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.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The recent cases of military secrets being leaked to China and Chinese vessels suspiciously entering Taiwan's territorial waters highlight the complexity of Taiwan- who's enemies not only include a belligerent neighbor across the strait, but the enemies at home working to blur the boundaries between Taiwan and China.

In other major news, the May 29 funeral at the Taipei First Municipal Funeral Home for the "Godfather of Taiwan's mafia", Hsu Hai-ching - known as "Mosquito Brother"- attracted about 10,000 gangsters from Hong Kong, Macau and Japan. This caused serious traffic jams in Taipei and managed to inconvenience 50,000 junior high school graduates taking entrance exams for high school.

According to the Taiwan News : To pay tribute to Hsu, the heads of Taiwan's four major gangs- the Bamboo Union, the Four Seas, the Tiendaomeng and the Pine Union- reached an agreement several days ago establishing May 29 as "Truce Day," meaning all gang members were forbidden to fight on the day of Hsu's memorial service.

Somehow, the translation of Hsu's gangster name "Mosquito Brother" just doesn't have same ring as famous mafia tough guy names that come to mind like The Animal, Scarface, The Enforcer, or Mad Dog...

Well, apparently Hsu was also known as "The Final Arbitrator."

Friday, May 27, 2005

Cyanide Poisonings Solved

The energy drink cyanide poisoner has confessed after being found. The full report is here in the Taipei Times .

Now if they could just do something about the ATM card PIN thefts that are rife, serial kidnappers at large, telephone scams involving credit card theft and bank account transfers, identity theft, and...

Okay, okay one thing at a time. But one does wonder- if the police were able to so swiftly solve this case, and the case of Chu Mu-yen (Taiwan's taekwondo gold medalist) being bribed - what about all of the above crimes, which sadly are so commonplace. The Chu Mu-yen case began in late April and was only reported on by the media in early May.

To cynics it seems like higher profile cases get priority. They are relentlessly reported on by the media, so when such cases are solved, overblown accolades are touted, there's the rush of glory and accomplishment. Leaving...

The public
Blinded by it all
All is well and
All else is forgotten
Reactionary and short-sighted
A modus operandi

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Well, now that Taiwan's media machine has latched onto the latest shocking bit of news- the discovery of cyanide laced energy drinks- perhaps some good will come of it.

There has been mass coverage on related stories- warning people to inspect convenience store bought drinks, telling the public how to detect if drinks have been tampered. Plastic caps should be checked to see if they have been twisted apart from their security rings, once opened- if the drink has a seal, check so see if it's intact, straw holes of drink boxes should be checked for punctures and ensured to be airtight- when lightly squeezing the carton, no air or liquid should escape.

A complimentary bottle of water offered in five star hotel room, was discovered to contain not only water but an unidentified alcoholic substance. The hotel admitted that it did not remove or replace complimentary bottles of water if they appeared to be unused after a guest checked out. The "unused" bottles of water were left in the room for the next guest to use.

Actually, I'm not sure if all this reporting is helpful (as in creating awareness) or harmful (as in creating alarmist reactions).

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Cyanide Poisonings

Bottles of "Wild Bull" a popular energy drink here in Taiwan, (a name which reminds me, but is not to be confused with "Red Bull") have been laced with cyanide. Four victims bought the lethal beverages from different convenience stores in Taichung city. Three are in comas and one is under observation at a Taichung hospital. Oddly, the four tainted beverages imbibed by the victims were labeled "I am toxic, do not drink." Police have found two other likewise labeled "Wild Bull" drinks.

The drink manufacturer, Paolyta immediately recalled some 1.2 million to 1.68 million bottles of the energy drinks.

According to the Taiwan News (May 19, 2005), Paolyta's general manager, Lu Pai-chang, Paolyta has suspended production and distribution of the drink and will not resume sales of the product again until the cases have been solved.

I wonder if this case will ever be solved. It reminds me of the Tylenol poisonings of the 1980's, which to this day, remain unsolved.

