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Ruff justice

On the lam in 1988, Howard Marks headed for a lawless land: Taiwan. Nearly 25 years later, the former drug smuggler returns to the island in search of food and fun - and to settle a score with a certain dog

 

The seaside road was throttled by traffic heading towards the Dog Temple, and cars were parked for several kilometres along the coastal highway. Unlike most shrines, where deities are worshipped during the day, worshipping ghosts is best done after midnight, when they are more likely to respond positively.

At midnight, tough guys who had rolled up in their Mercedes and BMWs, sauntered to the altar to pray on their knees. Young women in miniskirts and low-cut blouses, accompanied by bodyguards in leather jackets, placed incense in sacrificial urns and mumbled prayers, perhaps against the risks of their profession. The old prayed for the return of lovers long gone over the seas.

It was 1988, and I'd learned that a federal grand jury indictment had been issued against me, and the United States was seeking my extradition on the grounds of my being the ringleader of the biggest cannabis smuggling organisation in the world.

I'd never been to Taiwan, but I headed straight there. No one had ever been extradited from there to anywhere. I'd be safe. My first few days confirmed my optimism. I loved the place - there was no evidence of any law or regulation. Scooters and motorbikes carrying several passengers with no crash helmets careered through streets with no traffic signals and parked wherever they wished. Forgery was a respected profession. But I missed my kids desperately and kept thinking I should go home and wriggle out of the problem.

I heard tell of a Buddhist shrine - the Temple of the 18 Kings - patronised by lawbreakers seeking advice on criminal matters. I took a taxi there to resolve my quandary and the driver explained that during the late 1800s, a boat carrying 17 fishermen and their communal dog capsized in the Taiwan Strait. The fishermen drowned but the dog survived. In accordance with tradition, the locals prepared a collective grave and ghost temple on a cliff overlooking the shore. The dog jumped into the grave with the bodies, refused to leave, was buried alive and became the 18th of the kings of the temple. Eighteen is the number of levels of hell in Chinese folk religion. The temple was shrouded in safety, mystery and danger.

Thick clouds of eye-stinging incense swirled around the temple's red columns. Altar candles burned in honour of a dog that signified luck and good fortune as well as loyalty and friendship. Worshippers lit cigarettes instead of incense sticks, symbolising the friendship between dog-spirit and man. They stroked and rubbed images of the dog. I made an offering of cash, cigars and a Cartier lighter, bought a charm necklace and asked the dog should I stay or should I go. The monk in charge gave me one of 64 possible answer slips. The taxi driver translated: I had to go home.

A few days later, I was in Madrid's terrorist prison trying to avoid extradition. I failed and spent the first few years of my possible 40-year incarceration vowing that should I ever get released, I would go back to Taiwan and kick that dog up its a***.

Now, more than 24 years later, my daughter, Amber, is accompanying me there.

 

DURING THE JOURNEY, I SCOUR TRAVEL GUIDES and brochures offering bungee jumping, trekking, shopping, fishing, cookery lessons, health spas and monasteries. But I know, through my decades of travelling, that the benefits of any action holiday become distant memories once you're back at work. Even worse are anti-holidays, with lean vegetarian diets, meditation, chanting and 5am alarm calls, where drinking alcohol is discouraged. I find such holidays vexing, mind-draining and expensive.

I aim to settle my score with the dog, eat and drink. We check in to Hotel Quote in the centre of the capital, an efficiently run boutique hotel that was a finalist last year for Taipei's coveted Best Hotel Bar after Dark award.

Dawn breaks after what seems like a few minutes and I catch a fleeting glance of Amber tiptoeing out of the room. She is off to Sun Moon Lake, about 250 kilometres away, in the centre of the country, for some peace and tranquillity. I fall back asleep and miss breakfast by at least eight hours.

Amber has left a note asking me not to go to the Dog Temple until she returns. As night falls, I take a taxi to nearby Combat Zone, the only nightlife area I remember from my first visit. Almost identical to Bangkok's Patpong, the zone was a neon-lit concentration camp of more than 50 girlie bars and strip joints in a grid of small streets behind the Imperial Hotel. The zone got its start during the Vietnam war, when American soldiers partied there on their way to and from the killing fields.

Its boozy legacy survives, but it has aged considerably, and the tired no-smoking bars and clientele lack their previous libidinous lustre. I have a few interesting chats with some veterans who have never had any reason to go back home while the wind picks up, howling like a flock of owls, and the pitch-black sky empties. It is typhoon season, and one is hovering off the coast, threatening to visit. I, too, am feeling my age, and go back to the hotel to carry on sleeping off my jetlag.

At breakfast the next morning, I meet an American, David Frazier, who writes for the Taipei Times. He is an endless source of information on all Taiwanese matters, knows of the Dog Temple, but has never visited it. He offers to drive us there.

