March 28, 2008

Taiwanese Restaurant - Song Shi Shougong Bu

At most of my favorite little restaurants in Taiwan, there are one or two dishes that the restaurant does quite well, while the rest of the menu items are average. But at this little restaurant, Song Shi Shougong Bu, not only do they have a good amount of variety on the menu, most of the things on the menu are really good. Below is the storefront, found on 31 Changchun (長春) Road in Hsinchu.

Below are the steamed rouyuan. If you want to eat rouyuan in Hsinchu, most natives would recommend that you go to Chenghuang temple, where they serve the deep-fried Hsinchu-style rouyuan with large pieces of pork and bamboo shoots inside. However, I much prefer the steamed rouyuan, with the soft skin and the filling made with more finely ground pork, as served at this restaurant. In addition to the sauce, which is just as important as the filling, there are two other sauces on top of the sauce, as well as cilantro. Two of the small dumplings go for NT$30.

Next is migao, a glutinous rice dish served with a generous amount of sweet-hot sauce. Also NT$30.

Here is a plate of black stinky tofu with pickled cabbage on the side. The heap of white on top of each piece of tofu is pureed garlic. There is also some sliced red pepper to go with the tofu. The spiciness from the red peppers and the freshly deep-fried tofu go together well with the cold and slightly sweet pickled cabbage. The skin of the black stinky tofu might be a little thicker than normal stinky tofu, but I could not detect any difference in taste. Cost is NT$40.

Next is a bowl of noodles with cilantro and pureed garlic on top. Also NT$40.

All of these items are very common, but I can't think of any other restaurant that has all of these items on the menu. There are other restaurants where you can find slightly better versions of some these dishes, but the combination of variety and tastiness of this restaurant makes it a great place to eat.

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March 26, 2008

Work in Taiwan--The Carrots and the Sticks

Looking back at my last job in America, compensation and discipline were fairly simple compared to work in Taiwan. Working at a good company in America, you get a salary, a health plan, possibly a 401k plan, and possibly an employee stock purchase program. In Taiwan, the base salary is quite low, but the company pays for a variety of benefits.

The most important "extra" compensation is the 14-month and sometimes even 15-month salary. An extra month's salary is given for the lunar new year, and an extra half month's salary is given for each of two other holidays, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival. In addition to the these bonuses, which are not considered benefits, gift certificates are a common gift given during holidays. Where I work, we are allowed to choose between gifts, such as vacuum cleaners or hot plates, and gift certificates for grocery stores, bookstores, etc.

The year-end activities are usually the most extravagant. There is the end-of-year meal, and there may be a year-end entertainment event. I could go on about all the money and effort spent on these productions, and the prizes given. Prizes range from new cars to instant noodles.

Where I work, funds are given to departments for various events. Upon completion of a project, I was happy to find there was a project-completion bonus, however it was paid to the department rather than myself. So that means another group dinner. Then of course is the fenhong (分紅), the yearly bonus given in stocks or cash, which can exceed the year's salary for a company with strong revenues.

Next there are big events put on by the company, events that resemble a carnival or a sports event. We get tickets to spend on food from the vendors that come to these events. Company jackets are commonly issued to all employees, and they get a lot more use than the shirts and hats that are sometimes given. Then there are the health exams. And the regular showings of movies--newly release DVDs projected on a large screen. And there is chunjiu (春酒), the department meal after the lunar new year. And I should mention the generous amount of vacation time given for marriage, pregnancy, and death of relatives. And the red envelope given by the company for marriage. And the subsidized daily meals. And subsidized language classes. And a birthday present. And the bus rides to work for employees that live in certain locations. The list goes on.

A possible reason for the low base pay and variety of fringe benefits is that when sales are down, many of the benefits can be temporarily eliminated. Also, I think it is likely that these benefits give employees a more tangible reward than does an increased salary, even though there has to be considerable overhead for all these programs. However, the better answer is that these benefits can all be tied to an increased value place on collective benefits--benefits which can be shared, either with family or with other employees, and benefits that promote the collective identity.

