Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bilingual Living Environment Commission of Kaohsiung City

In my (physical) mailbox yesterday: A letter from Kaohsiung City Government, notifying me that I've been reappointed a commissioner of the Bilingual Living Environment Commission of Kaohsiung City for the year of 2014. I've been a member of this committee since 2011. It's an honor and I feel flattered they value my opinions. Oddly, I was never asked if I wanted to join the committee – I was appointed, and sent a letter, and that was that! Also, this year isn't the first in which the reappointment notice has come long after January 1...

The commission meets every few months and it's work includes reviewing translations of places names (including tourist attractions) and the names of local government agencies. One place we haven't talked about is the Chen Jhong-he Memorial Hall, pictured here. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You Don't Know China - A new book by John Ross

You Don't Know China: Twenty-two Enduring Myths Debunked is a brand new book by John Ross, published by Camphor Press.

Ross is a friend of mine, and I had the pleasure and privilege of reading substantial segments of this book while it was being written. His first chapter, titled “Five Thousand Years of History,” deals with a canard familiar to all who've been anywhere near China, and one which I encountered several times back in the 1990s when I was doing a lot of English teaching.

I was often told by adult students here in Taiwan that they were proud of their Chinese heritage because “China has 5,000 years of history.” Challenging dearly-held ideas is always fun, so I sometimes responded by pointing out that other civilizations around the world are just as old if not older. This seemed to make little impression, so I changed tack. I'd ask students how old their motorcycles were, then point to the one with the most ancient set of wheels and declare his was the most admirable because it was older than others. It's just possible my joke made a few of them ponder what Ross slams as “the hypocrisy of glorifying history yet so poorly preserving it.”

This is the kind of book where a dozen readers will likely have a dozen different favorite chapters. Ross takes his scalpel (and occasionally a hammer) to feng shui, traditional Chinese medicine, and the eagerness of some Westerners to relocate to China or study Mandarin.

Ross is on top form when discussing financier Jim Rogers' much-discussed move from the USA to Singapore (because Rogers thinks Asia is theplace to be and that his daughter ought to learn Mandarin):

The city state of Singapore is about the same distance from Shanghai as London is distant from a remote southern Saharan town called Timbuktu. Rogers chose to relocate to Singapore rather than to a Chinese city as he would have preferred because of China’s horrendous pollution and the potential effect this would have on his children’s health. Even for someone of Rogers’ enormous wealth, it’s impossible to find a city in China offering anything approaching a high quality of life. China is not the place to be. Comparisons with New York of the early twentieth century are laughable. In 1907 well over one-third of New York’s population was foreign born. Foreigners are not flocking to China; the numbers are miniscule even for the big cities of Shanghai and Beijing. According to local officials, Shanghai had 173,000 resident foreigners at the end of 2012. Far more people are trying to get out of China than trying to get in.

Elsewhere in the book, Ross concludes that Marco Polo did go to China (contra this school of thought), that isolationism has never been a Chinese trait, and that China's biggest cities are not nearly so huge as often portrayed.

Whether they agree with his arguments or not, readers are sure to learn a lot from this book. The chapter about opium, for instance, has some engrossing nuggets about the link between the prohibition movement and churches:

Arguments that opium was no worse than booze didn’t wash with many Western advocates of opium prohibition. The anti-opium movement grew out of the temperance movement, which had become very strong by the middle of the nineteenth century. Protestant churches were at the forefront of the fight against both the “demon drink” and its Chinese equivalent. It was no coincidence that the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade was founded by diehard teetotallers (in 1874, by a group of Quakers, to be exact). In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church, wisely tolerant in the ways of the bottle, was not active in the anti-opium movement. Missionary accounts [were] greatly exaggerated...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sugar Heritage and Tourism in Transition

I've begun working on a lengthy magazine article about sugar-industry sites here in Taiwan which have been transformed into tourist attractions, and online research came up with extracts from a book called Sugar Heritage and Tourism in Transition (edited by Lee Jolliffe; Channel View Publications; December 2012). The chapter devoted to Taiwan – “Transforming Taiwan's Sugar Refineries for Leisure and Tourism,” authored by Abby Liu – begins with a 57-word quote from this 2006 article I wrote for China Post, one of Taiwan's English-language newspapers. It's always nice to see a sign that someone takes at least some of your work seriously...

