Food in my Hood

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I recently found a new Taiwanese private tutor to encourage my neglected Mandarin Chinese studies. My tutor is a 24-year-old graduate student at Wenzao University in Kaohsiung. She is getting her masters in English, and I am her lucky practice student.

Wenzao is known for teaching languages, and for a suspiciously  female-dominated student population. Most of my foreigner male friends date the English student “Wenzao girls.”

Ruhua was a tutor for my friend, and in yet another stroke of luck, she loves food as much as I do. So last week she showed me a few of the famous places in the Yancheng neighborhood.

I often go to the Buddhist lunchbox restaurant with lots of traditional Taiwanese food served completely vegetarian. It isn’t  vegan though, they still have egg options.

We went to a Cantonese-style lunchbox with roast duck and pork over rice. She explained that even though it was comparatively expensive for lunch, 90 NT = $3, she would treat herself because, she groaned, “The skin is so crispy!”

Afterwards she wanted to show me a dessert place around the corner, mochi the glutinous rice Japanese dessert is pronounced more like ‘mo-sure’ in Chinese with another more formal name niangao 年糕.

The fillings she suggested were peanut, taro and red bean-strawberry. I would recommend the taro. Taro is that purple starchy sweet root vegetable so popular in Asian countries, like Taiwan, China and even the Philippines. I still don’t like the sweetened red bean filling. For me beans are more at home in bean dip and enchiladas, but not desserts.

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Creatively Yours

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Taiwanese people on the surface are interested in logical and most importantly high-profit, low-risk solutions to life’s problems. Safety and income are prioritised as more important than happiness and relaxation, especially for young people who are expected to work 60 hour weeks to show their vigilance in supporting their family.

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In my random sampling of friends and acquaintances I regularly make suggestions that I hope they will take time for themselves to relax and enjoy being young. Of course we all have different things that make us happy, but I have a diverse portfolio of interests that make me happy and I try to share some of these with them.

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I am a patron of the arts, a poor patron, but a patron just the same. I like music events, films, biking, running, hiking, photography, reading, writing, baking, cooking, traveling and more recently painting. It’s easy to find a mutual interest, but it is a little difficult to find a way we can both enjoy that interest in execution. They usually want to be orderly and well-planned in advanced, and I want to do things on the fly.

Last Sunday, one of my Taiwanese friends organized an art in the park event. The premise is pretty simple, he went to the museum and was inspired to have a group painting in the park…with feet. He went and bought canvas, paint trays and some kind of latex-based paints. When my Taiwanese friends start a new hobby the start  by going shopping to buy all the “necessary” equipment.

They don’t do things halfway with a litmus test to see if they like it or not. No, instead they will find some online list of “MUST HAVES” and then buy all the things. On the other hand I would probably improvise a cheaper option or wait to buy it later. For example my friend organizing the painting event, I thought he would buy paint and thicker paper and then we could run around on some long streamers.

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He chose to buy the canvas which it turns out was even better because damp feet would probably break through paper. But he was really stressing about having buckets for rinsing feet, and holding paint and I suggested we use some old shoe boxes. Improvisation, it isn’t always pretty or well-thought out or endorsed by websites.

Improvisation and creativity are not really encouraged or taught in Taiwan. My students at school are downright confused when I ask questions that aren’t in the book. But that doesn’t mean some Taiwanese don’t naturally gravitate towards the crazy foreigners that can show them a more laissez faire approach to enjoying art.

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The creativity is there, just under all the controlled actions and procedure driven behavior. Once and a while I am lucky enough to watch a friend or student really exhibit their creativity, without shame or worrying about the time. That’s the good stuff. Witnessing creativity at work is almost as good as participating in it first-hand. It isn’t planned, it’s a little crazy and there is a chance of failure and also the chance to make something entirely new and wonderful.

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The Beat Drops

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If ever in doubt of passion in the world, talk to a DJ about music. In Kaohsiung City, Taiwan the diversity of music available might be limited, but the personalities of the DJs  and club owners are widely varied in their music tastes and motivations.

Theo, a British DJ known as Chamber, has a theory about music acquisition, “The way people, scientifically, psychologically, get into music is you hear a different sound and it might not sound good, but the more you hear it the more you understand it, and it sounds better.”

Chamber hopes to motivate a shift in listening habits and introduce some new music to Taiwan in the process. He spins Underground Sounds, a weekly alternative music radio show on ICRT, the most popular English-speaking station in Taiwan. Also he participates in a friend’s monthly music and art exposition in the park that celebrates rap, graffiti, breakdancing and hip hop culture.

Listening to music is a social act. Someone singing on stage two feet away or in a recording studio 20,000 miles away is communicating a feeling. Music encourages people to feel new emotions, and even empathize with different cultures.