There is another side to the company's slightly paternalistic role. Discipline. Most of the benefits that I mentioned above are common at many companies, but I am not as familiar with the methods that companies use to discipline employees or to gently keep them in line. However, some of the methods used at my work are too precious not to share.

Example 1. Members of my department received an email stating that the department had one of the highest rates of usage of the company bulletin board (an electronic message board). You might think that a bulletin board that people use is a good thing, but apparently not. If we are leaving messages on the bulletin board then we are not working. The new rule is that employees may not post to the board during work hours. If you break the rule, you will be warned the first time, and posting a second time will result in some discipline.

Example 2. Salary is considered confidential. If you tell someone how much money you earn, you can supposedly have 10% of your salary deducted. The policy did not leave any exceptions, such as being able to let your spouse or immediate family know how much money you make.

Example 3. This one is the crown jewel of arrogance and stupidity. Employee use a PowerPoint template layout to create their presentations. As the company changes its advertising material, including its slogan, this layout is changed, perhaps about once every two years. Some lazy employees have the audacity to use a layout with an old slogan. To solve this problem, a memo was sent out stating that employees who used an old PowerPoint layout when they give a presentation to customers would have their pay docked. This one still boggles my mind. I doubt if any managers had the nerve to actually implement this policy.

Example 4. Employees are not given much control over their computers. They are allowed to study English during work time. There are even English lessons on the company network that include audio and video. However, you are not allowed have any mp3 files on the computer. Computers are periodically checked for mp3s and newly installed software. All software should theoretically be authorized, even including freeware applications that do not require installation. Files of extension .exe are blocked for download from the internet. Web-based mail is blocked. Translation services are blocked (because they could possibly used to translate a forbidden web page). Proxies are blocked. Some other entertainment web pages are blocked. In fact, any non-business web browsing is forbidden, as you are reminded every time you log in to the computer. USB ports are disconnected.

Example 5. Docking pay has been used for other actions. If you miss a class that you are enrolled for, you automatically have $500 deducted from your pay. It is possible that you did not personally enroll in the class and it also possible that you applied for vacation during the time of the class. Even so, your pay could be docked without any form of notification if you did not request an absence from the class (to be approved by a supervisor). I don't check my pay receipts very carefully, so I could have been fined for this for all I know. I have my doubts about the legality of this. I'm not sure if this policy is in place any more.

In summary, there are a variety of unique carrots and sticks used to manage and keep harmony with employees in Taiwan. As for the carrots, some of the policies are great and companies put on some spectacular events. As for the sticks, they usually are not a big deal, but can be amusing in their clumsiness.

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March 20, 2008

Madame Bovary and The Hours and The Kite Runner

Since my last book post, three of the books that I have read are Madame Bovary and The Hours and The Kite Runner. There are a bunch of other books, which I will post about when I have a chance.

Madame Bovary is supposed to be one of the best novels of all time. I definitely enjoyed it, but it baffles me how you can look at any book, no matter how good, and conclude that it is one of the best books of all time.

This may sound silly, but the most memorable passage for me was the description of the young Master Bovary's cap.
That cap belonged to the composite order of head-gear, and in it the
heterogeneous characteristics of the busby, the Polish shapska, the bowler, the
otterskin toque and the cotton nightcap were simultaneously represented. It was,
in short, one of those pathetic objects whose mute unloveliness conveys the
infinitely wistful expression we may sometimes note on the face of an idiot.
Ovoid in form and stiffened with whalebone, it began with a sort of triple line
of sausage-shaped rolls running all round its circumference; next, separated by
a red band, came alternate patches of velvet and rabbit-skin; then a kind of bag
or sack which culminated in a stiffened polygon elaborately embroidered, whence,
at the end of a long, thin cord, hung a ball made out of gold wire, by way of a
tassel. The cap was brand new, and the peak of it all shiny.
As I read the description, I had two interpretations. The first is that it the description is a masterfully precise description of an especially complicated cap. However, because of time, culture, and translation, the description is difficult for the modern reader to fully understand. The second interpretation is that this is an overblown, satiric description that is not meant to be understood. Either way, the end result is that I have imagined an impossibly complex monstrosity of a cap, a cap that makes Master Bovary look incredibly ridiculous, even when holding it.

