Erenlai - Paul Farrelly (范寶文)
Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Monday, 05 July 2010 18:09

Tea break with Taipei's only Rabbi

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1918, Rabbi Dr E. F. Einhorn has witnessed huge global change throughout his 91 years.  He moved to Taipei in early 1975 where he has since served as Rabbi.

Belying his age, Rabbi Einhorn is the Chairman of Republicans Abroad Taiwan; Honorary Representative Asia and Pacific Region for the Polish Chamber of Commerce; and Honorary Secretary of State for Montana, USA, among several other roles.

Here Rabbi Einhorn discusses his role as Taipei's Rabbi and shares some insights on how he remains motivated after so many years of dedicated activity.

Friday, 11 February 2011 17:26

Everyone in China rides bikes

A unexpected encounter in China stirs up a very old memory for Paul Farrelly.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012 16:40

Headphones required: John McBain's psychedelic guitar

Finding a decent picture of John McBain is not easy. I'm not talking about John McBain from General Hospital or The Simpsons' Teutonic action-man McBain. The net is awash with their likenesses. And don't get me started on John McCain. He can stay in 2008.

The John McBain I am sharing with you here is an American underground guitar hero. So underground not only have you never heard of him, you can't easily find his likeness online.

Through the series of videos and commentary below you will be able to chart McBain's evolution from psyching it up in New Jersey's most THC encrusted basements to soloing in Seattle's grunge supergroups, from jamming in the desert with Josh Homme to laying down some of the most subtly dense recordings of modern times.

He may not be famous, but McBain has managed to play an important part in a number of emerging scenes over the last 20 years. And just as these scenes threatened to get huge, McBain either walked away or was passed over. It is not always easy to distil McBain's influence in each of the acts he has played with although there is a common thread: an unremitting commitment to explore the possibilities of psychedelic rock.

I cannot pretend to have heard every McBain track nor am I overly familiar with his life and ideas. The obscurity of work makes such biographical details all the more difficult to find. But this is just reason why the world needs to be introduced to John McBain and his psych guitar. Through his work we can track a path across the margins of American alternative music. And the best way to assess a figure such as McBain is through what he does best - play the guitar.

It's a satanic drug thing...

Having played in a string of garage projects in late 80s New Jersey, McBain and his buddies hooked up with "Dave Brock lookalike" Dave Wyndorf and started getting some local attention gigging as Monster Magnet.

Monster Magnet is still chugging on at venues around the world, turning out ever more processed and unimaginative albums. Some would say that in spite of the band's rise to mid-90s alt fame and a fleeting flirtation with mainstream success in the late 90s, Magnet's best days where when McBain was part of the set up. Two 1991 recordings characterise this era: Tab and Spine of God.

The Tab EP is notable for the track ‘Tab…’, a 32 minute trance-inducing meditation on the realms of analog recording. Held together by a metronomic bass and drum loop, Monster Magnet seemed to want to make ‘Tab…’ as trippy as possible. McBain's rhythm guitar floats around Wyndorf's processed vocals as all manner of distorted and indulgent sounds compete to be the most outrageous. A sound engineer at the time applauded this as "the return of drug rock" and I think he was right. This fuzzed out groove became one of the foundations of the dopily named ‘stoner rock’ sub sub genre.

More compact than Tab, Spine of God is no less extravagant in it's homage of 70s rock. Beginning with a flanged drum solo, Monster Magnet pays closer attention to the dynamics of song writing and the listener is rewarded. While ‘Ozium’ is cruisy and drawn out, the album's highlight is undoubtedly ‘Spine of God’. Centred on a hypnotic guitar riff, ‘Spine of God’ rises from the slightly paranoid medina of the verse to the crunch and roar of the epic chorus. All cloaked in unapologetically acid-soaked histrionics.

Unfortunately as Monster Magnet's profile and responsibilities grew, McBain's discomfort grew too, and his anti-social behaviour led to his dismissal.

Following on an invitation from his friend and former tour mate, Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd, McBain moved to Seattle.

Sad McBain

Early 1990s Seattle is a place of myth. For a guitarist seeking respite from the pressures of rock ‘n’ roll, Seattle would not seem an obvious choice. In his time there, McBain lent his hand to some classic underground recordings. 1993's self-titled Hater was the first.

My friend gave me her copy of Hater because, in her words, “it was too country”. Compared to Soundgarden, perhaps. But compared to Garth Brooks, not at all. Hater has the feel of a bunch of talented guys letting loose from their grungy day jobs. Compact but loose, it is an enjoyable slice of early 90s alt rock. This track, ‘Sad McBain’, opens over a furious McBain solo while vocalist Matt Cameron reels off what seem to be a collection of McBain’s notable sayings. Notably, “LA rock sucks”.

The Evil McBain

The Desert Sessions series of albums are best know as Josh Homme and a bunch of his mates jamming in the California desert from 1995 onwards. The project's evolving sound reflects its revolving membership and, unfortunately, is a bit hit and miss.

