July 15, 1986, I left Australia for what I thought would be a 6 month or one year trip at most, but it ended up being an overseas jaunt that lasted the rest of my life.
I’d worked in Sydney animation studios since 1982, saving money for a trip to Japan. By mid 1986, I’d got my passport, bought a Japan rail pass, and after years of dilly-dallying was preparing to finally go. But before I’d bought a plane ticket, Janine Dawson offered me a job in Taiwan at a big animation studio. Despite years of saving, I was still functionally broke, as my limp 1986 Aussie dollars wouldn’t last long against the booming Yen. However, this brief work detour would be a chance to top-up my meagre funds with then-robust US dollars, so I bought a plane ticket to Taiwan instead, planning to catch a ferry to Japan from there when my assignment ended. I sold, tossed, or stored my belongings, let my flat go, and off I went, on a flight to Taipei, via a stopover in Hong Kong.
As I lay down across 6 seats on an almost empty Qantas Jumbo jet out of Sydney, I realised that it was a good news/bad news thing; it was exciting that I was finally on my way! On the other hand, I had no idea of what I was doing.. I pondered this paradox until landing in Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, which was a bit of a thrill ride, as the Jumbo seemed to slip in between the sky scrapers and apartment balconies (where I swear I could see people eating their dinners) and land almost in the city itself. To underscore my greenhorn traveler status, I was ripped off by the first cab driver I ever hailed abroad, who drove me NOT to the hotel I had pre-paid for in Sydney, but to a crummy hostel, and left in a frenzy of spinning tires. By the time I realised what had happened, I decided to pay for a hostel bunk in a room full of snoring travellers, rather than hail another cab and go through the entire humiliating process again.
The next day, I checked out of the hostel and did some sightseeing before my evening flight, lugging my bags all over town. Suddenly, I realised with horror that I didn’t have my passport!! With my heart in my mouth, I scuttled back to the hostel where thankfully, my passport had been turned in. But what if it had not been? An alternate-universe of misery- where I lost my passport on my very first day abroad -lay down that turnoff, and I’m glad to have missed it. Perhaps it was the stomach churning terror of that moment, or the tropical heat, but I was bathed in sweat, and decided to go to the airport EXTRA early and cool off. Despite this, I almost missed my flight out to Taipei; the departure time on my ticket was wrong. “Quick! You might just make it if you run!” I was hurried from one person barking into a walkie-talkie to the next, through immigration, as I clumsily carried all my bags, there being no time to check them in. Airline employees frantically pointed me to the gate in the distance and cleared my path to the waiting plane, as hot, sweaty and exhausted, I wheeze-thumped my way down the connecting-tube to stagger, flustered and sweat-soaked onto a planeful of faces glaring at me.. I was so glad to make it out of Hong Kong in one piece, that I had a misplaced dread of that town for years. (Much later, I had to do a visa-trip there, and to my surprise found it to be a wonderful place. Which goes to show that state-of-mind influences the impressions of places, as much as vice-versa)..
Thankfully, my arrival at the other end was smooth, and my friend Janine met me at Taipei airport to ensure I made it to my hotel without incident. The next day, I went to fill out paperwork and get situated at Cuckoo’s Nest, which was perhaps the biggest animation studio in the world at that time. They were doing 13 different series (each having 13 episodes) whereas the Hanna-Barbera studio that I’d worked at in Sydney could handle only one series at a time. I was introduced to the new layout department, and the other foreign supervisors that I’d be working with, but would not start work until the next day. Every expat I ever met who worked at Cuckoo’s Nest back then had the same experience at the end of the first day; while you’re still thoroughly culture shocked and jet-lagged, someone from the studio took you to a seedy place called “snake alley” and made you watch animal torture. For example, I saw a guy literally peel the skin off a live snake, drain all its blood into a shot glass which was then downed with great gusto by another dude, who then set off in search of the nearby red-light district. (A shot of snake blood was the Taiwanese version of Viagra, apparently). I’ve never felt so sorry for a snake in my life. It was a surreal and unsettling David Lynch-style end to my first day. (That’s just how it was in the 1980s.)
