Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Many seams, far from exhausted (Culture.tw)

Academics are often so specialized that their ideas reach only a narrow audience. American anthropologist David K. Jordan [pictured right] is one scholar who has achieved a broader reputation, at least among English-speaking people living in or interested in Taiwan.

His book Gods, Ghosts & Ancestors - Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village, published by the University of California Press in 1972, has won a lasting readership among expatriates and visitors in Taiwan.

The book's nine chapters include sections on: divination; ancestor worship; the supernatural protectors and enemies of the village in Tainan where he did most of his research; and tang-ki - spirit mediums who, while possessed by gods, cut themselves with swords or pierce their cheeks with long needles.

One of the attractions of Jordan's book for general readers is that its focus on religious practices sheds light on other aspects of Taiwanese society: The preponderance of certain surnames and the customary insistence on surname exogamy; clan rivalry; and the crucial importance of male descendants.

Printers on the island sold pirate editions of the book during the 1970s and early 1980s. The success of these illegal reprints led to a 1985 legal reissue by Caves Books Ltd.

Jordan begin teaching at the University of California San Diego's Department of Anthropology in 1969. Since 2004, he has held the post of professor emeritus.

In a recent interview with culture.tw, Jordan recalled that, when he first arrived in Taiwan in the autumn of 1966, he found himself in a near-ideal environment for doing fieldwork.

Despite language difficulties, and the island being under martial law, he found that he had "nearly unrestrained freedom to go anywhere and talk to anybody. I assume that things might have been somewhat different if I had been doing research on island politics or political protesters or something like that, but frankly such questions have never interested me very much."

Local residents greeted Jordan's research aims with enthusiasm. "Tainan County was a very rich area for research because of its long traditions of religious practice, and because of the high salience of religion in the minds of most people," he said. "I remember arriving in 'my village' and people saying, in effect, 'It's about time people came to study our customs. We are fascinating...'"

To read on, click here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

We have not disappeared! The Siraya people of Tainan County (Culture.tw)

Tainan County, where there are few mainlanders and even fewer Hakkas, is usually thought of as a Hoklo stronghold. It does seem, at first glance, to be a place dominated by families of Han Chinese descent who have lived on the island for two or three centuries, and who at home speak the language variously called Taiwanese, Southern Min, or Holo.

The leaders of the Siraya Culture Association (SCA) think otherwise. They say that many Tainan people are in fact of aboriginal descent - even if they do not know it.

Jimmy Huang, a US-based linguist working to revive the Sirayan language, is one of those who did not understand his true ethnic background until recently.

In 2004, Huang moved to University of Florida to begin work on a doctorate in linguistics. In the summer of 2005 he returned to Taiwan to see his family, and also to visit the National Museum of Prehistory in Taidong County.

In the museum he saw a display of traditional Siraya implements. "They included things like fishing equipment, bamboo utensils, and a cradle," he recalls. "I realized that these things were common in my own home. I was confused because back then I only thought of myself as simply 'Taiwanese' - ethnically speaking, Southern Min or Hoklo."

"I called my home in Jiali Township, Tainan County, to ask about my identity. Surprisingly, the elders told me, 'Oh, yes. Our family is actually 'fwan-a' (barbarian). That's when I first learned I was in fact a Sirayan aborigine..."

The complete article, together with photos provided by the SCA, is here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Cited in the Asia Business Council 'Green Buildings' report

The writers of a very comprehensive report, Building Energy Efficiency: Why Green Buildings Are Key to Asia's Future, published by the Asia Business Council late last year, included an acknowledgment that they drew on this article of mine. It's gratifying to know that something I wrote has been read and thought to be of value.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fongyuan to Dongshih for cycling fanatics (China Post)

Bicycle-only tourist paths are popping up all over Taiwan. The northern part of Taichung County now has three, two of which join up on the outskirts of Fongyuan City.

With some determination, they can both be done on the same morning. The Dongfong Bicycle Path is by far the longer of the two. It stretches 12 kilometers to Dongshih, a town of 54,000 people that was once a center of Taiwan's logging industry.

Twelve kilometers may sound daunting if you seldom walk further than the nearest 7-Eleven. It may sound easy, if you drive 50 or 100 kilometers a day. It's neither. In fact, it's an excellent length for a recreational bicycle path: Enough to give riders a good workout, but not so long that occasional cyclists are frightened off.

The path follows the route of an old branch railway that used to carry people as well as timber. The trains stopped running in 1991, and nowadays only a few short sections of track remain. You'll likely cycle past these rusting rails without noticing them, until you come to the temblor-twisted tracks where Shihgang Railway Station once stood [pictured above].

These remains will almost certainly have you stopping for a few minutes and taking photos. They're an impressive reminder of the power of the earthquake that struck at 1.47 a.m. on September 21, 1999, leveling tens of thousands of buildings and killing more than 2,400 people...