From my South East Asia travel diary

August 21, 2003- Siem Reap, Cambodia

In contrast to my arrival in Phnom Penh, before arriving in Siem Reap, I had practically overbooked myself. I was going to be in Siem Reap for three days, so I felt that it was absolutely essential that I immediately book a room at a guesthouse and a guide to show me around the ancient temples and ruins of Angkor Wat. One guide in particular, “J” had been highly recommended to me by a friend of a friend, but when I didn’t hear from him right away, I contacted another as backup. So when I left Bangkok for Phnom Penh I had already booked a room at a guesthouse and contacted not one, but two guides.

Now at the tiny airport in Siem Reap- where there wasn’t even a moveable conveyor for baggage- I feared what I was going to do, having overbooked with two guides. I had told both of them when I’d be arriving from Phnom Penh, so I was sure they’d both be at the airport or guesthouse to greet me. Although friends who had been to Angkor Wat told me not to worry if I didn’t secure a guide beforehand- competition would be fierce for my business I was told- I preferred to go with a personally recommended guide if possible.

As I stepped out of the airport, the guide, “C”, who I had contacted as a backup, introduced himself and offered me a ride to the guesthouse. I told him that I’d decided to use another guide. Finally I found the guesthouse driver. Once in the car, he wasted no time in offering his services and the services of a guide to be arranged by the guesthouse- for a tour around Angkor Wat. I politely refused him, feeling increasingly apprehensive and anxious with so many people fiercely vying for my dollars and my guard went up.

Upon arriving the guesthouse, I found the two guides “C” and “J” waiting for me. Before I could think what to say to explain, “J” explained that he was the guide for Angkor Wat, that my friend had recommended and that the other man, “C” who I had contacted as a “backup guide”, was actually just a driver and that they could work together showing me around Angkor Wat during my three day stay.

It all seemed to make sense and I was completely relieved that the situation was resolved and that I could actually employ both of them.

A response to my previous post

I started off writing a response to the comment made by Christine on my previous post, “Moral of the story is, the kindness of strangers isn't always for the purpose of being kind.” But my response got so long that I thought I’d just post my thoughts.

It may be true that people usually do have some sort of ulterior motive when they strike up a conversation with you- especially if you are a lone traveler. But after all I’d been through that day (my first and only day in Phnom Penh!) this girl was a breath of fresh air- a gentle, humble “ambassador” who was probably just interested in practicing her English. As you might have guessed, this chance meeting was one of the fonder memories I have of my short stay in Phnom Penh.

So what do you do, especially when you’re a woman traveling alone? You try your best to see warning signs, and go with your gut if you feel uncomfortable, but at the same time you try to recognize and receive others’ genuinely offered goodwill. And all the while, you still try to keep your eyes and ears open.

What I didn’t mention in this post was how much I had my guard up initially as I wandered around the museum- even when I was stopped and asked to either check in my camera or pay a fee to bring it in. I was about to protest since the person who informed me hardly looked like a uniformed museum worker- like the ones that I’m accustomed to seeing in the New York city museums that I used to frequent. The museum employee was dressed in plainclothes. As she motioned me over, I saw a sign clearly posted in front of the check-in desk, stating that if visitors wished to bring their cameras into the museum and take photos, there would be a fee. Otherwise cameras must be checked in. It seemed strange to me. In the west, museums usually clearly stated if photography was strictly prohibited or allowed. In my view, this policy seemed to effectively license people to freely photograph the museum’s entire collection, albeit for a small fee. So I checked in my camera.

It’s difficult but important to know when to let your guard down- just enough to not be on the defensive all the time and to accept the goodwill of others, while being aware of the risks. But isn’t that how life is sometimes?

What I also didn’t write about my arrival in Phnom Penh was that shortly after getting my landing visa in the Phnom Penh airport, a seemingly harmless, overweight, gray-haired, middle-aged American man started speaking to me with an uncomfortable familiarity. He had overheard me talking to the customs officials about the landing visa and had surmised that I was from the U.S. or Canada. He continued to make conversation as we walked over to line up to go through customs.

