Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Every Christmas I spend here just seems to become more and more un-Christmas-like.

No matter where I go, Christmas is just not the same without snow. One year I spent Christmas in Tampa and everything outdoors seemed to be strewn with Christmas lights- the buildings, trees, artificial Christmas themed scenes and objects- but it all just seemed so garish, as if the impressive display of wattage was compensating for the lack of snow.

I'm not quite sure what it is, but perhaps the grandiose displays of Christmas lights in front of suburban homes, on the street, in the storefronts are softened by snow covered lawns and sidewalks, billowy rooftops, and whiteness that transforms the shape and form of all that is around us.

The first year I moved to Taiwan, I managed to fly back to Ottawa just in time for Christmas.

The second year, I organized a blind gift exchange with friends here in Kaohsiung.

The third year, last year- I made a last minute attempt to organize a blind gift exchange. That failed miserably. It was a regular work day, so being too exhausted to bother cooking, I ended up eating takeout with my dear old Dad- which isn't such a bad thing, but clearly it wasn't very festive! My Mom was off on the east coast of Taiwan with my sister and her husband who had come for a visit during the holidays.

This year I had nothing planned, then I had tentative plans for dinner- which ended up falling through at the last minute because restaurants were fully booked. Text messages that I sent to a few friends in Taiwan wishing them a "Merry Christmas" were delayed by 12 hours, others lost- probably due to high traffic on the cellular network. Amazing- for a place where I thought people didn't really celebrate Christmas!

In true Taiwanese style, any reason to celebrate is marked by fireworks. This month, Kaohsiung is celebrating its 80th year of establishment as a city, so the mayor of Kaohsiung cleverly arranged for a fireworks/live music performance along the banks of the Love River on the night of Christmas day. This evening we had a prime view of it all from our balcony.

I'm not usually impressed by fireworks since there only seems to be a finite number of shapes, sizes and types, but this half hour fireworks show was unlike anything I've ever seen. Fireworks were set off simultaneously from opposite sides of the river. Shooting stars, sparklers and multi-colored flecks of light arched up, above, and over, towards each other, landing in the center of the river.

In the center of the river was a floating platform that set off more fireworks simultaneously and created some other interesting visual effects- like spinning fireworks that looked like a long spiraling orange hot coil, and then a series of sparklers like those on a birthday cake. At the end of the show, the platform created a scene of white lights streaming down continuously- giving the visual effect of falling snow.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

My fragile ego as a writer has just been shattered to bits. But I'll live.

I was asked to write a few poetic lines for a friend of the family's wedding which is happening today, at this very moment actually. So, after reading the groom's heart-felt words describing how and his wife-to-be met over eight years ago in high school at the age of sixteen, I was moved to pen the following for the happy couple:

How much sweeter a love could there be, than love at sweet sixteen?
Through the years it became sweeter still as you shared all of life’s joys
True love knows no bounds or limits
It does not discriminate and
It will be even sweeter still at sixty and beyond

The groom had written nearly two pages, describing how he, a Taiwanese Canadian and she, an Indian Canadian first met in high school. To paraphrase, he described how their friendship soon blossomed into love, how they celebrated their sweet sixteen birthdays together, were there for each other over the years for major celebrations and life events, supported each other while away at different universities and through the transition into the working world. Although *certain others* have expressed concerns about bi-racial issues, the happy couple have never felt challenged by ethnic differences. In the indubitable words of the groom: "We are very happy to be getting married and looking forward to our life together. We have always strived to make each other happy and will continue to do so as husband and wife. (...) grateful to God for bringing us (...) together as sixteen year olds and now letting us spend the rest of our lives together."

Well, I thought I did a pretty good job of capturing the essence of the groom's thoughts in five little lines.

But now I've been asked to edit down my poetically penned lines down to THREE lines!

