Fun and crazy marked the years I spent at a newspaper in Taiwan. My main job was that of a reporter. There was always something or someone to write about for the English-language China News that made life interesting.
It allowed me to interview all kinds of people, from Disney ice skaters to plastic surgeons to Shanghai circus contortionists. For a wide-eyed 20-something-year-old fresh from academia, it expanded my horizons in astonishing ways. It even sent me on two trips to write travel articles: Saipan and Malaysia. That was a five-star treat.
Another such treat was a travel prize won by attending a press party for all the major newspapers at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Each guest was invited to put two business cards in a giant raffle box. There were three prizes. The strange thing was I felt I won the moment I put mine in. There were almost a hundred people.
The first prize was a trip to France. I couldn’t believe they didn’t call my name. Actually, I was surprised at my disbelief, but didn’t have time to analyze this as they were announcing the second prize already, a trip to Canada. Again I was surprised it wasn’t me, and equally surprised I was surprised. I never was lucky in winning things. What made me think I was supposed to win now? But I just knew…
Then the third prize was called and my name was declared. Bingo! Of course!
It was a trip to Nagoya for two people, flights and a Hyatt room for two all paid for. I brought a gourmand friend with me who had never been to Japan. It was all I could do for her for the countless times she treated me to delicious cuisines around town.
Being a night owl, I found the hours at the newspaper to be perfect, getting to the office at 3 pm and leaving at 10 pm. Often I hit the dance clubs afterwards because I was still filled with adrenaline. Plus I had a VIP card, courtesy of being a newspaper reporter. I would bump into my co-workers who had gotten there first. Techno music was all the rage in those early 1990s.
In addition to writing for the leisure and entertainment section, I was also assigned to write for a weekly Student News tabloid. Here I wrote articles relevant to students, created a comic strip called Mimi, and maintained the Ask Amy column. I came up with the idea because I always was intrigued with giving advice to the public on life’s day-to-day matters, having been brought up with a diet of Dear Abby as reading material. So this was my moment to shine.
I purposely wanted to avoid conventional ways of addressing problems, thinking it would be more fun for me and for readers if I were funny or sarcastic. Blame it on my youth and impulsiveness, I went ahead without much thought and planning. I picked topics like relationships and love and boom, the column started generating real incoming mail. This and the other hats I wore kept me happily busy.
One day at work, I received a call from a well-known news broadcaster at the radio station. His name was Brian Lynch. He asked to meet me for lunch because he was completely intrigued by who this Amy was. Well, I wanted to meet him but I didn’t want to give away my cover.
You see, the column had a picture, just not of myself. When I conceived of the column, I knew I couldn’t very well be a reporter and a political cartoonist (another hat I wore) and this Amy person. So I asked a fellow reporter for a photo. She always kept a stash.
“What kind of photo?” She asked.
“Oh, any photo of someone for the column. I just can’t use my own. Need some mystery here.”
She digs through her drawer and pulls out a black and white photo of a Taiwanese friend of hers wearing a blonde wig. It was perfect! This girl looked sassy and smart, edgy and cool. I asked if it was really all right.
“She doesn’t read English newspapers,” reassured my co-worker. I took it and thanked her, not worred because it was mainly the expatriate community that read our paper.
So I confessed my true identity to Brian at our meeting. He was older, in his forties, with gray hair, and spoke to me in a familiar voice that was heard throughout the land via radio waves. We ate lunch at the Hilton and he told me about himself, his Irish Catholic background, his worries, and his dreams. I must have somehow impressed him, because the next thing I knew I was asked by his fellow newscaster named David Lee to be a guest on his very popular program…as Amy herself!
The topic was on love, for it was Valentine Day. Love! I knew so little of it. But I wasn’t scared at all, just excited. David was going to introduce me as Amy of Ask Amy, and take questions live from listeners. And I was going to answer them, live! Was I interested?
Of course! I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. So on air I went and answered question after question. It seemed like I was talking to the readers of my column. They were real, living human beings with real problems. I did my best to help them. I wasn’t sarcastic. I was actually caring. I didn’t sound like Amy at all. Maybe I blew my cover, I thought.
Apparently not, because I continued to receive mail and the column kept going. I toned down on my sarcasm and started writing with earnestness and sincerity. These people were really wanting help and not looking to be entertained.
