Thursday, July 27, 2006

Research in Taipei

Just got back from an amazing trip from Taipei yesterday... not that i thought Taipei was amazing. As a place, i have absolutely no interest in returning there at all. Maybe that's not fair to Taipei as i didn't really get a chance to look around - no, i didn't even make it to the 101 Tower!! It was mostly a working trip, packed with interviews.

This was my first official trip to research into Tsem Tulku Rinpoche's biography, which i am currently working on. He was born in Taiwan under complicated conditions (read the book when it's published to find out!) so i went there to find out more. Prior to departure, several interviews had been arranged.

First, with Tu Mama, someone who was close to Rinpoche's family, secondly, with Shi Mama, the lady who looked after Rinpoche until he left Taiwan, thirdly, with Kuan Mama, who was Rinpoche's mother's classmate and who took him out when he was small. Finally, we also managed to secure an interview with Rinpoche's uncle - David. This last one was the interview i was most nervous about because he had agreed to the interview on the condition that we didn't talk about the family. What else could we talk about? Anyway, it promised to be an interesting trip.

I went with three others; Joe, our Director of Kechara Media and Publications who is also Taiwanese, Irene, a long time student of Rinpoche who had done some research in Taiwan on Rinpoche's behalf in the '90s, and Chia, Rinpoche's personal attendant. We arrived late on Friday evening and went to bed after a quick supper. We had a hiccup though - Shi Mama was no where to be found. She wasn't answering her phone and no one knew where she was. Since she looked after Rinpoche for the first seven years of his life, she would've been a crucial person to interview. Nevertheless, we would progress with the other interviews we had set up. Another minor hiccup was that there was apparently a typhoon heading our way. It was predicted to hit Taipei on Tuesday and go through til Wednesday - the very morning we were supposed to leave! I prayed that we would be able to leave as scheduled.

Day 1: Saturday, 22 July

Saturday morning, we went to visit Tu Mama. I was quite excited because she was the one who potentially had a lot of information to share, especially as Shi Mama was now nowhere to be found. Irene had met up with her when Tu Mama had visited Malaysia in the '90s and already collected some fascinating info, which i looked forward to confirming and hoped she could elaborate on.

When we arrived at Tu Mama's apartment, we found her lying down on her sofa. She was ill and couldn't talk to us! We were crestfallen and didn't quite know what to do. Tu Siao Chie (Miss Tu), her daughter, tried to be as helpful as possible and gave us some info - but she couldn't remember much as she was only 7 years old when Rinpoche was a baby. Tu Siao Chie said that her mother suffered from depression too. Tu Mama used to be very active but as she got older and her hip was giving trouble, she was getting depressed. She managed to get up for a photo though.

After getting as much from Tu Siao Chie as possible, we went for a lovely lunch - typically Taiwanese i was told. I liked their fried rice with jasmine tea - very unusual and fragrant. I didn't care much for the other dishes though - especially the braised beef!

Around 3pm, we went to the Mongolian Culture Centre to look around. There was a Genghis Khan exhibition on but the Centre looked closed. We peered in through the glass doors and it looked all dark inside though the sign said it was open. We pushed the door and it opened so we walked through, feeling a little like trespassers. A lady popped out of nowhere, grinned at us, said something in Mandarin and started to switch on the lights. I felt like we had booked the place just for us!

That night i took a walk to try to find Juliana's Hotel - The Sherwood. It looked near our Hotel Fortuna on the map but after twenty minutes, i gave up, had a steak dinner and walked back. I met up with Joe and went through the interview again as he had to translate the parts i couldn't understand. My extremely basic Mandarin was really put through the test and thank Buddha for Joe and video recorders!

Day 2: Sunday, 23 July

On Sunday morning we went to Kuan Mama's brother's place. Rinpoche has such fond memories of her that i really looked forward to meeting her. At first we couldn't find the place despite walking up and down the street. Finally when we called Kuan Mama, we found that she had given us the wrong house number! Drenched with sweat and ravaged by mosquitoes, we eventually appeared at the right apartment.

