gift in her sock. Really, how hard would it have been to throw an orange and a couple of nuts in her sock? But, striking a blow for Buddhist values, her family let the sock go empty. It must have devastated young Venus, because now every Christmas I get to hear this parable. Partially because of this, my wife is a real sucker for anything Christmassy. In our teensy little apartment we have more glitzy Christmas decorations than were used in my whole house as a child. It gets pretty campy here.

My wife isn’t unique. It seems that over the last 20 years, the Taiwanese, prompted by the retail industry, have picked up on the commercial elements of Christmas. However, Christmas is still an alien import and not well understood. My wife’s friends sometimes ask me to play the role of Westerner in captivity during this season by having a Christmas party so they, and their children, can observe me celebrating Christmas in my natural habitat. It’s all very awkward, and not at all representative of a genuine Western Christmas.

Oddly, Taiwan does actually have its own Christmas custom, though as you might expect Taiwan’s Christmas tradition is a bit lacking in, well, tradition. During my first trip to Taiwan, thirty-one years ago, I got to observe Taiwan’s native Christmas observances first-hand. The writer of the Republic of China’s calendar (民國紀元) was a Christian and wanted Christmas to be a holiday, but he needed a justification. He decided to call December 25th Constitution Day and make it a holiday. It was one of those made up holidays, like Family Day, Children’s Day, Victoria Day, etc. For most holidays in Taiwan, there are endless traditional observances and family obligations, but for Constitution Day the Taiwanese found themselves with a day off work and not much to do. At the time Taiwan’s vibrant love motel industry was just beginning to take off and some marketing genius had the idea that young lovers should “celebrate Christmas” by going to a motel. Of all the Christmas traditions from all around the world, this is my favorite: nothing says Christmas like miniature soaps and complimentary lube. By the time I arrived in Taiwan it was a thing. I think this tradition has become less prevalent, but Christmas is still regarded as a romantic time.


Where Have All the Idiots Gone: Professionalization and ESL Instruction

If you haven’t figured it out, I’m an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor. In the 21-odd years that I’ve done this, the job has changed a lot. Not in terms of the actual work. I still spend my days going, “This is a cow. Moo. Cow? Come on, you know, MOOOO!?!” But, the status of ESL instruction has changed. It’s been professionalized.

When I started, nobody chose to be an ESL teacher, you fell ass-end backwards into it. We were a merry band of losers, drug addicts, fugitives, degenerates, down on their luck international adventurers, and other assorted unemployables—the scum of earth’s four corners.

I can recall one Canadian who flew to Taiwan with dreams of becoming a gigolo. I met him in my hostel, where the more transient congregated in the evenings to drink. Though handsome enough, I suppose, he had one major problem, he lacked the skills to be a male prostitute in Taiwan. There are bars in Taipei where male prostitutes, or midnight cowboys, as the Taiwanese term them, ply their trade. Unfortunately for him, the midnight cowboy’s job is mostly to act as a host, encouraging women to drink while charming them with elegant Chinese conversation, singing and dancing. Think of a male geisha. He was hoping for more of a wham-bam-put-the-cash-on-the-table-Ma’am type interaction. So, of course, he supported himself as an English teacher while he waited for his man-whoring career to take off.

Another favorite was Pierre who I saw strolling down a beach in South Korea. At that time it was pretty uncommon to meet another foreigner, so I ran up to him hoping to have a conversation. Oh joy! English! Unfortunately, it turned out that Pierre spoke a nearly incomprehensible patois of French and English. He was from Quebec and had fallen on hard times in the economic depression that spread through Canada in the early 1990s. When I asked him what he was doing in Korea he said, as you might have guessed, that he was, “teaching zee Anglais,” in his truly “autrrrageous Franch accent.” At the time I didn’t see anything wrong with it. He needed a job, and who cares if a handful of Koreans ended up speaking English like half-wit Cajuns.

There was a clown car full of colorful characters populating my early days in Asia. They all survived by teaching ESL. No one regarded it as a profession. It was a stop-gap until they could get their lives together. Expat ESL teachers were a counter culture in the truest sense. We were outcasts from our home countries and existed on the peripheries of Taiwanese society, largely ignored by Taiwanese social institutions.

Those days of extreme color are fading. Not long after I started teaching in Taiwan, there began to be a change. More people washed up on Asian shores not because they were running from personal demons, but because they were economic refugees, and they came in droves. Asia is unrecognizable from my early days—there are foreign faces everywhere now.

These new immigrants were a different sort of person. Most of them had one or two degrees. They came because they faced underemployment in their home countries. Without paying any attention to the news, I knew how countries were fairing economically, simply by the people I met at the local watering hole. For the first few years that I was here, all you ever saw were Canadians. When the tech bubble burst, in came the Americans, then South Africans, and Russians, etc. These new teachers had invested a lot in their educations, their futures, and they brought with them a more professional attitude towards and enthusiasm for teaching. People began to think of their jobs as a career.

