Kaohsiung Seafood

October 26, 2012

One of the first images that caught my eye when the world was finally allowed to see the amazing pictures of the earth generated by orbiting satellites was the plume of pollution spewing out of the mouth of the Takan River into the South China Sea; now coyly renamed the Love River; at Kaohsiung in Southern Taiwan. The image joined that of the Great Wall of China as things easily seen from space in my mental collection.

It was of course the industrialization of Taiwan and its rapidly expanding population in the years following the Kuomintang immigration that was the source. The success of Taiwan and it chemical processing plants had a price to pay; foul air, foul soil and foul water.

In the early nineties I was often in Taiwan visiting distributors who were marketing my company’s environmental monitoring equipment. And so it was inevitable that I would one day have to visit Formosa Plastics in Kaohsiung. They were probably the world’s largest producer of PVC at the time and still may be. A precursor in the manufacture of the ubiquitous PVC is Vinyl Chloride, one the most toxic and carcinogenic compounds known to man, and even cynical Taiwanese chemical tycoons were not going to risk poisoning a large city. We flew down from Taipei one morning and took a taxi to the local office of my distributor to get a review of the local market and the problems surrounding it. Problems, there were plenty. Of course, nothing is easy in this part of the world. I relied on my distributors to make some sense of the complex and almost labyrinthine process one has to go through to sell technical equipment.

Five of us jammed into the company car and drove off to the Formosa Plastics plant. On the way we passed other chemical plants all going at full tilt, belching smoke and fumes. Rice paddies, schools, shops and houses abutted the very walls of the factories.

At the gate there was a perfunctory show of security, and after few minutes we wandered off toward the Vinyl Chloride plant. I won’t go into the installed equipment debacle that I was trying to solve on this particular visit. Let’s just say that if there had been a Vinyl Chloride leak form this plant and it killed or poisoned the thousands of people living within a few hundred yards, it would not have been altogether the fault of Formosa Plastics. I was not actually a popular person on this trip.

After having my scheduled dressing down and some loss of face stonily administered, my distributor manager took us all off for lunch. This of course involved a huge amount of discussion; almost an argument, until a restaurant was chosen. Seafood. The lucky establishment was out on a spit of land reached by a road tunnel. It was the usual set up. Zero décor and harsh fluorescent lighting. A few faded pictures of Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen gathered dust next to advertising posters for Taiwan Beer. But there was a warm welcome from the owner who led us all to a concrete floored area where stood bucket after bucket and tank after tank of fresh living sea life. Pumps hummed and hoses snaked everywhere in this edible piscatorial zoo. As we walked down the narrow path between the containers my distributor’s local manager barked out his choices to the manager who was scribbling furiously. A crate of beer was ordered.

We sat down and started in on the spicy pickled cabbage and peanuts. The beer came, and the usual game of let’s get the ‘round eye’ tipsy began. I was an old hand at this and made boring speeches at each round that they recognized as a good time wasting defense. And then for an hour or so dish after dish of succulent and wonderful food in aromatic sauces arrived and conversation was slower. I recognized some of the creatures that I ate that day, and, as usual when dining in Taiwan, some of them I did not. I did not care. It was superb. In what amounted to not much more than a tin shed on a South China Sea dockside I had enjoyed some of the best seafood on the planet.

We walked out through the buckets and tanks, and the hoses and the pumps, my distributor loudly lamenting that he had not chosen from this one and that one. We did not return by the road tunnel. Instead we took a short car ferry ride back to the mainland. As I looked over the side of the ferry in the short ride I observed that the water through which we were passing was black and viscous. The usual frothy bow wave was absent. It had a foul odor and a scum of detritus and oil. It occurred to me then that the very food that I had so recently ingested may have swam in just this effluent. Diluted and some miles offshore, perhaps, but I felt certain that my mineral needs for some months had been seen to, and I speculated some very interesting organic chemicals were now introducing themselves to my metabolism.

Later that evening we sat at the almost empty airport lounge waiting for our flight back to Taipei. We drank more Taiwan Beer and competed in picking up peanuts with chopsticks. After two beers I got to three nuts in one pick. I asked my distributor if the day was a success or not. He said it was just another day. And was the food we had at lunch special? Not really he said. There are plenty of places where you can get the same.

Years later sitting in front of a computer staring at the exciting new satellite images this whole episode came flooding back as clearly as those images were telling me that my speculation as to what had entered my body in that restaurant was close to the truth.

And even more years later the local authorities in Kaohsiung claim that the river is cleaner. Renaming what was once an open sewer and waste disposal canal the Love River demonstrated their optimism and perhaps an unfortunate ignorance of a certain waterway in upstate New York near Tonawanda which was the scene of one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of America; Love Canal.

It has been over fifteen years since I last visited Taiwan, and I miss it; especially the seafood.



