Time Out in Taiwan

Our trip to Taiwan began with a flourish.  After touching down Taipei we made our way through customs and immigration only to be told that Nicky could not come with us.  As a non-US passport holder, unbeknownest to us, he was required to have a visa to enter Taiwan.  He was taken off to immigration; he told us to go on and have a good trip and he would keep us updated.  With that we trudged on through the airport, got Taiwanese sim cards for our phones, and were on our way.  After checking into the hotel we were off to the Shilin night market to explore and get a sense of the Taiwanese atmosphere.

As a group we all shopped, wandered around, tasted the local street fair, and just relaxed after a long week.  At the market it was fun to see what each vendor was selling.  A shop that specialized in socks was nestled in between one that sold formal floor length dresses and one that sold various types of bags.  The sheer range of diversity we found in the night market was unbelievable.  There were even vendors with their products spread out on blankets on the street trying to catch people’s eyes as they went by.  The number of people who could fit into that size of an area was also overwhelming; stopping to look at something, without moving out of the way of the foot traffic, was dangerous to your wellbeing.  One of the best parts of the night market, however, was the food.  While there I tried some delicious cranberry iced tea and mouth-watering grilled chicken.  The dinner was definitely the best part of the night market.

The next day we visited an ancient temple and then made our way to 228 Memorial Park.  The park was not only a place full of history, but also a great place to relax and just have fun.  We were all enamored by the stone foot “massage” path we came across.  While a few brave souls ventured across, the rest of the group looked on with great amusement as we winced and cursed our way down the path.  Upon completing it though we all felt very proud and only mildly sore.  After that, one would assume that we would be on our way with more culturally and historically important ventures, but, when you put a bunch of 20 something’s in a park with a playground we must try the toys from our childhood.  We all scattered on the playground, some opting for the seesaw and remembering first hand why it is good to not only keep it balanced but also to hold on.  Others enjoyed the swing set, and still others of us climbed the metal structure to see what the park looked like from a higher vantage point.  We had a great time just goofing around and relaxing until Fuji finally asked if we could get on with the important parts of our trip.

Later that day we went to the top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan, and until a few years ago the tallest in the world.  To reach the observation deck on the 89th floor you take an elevator, which covers the entire distance in 37 seconds!  The ride was great; however, my ears were not too pleased, as they popped every 10 floors – not the most pleasant experience but well worth it.  From the top you could walk all the way around and see a 360-degree view of Taipei.  Looking down on the city reminded me of the view from the top of the Eifel Tower and how small everything looked from up there.  From the top of the tower we were able to watch the sun set over the mountains.  The sunset was a beautiful ending to a fantastic first full day in Taiwan.

Chongming Island (崇明岛) Part Two

Julie, Feng Ran, and I made our second trip to Chongming Island this weekend. This time our team went equipped with a full filming kit: a Canon Rebel T4, Sony Bloggie, Rodi microphone, H4 microphone, tripod and other accessories (spare batteries, Neewer light disc reflector and SD cards).

We arrived on Saturday night to review our plans, prepare the filming equipment and get a good night’s rest for Sunday. During our trip we interviewed a migrant farmer, a local farmer, a local land owner/developer, two migrant fishermen and a local driver. Below are my reflections on our team’s first filming experiences.

TECHNICALITIES

Before we arrived to Chongming, our team practiced filming and testing our microphone’s audio just once. So, I was a bit nervous while setting up the equipment for our first interview. While Feng Ran made casual conversation with the migrant farmer, Julie and I mounted the Rodi microphone to the Canon and the Canon on the tripod. Just before this, we realized the H4 microphone was out of battery, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the Rodi microphone would capture satisfactory audio. As Fuji stresses, good audio is even more important than the video.

Alas, our team forgot to plug the Rodi microphone cord into the camera during the first two minutes of filming. Julie luckily noticed this mistake early on, and we were able to capture the introductory content, once again, at the end of the interview.

With around 3 hours of nonstop filming completed, the Canon Rebel’s battery was running extremely low and the SD card was filling up faster than we anticipated. We were forced to exchange the battery pack and SD card during the middle of the second interview. This was irritating because it disrupted the flow of the interview and thoughts of our informant. Nonetheless, these interruptions can be easily fixed with editing later on.

