Friday, July 22, 2016

Chimei Museum's Violins and Tools of Violence (Taiwan Business Topics)

If an exhibition center wants to be taken seriously – yet displays a stuffed polar bear across the corridor from medieval Indian weaponry, while oil paintings by the likes of Anthony van Dyck share the upper floor with jukeboxes – it had better state its mission clearly. Chimei Museum, which reopened in a purpose-built landmark building at the start of 2015, does all of these things.

Since the early 1990s, bentuhua (“localization”) has been a powerful force in Taiwan’s cultural sphere. The National Museum of Taiwan History, 14 kilometers from Chimei Museum in another part of Tainan, is the finest expression of this trend. But despite being founded by a man who served as a senior presidential advisor to Chen Shui-bian, Chimei Museum tacks in an utterly different direction.

Shi Wen-long, the tycoon behind the museum, was born in 1928. He founded what is now the Chi Mei Group in 1960. In addition to manufacturing acrylics, resins, and consumer electronics, the group operates three hospitals.

Shi has been passionate about museums since his youth. He was fortunate enough to attend an elementary school near one, and recalls in the preface to the book Highlights of the Chimei Collection: “For a child, free admission to a museum full of wonderful treasures was so fascinating that I spent most of my time after school there. This museum not only gave me vivid childhood memories, but also inspired me to later build a museum for the public. The founding essence of the museum has always been ‘to promote music comprehensible to the common ears, and to collect paintings beautiful to the common eyes.’”

The young Shi also fell in love with the sound of the violin. Because his family was unable to afford an instrument, he fashioned his own, taught himself to play, and eventually became a talented musician.

“Chimei Museum aims through its collection to demonstrate art history and the lineage of violin luthiers. Our current acquisition policy focuses on completing the mapping of these historical puzzles,” says Patricia Liao, the museum’s deputy director. “Mr. Shi’s dream is to start a cultural renaissance in Tainan. He has selected artworks which Taiwan residents would otherwise have to spend an enormous amount of time and money to view in person. This is why his collection is mostly Western works of art. Our job is to help him choose works that enhance the museum’s educational functions.”

The museum holds approximately 12,000 items. By comparison, Taipei’s National Palace Museum (NPM) has close to 700,000. Despite having a brand-new, specially designed building, Chimei Museum shares one problem with the NPM: Not enough space to put everything it owns on display...

The complete article appears in the July 2016 issue of Taiwan Business Topics, and is online here.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Instead of a Caffeine Kick, Try Curdled Soy Milk in the Morning (Roads & Kingdoms)

A few days before Dr. Tsai Ing-wen took the oath of office to become Taiwan’s first woman president - and the first female national leader in Asia who wasn’t the widow, daughter or sister of a previous leader - I went back to Kaohsiung to witness the scattering of a friend’s ashes.

A decade earlier, he’d told us he wanted his remains sprinkled in the shade of a huge banyan tree that overlooks the harbor. He eventually passed after years of ill health, some of which could be attributed to bad habits when younger. En route to the ceremony, I made a slightly dubious lifestyle choice of my own. I detoured to a breakfast establishment famous in Taiwan’s second city for adulterated soy milk. Once hailed as a protein-rich, low-calorie alternative to cow’s milk, unfermented soy products like soy milk are now linked to health problems including hypothyroidism, kidney stones, and male infertility. And if that isn’t bad enough, at Guo Mao Lai Lai the beverage is best enjoyed when it’s slathered with oily condiments and salty toppings.

But it’s fresh, meaning the beans are soaked the evening before, steamed before sunrise, blended, then pressed through a cheesecloth. Drunk hot and neat, just-made soy milk is quite unlike - and quite a bit stronger than - its bottled, refrigerated supermarket counterpart. For first-timers, the experience is akin to trying coffee prepared by a good barista after a lifetime of drinking instant. But raw soy milk isn’t to everyone’s taste, so many Taiwanese stir in sugar. In Mandarin Chinese, the non-sugared variant is called xian doujiang (鹹豆漿). This means “salty soy milk,” but at Guo Mao Lai Lai, only the finest of palates can detect brackishness beneath the various pungencies...

