October 23, 2008

Movie review: Cape No. 7

Taiwanese film Cape No. 7 has become the third best-selling film in Taiwan's history, knocking out Jurassic Park: The Lost World and falling behind only two others (Titanic and Jurassic Park). Many people are watching the film multiple times at the theater and the pirated version is popular too. The bus I was riding yesterday was showing a pirated copy of the film. My coworkers watched the movie at the theater then distributed the video file. It's pretty common for them to exchange pirated movies, but this time was different. The distribution was prefaced by a message saying that we should support Taiwanese movies by watching Cape No. 7 in the theater before watching the pirated version.

My coworkers are not the only ones expressing this sentiment. All kinds of people who have never had any interest in the local film industry are ecstatic about what the success of Cape No. 7 means for local movies and are urging others to watch the film.

Some people had described the movie to me as a romance, others as a comedy. Both descriptions were correct; it's a many-threaded comedy with a serious love story as its main thread. After seeing the movie, I tried to think of some films that I could compare it to, but I couldn't think of any. The closest thing to this movie that I could think of are the locally produced idol dramas. Some of these dramas combine silly humor with bad acting and stomach-turning romance. Cape No. 7 does better than most of these dramas but not well enough to be a breakout movie for Taiwanese cinema.

A short plot summary without spoilers: The angry youth Aga has failed to become a rock star in Taipei, so he returns to his small hometown in South Taiwan near Kending. His stepfather gets him a job as a mailman, but Aga doesn't have the heart to put any effort into the job. His stepfather calls an audition for a warm-up band for a Japanese musician's concert which will be held in their small town (Hengchun). This leads a reluctant Aga to get involved in music again with a ragtag band and struggle against his angst to make good. Meanwhile a young Japanese woman struggles impotently to make sure Aga and the band are up to snuff in time for their performance.

The humor is silly, but audiences starved to see Taiwan in a commercial film have found it endearing. Two of the funniest characters are over 60 years old. The audience got a kick out of hearing them swearing in Taiwanese. The oldest character, Uncle Mao, brags about his musical skills saying "Shi*t, I'm a national treasure!" Uncle Mao probably got the most laughs, followed by the stepfather, Hong Guorong. The stepfather is the town council representative, a local boss, and he introduces himself saying "My name is Hong Guorong. My main hobbies are arguing, fighting, killing, and setting fires." This kind of line has led one of my coworkers to quote lines from the film. These two characters, along with many other elements of the films are things that are uniquely Taiwanese, and people are overjoyed to see Taiwan in a feel-good movie.

The age of these characters is significant. Unlike most idol dramas, all but one of the characters in this movie are adults. While the two leads of the movie are young, there are enough older characters in the movie so that it doesn't feel like it was make for young people only, and the movie has been relatively popular with adults in Taiwan.

The movie is partly a making-the-band film. The first song, an angsty alt-rock song sung in English, comes from Aga and his failed band. The music gets sunnier and better when the band is formed and begins practicing. There is another song in the movie performed by Shino Lin, a minor character in the movie who was formerly a pop star before she was responsible for a DUI fatality. The band's musical numbers supply the film with its greatest source of emotion, coming to a climax with their big performance. The making-the-band premise gives the opportunity for a lot of fun, and I would have been a lot happier with the movie if this element had been expanded and the love story removed. The movie clocks in at 133 minutes and it has a number of threads that go nowhere. It could have been a tighter funnier movie with a lot of editing.

The love story isn't any better than that of a TV drama. The romance begins with the boy and the girl hating each other. In the process of creating conflict and tension for the story, both behave so obnoxiously that you wonder why anyone would like either one of them. They become loathsome to watch, and when they eventually fall in love, you don't care anymore.