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 in review

2013 certainly felt like a busy year. Between January and early November, much of my writing time was devoted to updating Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide, the second edition of which will be published in spring 2014. This naturally involved field research in addition to lots of time on the Internet and telephone; especially enjoyable were my expeditions to the Matsu National Scenic Area, Mount Dabajian (even though the weather didn’t cooperate), the coastline and forts near Keelung, and the eastern counties of Hualien (where, for the first time in more than a decade, I slept in a temple) and Taitung. A long motorcycle trip started in Taichung, took me on back roads to Puli, then on to Sun Moon Lake, Shuili and Chiayi.

The guidebook project caused me to turn down some work offers, but I found time to develop additional content for Life of Taiwan (most of the work for that site was done in 2012), and also write some long pieces for Taiwan Review (following the abolition of the Government Information Office, this monthly is published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Taiwan Business Topics (on bats, among other subjects). I also contributed shorter articles to Culture.TW and Travel in Taiwan, three inflight magazines, and for the first time had by by-line in the South China Morning Post and Business TravellerAsia-Pacific.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sauntering Around Beigang (

In many ways, Beigang is a typical Taiwanese town. It functions as a marketplace and religious center for the surrounding countryside; there are factories, auto-repair businesses and clinics. However, in terms of jobs and excitement, there is not enough here to stop young people from relocating to Taiwan's major cities. As a result the town's population (currently 42,000) has been shrinking and aging since the early 1980s.

If the prospect of living in Beigang excites few people, spending half a day in the town is a popular thing to do, especially around the time of Mazu's birthday (the 23rd day of the third lunar month; in 2014 it falls on April 22).

Beigang's best-known place of worship is Chaotian Temple. This folk shrine, founded in 1694, is one of the five most important in Taiwan devoted to the worship of Mazu, the sea goddess who has long been the island's most popular deity. Until the 1980s, Chaotian Temple was a stopover on the annual nine-day, 300-kilometer pilgrimage that honors Mazu before her birthday. But since a dispute between Chaotian Temple and Dajia Jenn Lann Temple - the starting point and organizer of the pilgrimage - the former has played no role in what is now officially called the Taichung International Mazu Festival.
Chaotian Temple is sacred in the eyes of its supporters, but no place for quiet contemplation. The faithful burn so much incense inside, and let off so many firecrackers in the grounds, that you may well cut your visit short without seeing the temple's oddest curiosity: An old iron nail embedded in a granite step...

The entire article can be read here. The photo shows Shunfenger (one of Mazu's retainers) inside Chaotian Temple.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival (Travel in Taiwan)

These days, Zuoying is a Kaohsiung suburb best known for Lotus Pond and the colorful temples that surround this pretty body of water. But back in the 17th century, just after Koxinga expelled the Dutch East India Company from Taiwan, it was the military and administrative headquarters of Wannian County and thus a place of considerable importance. Today the toponym lives on in the annual Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival. 

There are times when people on this island put their smartphones down and their 21st-century concerns and ambitions aside, and a much older Taiwan bursts into the foreground. The final day of the Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival was one such occasion. 

My friends and I were positioned in front of Zuoying's Cheng Huang Temple, enjoying a form of entertainment that's hardly changed in hundreds of years. Lion dancers, accompanied by drum-beating and gong-thumping musicians, teased children, snapped their jaws shut inches from spectators' faces, and threw candies into the crowd. But the professional and amateur zhentou troupes who perform these and other stunts aren't slavish in their adherence to tradition. Modern twists on old forms include Techno San Taizi or Techno Prince performances. Another example followed the lion dancers. Five young men dressed to resemble the key characters of Journey To The West danced disco-style to pop music. Even if you've never heard of this classic Chinese novel, you may well know the story (based on the adventures of a seventh-century Chinese monk who traveled to India to study Buddhist scriptures) because it inspired a Japanese TV series shown throughout the English-speaking world under the title Monkey. 

A few minutes later we turned our attention to the real star of the show – the Great Wannian Fire Lion. This effigy, cute yet dignified, is far larger than a real lion. But for a yellow underbelly, it was covered with red tinsel “fur.” Red, of course, is an auspicious color in Chinese culture. 

The lion is set ablaze at the very end of the festival so as to carry the wishes of the faithful up to heaven. Therefore it's designed to burn well. There's a very real risk of premature destruction, however, because thousands of firecrackers are detonated beneath and around it as it parades through Zuoying's streets prior to its sacrifice. I wasn't surprised to see a man following with a small tank of water and a hand-held sprayer, ready to put out any fires...

The complete article appears in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan, a magazine sponsored by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


With my permission, MataTaiwan has republished my recent article on efforts to revive the language of the Sirayan lowland aboriginal tribe on their website. MataTaiwan is an indigenous-themed website mostly in Chinese, and I'm very glad they want to bring my article to more readers.