Daytime is never the most appropriate period to communicate with ghosts anywhere, so Amber and I are not surprised to find the Dog Temple, which I instantly recognise, almost deserted. But I am astonished to see that the temple lies next to Taiwan's first nuclear power station. Frazier explains that the power station enclosure was designed originally to encompass the area of the sacred tomb but the heavy machinery broke down whenever it neared the shrine.

The engineers had to abandon their plan and the power station's outer wall simply borders the tomb. This helped transform the hitherto local cult into an island-wide craze. The shrine became a focal point for successful anti-nuclear demonstrations, eventually becoming one of Taiwan's most popular temples.

The cult of the dog in the 18 Kings temple is paradigmatic of the co-existence of tradition and modernity in Taiwan. The power generated by a nuclear reactor cannot diminish that of a dog worshipped in a nearby temple. On the contrary, the reactor itself has been incorporated into the legends celebrating the dog-spirit, and the modern media spreads the legends throughout the island.

There are simply too many visitors to cast them all as underworld types: many are ordinary people unconcerned about issues of morality. Bus and taxi drivers suspend temple amulets from their rear-view mirrors and place small statues of the robed dog-spirit on their dashboards.

But the carnival atmosphere for which this seaside temple was so famous has inexplicably faded. It looks a bit shabby, with just two food vendors in front, selling unappetising bamboo-leaf-wrapped rice and meat dumplings, braised stuffed snails and some worryingly unrecognisable roasted animal parts. However, a pack of stray dogs loiters knowingly.

Shaking with the trepidation of uncertainty, we walk slowly into the shrine. The six-foot-high grey-stone dog that haunted me during my years of solitary confinement is no longer here. It has been replaced by two smaller bronze dogs, each baring its teeth savagely. I had already more or less decided not to give the big dog a hefty kick and fool around with a humbling power I did not understand and, in any event, the smaller dogs' a***s are inaccessible. Their ferocious mouths turn into loving smiles. I put my right hand into one of their mouths. I am here, alive, healthy and with my wonderful daughter. I cannot imagine being happier.

Behind the altar, Frazier and I climb a hidden stairwell to a small, dark room above the temple, where we discover a cabinet with 64 small drawers, each containing a pile of small pink paper slips bearing a fortune.

Frazier, who reads Chinese, searches through the 64 answers the dog-spirit could give. One states: "Travellers will find benefit in returning home. If burdened by legal affairs, settle them peaceably." Clearly, that was the one I received in 1988.

We look at the pink slip again. Printed in smaller type next to the larger fortune is the following: "This sacred word will bring luck to one of noble heart. But for a scoundrel it will bode ill fortune. Many contradictions are apparent. The return of good fortune can-not be determined."

Frazier bursts out laughing: "You obviously didn't read the fine print, Howard."

 

THE HOTEL CONCIERGE suggested I eat at a typically Taiwanese restaurant with the unlikely name of 21 Goose & Seafood, on Jinzou Street, a road that is full of bars and restaurants heaving with rowdy clients. Every table is occupied but a table for two has a vacant chair, to which I am directed. The lone diner stands up, shakes my hand and, in stuttering English, introduces himself as Li.

No-smoking signs blaze from every wall but everyone, without exception, including the chefs, is smoking. A betel-nut vendor passes from table to table offering his wares. The set menu is the same each night, first course: goose, second course: seafood. Li and I make small talk for a while as more people crowd into the restaurant and somehow find space. He suggests we go to the bar next door for a drink. The street activity has increased even further when we venture outside.

Isn't Taiwan supposed to be suffering in recession like most of the rest of the world? Over the past few years, I have read several uninviting headlines about unemployment being at an all-time high, economic growth at an all-time low, a severely battered stock market, Sars viruses replacing visiting businessmen, and more bad news. Yet here they are spending money all night, eating jovially, exchanging phone numbers and drinking with ebullient enthusiasm in crammed bars and restaurants filled with an atmosphere of revelry, intoxication and fun.

"Taipei is busier than ever," says Li, noting my looks of astonishment at the dynamic chaos. "When Taipei people worry, they drink. But in the rest of Taiwan, bars and restaurants are struggling. Sales no good. Places closing, pushing each other out of business with bargain price and happy hour. Even here in Taipei, they must sell entertainment, too. Not just booze."

I look at the four women dancing on the bar, catch his drift and nod over to them. "Like paying that lot to do their thing?"

"No. They are just office girls having a good time. The bar pays for music, lights, smoke vapour and beautiful girls for customers. The technique is simple. Girls surround customer. He buys them drink. They come closer. He buys more. Chinese have a special name for the feeling of being surrounded by seduction, to be lost in the company of beautiful women - mi hun zhen. The room next door, karaoke. Upstairs, different entertainment."