While most albums see Homme and his merry men making punch tunes punctuated by wacky interludes, it is on Vol.1 and Vol.2 where they take off in space rock mode. No doubt due to McBain's presence. These were Josh Homme's first easily available post-Kyuss recordings and it is one of the great shames of modern rock that McBain and Homme didn't collaborate more. These recordings easily fit into the “robot rock” mould of early Queens of the Stoneage, where driving fuzzed out guitars are well complemented by soaring analogue keyboards. Initially released on vinyl, Vol.1 And Vol.2 were compiled on a CD released by the late Man’s Ruin label. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can listen to the full EPs here:

Escrito por Homme/McBain

For those who got past the "features former members of Kyuss" sticker on the cover perused the liner notes of the self-titled Queens of the Stoneage LP, a line in Spanish might have caught his or her eye:

Escritas pr Queens Of The Stoneage Exepto por 'Juan Regular' Escrito por Homme/McBain/Bomb The Sun

McBain and Homme's collaboration on ‘Regular John’ is the epitome of Homme's then oft-quoted “robot rock” and yet possibly typified his desire to make music that "Girls want to dance to". The tight riffing floats over the bouncing beats of drummer Alfredo Hernandez. As big beat electronica was wooing punters across America, Queens of the Stoneage were returning a dancing groove to rock at the end of a somber decade of grunge bookended by the twin inanities of hair metal and rap-rock. John McBain only helped out on ‘Regular John’ but this song remains a QOTSA live staple to this day:

In an interview from 2006, McBain noted :

I`m not interested in fame. Music is an outlet for me that I appreciate and take very seriously. It`s a really personal part of my life. I make music for myself. And I`ve seen too many "famous" friends of mine either completely fall apart physically and spiritually from the pressures of the "music biz" or transform into ego driven assholes. And in every case their music suffered. No exceptions.

Importantly, McBain’s anonyminity is in contrast to his friends and former bandmates from groups such as Monster Magnet, Soundgarden and QOTSA. This quote pointedly decries the pressures of fame.

John Paul McBain

Releasing four albums of garage-psych between 1997 and 2003, it remains a mystery how Wellwater Conspiracy didn't capture the imagination of rock fans. Remember, it was in the early 00s that “rock was reborn”, as retro-tinged bands such as The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Vines and the The Hives all released popular albums that played around with the meat and potatoes templates of garage rock. However, none did it as well Wellwater Conspiracy. If only they added a 'The' to their name, fame and alt-adulation could have been theirs.

‘Sleeveless’ from their first album is McBain's favourite and perfectly encapsulates Wellwater Conspiracy's twin muses of the freakbeat and 60s psychedelia, infused by the vision and experience of these Seattle grunge survivors.

Asides from the Soundgarden rhythm section (and fellow Hater and Desert Session collaborators) of Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, the Wellwater Conspiracy was joined at times by Josh Homme, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and other Seattle Musicians.

Centaur Of The Sun

Undoubtedly his crowning achievement, The In-Flight Feature (2006) is a cornucopia of stereo textures and warm wah-wah work. Utilising all the available effects of the studio and drawing on his years of experience, McBain crafted a delightful excursion into the potential of sound. Ten tracks long (with three bonus tracks), the echoes, tremolos and drones of The In-Flight Feature evoke the comfort and indulgence that the album's title alludes to while not getting bogged in retro trimmings. I recall reading at the time that McBain expressed interest in soundtrack and production work. If that's the case, then this is the best business card on offer. It is decidedly fresh. All the songs are brilliant but I shall include this one as it the fan made clip was endorsed by none other than McBain (see the video's comments)

Carlton Melton

This most recent (2012) recording offers the latest McBain incarnation. Jamming with the grizzled looking San Francisco three-piece Carlton Melton (who I amusing saw referenced as "psych lifers"), McBain adds some layers of fuzz and overdrive to what amounts to a heavier and more sprawling continuation of the ambience of The In-Flight Feature. This vinyl-only release is fortunately available on YouTube:

Myth making is integral to rock. Much of the time it is unfounded, as in reality the artists neither have the skill or charisma to warrant such adulation. However, the sublime and sustained guitar work of John McBain is enough to generate an aura of respect, if not a myth of its own.

Whether he was behind the times or ahead of them, for the most part John McBain remains part of none of them. To this end, he exists as a footnote in the annals of alternative rock. It is fitting that for a man who worships the underground sound, it is in relative obscurity that he will remain. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful for the future.

I’m not really sure what McBain is doing these days. Fingers crossed that he is bunkered down in his studio and laying down tracks for some more epic sonic excursions.

(Photo by Boolve under Creative Commons License)


Tuesday, 21 June 2011 19:11

Taiwan's Museum of Alien Studies: a new view of the extraterrestrial

The Museum of Alien Studies is nestled in a basement in Taichung, central Taiwan. Containing a large collection of alien 'artefacts' and offering divination and massage services, the museum grants visitors an alternative conception of extraterrestrial life and how these entities can aid humanity.

Monday, 01 August 2011 14:06

An alternative reality? Bogans, boat people and broadcasting

In June 2011, Australia’s public multicultural broadcaster - SBS - showed a three-part reality show.  What’s surprising about that, you might ask? Australian audiences routinely lap up reality TV—home renovations, talent contests, cooking competitions, extreme weight loss—the ratings and advertising dollars are almost guaranteed to roll in. Formats change from year to year, but the concept’s popularity remains. Reality TV has been much analysed over the past decade, and while the debate is often framed in terms of ‘love it or hate it’, I suspect that for most people interest lies somewhere in between. Either way, the ‘reality’ of reality TV is not straightforward.

Of Australia’s five free-to-air broadcasters, SBS traditionally rates the lowest. Its standard fare of subtitled foreign news, art-house movies, soccer and other non-mainstream sport tends not to attract more than a niche audience.  Occasionally SBS breaks through and introduces a program that catches on with the mainstream, such as Southpark and Top Gear, but these successes are few and far between.

This year SBS once again came up with the goods, producing a controversial reality show called Go Back to Where You Came From[1]. The six participants, all of whom had strong and primarily unsympathetic views on Australia’s refugee situation, were sent on a refugee journey in reverse.

Starting in Australia with visits to resettled refugees from Iraq, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the participants took a boat trip to Malaysia where they stayed with Chin refugees from Burma while joining in with Malaysian authorities to hunt down and catch illegal immigrants. From Malaysia the group was split in two: one bunch was sent to Jordan and one was taken to a refugee camp in Kenya. The final destinations were Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo – conflict zones where many refugees start their journeys.