To read the second half of this story, go here. I first visited Guo Mao Lai Lai when researching this article, thanks an entry in this excellent blog.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Taiwan, an Undiscovered Retirement Destination

Few Americans consider Taiwan when planning their retirement, but those who've moved here aren't shy about naming the reasons they're staying: A welcoming society; high-quality yet inexpensive medical care; efficient transportation; and a fascinating diversity of urban and natural landscapes.  

If safety is a criterion, Taiwan is an excellent bet. In early 2015, US magazine Presscave rated Taiwan as the second-safest country in the world, behind Iceland. Taiwan is densely populated, and this means housing isn't cheap in Taipei and other big cities. Apartments are small by North American standards, but if – like me – you're the kind of person who prefers short hikes, bike rides and exploring ancient shrines to the “Great Indoors,” you won't be at home very much.

The cost of living drops dramatically when you reach the south of the island. In Tainan, it's possible to rent a well-located apartment suitable for a couple for US$400 per month. You'll need the air-conditioning that's standard between June and September, but you may never use your kitchen, as tasty meals can be had on every street corner for US$3. Getting proficient with chopsticks takes some practice, but soon enough you'll have a favorite beef-noodles eatery, and know who makes the best papaya milkshakes in your neighborhood.  

Tainan was Taiwan's capital for over two centuries until 1885. It's a treasure-house of Dutch-built forts (the Europeans came in 1624 and were kicked out in 1663), Taoist and Buddhist temples, and architectural landmarks left behind by the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Very few of these attractions charge admission. Notwithstanding its living-museum personality, Tainan – like every Taiwanese city – is thoroughly wired. High-speed internet allows folks living here to keep up with loved ones, or clients, in every corner of the world. And it helps blunt an inconvenient truth: Outside Taipei, not much English is spoken. That said, the kind of expatriate who thrives here treats the language barrier as a two-pronged opportunity. 

Firstly, it forces you to learn a bit of Taiwan's official language, Mandarin Chinese. Learning the numbers in Mandarin isn't difficult, and comes in very useful when shopping in neighborhood morning markets for superb local mangoes, pineapples and guavas. Secondly, many Taiwanese hope to improve their English, and they're willing to pay for tutoring. While it's true that many language schools prefer younger teachers, older Americans who look respectable and get along well with the locals will soon find themselves asked: “Could you teach me English?” Tutoring work pays at least US$18 per hour. Not all foreign residents are allowed to work, but if you speak with a clear, standard American accent, doors will open for you. 

There's more good news on the language front. Most doctors, especially those in major medical centers like Tainan's world-class National Chengkung University Hospital, have taken courses in the US and speak excellent English. English-speaking dentists aren't hard to find. Products in supermarkets and drugstores are almost always labeled in English as well as Chinese script. At airports and train stations, you'll find visitor centers where helpful English-speakers will plug any gaps in your knowledge of local transportation systems or tourist attractions.

Taiwan's proximity to Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong – together with visa-free entry rules which allow Americans, Canadians and most other Westerners to stay 90 days each time, no questions asked so long as they hold an air or sea ticket out – make the country an excellent base for anyone itching to explore Asia at an unhurried pace. 

I wrote and got paid for this article by a US website, but they've yet to publish it. They told me it's OK to post it on this blog first... so here it is. I took both photos in Greater Kaohsiung. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Pounding the Pavements of Old Taiwan (En Voyage)

Getting around Taiwan is exceptionally easy. In addition to the bullet trains which zip between Taipei and Kaohsiung, domestic flights to the east coast and outlying islands, commuter and rapid-transit trains, there are hundreds of bus routes. Visitors who want greater freedom can rent a car, a motorcycle, or a bike.

There’s also walking. Nowadays, humanity’s original means of transportation isn’t much favored by people making their way to work, school, or a place where they can have fun. This is especially understandable in Taiwan’s warm, wet summers. Yet more and more tourists - both domestic and international - are eschewing the tour bus, and opting to explore parts of the island on foot.

Ambulation makes total sense in the old heart of Tainan, Taipei’s Wanhua District, and much of Lugang. These places were settled long before the invention of the motor car. Until well into Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), ordinary people walked everywhere, while the wealthy traveled in sedan chairs carried by servants. Despite the best efforts of modernizing mayors, each place retains fascinating alleyways impenetrable to those who won’t get out of their cars.  

