Friday, August 31, 2012

Taipei Roundup #1

Architectural tiles at Bi-Shan Temple (click for detail)

Walking around Taipei and Taiwan, I often come across scenes that might not add up to an individual post, but are too interesting just to file away. I have decided to initiate an occasional series using these photographic odds and ends. 

There is no particular rhyme or reason for featuring these; they might be beautiful, scenic, interesting, scary, or humorous. Please let me know which ones you like.

From the balcony at Bi-Shan Temple, Neihu and Taipei seem to flow into the seams of the mountains:

A particularly Art Deco-looking dragonfly posed for this photo:

These spiky trees are seen all over Taiwan, and are often planted as ornamentals. I love their rather extreme look, although I question the wisdom of planting them along city streets due to those rather vicious thorns.

Click on the photo to get a better look at this huge spider (leg-span a good six inches), waiting for its next victim.

Finally, here are some fireworks that I recently saw from my balcony.  This is a feature of living in a big city--I often see these displays, and although I am not sure of their origin, they certainly make things festive:

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bai Mu Er -- A Refreshing Summer Classic

This summer has been a hot one everywhere; returning to Taiwan has been like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. On sweltering days, I like to prepare a cooling batch of bai mu-er, and I would like to share this very easy recipe.

Bai mu-er with red plums.

This lightly sweet drink or soup is very common in Taiwan, and can be purchased from street vendors everywhere. If it is less common where you live, its dramatic and elegant appearance will make your reputation as an exotic chef. 

Don't be put off by its unfortunate English name of "white fungus". There is no mushroom-y or earthy taste whatsoever; instead expect one of the greatest textures you’ll ever encounter. This soup/drink is supposed to have special health effects for hot summer days, and it certainly is very refreshing.


Bai mu-er, or white fungus (白木耳)—about 1-2 oz. (can be bought in an Asian store)

Water, about 8 cups.

Rock sugar or regular sugar, 1/2 cup.


Diced fruit.

(Bai mu-er  is frequently combined with lotus seeds, but these can be very tricky to cook, so I won't include them in this version.)


Caution: Like dried apricots, bai mu-er is preserved with sulfur, so don't open the package and smell it right away. Let it air a while first. 

Dried bai mu-er, enough here for 8 batches.


Take one or two ounces (a couple of handfuls) of dried bai mu-er, and soak for a few minutes. It will get much bigger, so use a large pot. Replace the water, and soak for about 15 minutes. When it softens, drain, then pinch off any dark or  imperfect areas, and break up larger pieces (think spoon-sized).

Soaked and drained, the color is already much lighter.

Now boil about eight cups of fresh water in a large pot, and add the drained bai mu-er. Boil for a few minutes, then drain and add fresh water. Cook for about 20 minutes or so; if it seems too firm, boil a little longer. Add the sugar.

Allow to cool, then adjust the sweetness adding sugar or water. It is perfectly delicious at this stage, but you can add cut-up fruit to make it fancier and more festive.  The bai mu-er has almost no flavor of its own, and combines well with most kinds of fruit--plums are among my favorites, both for flavor and looks. My local friend Wen swears by fresh pineapple.

These red-fleshed plums have a sweet-tart flavor, and the red juice tinges the clear soup a light rosy hue. 

Sliced bananas are very good in bai mu-er, but they are used in so many Asian sweet soups that I like to save them for other occasions, or else everything starts tasting the same. Coconut milk is very good, but alters the appearance of the soup, eliminating the beautiful transparency. 

Bai mu-er is one of the simplest and most forgiving of recipes. I have described the process in much detail because this ingredient may not be familiar to some of my readers.


 I often enjoy it just plain like this.

Bai mu-er makes one of the most beautiful of desserts, yet it is simple to prepare, and it quickly becomes a favorite comfort food. Some like bai mu-er hot, especially in winter, but I always prefer it ice-cold, in a bowl or a glass, even adding shaved ice or ice cubes. The incredible combination of textures and delicate flavors will have you addicted in no time.

(All photos by the author.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Cutting Edge: Chinese Lithographed-Tin Box Cutters

Lithographed tin has long been a favorite of collectors. People are charmed by the incredible vintage graphics found on such objects as containers, trays, lapel pins, toys, and coin banks. 

Tin was an inexpensive material, and there is often a folk art or popular-culture appeal to tin items. The material was often used in Asia, and one of its more ephemeral uses was for folding tin box cutters—those small disposable knives with a razor blade inside. 

The older examples are brightly decorated with various popular themes, such as this Roadster (note it says “Readster”) . I love the looks of this car and wish I could drive it—does anyone recognize the intended vehicle?

Most of these look like mid 20th century, and since Mighty Mouse was introduced in 1944, at least we get a terminus post quem (date after which) for the box cutter version. It is rather rusted, but finding another one would not be easy.

