A wise man once told me, “Nothing good ever happens if you stay in one place. You gotta keep moving.”
In December 2018, I very quietly resigned from my position as writer and editor of a publishing house in Taipei, Taiwan, following over a decade of service. Meanwhile, despite having gained permanent residency on the island, it was time for me to leave Taiwan. There’s really no other way to say it.
Rather than get into the details, suffice it to say that after eight-plus years of enduring a 1,000-kilometer commute between work (in Taipei) and my family (in Metro Manila), a change was necessary. The decision to leave had less to do with life in Taiwan than life elsewhere.
And therefore, I chose to pursue a full-time freelance writing career, already having developed a modest client list. Without the usual social media fanfare, I packed up my ten years of detritus and – as a good friend once said – went all in. But this story isn’t really about all that.
For those of you who know me, it should come as no surprise that I crossed such a life-altering milestone without a “Geromino!” before making the leap. For those of you who don’t know me personally, I’ve done this before. First, moving from Chicago to San Francisco. Then, moving from S.F. to South East Asia, landing in Taiwan. And now, from Taipei to Metro Manila.
Now that I’ve been out of Taiwan for several months, I find myself thinking of the times – the good and the bad. Then I think of all the forgotten times – the stuff that falls through the cracks.
Given what I said above about my approach to life, I think this story perfectly sums up my experience in Taiwan.
To paraphrase Frank Zappa, I’m influenced by stuff I don’t like just as much – if not, more – than the stuff I do like. It just so happens there are many more things I don’t like, as opposed to the things I do.
Without reservation, I detest karaoke and all things associated with karaoke. Hate isn’t even a strong enough term. Whatever is the next level above hate – that’s kinda how I feel about karaoke.
Here in Asia, particularly in Taiwan, they have these monstrous KTV operations – entire buildings dedicated to private karaoke suites rented by the hour. To paraphrase another brave humorist, Rodney Dangerfield, KTVs are the golf courses and cemeteries of the entertainment world. Egregious wastes of prime real estate.
In the Philippines, in addition to KTV, we have videoke booths and standalone machines in public places – usually video game arcades such as Time Zone.
Learning first-hand the pervasive nature of Asian karaoke was not an enjoyable experience. Having a next-door neighbor with a home karaoke box is like having a next-door neighbor who burns trash in their backyard. Getting invited to a karaoke night is like getting invited to help somebody move or drive them to the hospital.
After 10 years of living in Taiwan and the Philippines, prior to the incident that’s bound to unfold, I had engaged in karaoke – the actual singing bit – exactly once.
However, I’ve been compelled to attend numerous karaoke-based functions – birthday parties, mostly. In each and every instance, I found a way to avoid taking the mic. Sometimes, I just left the premises – an unfortunate and rude breach of social etiquette, and I suppose, a loss of face for everybody involved. But screw that. If somebody is bearing down on you to do some shit you don’t want to do, get the hell out of there. And I know. It happened to me – once.
There was one greasy KTV situation when I was peer-pressured by the host of the soiree, in front of a dozen of his disinterested friends and spaced-out strangers, to sing karaoke versions of two songs: Double’s “Captain of Her Heart” and George Michael’s “Faith” – and I bailed out halfway through “Faith”. Nobody noticed. More importantly, nobody asked me to sing another song.
Otherwise, I have gone to uncountable lengths to avoid all things karaoke, which is no easy feat in this part of the world. I made one singular exception in June 2018 at a function hosted by one of my good friends in Taipei, doing a balls-out version of “Faith”.
Now, I’ll talk for a minute about something I do like – walking.
When I lived in Taipei, my definition of a good time was to start walking in a random direction and see where it took me. One of my favorite qualities of Taipei was its “walk-ability”, which shouldn’t be misinterpreted to imply a “pedestrian-friendly” atmosphere. You can walk pretty much anywhere in Taipei – if you really want to. But a lot people ask, myself included, why would you?