I have no say in the matter because:

I haven't been personally been invited to the wedding banquet.
I won't be the one actually doing the reading.
I wrote it this for my mother is the one who will be the one doing a reading at the wedding banquet.
The parents of the groom are micro-managing the wedding banquet schedule down to the minute and they keep cutting down the time limits for speeches being given.
Now my mother wants something more readable, simple and translatable (into Hoklo Taiwanese).

I feel like I've lost creative control- like I've surrendered my creative license in more ways than one. The unappreciated artist in me grumbles and the child in me throws a tantrum over the ever SO essential two lines lost. A little melodramatic you think?! Well, words are all a writer has, carefully picked and placed words...

So after much screaming and kicking, here's the watered down... I mean *edited* version:

What could be sweeter than love at sweet sixteen?
As the years passed, you shared all of life's joys and it became even sweeter
Surely, it will be even sweeter at sixty and beyond

*Sigh* it's just not the same is it?! I do believe in the value of editing, but it's difficult to strike a balance between trying to economize on words, preserving one's vision or message, and pleasing the crowd.

I can only hope that the Hoklo Taiwanese translation does my three little lines justice...

Sunday, December 12, 2004

According to the Taipei Times , Taiwan's December 11 legislative elections should not be interpreted as a vote on a referendum for independence.

Here are reports from the BBC on the results of Taiwan's most recent legislative elections

From BBC.com on December 11, 2004:
Opposition wins Taiwan elections

Taiwan's opposition alliance has defeated President Chen Shui-bian's DPP party in parliamentary elections.
The opposition parties took 114 of the parliament's 225 seats.

The vote, which could shape the way the island handles relations with China, was the first since Mr Chen narrowly won the presidency in March.

The BBC's Taiwan correspondent, Chris Hogg, says the electorate has opted for a parliament that will act as a brake on Mr Chen's more controversial plans.

He says that while Mr Chen remains in charge because of the country's presidential system, he may find it difficult to get backing for proposals including constitutional changes and an $18bn arms deal with the US.

Both projects have been criticised by the Beijing government, which regards Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province and has accused Mr Chen of wanting to declare independence.

China has threatened to use force if the island ever declared a formal split.

'Don't want war'

President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has never won a majority in the parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

The DPP and its ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, together won 101 seats.

The remaining 10 seats went to independent candidates and other groups, the Central Election Commission said.

Mr Chen accepted responsibility for his alliance's defeat.

"We fully accept the result," he added.

The leader of the opposition Nationalists or Kuomintang (KMT) said the victory meant that people were eager for peace.

"We don't want war. We don't want our government to take the road of provocation and create tension," Lien Chan said.

'Round two'

Some people in Taiwan are keen to portray the election as round two of the presidential poll, and the campaign was dominated by the former presidential candidates, our correspondent says.

The opposition alliance still does not accept the result of the presidential vote.

President Chen's supporters believed that a convincing performance in the election would show China and his critics at home that he does have a mandate to govern.

The stakes were high for opposition leaders, too, our correspondent says.

The nationalists have lost two presidential elections in a row, and for the last three years they have relied on smaller parties for their parliamentary majority.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/12/11 15:55:09 GMT

From BBC.com on December 12, 2004

A bad taste for Taiwan's president

By Chris Hogg
BBC Taiwan correspondent

The pictures on the front of Taiwan's newspapers said it all.

Lien Chan, the leader of the opposition, smiling broadly, surrounded by cheering supporters.

"It's been a long time for us", he said, in a reference to the fact he had lost three elections in a row.
"This is the moment we've been waiting for."

Plastered alongside that picture on most front pages were images of a more sober looking President Chen Shui-bian, flanked on one side by the Vice-President Annette Lu, who looked as if she had swallowed a lemon.

This election has no doubt left a bad taste in the mouth of many of the ruling party's grandees.

They had hoped the president's charisma would carry them to an historic victory, wresting control of the Legislative Yuan from the opposition for the first time ever.

It was not to be.

