China and Taiwan


Last night, Jon, Jerry and I finished watching a four-part documentary on PBS, China From the Inside. The documentary was very well done, and I was surprised by how outspoken the critics of the government were. The overall conclusion: China from the inside is in bad shape. The four parts were about politics, women, the environment, and the law. You can guess that there isn’t much good news on any of these fronts. And it all boils down to one basic cause: the government isn’t accountable to the people.

Next up in our Friday nights of learning: The History of the Supreme Court.

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On KCSM, I caught the last half hour of a fascinating documentary called Beijing or Bust. It follows six Chinese-Americans who move to Beijing to live and work, as they discuss their reactions to a rapidly changing China and their dual identities as Chinese and American. (I later found out that the filmmaker, Hao Wu, has been detained by the Chinese government without a stated reason and has been denied access to a lawyer. Argh!) It will air again on KCSM this Sunday at 2 AM. Fire up the VCR… (I'm too cheap to get a Tivo)

Not surprisingly, we got some great food touring Asia. A few meals stand out in my mind. In Tokyo, we ate at a teppanyaki restaurant, complete with our own chef [photos]. The beef, with a lot of marbling, was tender and flavorful, but also quite greasy — you can’t eat as much of that beef as you would normal beef. Unfortunately, it was also quite expensive — over US$110 per person. Well, we were on vacation, so I didn’t feel too bad, as long as every other meal wasn’t going to be this pricey.

In Osaka, Matt’s brother’s friend Koji took us to a kaiten-zushi restaurant. It’s like a sushi boat place, except that the plates were simply on a conveyer belt. We ate plate after plate after plate — I’ve never had so much toro (fatty tuna). In fact, I had never had toro before. Anyway, total bill: about US$9 per person. We were flabbergasted. Most food in Japan isn’t cheaper than in the U.S., but sushi is! By the way, Koji didn’t expect us to be so familiar with sushi — he was really surprised that I knew what hamachi was.

Koji’s girlfriend Kyoko took us to her favorite ramen restaurant, Golden Dragon Ramen 金龍ラーメン [photos] There are two items on the menu: ramen with pork, and ramen with more pork. To order, you get a ticket from a vending machine [photo] and give it to the staff. It’s also cheaper than ramen in the U.S. (about US$5 for the normal ramen).

In Hong Kong, we ran across a Cantonese noodle shop called Tsim Chai Kee 沾仔記 [photo]. The menu is simple [photo]: three types of noodles (egg, rice, and rice vermicelli) and soup, with one or more toppings: prawn wontons, fish balls, and beef. Vegetables with oyster sauce. That’s it! The wontons were huge: a fresh giant shrimp with a thin wonton wrapper. The fish balls were also gigantic, and the beef was very fresh. Total cost: less than US$3.

In Taichung, my cousin Mingshu took us to a hot pot restaurant called Mala Wang 麻辣王, which means “the hot-and-spicy king” [photo]. We got half spicy and half plain. Mingshu asked for the spicy to be at the low end, and then he still skimmed the hot oil off the broth. Only then could the rest of us tolerate us (I know, we’re wimps). The broth was so flavorful that I didn’t need to use my soy sauce-and-satay mixture. Mingshu eats there so often he’s a VIP customer.

In Taipei, at the Shilin Night Market, we had fried chicken at Hot Star Fried Chicken stand 豪大大雞排 [photo]. A chicken is halved and then mostly deboned, leaving only part of the breastbone. Each piece is then flattened, breaded with Taiwanese seasonings, and deep fried. The finished piece is put in a paper bag. Cost: about US$1.50. Our only mistake was getting one piece each, leaving little room for the other night market food.

My uncle to us to “the best beef noodle soup restaurant” in Taipei, Lao Zhang Niurou Mian 老張牛肉麵 (“Old Chang’s Beef Noodle”). It was quite good, and we got seated at the same table with another family, which made for interesting conversation — between my uncle and them. Unfortunately, I came down with a stomach illness the next day, which meant congee for the next few days (ugh).

