Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blood rites in a Taiwanese temple (

The blowtorch failed to ignite the sheaves of spirit money, so the master of ceremonies splashed kerosene over the sodden pile, then touched his cigarette to it. Flames leapt up briefly, but the heavy spring rain soon quenched the fire. Unconcerned, the man turned his attention to another stack of the square yellow papers Taiwanese burn to show respect to their gods, and to ensure their ancestors have enough cash to sustain them in the afterlife.

Behind him a shirtless, sword-wielding spirit medium lurched like a drunk from one steaming heap of spirit money to the next. Only the medium's colorful apron, embroidered with supernatural symbols, marked him out as a deity's go-between, not a lunatic running amok. Each time the tang-ki (as such men are called in Taiwanese) halted, he applied the blade to his back, scalp and forehead. Blood trickled down onto his shoulders before disappearing in rivulets of rainwater. Ardent adherents of Taiwanese folk religion believe that such men are possessed, and protected from injury, by members of the religion's vast pantheon (36,000-plus divine personalities, according to one tally).

In his trance-like state, the tang-ki seemed oblivious to pain, weather and noise. Strings of firecrackers criss-crossing the tarmac went off, adding yet more smoke to the damp haze. I put my hands over my ears each time a bundle exploded, but it was the constant amplified drumming which made me fear for my hearing. The drum was three meters across and mounted on the back of a truck. Four young women dressed in mustard tracksuits thrashed away; their thunderous beating was constant and practiced. Taiwanese pilgrims often resemble teams of athletes, and train just as hard.

A steward ran back and forth among the spectators, his face reddened by the effort needed to make his whistle audible above the din. He was trying, with little success, to keep onlookers a safe distance from the spirit medium. Despite smoldering ash underfoot and a dangerous weapon swinging in random arcs about our heads, we all seemed compelled to move closer to the tang-ki...

This article appears in the July issue of To read the entire piece, start here. For an anthropological opinion on tang-ki, look at this interview.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Touring Taiwanese culture (South China Morning Post)

Most first-time visitors to Taiwan devote a few hours of their trip to the National Palace Museum (NPM) which, as everyone in Greater China knows, houses the better part of the art and curio collection built up over almost a millennium by scores of emperors. Touring a museum is an especially good option during Taiwan’s summer, when high temperatures and the occasional thunderstorm hamper outdoor exploring. The island has upwards of 500 museums, and several offer a better tourism experience than the rightfully renowned yet fearsomely crowded NPM.

Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, a mere 200 metres from the NPM, has Taiwan’s foremost collection of artefacts relating to the island’s indigenous Austronesian minority. Among the most beautiful items are traditional costumes, such as the tunics worn by men from the Atayal and Truku tribes during dances held to celebrate successful head-hunting missions. Such garments feature delicate red and blue stitching, white shells, black beads and up to 900 tiny copper bells.

There are also canoes from Orchid Island, bronze weapons, musical instruments and household utensils. Wooden twin cups used by the Paiwan tribe allowed two men to sip liquor at the same time – a ritual when sealing an alliance – and be sure the other was not trying to poison him. 

The best place to learn about Taiwan’s earliest human inhabitants, who preceded the Austronesians by thousands of years, is the National Museum of Prehistory [where the picture here was taken]. Located on the outskirts of Taitung City, the NMP makes a good stop for anyone on a self-driving tour of the east coast. Youngsters are especially intrigued by the lifesize models of animals which roamed Taiwan before the arrival of mankind, among them rhinos, elephants, big cats and small horses.

Every facet of Taiwan’s human history, from the discovery of a few teeth which proved people were living here at least 28,000 years ago, to the political pluralism of recent decades, is covered by the superb National Museum of Taiwan History. The past comes alive thanks to 200 Madame Tussaud-type figurines...

This article, which also mentioned the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art in Taichung, appeared in a recent holiday supplement in Hong Kong's main English-language newspaper.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Valley at the Heart of Taiwan's Untamed East (En Voyage)

The eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung have more than a fifth of Taiwan’s land area, yet contain a mere 2.4 percent of the country’s population. Express trains from Taipei reach Hualien in less than three hours. For an even quicker escape, board a Taitung-bound plane at Taipei’s Songshan Airport. The flight time is just one hour.

It’s no surprise that Highway 11, the intensely scenic coast road from Taitung to Hualien, draws a lot of tourists. However, the inland route through the East Rift Valley is even more alluring. This well-watered region, more than 150km from north to south, is squeezed between highlands. The Central Mountain Range hinders access to Taiwan’s more developed western half, while the Coastal Mountain Range shelters the valley from Pacific typhoons.

Much of Taiwan’s best farmland can be found in the East Rift Valley, which is also known as the Huatung Valley. Since Japan’s 1895-1945 colonial occupation of Taiwan, the township of Chishang has been synonymous with rice of the highest quality. As demand for organically grown food increases, more and more Rift Valley farmers are reviving traditional methods such as raising ducks in their rice fields. Not only do these fowl eat snails and other pests, but their feet also stir the soil and their excrement is good fertiliser. Paddies which have been spared industrial pesticides teem with frogs, spiders and tiny moths.

The valley is an excellent place to sample aboriginal cooking, which is based on millet rather than rice

The full article can be seen in the online version of EVA Air's inflight magazine. Click here and scroll through the magazine. The photo shows an old wooden bungalow in Lintianshan, an East Rift Valley attraction I mention in the article, and which I've also added to my guidebook for the just-published second edition.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Staying on Track: Exploring Taiwan by Train (Centered on Taipei)

Trains aren't the cheapest way of getting around Taiwan, and often they’re not the quickest. The high-speed railway will get you from Taipei to Kaohsiung in as little as one hour 36 minutes, but at four times the price of a midweek bus ticket (journey time about five hours). Very few of the conventional expresses operated by Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), a branch of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, cover that route more quickly than buses, even though the cost is double. That said, rail travel is an excellent way to explore Taiwan. The island’s trains are safe and ultra-reliable. They don't get stuck in traffic. And while they can't carry you through Taroko Gorge or to a beach in the Penghu Islands, they can deliver you to several worthwhile destinations. 