My first proper day on the job, another turn off to an alternate-universe- the one where my animation career ends by losing an episode -was only narrowly averted. I’d been given an entire show’s animation layouts to check, and in the pre-digital age, that was about 300 scene-folders full of artwork. I sorted the show into two piles; one big pile placed on the floor and labeled ’scenes ready for animation’, and another small pile labeled ‘scenes to fix’, placed on the small shelf available to me. Then, I was called away for lunch. When I returned, the big pile had been taken away, and I sat down to work through the pile of art-fixes. Pretty soon, a production person came by and asked how it was going (as they do) and left delighted when I told her that most of the scenes were already in animation. Within about 10 minutes though, she came back with a quizzical look on her face, and asked me exactly who’d taken the pile. I said I didn’t know, because they’d taken the labeled pile of scenes when I was at lunch. She went away again, looking confused. I worked some more. She came back again, looking very worried and asked me “where exactly had I placed the pile?” I gestured to the space on the floor.. “You don’t think the cleaners would have..” The production person looked utterly panicked.
We both rushed down the stairs that led to the alleyway outside, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say we saw a truck with the animation scene-folders being dumped into the back. The core-temperature in my bowels must’ve shot up about 25° in an instant. We rushed over to stop the truck from pulling away, and explain that the stuff on its way to the dump was in fact terribly important to us (though given the quality of the shows we made back then, the dump would have been the right place).. Thankfully, everything was returned undamaged. At every studio I’d worked in before, the cleaning staff was under strict instructions never to touch any artwork at all, on the floor or elsewhere, and I’ve never before or since seen cleaning crew hauling stuff away in the middle of the day, but thats how it was. The humiliating end to my animation career thus dodged, I got back to work.
Taiwan is when many people began calling me ‘Jamie‘ rather than my real name of ‘James’. Someone from the translation department (which was essential for us expat supervisors to communicate with the Taiwanese crew) said my name of James would be too confusing, because it was already associated with the owner of the studio; James Wang. When asked if there were any other names I was called by, I mentioned that some of my Sydney friends had called me Jimmy, to a gale of embarrassed giggles from the translator. She made it quite clear that ’Jimmy’ was not going to be an acceptable name under any circumstances, and wouldn’t tell me why, no matter how much I asked. (Perhaps someone can tell me if there is a word in Mandarin -or maybe Taiwanese- that sounds like ’Jimi’ but means something filthy, like aardvark penis or whatever? I’ve always wanted to know.) Instead, I chose Jamie because that was what I was called by my family when I was small, and what my mother continued to call me until she died. I never knew this name would stick, but it’s a pleasant reminder of her.
The standard workweek in Taiwan was six days, so only having one day off each week didn’t make for a lot of sightseeing. The entire 5 months that I was working in Taiwan, I probably only ventured out of Taipei about 2 or 3 times. I was exhausted on my one day off, and didn’t have the energy for dealing with transit systems with incomprehensible (to me) signage. So, after a few exceptions, I mostly just wandered around Taipei randomly on my one day off, and the main recreation for we expats were the late night dinners we all went to, in a variety of novelty restaurants.. I met an amazing number of people who became lifelong friends while in Taipei, considering that it was only a 5 month gig. Maybe we were thrown together so quickly by the twin pressure-cookers of work, and culture shock. We’d often joke about our ’tours of duty’ or our time on ’pork chop hill’; combat metaphors where people are thrown together in weird situations to bond under stress. A group of us supervisors went to see the movie ‘Aliens’ with the Taiwanese crew that year, and much of Bill Paxton’s paranoid dialog became our catchphrases; “we’re in some pretty shit now, man!” and the like.
Culture shock was an almost constant issue. Working six or seven day weeks is stressful under any circumstances, but takes on a surreal quality when you’re in a country where you don’t understand the rules. Sometimes we dealt with this with hilarity, sometimes paranoia. I remember close to midnight, coming back to my hotel after a long day of working. I was tired, and hungry but the hotel restaurant was closed. Nearby, there was a convenience store where I saw the perfect treat to reward myself for busting arse all day; a jelly doughnut. Guilty-pleasure comfort food was just what the doctor ordered to soothe my jangled nerves. I bit into it, but instead of tasty raspberry jam, it was full of cold vegetable curry. BLURG! “What the?!” This small moment of culture shock sums up the way that expectations are often pranked, and depending on the state of your nerves, you might explode in a fit of cursing, sob uncontrollably, or burst out laughing. Eventually, I spent several years straight living in various Asian countries and I got used to being the full-time foreigner relatively quickly, and learned to see that my own expectations and assumptions about a situation needed to adjust, but in Taiwan, I was experiencing it all for the first time, and sometimes the combination of work stress and culture shock was potent.
