Thursday, October 31, 2013

Taipei’s Halloween Earthquake

Tonight, October 31, 2013 at about 8:00 p.m., there was a sizable earthquake in Taipei. I was working at my desk when I felt the first tremors. It quickly got worse; the bookshelves were swaying hard, and I thought they might fall over, but a minute later it was over. 

Taiwan is in the earthquake zone, and small temblors occur often, but this one was pretty strong—6.7 magnitude. Still, as far as I've heard, there was little real damage. The last really tragic earthquake in Taiwan hit central Taiwan in 1999, before I arrived here.

Broken netsukes—the brown ironwood one was holding a double gourd, and the lighter boxwood one was bent down and holding his tibia. 
Nevertheless, when I looked over my living room, I discovered a few casualties. I had put out some skeleton netsukes for Halloween, but the spirits-at-large must not have liked the irreverence of this display, for several of them had fallen and smashed. 

The strangest part is that although I looked and even swept carefully, I was not able to recover all the fragments. I can only assume that the malevolent spirit that swept through Taipei and through my apartment had come to retrieve them, like Madame Zena in A Drop of Water (from the movie Black Sabbath) reclaiming her stolen ring.

Netsukes, small Japanese carvings of wood or ivory, are found in an infinite number of designs, often depicting people, children, gods and animals, but scary themes such as skeletons, rats or insects, are also common.

I was amused to notice that this toy balancing bat, resting on its pinpoint on a narrow strip of wood, managed to maintain its perch through all the shaking. The god on which he has alighted, called the Fighting Money God, may have lent his protection, as bats often symbolize money or wealth in Chinese art.

All of you who can place delicate objects on high shelves, count yourself lucky, because here such freedom is not a given. I was fortunate that nothing happened to these lacquered wooden boxes, which I had riskily lined up on top of bookcases:

I just realized that all the books on this shelf are by P.G. Wodehouse--there goes my reputation for serious scholarship.

Often around Halloween there is a weird glow at night which adds to the spooky atmosphere. The view tonight from my balcony is a perfect example, reminiscent of the nighttime postcards I wrote about last year.

Have a Happy and Safe Halloween!

Who knows what strange spirits roam Taiwan on Halloween?

(All photos by the author.)

Monday, May 27, 2013

A good time to be in Taiwan

Taiwan is a food-lover’s paradise, and in late May two of its greatest seasonal specialties make their appearance, shu mei (berries) and Yu-he-bao lychees.   

Shu mei are the lesser known of the two. The name means literally tree-berry, officially Myrica rubra. Since I am in Taiwan I will call them Shu-mei  (樹梅 ), their local name; in China they are known as yang-mei (梅). There is also a host of English names, among them red bayberry. (They are related to the waxy bayberries that grow in the Eastern U.S., the ones made into candles. although the edible ones are juicy, not waxy.)

One of the most welcome sights in Taiwan—a bowl of shu-mei. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

The extremely beautiful berries are bright red in color, darkening to purple as they ripen. They are sweet yet very tart, and have one of the best fruit flavors I have ever experienced. The season only lasts a week or so, and shu-mei are often not seen in regular stores. This year I located my supply from a street vendor in the Shi-lin night market.

The jewel-like shu-mei as displayed by their vendor.

Shu-mei are one of the most delicate of fruits, so they should be consumed immediately, admittedly not a very difficult task.  Within a day or two they will turn to vinegar, even in the refrigerator.

They are best simply eaten out of hand. They have a stone in the middle, kind of like a cherry, and the fruit is composed of juicy cells that radiate from the seed to the outside of the fruit. The darker berries are sweeter and less acid, yet the sprightliness of the shu-mei comes from their tartness, so if you insist on very ripe ones, the flavor won’t be as exciting.  

I attempted to cut one berry open to reveal the internal structure.

I did try to get the juice out of a few and make a sort of shumei-ade. It was a beautiful pink-red color, and very delicious, but these berries are so precious that unless I had my own tree, I would prefer to eat them fresh.

The evergreen trees are very handsome with their long leaves, and even more ornamental when bearing  their bright fruit. They grow in a number of warm places, and I am sure that they would do well in Florida.

