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 dichotomy for the 10 hour flight, till the thrill ride landing in Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, when 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 liesurely sightseeing before my evening flight, till 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 lugged 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 TV series (each having 13 episodes) whereas the Hanna-Barbera studio that I’d worked at in Sydney could handle only 2 or 3. 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”. I’m not exactly sure why this ghastly place was chosen to be the ‘local colour’ that introduced us all to Taiwan, but it’s part of the ritual of travel that tourists go to grotty areas of foreign cities they’d avoid at home (Sydney residents who’d avoid Kings Cross will happily visit a similar sleazepit in Amsterdam, for example). Snake Alley’s particular brand of Red Light tawdriness was combined with animal torture. I saw a guy literally peel the skin off a live snake, drain its blood into a shot glass which was then downed with great gusto by another dude, before the dying snake’s heart stopped beating. Thus fortified, he then set off in search of hookers (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 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 scenes. I said I didn’t know, because they’d taken them when I was at lunch. She went away again, looking confused. I worked some more. She came back again, looking very worried and asked 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 garbage truck with the animation scene-folders being dumped into the back. The core-temperature in my bowels must’ve shot up about 15° in an instant. We rushed over to explain that the artwork 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 for it..) 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 a studio of around 1000 artist-employees generated such massive loads of waste-paper that that’s how it was. The humiliating end to my animation career thus dodged, I got back to work. Though I was a generally clueless 22 year old, I did however have a fair bit of experience in animation by that time, since I started working at the age of 17. Even so, looking back on it, the Taiwanese crew must’ve thought I was an upstart pipsqueak at the mere age of 22 to be a layout supervisor, but they certainly never gave me any bad attitude about it.
Taiwan is where 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 (who was such a big shot that nobody else could even use the same name). When asked if there were any other names I was known by, I said 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, 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 something? 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, and one day off each week didn’t allow for sightseeing. The entire 5 months that I was working in Taiwan, I only ventured out of Taipei 2 or 3 times, because I was exhausted on my day off, and didn’t have the energy for dealing with transit systems with incomprehensible (to me) signage. I just wandered around Taipei randomly for recreation, and had many late night dinners in Taipei’s abundance of of novelty restaurants with the other expats. We foreigners were thrown together quickly by the twin pressure-cookers of work, and culture shock, and I met an amazing number of people who became lifelong friends while in Taipei, considering that it was only a 5 month gig. We’d joke about our ’tours of duty’ or time on ’pork chop hill’; combat metaphors where people bond under stress. A group of us 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 coming back to my hotel after a long day of working, late one night. 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. 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 shows how 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, after several years straight living in various Asian countries, I got used to being the full-time foreigner, and learned to see that my own 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.
Joe Sherman and I were walking along a Taipei river bank in late summer. It had been a pleasant Sunday away from the stresses of production, we found an outdoor restaurant and sat down by the water to order our dinner. It was a warm evening and everything was going along swimmingly when our food arrived and we 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 half-chewed 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 Japanese friends who lived in Australia describing the things that drove them crazy about my country. Some were specific complaints that could only happen there, 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 that your instincts no longer work. Which is to say, don’t grab the piece of battered chicken shaped vaguely like a chicken head and assume that’s not what it actually IS.
Taipei was a humid place, and had smells that I’d never encountered before. Even the regular smells of a big city; exhaust, trash, and the like, had a tropical pungency. Exotic spices were everywhere and to a western nose, even some of the food had outrageous smells. There was one particular sour odor, that I’d assumed was blocked drains, until one day the smell that had haunted me for weeks was coming from my own dinner; a famously stinky tofu dish. After a few months of this sort of experience, the tables were turned when we foreigners organised a fun pizza night with our co-workers. We expats craved some western food, but had not allowed for the smell of the various cheeses, and especially the Parmesan cheese, being off-putting for many 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, I learned that the Japanese also find the aromas of traditional Western foods, specifically cheese and butter, have a distinctive smell.)