Kuan Mama was as lovely as i had imagined. She was very apologetic over the mix-up with the house numbers. I was hoping for more information today after the disappointment with Tu Mama yesterday. Unfortunately, sweet and kind and sincere that she was - she thought Rinpoche had left the country when he was three or four years old. It was only later that she realized that he was in Taipei until he was seven.

We didn't get much information from her but it was nice to meet her and feel how caring she was. After lunch, we went back to her brother's place and she and Irene worked together to find Shi Mama for us. A few international faxes and many phonecalls later, she finally succeeded in locating Shi Mama at 4pm. Joe and i were quite tired but were re-energised when we heard the great news. Better still, Shi Mama was coming over immediately.

She arrived - a small wizened lady - somewhat different from what i expected. Unfortunately, she seemed to be unable to give us much concrete information either. It was a great disappointment.

Day 3: Monday, 24 July

We were scheduled to meet David at 11 am at our hotel. We were all dressed in our best and there was some nervous tension in the air. We had been discussing how to best approach him all weekend. As we took the lift down to the lobby, I jokingly said, our mantra for the day is 'do not piss the uncle off'. It was about 10.50 am when Chia and i were getting our things together at a table near the lobby entrance. Joe and Irene had gone off to do something when a tallish, unassuming white haired man walked in, casually but tidily dressed in a short sleeved collared t-shirt, khaki trousers and holding an umbrella. Irene had organised with him that she would be wearing a red top. It was a bit like a blind date. Anyway, Chia and i looked at each other and thought it would be the uncle. Even though it was still early, Chia sprinted off to find our missing team mates. As Irene rushed up and started to talk to the man, she confirmed it was him.

He sat down easily and i liked him immediately. He was courteous, warm and i was greatly relieved that he spoke in impeccable English - albeit a strong American accent! Even when Joe and Chia spoke to him in Mandarin, he would reply in English. Firstly he looked at the photos of Kechara House and the various Dharma outlets. He read all the captions carefully and commented on some of them.

After he looked through everything, Chia and Joe presented him with the gifts from Rinpoche which he treated with great respect. When the gift giving session was over, David stood up and said, "Now I'm going to have to be very rude and go off and do something..."

I was aghast. We hadn't even started the interview and he was leaving already?!

He smiled at all of us, who were looking at him with jaws agape. "I need to go.. and have a cigarette," he said cheerfully, and walked outside to light his cigarette.

We were so relieved.

When he returned, we decided to adjourn upstairs for a yam cha lunch. We had intended to book a private room, but the menu for their private rooms were rather exhorbitantly priced, so we decided to stay in the main dining area and hope that not many people would be taking lunch there, being a weekday and all.

True enough, there were only a couple of other tables.

We politely asked if we could take some video and he agreed. Another silent sigh of relief! We then started to ask him about his family and he was surprisingly open and very frank. There were areas he did not want to discuss, which he was quite clear about and we respected his wishes. Overall though, our interview with him was by far the best and most informative of the entire trip.

After lunch, he left and we went to find the chinese puppets that Rinpoche wanted. We took the MRT to the end of the line, Dian Sway, to the area where Tu Siao Chie had said we might be able to find them. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Like saying, oh, it is in Marble Arch .. or in Puchong.. Anyway, it started to drizzle and as the typhoon was supposed to hit the next day, i decided to head back to the hotel myself as the others continued their mission.

Day 3: Tuesday, 25 July

I woke up and quickly looked outside the window. The air seemed still with no whiff of rain or wind, let alone a typhoon. I guess Setrap must have heard our prayers. When we went down for breakfast, they had even taken away the 'Typhoon status board', which showed the path of the typhoon on a daily basis. Apparently the Typhoon had gone through the central and southern part of Taiwan and was passing us by completely. I felt like it was a bit like the passover - that somehow we were looked after by a higher power.

Today had been left free and easy - no interviews were scheduled so we were planning to visit some bookshops and Dharma stores. The night before, i had also found some info on a puppet museum and a puppet theatre which we could call to ask more information on where we could buy these puppets.

