It is far too hot still to schlep my fancy camera around, so I must content myself with cell phone, Instagrammed shots of local dogs.
There are a couple brindle tugou accompanied by old men who are fixtures on this strip of Zhonghua Rd. in Ximending, including a store dog at one of my favorite record stores. I never noticed that this one was quite so, well, swollen. The weather hasn’t been very conducive to exercise.
Three-month-old tugou puppy faces off with a Mini Schnauzer, a popular breed in Taiwan.
Another popular breed, the Night Owl — I mean, the Corgi, sighted at Cafe Junkies.
And another popular breed, the Beagle. Asians love their Snoopy dog. Maybe not this particular one though. The sign behind her warns, “[This] Dog will bite.”
Temples are generally good places for strays to hang out. Nobody wants to provoke the ire of the gods by abusing innocent creatures in their midst. They’re also highly trafficked, dense sites where scavenging yields rich rewards — especially when temple monks supplement the fare with regular handouts.
The yellow dog on the left was accompanied by the Pointer-esque mix on the right. They were hanging out at the large public square by Longshan Temple, as natural a part of the scene as the throngs of chainsmoking old men. They left as a unit and wound down a side alley, tempting me to follow… Maybe next time.
The two black tugou lingered and hung out like matched companions as well, though only one was collared. The uncollared bitch had a few bald patches on her elbows and her chest, but had a decent amount of weight on her body. No skinny dogs around here…
As much as piebalds and pintos are reviled in the various Nihon ken breed standards, this coat pattern has been around for quite some time as a visibly marked, figurated (not necessarily figurative) type of dog within Japanese society — that is, a dog of a fixed, expected form. Breed purity mattered naught at the time that the pictures below were sketched in the late 19th century, featuring life during Tokugawa Japan. Rather, the piebald dog appears to be an index of lower class society in Japanese popular imagination.
Click any of the pictures below to enlarge. Unfortunately, I suck at reading brush script, so I couldn’t make out the artists on most of these. If anyone has more information, feel free to drop a comment.
This first spread is a pretty good example of how the piebald dog gets categorized alongside other denizens of the streets — including the street walker (夜鷹, upper right-hand corner), the racketeer (ごろつき), blind masseuse (按摩, enjoying a bowl of noodles top and center), and various snack and meal vendors catering to those who live on the go and eat at odd hours. The piebald dog here accompanies a hunch-backed oden seller (おでんや), weary and frail as if crushed by a lifetime spent beneath his yoke. I’d like to think his dog not only accompanies him, but protects him from the dangers that apparently lurk everywhere for a man who earns his living amongst miscreants.
This second downcast dog with angular hips and a desperate countenance, on the other hand, appears bereft of human companionship. He lingers outside of a fox shrine during the Inari matsuri, looking forlorn and conspicuously isolated in the foreground against the bubble-headed children and festival hubbub.
That exact same dog, almost as if cut-and-pasted (or perhaps sketched by the same artist), shows up in several other street scenes of Tokugawa era life. I didn’t include every replication… Similarly scrawny dogs are often inserted into busy street tableaux and placed on the outskirts of temple scenes, as if to balance out the composition, providing another set of eyes to gaze and reflect upon the scene.
Even with eyes closed, the dog can provide another perspective and additional “color” to a scene. I’m not entirely sure how to regard this archery hall staffed by some rather suspicious women in loose-fitting clothing, milling about this riverside rest stop. However, the mere presence of the sleepy mutt, curled up at the corner of the building, invites interpretation and signals that this is not what you might think of as an elite kyudo dojo.
But indeed, not every piebald or spotted dog can or should be read the same way. Associated with people in the street, the piebald dog seems more frequently to indicate lower class, unstable, or itinerant figures, as in the case of this monk (or a female nun?) in this two-paneled spread on “The Vicissitudes of Middle-Aged Ladies in the Tokugawa Ooku,” the inner chambers of the Tokugawa shogunate where all the palace ladies and concubines resided. I don’t know if this panel is referring to some specific episode of intrigue. My interpretation of this scene is influenced by stories of corrupt Chinese monks who exploited their access to women’s quarters to curry favors with the ruling elite. Thus, religious monkhood should never be taken as merely a position of transcendent asceticism, but rather, a kind of political power with the potential for both sageliness and hypocrisy. Perhaps the dog also indicates that two-facedness in this context?
At any rate, I’m intrigued by the pairing of the monk’s mutt with the woman’s toy dog, on the right. Or is it a cat? Whether piebald Chin or feline (I’m thinking the latter), he clearly occupies a different symbolic status as he helps disrobe his mistress in this titillating boudoir scene.
What impresses me from this small sample is that the piebald street dog appears to have just as much claim to Japanese “tradition” as the elite pedigrees of Nihon ken “proper”. It’s a wrench to throw into the standard breed histories, anyway. No matter what the breed standards say or how THE six native Nihon ken would become enshrined as exclusive national treasures in the 20th century, there were always other types of Japanese dogs at the margins of society who manage to slip through the cracks by being difficult to classify.