The Hand logo cutters give two graphics for the price of one—the hand and the small map of Taiwan. Notice that in the newer one on the left, the lifeline is longer; I guess that the Hand company found it undesirable to show a short life-line on a product that contained a razor-sharp blade.

Click to enlarge this or any other photo.
There apparently was also time for a manicure between versions, to trim those scary long nails on the older (right side) version. Incidentally, the Hand company is still in existence, although the current incarnation of the cutter has a plain stainless-steel case.

Animals were frequent mascots for these knives. Tigers have great significance in Chinese culture and are used in many company names and logos, but I think the duck and penguin were chosen more for their cuteness.

I find it interesting that every single word and letter on these is in English. I’m not sure if these were ever exported; perhaps they are an early testament to the popularity of English product names in Asia. 

Although these were very inexpensive products, each one carries a brand name, and in fact all of these examples were made by two companies. The Hand company made of course the Hand ones and also the Mandarin Duck. Sam Yu made the others, the Tiger one carrying an abbreviated SY trademark.

Why are these sharp blades decorated with cartoons? They probably were meant to appeal to children, and intended as school supplies. Even today stationery stores sell cutters with cartoon characters such as Hello Kitty on them, often in sets including rulers, erasers, etc. I can imagine the reaction in an American elementary school today if kids started carrying cartoon-razors.

Chinese lithographed tin box cutters are great fun to keep an eye out for, and you never know what design will pop up next. I’m not sure which is my favorite—perhaps the Roadster, but mostly I like them together as a group. Let me know if you have a favorite, or if you have encountered these little gems in your own collecting.

(All photos taken by the author.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A perfect day in Painesville, Ohio

Time seems to melt away when you visit Painesville.  I always like to spend a day there, and recently my friend Marc and I took a little road trip. Painesville still has an old-fashioned small town feel, with its domed courthouse and city hall facing a central green, blocks of Victorian stores, and Greek Revival houses. It was the home of famed Western Reserve architect Jonathan Goldsmith (1784-1847), responsible for many of the most attractive buildings in Painesville, Mentor, Willoughby, and early Cleveland.

About 30 miles east of Cleveland, Painesville was settled in the early 1800’s  and is the seat of Lake County. Fans of Clarence Day Jr.’s memoir Life with Father will be interested to know that Vinnie Day came from Painesville, and that Clarence Sr. often joked about rescuing her from a small, provincial town.

The city was named not after Thomas Paine, but rather after General Edward Paine (1746-1841), and we encountered this statue of him as we entered the city:

General Edward Paine, founder of Painesville

The plaque from the base of the statue, with more information about Paine. (Click to enlarge any photos.)
We first stopped for a pleasant lunch at the Rider Inn, which dates back to 1812. The Inn was enlarged several times over the years, most importantly in 1832, when Jonathan Goldsmith gave it substantially its present form.

After lunch, we did some browsing at the antique shop next door, then headed for the campus of Lake Erie College. My main goal there was to visit the 1829 Dr. John Mathews house, also by Goldsmith. This house has always been one of my top favorites, and I will cover it more closely in a future post.

The John Mathews House, 1829
We then walked over to the main part of the campus. College Hall is the main landmark building, dating from 1857. A pleasant surprise is the back of this building, facing a less-formal grassy area. The wide, shady porch is supplied with a row of rocking chairs, which proved so comfortable we had to force ourselves to get up and continue our tour.

Lake Erie College

Lake Erie's reception rooms retain many of their original features


An unusual Gothic radiator.

The back porch wasn't curved, but this was cut from a panoramic shot.

The area near the college is enjoyable to walk around, with tree-lined streets and many fine old houses.

This Queen Anne has some unusual architectural features.

A very large and magnificent tree.

The Second Empire Steele house was sadly gutted by fire a while back, but it is nice to see that they are working on restoring it:

The Grand River flows right through Painesville, and is a place I love to explore and hike around, although that day we could only give it a couple of hours. Because of the drought, the water level was amazingly low, only a few inches at its deepest point. This used to be the site of a very  old mill, and the stone foundation wall is still visible, giving an agreeable touch of antiquity.

The Grand River at a very low ebb. We used to fish here.

All that's left of the old mill.

The old sluiceway can still be clearly seen in the ruins.

The Painesville Mill in earlier days--the square sluiceways can be clearly discerned.

A fitting end to this day was a short trip north to Lake Erie and the small town of Grand River (population 345) for a dinner of fresh Lake Erie yellow perch at Brennan’s Fish House.

If you get to northern Ohio, be sure to make some time for Painesville; with so much left of its early history it is fun to revisit the 19th century and the early days of the Western Reserve.