Lesson learned: spare batteries and memory storage are necessary. Also, it doesn’t hurt to take a lunch break to charge up the dead batteries and to free up some space on the primary SD card.

The Sony Bloggie also caused our team some technical problems. The Bloggie’s battery died around the same time as the Canon, but we did not know how to recharge it. I plugged the Bloggie into my computer, but the computer did not recognize any activity from the USB drive. Additionally, we had no Internet at our hotel on Chongming, so searching for the solution was not an option. Consequently, the Bloggie remained uncharged for a good portion of the trip, and we missed out on opportunities for footage and various angle shots during interesting interviews. At the end of the trip we figured out our mistake: the Bloggie must be turned on when plugged into the computer for the battery to charge and files to transfer. By this time it was a little too late. Nonetheless, Julie and I did capture around two hundred shorter video clips on the Bloggie during our stay.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

In Shanghai and around Fudan University’s campus, I will often here English or other international languages spoken on the streets, subways and buses. This is not the case on Chongming Island. Especially among the farming and fishing communities, there were no English speakers. In fact, some people we spoke with declined an interview, claiming even their Mandarin was not good enough.

Since all of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin, Julie and I did not ask any questions during the interviews with the Chongming subjects. Collectively, our team brainstormed topics and questions for each interview beforehand. I was able to follow some of the introductory conversations, but most of my attention was diverted toward filming. During our visit to the fishing village, I wandered off and spoke to our driver and fishermen on another boat. It was exciting to use my Mandarin, but still some parts of the conversation were lost in translation. I asked the fishermen about their children and they asked me about my flight to Shanghai. They even offered to give me a sampling of the crabs they caught. I politely declined, having neither the kitchen nor skill to cook the crabs.

With around 50 GB worth of film, the next steps for our team involve tedious video cataloging. Since Julie and I do not have the necessary language skills to interpret the interviews, we cannot divide the work and conquer this task in a third of the time. Instead, we must sit down as a group and filter the abundance of film down to the most important parts based on Feng Ran’s translations.

A-ROLL AND B-ROLL

A-roll and B-roll together make up any film. A-roll is the video footage of the main subject, like an interviewee speaking about his or her family. And B-roll is the video footage of the surroundings and other contextual images, like shots of an interviewee’s children playing in different parts of the house. The difference between A and B-roll is particularly clear in most documentaries. In my opinion, the interplay of A and B-roll keeps the film interesting. When a film elegantly jumps from the main subject to other scenes that complement the dialogue and content of the piece, it is able to express a more complete story. Using relevant clips apart from the A-roll will improve the illustration and portrayal of the story’s narrative.

During our time on Chongming Island, Julie and I shared the responsibility of capturing A-roll and B-roll while Feng Ran interviewed. We alternated A-roll and B-roll jobs after each interview session. We filmed A-roll on the Canon Rebel and B-roll on the Sony Bloggie. I found filming A-roll more serious and structured. For the most part this job required placing the interviewee in the frame and making sure he or she did not come out of focus. On the other hand, filming B-roll allowed me to be more creative and explore the surroundings. While filming B-roll, I experimented with angles, scale and perspectives. Just for fun I created a short video (see below) of some of the B-roll Julie and I shot this weekend. Now, I need to think about how to pair our team’s A-roll and B-roll footage for our project this semester.

Chongming Island B-roll from Chai Lu Bohannan on Vimeo. Music: “Pretty Girl from Merlefest” by the Avett Brothers.

There and Back Again

It was not until I returned to Taiwan after spending a month and a half in Shanghai that I really discovered just how different the cultures on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are.

Or, to be more accurate, it was not until I found myself acting in accordance with Shanghai culture (and against Taiwanese culture) that I began to realize the gulf.

In broad daylight, on the fairly busy Linsen North Road in Zhongshan District, Taipei City, I found myself stepping out to cross the road during a lull in traffic, at a point roughly equidistant from the two nearest crosswalks. As I did so, I had 5 revelations in rapid succession:

  • This is really rather stupid;
  • This is quite lazy;
  • This is probably illegal;
  • This is what people do in Shanghai, and;
  • This is not what people do in Taipei.