It made sense now. One time a young man arriving from New Orleans called the office and wanted to speak to Amy about his problem. I was hesitant, but took it anyway. Apparently, he didn’t have a problem and was just attracted to the photo. He said he wanted to find out who I really was and asked me to play frisbee with him. I asked him what he thought of my column. He was honest and said he hated the way I replied to my audience.
“Why?” I was curious.
“It isn’t nice. You sound sarcastic.”
I thought he was exaggerating at the time. But of course later I understood. Frisbee wasn’t my thing so I declined meeting him (and revealing my true identity), but his input was valuable. Brian liked Amy because she was spunky. My co-workers thought she was hilarious. She obviously rubbed different people in different ways.
Now I don’t want you to have the impression that my job was always brimming with excitement. Most of it was quite routine. Catching a noisy bus to work and editing someone else’s writing. Dealing with office politics. The sort of drudgery that wouldn’t make for an interesting read. These periods would then be punctuated with occasional earthquakes that made the entire building sway back and forth. Being on the 11th floor didn’t make it easier. Aside from the routine and the fun times, there were simple moments there that I cherish:
An Austrian visitor in his 60s came to the office to give away a Christmas ornament. He travelled the world handing out gifts. Who wants one? I found out and went to greet him. He was charming and gracious, and handed me the little handmade gnome. Years later I hung it on a Christmas tree on a snowy day in Nashville, Tennessee.
Waiting in line to buy stir fried Peking duck, Taiwanese style, was another such moment. This place was in Taipei right outside the office building. The roasted duck would be braised, chopped up, and thrown in a hot wok along with garlic, spices, herbs, leeks, ginger, and spring onion. Sauce poured. Then the entire concoction got tossed in a plastic bag along with a separate container of thin tortilla-like bread. I’d get home and relish in eating this late night dinner. To date, I have not had a tastier Peking duck.
Then there were less simple times — like the American co-worker who was discovered unconscious, his entire leg severed at the railroad tracks. His business card was his only identification. This was before he borrowed my Anna Karenina book to read. I was worried the book might have influenced him to throw himself under the train tracks the way the main character in the book did. I knew he was going through a rough patch at the time.
It wasn’t until he returned to Taiwan after a medical evacuation to the U.S. that I was able to ask him about it and put my mind to rest. He fully recovered by then and was wearing prosthetics. Did what happened have anything to do with what he read in the book? No, he said with a smile. He explained he was sleeping on the train which had parked itself for the night. Nobody bothered to wake him up. It was dark when he got up and stumbled out, and got hit by an oncoming train, if I remember correctly.
But now, as he stood before me, he looked happy and had a girlfriend with him. In fact, this was at my political cartoon book signing. He stood tall, handsome, and straight as ever, congratulating me. We spoke for a while. He was ready for a new chapter in Taiwan, his newfound home away from home. He had missed the place. The terrible accident didn’t stop him from coming back and starting over. His was a story of triumph.
As for my writings as a reporter, my father as an avid reader did manage to save many for me, such as restaurant and film reviews. He would go down to the nearby 7 Eleven store and purchase a paper, return home and cut them out.
The most intriguing interviews for me were regarding the supernatural:
“City of the Living Dead”
Dinner was long over. Catching up with old times was done, and everyone at the family gathering — including cousins, aunts and uncles — were off to bed. Tossing and turning under the thick comforters in the big sprawling tatami room where a dozen or so relatives were already snoring away, some of the kids were too excited to sleep. But they didn’t need to sleep yet, because it was time for ghost stories, whispered animatedly from the lips of an older cousin or wise aunt, as the children nestled closer and strained their ears to catch every detail.
Telling ghost stories is a Chinese tradition. Legends have been accumulated en masse and passed down orally from generation to generation. This was especially popular during the pre-KTV era in Taiwan, when there was nothing much for friends and families to do late in the evening.
During these times, if the nights were cold, children would make sure they were completely protected inside their blanket as they shivered with pleasure at what they would hear. The stories were scary not because they were about monsters or vampires, but because they happened to ordinary people.