The early 80s was a bad time for the animation industry in general, and a terrible time for my wallet in particular. As a freelance animator in Sydney, I earned about AU$170-$200 a week, which is just as little money as it sounds. When I got the job in Taiwan however, I got a substantial pay rise for being a ‘supervisor’, and for first time in my life had the money to catch cabs, and dine out, but more importantly, I was able to save enough to travel freely for a few months after leaving Taiwan. Because of currency control restrictions, we were paid in cash rather than a bank transfer, and had to go to the bank each week to deposit an astonishing wad of bills, which we didn’t always have the time to do. Kevin Richardson and I were walking home from the studio very late one night when we were surrounded by some louts. I didn’t think much of it until Kevin muttered out of the side of his mouth that he had two weeks pay in his bag. We were grateful for the ever present Taiwanese taxis that swarmed about constantly. We saw one, hailed it and skeedaddled.
I spent a lot of time in Taiwanese taxis, travelling to and from the studio each day. 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. (Taiwan was where I first encountered karaoke. I did not, and still do not, understand the appeal of paying to caterwaul in public, or hear other tone-deaf folk mutilate songs of their own choosing. 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.) In the swarming, raucous Taipei traffic, there were a lot of motorbikes, scooters and mopeds, frenetically darting about, often with precarious and even dangerous parcels balanced on the tank; gas cylinders and so on. Sometimes, an entire family piled on one motorbike; Mum, Dad and 2 or 3 kids. Nobody wore helmets and the typical bike-rider might have flip flops as they 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 saw one.
Joe, my fellow culture shock-trooper, would often share a taxi with me from the hotel we both stayed at, to Cuckoo’s Nest. There was an almost daily ritual where we’d pass by a particular doctor’s practice that had ghastly illuminated signs of the various skin ailments they’d treat; ruptured cysts, extreme rashes, and other stomach churning delights. For blocks in advance of this particular intersection of horrors, I’d warn Joe: “You know what’s coming up, it always gets the day off to a 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 mere figment of his imagination… with predictable results: “Oh God! I can’t believe it! Why would anyone put up a sign like that?!” Cue the culture shock melt-down du jour. I eventually learned to navigate public transport in various countries where I couldn’t speak the language, but given my lack of travel smarts, general ineptitude, and punishing work hours in 1986, I’m glad I didn’t have to do it that year, and had enough money to hail a cab, and simply show them the business card of the place I wished to go (written in Chinese of course).
When I left Australia, I didn’t bring a camera and quickly realised that this was a tremendous oversight, as I was surrounded daily by visually interesting stuff. 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, and a frequent companion on my explorations of Taipei. I’ve hundreds of pics taken in Taiwan, and I’m happy to have their record of that period, and I think he is too, despite the long-ago teasing for my being a camera-wielding dork. Tony stood out amongst the other young Americans at the studio, not just because of an accent unlike any I’d encountered in a lifetime of watching US television from afar (“is he a Pom who’s lived in the US? or the other way around?”) I quickly learned that, being Bostonian, Tony was a Smart Arse of the highest possible order. Constantly ribbing me hilariously from our very first meeting, he ensured that we’d be friends for life.
Taiwan is not only the place I learned to take photos, it is also where I learned to sketch. Prior to traveling, I had never drawn from life before, and looking through old piles of drawings before Taiwan, there’s no location sketching. I drew caricatures of my pals, or amusing moments that happened at work, but it never occurred to me to draw something in front of me. Yet once I was in a foreign environment that changed, and these sketches here are literally some of the first sketches from life I ever did. The influence of other expats around me, who had CalArts or Sheridan on their resumes, also played a part. These fellows had fancy book-learning and had acquired the habit of sketching at school and I followed their example. I remember being asked where I’d gone to college to study animation, and people were surprised when I said nowhere; I’d been trained on the job, like an apprenticeship, which was the standard in Australia at the time. For my part, I was surprised at the North American approach; “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. Of course, I’m used to it now, but in 1986, getting a B.A. diploma to draw ‘Care Bears’ was an absolutely hilarious idea to me.