How easy it was for 19th century colonialists to regard all street dogs from Constantinople to Peking in the same, unflattering light. American missionary Arthur H. Smith had this to say about Chinese street dogs in his most well-known book amongst readers of English (both foreign and Chinese alike):
“The Buddhist religion is responsible for the reluctance of the Chinese to put an end to the wretched existence of the pariah dogs with which all Chinese cities are infested, yet the trait of character thus exhibited is not so much Chinese as Oriental. Mr. J. Ross Browne, who was once Minister from the United States to China, published an entertaining volume of travels in the East, adorned with drawings of his own. One of these represented what appeared to be a congress of all varieties of lean and mangy dogs, which was offered as ‘a general view of Constantinople.’ The same cut would do good service as a sketch of many Chinese cities. The Chinese do not appear to experience any serious discomfort from the reckless and irrepressible barking of this vast army of curs, nor do they take much account of the really great dangers arising from mad dogs, which are not infrequently encountered. Under such circumstances, the remedy adopted is often that of binding some of the hair of the dog into the wound which it has caused, a curious analogy to the practice which must have originated our proverb that ‘the hair of the same dog will cure.’ The death of the dog does not seem to be any part of the object in view.”
Arthur Smith, Chinese Characteristics (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1894) p. 136.
The picture that Smith references is reproduced below. A pity that neither Browne nor Smith, writing decades later, found it worthwhile to unpack the motley composition of a very interesting looking group of dogs. Rather, their own prejudices compelled them to Orientalize, homogenize, trivialize, and ultimately to dismiss a scene which no doubt could have revealed a radically different conception of how dogs have long been an organic element of their own environments, with fortunes and vicissitudes determined by human interference — whether native or colonial.
When I read these anecdotal encounters between imperialist men and foreign dogs, the language is often so thick with ideological bias, I can’t help but to regard it all as fiction. By fiction I don’t mean writing which is false, but rather, an imaginative account that situates and embeds an author in a particular time and space, even as they purport to be offering transcendent, ahistorical facts. As a matter of habit, I am suspicious of anyone who relies on the authority of facts to speak unaided. For behind every such act of “objective” documentation, there has always been a person — the objectifier who selects and crafts their textual, visual, phonographic or other evidence, transforming it from the merely true to the real.
Film: Soi Dogs — The Movie
Director: Ella Todd
Featured personnel: John and Gill Dalley, Atiporn Jittanonta, Suwat Soonknoen (Dr. Max), Tippiman Phondee (Dr. Mindt), Trethep Reungkit (Khun John), Sanae, Nok, Thep
Production Information: Environment Films, 2010 (UK)
Breed(s) featured: Thai street dogs / mutts / various mixes
Despite the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami, Phuket Island off the Southwest coast of Thailand remains a modern tourist hotspot and expatriate destination, an area teeming with life. Even along the boozy beaches, you’ll encounter ubiquitous packs of street dogs — mongrels that live a precarious existence alongside humans that pity and feed them, poison and abuse them, or in the case of the Soi Dog Foundation, catch and sterilize them, and rehabilitate, rehome, and shelter the ones that they can.
This classy, beautifully shot, and well-paced documentary started as a promotional video showcasing the Soi Dog organization’s work, but soon developed into a stand-alone feature about an overlooked aspect of daily life in Thailand. For as the figure of the dog straddles the boundary between domestic and wild life in many parts of the world, many of these dogs also made the passage from a beloved home to the street at some earlier point in their lives. Different standards of veterinary care makes pet sterilization a low priority, so the abandoned dogs, left loose to fend for themselves, continue to create more litters, and thus the presence of Thai street dogs has become common to the landscape.
The situation sounds eerily similar to another island that I’m more familiar with, Taiwan. Thus, I could not help but be attracted to this subject, though I think there is an inherent appeal to these stories that stir us towards a sense of social justice, whether or not you’ve ever had anything to do with packs of urban free-ranging dogs.
Organization co-founders John and Gill Daley, British expatriates who now live in Thailand, have endured some shocking personal sacrifices to help alleviate canine suffering on the island. They come across as charismatic, wise guardians who are deeply invested in their life’s work, which they found in their “retirement” ironically enough. Just as importantly, the film gives ample credit to the local crew, especially the dogcatchers and vets who all help shoulder the load. I am especially heartened to see such earnestness and compassion from the young Thai vets and shelter manager; they signal hope for more local involvement, which is essential if conditions are to change. That is, everybody involved with this film understands they have to go beyond the typical narrative of heroic Westerners who “save” the locals from problems they don’t even realize are problems. There are many locals who also “get it” and do whatever is within their means, from feeding temple dogs to bringing their own beloved pets to the mobile clinics for spaying and neutering. The relationship goes both ways, as abundantly displayed here.
Minimal use of suffering and sick animals adds to the persuasive rhetoric. Nobody wants to be hammered repeatedly with graphic images of animals in distress — it’s too depressing, alienating and emotionally divisive. Nevertheless, you can’t escape a few queasy moments: bloody and maggot-ridden wounds, panicked dogs in fear, and the stiff features of a couple poor animals that had quietly deceased. It’s just enough to hint at the depth of suffering that this crew must deal with on a day-to-day basis, and also garner some deep respect for their resilience.
All in all, a stirring and inspiring reminder of how much good some people are capable of accomplishing in this world.
The film is available in its entirety on YouTube. An even sharper DVD copy can be purchased with a minimum donation of $15.99 USD to the Soi Dog Foundation at this link.
[Hat tip to Mongrels of the World, where I first learned of this organization. They are currently selling 2012 desk calendars, featuring original photos of street dogs, with proceeds going to Soi Dog — check them out!]