Instead they found themselves facing three more years of co-habitation, and the political bickering and parliamentary gridlock that seem to accompany it in Taiwan.

President Chen said it was his fault and appealed to the country to come together. He talked of the need for compromise.

But how serious is he?


Some commentators are dubious about how much ground the president is prepared to give to his opponents.

"If you look at his political career, he's a fighter," Dr I-Chung Lai from the Taiwan Think Tank told the BBC.

"He's not going to take this lying down."

"For the last four years his party was in the minority in parliament," Dr Lai points out. "But that did not deter him from pushing forward bills he believed were important. He will come back and fight."

One of the most controversial measures on the president's wish list is his pledge - made in his inauguration speech earlier this year - to renew the island's constitution.

It is controversial because China fears it is a cover for a significant step towards a declaration of independence for Taiwan, despite presidential denials.

The amendment process is likely to get under way as soon as the new legislature takes office next February.

'Checks and balances'

Constitutional changes require the consent of three quarters of the Legislative Yuan - so some kind of deal with the opposition parties was always going to be necessary.

However support for more extreme amendments will now be much harder to secure.

"The opposition's win will serve as a check and balance for President Chen's independence efforts," believes Philip Yang, associate professor at the National Taiwan University.

"There will still be a power struggle between the two camps, but under a system of checks and balance, policies will be more prudent."

That will welcomed by many in the international community, who are concerned about escalating tensions across the Taiwan Straits.

Failing to win a majority in parliament might make it harder to pursue more reckless measures which could anger China.

The president's supporters, though, had hoped that a win might give him more legitimacy - a proper mandate to govern.

The opposition after all is still pursuing two court challenges to the presidential election result.

One suit, which is due to be decided before the end of the year, could conceivably force a partial or even a total re-run of the presidential poll.

Difficult issues

Dr Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University fears that without that mandate, the Chinese leadership on the mainland will continue to ignore President Chen.

"What I'm concerned about is that Beijing will feel, OK now we don't have a problem because there is a strong opposition in Taiwan so we don't need to talk to this guy."

China, Dr Huang fears, is likely to continue its strategy of talking to other countries about Taiwan, but refusing to talk to the Taiwanese themselves.

"'We can wait for another three-and-a-half years and see what's going on,' they will say. Beijing has said they can wait. But what will happen in the meantime? That worries me."

Another difficult issue Taiwan faces is the decision whether or not to spend $18bn on an arms deal with the US.

"Yes, some purchases of military equipment are necessary," says Professor Szu-yin Ho, professor of political science at National Chengchi University and a member of the central committee of the KMT, the main opposition party. "But not $18bn."

"That would cause budgetary problems that will have a tremendous impact on our future."

There have already been large protest rallies against the plans.

That is to say nothing of the bitter complaints from China to the US.

Concerns for legacy

So in the end what changed as a result of this parliamentary election?

On the face of it, nothing much. The opposition held a narrow majority in parliament before the poll. They still do.

But President Chen nonetheless managed to push through measures in the old parliament, thanks mainly to the opposition alliance's tendency to bicker and disagree among themselves.

'Divide and rule' might be one strategy under consideration in the presidential palace.

Compromise is another, of course.

But President Chen, some analysts say, is most concerned now in his second and final term with securing his place in the history of this island.

As a result real compromise is unlikely to be high up his agenda.

The question is whether the slap in the face from the voters will persuade him to abandon such lofty ideals in favour of more pragmatic government, or spur him on more to find new and more controversial ways to ensure he makes his mark.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/12/12 09:03:23 GMT


Thursday, December 09, 2004

Some different takes on Taiwan's upcoming December 11 legislative elections:

From the BBC on December 3, 2004

High stakes in Taiwan's parliamentary poll

By Chris Hogg
BBC Taiwan correspondent

Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, the island's parliament, is better known internationally for its punch-ups than for its political debate.

But that does not mean Saturday's parliamentary elections are an irrelevance.