Upstairs houses an open-air smoking area. Several satellite dishes feed enormous plasma screens, showing a steady stream of football games, Formula One races and tap dances to a crowd playing table football, pool and darts. There is no dartboard, just punctured pictures of Karl Marx and Fidel Castro. Peanut shells, dog ends and sawdust cover the floor.

"This is new in Taipei," says Li. "Taiwanese like new."

Another evening, pulling up alongside a heavily populated pavement, we are greeted by immaculately dressed waiters bringing us menu cards to fill in. They will find us when our table is ready. Din Tai Fung, on Xinyi Road, is the most famous restaurant in Taipei. There are dozens of cooks looking like surgeons, heaps of bamboo steamers and great piles of pork and dough rolled and wrapped into its signature dish - the dumpling - thin and fresh, never soggy or doughy, and served immediately after it is steamed. The most popular is also the most basic, made with green onion, ginger, pork, soy sauce and sesame oil.

The floors and furniture are cleaner than any I have experienced, including those of top-end private hospitals and clinics. After taking our seats, we are politely but thoroughly instructed which dumpling goes with which sauce and the order in which to eat them. The bright lights help ensure a quick turnover. One comes here to eat, not for romance.

Taipei has an advanced 24-hour snacking culture enabled by street vendors, who will show up wherever people gather, whether at temples or cinemas. Simplicity and freshness are the hallmarks of Taiwanese street food. It's fresh because the turnover is high and simple because each stand concentrates on a single dish.

Although grilled sausages and squid, with their smoke and flame, are the most visible street food, a Taipei night market will also have stands selling fried rice, congee, grilled beef, oyster omelettes, wheat gluten, onion pancake, barbecued pork, roast chestnuts, juice and dumplings.

Some of the street food comes from extreme ends of the food chain and looks more like a biology field trip than dinner: entrails, innards, wings, knuckles, feet, tongues and congealed blood are common. Wafting down every alley and byway in Taipei is the unmistakable and often appalling odour of stinky tofu, best eaten when smothered in soy, vinegar, garlic and chilli sauce.

Most Taipei restaurants, however, no matter how good, are featureless, except for those that concentrate on a single feature: Tai G, in the Shipai night market, serves just medicinal chicken soup, tailored to the customer's particular ailment. Jail, on Dunhua South Road, is decorated like a prison and the waiters dress like inmates. Visitors can put on manacles and have their photo taken in a cell.

I give both of those a miss but do try Snake Alley - a narrow covered passageway where writhing snakes are skinned alive so people can drink their warm blood while scoffing snake stew - and Modern Toilet, on Xining South Road, which has seats and serving dishes shaped like toilets. The food in each is disgusting.

The Taiwanese are very friendly and relaxed. One can occasionally think Taipei has been far too busy making things to offer anything at all to visitors. But what it does have is genuine, and everything you do see is for the daily lives of the Taiwanese.

Guardian News & Media

 

 

          Mark Footer

Pot luck

Howard Marks was born near Bridgend, Wales, in 1945.

As a student reading physics at Oxford University, Marks joined Balliol College's drama society, where he found himself rubbing shoulders with Chris Patten, who would go on to become Hong Kong's last British governor.

Patten and his friends were known as "The Establishment", writes Marks in his first autobiography, Mr Nice. "They were all heavy drinkers and very entertaining."

It was at Oxford that he was introduced to cannabis.

As a trafficker during the 1970s and 80s, Marks was said to have moved about 10 per cent of all the marijuana smoked in the world. With 43 aliases, 25 companies and 89 phone lines, he had homes around the globe and was variously linked to MI6, the CIA, the IRA and the mafia.

Arrested finally in 1988, in an operation masterminded by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Marks was sentenced to 25 years in one of America's toughest prisons, the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was released seven years later and became famous: first, as a writer, when Mr Nice (his favourite alias) became a bestseller; then as a raconteur.

In 1999, 14 years before his return to Taiwan, Marks attempted another trip to Asia, with another daughter.

"Someone I knew in Hong Kong had booked me to do a show. I was allowed to take someone with me, so I took my daughter Francesca. We arrived and it was the usual thing. 'Sorry, sir, but China doesn't want you in.' I went to the detention centre for an hour or so and caught the plane home," he told the South China Morning Post, in a 2006 interview.

Marks had been scheduled to give three appearances at Carnegie's bar in Wan Chai, speaking about his experiences and playing music. The immigration officials at Chek Lap Kok wouldn't let him in because, as he later admitted, he had spent a lot of time in Hong Kong "on the way to other places" before his 1988 arrest.

"Nothing was ever smuggled through [Hong Kong]," Marks said. He moved money through the city's banks, but said: "It was all clean by the time it got there."

 

 

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