Paula, DJ P-LaLa is one of the few female DJs in southern Taiwan. Not to be confused with the Supermodel-style female DJs groomed for fame and followers, she is motivated to DJ for the music and has been spinning at Brickyard for the past four years. In that time she became an ambassador for Latin music. Her fluency in Spanish, and time spent abroad gives her an advantage mixing Latin and dance music. As a Kaohsiung local she is more approachable for questions about Latin music than other DJs that cannot speak Chinese.

“A lot of my friends did not like Latin music so much, a lot of them didn’t know what Latin music was,” Paula admitted.  “It took me about a year to get a lot of people to show up for Latin music. The  first time I heard people tell me ‘I love Reggeton!’ I was like, ‘Really?’ I got so happy because that’s a slower beat music about 95-100. A lot of Taiwanese people just like the boom boom boom so when it slows down they don’t know what to do.”

New music can be grounds to form new friendships and a sense of community, as Chamber communicated, “Music is very important, because you probably find this as well, you make a lot of friends through bonding over music. You meet people, and you like the same music, and you get talking.”

The business side of the music industry requires that the venues turn a profit. Profit is generated by people walking in the door, dancing and drinking. No profit, no DJ.

DinDin, also a local Kaohsiung DJ, won the Taiwan Red Bull Thre3Style DJ competition last year. He said his former club boss at LAMP told him he could only play popular Electronic Dance Music (EDM), and no Taiwanese music. DinDin and Chamber agreed the Kaohsiung dance clubs often have formulaic policies when it comes to playing music.

Graham Dart and Ryan Fernandez are co-owners of Brickyard, a  bar-club hybrid. In the last five years the music played and purpose of the venue has shifted to balance what Taiwanese and foreigners want to hear, according to Graham.

“We absolutely don’t tell DJs what to play.” Graham clarified that he would give feedback to the DJ later if people were walking out because of the music.

DJs are in the unique position of being familiar with a wide range of music, but only being able to share the part the audience is willing to hear. After all listening is optional, a conversation and not a lecture.

Audiences can be persuaded to like a new sound. Old popular songs played before something new can get people excited. These excited dancing people are more likely to enjoy the new song that follows. The “educational” beats can only be played if they are tolerated by club management. Even if the audience responds enthusiastically there is no guarantee a DJ will be asked to play again, there is an emphasis on giving people what they want to hear and only the most easily digested music.

Alex, DJ Apeshit to friends, is both Taiwanese and British. An electronic DJ specializing in hip hop, trap and drum and bass (DnB), he started DJing in Shanghai before moving to Kaohsiung five years ago. For him, playing music Taiwanese are familiar with is sometimes necessary.

“Taiwanese culture, once they like a song they’ll play it ten thousand times,” Alex said. “It has to be something that’s familiar to them otherwise they will be like, ‘How do we dance to this? This is awkward.’”

Alex compared DJing a new sound to “walking on ice, you can get past it if you don’t stand on the ice too long…because if you do it for too long they’ll be scared.”

He arrived at the height of the Lady Gaga and “Party Rock Anthem” pop music craze but the trend has shifted. According to Alex now there is a lot more electronic house, progressive house and some trap being played.

The Mansion, a new club in Kaohsiung, opened in January this year. The club spokesperson and promoter, Tanya Rose said the club will play electronic, house, techno and hip hop.

“The DJs are chosen based on different credentials. Mostly experience and type of music they play.  The Mansion focuses on electronic and hip hop. Commercial music is also important because it is familiar to most, and helps people feel comfortable. I believe when we feel comfortable, we can begin the process of relaxing, releasing, and reaching a state of happiness.”

One difficulty playing non commercial music is the language barrier. “I think it’s the language barrier that stops people from checking online for the new music,” said Paula. A few years ago she translated “dubstep” into Chinese for readers on Wikipedia, but she said few people read the page. Without Chinese translations acquiring new music knowledge can be difficult for Taiwanese that don’t already speak English.

DinDin described one music request he had while DJing, a person asked for hip hop and then protested when he played it. “This isn’t hip hop it goes (bzhhhhh.) That’s called trap! They didn’t know what it was called.”

Lack of diversity in dance music can affect the live music scene as well. With only three live music venues The Mercury up north, and ROCKS and Black Dog in the south it is unlikely people in Kaohsiung will try listening to new music if they don’t have a vocabulary to tell friends about it.

Paula thinks most Taiwanese people get new music from popular culture, celebrities and movies, and pick the music they go to see by its perceived popularity and not its sound. She recalled going to a Delinquent Habits concert with under twenty people attending.  Maybe it was a promotion issue, and maybe the lack of popularity for hip hop in Taiwan at the time.

“If you introduce people to music they have never heard before and they love it, it can change their lives. It’s a lot more than just making money at a bar. It’s worthwhile, but that’s missing from here,” said Chamber.

If audiences hear the same music, they will request the same music and expect the same music. Hong Kong has a healthy variety of music, Taipei has begun to appreciate more genres, and Kaohsiung can too. It starts with a request.