One Sunday evening in January 2018, I went to see a buddy who lived up on Elephant Mountain, which isn’t really much of a mountain; it’s more of a hill, I reckon. The rain had been pissing steady for several days, but I planned to walk a leisurely 30-minute stroll – only the last quarter-mile on a steep incline. Easy-squeezy.
Upon leaving my crib and popping into 7-Eleven for a beer, the rain became a modest downpour. Still, I wasn’t terribly concerned. I’d walked much, much farther in heavier rain. Two minutes into the walk, my shoes were already soaked. Opening the beer was a bad idea, too. I said, forget this, man. You’re gonna be swamped. Grab a taxi.
So I pulled up on the sidewalk and waited for a taxi. Not a lot of traffic out there on a rainy Sunday evening.
Eventually, a taxi approached, decked out in flashing red and green lights, significantly more tricked out than the average taxi.
The taxi pulled up, I hopped in, and the driver said, “I’m famous!” in English.
“Famous? In Taiwan?” I chuckled, “OK…”
Telling the driver where to go – way up on the hill – this cat said, “I know, I know” brushing it off, which irritates me to no end, especially in a taxi. The driver continued, “I’ll give you a 10 percent discount if you sing a song, cuz this is the – THE – karaoke taxi in Taipei.”
I did not know that a karaoke taxi existed. “No idea what you’re talking about, chief,” I said. “Just drive. Thanks.”
The taxi sloshed through the streets as a 32” LED screen mounted to the back of the front passenger seat started playing a video of some chick singing a Chinese song. The driver kept eyeballing me in the rearview mirror, alternately laughing and talking. He had an iPad in his lap, connected to the LED screen; plus, a smaller monitor mounted on the dashboard.
I said, “Yeah, man, I don’t know any Chinese songs. I just want to hang out back here, drink my beer, and get to my buddy’s place in one piece. Whatever happens in the meantime, it’s on you.”
The driver was persistent. “Come on, sing a song,” he said. “I’ll give you a 20 percent discount!” and I said, “Yo, if you got English words, I’ll sing a song.” He handed me the iPad.
“I have a YouTube channel,” the driver said, “my name is 涂清涼 Tu Ching Liang.”
“So, if I sing a song in here – I can see you’ve got a GoPro pointed at me – I assume you’re recording and gonna post it on YouTube.”
“Yes! I record everything, but…” he demurred. “I won’t post it on YouTube if you say ‘no’.”
In any given spontaneous situation, we all revert to our Tried & True: the shit we know inside and out, so I was thinking, what song could I sing and really know? Forget “Captain of Her Heart”.
“Lemme finish this beer first. Then I’ll do a song.”
Tu Ching Liang laughed and said, “Alright! Let’s do it!”
In 1973, my grandmother took me to the record store and gave me the money to buy the 45 rpm single of Elvis Presley’s “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” from the soundtrack of his second film, Loving You. Even though I was familiar with all his other hits, for some reason, “Teddy Bear” hit me hard, and thus, it was the first record I ever bought.
In that moment, a mild panic took over. The very first song I ever remember hearing and loving is “Teddy Bear”. A near-zero chance of me screwing that one up.
“Do you have Teddy Bear by Elvis Presley?” I said, pecking at the iPad.
“I got any song you want,” the driver said and laughed. “Oh, you like the old stuff.”
“Can you find it for me? This thing is all in Chinese.”
After Tu Ching Liang dialed up the jam on the ad hoc teleprompter, this happened:
You might be wondering: What is he doing with the cellphone? Recording video from a different angle.
With another 15 minutes of taxi ride ahead of us, the driver kept badgering me to sing another song.
“You’re good! Do one more. Another 20 percent off.”
“No thanks. But will you do me a favor? Pull over at the Family Mart so I can grab another beer.”
In the end, I didn’t sing another song, but we had a nice chat about music. The driver dropped me in front of my buddy’s joint. The legitimate fare was $220, but he asked for $150. I gave him $200 and popped out of the car.
And now I think of it, when am I ever going to find myself in the back of the Taipei Karaoke Taxi? Probably never. So I think I did the right thing.
Letting all of you see it – maybe not so much.