I wish I were in a position to grow a few of these shu-mei trees.  Source:

Shu-mei are surpassingly beautiful berries. Yu-he-bao lychees, on the other hand, do not have such a prepossessing appearance. Regular lychees, as you may know, are bright red with a scaly outer shell, juicy white flesh, and a large seed that often takes up half the fruit. Yu he bao are green with a reddish tinge; even when ripe, they never turn completely red, and the shell is prickly rather than scaly.

Everyone in Taiwan knows what a treat is waiting in these plain-looking fruits.

They are larger than most other lychees, and amazingly, when you open them, the seeds are very tiny, giving you a generous quantity of  extra-juicy flesh. Most people also believe that Yu he bao have the best flavor-- they are very sweet, with a tiny sub-acid addition that underlines the taste and gives it complexity.  The season is much longer than for shu-mei. As a rule, the first lychee to appear in May are the Yu-he-bao, and their season can last over a month.

The Yu-he-bao lychees cut open show their plentiful meat and small seeds.

These fruits are a perfect example of something better enjoyed in its native habitat. I can’t imagine that shu-mei could travel at all, and while I have eaten lychees in America, they were only a shadow of their luscious perfection in Taiwan, consumed within hours of their picking. In the same vein, the crisp tartness of good fall apples, or the honeyed sweetness of fruits like mayapples, will have to remain a closed book to those who live in warm climates.

Taiwan has many types of exceptional produce and a plethora of regional dishes, but when shu-mei or Yu-he-bao are available, other specialties are forgotten, and my life suddenly centers around them. They are such a treat that my top priority becomes getting as many as I possibly can.

A fresh package of shu mei, about to disappear.

(All photos by the author, except where noted.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Mystery Object Revealed: Chinese Planchettes, or Spirit-Writing Pens

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Do you recall using a Ouija board or planchette when you were a kid to obtain messages from the beyond? The planchette was the wedge-shaped instrument that connected the user to the spirit world, pointing to letters on the Ouija board, or fitted with a pen, writing directly onto paper.

Spirit writing is also common in Chinese areas, and the mystery object recently presented is in fact a Chinese planchette, called luan-bi or ji-bi. Bi means pen or writing brush, while luan is a type of Phoenix bird, and ji refers to the process of divination. An important distinction is that with luan-bi, the spirit of a specific god is believed to enter the pen, while “departed souls” are usually considered to inspire the Western planchettes.

This planchette (featured in the original What-is-it post) is boldly modeled.

Made from naturally curving tree forks, and carved with dragons, these look like a fancy kind of divining or dowsing rod. In use, the long handles are held by one or two people, and the short leg traces the writing in a tray of sand. Also present are people to record and interpret what the luan-bi has written.

An old photo showing the planchette in use. (Source:  

The ceremony and symbolism of these planchettes even precedes their manufacture. They are made of peach (or sometimes willow) wood, to repel malevolent spirits that might affect the writing of the pen. J.J.M de Groot tells us in The Religious System of China that forks cut from the south-east side of the tree are especially feared by specters. The red color also helps to fend off evil spirits.

Additionally, “before being cut off, one or more mighty charms may be carved in the bark of the tree, or attached to it; and during the cutting, efficient spells may be pronounced, commanding the fork to…give clear revelations whenever handled.”

My second example, more delicate in weight and carving.

Sounding like a long-lost relative of Paul Fussell, de Groot suddenly warns us: “Clubs which practise the system are in many cases a shabby lot, their chapels or temples unknown to fame, their spirit-writing only appealing to the very lowest class.”

Feeling somewhat crestfallen and déclassé, I was about to burn my luan-bi before anyone found out about them, but luckily I read further: “But there are many of a better sort….Of such a ji of higher order, the end below the vertex is also nicely carved and gilded, representing the head and scaly neck of a dragon or snake.”

A side-by-side comparison shows differences in the details of the carving.

Most of the planchettes I have seen have dragon heads, but some are plain and a few are adorned with luan-birds at the apex.

A luan-bird headed planchette, ready to write on its tray of sand, with some spares against the wall. (From

I have placed these luan-bi in a number of locations, together or apart, and they never fail to create a dramatic focal point. Perhaps their strange appearance was originally intended to enhance their spirit messages by visually involving the petitioner. After all, who could doubt oracular predictions emanating from these gilded dragons, manipulated by their bright red handles.

Although not used in pairs, together they create an interesting vignette.