I experienced my first earthquake in Taiwan. At dinner earlier that same night, we’d talked about ghosts, because it was ’Ghost Month’ (AKA ‘Chinese Halloween’) when the dead famously come back to Earth. Thus, when I fell asleep in my hotel, my mind was already primed to think of poltergeists when my bed started to shake, followed by the whole building and then the entire city. Still half asleep, my mind took a while to adjust to what was actually happening, and against all earthquake safety advice, I groggily got of bed and chicken-walked across a room that was dancing to and fro, over to the window of my eighth story hotel room and looked out at the city. Neon signs on buildings across Taipei sparked off and on- GZZT! GZZT! -as the shockwave moved across the town, and my mind finally properly awoke and understood what was happening. At the precise moment I realised that standing at the window of an 8th floor room was about the worst place I could possibly be in an earthquake, it stopped. Only the rumbling echoes continued, slowly dying out across the city, as the building itself subtly swayed to a stop. Not long afterward, we had to leave work early one day, and prepare for a typhoon. I was told to fill my bathtub full of water, in preparation for water supplies being cut off, which thankfully did not happen. When the typhoon finally hit, I had a great view from the eighth floor of all kinds of random junk flying around outside in the torrentially horizontal rain, including great long lashings of wire which had come loose and were whipping around the street dangerously. Ghosts, Quakes and Typhoons; never a dull moment in Taipei.
I really enjoyed the fact that in Taiwan, 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 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 movies for the first time. The 1980s was an energetic and creative time for Chinese cinema, and I loved being at ground zero for the renaissance. 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 film roundhouse kicked the crap out of that, then leaped off a building besides. I simply could not believe what this guy could do, and could not understand why I had not heard of him before 1986, but 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 left Taipei, after our TV series work was done, we held a series of layout classes for the new minted 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 I watched it in Chinese on a VHS tape at the studio after work, and didn’t understand a word. Despite that fact, I watched it utterly enthralled from start to finish. I made a mental note to track down more of his work, and did just that on my next stop, when on December 14 1986, I left Taiwan from the port city of Keelung, on a ferry to Tokyo via Okinawa.
Taipei’s XinDian area has surely changed enormously in the almost 30 years since I worked there, and I doubt that it occupies that border between city and countryside that it did in 1986. Today, there are unlikely to be any water buffalo ploughing within site of the building we used to work at back then, nor the nearby pig farm that announced its presence to our noses on hot humid days (I often wondered which manufactured more excrement; the animation sweat factory, or the pig farm). By the time I worked in Taiwan, I’d already begun to wonder if the animation industry would last, and the numerous projects that Cuckoo’s Nest was doing that year (which must have represented a substantial percentage of the industry output of 1986) bore that earlier impression out. You could see at a glance that none of it was any good, and even if the industry did somehow survive, I was ambivalent about doing more of the same for my entire life, as much as I loved animation.
Yet even then, there were signs of change. ‘The Brave Little Toaster’, was being finished up at Cuckoo’s Nest by Steve Moore just as I arrived, and the Taiwanese crew was excited about finally working on something of quality. It was the shape of things to come, and other quality projects being made in the mid 1980s (such as ‘The Family Dog’) began to finally turn the animation business around. By the early 1990s, the animation biz was back, and I went on to have a 30 year career that I could never have even imagined in 1986. My being able to participate in the animation renaissance was largely due to working at Cuckoo’s Nest, and the contacts I made there..
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 to Taipei was a turning point for me, where so much of what came later in my life; 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 gig when I was 22 years old, working at Cuckoo’s Nest.
Originally published on my FALLOUT blog, in April 2014.