Each of the participants found the gruelling journey to be more challenging than expected, if not changing his or her perceptions of the refugee issue, then at least gaining a better understanding of it. Given the trying and confrontational circumstances in which the producers placed participants, an emotional response was to be expected. Sometimes the danger faced was simulated (the boat began to ‘sink’ on the way to Malaysia), sometimes it was real (on patrol with US troops in Iraq) and sometimes it was too difficult to tell. This is reality TV, after all. Regardless of the authenticity of the risk to participants, simulating the refugee journey made for stimulating television viewing.

Go Back to Where You Came From attracted a range of opinions in Australian media, both favourable[2] and otherwise[3], with much fiercer commentary on blogs and Youtube clips[4]. Given the political volatility generated by successive Australian governments’ refugee policies and the mixed levels of general understanding of the complexity that cloaks the issue, such a vocal public response is not unexpected. Much of the discussion is underpinned by a perceived class distinction: unsophisticated and under-educated suburban ‘bogans’ against effete and out-of-touch inner-city elites in the ‘latte belt’. In this case, racist bogan ‘refugees’ appeared to have been set up for the mirth of the educated classes watching from the comfort of home. Looking a bit deeper, we can see how Go Back to Where You Came From managed to transcend this tired social dichotomy.

The SBS producers very cleverly employed the tropes of reality TV: contrived scenarios; emotional manipulation of participants; dramatic music and editing to stimulate viewers’ senses.  It is very easy to question just how ‘real’ this reality program was – the likelihood of Australians escaping by boat to some of the most grim and dangerous places on earth, like those in the show, is so slim as to be ludicrous. But this reverse journey successfully managed to convey the dire circumstances that so many refugees are fleeing from, and the abject desperation and perilous unpredictability of their journey into the unknown.

Go Back to Where You Came From’s unexpected popularity was large enough to suggest that it had an audience more reflective of ‘mainstream Australia’ than might normally be the case for other SBS shows. Rather than gripping the edge of their seats as competitors struggled to cook the perfect duck l’orange in a Masterchef pressure test or mocking the perspiring and jiggling contestants of The Biggest Loser, viewers were given a glimpse of the multi-dimensional and tangled reality that is the global refugee situation.

Regardless of the average Australian viewer’s ideological persuasion, they would probably have witnessed at least one aspect of the debate for the first time. From Chin refugees eking out a living in the Malaysian underground economy, to disfigured victims of the Iraq war dancing in a Jordanian rehabilitation facility and the heaving refugee camps of central Africa, the messy reality of the world’s refugees was put right in front of the viewer.

Australia, like everywhere else on the planet, has to deal with refugees. This is a ‘reality’. A reality for the government, for Australians, and most certainly for the refugees scrambling for a better life. Despite popular misconception, Australia is not at risk of being ‘swamped’ by bedraggled boat people on our northern shores.  The number of boat people arriving in Australia fluctuates from year to year and was 4,940 in 2010-2011[5], higher than the yearly average as calculated since 1989. Under Australia’s Humanitarian Program for asylum seekers, approximately 13,000 asylum seekers are granted visas each year[6]. Australia has a population of 22 million people, a bit less than that of Taiwan.

Australia’s social fabric is not threatened by foreign arrivals. This is a country of migrants and our national culture/identity/neurosis (if such things actually exist) is forever mutating. Trying to pin down ‘Australian-ness’ to a static point in time is an exercise doomed to failure. Pitching downtrodden refugees as a threat to that even more so.

Boat people are sometimes stigmatised in Australia as ‘queue jumpers’, cutting ahead of legitimate asylum seekers who have applied through the appropriate channels and are patiently waiting in a refugee camp somewhere for their official invitation.  No doubt some boat people are rorting the system and fork out cash for a quicker, though extremely risky, passage to freedom. But most are fuelled by pure desperation. These are the issues that the producers of Go Back to Where You Came From were able to highlight.

Australia’s migrant intake, especially of refugees and boat people, will remain an ongoing and contentious issue in the national imagination. Tragedies such as the December 2010 boat tragedy on Christmas Island (where at least 30 boat people died attempting to reach Australian shores) polarise opinion. Recent government attempts to discourage boat people by processing them on cash-strapped Pacific islands have had varying degrees of ‘success’ in deterring boat people and discouraging the much reviled ‘people smugglers’ who charge huge sums to ferry human cargo in rickety old fishing trawlers. The current government’s ‘Malaysian solution’, where Australia has entered into an asylum-seeker trading deal with Malaysia, is dogged by opposition from both sides of the political divide. Inconveniently for the two governments, the dubious conditions faced by asylum seekers in Malaysia were plainly illuminated in Go Back to Where You Came From.

The failure to develop a sustainable solution to the refugee problem not just in Australia, but anywhere in the world, shows just how complicated the situation is. One thing remains sure, at least in Australia, the discussion needed a kick in the pants. Hopefully this is what SBS gave us.

When set against the backdrop of Australia’s ever-droning refugee debate, fuelled by conservative and paranoid commentators and mismanaged by a muddle-headed government, the stark images and conflicted emotions shown in Go Back to Where You Came From can play a useful role. Undoubtedly this glimpse of refugee anguish is a contrived scenario, all ‘reality TV’ is. But the producers managed to create a product that jolted some Australians out of seemingly entrenched stances on refugees. For the rest of the world, this is a reality that is worth taking the time to track down and watch.


I’m not sure if Go Back to Where You Came From will be screened internationally, but you can watch parts of it on Youtube and it will be released on DVD in August 2011.








