Monday, July 25, 2011

Patron of paint (Silkroad)

Raymond Wang's weekly trips to art shows led him to found Taipei's Jia Art Gallery in 1990. Travelling the world, he seeks and sponsors emerging artists and believes China is now a hotspot for such talent.

"For a gallery owner, the most important characteristics are honesty and having the right attitude," says Wang, chairman of the Art Galleries Association R.O.C.

Wang bought his first painting in 1971 after finding that trips to art galleries were a good distraction from work worries. "Visiting galleries became a weekly activity for me and I became an avid art lover," he recalls...

This interview appeared in the March 2011 issue of Silkroad; the gallery has posted the whole piece on their website.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Blissful retreat (Silkroad)

Taipei is a city of the 21st century. Home to Taipei 101, the second-tallest building in the world, it acts as the island's commercial centre with more than 90 percent of its inhabitants having access to WiFi. But what lies beyond this city of nearly three million? Try Danshui, a seaside town steeped in history and architecture...

This article appeared in Silkroad, the inflight magazine of Dragonair, back in March, but I've only just received my copy of the magazine. The photo here - which shows Danshui's Fort San Domingo - was taken by Craig Ferguson, and will also appear in the Taiwan guide cell-phone app I'm working on.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Have You Eaten Yet? The 2011 Taiwan Culinary Exhibition (Taiwan Business Topics)

In Europe, it is said that the French live to eat while the British merely eat to live. But on a global level, many people in Taiwan show a passion to eat well that exceeds even the legendary culinary enthusiasm of the French. When greeting each other, Taiwanese people often ask, “Have you eaten yet?” rather than “How are you?”

Step into a popular restaurant in a Taiwanese city and you will find people not only thoroughly enjoying their food, but also taking notes and photos so they can share their experience with other foodies via blogs. Renowned roadside vendors are often surrounded by throngs of people queuing, ordering, and waiting for portions of the fare for which the hawker is famous. Some of these customers are blue-collar folk getting around on bicycles, while others are professionals who arrived in expensive sedans. In Taiwan, great food crosses all social boundaries.

Taiwanese cooking is characterized by a preference for rice over noodles. Yams and taros are additional sources of carbohydrates. Soups – which may contain more meat than vegetables – are served with almost every meal. Pork and chicken appear more frequently than beef or mutton; duck and goose are also popular. As you would expect on an island, fish and seafood are very common. Even though Taiwan's mild climate ensures that vegetables are available year-round, pickles are also popular. Greens are usually fried (often with garlic or ginger), rather than boiled or steamed.

The majority of Taiwanese trace their ancestry to Fujian, the mainland Chinese province closest to the island, yet Fujianese cuisine is not the only cooking style to have strongly influenced the way Taiwanese people cook and eat. Japanese food is also commonplace, a consequence of the 50 years Japan ruled Taiwan. Seaweed is widely used, and Japanese standards like miso soup appear alongside thoroughly local dishes. In addition, refugees from every Chinese province followed Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist government when it relocated to the island; to earn a living, many of these migrants began cooking and selling hometown-style delicacies. A good number of these eateries are still in business, and more than a few have reached the top rank of the restaurant trade.

Each year, gourmets look forward to the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition (TCE). Since 1990, the TCE has been celebrating and promoting the cuisines of Taiwan, the Chinese mainland, and ethnic Chinese communities overseas...

This is part of an advertorial text, sponsored by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, that appears in Taiwan Business Topics' Travel & Culture special issue. Go here for the whole text.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Natural and manmade beauty fills Sandimen (Taiwan Business Topics)

More than 50,000 of Pingtung County's 873,000 inhabitants are aboriginal, and a string of villages dominated by the Paiwan and Rukai tribes stretches from the northeastern corner of the county all the way to Kenting National Park on Taiwan's southernmost tip. The best known of these settlements is a village that people from the plains often call Sandimen, but which the government officially refers to as Sandi. The township in which it lies – which is the actual Sandimen – contains six villages, some more accessible than others, and of its 7,400 residents, 94% are indigenous. The neighboring townships of Majia, Wutai, and Taiwu also have a strong aboriginal character.