In addition to the plot as already summarized, the movie has a story from 1945. From begin to almost end, the movie is intercut with scenes of a Japanese man aboard a ship, reading love letters written to the woman he is leaving behind in Taiwan. This element is very "cinematic", a self-conscious attempt to give resonance to the love story in the movie and to the film as a whole. Some people love it, others find it gimmicky and poorly connected to the main plot. I read the comments of some Taiwanese moviegoers who found the love letters in the movie very touching. Personally, I thought these scenes were boring. I could barely force myself to read the subtitles. (This might have been influenced by the poor quality of the English subtitles. The subtitles in these scenes were strange. Poetic phrases would be followed by poor grammar. It's also worth noting that the subtitles in general are not very good.)

If there were a list of "Stuff Taiwanese people like", this film would be on it. I think this is mainly due to the dearth of Taiwanese commercial films. There have been very few Taiwanese films in recent years, and the ones that were made are mostly art films or idol films that are only of interest to young people. Cape No. 7 is unique, being a music-based romantic comedy with characters that appeal to the young and old, and with many elements of the film lovingly poking fun at Taiwanese identity. The film clearly can't match American films for production value. If you are just looking for a music-based romantic comedy, I would recommend a movie like "Music + Lyrics" (with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore) long before I would recommend this movie. But if you are looking for a feel-good film with a humorous look at small-town Taiwan, then Cape No. 7 is your only bet.


October 18, 2008

Joe the plumber in Chinese

In the news right now is "Joe the plumber." In Chinese culture, a plumber is usually an electrician too, so the Chinese name for a plumber is literally a "water-electricity worker." The newspaper I was reading used this same title for Joe the plumber, despite the fact that "plumber" in English does not imply any electrician duties. So, I decided to check the frequency of some of the translations of "Joe the plumber" into Chinese, all using the strange but traditional transliteration of Joe as "Qiao".

Here are the search results from Google:
27,700 results for "水管工喬" (shuiguangong Qiao)
1,700 results for "水管工人喬" (shuiguan gongren Qiao)
938 results for "水電工喬" (shuidiangong Qiao)
59 results for "水暖工喬" (shuinuangong gong Qiao)

So, the top two translations of "plumber" are literal translations of plumber: "water-pipe worker" (shuiguangong and shuiguan gongren).

The third most popular translation is the more common Chinese word for plumber, "water-electricity worker" (shuidiangong).

The forth most popular translation, with 59 results, is "shuinuangong". This is literally a "water-heat worker."


October 11, 2008

Electronic dictionary commercial

A commercial I saw recently for an electronic dictionary prominently featured only one English word, and that word wasn't even incorrect, but it still leaves me wanting to correct the commercial.

The commercial shows a student studying English. He has made a bunch of flashcards--they are actually stickies with a word written in Chinese and in English on them. One of the notes gets stuck on his forehead. It says "stupid" in English, and in larger writing it says "bendan" (笨蛋) in Chinese.

The problem is that bendan means "fool" or "idiot," but the word "stupid" is only rarely used in this sense in English (as in "Keep it simple, stupid"). Some dictionaries don't even list this noun form of "stupid." So, while the flashcard is not technically wrong, I find it hard to believe
that a student would need to make a flashcard for this infrequent use of the word.

"Idiot" or "fool" would have been a much better choice for the English "translation"; alternatively, the Chinese word could have been changed to the adjective form (笨). As it stands, it will cause viewers to think that "stupid" and "bendan" are equivalent. But they aren't equivalent and you can't, for example, say "He is a stupid."


Commercial on official site.
Commercial on Youtube.


October 09, 2008

Baked raw oysters

Raw oysters

The most common oyster in Taiwan is the little 蚵仔. (蚵 is written as ô in Taiwanese, and first-tone ke in Mandarin, according to the pinyin input method. The Unihan database, however, lists it as ke2 and he4.) I have not seen any Taiwanese dishes where they are eaten raw. The only oysters that are served raw are the large, foreign-imported oysters. These have a completely different name. They are called shenghao (生蠔). The first character means "raw", as in "raw ginger" (生薑) or "raw fish slices" (生魚片). The second character means oyster, as in "oyster sauce" (蠔油). So, the word "shenghao" seem like a adjective followed by a noun. I checked about ten dictionaries (all at once), and they listed the characters individually, but none of them had shenghao listed as a word, so this would seem to support the categorization of shenghao as adjective-noun. However, I recently noticed that shenghao is used as a single noun.