A different shape of planchette, and perhaps my favorite Chinese artifact ever. (Source:

(Except where noted, all objects and photos property of the author.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

What is it? Mystery Object with Dragon

It's time for another Chinese Mystery Object. If you can guess what this is, please let me know in the comments.

This object is made out of wood, and is reasonably large, about 18 inches in its longest dimension.

Here are a couple of hints: These are still in use, and have a practical function (as opposed to a merely decorative one).

Some of you might already be familiar with these, so I'll use Rosemary's system of turning on Comment Moderation for this post. If your solution is correct, I will withhold it until the end, to allow others a chance to guess. 

The answer will be revealed in a few days. Good luck!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Three Lucky Babies

This post is dedicated to Ann from These Walls of White, and to her recently-arrived beautiful baby daughter, the first of the three babies alluded to in the title. Born in Japan, her life is starting out as an adventure, and she is lucky to have Ann for a mother, who will see to it that she never misses out on the excitement.

The other two lucky babies were the original occupants of these antique Chinese baby carriers adorned with auspicious silver emblems. These are the traditional way of carrying babies around, and many people in Taiwan still use them, although modern ones tend to be much plainer.

This carrier has a red background bordered with blue, and the center is virtually filled with ornaments.

The two illustrated here are made from cotton, and are remarkable for their central panels completely covered with lucky charms. The decorations are all made from sheet silver, but a number of them are vermeil (gold-washed). The designers used the gold and silver tones to advantage in the arrangement of the ornaments.

This orange bordered with light blue carrier, while still very ornate, is more open in design.

The Chinese have always been big on all kinds of lucky charms and amulets, and there are a number that are considered especially appropriate for babies or children. Prominently featured at the top of each carrier is a row of the Eight Immortals, surrounding a god (or gods) of Luck, Longevity and Prosperity.

The dragon and phoenix are appropriate symbolic elements, and are found a number of times on these carriers. Together, they illustrate femininity (phoenix) and masculinity (dragon), and are therefore a counterpart of the Yin and Yang principles.

Lions are one of the most basic Chinese symbols for protection and luck.

The qilin, which looks somewhat like a baby dragon, is always auspicious whenever it makes an appearance.

These spouting fish will help to bring prosperity and good luck.

The sun and moon are also present, with more spouting fish. Since they can look similar when worked in silver, they are helpfully labeled with the characters for sun () and moon ().

Virtually a necessity for protecting and blessing children is the lucky phrase, Chang Ming Fu Gui 
(長命富貴), which wishes a long life and prosperity. On both of these carriers it is prominently rendered in letters of silver.

Some of the smaller emblems depict vases, flowers, butterflies and various trophies. The blue-and-red carrier also has several dangling Bells, always useful to keep away evil spirits.

One can see that the Chinese are unwilling to leave anything to chance when creating an auspicious start for their offspring. Not all babies had fancy carriers like these; more common were coin-like amulets worn around the neck, often with the ‘Chang Ming Fu Gui’ characters, and hats embellished with similar silver figures of the Eight Immortals.

One of the carriers in its entirety, showing the construction out of fabric.

Babies today don't require so many amulets, yet their safety is much better looked after. Perhaps the most auspicious start comes from the home environment; some of the decisions Ann encountered in designing her nursery were presented in her design and travel blog.

Congratulations to Ann and her husband; I wish them a wonderful and happy life with their new daughter, and all of the luck contained in these two tour-de-force baby carriers.

(Baby carriers and photos, collection of the author.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Springtime in Worcester, Massachusetts

Spring has arrived officially, and while Taiwan does display an increase in blossoms, I particularly miss the dramatic changeover typical of more temperate zones. Starting with the maple sugaring season, the winter woods and scenery come back to life with delicate spring flowers and new green leaves. 

In my collection of nineteenth-century photographs is this idyllic spring scene of an early American farm house in Worcester, Massachusetts. We see the small wooden house located close to the road or drive, with a large barn visible farther on. The house seems to be painted white, but the corner boards and sills appear to be a darker, contrasting color.

There is a wing of the house to the viewer's left, and on the right a white picket fence enclosing a side yard. Dimly seen is an elaborate front door with architrave and sidelights, but one wonders how much that classical entrance was used, for there is no path to the door, and the grass seems undisturbed.