As I stood in front of the customs officer for the final stage of inspection, waiting for the customs officer to inspect my passport and landing visa, the fat, old American guy stood behind me and I was annoyed when I saw him lean over the counter to get a glimpse of what was on the custom officer’s computer screen. I turned and looked back at him; he looked away.

Later as the few passengers from the flight waited for their baggage to arrive, there were even more questions- from the now meddlesome, out-of-shape, man who was way past his prime. I answered politely, but evasively without specifics. In the end I courteously and firmly said that I hope he’d enjoy his stay in Cambodia and walked away. I was relieved to get away from him and went my on way looking for a pay phone to sort out my accommodations for the evening.

Thanks to the counsel of many wise girlfriends who had traveled alone, I had been wisely advised to dress like a bum, to stay in at night, to keep to myself, and to be wary of anyone, including other English-speaking foreigners, who quickly became overfriendly. Doesn’t sound too exciting, but I didn’t get into trouble, enjoyed all there was to see and do during the day and besides, having done the clubbing scene in New York City alone before, I had no need to satisfy any nocturnal curiosities or to invite any unexpected excitement.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

August 20, 2003 (continued)

As I wandered around the National Museum in Phnom Penh, I felt curious eyes on me and heard soft, following footsteps. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young, small figure. When I turned to see more clearly, I saw that it was young, neatly dressed Cambodian schoolgirl. The girl with a young, fresh face asked me where I was from, and strolled along side me as I looked at the collection of unlabeled artifacts- unfortunately, I couldn’t discern their significance- historic or otherwise, but I imagined that these relics and ruins offered a preview of what there was to see of Angkor Wat- my next stop tomorrow.

I looked at her long, dark, wavy hair which was neatly pinned back and told her that I was from Canada, that that’s where I grew up and the passport that I’m traveling on. She told me that she was a university student. I would have guessed she was a high school student from her neat appearance; she wore a white buttoned down shirt and navy skirt which at first glance resembled a school uniform.

Then she asked, “How long will you be in my country?”

I noticed her crisp white shirt and the letters USA embroidered conspicuously on one of the collars.

“I just arrived today from Bangkok,” I told her. “I will be here for one day. Tomorrow I’m going to Siem Reap to see the famous temples of Angkor for three days.”

“It’s so wonderful that you come to visit my country. Are you traveling by yourself?”


“I’m so happy you have come to visit my country. You are so brave. Many people think it’s dangerous. They don’t want to come they are worried about the election. It’s so great that you have come. If you want to know about something in the museum you can ask me.”

Cambodia held its National Assembly elections on July 27, 2003. It was feared that the violence and instability surrounding past elections would plague this one. The results were officially announced August 8, 2003 .

Her charming, heartfelt sincerely had won me over. I asked her if she had ever been to Angkor, to which she replied no, because she was too busy with her studies. I urged her to go, telling her that people from all over the world come to Cambodia just to see Angkor Wat.

“What are you studying?” I asked.

“Chemistry. Are you finished with your studies?”

I smiled and told her that I was much older than she thought.

“I’m close to 30,” I told her. Actually over 30 to be completely truthful, but what’s a few years give or take at this point?

“Oh you look so young,” she gushed.

“Thank you.”

I told her that I was living in Taiwan and working as an English teacher. When she humbly apologized about her poor English I assured her that her English was quite good, which it was.

When I asked her about some of the artifacts, she told me that most young Cambodians don’t know the significance of all them. Not only were the artifacts not clearly labeled, they didn’t seem to be categorized or placed in any systematic order.

“Are you going anywhere else today?”

“Yes, I’ll be going to the Grand Palace and Silver Pagoda.” Visiting the Killing Fields had proven to be so emotionally draining that I knew I couldn't bear visiting the S-21 prison.

“I have to go now. Have a good trip.”

“Good luck with your studies.”

And just like that she was gone.

I stepped outside of the museum, into the stark noon sun. Just in front of the museum was the admission booth- there, the same emaciated, legless man sat in a wheelchair, just the same as when I had arrived an hour or so earlier. One look at him made more than a few foreign tourists reach in to their pockets to pay for more than just the museum admission.