The outcome, and who ultimately wins control of the Yuan, will have a significant effect on the fortunes of President Chen Shui-bian, and his main rival Lien Chan, the leader of the opposition Nationalists or Kuomintang (KMT).
"Up to now the president and his allies have not had a majority in the Legislative Yuan," said Joseph Wu, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the body responsible for Taiwan's relations with Beijing.

"Chinese officials seem to enjoy more friendship with the opposition here, and since the opposition has a majority, the Chinese seem to be under the illusion that they need to build a long-term relationship with them. That has been causing trouble in Taiwan's relations with China," he said.

As a political appointee and close ally of the president, Mr Wu argued that the current situation had allowed officials in Beijing to bypass Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

"If the president is able to win a majority with his own party or with his allies," Mr Wu said, "then the Chinese will have to face the reality that they have to deal with the president if they want to deal with Taiwan at all."

The opposition KMT, not surprisingly, sees the situation rather differently.

"If the president's camp wins more than 50% of the seats then Beijing may become even more belligerent, thinking Taiwan's independence is a foregone conclusion," claimed Szu-yin Ho, a member of the KMT's Central Committee.

"Military action could be more likely," he warned.

Key policy initiatives

If President Chen wins control of the parliament, it will help his chances of achieving three major policy objectives over the next few months.

Firstly he needs the Legislative Yuan to support an arms deal with the United States worth around $18bn.

Mr Chen argues that the military hardware is vital for the island's defence, but his plan is unlikely to get the KMT's support.
"Some purchases are necessary but not $18bn," said the KMT's Mr Ho. "If this goes ahead it will take too much money away from other budgets."

Secondly, the president has pledged to update the island's constitution.

Beijing has criticised the plans bitterly, arguing that they are a move towards independence.

"Victory this weekend will be interpreted as an endorsement for President Chen's plan to revise the constitution and hold a referendum," said Joseph Cheng, a politics professor at Hong Kong's City University.

"Such a development will certainly escalate tension across the Taiwan Straits, and may even provoke a military response from the Chinese leadership," he said.

Finally there is the issue of reform of the Legislative Yuan itself. Earlier this year the parliament voted to cut the number of members by half from 2007.
The proposals still need to be endorsed by the National Assembly, and also put to a referendum. But whoever controls the Yuan after the weekend will be able to consolidate their position as details of the changes are thrashed out.

"The new Legislative Yuan will have the power to write new rules for new political games - for example drawing up the new districts for the next election," said I-Chiu Liu, director of the Election Study Centre at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.

"As a result, any political party that fails to perform well in this election loses their chance for the next election as well, I believe," he said.

KMT's decline

The stakes may be high for the president, but they are just as high for the old guard of the KMT leadership.

Chairman Lien has presided over three election defeats in the last four years, and his party is no longer the largest in parliament, although together with its allies it still hangs on to a slim majority.
In public, at least, Mr Lien is relatively cautious about the prospects for his party on Saturday.

"The margin will be quite narrow," he said. "It could be that neither of the major parties can gain a majority and we have to rely on independents to gain power."

"For the opposition, this is all about whether they can escape their decline," said Emile Sheng, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Taiwan's Soochow University.

"If they and their allies fail to get half the seats, they are entirely defeated and it will continue a pattern begun in 2000.

"However, if they can hold on to a majority it will show that people in Taiwan don't want to see them wiped out," he said.

But one thing is certain. Many people in Taiwan will be hoping that even if the election is close, there will be no repeat of the wrangling that followed the disputed presidential poll in March, when Mr Chen won by the narrowest of margins.

That way, whatever the result, those elected will be allowed to get on with the tasks in hand.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/12/08 15:40:27 GMT

From the New York Times:

December 9, 2004

Small Pro-Independence Party Gaining in Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan, Dec. 8 - With three days remaining until legislative elections on Saturday, the streets here echo with slogans belted out from truck-mounted loudspeakers belonging to the Taiwan Solidarity Union, the smallest but fastest growing of Taiwan's main political parties.