A month and a half spent in Shanghai, with its unique traffic patterns for both pedestrians and drivers had desensitized me to the sensibilities about traffic I’d learned growing up in the United States (as in, it’s probably quite stupid, not to mention illegal, to jaywalk). When I began to cross a busy street in Taipei I realized that jaywalking is not generally considered acceptable behavior there, as it is not generally considered acceptable behavior in the United States.

I discovered many further differences between Taiwanese culture and Shanghai culture over the next few days. “Night culture” was perhaps the most starkly different. Shanghai, which is often considered a “global” city, quickly shuts down after about 8:00 PM. Bars and nightclubs remain open, and it’s possible to find vendors hawking fried rice or noodles as late as two in the morning, but these are not really pervasive parts of the culture. Outside of the small areas of the city with a high per capita presence of nightclubs, the streets are almost silent at night. A garbage collector might roam the streets, picking up trash, but he’s invariably alone; a late night public bus might cruise its route, but it’s invariably empty; Family Mart or Lianhua Supermarket might be open 24/7, but, invariably, no one walks in during the late-night hours. For the average Shanghainese, night is a time to remain at home.

Taipei stands in stark contrast, with night culture is omnipresent. Night markets, the pride of the Taiwanese tourist industry, remain crowded by locals and tourists alike until 11 PM; college students stumble out of KTVs well after midnight; old folks sit around outside chatting until all hours of the night. Even late at night, the city still feels alive – while New York may be called the City That Never Sleeps, Taipei actually feels like the City That Never Sleeps.

Food culture also differs significantly between Shanghai and Taipei. In Taipei, friends connect over food on a regular basis – food is the basis for a large portion of Taiwanese social interaction (for really great examples of this, see the movies Eat Drink Man Woman and Au Revoir, Taipei, in both of which food is a central plot element). Food is also the primary focus of most Taiwanese domestic tourism. Whenever they go somewhere new, the main thing Taiwanese people do is try the special local treat (the variety and sheer numbers of these local delicacies is truly astounding for an island the size of New Jersey). In Shanghai, however, food does not seem to carry the same cultural significance. Oftentimes it can be nigh impossible to find something to eat during non-peak hours!

My analysis of Taiwanese culture undoubtedly carries a heavy bias, as the year I spent living there was highly formative for me, and I will likely always have an abiding love of the island and its people. We’ll have to wait for my classmates’ reflections on their time in Taipei to get a solid comparison of Taiwanese and Mainland culture. However, I think it really is fair to say that significant differences exist between the two, regardless of relative strengths and weaknesses. While these differences are not an insurmountable barrier, they do have the potential to inhibit unification, and culture is something that leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait need to be cognizant of.

Where is the Eco-city?

The objectives of economic growth and environmental protection are often contradictory. Environmental protection may place restrictions on economic growth, and economic growth may result in devastated surrounding environments. Currently, China is the world’s most populated country and home to the fastest growing economy. In the last two decades, China’s GDP has increased an average of 10 percent annually (Cheng 2009: 119). To guarantee a healthy population, economy and environment for the future, China’s rapid urbanization must be controlled with sustainable development initiatives. Finding a balance between development and conservation is a necessary challenge.

Presently, China is investigating the development of “eco-cities” that are designed to minimize the ecological footprint (Cheng 2009: 121). With more and more people moving to urban zones, eco-cities serve as a favorable solution for improving environmental conditions of densely populated areas. In China, one eco-city plan is in its preliminary stage of development. Located on Shanghai’s Chongming Island (崇明岛), Dongtan eco-city will serve as a platform for experimentation in smart growth. In relation to the rest of Shanghai, Chongming Island is the least developed area. Its existing natural landscape and potential for renewable energies make it an ideal location for Dongtan. As Cheng reports:

Dongtan eco-city will have a 60% smaller ecological footprint (2.6 global hectares per person) than conventional Chinese cities, a 66% reduction in energy demand, 40% energy from bio-energy, 100% renewable energy buildings and on-site transportation, reduction of waste to landfills by 83%, and almost no COemissions (2009: 122).