Sadly, decades of war have left behind landmines that maim the innocent people of Cambodia daily.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Yes, I’ve oft complained that the media in Taiwan, particularly television, has a tendency to sensationalize and scandalize the news by focusing on negative reporting, shocking, tragic stories, and crimes committed. So how is this any different from news reporting elsewhere you ask?

In Taiwan, it's not really an exaggeration to say that people are bombarded by the television news practically 24 hours a day. This is in large part due to the way that national television networks organize their programming.

The three major national television networks in Taiwan separate their programming into two categories (and therefore two separate channels): news programs and entertainment programs. Each major television network effectively runs two parallel channels.

As a result, there are three “news only” channels (representing each of the three major networks). The programming on these “news only” channels consists of hourly news reports and daily/nightly political talk shows.

Each station also runs “entertainment only” channels; the programming on “entertainment only” channels include soap opera dramas, cooking/food shows, variety shows and made for television movies.

Because of this separation in programming, every hour, on the hour, there is an hour long news report run on the news only channel. We're not just talking about an announcement of late breaking news at the top the hour, but a full blown hour long report on local news. And how much news could there be to report on here in Taiwan- an island that is merely 35,563 square kilometers in size?

Basically the television news that is reported each hour becomes very repetitious, cycling and recycling through every hour with only slight superficial changes; a different news anchor every few hours, a change of voice, a change of attire, but basically the content is the same. This cycle lasts for about 12 hours from 7am to 8pm daily. So any major news story quickly gets blown out of proportion, over reported, round the clock three times over, sending viewers into overload. I’ve noticed that many people complain about the quality of the television news here and consequently, don’t actually watch it much.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Taiwan is one of the most densely populated places in the world and it has among the highest suicide rates in Asia

On Monday a comedian, known for his impersonations of the current vice-president of Taiwan, Annette Lu, was discovered to have committed suicide . Of course it was treated as another media feeding frenzy. Every local television news station led with this story.

Even more disturbing is that in the days after, fourteen people tried to commit suicide, in an apparent rash of copy cat suicides, which also seems to happen all too often here in Taiwan.

I was so distressed to the point of fury when I heard about this. It really upsets me when I hear about people so weak in their spirit.

What is it that makes it such a struggle to live (in Taiwan in particular)- tremendous social pressures that result from living in densely populated areas, political instability and uncertainty, alienation in an increasingly urbanized society, economic hardship, or the shame of dealing with or seeking help for psychological illness?

It just strikes me as so ironic that Taiwan is one of the most densely populated places, yet has such a high rate of suicide.
A land so full of people that you are never alone
There couldn't be a land more full of people who feel so alone

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

An editorial in the Taiwan News today which explains why there's cause for concern over KMT chairperson, Lien Chan's recent visit to China:

Hu-Lien deal hurts Taiwan's interests
Editorial, page 7
Staff Reporter
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Clearly in need of a "win-win" accord to justify his visit to the People's Republic of China, Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan entered into a "five-point" consensus Friday with PRC State Chairman and ruling Chinese Commuinst Party General Secretary Hu Jintao which was thinly disguised as a "joint press communique."

Lien, a two-time loser in Taiwan's presidential elections in March 2000 and March 2004, is trying to maintain control over the KMT, while Hu is trying to deflect international pressure over the PRC's strategic error of enacting a belligerent "anti-separation law" directed against Taiwan in mid-March.

Under the rubric of "Common Aspirations for Peaceful Cross-strait Development," the KMT and CCP heads declared that their parties would uphold the "Consensus of 1992," oppose Taiwan independence, seek peace and stability across the Strait, promote interchange as well as protect the interests of the people on the two sides.

Hu praised the achievement as a sign that "Chinese on both sides of the strait have the capability and wisdom to solve mutual contradictions and problems and strive in common for the vision of peace and stable development of cross-strait relations and commonly create a great revival of the ethnic Chinese nation."

But the content of the communique, especially the agreement by the two party leaders to promote "five tasks," completely belies the claim that the revived KMT-CCP cooperation will actually lead to a feasible "vision" of peaceful and stable cross-strait relations, leaving aside the racialist appeal for a "revival" of an ethnic Chinese nation.