Unlike Alishan – where aboriginal residents, outnumbered by hotel workers from other parts of Taiwan, live in a ghetto-like cluster of dwellings that few visitors see – Sandi remains a proper village. Tourism brings in dollars but it does not rule; on any given day, the majority of those making their way through the streets are local folk. Most adult males divide their time between construction or factory work in the lowlands and on small farms in the hills. Their wives also work on the land, growing mangoes or gathering wild taros, which are then spread on the roadside to dry in the sun. And like indigenous youngsters throughout Taiwan, Sandi's teenagers are more conversant with Mandarin rap music than the language of their ancestors.

Sandi is laid out on a steep hillside above the Ailiao River, and most of the 120-odd households enjoy superb views over the plains. For many visitors, the first stop is the Dragonfly Beads Art Studio (Tel: 08-799-2856;, on the left of the main thoroughfare just below the heart of the village. There is no English sign; visitors who cannot read Chinese should look for the giant model dragonfly on the workshop's roof.

Established in 1983, Dragonfly is likely Pingtung County's best-known producer of souvenirs. The glass beads that have made Dragonfly famous are more than beautiful keepsakes. They represent a revival of a tribal tradition, as until well into the 20th century colored beads were treasured by both the Paiwan and the Rukai. Women wore them with pride, since possessing such beads implied high social status.

Dragonfly enjoyed a boom in late 2008 and early 2009 thanks to the home-grown smash-hit movie Cape No. 7. In several scenes, the stars of this romantic comedy wore glass-bead necklaces supplied by Dragonfly. Unfortunately, the production of glass beads cannot be quickly ramped up to meet surges in demand, as new employees need at least three months – and often half a year – before their work is good enough to be sold...

Like the previous entry, this article is in Taiwan Business Topics' Travel & Culture special issue. To read the whole thing, go here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The trees that shade Taiwan (Taiwan Business Topics)

Despite industrialization and population growth, trees cover a much greater percentage of Taiwan than do concrete or rice paddies. They deserve a place in the hearts of all who live in Taiwan, and not only for aesthetic reasons. They nurture wildlife, anchor slopes prone to landslides, and reduce flood risk by drawing up rainwater. Also, one particular tree species – camphor – played a crucial role in Taiwan's economic and social development.

The government’s most recent comprehensive land-use survey, completed in 1995, found that 58.5% of Taiwan’s land area was covered by trees or bamboo. Hardwood stands – many dominated by non-native Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria japonica) – accounted for more than half of this total, while another fifth supported a mix of hardwoods and conifers. Different countries define “forested land” in different ways, yet there can be no doubt that for its size, Taiwan has many more trees than France or Britain.

The ban on logging in Taiwan's natural forests that came into force in 1991 followed 300 years of exploitation. In the early 1700s, demand for Taiwan's first major export – camphor, derived from the Camphor Laurel (Cinnamomum camphora) – resulted in large-scale clearances. According to Taiwan: A New History, edited by Murray A. Rubinstein: “Camphor making forced the pace of exploitation of the densely wooded uplands of northern and central Taiwan, which in turn provoked incessant Sino-aboriginal clashes...The product for which [Han Chinese] literally risked their heads was obtained by felling stately camphor trees and reducing them to large heaps of wood chips. Whitish camphor crystals were then extracted from the chips by a crude but effective distillation apparatus set up on the spot.”

Until the 1880s, camphor was used mainly for medicinal purposes and as an insect repellent. Later it became an ingredient in smokeless gunpowder. Around the time of the Japanese takeover in 1895, Taiwan was supplying two-thirds of the world's camphor, and the trade was enjoying a second wind thanks to demand in the West for film and other products based on celluloid (then manufactured using natural camphor). This lasted until the introduction of petrochemical-based products and synthetic camphor in the 1920s.

The camphor trade drove the growth of inland settlements such as Daxi in Taoyuan County and Puli in Nantou County. It also facilitated the expansion of Taiwan's tea industry by clearing upland areas, which were then planted with tea.

