Sunday, August 7, 2016

Chiayi: Visiting the City of 'Commendable Righteousness' (Taiwan Business Topics)

Which city has two botanical gardens compared to Taipei’s one, a reservoir said to have been dug by the Dutch in the 17th century, and Taiwan’s only Japanese colonial-era former jail [pictured right] open to the public? If your answer is Chiayi, you almost certainly live there.

The city (population: 271, 000) is surrounded by yet administratively separate from Chiayi County. Whereas the county stretches from abandoned saltpans on the coast to the western slopes of Yushan, Chiayi City covers a mere 60 square kilometers. It has no shoreline, and no point is more than 99.4m above sea level.
Chiayi is also the hometown of the first Taiwanese artist to win fame beyond the island. In 1926, Chen Cheng-po (1895—1947) became the first Taiwanese painter to have a work included in Japan’s most prestigious art exhibition. Chen’s works, which embody both Chinese landscape-painting conventions and aspects of Modernism, continue to be very popular; his 1935 Sunset at Danshui fetched US$6.5m when auctioned in 2007. But these days he is remembered as much for the way he died as for his artistic achievements.

Chen was a member of Chiayi’s city council when the February 28 Incident erupted. With other local leaders, he approached Nationalist Army units, hoping to begin negotiations. He and three others were immediately arrested; on March 25, 1947, they were marched to the train station and shot dead. The military authorities forbade their families from collecting the corpses immediately; the remains of Chen and the others were left to decompose on the street for several days. Surprisingly, there is nothing at the station — not even a simple plaque — to memorialize this grisly event.

Tourists need not go out of their way to see Chen’s paintings. Reproductions have been set on steel easels at various points around the city, including several in the park across the road from the small Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum (228-12 Guohua St; open: 9am to midday and 1pm to 5pm, Mon—Fri; free admission).

The front section of the Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum displays duplicates of more than 30 of Chen’s paintings, along with bilingual commentaries. The back room is given over to Chinese-language information about the 2-28 Incident in Chiayi. Chen also makes an appearance at Chiayi Municipal Museum (275 Zhongxiao Road; open: 9am to 5pm, Tue—Sun; free admission), where visitors will also find some interesting fossils and a great deal of geological information.

More unusual is the ceramics collection in the basement of the Cultural Affairs Bureau building between the museum and the main road. The Koji Pottery Museum (open: 9am to 5pm Tue—Sun; free admission) is a good introduction to the gorgeous art form that is sometimes called Cochin ware, and which is a key element of Taiwanese temple decoration.


Unfortunately, the municipal museum says little about Chiayi’s past. The city’s written history begins in the 1640s, when Dutch East India Company officials passed through an aboriginal village hereabouts. The Dutch — who are said to have later created Lantan, the 2km2 scenic body of water in the city’s eastern suburbs — spelled the village’s name Tilaossen. Fujianese settlers called it Tirosen, and rendered it in characters which Mandarin speakers pronounce Zhuluoshan. Because Zhuluoshan’s inhabitants successfully resisted Lin Shuang-wen’s anti-Qing rebel army in 1786, Emperor Qianlong in Beijing rewarded them with a more distinguished toponym name: Jiayi in Mandarin (Kagi in both Taiwanese and Japanese), meaning “commendable righteousness.”

After an earthquake flattened the city in 1906, the colonial authorities reorganized the city, giving it the straight but narrow roads it has today. The following year, work started on the narrow-gauge railroad which eventually reached Alishan. Large-scale logging around Alishan was halted in the 1960s, but the impact of the timber trade on the city remains very visible. The pond outside the Cultural Affairs Bureau is far older than the building; red cypress trunks from the mountains were kept in it so they would not crack or warp in the heat of the lowlands.

All over Taiwan, individual wooden bungalows from the Japanese era or just after have been restored and repurposed. What makes Hinoki Village (aka Cypress Forest Life Village) unique is the scale of the project. The village comprises 28 buildings, most of which were dormitories for forest-management officials and their families. The most elegant, however, is a 1914 cream-colored former clubhouse [pictured immediately above] with Tudor architectural elements. The village does not have much historic atmosphere, but it is photogenic, and a good place to stop for a coffee. 

A string of minor attractions links Hinoki Village with Chiayi TRA Railway Station, 1.6km away. At the time of writing, Chiayi Lumber Factory was closed for renovation, and Chiayi Motive Power Wood Sculpture Museum — a former power station — was between exhibitions. The narrow-gauge rolling stock on display at Alishan Garage Park will appeal to rail enthusiasts, and Beimen Station’s wood-walled, tile-roofed ticket office/waiting room looks as quaint as ever.

Beimen Station is less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Former Chiayi Prison (140 Weixin Road; open: Wed—Sun; free admission). Between 1922 and 1994, this jail held up to 300 male convicts, plus 30 women in segregated facilities. Inmates were held in three wings arranged so the corridors could be surveilled by a single officer from his desk. The main doors, made of yellow cypress from Alishan, the workshops in which convicts labored, and the bathhouse where they washed, have all been preserved. Visitors can only enter at certain times (9.30am, 10.30am, 1.30pm and 2.30pm) and must stay close to the guide. Call (05) 276-9574 in advance and it may be possible to arrange an English-language tour.


