Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Toaster Tales #3: Hotel Horror in Taipei

Deluxe accommodations.
In 1986, I went to Taiwan with a very small crew of Americans to work on the feature The Brave Little Toaster.  The experience of animating a breakneck 30 feet a week of passable full animation combined with living in a place so completely strange, congested, and foreign would prove to be a seminal event not just my life, but in the lives of everyone on the crew.  For Halloween, I thought I would share with you one of the scarier things that happened to me out there in the Far East.

A room with a view.
When we first arrived in Taiwan in January of 1986, we were put up in a hotel until we could find apartments.  The President Hotel was not exactly presidential.  It was a 12 story concrete box stained  by years of acid rain.  Two very sweet young ladies in vintage 1970 stewardess uniforms would greet us from the front desk every time we walked in or out.  It didn't matter what time of day or night, they were always at their posts.

The rooms were also a 1970 throwback, but at least they were kept clean.  The TV had three channels; two Chinese networks showing Mandarin soap operas, news, and puppet shows with a lot of matrial arts. A third channel had American shows like The Cosby Show dubbed in Chinese.  I read a lot. and wrote letters.

We worked like dogs on The Brave Little Toaster.  The schedule allowed for ninety minutes of feature quality animation to be done in six months.  Sunday was our only day off,  and at some point even that went away.  On days off, I usually did nothing but rest.  I'd go for a wander through Taipei, usually by myself, just to clear my head. I tended to shy away with hanging out with the gang.

On one particular Sunday afternoon I was taking a nap when I awoke to the sound of fire engines screaming up the road.  Taipei was an extremely noisy city, so these sirens did not even pique my curiosity.  But just as they got close to the hotel, they stopped.  Okay, curiosity piqued.

The street below my room.
I leaned out of my 8th floor window to see the street below and a crowd of people looking up at me.  Parked in the street were several fire engines, featuring a massive red ladder truck.  Firemen scrambled about, pointing up to me.


Over a hallway loudspeaker came a distorted announcement.  In Chinese.  I guessed it was telling me to get the fuck out, so I grabbed my my passport and my 35mm Olympus OMG and headed for the door when the phone rang.  Thinking it might be one of my crew mates, I answered.


One of the sweet desk ladies was on the line, trying her best to speak English.  "Uh,  yes.  Missa Moa?"


"Ha ha.  Yes.  Um.  Thees....fron desk.  Yes.  Um.  Ho-tail on fiya..........You go!"

"Okay, thanks."  I said, and hung up.  I walked down the hallway, with purpose, and rounded the corner to the elevators.  Having seen The Towering Inferno as a kid, I knew NOT to use the elevator in a fire.  I found the stairwell at the end of the hallway.  Smoke was billowing from it.

"Shit!"  I said aloud, to no one.

I turned back and ran, with purpose, to the other end of the hall.  There was another stairwell, one without smoke, that I took four stairs at a time.  I got as far as the third floor, where the stairs were cordoned off by bamboo poles and a sign in Chinese and English that said "Stair Closed".

"Fuck that!" I said aloud, to no one as I jumped over the poles and climbed down the last three floors, walking on large boxes of supplies the hotel had stored there.

As I reached ground floor, there was a massive flow of people, like Disneyland with an under cranked camera.  I was caught in the tide, and just went with the flow.  Eventually, the stream of people opened into a movie theater with the film running.  "St. Elmo's Fire?  Fuck that!" I said to the crowd of Chinese Rob Lowe fans. How did I manage to end up in a movie theater?   Turning back against the tide, I had to push and elbow my way to the exit.

The crowd finally ejected me out into the street, where I got a close up look at the fire trucks.  Water was everywhere, and firemen dragged hoses out of the building.  Apparently, the fire was out, and apparently, they evacuated the theater, but kept the movie running.  People were rushing back in because they were missing the movie.

Stepping into the dripping wet hotel lobby,  I could see those two sweet desk clerks, perfectly coifed, still at their posts.

"What happened?"  I asked.

"Um.  Yes."  said the one who spoke English, "Not for worry.  Only feeth floa on fiya."

I took the elevator back to my room, stopping on the fifth floor, just to see.  One hell of a grease fire had completely charred the hotel restaurant.    To this day, I take notice of  fire exits in hotels I am staying.


Correction:  It was the Star Hotel.  Thank you Jamie Baker and Chris Wahl for your clear memories.  Chris sent along a scan from the Star.....
Brave Little Toaster animator Chris Wahl with the sweet desk clerks at the Star Hotel.

For godsake, DON"T TAKE THE ELEVATOR!!!!

Read my other Toaster tales here:
#1: A Replicant in BladeRunnerland

#2: A Letter to Mom and Chinese New Year

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