The T.S.U., as it is commonly known, favors immediate steps toward greater independence from mainland China. It has benefited from a strong and unexpected surge in opinion polls here in the last two weeks.

The party wants a new constitution that would make it clear that Taiwan is separate from the mainland. The party is also calling for changes to the flag, the national anthem and other symbols of Taiwan's heritage as part of China.

"We can help Taiwan be a more normal country," said Lee Shang-ren, the director of the party's policy center.

The policies are anathema to Beijing, which has threatened war if Taiwan moves too far toward independence. But they are also alarming to Washington, which does not want a conflict now in this part of the world, especially while large numbers of American soldiers are in Iraq and while the United States is seeking Beijing's help in dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The Taiwan Solidarity Union is too small to play a leading role in the 225-member legislature. It now holds 12 seats, and recent polls suggest that it may have 17 to 20 seats after Saturday's elections.

But growing support for the party has forced President Chen Shui-bian and his governing Democratic Progressive Party to tilt further toward independence as well, a trend that could be a harbinger of increased tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

Mr. Chen won two presidential elections by promising voters that he would stand up to Beijing more than would the Nationalist Party, which ran Taiwan for the half-century after the Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists in 1949. The Nationalists, now the main opposition party here, still favor eventual political reunification with the mainland.

Mr. Chen has slowly widened the political gap between Taiwan and the mainland through steps like the national referendum held in March on increasing defense spending if Chinese missiles continue to be pointed at the island. But he has stopped short of the more confrontational measures favored by the Taiwan Solidarity Union, partly because of American pressure.

Hsiao Bi-khim, one of the Democratic Progressive Party's most popular lawmakers and a former spokeswoman for the president, said that some of her party's most pro-independence supporters were campaigning for the Taiwan Solidarity Union this year, and that this was forcing President Chen to shift his stance as well.

"I guess the fundamentalists are a bit disappointed in our administration" for not having moved Taiwan even further in the direction of independence, she said in an interview on Wednesday night. "The T.S.U. has made him feel compelled to consolidate our traditional supporters."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

It's been a long week. Earlier than usual mornings and long days to make up for the time that I've been away. For the first time in a long time, my voice started going hoarse in class. But even with all that- today, at the end of the week, I can still say I love what I do.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Today, the president of Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian publicly promised to change the names of government agencies and state-owned corporations so that they use "Taiwan" in their names. President Chen also stated his intention to rectify the names of Taiwan's overseas missions or defacto embassies, which are currently named "Taipei Economic and Cultural Office", or some variation thereof.

China Shipbuilding Corp., Chinese Petroleum, China Steel and China Airlines are all examples of the misnomers which are reminants of the myth propagated by the Kuo-Ming Tang (aka KMT or Chinese Nationalists Party) who fled to Taiwan from China after being defeated by the Chinese Communists in 1949. The KMT made Taiwan their base from which they vowed to restore the glory of the Republic of China which once ruled China. Today the two China myth is still enshrined in the example of China Airlines (Taiwan's national airline), which is to often confused with Air China (which operates and originated from continental China).

So President Chen's announcement was a pretty monumental declaration, since it will have far reaching application- though ironically enough, the impact will be felt more domestically. Taiwan already uses the New Taiwan Dollar currency, is referred to in the U.S.'s Taiwan Relations Act and has American Institute in Taiwan offices in both Taipei and Kaohsiung.

Does this seem like something so basic- that it's a strange thing to be getting all excited all over?!

Well, that's Taiwan for you...

A place that no one will recognize as a country.

A place that can't call itself by its generally accepted name (T-a-i-w-a-n).

A place which now has an official language (Mandarin) which didn't reflect the language spoken by its majority at the time of enforcement.
When the KMT came to Taiwan in the late 1940's, most people in Taiwan spoke Japanese or Hoklo Taiwanese, and interpreters had to be used to facilitate communication between the ruling Mandarin speakers and local Taiwanese Hoklo speakers.