As part of a broad shift toward what Europeans call “slow travel” - but Taiwanese often label LOHAS (meaning “lifestyles of health and sustainability”) - walking tours are catching on in Taiwan, thanks in part to three organizations which take it upon themselves to organize regular, short-distance pedestrian excursions that free of charge.

One of these operates in Tainan, which even now is sometimes called Fucheng, or “government city.” This honorific acknowledges that, for more than two centuries until 1887, Tainan served as Taiwan’s administrative capital. In terms of current economic and political importance, it ranks behind Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Taichung. But many people find it the most interesting of Taiwan’s major cities, thanks to a stupendous density of historical and cultural attractions. A local idiom, “there's a major temple every five steps, a minor shrine every three,” is hardly an exaggeration. 

As a service to those who want to give the city’s captivating neighborhoods in the attention they deserve, Tainan City Government has thrown its weight behind a project called My Tainan Tour. This pairs knowledgeable, bilingual Tainan natives with small groups of tourists eager to dig a little deeper into local history and culture

Tourists heading to Taipei have a range of options. Some are offered by Like It Formosa, which describes itself as “an independent organization committed to promoting Taiwan and facilitating intercultural exchange.” Their guides are young, and bi- or trilingual. One of Like It Formosa’s most popular walkabouts is the Historic Tour held each Sunday. This kicks off at Longshan Temple in Wanhua, a famous house of worship in a grittily authentic part of the capital. There, the guides explain aspects of Taiwanese folk religion (“males should enter a sacred site left foot first; females should enter right foot first”) before moving onto the restored old street known as Bopiliao [pictured here]. 

The next two stops both date from the Japanese era. After a look at Ximending’s Red House, and a few words about its intriguing shape and varied history, it’s on to the Office of the President. The latter was completed in 1919. The tour culminates at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, three hours and 4.5km later. Like It Formosa’s Facebook page lists other Taipei tours, including a pub crawl, a LGBT-themed walk, and a look around history-rich Dadaocheng. There’s also a hike up Elephant Mountain, timed to enjoy the setting sun and superb nighttime views of Taipei 101.

Tour Me Away covers some of the same ground. Their Old Town Taipei expedition, however, also stops by Zhongshan Hall, a concert venue which embodies the dramatic twists and turns of Taiwan’s history in the 20th century. This Spanish-Islamic style building, completed in 1936, was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Japanese Emperor Hirohito. It was here in 1945 that the Japanese civilian authorities and armed forces in Taiwan signed an instrument of surrender. Soon afterward, it was renamed “Zhongshan” in honor of Sun Zhongshan, aka Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Nationalist Republic of China.  

Tour Me Away’s Taipei Chill Out Tour roams through Taipei’s Flower Market and along nearby roads including Yongkang Street. Two of Asia’s most famous xiaolongbao (soup-filled steamed dumplings) restaurants are located here, as are several other excellent eating options...

To read the complete article, click on this link to the online version of the magazine.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Taipei: The Bradt e-Guide

Rather than repeat what I've written elsewhere, I'll just post a link to this mention of my newly-published Taipei-only guide. Among the places I recommend to sightseers is Baoan Temple, where I took this photo. I can now claim to be the author of four books, a number which pleases me!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Interviewed by The Wild East Magazine

I recently did an email interview with Trista diGenova, editor-in-chief of The Wild East online magazine, about the writing workshop I'll be holding in late June. To read it, and find lots of other interesting articles, go here.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Historic Towns on the Dahan River (En Voyage)

Long before “made in Taiwan,” there was “grown in Taiwan.” As recently as the 1930s, the island was the world’s number-one source of natural camphor, and the fourth-largest producer of sugar. In terms of tea harvested, Taiwan ranked sixth. 

Trading in two of these three commodities brought prosperity to Sanxia and Daxi in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both towns are conveniently close to Taoyuan International Airport, within day-tripping distance of Taipei, and much adored by sightseers who have a taste for antiquity.

Sanxia means “three gorges,” and the place name reflects the importance that rivers held in the old scheme of things. Pioneers of Chinese origin began settling here in 1685, drawn by an abundance of natural resources. In addition to enough water to grow two crops of rice per year, the nearby mountains were covered with rich woodlands and streaked with seams of coal. In an era before roads, let alone motor vehicles or trains, goods of every kind were carried by porters to the nearest navigable waterway.