The next book that I read was The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I haven't seen the movie, but I would like to. The book is quite short and there isn't a lot of action in it, so it does not seem like it would be difficult to contain all the action in a two hour movie. On the contrary, most of the story is about thoughts and how the characters interpret everything they see, which would be difficult to make into a movie.

One of the nice things about the book is that because it is only 200 pages, I felt like I could take my time reading it slowly. Some of the sentences are a little complex for a contemporary novel. (They remind me of the only Virginia Wolf book I've read, To the Lighthouse, even though that was almost ten years ago.) So I enjoyed the writing a lot more than if the book had been 400 pages.

At Amazon.com, The Kite Runner has over a thousand reviews, so it hardly needs another one. But here are a few comments anyway. Most of the summaries of this book state that it is the story of two boys. In fact, only about one-third of the book concerns the narrator's childhood. In a lot of books, the first third is just exposition, but in this book, the first 80 pages are clearly the best. In the last third of the book, the characters do not seem so real and the plot is more of a foreign thriller, as opposed to the memoir style of the beginning of the book. Particularly jarring for me was the letter from Rahim near the end of the book. It seemed a little too touchy-feely, bordering on psychobabble, for something coming from an Afghani. On the whole, it was still a good read.

The quotes on the front and back cover clearly state that one of the themes of the book is redemption, or "betrayal and salvation." From the moment of betrayal, I was considering what exactly redemption would require. There were not many ways that I could come up with that would offer full redemption. However, the author creates a situation that offers an almost tit-for-tat chance for redemption. You could complain that it was too neat, but if it were anything less, I think a lot of readers (like me) would feel that full redemption was not achieved.


Indonesian Restaurant in Hsinchu

The last restaurant review I wrote was two years ago. Since that time, the restaurant went out of business, was replaced by another restaurant, which also went out of business, and now stands vacant. The life of restaurants here are often very short. One restaurant that has stood the test of years of time is a little Indonesian restaurant shown below. One good reason for its survival is that, despite the large number of Indonesians who live in Hsinchu, it is the only Indonesian restaurant (I know of) in the city. (Although there is another one not too far away in Chupei [Zhubei]).

The storefront, down the street from Sogo.

On weekdays, the restaurant has a small menu, mostly of fried noodles and fried rice. On the weekends, there is a buffet. The price of your dish is based on how much you take. When I first came the this restaurant a couple of years ago, I was disappointed in the food because it was cold. Most Taiwanese that I know aren't picky about the temperature of their food. Many Taiwanese buffets are designed so that the food can be kept warm by keeping the metal containers in a bath of hot water. However, when you go to a buffet at noon, chances are that half the dishes are cold. The best remedy is to (a) go earlier, at about 11 am, and (b) eat a lot of hot rice with your meal.

Over the past year or two, I apparently have gotten more accustomed to cold food, because I have been quite happy with this restaurant for my past few visits. The food wins points for novelty--half of the time I'm not sure what I'm eating. There are also some foods packaged and ready to take home.

Here's the plate from my last visit. The largest object on the left is some kind of fritter. This seems to be pretty popular, judging from other people's plates. Also popular was shish-kebab--when I arrived at about 11 am, they were already all gone. There is always a potato and chicken curry (curried potatoes are on the rice). On the left are some pieces of fried pineapple with fried chicken (lots of pineapple and a little chicken). Another mashed potato fritter is peeking out from behind the first fritter. There are diced potatoes with a tangy tomato sauce. And there are two or three other things on the plate that I can't even describe.

This plate was $110.

The to-go items include dumplings, a dessert made of glutinous rice and congealed coconut milk, and a drink of purple glutinous rice and coconut milk. Imported bottled drinks are popular.

