Dadaocheng: Reminiscences of Beginnings – An Interview With Entertainer, Otani Mondo
One Friday afternoon, Otani Mondo showed up bearing a casual look. No agent or assistant accompanied him and he looked handsome in a simple white T-shirt, a pair of ripped jeans and black leather boots. From years of exercise, his strong, fit body is his best “outfit.” From top athlete to highly-popular entertainer, Mondo has been through a tough, yet exciting, decade. Such a life path has naturally caused him to keep altering his course; yet the only thing that hasn’t changed a bit is his proactive mindset.
For Mondo, 2014 was the year when his career took off. He performed on entertainment shows and TV dramas, and also played the small role of a Japanese cop in the movie, Twa-tiu-tiann (大稻埕). The film concerns a character who travels through time and arrives in Dadaocheng circa 1920. There were many such tales told of this neighborhood between the years 1860 and 1945. As the movie’s plot thickens, some old sites such as Dadaocheng Wharf (大稻埕碼頭), Taipei Bridge (台北大橋), Taipei Zongshan Hall (台北市中山堂), Cian Yuan Apothecary (乾元參藥行), Lao Mian Cheng Lantern Shop (老綿成燈籠) and Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple appear on the big screen; so the audience gets to see real life as it was in this “Number One City” Taipei’s good old days!
Dadaocheng looks very different now from how it appeared in the past, but traces of history can still be found here and there. With the scent of tea, Chinese medicinal herbs, agarwood and dried foods lingering in the air, one can actually “smell” the cultural and historical context of Dihua Street. This old town site carries some special features characteristic of the old days, yet it keeps transforming. One can form a personal image of Taipei here, whether from the past or the present. For Mondo, Dadaocheng reminds him of his beginnings, back when he was a stranger in a strange land, giving his all and fighting for his dreams.
“I participate in the Games for myself, not for my country.”
Mondo started learning Taekwondo in junior high school, and was active in sports until age 26, when he quit the national team. During his decade as a national athlete, he won numerous trophies. For most athletes, competing in the Olympic Games is the ultimate dream, and Mondo was no exception. In the first round of the 2001 Taekwondo World Cup, held in Vietnam, he fought against a Korean who had won four championships in a row. Mondo was too complacent at first, and let his opponent fight back and kick him right in the head! This caused Mondo to bite his own lip and bleed profusely, yet he insisted on finishing the bout, even after swallowing blood! After losing, he went back to the athletes’ lounge only to find that his blood had seeped through his dobok (Taekwondo uniform) until the Japanese flag on it could hardly be seen. He later thought, with great regret, “What exactly am I doing?!”
With the glory of Japan uppermost in his mind, being defeated only made Mondo want to win even more, which is only natural for any athlete. Several months after his bloody defeat, he encountered the Taiwanese team at the U.S. Open Taekwondo Championship. “The Taiwanese are so loud! They laugh and enjoy themselves, but once they step into the arena, they kick beautifully!” Mondo exclaims. Taiwanese players have forged their place in the Taekwondo world, and their Olympic bronze medalist, Huang Chih-hsiung (黃志雄), was Mondo’s idol at the time. Huang’s unique kicking style was rarely seen in Asia, but Mondo was about the same height and rank, so he decided to come to Taiwan to learn more about Taekwondo. The following year, he received a special visa jointly issued by the Olympic committees of both Taiwan and Japan, and he started his three years of training at National Taiwan University of Sport.
“Right at the start of training, I got kicked in the teeth – and had one broken.”
Born in Miyazaki Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan, this athlete spoke no Chinese and couldn’t keep up with the others. On his first day of training, he got kicked in the teeth and had one broken. His classmate, the famous Taiwanese Taekwondo fighter, Su Li-Wen (蘇麗文) took him on her motorcycle to a dental clinic, and the dentist fixed his tooth for free! In order to catch up with the other trainees, Mondo practiced and practiced, even weekends and holidays, working harder than anyone. However, he still managed to gain six kilos by devouring cheap but tasty Taiwanese chow! The simple, passionate Taiwanese folk he encountered reminded him of his hometown, Miyazaki. By the 2005 East Asia Games in Macau, Mondo had dropped his weight from 70 to 58 kilos, and he defeated the reigning Japanese champion. He then rejoined the Japanese national team and was on the last mile of qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when something happened to make him fall apart both physically and psychologically. He found self-doubts such as: “Have I reached my limit?” and “Can I get any better?” entering his mind. He was at his peak athletically, but such thoughts bothered him at the 2006 World University Taekwondo Championships, and in a moment of distraction, he snapped his cruciate ligament and his life as a sportsman ended right there. He chose to come back to Taiwan and start from Ground Zero.