Camphor Laurels thrive in Taiwan's climate, and despite the massive harvesting of yesteryear, they are nowadays quite common, in both mid-elevation forests and public places. Typically three times the height of an adult person, these trees are easy to recognize, having rough bark marked by vertical fissures. In fall and winter, they produce black berries almost a centimeter in diameter.

The tree species currently most important to Taiwan's economy is, of course, the betel nut palm (Areca catechu). The negative impact of this shallow-rooted tree on the environment and on the health of those chewing the nut are well known, yet its popularity has not abated. Between 1961 and 2008, annual betel nut production in Taiwan increased from 3,718 to 144,195 metric tons. Only India grows more.

The trees people in Taiwan most often encounter are in parks, on campuses, or along city streets. Many bear labels giving the species' scientific name and its common name in Chinese, but only rarely is there information in English.

A great many schools, including National Taiwan University's main campus, are shaded by tall, gun-barrel straight Cuban Royal Palms (Roystonea regia), often called Florida Royal Palms by Americans. The bark is pale and smooth, and the upper third of each palm tapers.

There are two good reasons why these ornamental trees are popular in towns. Firstly, their profiles mean they seldom topple during typhoons. Secondly, because their roots only grow longer but not wider, they do not damage foundations by infiltrating cracks when thin and then expanding. In addition, Blackboard Trees (Alstonia scholaris) can be found on many campuses. Their bark is rough and light gray or charred-looking.

Abandoned houses torn apart by trees are a common sight in Taiwan's countryside, and one of the most dramatic examples of arboreal voracity can be found in Tainan. What is now known as Anping Treehouse is a 19th-century former warehouse filled with Chinese banyans (Ficus Microcarpa). These long ago grew through and destroyed the roof. Their roots have grown across walls and openings in a manner that is almost surreal.

A mature banyan can be a beguiling sight. Aerial prop roots knot themselves around the main trunk or strike out on their own in search of nutrients. Tresses of much thinner roots hang down from the branches. Many of Taiwan's "sacred trees" – large trees believed to be the homes of spirits – are Chinese banyans...

The complete article appears in the Travel & Culture special issue of Taiwan Business Topics, and can be read online here. Rich Matheson, who took the photos for this article, has added some superb images which didn't appear in the print edition of the magazine to his blog. Too many of Taiwan's trees are hemmed in by concrete or asphalt; the photo here (which I took on land managed by the Forestry Bureau in Changhua County) shows a lucky tree that has been given space to grow.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Taiwan's night markets (Unity)

For many first-time visitors to Taiwan, the sight of streets lined with vendors has them reaching for their cameras. Locals react differently: Often, the smells wafting from such places make their mouths water.

In the days of yore, Taiwan's temples served as social and business hubs as well as their religious centers, so it's hardly surprising that some of the island's oldest night markets are associated with places of worship. The most famous of these is Miaokou Night Bazaar in Keelung – miao means “temple” and kou means “entrance.” This market developed around Dianji Temple and is now much better known than that shrine.

Big-city night markets emerged as social institutions in the decades after World War II. Taiwan was rapidly industrializing and hordes of country people moved to the cities to become factory workers. Many of them lived in cramped dwellings that lacked electric fans let alone air-conditioning. Night markets were popular because it gave these blue-collar folk somewhere to go on sweltering evenings. Of course, being able to fill their stomachs for a few dollars was also an important attraction.

A number of night markets have evolved into tourist destinations in their own right. Taipei's Shilin Night Market, which is unusual because it's housed inside a permanent building, falls into this category. Just a few minutes' walk from Jiantan MRT Station, this night market features more than 500 vendors, many of which stay open well after midnight...

The full article appears in the July/August 2011 issue of Unity, the inflight magazine of UNI Airways.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Project work

For the last two weeks I've been involved in a project run jointly by Tainan City Government (which, following the city-county merger late last year, now administers a very large area) and the China Productivity Center. The latter is a government-supported foundation that helps Taiwan businesses become more efficient. This project, which is related to the English Emblem work I did in 2009 and 2010, offers business owners help translating signs, menus, maps, websites and other materials, so they can better meet the needs of foreign visitors and residents. Last week and this week I visited about two dozen establishments, including stores, restaurants, homestays and a bicycle-rental outfit.