March 12, 2008

Dropped sounds in Mandarin

Beijingers sometimes drop the sh, zh and x in the middle of words/phrases. --source
This quote from the Beijing Sounds blog got me thinking, what sounds are dropped by Mandarin speakers in Taiwan? When I say it got me thinking, I don't mean it literally, I mean it rhetorically. In fact, I have thought about it before, and my thinking didn't get me far. There are unnecessary syllables that get dropped, such as 麼, which is sometimes dropped from 怎麼樣. And very commonly there is a "g" sound at the end of a syllable that is not pronounced, but that is because the speaker is not aware of the correct pronunciation, or perhaps does not make a distinction.

But in all the Mandarin Chinese I have heard over the years, I can only think of one word where the sounds actually undergo a significant change, something like a contraction in English. That word is 大家 da4jia1 (everybody). The 'j' sound gets partially dropped from this word. The resulting sound is somewhere between da4jia1 and da4ya.

Maybe I just don't notice other words like this because I have an iron ear, but I don't think so. I think this is one of the reason that Mandarin is not such a bad language for foreign learners. When spoken quickly, it does not become slurred and transformed like most other languages.

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March 09, 2008

Morning Musume to Hold Concert in Taiwan

Things are looking up for Taiwan in the area of Japanese concerts. Last year, Hamasaki Ayumi, Kuraki Mai, and Koda Kumi came to Taiwan. This year Amuro Namie and L'arc en Ciel are returning for concerts, and Morning Musume will hold their first overseas concert open to the general public.

Last year was the year that Hello! Project's management company finally got serious about marketing to Asia. For some reason that I am still curious to know, Morning Musume's seventh album was never released in Taiwan. But since that time, almost all Hello! Project albums have been released. Even singles, which have never been very popular here, have been released for groups like C-ute and Viyuden. Last year saw the creation of the official Hello! Project web page and fan club in Taiwan. Viyuden came to Taiwan and met some fan club members.

Now, after ten years, Morning Musume is finally coming to Taiwan to perform a concert on May 27. The best seats are reserved for fan club members. The $3000 fan club seats have already been sold out and there is a good chance that the $2500 fan club seats will be sold out by the deadline, March 13. These seats are given randomly, in contrast to the regular seats. Sometime after the 13th, tickets will go on sale to the general public through the normal ticket vending systems, where you can pick your seat.

I've already ordered tickets for myself and the missus. Fan club registration requires an ID number, which the official site assumes is a Taiwanese identification number. You cannot submit the web registration form without this number. However, ID verification is only done through Javascript. So, if you turn off Javascript in your web browser, you can successfully enter a non-Taiwanese ID number, which is fortunately not verified server-side.

Morning Musume's fan base has a much higher percentage of females in Taiwan compared to Japan. It will be interesting to see the proportion of females at the concert. I was surprised by the high female turnout for Amuro Namie's concert two years ago and the low female turnout for Kuraki Mai's first concert in Taiwan last year.

Most Japanese singers who come to Taiwan attempt to sing one of their songs in Chinese, or at least sing the chorus of a song in Chinese. They also expect the Taiwanese fans to be able to sing their songs in Japanese. In my experience, the fans typically make a decent showing at this. Although they are no match for the native fans of the musicians, there are a surprisingly large number of fans who can sing their favorite songs in Japanese (or English). Previously, Goto Maki of Hello! Project did some singing in Chinese, but Morning Musume should have a good chance of singing decent Chinese at the upcoming concert because the two newest members are from China. I expect Taiwanese fans to have friendly feelings towards the Chinese members, Li Chun (李純) and Qian Lin (銭琳). It will be interesting to see how the Chinese members reciprocate this feeling.

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March 08, 2008

Sam the Sudden and The Birthday of they World

In the last week or two, I read Sam the Sudden, by PJ Wodehouse, and The Birthday of the Universe and Other Stories by Ursula Le Guin.

