Monday, August 4, 2014

Taiwan’s Ubiquitous Foot Massage Parlors (Taiwan Business Topics)

It seems impossible to walk very far in Taipei or other major Taiwan cities before coming across a storefront offering foot massage. The popularity of the practice in recent years is hardly surprising. All forms of massage appeal to those who want better health without taking medicine or who wish to relieve stress without the use of alcohol or electronic devices.

The principles of foot massage, also known as foot reflexology or zone therapy, mesh perfectly with the LOHAS ("lifestyles of health and sustainability") philosophy adopted by many young, well-educated consumers. In addition, many tourists find that enjoying a foot massage is an excellent way to conclude a long day of sightseeing and shopping. 

As a form of therapy, reflexology has been around for over 2,000 years. It is described in Huangdi Neijing, an ancient medical text known in English as The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon or The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor. However, the discipline's recent history – both here and on the Chinese mainland, where it originated – has been checkered.
During the Cultural Revolution, many practitioners in the People's Republic of China dared not give massages to strangers lest they be attacked by Red Guards for perpetuating old customs and habits. 

In Taiwan, there was no government- recognized national organization for foot masseurs and masseuses until 1991, and that association was technically a sports club registered with the Ministry of the Interior. Two years later, what is now the Ministry of Health and Welfare gave approval of sorts to traditional foot massage, categorizing it as a folk remedy. By removing the possibility that practitioners could be prosecuted for being "underground doctors," the reform allowed foot masseurs and masseuses to talk more openly about the theory behind what they do, and how reflexology may help some people.

Unlike Chinese herbal medicine treatments, foot massage is not covered by Taiwan's National Health Insurance system. Nor is there a national system regulating the training of reflexology practitioners. Courses are offered by several different organizations, the cheapest and shortest being those offered by the Ministry of Labor's Workforce Development Agency. These involve 54 hours of instruction spread over a month, but experienced masseurs say that between four and 12 months' training is required to attain real proficiency.

Although there is no clear scientific evidence to support the traditional Chinese notion that ailments of internal organs are treatable via particular nerve endings on the soles of the feet, medical opinion is fairly positive about the overall benefits of foot reflexology. According to the website of the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing: "Research studies in the U.S. and around the world indicate positive benefits of reflexology for various conditions. In particular, there are several well-designed studies, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health that indicate reflexology's promise as an intervention to reduce pain and enhance relaxation, sleep, and the reduction of psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression."

The website also notes that reflexology seems to cause "an increase in blood flow to kidneys and to the intestines," improved kidney function in kidney dialysis patients, lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety, plus pain reduction for those suffering from AIDS, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and other conditions.

Some benefits are even seen for cancer patients. The website states: "Studies showed reduction of pain, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, and improved quality of life with reflexology..."


The read the second half of this article, click on this link. Another useful article on the subject can be found here. The photo was taken by Rich J. Matheson, who also supplied the image on the magazine's cover.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Exploring the World of Taiwanese Tea (Taiwan Business Topics)

Teas grown in Taiwan have many fans, both on the island and overseas, but few are more avid than Stephen Carroll. When Carroll, a Briton who has lived in Australia for many years, encountered Taiwanese Oolong in 2012, it was love at first sip. 

"My first thought was that I'd never before tried a tea that tasted of tea as well as what I could only describe as flowers," he recalls. "I had to learn a new sensory vocabulary for this sort of tea. I thought to myself: 'How can leaves from one bush produce such a panoply of neurological inputs?' The experience was rewarding for my nose, tongue, mouth, and throat." 

Glenn Shark, an American connoisseur of Taiwan teas, does not hesitate to describe the island's high-mountain Oolongs as "the champagnes of tea." He attributes their tremendous quality to natural factors: "Taiwan is the only tea- growing country that combines high-altitude climate, mineral-rich volcanic soil, and close proximity to moist, ocean air currents. This causes slower plant growth and results in sweeter, aromatic teas with a distinctive dry aftertaste." 

"Taiwan Oolongs include a larger span of leaf styles and oxidation levels than their Chinese Oolong cousins, giving tea enthusiasts more delicious choices to explore," asserts The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to the World's Best Teas by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss. In Alishan, Lishan and Shanlinxi, the book goes on to state: "The tea bushes yield relatively small quantities of astoundingly good tea... Despite their high cost, many [high mountain teas] never leave Taiwan, as they are spoken for year after year by Taiwanese customers loyal to these artisan farmers." 

The vast majority of Taiwanese teas are made from the leaves and leaf buds of Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Indian teas come from a different strain, Camellia sinensis var. assamica. Whether a tea is classed as green, black, or Oolong depends largely on the degree of oxidation. For green teas, the leaves are minimally oxidized. Black teas are fully oxidized, while Oolongs are withered under the sun and partly oxidized. Over the past few decades, Taiwan's tea producers have gradually shifted away from black tea and focused more and more on Oolongs.

The complete article is here. The photo shows a tea plantation near Dabang, an aboriginal village not far from Alishan.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Touring the Remains of Taiwan’s Sugar Industry (Taiwan Business Topics)

Several of the world's poorest countries are dependent on sales of a single agricultural commodity, among them Burundi (the livelihood of 55% of the population is tied to coffee) and Malawi (tobacco represents over 70% of export revenue). It is hard to imagine nowadays, but Taiwan was once in a similar situation.

Just before and for years after World War II, sugar was the mainstay of its economy. Sugarcane, a species of grass that reaches about two meters in height and slightly resembles bamboo, has been grown in Taiwan for at least as long as Han Chinese have been present on the island. The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan as a colony between 1895 and 1945, nurtured the local sugar industry. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered almost 170,000 ha, a fifth of Taiwan's farmland. Cane was grown from Linkou in the north to Hengchun at the southern tip, on the east coast as well as throughout the western lowlands. One in seven Taiwan households had some connection to the industry.

At its peak in 1950, sugar accounted for 73.6% of the ROC's exports by value. But since the 1970s, due to competition from Brazil and other producers, Taiwan's sugar industry has been in unstoppable decline. The number of active refineries has fallen from 49 to just three.

The growing, transportation, and processing of sugar have left a lasting physical imprint in almost every part of Taiwan, however. More than a dozen shuttered mills are still extant, and hundreds of kilometers of railway tracks laid by sugar companies remain in place...


This is the first of three articles I wrote for this year's Travel & Culture Special, published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. To read the whole piece, go here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Blood rites in a Taiwanese temple (PerceptiveTravel.com)

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 PerceptiveTravel.com. 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.