To better understand the plans and progress of Dongtan, I visited the early stages of this eco-city last weekend. My research partners, Julie and Feng Ran, accompanied me on this trip. Immediately, the thirteen wind turbines near the nature reserve and Dongtan Wetland Park caught our attention. Later, I learned that the electricity generated from this wind farm could supply power to 26,000 households (Cheng 2009: 122). Although the wind turbines are a promising symbol of sustainable development on Chongming Island, they are also a distraction from a problematic truth: Dongtan’s master plan is already behind schedule.

As we drove around Dongtan’s surroundings, I noticed little construction around the island. We did see a smaller eco-village. Yet, no obvious indicators of sustainable living, such as solar panels or rain barrels, were visible. Furthermore, there were no signs advertising the sustainable neighborhood. According to our taxi driver, the villages were built to increase eco-tourism. The eco-village, natural reserve and Dongtan Wetland Park were all located around twenty minutes away from the nearest existing town.

Our team is interested in learning about the local people and their opinions and understandings of conservation and eco-cities. In just two days, we spoke with two ornithologists, an educational coordinator, two fishermen families, five small business owners, a farmer, and a gift shop worker at the Dongtan Wetland Park. All of our informants supplied a different perspective on the advancements of Dongtan and the natural, undeveloped land. Some people were enthusiastic for the eco-city plans, while others did not care to know any details about the future plans of Dongtan. For instance, the fishermen had no opinion of the wind turbines. They were too busy sewing nets and planning their next fishing excursion to worry about the new wind turbines. Additionally, the scientists did not approve of the land manipulation or profits of the Dongtan Wetland Park.

Moreover, our initial investigation opened doors to new research questions. I look forward another trip to Chongming and to conducting more interviews later on this month. Most of our interviewees agreed to speak with us again and on film. Until then, I will be reading more about Dongtan’s master plan and the relationship between the social sciences and natural environments to prepare for our next trip.

A Mattress

A mattress means nothing and everything to me. Nothing because I can’t remember a time I ever once worried about the possibility of not having my mattress, and everything because a mattress is the ultimate symbol of relaxation, comfort, and rest. There are countless marketing schemes linking luxury and mattresses, and mattresses are presented as a trademark of developed living. I don’t personally know anyone without a mattress. To the Chinese fishermen families on Chongming Island, sleeping without a mattress is a daily insignificant fact. I feel lucky and completely naive for not considering just how valuable my mattress is.

The fishermen on Chongming Island live with their families in a small inlet about ten minutes from the Dongtan nature preserve and within sight of several wind turbines that were built in the last two months. The wind turbines are immense, powerful, modern.

Each family owns at least one boat, and they will sometimes live on the boat for extended times during fishing season.

One fisherman let us enter his home, talk about his life, and even take pictures of his house. To say the least, taking pictures of his house made me feel voyeuristic and crude. I wanted to document his life, but I also didn’t want to make him feel like a strange tourist attraction. In fact, I didn’t even feel worthy of such a special entry into his life. I was only meeting him for the first time and I couldn’t even speak his language, but he was already trusting me with intimate knowledge. The even bigger internal dilemma is that his house did strike me because it was so different from mine. I have a mattress, a symbol of luxury, and his family doesn’t. How can I fairly visually document his life when I understand so little about his personal history? Looking back on my photos, I still feel inappropriate. I am reminded of the controversy surrounding Margaret Meade’s Balinese Character. Maybe I’m documenting the fisherman’s life, but more likely I’m just unintentionally exoticizing his existence. I want to learn more, so I can be as fair and understanding as possible.

However, I did take some pictures that I’m proud of. After asking the fisherman’s permission, he let me take a picture of him holding his baby girl. I showed him the picture, and he smiled. I took another of his other child playing. We hope to print these pictures and others to give to the family when we return.

There are obviously a thousand differences between the fisherman and me, but I felt connected as I took a picture of him with his child. Sure, we have different mattress situations and we can’t even speak directly to each other, but we both understand the feeling between a father and daughter. I hope I can learn more about his life and family, so that I can understand the other countless similarities between us.

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