The first example of this is from a television program where they were talking about harvesting oysters . Shenghao was used to describe them. It's obvious that the oysters are alive when they are caught, so it seems superfluous to use an adjective to describe them as "raw".

The second, better example is from a restaurant menu. Baked oysters were listed as kao shenghao (烤生蠔), which seems to literally mean "baked raw oysters". An internet search confirms this usage is standard. On Google, there are 54,300 results for the search string "烤生蠔" while there are only 7,660 search results for "烤蠔" (with the "raw" character omitted).

So, we have verified that shenghao is used to refer to foreign oysters, even when they are not raw. But what if we want to say "raw oyster"? If a shenghao is not necessarily raw, then don't we need to add a word to make it explicit that we are talking about raw oysters? If we add the word "raw" (shengshenghao), I find only 223 hits; compare that to 805,00 results for shenghao. So, it only accounts for .03% of all usage of the word "oyster", while in English search results, "raw oysters" accounts for (239,00/6,670,000) 3.6% of all usage of "oysters". This seems to indicate the shengshenghao is not a standard usage.

The unsatisfying conclusion: shenghao means "raw oyster" and it also means "oyster". You have to determine its meaning based on context.

And it gets more complex. Foreign oysters are also referred to as muli (牡蠣). When should you use the word "muli"? Perhaps, "muli" is a general term for oysters, which includes shenghao and others? To get started, let's do a search for the different ways of expressing "catch oysters" in Chinese:
"捕牡蠣" 194 results
"捕蠔" 438 results
"捕生蠔" 87 results
"捕蚵" 318 results

At this point, it is getting tedious distinguishing these words, so I leave it as an exercise for the reader. :)

Taiwanese oyster

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October 08, 2008

State of joss carving in Taiwan

This article comes from the Liberty Times, from the same page as this article. I couldn't find the exact article online, but here is an almost identical news video. As you can see from the pictures (not taken from the article), the carved wooden idols look great with their natural wood grain. It's a shame that most of them end up being covered in paint. I wonder how the artist feels about that.

Due to the government's prohibition on logging and the cheap imports sold in great numbers from China, wood carving is seen as a dying industry. But sculptor Wu Manhe of Hemei township maintains his post, along with his son, and has earned praised for his conscientious work. Wu, who has been carving for over 40 years, says that Chinese-made joss are more crude, and many of them use acrylic glass, which doesn't allow for dignity and detail. They feel lacking in respect, so many Taiwanese believers still prefer locally carved josses.

Wu states that to become a master carver requires a basis in art. You need a foundation in calligraphy and sculpting. These items usually required five or six years of training. In addition, you need to cultivate a calmness, not being angered easily, because if you get angry while working, it changes the spirit of a piece.

Master Wu points out that in joss carving, the traditional ways must be followed in the figure's proportions and the luster of the wood. One should strive not to be creative to avoid losing the dignity of the joss. Although joss carving is on the decline in Taiwan, it won't die out because repect for the gods is fundamental to man's spirit.


October 06, 2008

Doctor fears baby ghosts

This article comes from the Apple Daily on Friday. It is an interview with "Doctor Peace." He explains why he doesn't perform abortions, recounts an encounter with a ghost, and tells the surprising reason for mishaps at the hospital. I find the stories about encounters with ghosts which are so common in Asian culture to be boring, but what I found interesting about this is that it shows how a doctor's religious beliefs actually have an influence on his practice and how they allow him to deal with the inevitable losses that happen on the job. Unfortunately, he is not very articulate on these points. The best I can make of it is that he believes performing abortions will put him in close contact with the spirit world, which he fears, and he believes he doesn't have authority to decide life or death.