The night before I came back to the U.S., my cousin Jane took my dad, grandmother, and me to a Hakka restaurant in Hukou called Ke Po Lou 客婆樓. Hakka food is not common in the U.S. (the only one I know of is Ton Kiang 東江 in San Francisco), so some of the dishes were unfamiliar. For example, the fried fish dish consisted of filets of whole small fish, battered and deep fried. The shape was like a very large French fry — long and rectangular. The fish itself was very soft and pillowy — almost like a French fry! The boiled cabbage came with a strong orange-flavored sauce with the consistency of mustard. All of it was very tasty, but since I was still sick, I literally ate only a nibble of each dish. Sigh.

Even though the Japanese are polite and want to help you, it can be hard to communicate with them because their English is quite bad. Now, I don’t expect the entire country to be fluent in a foreign language. But, for example, Yodobashi Camera is a gigantic Japanese electronics store that makes Fry’s Electronics look like Radio Shack. They have announcements in English and Spanish, so they know they attract visitors from all over. But we were hard pressed to find one service person who could speak decent English in a store with six floors.

Taiwan isn’t that great either, but my Mandarin helped me out, so I didn’t notice it as much. In Hong Kong, you can get by in English without much problem — I consider it the world’s largest “Chinatown.”

By the way, before the trip, I thought I would be most comfortable in Japan and least comfortable in Taiwan, from a language standpoint, because I’m not “supposed to know” Japanese and I’m “supposed to know” Chinese. But it didn’t end up that way. I had failed to learn even the simplest words in Japanese, like “sorry,” “excuse me,” and “where is the…?” And since I am Asian, the Japanese would expect me to be able to say something, not my white friend Matt, who did more of the talking.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, my Mandarin helped me out greatly, even though it’s very rudimentary and rusty. In fact, I was praised twice on the same day for my Chinese. It must have been my pronunciation, because they complemented me after they saw me forget very simple words (like “pork”). And I could finally communicate somewhat with my uncles and aunts, most of whom can’t speak English well. They all said how my Chinese had improved over the last time I was there (in 1997), and even my dad said it was better. If I were there for a few months, I’m sure it would get that much better. But I’d still watch CNN or the Discovery Channel in Taiwan anyway…

You’ve probably heard that the Japanese are very disciplined. It’s true. Matt and I saw this while in the front car of a Tokyo subway train, where we could see into the driver’s cab. He sat up straight, in his uniform and gloves, and was constantly on alert. He regularly pointed at either his instrument panel or the green traffic light, presumably to force himself to take notice of his surroundings, and you could tell he was very focused on his job.

In the back of another subway train sat a woman who made sure passengers got on and off the train safely. While on the train, she had nothing to do, but always sat upright looking straight out the window. No slouching, no staring at her fingernails, just self-discipline big time.

It’s also true that the Japanese are very polite. The service at all levels was absolutely superb. In Osaka, Matt had lost something at a store and tried to call its lost-and-found department. When he couldn’t get through, a hotel employee kept trying for 15 minutes before getting through, without us asking. Michael said that his standards for service were permanently raised by going to Japan.

Hong Kong and Taiwan are a different story. The higher-end places are still often okay, but many other places are loud and brusque, if not downright rude. In Taiwan, I asked a bus driver in Mandarin where a particular bus stop was, and when I asked for clarification, he started yelling at me. And this was at the end of the line, so it’s not like I was holding up the bus. In Japan, the bus driver would be apologizing that he couldn’t walk me over to the bus stop himself.

Both Hong Kong and Taipei have RFID smart cards available for paying fares on subways and buses. Taipei even knocks 20% off of each subway ride. You don’t need to take the card out, just hover your wallet over the reader. It’s amazingly convenient. The Bay Area desperately needs something like this, especially since we have over two dozen transit agencies (which is stupid, but that’s another topic). The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has been testing such a system, TransLink, for almost four years. Let’s go people! What’s the holdup?

Thanks to the San Jose Mercury News, I am tuned into the Asian music scene. Or something like that. Case in point: the 12 Girls Band (女子十二樂坊), a band of classically-trained 13 women (originally 12) from China who use classical Chinese instruments to play contemporary Chinese and Western songs, including a cover of Clocks by Coldplay (Windows Media | RealAudio). I am intrigued…

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