Friday, 08 February 2013 18:57

A Sonic Meltdown: A Review on "I Love Nuclear!?"

The Fukushima nuclear tragedy in March 2011 sparked a global discussion on nuclear energy in the 21st century. This question was discussed with particular vigour in Japan's neighbor Taiwan, a seismically unstable island with a voracious appetite for energy. 

Opposition to nuclear power in Taiwan is not new. Former movie star and spiritual author Terry Hu's involvement with campaigns in the early 1990s is but one high profile example and eRenlai has probed the issue here. The Fukushima incident, Taiwan's ageing reactors and the ongoing construction of a fourth nuclear plant have coalesced a range of social responses in recent years. In this context, the underground electronic artists behind I Love Nuclear!? have come taken nuclear power as an "object of criticism as well as a space for introspection". Their music "is foregrounded against nuclear power as well as the craziness and absurdity revolving around it". The result is a bouncy, glitchy electronic nightmare. But a well-meaning nightmare, as the music was contributed free of charge and organisers will donate profits to the Green Citizens' Action Alliance for Anti-Nuclear Purposes.

Unlike the majority of electronic music compilations, I Love Nuclear!? is not structured around a single easily identifiable sonic template. Metal riffs and lurking psytrance grate against bleak industrial beats. Lush ambience leads to the familiar throb of house. The unifying theme is a dark audial portrayal of the confusion and fear that nuclear power generates. The contrasting styles employed by the artists could be seen as the various phases of the nuclear issue - development, progress, protest, decay, meltdown, destruction, apocalypse, mutation. Just as the various styles of music are all 'electronic', so too are the moods evoked all 'nuclear'.

I Love Nuclear!? appears to have been compiled not as an enjoyable listening experience or something to shake your booty to, but as more of an experiment in letting music generate a palpable sense of the unease and imminent danger so inherent in nuclear power. In the interests of fairness I have given each track a 140 character summary. Tweet style, yo. 

ilovenulcear 01
The poster that is enclosed in the CD

1. 只是魚罐 It’s Just Canned Fish by Blackbells

Spooky looped distorted vocals. Gradually building dread. A faux-ambient portent for the warped digital tunes to follow.

2. 機器人的烏托 The Utopia Of Androids by Vice City

Am I in Düsseldorf circa 1991? The tinny bass drum üm-tish üm-tishes into some floating synths. Even if your skin is peeling off from nuclear flash burns you’ll still be able to slo-mo shuffle to this.

3. 美帝的禮 A Gift from the American Empire by Iang

Ethno-ambience morphs in and out of power-chord laden psytrance metal. If you put a mic next to a drum of radioactive waste it sounds like this.

4. 沒有人反 Nobody’s Against Nuclear Power by Yao

Minimalist pops and bleeps and buzzing bass. Tinnitusinal outro. Relatively easy listening. Thanks Yao.

5. 怪獸電力公 Monsters, Inc. by Aul

Like a electroencephalogram attached to Mike Wachowski's brain or a malfunctioning nuclear plant alarm, this track will drive you cRäzY.

6. 那天春天寧靜的 Remember the Silent Sea that Spring by Koala 

Classic psytrance, the most danceable track thus far. Your getaway music for when the reactor overheats and becomes unstable.

7. 台電的移動城 Taipower’s Moving Castle by MAD+N ft. Troy

Epic synths, glitchy paranoia, soothing piano and an uber-gloomy finale. I love it.

8. 我如何學著停止煩惱並愛上炸彈 How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Roweing

More retro Euro-beats and arrhythmic percussion. Claustrophic and nauseating. Kubrick would be proud.

9. 黑色狂歡派 Dance to the Scam by Betty Apple

Betty gets funky and then freaks out, scooping out your brain and filling it with digital detritus and toxic gloop.

10. 黃色蛋 Yellow Cake by VARO

I think Varo is some sort of post-nuclear mutant, that's the only way he/she could compose this. Just as it starts feeling comfortable, the music gets weird. Again.

11. 都是為了世界和 It’s All For The Peace Of The World by TJ Zhang

No beats here. Just a surreal conversation between two mutants scavenging the remains of Taiwan’s Longmen reactor 500 years in the future. One chanting a baritone mantra, the other whimpering and quivering like a scared guinea pig. 

12. 讓你瘋狂的要 I Want You to Want Me by 灰雁

The piano is all Summer of Love 1989. I can see the yellow smiley faces and goofily grinning ravers. But the glow sticks they are waving are actually spent nuclear rods. 

13. 核廢永久遠、一噸永流 A Family Heirloom by Alöis

Static and eerie, this is the sound of Geiger counters scouring the ruins and scorched earth, finding nothing but death. The legacy of Sector 7-G.

14. 進化特 Evolution by Tech Yes

Industrial chaos. Your mum will hate it. The most challenging track here ends in a crescendo of static. The discordant ripping of a scratched CD evoking the death thralls of an earthquake-shattered reactor.

I Love Nuclear is a unique aural representation of how the complexities of nuclear power in 21st century Taiwan might be understood. It is not always easy listening. But since when did a nuclear meltdown sound good?

For samples, you can check out

Note from the editor:

The album (250 NTD) can be purchased in the following locations...

Taipei - RE caféLuguo caféSpecies RecordsIndimusic RecordsThe GoodsMyHome多麼 Cafe+Vicious Circle

Taichung - 小路映画

Kaohsiung - Booking

Others – Lacking Sound Festival or buy on internet 

Monday, 03 December 2012 14:48

Disability and deification: the myth making of 'Reunion'

The story

Reunion (1985)[1] plots the lives of a group of school chums at four points over 30 years. Starring Terry Hu (胡因夢) and Ding Nai-zhu (丁乃竺) - two Taiwanese actors who later transitioned into careers in the spiritual world - Reunion’s plot details the travails of the classmates over the years, reaching a climax when Ding's school for mentally handicapped children faces a crisis.