Still now, when people are ready to go to bed, ghost stories are being exchanged in the comfort of their homes. Usually if I can get someone to tell a ghost story, I find their faces suddenly become alive, their voices drop to a low whisper — as if they’ve been transported to another plane, another world, another time.
Imagine an era when Taipei had more rice fields than apartment buildings, when there were no wide, brightly lit roads, but just dark, winding lanes and alleys — and fewer people.
It was during this era that a young man went to a Hsimenting movie theater in Taipei and met an attractive young woman while waiting in a long line. Seeing a movie was a big treat those days, when theaters, as shabbily built they were, were scarce and overused. The man and the woman got along so well with each other that after the movie, she asked him over to her house for a drink. He happily agreed.
The rickshaw took them into a rural area close to where the Taipei World Trade Center complex now stands. They got off and entered a large house. Inside the house they talked over a glass of wine, and he, discovering it was late, ended up spending the night with her.
The next morning he was awaken by the sound of rustling leaves and a cold breeze. He opened his eyes, and to his shock, he found himself lying beside a tombstone in the middle of a graveyard. Engraved on the tombstone was the name of the woman who had so intrigued and enticed him. Held in his hand was the glass — not of wine, but of blood.
After not being able to eat or sleep for months, he went about to find out what happened. He discovered that he had a one night stand with the ghost of a woman who had committed suicide by hanging herself over the death of her husband. Wandering around Taipei in search for love, the ghost was known by many rickshaw drivers to pay for rides with people with money that turned into blank paper.
Taipei is filled with ghost stories. Some ghosts are infamous, some haven’t appeared for years. Perhaps you’ve talked to one already and wasn’t aware that it was a ghost. Or perhaps, one of these nights in some quiet alley when you’re walking alone, shivers start going down your spine, and screams are caught in your throat as you watch a white shadow drifting toward you…
Probably the most well-known still-active ghost site in town is the Hsinhai Tunnel, which is a long tunnel that runs along Hsinhai Road on the way to Mucha. It doesn’t help by being right underneath a huge graveyard and close to a crematorium, of course, but there are stories upon stories, some still being made…
It was past midnight when a young man on a motorcycle rode into the tunnel. Usually this is the quickest way back to Mucha, and being late, there was no traffic in the tunnel.
He saw a lone girl walking along the narrow sidewalk inside the tunnel. He stopped and asked her how long she’d been walking. “An hour,” said the girl, who looked very exhausted. He offered her a ride and she hopped on.
As he rode, he couldn’t seem to get to the end of what was usually a five-minute drive. After about 20 minutes the girl said, “See, it’s hard to get out, isn’t it?” She offered to get off so he could go on home. Bewildered and scared, he let her off, and within a matter of seconds he was zooming out of the Hsinhai Tunnel and on his way to Mucha.
But before he emerged into the fresh air, he glanced back. There was no sight of the girl.
Another frequently told story is about a man who drove his car through the tunnel one night. When he took a look at the rearview mirror, he was amazed to see a young boy grinning and waving at him. The driver immediately turned around to look at this back seat. Nothing.
When he turned back around, there the kid was again in the rearview mirror, waving and smiling. This seemed to go on forever, and the man soon noticed he didn’t seem to be able to get out of the tunnel. The man took what was his last look at the backseat, and the boy disappeared. This time, however, he finally emerged from the tunnel, to his relief.
The Hsinhai Tunnel also became a tunnel of terror for a Taiwanese man surnamed Lee. He was on his way to visit his American friend, Charlie, who was staying at the Tiyac Youth Center on Hsinhai Road, when he felt something eerie surrounding him as he rode through the tunnel on his motorcycle. He decided to ignore it. When he arrived, both he and his friend noticed there was a red handprint on his forearm, as if someone smacked him hard.
A week later, Lee took Charlie to his house in Mucha for dinner. While they were in the tunnel, suddenly, Charlie exclaimed from the backseat of the motorcycle, “Someone hit me on the leg!”
When they arrived at Lee’s house, Charlie took his pants off and they discovered a bluish black mark on his right leg, with the imprint of a hand.
Scared, Lee took Buddhist scriptures wherever he went. After avoiding the tunnel for weeks, Lee finally entered it again out of necessity one late night. This time he felt someone sit down behind him on his motorcycle and grasp his waist. Though terrified, he took his scriptures out of his jacket pocket and warned it, “If you need my help, I can help you. But if you’re just trying to scare me, Buddha will punish you!” Whatever it was, it tittered in a female voice. But it left.