If all goes to plan, by the end of this year the famous logging railroad between Chiayi City and Alishan will again be taking sightseers from 30m above sea level to an altitude of 2,216m via a spectacular 72km-long route which includes switchbacks, the spiral ascent of a mountain, and so many bridges and tunnels you’ll lose count. (The photo above shows one of the forest railway's diesal locomotives).

Hsinchu, Chiayi and Tainan HSR stations are several kilometers from the centers of those cities, whereas TRA services convey passengers to within walking distance of downtown attractions. Hsinchu TRA Station is just 300m from Yingxi Old East Gate, and 750m from Beimen Street, a thoroughfare packed to the gills with old buildings. If you live in Taipei and
have never seen Hsinchu’s historic side, do make the trip.

At Tainan TRA Station, pick up a map from the information center and commence your walking tour. Even if you stray no more than a kilometer from the station, it’s possible to take in the city’s incomparable Confucius Temple, Fort Provintia (built by the Dutch East India Company in 1653), the exquisite Sacrificial Rites Martial Temple and several other places of worship. In the same neighborhood you’ll find Japanese colonial-era landmarks...

To see the whole article, pick up a print copy of the June/July issue of Centered on Taipei, or go here and scroll down to page 24.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The second edition of my guidebook is out

I've just received my advance copy of the second edition of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide (link to Amazon here; an electronic version will be available very soon) and I'm very pleased with it. The inside photos are much better than those in the first edition (thanks to the efforts of photographers including Rich J. Matheson), the maps are clearer because hotel and restaurant names have been moved to listings boxes, more of the attractions are listed in Chinese script as well as by their English names, and the background sections on history and nature are tighter and sharper, as well as fully up to date.

Attractions appearing for the first time in this new edition include the National Museum of Taiwan History, Lanyang Museum, Lintianshan and Baibau Creek (both in Hualien County), Japanese-era landmarks in downtown Taichung, the Foguangshan-affiliated Buddha Memorial Centre, and what is perhaps the only museum in the world dedicated to the sex industry - Kinmen's Military Brothel Exhibition Hall.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Native Beauty (Sawasdee)

Taiwan is often presented as a thoroughly Chinese society, and you’d be forgiven for thinking its people were homogenous. Long before the 17th century, when Chinese migrants began to settle on the island, Taiwan was home to at least 25 Austronesian ethnic groups. These aborigines, who currently number around 534,000, still speak more than a dozen languages. These tongues are very different to the Mandarin and Hokkien used by most Taiwanese citizens, and the fabulous linguistic diversity they display is one reason many scholars are now convinced Taiwan is where the Austronesian branch of humanity began.
Archaeological discoveries also support the theory that Austronesian people spread out from Taiwan to Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand and other places in the first millennium AD.

Taiwan's indigenous people are slightly darker and stockier than their Chinese compatriots. Their eyes are rounder, their noses more prominent. But generations of intermarriage have blurred the boundaries between Chinese and Austronesian. Many, possibly a majority, of the former have some indigenous blood. 

Taiwan’s aborigines account for just over two per cent of Taiwan's 23 million people, but they're very well represented in the fields of pop music and professional sport. However, these glamorous worlds are far removed from the lives of most indigenes. On average, they earn less and have fewer years of schooling than Taiwanese of Chinese descent. Many leave their villages in Taiwan’s mountainous interior to take labouring jobs in the big cities...

The complete article can be read in the May edition of Sawasdee, the inflight magazine of Thai Airways, and is accompanied with photographs taken by Rich J. Matheson. The photo here, taken in Pingtung County's Wutai Township, is mine.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Opening Up Taiwan's Clam Heartland (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan is - no exaggeration - a paradise for lovers of seafood, with clams being a particular favorite. They appear in soups and stir-fries, and can also be grilled or pickled. Curious why Taiwan enjoys such an abundance of clams, and eager to sample some of the island’s best, Travel in Taiwan recently headed to the southern city of Tainan in search of answers.

Clams are found around the world, in freshwater as well as oceans. An Arctica islandica clam found in the sea off Iceland in 2006 turned out to be 507 years old, making it the oldest individual animal ever discovered whose age could be accurately ascertained. Clams, like trees, have annual growth bands, although the ones enjoyed in Taiwan’s restaurants are seldom more than two years old.

For as long as humans have been living on the island, clams have featured in Taiwanese cuisine. Clam shells have been discovered in middens around the island. Even now, at many points along the coast, some members of the older generation still gather and cook wild clams. But the vast majority of clams eaten in Taiwan nowadays are cultivated in coastal ponds along the southwestern coast. With over 100 hectares devoted to raising clams, Tainan’s Qigu District (台南市七股區) plays a major part in local shellfish production.

Outside Taiwan, Qigu is best known for Black-faced Spoonbills and other migratory birds which spend each winter here. The presence of so many birds is no coincidence. The mild conditions in which clams thrive also support shrimps, snails and small fish, staple foods for waterbirds.

Qigu’s clam-raising heartland is utterly flat. Compared to other parts of Taiwan the absence of buildings and greenery is striking. The region is criss-crossed by long straight roads and utilities poles; at least three quarters of the surface area is covered with water...

This article also appears in the May/June issue of Travel in Taiwan, and on the magazine's website.