The first stanza begins in the mountains of rural Taiwan at an elementary school. Scenes of ragamuffins running amok in small town Taiwan are juxtaposed against the pastoral care of Ding, an attractive and kind young teacher who struggles to engender respect and responsibility in her students. The students, oblivious as the young so often are, only realize the extent of Ding's care for them when a dead-snake-in-the-drawer joke backfires. Ding has the bejusus scared out of her and the shame-faced students are resoundingly scolded.

Reconvening nearly ten years later, the second stanza unfolds during high school when the students reunite for a picnic. Ding has married a charming and creative young man and they are very much in love. The students reminisce, skylark and flirt at a riverside BBQ picnic. Then, just as this idyllic scene could get no more so, two rowboats on the lake capsize. Ding's husband gallantly dives in and rescues some students before he tragically drowns, bringing this segment to a grim close.

By the third stanza the students are now navigating the vicissitudes of life in martial law-era Taipei. Stock broker, lawyer, aspiring politician, doctor, chef and lorry driver, their lives have all taken different paths, something they discover upon reuniting for classmate and TV current affairs host Hu's wedding. Drunken melodrama and stifled emotions aside, this section is most notable for the group's reconnection with Ding. Now a widower and retired from teaching, Ding has taken to caring for mentally handicapped children in her house, something that shocks her former students.

Another ten years later and the gang are together yet again – this time banding together to help Ding. She has expanded her operation to help handicapped children, but with more children to care for come even greater problems. Landlords are unsympathetic and local groups protest the location of a “白癡中心 (idiot centre)” in the neighbourhood as it will ruin the ambience and negatively influence their own children. Against these exaggerated fears, the handicapped children are shown at work in the garden where they cooperate and learn at their own pace. Ultimately through the cooperation of the friends with Ding and the television special produced by Hu, the locals are shown to be accepting of the handicapped children.

The message

Reunion is notable for two features: the depiction of attitudes towards handicapped people and the beatification of Ding and Hu, something all the more remarkable given the direction that their careers took afterwards.

While the plight of the handicapped children cared for Ding is never far from the surface, the melodrama of Hu and her classmates tends to dominate the story. That said, the process of acceptance of the handicapped children, first by Ding’s former students and then by society, is interesting. The children are shown to be capable and loving, and while the story telling is at times overwrought, the humanity of these children is obvious. For that, the filmmakers deserve praise. Ding and Hu are able to engender emotional transformation of the humans around them, continuing the maturation process first evident in elementary school.

While Hu retired from the entertainment industry shortly after Reunion was filmed, Ding, husband of the noted Taiwanese-American playwright Stan Lai (賴聲川) remained more closely linked. In 1989 Ding hosted a TV show called 心靈之旅 (Journey of the Soul) and has become a proponent of Tibetan Buddhism, translating and promoting books by various lamas and hosting Tibetan Buddhist dignitaries when they passed through Taiwan.

Since leaving the entertainment industry in 1988, Hu has remained in the limelight through her roles as an anti-nuclear campaigner, author and translator of spiritual texts, and, recently, as a teacher of evolutionary astrology. Her books continue to be published in both China and Taiwan, where she is considered to be one of the key figures in the 'new age' spiritual scene[2]. While Hu acknowledges the utility of this term, it is not one that she is willing to label herself with. Rather, Hu considers her recent work to be psychological in nature. Regardless of how she classifies herself, Hu, along with Ding, is a notable and influential spiritual figure in contemporary Taiwan and her depiction in Reunion is just one phase of her spiritual development.

During the later parts of Reunion, Hu and Ding marshal their former classmates/pupils to help Ding’s centre for handicapped children. Through their combined efforts, the handicapped children find a better home and the students understand the strength of the friendship. Hu and Ding are integral in this process, and their stoical approach to the situation contrasts with the neuroses and agitation of those around them. Hu and Ding remain equanimous throughout, providing the example of how to transcend the mundanity of careerism and material success to benefit those less fortunate. Ding (a widow) and Hu (a divorcee) step beyond their marital status to provide a moral beacon for their classmates and students. They are inspiring to others, just as they are seemingly inspired by a deeper calling.

The idealized versions of Ding and Hu portrayed in Reunion are fascinating examples of if not life imitating art, then of art providing a template for future life choices. In the context of their current careers in Taiwan’s spiritual world, Hu and Ding might look back at the film with a smile. The everyday spirituality embodied in Reunion proved to be not dissimilar to the images projected throughout their later career choices.


[2] For more on the ‘new age’ in China and Taiwan see these articles by Paul Farrelly:

- China new age store

- Taiwan new age store

Friday, 31 August 2012 12:39

Taipei’s Civility Engineering Project

Riding Taipei’s subway home from the recent Radiohead gig, I was struck by what should be a peculiar sight.

It was close to 11pm and the carriage had many more passengers than there were seats, yet no one was availing themselves of the dark blue Priority Seats reserved for elderly, frail and pregnant passengers, or those travelling with children. By the time I alighted the MRT eight stops later, not one passenger had taken a Priority Seat even though many remained standing.

The seats appeared to be saved for people who were not likely to board the train. Not many obasans ride in to Taipei Main Station at that late hour. Those passengers who were not elderly, frail or pregnant appeared unwilling to offend those that might sit in those seats, even though no such person was there. Perhaps though, the intended or possible presence of an obasan was enough to shape such cautionary behaviour. Such is the civil code of the MRT.