Q: Why don't you perform abortions?
A: I chose obstetrics and gynecology because I thought only in this department would people come in happy and leave happy. Over the years, I've come across some children who weren't able to leave the hospital, which shattered my fantasy. I believe in karma. The spirit world has its own reasons, so I don't do abortions.

Q: When there is someone who must have an abortion, how do you handle it?
A: I often come across junior high girls who are pregnant. That's a big crossroads in their life. If you don't help her, she'll be done for. So I'll introduce her to a qualified physician that I trust. Otherwise she'll have no one to turn to. If she turns to an unlicensed doctor or tries to buy medicine it would be even more dangerous. I've seen a lot of cases where the abortion has caused harm. There were some where the intestines were pulled out or where the uterus was pierced. When they come in it is because of [the resulting] peritonitis and it causes infertility.

I oppose abortion, but as a counseling physician, I shouldn't be biased or try to guide the patient on the question of whether or not to keep the child. You can only provide neutral opinions, and let her decide, for better or worse.

I had a patient who was pregnant in her second year of high school. At that time I kept telling her she should keep it, but her mother kept telling her to get rid of it! She kept the baby, but in the 28th week she was sent to the hospital because of bleeding. I found that her kid's heartbeat was gone. We hurriedly went into surgery to get it out. The pediatrician got the child's heart beating again and he went on living, but the child had cerebral palsy and died after a year. This made me reflect: was what I did right? If I had accepted the advice of the girl's family at that time, she wouldn't have gone through so much tragedy and she would have had a good future. Fortunately, she's doing fairly well now. She's good looking and she's become a celebrity.

The other reason I don't do abortions is because my body is sensitive, so I can feel some things. In college I saw demons, and later I saw ghosts. When I had been a resident doctor for three years, one night after midnight after I had finished making rounds and was going back to go to sleep, I passed the cancer ward. I suddenly saw an old woman come out of a room. I joked to myself, "This grandma must be bored so she's getting up in the middle of the night to go shopping." I asked her, "What's going on? Why did you come out?" She said her grandson was looking for her and she was going home. I said, "It's so late. Go back tomorrow." I led her to the doorway and she opened the door and entered.

The next day I was writing patients' records and I happened to ask a nurse, "Last night that old woman said she was going home. Can she leave?"
She asked me, "Which old woman?"
"The old woman from room X."
"She died two or three days ago!"
I felt chilled. The deceased patient had been reluctant to leave.

After that incident, I ran into that kind of thing less often, but I have a friend who has a yingyang eye (which allows him to see ghosts) who told me that he saw lots of children in the birthing ward of the hospital as soon as the door opened. Those are the kids who have been aborted or who couldn't leave. I can't see them, but I can feel it.

Q: Do they affect the patients?
A: I've treated three mothers for symptoms of premature labor. All three [should have been] able to go home the next day. But strangely, the next day none of them were able to leave the hospital. A mother was affected by placenta previa (placenta is attached in the wrong place). I treated her so that she stopped bleeding and told her she could go home, but not long later she began bleeding profusely and we had to administer a Ceasarean section.

The other pregnant mother had a fetus whose heart was beating at over 200 bpm. I controlled it using medicine, and congratulated the mother that she could go home the next day, but that evening the child's heart started up again. I went into surgery as quickly as possible but the child couldn't make it.

There was also a mother who I treated so that her uterus was no longer contracted, after which she could betransfered to the common ward, but the same thing happened as before and the next day her uterus suddenly contracted and lost blood. We performed an emergency Ceasarean section and fortunately the twins were ok. Afterwards I thought, it's those [ghost] children horsing around! Really!

I know the pain of those mothers whose children are still in the hospital and can't be free, but life is beyond understanding. So every once in a while I go worship the god of health (Baosheng Dadi). I don't do it for myself, but for the health of the mothers. This is the root of being a physician; if the patient is healthy then I'm healthy.