Perhaps the most appealing element of the picture, and what establishes the Spring season, is the row of blossoming apple trees in front of the house. While we can't know for sure what kind they are, Baldwin, Roxbury Russet, and Westfield Seek-No-Further are all famous varieties that originated in Massachusetts, and that were well established by the time this photo was taken. 

Baldwin, discovered in Wilmington, Massachusetts around 1740, was one of the most important American apples in its day. As late as 1915, according to the book North American Apples, Baldwin was the leading commercial variety, with 13.4% of the crop. Southmeadow Fruit Gardens more recently sold “this variety for those with childhood memories of this large, red winter apple with its hard, crisp, juicy flesh so long cherished for eating out of hand, and apple pie.”

The Baldwin apple from Beach’s Apples of New York (1905)

Baldwin was so important that the location of the original tree was commemorated with this granite marker. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Roxbury Russet was one of those connoisseur's apples that was grown for its consummate flavor, not for perfection of appearance. Roxbury apples, often with patches of brown russeting over green-yellow skin, illustrate the axiom that the worse fruit looks, the better it often tastes. 

The Roxbury Russet, also from Apples of New York.

Westfield Seek-No-Further was another old-time favorite with a high eating quality. It also has the best name of any variety, taking you back to an era when the art of naming apples was honed to a high skill.

Westfield Seek-No-Further, from Apples of New York.
There also exists an old apple variety called Worcester Pearmain, but it refers to the Worcester in England, not Massachusetts, and so is not a real candidate for the trees in this photograph. However, these color plates of Worcester Pearmain were so beautiful that I can't resist adding them:

Worcester Pearmain from Taylor’s Apples of England.

Worcester Pearmain from Morgan and Richard's beautiful, The Book of Apples.

This old cabinet photo of a Massachusetts farm vividly brings to life a favorite daydream of having a house in the country with some acreage. In the picture, at least, it is a beautiful day, everything on the farm is in good shape and freshly painted, and the carriage is waiting to take us out for a ride to enjoy the beautiful Spring weather.

(Photo of farm from author's collection, all other illustrations as labeled.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Happy Snake Year

This weekend on Sunday, February 10th is the start of Chinese New Year. 2013 will be a Snake Year. In order to honor the occasion, I went through my collection to find some Chinese snakes. 

Recently, I gave a birthday dinner for a friend whose zodiac sign is the snake, and in honor of the upcoming Snake Year. In order to decorate for the occasion, I dug out some snakes left over from Halloween:

Although I forgot to take a picture, in the end that table had considerably more on it, including lots of balloons to make it festive.

I also got a chance to use my favorite ceramic snake platters, reminiscent of old majolica, even if not quite so fine:

Getting back to Chinese snakes, the first one I obtained was this rather elegant bamboo carving of a snake twining through a stump of bamboo:

This coiled wooden snake on a base of carved greenery may have been part of a set depicting the zodiac animals. It is reasonably large, perhaps eight or nine inches tall, and the coils form a hollow on the inside, so it is also possible that this was used as a stand of some sort. I love the simplicity and liveliness of its carving and painting. I have never seen anything else quite like this, and I feel lucky to have acquired it.

This ball of snakes is about five inches across. My favorite part is the way the snake head emerges from the central ball in the second photo.

Babies born in a given animal’s year are often provided with lucky charms to wear as pendants. Here is a boxwood charm showing a baby playing with a snake, a situation not likely to be encountered in reality. 

(Sorry about the photo quality; this was taken under harsh light, and I could not locate the object to re-photograph it.)

I’m not sure what story this votive block depicts, but it looks like an interesting one. The god is standing on a snake, and about to dispatch it with his sword. Note that the god is only wearing one shoe, whose mate is being worn by the snake. I like the naive, folk-art quality of this piece. Incidentally, the god is not holding up a fish, as it might appear. The face is the head of a trophy pelt worn around the waist; usually these represent a lion, tiger, or dragon. The body and tail of the “fish” are a fabric panel from the skirt of his costume. His left hand is holding the scabbard of the sword, or some other attribute, thus the scabbard, animal head and clothing panel are unrelated elements which seem to meld together here.  

Although only one or two of these carvings actually refer to Chinese Snake Year, they can all serve to honor the occasion and help to make this a lucky year. Do you have a favorite among these, or perhaps a special snake in your own collection?

I sincerely wish all of my readers a Happy, Lucky and Prosperous Snake Year.

(All photographs property of the author.)