When tracts of forest were cleared for agriculture, the timber was used for building or sold, unless it was camphor. A model in Sanxia’s Historical Relics Hall depicts the low-tech, labor-intensive process by which camphor trunks were cut up, then heated to produce an oil prized for its medicinal and insect-repelling properties. Indigo dyeing was another major industry in the Sanxia of yore, thanks to abundances of clean water and Goldfussia formosanus, a wild plant from which the dye was extracted. Behind the Relics Hall, tourists can try their hand at dyeing tablecloths or handkerchiefs, so long as they make an appointment in advance. 

By the 1750s, businesses of all kinds were clustering a stone’s throw from the Sanxia River, a tributary of the Dahan River. The latter drains more than 1,100 km2 of hill country southwest of Taipei, and used to be the region’s main water-highway. Since the completion in 1964 of Shimen Dam, however, the water is rarely deep enough for a dinghy, let alone a barge.

From the late 18th century until well into the 20th century, Sanxia’s commercial hub was known as Sanjiaoyong Street. John Dodd, an Englishman who played a key role in the development of Taiwan’s tea industry in the final third of the 19th century, is believed to have come here on business. By 1945, when the official name was changed to Minchuan Street, road networks were steering commerce elsewhere. Many of the photogenic shop-houses fell into disrepair, a decline not arrested until the authorities launched a major renovation effort in 2004. 

The thoroughfare’s original name was restored along with its century-old red-brick arcades. Ornate baroque-style relief decorations were sandblasted. Hundreds of mud bricks were made by hand to fix disintegrating internal partitions. Sagging roofs were straightened. The street itself was paved with slabs of granite that were chiseled rather than machined. Unavoidable modern features, such as manhole covers and house numbers, were made to look as traditional as possible. 

Entrepreneurs have repopulated the street. Stores here sell everything excursionists could possibly want, including Sanxia’s famous niujiao (“ox horn”) bread. These chewy croissants come in a variety of flavors. For some visitors, Sanjiaoyong Street is not Sanxia’s top attraction. At the northern end of the street stands Zushi Temple, a treasure house of religious art. This shrine was founded in 1769, yet nothing here is especially old. Its value instead derives from the post-World War II efforts of Li Mei-shu, a local politician and acclaimed painter who set the highest standards while supervising restoration work between 1947 and his death in 1983.

The number and quality of wood and stone carvings is astonishing. There are crabs and other crustaceans, dragons, fish, owls, pangolins, elephants, sages, soldiers, and a whole orchestra of musicians. The ceiling of the central chamber, where incense is offered to Zushi, is breathtakingly elaborate. Zushi is the godly name of Chen Zhaoying, a 13th-century government official remembered for his courage during a Mongol invasion of China. 

Zushi Temple is often filled with people and incense smoke, so those seeking a more contemplative environment may wish to drive 15 minutes south to Baiji Xingxiu Temple [pictured here during freakishly cold weather in January 2016, when snow fell on the hills around Sanxia]. 

Located near the top of 740m-high Mount Baiji, the decor and design of this house of worship embody Taoist ideals of simplicity. Each day, dozens of people come here to undergo shoujing, a “fright-soothing” ceremony which many Taiwanese believe can relieve trauma and anxiety. Each ritual, conducted in the main courtyard by a blue-robed volunteer, takes less than a minute. Other visitors prefer to hike, or simply enjoy the view. On clear days, the lowland conurbation stretching from Taipei to Hsinchu is visible between the green hills which crowd the foreground.

Thirteen kilometers upstream, on a bluff with commanding views over the Dahan River, the settlement now known as Daxi (literally “big creek”) appeared in the early years of the 18th century. The first inhabitants were Ketagalan and Atayal indigenous people, but within a few generations Fujianese and Hakka settlers dominated the area.

A century ago, the Japanese authorities then ruling Taiwan reorganized Daxi’s commercial district. After the roads were widened, property-owners commissioned architects and artisans to create new facades for their homes. In keeping with the times, these incorporated a fabulous assortment of Baroque, Greek, Neo-Classical and Renaissance elements, along with some distinctly Taiwanese motifs. What was then known as Lower Street, but is now Heping Road, has better preserved buildings than Zhongyang Road, formerly Upper Street. Both deserve to be explored at a leisurely pace...

This article appears in the May edition of EVA's inflight magazine, and can be read online, starting from page 42.