October 03, 2008

Chinese found in Japanese airport

Passing through the Narita airport in Japan a few weeks ago, I paid special attention to the use of Chinese in the airport. It's unusual to see any use of Chinese by non-native-speakers, and the airport offered three examples.

In front of the security check, there is a sign in Chinese that reads "請把登機證出示一下" (Please show your boarding pass). The grammar is correct, but the sentence was still strange enough, when seen on a sign, to make Mrs. Taiwanonymous laugh out loud. The problem is that the usage of "yixia" (一下) is much too informal for a sign at the airport. The proper way of writing the sentence formally would be "請出示登機證".

The next thing I noticed was the sign in the picture above. The English message instructs us to remove coats and jackets. The more verbose Chinese message instructs us to "脫下上衣和大衣類等外套". This is supposed to mean "remove overcoats and jackets and other types of coat." However, in Taiwan, shangyi (上衣) is not used to mean jacket. It just means "top," which usually means shirt or blouse. So this sign made me laugh because it looks like it is instructing us to take off our shirts for the security check. (The sign might be perfectly acceptable to Chinese speakers from other regions, but I can't comment on that.)

The last usage of Chinese I noticed was by one of the airport workers. The worker, a young Japanese woman, was talking in competent Chinese to a woman from Taiwan. The airport worker told the woman that she could not bring her big container of hot sauce on the airplane because it was over three ounces of liquid. The woman protested that she bought the hot sauce in the duty-free area, and if it was illegal to bring aboard the plane then they shouldn't be selling it. This did not help things. She then offered to open the container of hot sauce and pour off the top layer of hot oil so that the container would no longer contain an excessive amount of liquid. It looked like the Japanese worker was not going to accept this offer, but I didn't get to see the resolution. I had thought this kind of farce only happened in America, but there it was happening in Japan. Nonetheless, America can still take the blame for exporting this ridiculousness.

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October 02, 2008

Evironmentally friendly temple

I've had this article sitting around for about a month now, since before I went on vacation. It's translated from the Liberty Times.

Because the smoke and ashes caused by burning paper money at the temple drew complaints from neighboring businesses, Kaihua temple in Zhanghua stopped burning paper money and instead began implementing "aroma worship" thirty years ago. Many worshipers do not even burn incense, but instead offer flowers in worship. This has reduced smoke and created an elegant and refreshing environment.

Kaihua temple manager Wang Shixiang said that the temple, which is located at the intersection of Zhonghua Road and Minzu Road, used to have a furnace for burning joss money in the courtyard. The temple was busy all day long. Nearby were many businesses and vehicles coming and going, so the smoke and ashes caused by worshipers burning joss money drew protests from the public. Wang said the the temple implemented a policy of not allowing the burning of joss money. Temple goers eventually became accustomed to this, and worshiped by using only incense. Some even use flowers, fruit, or Hawaiian items (?:壇島) instead of incense, which reduces the amount of smoke pollution even more. After the 9/21 earthquake, the temple went one step further by removing the furnace which had already been closed for many years, underscoring the no-burning policy even more. Because of this, the temple remains clean and elegant, and the ornate wood carvings are well preserved.

Kaihua temple was built in the second year of the Yongzheng reign of the Qing dynasty. It has been renovated multiple times, the last time being six years ago. The temple has been praised as "Zhanghua's number one temple." The main hall honors the bodhisattva Guanyin, the two side halls honor the 18 lohans, and the back hall honers the Three Governors (the governors of heaven, earth, and water), Zhusheng Niangniang (a fertility goddess), as well as Dou Gong and Dou Po (gods that cure smallpox, by tradition. Nowadays, they are likely used as cosmetic gods).


A sidebar to the article has the opinion of three people about Kaihua temple's practice of not burning joss money. All three commenters think it is a great idea and hope that Kaihua temple could spread the practice to other temples.