Officially labelled the Mass Rapid Transit, the MRT is an essential feature of daily life for those Taipei citizens without private transport. Only 15 years old and with new lines appearing every couple of years, the network is slowly diffusing throughout the bowels of the city. On an average June 2012 day, 1,588,700 people took advantage of the MRT’s punctual, clean and orderly service to travel around the system’s 101 stations .

More than just an ongoing civil engineering project, Taipei’s MRT is a civility engineering project.

It could be chaotic but it is not. Somehow the authorities have managed to instil a sense of cooperation into the riding public. Platform queues are orderly. Seats are yielded to those in need. Food and beverages are not consumed. Phone conversations are generally kept to a minimum.

For foreign visitors to Taipei, especially those unfamiliar with the Chinese language, the MRT is the easiest way to traverse the city. Were one to stay underground in the MRT system, one would think Taipei to be clean and cool; regimented and reliable. Such conceptions would be obliterated upon stepping up from the MRT station and into the frazzling pedestrian traffic and frying heat of the street. In that sense the train system underground serves as a panacea to the often frantic life above ground.

One part of the government’s project to train MRT passengers is an extensive set of posters hung in both trains and stations. These posters encourage proper behaviour both IN and OUT of the MRT.

{rokbox album=|myalbum|}images/stories/focus-living_together/p_farrelly_mrt/gallery/*{/rokbox}

Passengers are exposed to a range of advertisements that seek to influence their behaviour. Having control over the walls of the stations and trains gives the government the opportunity to monopolise the advertising medium. Of course much space is given over to commercial advertising, whose valuable remittances help keep the MRT system afloat. But the endless entreaties to behave better are what really created an impression on me. The captive audience of the MRT is ideal for the government to impress upon its ideals of how to create a better city.

Do people live together in the MRT? Yes, they do. An unspoken code of behaviour exists. This is not without contradictions. Someone could bring on a box of freshly fried stinky tofu, and while the odor might be a bit much for some, as long as the offending passenger does not eat any then this is OK. However, if someone is feeling in need of a drink, which is common in the summertime heat island of downtown Taipei, then he would be advised not to sip from his water bottle, lest he incur a sharp look of disapproval from the nearest righteous passenger.

Such a stringent code of behaviour is not without failing though. The Priority Seats can be contentious, especially if you are sitting in one and do not look old or injured, or are not wearing the appropriate sticker. Of course, many injuries or illnesses are not perceptible from the outside. If you are sick or sore but do not look it, then your fellow passengers might take umbrage at your bold occupation of a Priority Seat. I once saw a lady vehemently defend her right to sit in the Priority Seat, even though there was an older (and at least visibly, more frail passenger) standing nearby. Confrontations of this sort are uncomfortable for those nearby but, at least to my knowledge, rare.

In a city where almost every available inch of space is utilised and contested, the MRT exists as a zone of relative harmony and compromise. It is not only citizens who take the MRT, but the city of Taipei also rides it on the way to a more civilised society.



Sunday, 01 July 2012 19:00

“Finding the most suitable spiritual path”: Taipei’s new age store


Books, crystals, tarot cards, books, statues, therapeutic oils, more books, Tibetan Thangkas and pyramids. And then some more books. And plenty of CDs too.

Taipei’s Making Life Buddhist New Age (佛化人生新時代) store is snuggled six stories above the reverberating roar of Roosevelt Road, a short walk from National Taiwan University. Trading since 1984, the shop’s goal has been to help people “attain a state of equilibrium in body, mind and spirit”. As you will see in these photos, the store stocks a smorgasbord of books and accouterments that the public can purchase as part of their religious, spiritual or psychological development and practice. Judging from my recent regular visits, the store is never short of eager patrons.

Friday, 22 June 2012 18:37

Mount Zion – Eden in Taiwan

Mount Zion (錫安山, xi’an shan) is home to the New Testament Church (新約教會, xinyue jiaohui, NTC) who believe it to be God’s chosen Mountain and as the “spiritual Israelites”, their rightful home. According to the NTC, God has forsaken the long-recognized Mount Zion in Israel and now its spiritual qualities are imbued on this isolated mountain in south-central Taiwan. Mount Zion is both the Eden of the present and venue for the Tribulation in the future, when the members of the NTC will be raptured into Heaven.

I have written extensively about Mount Zion before and you can find a history of the mountain here and a piece on how the NTC responded to the devastation of Typhoon Morakot in 2008 here.

Mount Zion is covered in sites of protest, prayer and adoration. This photographic essay points out some of the most intriguing images and draws from my visits there in 2007, 2008 and 2010. For those of us with weak Chinese language skills, the NTC has diligently translated much of its material into English.