A place that doesn't have a national flag.
The current "flag" is in fact the political party flag of the KMT.

A place that doesn't have a national anthem.
The current "national anthem" is actually the KMT party song.

A place where its people don't know the history or geography of their land because they've been too busy memorizing facts about China's supreme geographic features, and history of dynasties and battles.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Day After The Typhoon...

a swirling mass of clouds appeared liked whipped cream left in our mixing bowl, the sky

leaving behind everything in sharp focus


Before Typhoon Nanmadol

A typical view of Kaohsiung Harbor Posted by Hello

After Typhoon Nanmadol

Crystal clear views of Kaohsiung Harbor  Posted by Hello

 Posted by Hello

 Posted by Hello
From Snow Days to Typhoon Days

Looking out my window this morning at the rain which was to precede Typhoon Nanmadol, I noticed that the rain drops looked


the rain looked just like falling snow.

I've just breezed in and out of Ottawa, Canada in just over four days, and this morning I also heard from relatives back in Ottawa that they've been having light snow showers. So I'm missing the sight of peaceful, fresh, fallen snow- the kind that quietly, magically transforms a landscape into softness overnight. In the darkness, streets twinkle and sparkle like fairy dust under the light of street lamps.

Typhoon Nanmadol was supposed to hit Taiwan sometime this afternoon. And apparently, this time southern Taiwan won't be safe. Fortunately, Kaohsiung has been unaffected by the typhoons that struck late in the season (late August-October). When I heard that yet another typhoon was on its way, I thought to myself "how odd, it seems quite late in the year for typhoons to still be happening." According to news reports here, if Nanmadol strikes it would be the first typhoon to hit Taiwan in December in meteorological history.

Then came an announcement advising people to cease campaign activities for the upcoming legislative elections (December 11)- due to Typhoon Nanmadol.

On such rainy "typhoon days" some people hole up at home, stock up on groceries and bottled water, seal their windows... businesses and schools close... giving people an excuse to have a "play day"- out shopping, at the movies, or having a leisurely lunch out. It made me reminisce about the "snow days" we looked forward to as children in Ottawa. It always seemed like at least once during the winter season- the snow would fall continuously and snowbanks that were more than waist high accumulated. It meant a day off from school, staying at home with Mom- lying in the fluffy fresh fallen snow making snow angels, building a snowman, and warm soup after a "hard day's work"... or a half day at school watching movies in the gymnasium as the school prepared to close early and arrange for school buses to take us home.

When was the last time I did any of those things? If I were in a vast, freshly snow covered field now, I'd be so tempted to flop down on the bed snow and leave my own imprints of snow angels... to play and perhaps even build something. I remember the wondrous sight of the ice sculptures at the annual Ottawa Winterlude. There's something so enchanting about building a snowman and sandcastles- that brings out the child in us all.

Today, I simply spent my "typhoon day" with my Mom, having all-u-can-eat hot pot for lunch and shopping all afternoon.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

While I was gone... it looks like they caught the Taiwan "unabomber"! Or as the English newspapers have named him- the "rice bomber." Somehow "rice bomber" doesn't sound quite as menacing as unabomber . The rice bomber is so named because over the past year, he has being leaving explosives with a packet of rice and a note at various locations around Taipei. No one has been hurt by any of the rice bomber's bombs.

I didn't even know that this guy was running around Taiwan- it wasn't reported on much in the English newspapers here. Apparently the man was turned in by his brother and confessed Friday morning .

The police are still not sure if the rice bomber acted alone or if more than one person was involved.

The rice bomber has been described as a misguided modern day robin hood who was protesting that imported rice has caused the price of locally grown rice to drop, especially since Taiwan's entry into the WTO. There isn't any clear evidence of this or that rice farmers have been negatively impacted as a result.