Among facts often related by the guides are that male staff, including the warden himself, were forbidden from entering the women’s section; and that inmates trying to escape over the wall often hurt themselves jumping down on the other side. Some limped around the corner to St Martin de Porres Hospital (founded in 1966 using money donated by American Catholics), where they were treated before being returned to captivity.

The city’s liveliest religious site is Cheng Huang Temple (168 Wufeng North Rd; open: 5.30am to 9pm daily), which was founded exactly 300 years ago. As its name suggests, the main deity here is the city god, Chenghuangye, and his effigy is in the very centre on the first floor. The temple was important enough to escape the ravages of the Kominka Movement in the late 1930s; that campaign by the Japanese authorities to “Nipponify” its colony resulted in the demolition or conversion to secular use of at least sixty shrines in Chiayi. Among the 600-plus icons inside Cheng Huang Temple are representations of Mazu and Guanyin, as well as heaven’s matchmaker, the Old Man under the Moon. 

Beizihtou Botanical Garden is adored by birdwatchers but gets few other visitors, despite having such arboreal wonders as Garcinia subelliptica and Canaga odorata. The first, sometimes called the Happiness Tree, bears a fruit resembling the satsuma and related to the mangosteen. However, the leaves are more valuable; in the Taiwan of yore they were used to produce a yellowish dye. In Chinese as well as English, the second is also the Perfume Tree. Stand downwind, and you will notice a pleasant fragrance.

Like Beizihtou, Chiayi Arboretum was established during the early years of Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. At 8.3 hectares, it is nearly twice the size of Beizihtou. Almost all the trails are shaded; the canopy is impressively dense thanks to a range of tree species, including teak, mahogany, and hoop pines (Araucaria cunninghamii Sweet).

Chiayi Park, adjacent to the arboretum, includes a few notable structures. Near the bland Confucius Temple is the 62m-high Chiayi Tower (open: 9am to 5pm Wed—Fri, 9am to 9pm Sat). If the weather is clear, do buy a ticket for the tenth-floor observatory (NT$50 for adults; children NT$25). The Shinto shrine that once stood here was demolished long ago, but the shrine’s former office survives in the form of Chiayi City Historical Relic Data Museum [lower picture in this post]. The displays inside are unlikely to engross you, but the sublime exterior is perhaps the city’s single most beautiful spectacle. Admission is free.

Few new museums have been as highly anticipated as the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (NPM). Rather than simply provide additional exhibition space for the world-renowned NPM in Taipei, the Southern Branch’s stated mission is, according to the Executive Yuan’s website, to be “a world-class museum of Asian art and culture.”

According to the original plan, the museum was to have been designed by US architect Antoine Predock and ready by 2008. But Predock quit the project before construction began. He was eventually replaced by Kris Yao, a Taiwanese architect best known for Lanyang Museum. Another deadline came and went in 2012, but Yao’s edifice — which some compare to a giant black slug — was given a soft opening on December 28 last year.

The Southern Branch offers five permanent exhibitions, among them a brief and mostly monolingual look at the history of Chiayi, and a multimedia gallery where three videos introducing Asian art are played (none has English subtitles). Far more engaging are the sections on tea culture in East Asia, in which you will learn that steeping tea leaves in hot water is a relatively modern method of preparing the drink, and on Buddhist artifacts drawn from the NPM’s collection. The highlight of the latter is a kangyur (a compilation of Buddha’s sayings) in Tibetan script created for the Emperor Kangxi in 1669. Although the individual pages are quite plain, the boards made to protect and separate parts of the canon are quite fabulous, and call to mind the illuminated manuscripts drawn by Christian monks in medieval Europe.

Of the temporary exhibitions, the most remarkable continues until October 12 this year. Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection features dozens of lustrous tea cups, spittoons, Quran stands, and other items fashioned from nephrite or jadeite. Several are inlaid with precious stones or gold thread. Some originated from Mughal India or the Ottoman Empire, and were gifted to Qing Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796), who then had poetry inscribed on many of the bowls and plates.

For details of forthcoming exhibitions, see the museum's website. Like Chimei Museum, access to the NPM Southern Branch is limited to those who make online reservations in advance. Standard admission is NT$250, but until June 30 residents of Yunlin and Chiayi counties and Tainan and Chiayi cities can get in for free, so long as they hold ROC citizenship. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday. The southern branch is located in Chiayi County’s Taibao City. Every half hour, a shuttle bus connects the museum with Chiayi HSR Station, 4.6km away (NT$24 one way). The museum’s bus stop is 530m from the entrance — the parking lots are not significantly closer — so visitors get a good look at the 70-hectare grounds before stepping inside. In a few years, when the trees have grown a bit, the surroundings should look magnificent.

This isn't the version which appeared in the magazine's recent travel and culture special issue, but rather a shortened version of the article as I submitted it. The editor decided the National Palace Museum Southern Branch was the most newsworthy element, so moved that segment to the front. The published piece (and some excellent articles by other writers) can be read online.

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.