{slimbox images/stories/Mountzion/14.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_14.jpg, The rock at the base of the mountain was washed away by the raging Qishan river (旗山溪) during Typhoon Morakot; images/stories/Mountzion/26.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_26.jpg, Fortunately a new boulder was washed in to take the old one’s place; images/stories/Mountzion/15.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_15.jpg, The Cherubim gate greets visitors who are about to ascend the mountain from Highway; images/stories/Mountzion/17.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_17.jpg, The dining room in the main centre can cope with dozens of visitors. Note the large omega (Ω) to the left – this symbol is prominent in the NTC theology promulgated by the NTC’s current leader, Elijah Hong; images/stories/Mountzion/18.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_18.jpg, You can buy products from Mount Zion and other NTC farms around the world (known as the “Offshoots of Zion”) at the visitor centre; images/stories/Mountzion/19.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_19.jpg, NTC members are often seen doing chores around the mountain; images/stories/Mountzion/10.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_10.jpg, NTC members are often seen doing chores around the mountain; images/stories/Mountzion/11.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_11.jpg, Poster flanking the altar in the Holy Temple; images/stories/Mountzion/12.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_12.jpg,Poster flanking the altar in the Holy Temple; images/stories/Mountzion/13.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_13.jpg, The Zion Tree House is adjacent to the Holy Temple; images/stories/Mountzion/21.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_21.jpg,Guides are on hand to explain aspects of Mount Zion and the NTC to tourists. Here visitors are inside the Holy Temple listening to an NTC tour guide; images/stories/Mountzion/22.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_22.jpg, This multi-story car park was built for tourist cars and buses; images/stories/Mountzion/23.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_23.jpg, You can see the reinforcements on the side of the mountain. These stretch down to the river and may have helped save Mount Zion from erosion during Typhoon Morakot; images/stories/Mountzion/24.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_24.jpg, You can see the reinforcements on the side of the mountain. These stretch down to the river and may have helped save Mount Zion from erosion during Typhoon Morakot; images/stories/Mountzion/01.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_01.jpg, Contrasting sharply with the serenity of the mountain, graphic posters such as this warn of impending natural disasters as part of the Tribulation;images/stories/Mountzion/02.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_02.jpg, There are many posters extolling the virtues of the NTC and its leader, and some offer incendiary denunciations of the KMT, with whom the NTC suffered a protracted dispute (leading to a temporary eviction from Mount Zion) in the early 1980s;images/stories/Mountzion/04.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_04.jpg, This monument is called “Truth triumphs over despotism” and is the mangled remains of a symbolic boat chimney that the NTC erected—and KMT destroyed—during the church’s exile at the base of the mountain; images/stories/Mountzion/05.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_05.jpg,The mountain is covered in signs quoting Bible verses and this one is in front of the David Citadel. If you are interested, more signs can be found here; images/stories/Mountzion/07.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_07.jpg, The New Testament Church strongly advocates organic agriculture and Mount Zion is home to an active farm; images/stories/Mountzion/08.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_08.jpg, The original Holy Temple—claimed by the NTC to have been razed by the KMT—now houses a museum memorialising the pioneers of Mount Zion; images/stories/Mountzion/09.jpg, images/stories/Mountzion/tn_09.jpg, The original Holy Temple—claimed by the NTC to have been razed by the KMT—now houses a museum memorialising the pioneers of Mount Zion}


Photos and text by Paul Farrelly

Edited by Daniel Pagan Murphy



Thursday, 29 December 2011 16:12



Thursday, 10 November 2011 00:00

An all-new flavour? Australia’s Asian Century

Their knowledge of China is thin. They relate to the world outside through a limited range of material symbols rather than through deep cultural engagement.[1]

To those of us following media commentary immediately after Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard pronounced “we are truly already a decade into an Asian century”[2], the above statement would be familiar.

Routine sentiment appeared on the airwaves: Australian students show no interest in studying Asian languages; government funding is misdirected; there is an entrenched failure of Australians to grasp even the most basic cultural aspects of our northern neighbours. Not just China, but India, Indonesia, South Korea and the rest. Even Japan, our old mate, remains as misunderstood as ever.

Sure, Australians love a good curry and are happy to chill out on an island in southern Thailand. Aussies might even feign worldliness so far as to tattoo exotic scripts down their sunburnt and rippling biceps, but they just don’t really comprehend the place. "Asia? I’ll get back to ya on that one, mate".

But the quotation leading this article was not about Australia, it was about Hong Kong, about the professional elite in Hong Kong. A place that is as close to China as you can get—physically and politically—and a demographic whose wealth is arguably much closer tied to the palpitations of the Chinese economy than that of the average Australian is. It would appear that Australia is not alone in puzzling over a "deep cultural engagement" with the emerging Asian powers.

Now it is true that Australia, as a nation, struggles to articulate how it fits into Asia. This is nothing new. The White Australia Policy restricted immigration to Europeans and was in place for over 70 years. Politicians, both maverick (independent representative Pauline Hanson) and mainstream (former Prime Minister John Howard)[3] have expressed concern about Australia’s place in Asia. During my first year as an economic history student in 1997, I was required to read an article in The Economist that reminded us “The idea that Australia’s future belongs in Asia has been around a long time”[4]

As a former British colony, Australia’s links to England have remained, albeit less strong than in the past. While the Queen managed to generate decent crowds and cloying press coverage during her recent tour, Oprah Winfrey might well have been even more popular when she came ‘down under[5]’ last year.

Historically, or so it goes, as the British Empire waned, Australia’s alliance with the USA grew. Gillard recently gushed to a joint sitting of the US Congress, “you have a true friend down under”[6]. Hokey, yes, but an accurate reflection of Australia’s diplomatic, military and political connections. And for many of us, cultural connections too. America still exerts a strong push and pull through electronic and other media.

In this context, many eyebrows were raised in late September 2011 when Gillard announced the impending publication of a discussion paper called Australia in the Asian Century. This weighty tome is designed to uncover the risks and opportunities in a world where Europe and North America do not dominate as they have in the past. Australian government policy needs to be guided in this reoriented world and this paper will help set the bearings.

Of course, Gillard’s enthusiasm for the 'Asian Century' must be put into context. Domestically her popularity has been dire and the political conversation here is constantly bogged down by the opportunistic and oppugnant opposition leader. Insular matters such as regulating poker machines and dealing with boat people have dominated headlines. When it comes to Asia, Gillard has been hidden by the shadows of Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former PM and current foreign minister, Kevin Rudd (aka Kevin07 aka 陸克文). The ‘Asian Century’ discussion paper is a chance for her to shape Australia’s future engagement with the region and kick some domestic political goals at the same time. Tellingly, the leader of the task force, his three colleagues in the committee of cabinet, and the further three members of the external advisory panel are all economists[7]. Eminent and successful economists, of course, but economist nonetheless, and therefore likely to emphasize the broadening financial dimensions of the Australia/Asia relationship(s).