A friend recently posted a silhouette of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul with an invitation to guess what it was. it is one of the most famous buildings in the world and its silhouette is unforgettable. I have never visited Turkey, but I did go to Cairo a few times and on one memorable occasion in the fall of 1993 visited the Muhammad Ali mosque in Egypt. It stands on a bluff overlooking the city, next to a very interesting military museum where in the courtyard stand several MiG fighters, some old tanks.

Kairo Mohammed Ali Mosque

Kairo Mohammed Ali Mosque

Inside you can view immense dioramas of famous battles where the Egyptian forces roundly defeated (sic) those pesky Israelis. The dioramas where contracted to a Korean firm. North or South I could not tell, but the Hangul signature was quite prominent.

The experience of visiting Cairo was intense. I was hosted by my agent, Sami Macari, a Coptic Christian, whose wife worked at the French embassy. He had two daughters and one day they took me to Giza to see the Pyramids. We spoke in stumbling French; my schoolboy version not quite matching their young fluency. It made us all laugh a great deal. But all the while the city was quietly speaking to me of its past and its tense present.

Coming back to my hotel one evening I was greeted by a huge hubbub and wailing in the lobby. Just another wealthy family wedding, I was told. The following evening there was another wedding with the same ‘noise”. Women in the wedding party ululating.

In a scene almost out of a movie, one morning as I was eating an excellent breakfast a hotel staff person came scurrying over to tell me that there was an important telephone call for me in the lobby. He was very nervous about this important call. And yes, there was a wooden phone booth in the lobby where I was to take the call. The personal assistant of the Minister of the Environment came on and said that the Minister wished to see me that morning at 10 AM. For a few minutes I was nonplussed until I remembered that I had called the NY office of an American-Egyptian friendship association mentioning that I would be in Cairo visiting my distributor, Sami, in another attempt to awaken interest in environmental monitoring in Egypt. I had no idea I could be so persuasive.

I called Sami, and he arrived in great haste and trepidation. I do believe he was scared. We rushed off in his battered car to the ministry building. We were frisked, X-rayed and asked to wait in a very ordinary room. An aide came in said that his Excellency would join us in a minute and would we like some coffee? Of course we would. It would have been the grossest insult not to have at least accepted the offer. A few minutes later the Minister enters with another aide. We talk about the importance of the environment, of the value of American friendship and so on. Sami is not saying much but obviously enjoying the coffee. We are offered more coffee. It is served in small cups with much brown sugar and was intensely perfumed. There is a hand signal one makes in Cairo that shows you like the coffee and would welcome more. I cannot recall it but I am sure Sami was making it.

After fifteen minutes of pleasantries, the Minister indicated that he has had enough and the aide ushers us out. In the courtyard parking lot Sami stopped me as we walked to the car and said in very serious voice, “That coffee was very good”.

Here is the poem that my visit to the wondrous City of Cairo inspired.

Going to Cairo

I thought it would be more romantic than this.

I thought it would strangle me with its strangeness

Walk up to me with a sword in its oriental mouth

And bump into me,

Jolting me out of my occidental seat into the stinking dust of the gutters.

I thought the Mohammed Ali mosque would wrestle me to the ground with its shocking bare immenseness.

I thought my nostrils would burn with the assault of unnamed spice.

I thought my ears would crumble with the muezzins call at noon,

When all the dogs in Cairo enter a canine Koran reading contest.

I thought the pyramids would crush me with too much history and indifference

I thought the city of the dead would turn my gut over in its emptiness and blank windows

I thought the Nile would bewitch me and turn my blue blazer to Joseph’s coat

I thought Tuten Kamens chariot would run over me

I thought so much and I thought so much

That it brought me here where I would not be except for Cairo

For Cairo was a poetic enema

And purged some foolishness from me.

She lightened my load

And with her sister Bombay

Will always be on my cerebral medicine shelf

To take in case of cabin fever.

John Keats Would Approve

October 3, 2012

Some time ago; it may have been as much as three months; I submitted a few lines of my poem, Pinot This And Pinot That, to a contest. The contest was to write brief verses about wine that could be easily printed onto wine coasters. And now I and nine other poets will get our lines imprinted on sets of coasters from the Niche Wine and Art Bar in Vancouver, Washington.

My hat is off to the organizer of this contest Christopher Luna. Poets are always struggling to get exposure for their lines. Anything will do. Perhaps John Keats at one time was grateful for a few of his words appearing on the menu of a cheap Roman trattoria illustrating the romance of the location if not the quality of the food.

To celebrate, Christopher has organized an evening at Niche Wine and Art Bar where we will all read our selected lines and one more work. It should be at the very least an interesting evening. Should you love either Wine or Poetry here is where you should be on the night of October 17th at 8.30 PM

Niche Wine and Art Bar, 1013 Main Street, Vancouver, WA