Then we received some photos of Rinpoche's grandfather and mother as well as comments and corrections to Irene's mini-thesis on Rinpoche's physical lineage, which were dropped off by David. As we looked through the photos, Joe decided to call Tu Siao Chie to clarify something. She passed him to her supervisor who told us that there was an article on Rinpoche's grandfather in one of the back issues of the Mongolian and Tibetan Culture Centre Newsletters.

Excited by this, we decided to go and check it out. We split into two teams - Chia and Irene were to go puppet hunting and go complete their purchases at the Dharma store. Joe and i would go to the Culture Centre to hunt for the article.

Joe and i hopped into a cab and arrived at the Centre at 1.30pm. The Centre was closed for lunch and would re-open at 2, so we went to a quaint little coffee house nearby to wait. It was a nice opportunity for me to chat to Joe one-on-one for awhile, but time flew and soon we had to go back to the Centre.

The staff gave us a huge pile of back issues, and Joe and i started scanning the articles. As i didn't really read Chinese, i was simply scanning for the word 'Wang', which means King or Prince and the article was on Palta Wang, Rinpoche's grandfather. Apparently it was a full page article. There were also articles in English, which i tried not to get distracted by, though i wanted to read them. I also looked carefully at the photos in the chinese articles, which were captioned in English, strangely enough.

The room seemed to have no aircon and the air was stuffy and still. We finished looking through all the issues and couldn't find the article. So we went through them again. Still no luck. Then i went through them yet again - and still nothing. We found some interesting articles - on Lama Tsongkhapa and Tarr Temple.

A few hours and a massive migraine later, we left with a couple of photocopies of some articles we each wanted. At least it wasn't a complete waste of time. We trudged back to the hotel.

It was our last evening. Joe went to see his friends. I went to have dinner with Ju at some supposedly famous Taiwanese place. It was like dumplings and wantons - it looked like a cheap fast food place, but wasn't really. I didn't even take a card from the restaurant when we left. We wanted to go to a night market and asked the waitress for the name of one, so she wrote it down for us and even sent us out to a taxi and told the taxi where to take us. I was impressed with the general courtesy of the Taiwanese - not just that incident, but overall, in my general interaction with them throughout the trip. Maybe it was just my good fortune to have met only nice people so far!

Day 3: Wednesday, 26 July

Irene asked for a wake up call at 5.30am. We were at the airport by 6.30 for our 9 o'clock flight. Just as well we arrived early because our luggage was grossly overweight. Fortunately, i was traveling light and could hand carry my entire belongings. Even with my check-in weight allowance, we were overweight by 36 kilos. Irene bargained for a reduction and they eventually charged for 30 kgs, which ended up as about RM800! Chia, Irene and myself had a check-in luggage each to take care of when we disembarked. We were a little nervous about customs, in case they wanted to tax us for the buddha statues we had bought. At KLIA, Chia was suggesting we walk to the back of the hall and go out the other side of the baggage hall as on our side, it seemed like most people were getting stopped.

I told him not to point as he was gesturing the huge circle he wanted to take as his exit route! I took the first bag of ours that came out on the carousel, popped it on my trolley and said i would go out first. With a silent prayer and hoping my Gaden monk bag would make me look like an innocent non-smuggler of any kind, i strolled through the customs' green lane.

Thankfully i emerged unscathed and waited for the others. They were taking so long to come out that i had guessed one of them had gotten stopped. Sure enough, Chia got caught and had to pay some taxes! I think he is such a transparent fellow that he probably had guilt written all over his face! Poor thing.

Anyway, i passed my bag to Chia and headed off home.

For the first time, i was so glad to be back in Malaysia - i didn't have that feeling when i came back from India in April this year. But this time, i was really glad to be home. Maybe it was the three cockroaches i shared the hotel room with. Or that i didn't particularly like the food. Or that Webby didn't come with me. But i'm glad i went - it was good to meet the key people in Rinpoche's early life, especially his uncle, whom i hope to meet again.

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