“Failing again! No way! I’ll never accept that.”
Mondo began his second career by working as a model, but it didn’t turn out as well as he thought it would. He was rejected over and over again at auditions. Oftentimes, his paycheck was barely enough to pay his rent. And due to restrictions placed on foreigners working in Taiwan, he was forced to teach martial arts on the grounds of the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (國父紀念館) in exchange for food and drink. And, what’s more, he notes that “Taiwanese people really don’t mind standing someone up!” He often waited half an hour for a student to show up, only to have the person text him that he or she was “taking leave” that day! But everything changed and his life finally settled down when he met his benefactor, Jimmy Hung (洪天祥), the man who led him behind the scenes to find work as a martial arts choreographer.
He’s also found success in the movies as a martial arts body double, which is very tough work. It might take a whole day to shoot a scene that plays for just a few seconds; and getting injured is a regular occurrence. But all efforts pay off in life, and through this work he learned about storyboarding, editing and scene setup. Each of these newly-acquired skills has helped him greatly in the entertainment business. At first, he didn’t want to be a guest on TV variety shows, but then, in 2014, he went on the famous program, Half and Half (二分之一強). His handsome looks and humorous way of talking drew a lot of attention and, after that, his “showbiz” career started to take off. Mondo admits, “I was going to focus on acting only, but by that time I was already thirty-something years old and I just couldn’t allow myself to fail again.” Aided by his increased popularity, athletic energy and engaging, humorous style, Mondo was able to tackle all kinds of jobs, such as hosting TV shows and organizing and planning intellectual travel programs. His excellent performances have allowed him to become the tourism ambassador for his hometown: Miyazaki Prefecture.
“When I feel I’m losing motivation, I just visit Dadaocheng and see if I am any different from what I was at the beginning.”
In one particular gourmet show, Mondo introduced Nagoya Japanese Dorayaki (名古屋日式銅鑼燒), a fifty-year-old stand in front of Yongle Market (永樂市場). Its authentic Japanese-custard filling reminds him of a flavor from his childhood. He also tried Mullet Roe Cheese Oolong Tea (烏魚子奶蓋烏龍茶), which is made by combining finely-chopped mullet roe with thick foamed cream and delicate Oolong tea. These flavors blend beautifully and this drink surely represents the spirit of modern placemaking.
For tourists from foreign lands, the retro atmosphere and cultural and creative trends in Dadaocheng may seem exotic, but for Mondo, they remind him of his beginnings. “Dadaocheng makes me think of the time when I first entered the entertainment business. Back then, I’d grab any chance, no matter how small the role or how little it paid. I often come here to recall those days.” Mondo’s favorite spot is Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple. This temple has a footprint of less than fifty pings, yet it has heard the prayers of hundreds of thousands of worshipers over the years. It is crowded with the faithful, and there’s a haze of incense in the air all year round. Many people from foreign lands have heard about it and come a long way to visit this shrine. “This is what travelers do; it’s not so much about religion, but more like seeking a sense of peace in your heart.”
Having lived in Taiwan for over a decade, Mondo often takes garbage bags with him to pick up litter on the street. He gets upset when he sees people carelessly dropping cigarette butts. Also, he likes to go to animal shelters and help with the stray pups in his free time. These are just three of the ways he shows his love for Taipei. Now that he has a permanent visa, the days of struggling under working visa restrictions have become just an anecdote to share with others. In his eyes, Taipei is a bit rushed, a bit crowded, and a bit pricy, but one can always turn down some small alley to find cheap, tasty local cuisine. As a host of a gourmet show, Mondo has tried all kinds of dishes, and believes that the fastest way to fit in to such city is to follow the old saw: “When in Taipei, do as the Taipeiers do.”
Looking over the past eleven years, we see that Mondo has transformed himself from an athlete into a successful entertainer, a fact which few would have believed possible in 2007. He has always trusted in his own abilities deeply, so his dreams have been realized without question. Currently, Mondo’s aim is to win a Golden Bell Award, . with his many co-workers and fans supporting him. When you find the direction to your dreams, sooner or later, they’ll come true!
Born in Miyazaki Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan, Mondo was a Taekwondo athlete on the Japanese national team from the age 17 to 26. Since 2007, he has appeared frequently on TV shows, advertisements, movies, and radio broadcasts. He hosts several popular travel and gourmet shows, and is the 2018 tourism ambassador for Miyazaki Prefecture.