As the impact of Gillard’s announcement has settled, a range of considered opinions beyond the economic aspects have emerged. Some optimistic for the future, some mournful for missed opportunities. Australia’s national broadsheet newspaper, The Australian, has praised Sydney University’s attempt to create academic linkages with China[8]. The leading security strategist, Hugh White, has floated the sensible idea that in order to truly boost the Asian language capacity of young Australians, the government should fund 1-2 year exchanges in the region[9]. In an online (and utterly unscientific) poll, 56% of respondents supported his idea. Bloggers at the Lowy Institute (an international policy think tank) have canvassed various issues inherent in Australia’s Asian connections. From reading these exchanges, it emerges that, among other things, there is resistance among Australian students to learning Asian languages. Many high school students studying foreign languages have an ethnic connection to the particular language, either through their parents or having grown up overseas. Students without this ‘advantage’ do not wish to take these classes for fear of bleeding grades to the better-equipped students. Reflecting a sense of intimidation masquerading as ambivalence, Australians tend to think “Why bother trying in a cosmopolitan world where English is the lingua franca? Learning a language is just too bloody hard, and besides, just because you know the language doesn’t mean you know the place… right? ”.

Not necessarily. Drawing on the long-standing debate about Australia’s ‘China literacy’, Geremie Barmé affirmed at the 2011 Australian Centre on China in the World Inaugural Lecture that

Those who rely for their literacy of China on the translated, whose interests are confined to that which is relevant or useful but in the short term, whether it be in the sphere of business or diplomacy, need to appreciate the fact that whatever their Chinese contacts might say to their face about their ability to 'understand China', perhaps even calling them a 中国通, in the end they'll be considered at best a simple-minded, even malleable, friend. So long as things go well, everyone muddles through. But when they don't, there's no substitute for the ability to think about, engage within and contend with a China that is itself a world of complexity[10].

Pro-China and pro-Tibet supporters mingle with locals at the Beijing Olympic Torch relay - Canberra, April 2008 (P. Farrelly)

I doubt that any Australian (or anyone not versed in the vernacular, for that matter) could claim that they truly understood a country if the didn’t understand the ‘local lingo’. No matter how many topical books and subtitled shows the monoglot devours, he or she will always be scrambling for the full story. Fluency, or even just proficiency, in the native tongue opens a whole different dimension of experience. Walking down the street becomes a new realm of opportunity, with advertisements to interpret and chatter to overhear, goods to buy and transport systems to navigate. With language skills, business meetings, conferences and banquets become even greater opportunities to forge connections. Many businessmen/women would no doubt attest that deals are generally not made on a country-to-country or even company-to-company level, but between individuals.

In conceptualising the ‘Asian century’, a considerable dose of nuance must be applied. The linguistic, cultural and developmental differences within places such as India and China can be almost as glaring as those that separate them. How does one simultaneously understand authoritarian pariah states such as Burma and North Korea and robust democracies such as Japan and Taiwan? Lapsing into monolithic generalisations about Asia presents a genuine risk. Subtlety will be required in ‘Australia’s Asian Century’.

Australia is not alone in trying to adjust to the recalibrated world order, and this in itself is something to consider. The countries mentioned above, along with every other nation under the sun, are trying to make sense of the new global landscape. Politically, economically, militarily, linguistically and culturally, nations around the world are seeking to determine the trade-offs required to best hitch their prosperity on to the Asian high-speed train of development.

The extent to which Australia is connected with Asia is something Australians can no longer stick their heads in the sand about. Our football team, the Socceroos, are preparing to battle Thailand in a waterlogged Bangkok to inch closer to the 2014 World Cup Finals. This weekend the Korea pop juggernaut blasts into town for an arena show in Sydney[11]. These events might well have been inconceivable even just a decade ago, having been shaped by recent (but long-gestating) diplomatic and cultural evolutions. Along with curry and discount flights to tropical islands, they are but two examples of what Helen F. Siu might refer as the “limited range of material symbols” that Australians use to understand Asia. Limited, perhaps, but still signs of some sort of ongoing integration and awareness.

Prime Minister Gillard’s speech from the launch of the ‘Asian Century’ is riddled with use of the ‘new’. New powers. New investment. New strengths. New Asian middle class. New relationships. New century.

And yes, much of ‘Australia’s Asian Century’ is new, some of it strikingly so. But what if you were to ask an old Australian Digger[12] about the ‘Asian century’? Someone who fought the Japanese in Malaya in WWII, who spent time rotting away in the Changi prisoner of war camp in Singapore. Someone who then went on to do business with the Japanese, helping hitch his homeland’s economy to that of the booming one of his former, bitter enemy. The old Digger might have a different perspective. His century, the 20th, was very much an Asian one. Not just for him, but for Australia too.

How Australia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting. How Asia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting too! The team writing the government report will no doubt adroitly address the important economic issues. However, complex cultural and linguistic elements should not be deemphasised. A ‘deep cultural engagement’ with our Asian neighbours will surely benefit all.


[1] Helen F. Siu, “A Provincialized Middle Class in Hong Kong” in Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong. Blackwell 2011. Page 136.



[4] ‘A national identity crisis’, The Economist, 14 December 1996.

[5] ‘Down under’ refers to Australia. See this old tourism advertisement featuring Paul ‘Crocodile Dundee’ - The Wonders Down Under







[12] A ‘digger’ is slang for an Australian soldier

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