Some of them eventually went back home and set up professional TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programs in Western universities. When I first heard of such a thing, I thought it was ludicrous. I could not imagine TEFL as a field of study someone would choose. I suppose in my heart ESL instruction will always be something you turn to when you’re down-and-out and running.

But, I have to admit that things have changed, not only for me personally, but also for the ESL teaching community. We have standards now. I now teach at a university. I’m constantly doing professional development. Gone are the days of trying to hustle up one-on-one students on the street, or scrambling from one buxiban (cram school) gig to the next, trying to keep the beer flowing. Most my friends from those early days are either gone—unqualified or unwilling to adapt—or have moved into respectable jobs at universities, international schools, public schools, or as full-time contract buxiban teachers. They now, like me, are constantly doing training, research, publishing, etc. The whole thing is beginning to smell like a profession.

I’m aware as I’ve progressed up the ESL food chain, I’ve naturally fallen out of touch with the more transient members of the ESL community. However, from what I see, it does seem like new arrivals are more trained and qualified. Partly because the Taiwanese ESL market has matured. There is less demand for English instruction, people are no longer being stopped on the street and offered employment simply based on their foreign face. The gold rush is over. Also, the government is paying more attention to foreigners, they have been rationalizing the work visa process. Admittedly, it is a work in progress, but it doesn’t seem like there are as many people here for a decade, or more, on a tourist visa. The attitude of immigration officials used to be, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you must really love being a tourist here. Indeed, all law enforcement is more willing to deal with foreigners. I used to be able to get out of any petty legal kerfuffle by deluging the cop with a flood of quick-paced, incomprehensible English—not any more.

In general, professionalization has been a good thing. There are standards now. I don’t think Pierre would do well. Somehow I  find that sad, like earth’s bountiful tapestry became slightly less rich.  Doesn’t it warm your heart to imagine a group of Zydeco Koreans in an international business meeting laying down some Acadian patter? However, those standards also mean there are less stories of some serial pedophile, from whichever country, having been found teaching kindergarten here. That’s good. The counter culture thing was fun, but there is a better chance of integrating into Taiwanese society when your job doesn’t brand you as just slightly above thief, and below gangster. I know that I would have found it difficult to marry if there hadn’t been a professionalization of ESL instructors. Still sometimes I miss the old west feel of being one of just a few foreigners in a country, ignored by local government and law enforcement. Professionalization has brought a certain blandness. I don’t imagine I’ll ever again, as happened on a break from teaching in Thailand, watch as one of my co-workers uses his break time to try to arrange an arms shipment to a tribe of rebels fighting on the Burmese border. Maybe that’s a good thing. But, I miss it.

Vignette #4: Gross-Out Porn for the Armchair Traveler

One of Taiwan’s little pleasures is the availability of pork intestines. [This isn’t the gross part]. They’re used in a number of different dishes, most quite delectable. It is so popular here that faux intestines are ubiquitous in vegetarian restaurants. Not tofu burgers, turkey, or sausage, but guts, that’s what vegetarians miss. My favorites on a cold day are a steaming bowl of 蚵仔麵線 vermicelli, oyster and pig’s intestine soup, or 五更腸旺 Sichuan style spicy pig’s blood patty and intestines. Deep fried chitlins, a common street food, are to-die-for. Of course, you could deep fry a salad and it would be great.

All that’s required to enjoy a steaming plate of poop-tubes is not to think about what passed through them before they passed into your mouth—essentially the same mind control exercise needed to eat wieners. That was all going fine for me, until a recent trip to Canada. While in Saskatoon I ran into an old acquaintance who works at a large meat processor there.

When he found out I live in Taiwan, he had a tale to tell—I wish he’d kept it to himself. It seems that they had a good business selling intestines to Taiwan. They were making a tidy little profit off what was essentially a by-product. They would take the guts, clean them, and send them off. It became so lucrative that the company decided to invest in specialty gut-cleaning machines, to better care for their increasingly important client. After the new state-of-the-art machines were installed there was a steady decline in sales. The company dispatched a representative to Taiwan to find out what was going on.

Turns out the new cleaning equipment was doing too good a job. There wasn’t enough fecal matter left in the intestines. Taiwanese customers found the intestines bland, lacking that toothsome shit flavor. [This is the gross part]. The company immediately went back to the old cleaning equipment. Taiwanese consumers got the proper manure-to-flesh ratio in their intestines and returned to the brand, and the company’s profits returned. Everyone is happy now—except me.

Now when I eat intestines, I taste the dung. It is hard to really enjoy your steaming plate of offal when all you taste is feces. I can even distinguish variations in fecal content. On a trip to Beijing I noticed that the intestines had a much stronger shit taste than in Taiwan. I’m afraid my friend, who merely wanted to share a cute anecdote, has lowered my quality of life in a small, but perceptible way.