OF ALL THE PEOPLE I worked with over several decades in Asia, Jay Speiden, who passed away on Sunday in Shanghai, was the most absurdly and casually talented. He is the only writer I have worked with who could start a travel story on the lip of a cliff, struck by the thought that the tourism official hovering behind him was tempted to push him to the rocks below.
I met Jay at Underworld, a now defunct indie live music joint in a basement on Shida Road in Taipei. He had a tape recording of his guitar and vocals and was looking for gigs. He told me had a column called “Peter Perves on TV” in the daily newspaper then known as the China News. I said I thought it was the only decent thing in the entire newspaper.
When we launched the Taipei Times, Jay was the first person I asked to come on board with me at the Features section. We were irreverent about our work, did whatever we pleased—to the frustration of almost everybody else who worked at the newspaper, but we didn’t care. Years later, Jay wrote to me, “It was a towering and carefree time. Back then we drove through the night, loose-jacketed and wide-eyed, always with some new city on the horizon beckoning like a cool mess of glittering jewels … I actually came to believe that offices were places where creativity was rewarded, fear didn’t exist and shitty bosses and stupid people were things to be openly mocked. It was a time of finicky mojos, wild bears, bad teeth, neon sex and horrendous fuck-ups executed with artistry and style and without apology … Above all I remember laughing.”
That was Jay. That was how he wrote—off the cuff, with a geeky, bent artistry that snuck up and beguiled you with unfolding surprises.
Jay went on to make a drily funny mockumentary, The Cloggers of Putneyville, he wrote for TV in the US—an experience that left him frustrated and yearning to return to Asia.
“I’ve produced two pilots out of my own pocket, both of which have gotten representation and reached deep into the clean, poster-walled offices of production houses in Burbank and Studio City … only to fizzle there and die near the gourmet coffee makers, to die quietly in the corners of plasma-screen-adorned meeting rooms,” he told me in an exasperated email. “’Too informational’, ‘too weird’ and, worst of all ‘too smart’. (Actually, nobody ever said ‘too smart’ but that’s clearly what they were driving at). American TV only wants what fits the lowest common denominator.”
Jay made his way to Shanghai after a stint at the Jakarta Globe. In Shanghai, he took stark, neon-lit fadeout photographs and made “Pony Tales” video shorts, as if his native eccentricity had taken him to a place where he could do nothing but be himself.
A year before he passed away, he wrote to me, “I was at a gaming event and I thought that Jack Ma was staring at me from the stage. I woke up in an empty ship container some five days later in the middle of the Gobi Desert wearing a silver smock with a large jagged scar on my abdomen and, I’ve not told this to anyone, both my legs were missing and replaced with some sort of high-grade, ceramic-plated insectile exoskeleton legs. Sometimes I’m sure I could run the speed of sound if I wanted to … I’ve just not tried it … yet.”
Jay was always running at the speed of sound. Sadly, too few—other than his friends—could keep up with him or appreciate the unique trajectory of his journey.