Taipei had smells that I’d never encountered before, and even the regular smells of a big city; exhaust, trash, and the like, had a tropical pungency and, to a western nose, even some of the food had outrageous smells. There was one particular sour odor, that I’d assumed was the smell of blocked drains, but one day the smell that had haunted me for weeks was coming from my dinner; a famously stinky tofu dish. Taipei was a humid place, and smells of food I was not used to, and exotic spices were everywhere. After a few months of this experience, the tables were turned when we layout supervisors took our department out for dinner. We’d craved some western food, and a pizza night with our co-workers sounded like fun. What we’d not been prepared for was that the smell of the various cheeses, and especially the Parmesan cheese, was difficult to stomach for many of the Taiwanese. Hilariously, one fellow said the Parmesan cheese smelled like baby vomit. I’d never made the comparison before but I realised he was quite right! (Later, when I was working in Japan, I learned that the Japanese also find the aromas of traditional Western foods, specifically cheese and butter, has a very distinctive smell.)
One time, Joe Sherman and I were having walking along a Taipei river bank in late summer. It had been a pleasant Sunday and a nice warm evening, and we found an outdoor restaurant, so we sat down by the water to eat. Everything was going along swimmingly when our fried chicken arrived and we grabbed chopsticks and tucked in. When Joe bit down on his piece of fried chicken it was rock hard. He pulled it out of his mouth with his chopsticks, and the batter fell away to reveal the grisly image of a battered chicken head, its dead eyes staring up at him reproachfully. He dropped the gruesome morsel: “oh, God WHY?!” The interesting thing about culture shock is that there is a certain amount of it that is specific to the country you’re in (fried chicken heads are not universal, for example) but a great deal of it can be experienced anywhere. This was brought home to me years later when listening to some Japanese friends living in Australia describing the things that drove them crazy about my country. Some were specific complaints that would only happen in Australia, but many were exactly the same things that got my teeth on edge when I was living in their country. Because a certain percentage of the issue is simply a feeling of alienation, of awkwardness, or of feeling clueless.
I spent a fair amount of time in the swarming, raucous Taipei traffic, travelling to and from the studio each day, inside a Taiwanese taxi. They were each uniquely decorated inside, sometimes with mirrored tiles, tassels, or with disco balls and lights, and a few times I rode a cab with a full sound system and karaoke microphone in the back seat. (Taiwan was where I first encountered Karaoke. I did not, and still do not, understand the appeal of caterwauling in public; either doing it myself or paying to hear others. I remember thinking that this was a distinctly Asian phenomenon and that karaoke would never catch on in the west. Oh, how wrong I was; there are now karaoke nights in all the pubs in my own home town.) The traffic could definitely be pretty crazy. There were a lot of motorbikes, scooters and mopeds, frenetically darting about, and people would balance precarious and sometimes dangerous parcels; gas cylinders and the like. Sometimes there would be an entire family piled on one motorbike; Mum, Dad and 2 or 3 kids. Nobody wore helmets and the typical biker might have flip flops as he blasted along. I imagine there must be some atrocious accidents, amongst the careening streams of high speed humanity, but in five months of dealing with that traffic every single day, I never once saw one.
Joe and I would often share a taxi from the hotel we both stayed at, to Cuckoo’s Nest studio. There was almost a daily ritual where we would pass by a particular doctor’s practice that had incredibly ghastly illuminated signs of the various skin ailments they would treat; ruptured cysts, extreme rashes, and other stomach churning delights. For blocks in advance of this particular intersection of horrors, I would warn Joe: “you know what’s coming up, it always depresses you and gets the day off to a very bad start, so THIS time, don’t look, okay?” There wasn’t one single time that I rode with Joe, that he didn’t swivel his head at the last second to see if the ghastly sign was perhaps a figment of his imagination… With predictable results: “oh God! I can’t believe it! Why would anyone put a sign like that up?!” Cue the culture shock melt-down du jour.