In brief, the stipulation that future cross-strait talks should be held "on the foundation of the 'Consensus of 1992,'" which contains the "one-China" principle constitutes an agreement by the KMT with the PRC's imposition of a precondition that the Taiwan government must first agree that Taiwan is part of "China" before talks can begin.

PRC officials yesterday reaffirmed Beijing's insistence that President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party administration must accept "the 'Consensus of 1992' which manifests the one-China principle" before talks between the two sides can resume.

President Chen Shui-bian has said that talks can take place under the "spirit" of the October 1992 talks in Hong Kong between representatives of Taipei's semi-official Strait Exchange Foundation and Beijing's counterpart Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait.

There is a decisive difference between citing this "spirit," which is seen by Chen as agreeing to disagree and setting aside the seemingly intractable issue of sovereignty in order to allow talks on "pragmatic" problems in the cross-strait relationship, and the historical issue of whether the two sides reached an actual "consensus" that "manifested" agreement by both sides that Taiwan was part of China, even if one accepts the KMT claim that the consensus could be characterized by the slogan "one China, separate verbal expressions."

Citing testimony from the late SEF Chairman C. F. Koo and SEF negotiators, Chen has denied that any such "consensus" was reached. Moreover, the president has repeatedly stated that "one China" can be a "topic" in cross-strait talks but absolutely cannot be a "precondition" to renew talks. Accepting such a precondition would be tantamount to denying the existence of the Republic of China on Taiwan as a sovereign state and negating the democratic principle that the sovereignty of Taiwan belongs to the 23 million Taiwan people.

Obviously, there could be no "parity" in talks held under such conditions.

In contrast to this anti-democratic demand of prior acceptance of the "one China" principle, President Chen, in his speech yesterday to the Marshall Islands Nitijela (parliament), stated that official cross-strait contacts or negotiations can begin at any time so long as they take place "under the principles of democracy, peace and parity."

Second, the proposal for the promotion of a "formal ending of the cross-strait state of hostilities" and reaching a peace accord, including the establishment of military mutual confidence building mechanisms would exclude the United States and Japan from having justifiable security concerns in the Taiwan Strait and negate any rationale for U.S. intervention to ensure the security of Taiwan from PRC attacks.

Third, the proposal to tighten economic and trade ties between the two sides under current conditions will make Taiwan even more dependent on the Chinese economic system and would place Taiwan in a disadvantage in discussions with Beijing on trade and economic issues in a "domestic" framework instead of the equal status enjoyed under the multilateral World Trade Organization platform. As can be seen in the case of Hong Kong, the result will only be the subordination of Taiwan's economic development interests to Beijing.

The fourth point includes an "offer" by Beijing to negotiate Taiwan's participation in the "activities of the World Health Organization" after cross-strait consultations are "resumed," naturally under the condition of acceptance of the "Consensus of 1992."

Agreeing to negotiate Taiwan's international space with Beijing would render Taiwan's participation in the WHO's "activities" (not even the WHO itself) and other international organizations a "domestic" matter to be decided by Beijing, thus negating Taiwan's sovereign and independent status and the right of its people to participate in the international community.

Fifth, the establishment of party-to-party communications aims to marginalize the DPP and since the CCP has imposed acceptance of the "one-China principle" and the "Consensus of 1992" as preconditions for party-to-party, which the DPP, unlike the KMT, is unwilling to accept.

It should also be noted that the formalization of channels for KMT-CCP "dialogue" establishes a direct channel for the CCP to attempt to influence Taiwan's domestic affairs through the KMT's position as the Legislative Yuan's largest opposition party.

To respond to the formation of a KMT-CCP alliance and this "five-point consensus," the DPP government has to take counter measures, including demanding that Beijing agree to negotiate directly as the PRC with Taiwan's Republic of China government, dismantle the over 700 tactical missiles aimed at Taiwan among the southern Chinese coast as evidence of good will to end cross-strait hostilities, cease opposition to Taiwan's participation in the WHO and other international organizations and require strictly that party-to-party contacts be monitored and regulated by Taiwan's law.