Lee went home and became ill from fear for a month. Since then, Lee has never dared to take the tunnel again, and prefers to skirt around alleys and streets for an extra 20 minutes to get to Mucha.
Years ago when noodle stands were often set on wheels and pushed by old men who call out, “Beef noodles!” in their Shandong accents from street to street, there was such a noodle man in the main strip in Hsimenting called Chung-hwa Road. The road used to be less busy than it is now, with no buildings rising above a few stories high. As he pushed his cart down the lanes and alleyways, children and adults alike lined up to get a bowl of fresh noodles in hot, pungent beef broth.
One late night as he headed home, he heard a man’s voice from above, somewhere on the second floor of what looked like a vacant building. “Old man!” called the voice. “Could you place a bowl of noodles at my doorstep every night? I’ll give you the money tomorrow.”
Being kind, the noodle man did as requested. The next day, he came back at approximately the same time, and lo and behold, there were some coins inside the door, next to an empty bowl of noodles and a pair of used chopsticks. The noodle man refilled the bowl and put it back in its place.
This continue for some time. Each time he collected his money and refilled the bowl, though he never saw anyone eating the noodles.
One day the police went in and searched the vacant building, and found in the apartment bathroom upstairs the corpse of a man that had been rotting for weeks. Around his bluish neck was a rope tied to the ceiling. The police took the body away for identification.
Not aware of this, the noodle man stopped late at night as usual. But he found the bowl of noodles uneaten, and beside it some coins to pay for the dead man’s last meal.
According to the security guard who works at a certain crematorium on Minchuan E. Road, people whose deceased relatives are sent here claim that ghosts visit them in their dreams. Coffins encasing bodies fresh from accident sites or the hospital would shift around. Nobody would actually see them moving, but the next day, the security guard would find the coffins in an entirely different position. Here’s one of his stories:
The security guard’s friend sent his wife who died of heart disease to the crematorium. The man didn’t bother with the ritual of burning offerings and incense, and wanted to wait until after the lunar new year.
On the fourth day of the Chinese New Year, the man rushed back to the crematorium and told the security guard that his sister-in-law had a dream. In the dream, his wife complained to her she didn’t have any money to use. She also urged the family to burn some offerings for the old gray-haired woman who lay next door to her at the crematorium.
Curious, the security guard opened the drawer next to that of the deceased wife, and shook his head in disbelief. There it was, the body of an old lady with gray hair.
Clues from the Netherworld?
Once in a while, you’ll read in the papers about relatives, friends or even the killer of a victim being visited by the ghost of the deceased. Aware of this, murderers in Taiwan have packed dirt over their victims’ eyes before killing them, so the dead wouldn’t be able to identify the murderer. Has the world gone loony? Or do the spirits of the dead roam about this physical world and not rest until the culprit is nailed?
One evening on March 20 of last year, three teenage students bumped into their classmate surnamed Koo at a night market in Wanhua. They talked. The next day, the three read in the paper that Koo had been killed on March 19, the day before they saw him, at a Taipei ice rink following an argument with a few other teens, two of whom were arrested for murder charges the following October.
Two years ago, the body of a hairdresser from New Zealand was found gagged. He had died of suffocation. The police had no lead. One day, one of the murderers showed up at the police station confessing to his crime.
He said he had been haunted every night in his dreams by the ghost of the dead victim, and couldn’t cope with the nightly visits. As soon as the man confessed, he stopped having the nightmares.
Last year in March, the parents of murder victim Wei Pihsia provided police with a tape recording of a seance in which they claim a Taoist priest summoned the spirit of the deceased who accused her husband Lu Li-che of killing her on January 14. The ghost described him bludgeoning her with a heavy object and stabbing her four times with a fruit knife in order to collect a NT$30 million life insurance policy he had secretly taken out on her after they began having marital problems.
Though the case hasn’t been made public since, investigators discovered traces of blood on a tie and shirt worn by Lu on the day of the murder and suspected Lu went to great lengths to provide eyewitnesses as an aibi during the time of the murder.