When I let Australia, I did not bring a camera and quickly realised that this was a tremendous oversight. So I bought a Nikon FG 20 and Taipei was where I learned how to use it, jamming it into every situation, much to the hilarity of Tony Stacchi my good buddy, then and now. I have hundreds of pics taken in that 5 month period, and I’m glad of all those photos today, and I think even he is too.. Taiwan is not only the place I learned to take photos, it is also the place I learned to SKETCH. Prior to traveling, I had never really sketched from life before. Looking through old piles of drawings from before I left Australia, it never occurred to me to draw something in front of me; there’s no location sketching. I commonly drew caricatures of my pals, or amusing moments that happened at work, but thats about as real as I ever tried to be, yet once I was in an foreign environment, that changed. The influence of other expats around me, who had CalArts or Sheridan on their resumes, played a part. These fellows had fancy book-learning and had acquired the habit of sketching at school. Speaking of that, I remember quite well the first time I was asked about where I went to college to study animation? This was a hilarious idea to me at the time. “You mean, you went to university to learn how to draw Saturday Morning cartoons?” I asked. “Why yes, I have a bachelor of animation from California College of the Arts”, I was earnestly told. I am used to this idea now, but in 1986 it seemed utterly hilarious to me.
I experienced my first earthquake in Taiwan. At dinner earlier that night, we’d talked about ghosts, because it was ’Ghost Month‘ (Chinese Halloween) and when I fell to sleep in my hotel later that same night, I had dreams of poltergeists and the like. Thus, as my bed started to shake, followed by the whole building and the entire city, my mind took a while to adjust to what was happening. Against all the advice that you are told, I got of my bed and chicken-walked over to the window of my eighth story hotel room and looked down at the city. I clearly remember seeing the neon signs on buildings across Taipei sparking off and on- GZZT! GZZT! -as I saw the shockwave move across the city. My mind finally properly awoke, and realised what was happening, and just as I considered that standing near the window of an 8th floor room is about the worst place I could possibly be in an earthquake, the quake stopped, with just the rumbling echoes dying out across the city, and I could still feel the building itself subtly swaying. Not long afterward, we had to go home from work and batten down the hatches when a typhoon hit. Ghosts, Quakes and Typhoons; never a dull moment.
One thing that I really liked about living in Taiwan was that all the movies were subtitled in both English AND Chinese. This wasn’t the case in most other Asian countries I spent time in, where the only time I could understand a film was when it was shot in English. The grammatical quality of the subtitles were sometimes hilarious, but be that as it may, I could at least understand every movie I went to see, and I saw quite a few in the five months I was there, and was exposed to the wonders of Chinese cinema for the first time. The 1980s was something of a renaissance of Chinese cinema and I loved being at ground zero. A particularly vivid memory is the first time I ever saw a Jackie Chan film. Earlier that same year, I had seen the latest in the Indiana Jones series, supposedly the best thing that Hollywood had on offer at the time, but Jackie Chan’s movie blew that out of the water. I simply could not believe what this guy could do, and could not understand why I had not heard of him before 1986. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.
My time in Taipei also introduced me to the works of yet another cinema master. Just before we layout Supervisors were ready to leave Taipei, after the TV series layout work was done, we held a brief series of layout classes for the new department. It was while preparing for one of these seminars that I was looking through the Studio’s video library and discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The first Miyazaki film I ever saw was Nausicaä, and I’ll never forget it, even though in this case I saw it in Chinese on a VHS tape at the studio after work one day, and didn’t understand a word. Despite that fact, I watched it utterly enthralled from start to finish. I made a note to track down more of his work and did just that on my next stop: December 14 1986, I left Taiwan from the port city of Keelung, on a ferry To Japan, bound for Tokyo via Okinawa.
With some choices, you’d end up at the same place later, even if you’d taken the other option, because your life is heading in that general direction anyway. But this trip was a turning point for me, where so much of what came later; key people that I met, lifelong friends that I made, places I worked, relationships I had, and countries I went to, would not have happened if it weren’t for that 5 month trip to Taiwan when I was 22 years old.