Sam the Sudden is first book I have read by Wodehouse, the author of the Jeeves books, and it was a lot of fun. I have had the book on my bookshelf for about ten years. I think I picked it up for free outside a Friends of the Library store. It might have been given away for free because the back cover is dirty. In the story, Sam falls in love with a girl he sees on a gravy-stained poster. After reading that passage, I began to suspect that the junk on the back cover of the book could possibly be gravy. Twenty- or thirty-year-old gravy.

The other unpleasant aspect of the book is that the type size was very small. That is the major reason that it took me ten years to decide to read the book. Some people criticize book buying on the internet because it takes the serendipity out of book buying, the chance find of an old book at a used book store. If buying a book and reading it is too crassly commercial, I know how to bring the serendipity back into book buying. After buying a book, just place it on your bookshelf and forget about it. After the book has aged five to fifteen years, it is ripe for a serendipitous read.

Sam the Sudden is a comedy. I am usually worried about reading an old comedy because I don't know if the humor has aged well. Fortunately, even though the book was first published in 1925, it was very funny. Here are a couple of jokes:

"If you really want to know what happened, I'll tell you. I did not kiss that ghastly Blair pipsqueak. She kissed me."
"She kissed me," repeated Sam doggedly. "I had been laying it on pretty thick about how much I admired her work, and suddenly she said 'Oh, you dear boy!' and flung her loathsome arms round my neck. What could I do? I might have uppercut her as she bored in, but, short of that, there wasn't any way of stopping her."


"Well, it's like this: I saw her mother yesterday."
"Ah! That is a treat I have not had."
"Do you think girls get like their mothers, Sam?"
Hash shivered.
"Well, the 'ole thing is, when I'm away from the girl I get to thinking about her."
"Very properly," said Sam. "Absence, it has been well said, makes the heart grow fonder."
"Thinking of her mother, I mean."
"Oh, of her mother?"
"And then I wish I was well out of it all, you understand. But then again, when I'm settin' with 'er with my arm round 'er little waist--"
" You are still speaking of the mother?"
"No, the girl."

The other book that I read was a book of short stories and a novella by Ursula Le Guin. This is about the ninth book that I have read by Le Guin. All of them I have read so far have been good, but after reading the first couple of stories in this book, the idea finally cemented in my mind that this is an author whose works I definitely intend to read completely. The stories were inventive and logical, and more importantly, she always has something interesting to say about being a human

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March 05, 2008

Life place

The Chinese word shenghuoguan (生活館) is a word with a simple literal meaning, but looses the meaning when you scratch the surface. Shenghuo is life, and a guan is a place. Some other places that use the word guan are restaurants (literally "rice place" 飯館) libraries (literally "book place") and the list goes on with places like bowling alleys ("bowling place" 保齡球館) or arts museums ("fine arts place" 美術館).

So, what is this shenghuoguan, literally "life-place"? You won't find this one in a dictionary. Looking at examples of shenghuoguan does little to improve the definition. You will find that a shenghuoguan could be a shopping mall, a restaurant, a web page, a real estate company, or as the picture shows, a supermarket. The answer seems to be that a shenghuoguan is a place of business with the ambition of becoming a part of your life. Perhaps because providing goods and services is too mundane, so these places instead offer us a place to live for minutes at a time.

As expected, the word doesn't do well in translation. Keji Shenghuoguan (科技生活館) takes "Science Park Life Hub" as their English name. Other than the people who work there, I cannot imagine that the little mall is the hub of many people's lives. Sure, Burger King and the telephone company are nice, but I prefer that they not become integral parts of my life.

A search on the web shows that it isn't just Taiwan that is using this word, which appears to be a fairly recent creation. From China, there is Nalan Beauty and Fashion Life Home (納蘭美宮時尚生活館), another shenghuoguan.

The picture below shows a new sign up at the supermarket. The old sign (on the left) describes the place as a supermarket. The new sign (on the right) shows that the supermarket has now become or has hatched a shenghuoguan.

An overly ambitious supermarket that wishes to be a shenghuoguan.