The article is already online. This part of Taiwan has been in the news this week because a road bridge collapsed following a typhoon.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Back In Time: 2006

I did 20 travel articles for the China Post. Rather than post links to all of them, here are the six of my favorites: Madou is an interesting little town not far from my home. Beimen Street in Hsinchu City is one of Taiwan's more authentic 'old streets.' I've long been interested in Taiwan's industrial and infrastructure heritage, be it sugar refineries like the one at Suantou, or Japanese-era train stations. Eco-tourists will like Shuangsi Tropical Viviparous Forest. If that's too far away, just walk over to your nearest rice field.

My column in Skyline, Far Eastern Air Transport's inflight magazine, debuted in February 2006 with an article about Taiwan's viciously hot but glorious summers. Later in the year I wrote about souvenir shopping, forest recreation areas in Taiwan, and foreign influences on Taiwanese lifestyles.

Of all the articles I've done for Taiwan Business Topics over the years, this one on butterflies is perhaps my favorite. The photos in the magazine were taken by Ariana Lindquist, who's now based in Shanghai. The picture here was taken by me in Chiayi County. The day I spent in Hsinchu was a lot of fun, and yielded this piece in Topics.

For the Taiwan Journal, I wrote about
medical tourists coming to Taiwan, Taiwan's English-language media (there are three daily newspapers, several magazines, and one radio station), international schools, the 4th Taiwan Design Expo, and two major international conferences: the 1st International Summit of Waterfront Cities and Waterbirds 2005 (yes, the conference was in late 2005, the article didn't appear until February the following year). I also did a two-part article on foreign artists who live in Taiwan (Part 1 and Part 2). Most of the stories I write for the Taiwan Journal are based on suggestions I make to the editor; this topic, by contrast, was suggested by the Journal.

In addition to the weekly Taiwan Journal, the Government Information Office publishes the Taiwan Review, a 64-page full-color monthly magazine. I made my debut in the Taiwan Review in December, with this piece on
telecommuting (or, rather, the lack of it) in Taiwan.

Maple Leaf, the magazine put out by the Canadian Society in Taiwan, seems to be defunct. In 2006, however, it was going strong, and I wrote two pieces for their fall issue. One was a feature about Taiwan's disappearing
tobacco farms, the other was an interview with Robert Kelly, main author of Lonely Planet's Taiwan guidebook.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Southwest Taiwan's Ecological Treasure-House (Travel in Taiwan)

When people think of Chiayi, a largely rural region in Southwest Taiwan, they usually think of Alishan and other attractions in the mountainous eastern part of the county.

Many visitors ignore the county's thinly-populated coastline. This is unfortunate. Not only are the river mouths, mudflats and wetlands rich in wildlife - they're also good places to see people engaged in traditional occupations like fishing and raising oysters.

Producing salt by evaporating seawater was once a major undertaking - Chiayi's dry, sunny climate is ideal for it. Salt is now longer made this way in Taiwan, but the coast here still bears signs of the industry: Abandoned salt pans, salt warehouses, and even a small "salt mountain" [pictured above] just outside Budai.

Eco-tourists who head for the hills won't, of course, be disappointed. But if it's birds you hope to see, add the townships of Budai and Dongshih to your itinerary.

Aogu Wetland [pictured right] is an excellent place to begin. Much of the land belongs to the Taiwan Sugar Corp., a state-owned enterprise that has spent the past half-century reclaiming and afforesting parts of the peninsula. Much of the land is now left fallow, and almost no one lives here, so it's no surprise the area has at least 120 bird species...

The complete article appears in the September-October issue of Travel in Taiwan. To read it online, go here and do a search using my name.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

How Bizarre: Taichung's Night Markets (Hong Kong Airlines)

It's been said before but it's worth repeating: If you're staying just one night in Taiwan, spend part of it at an evening market. In between finding interesting - and shocking - things to eat, you'll be able to hunt for gifts and souvenirs. Also, you'll likely soak up so much local color that your clothes will carry cooking smells right back to your hotel room.

Natives of Taichung, Taiwan's third-biggest municipality and the economic driver of the island's central region, claim their city has Taiwan's best night markets. The reason usually given is simple: Taichung's prosperity has drawn people from the north, the south and the mountainous interior, and none of these migrants is so far from his hometown that he can't get the unique fresh local ingredients needed to produce distinctive, authentic comestibles.

Taichung's night markets are thus one-stop smorgasbords where gourmands can sample the signature snacks and dishes of places they're unlikely to ever visit. This claim may well be correct, as last summer Taichung County was chosen to represent Taiwan at the 2007 Malaysia International Food and Beverage Trade Fair. Amid all the migrant offerings, at least two of the county's very own dishes are easy to track down in the region's night markets: Qingshui Pork Chop Noodles and Fengyuan Meat Balls.

So, if you're a visitor and you don't know the city, where do you go? Taichung's best-known after-dark gathering spot is the market that sprawls in every direction from the main entrance to Feng Chia University. It's active seven nights a week from dusk till midnight, and is known to every taxi driver in the city.

You'll see the crowds before you see any vendors. And before you've closed the taxi door, you'll understand that when people say night markets have a lot of atmosphere, they don't only mean what tourists call 'character.' By 9 p.m., the air at Feng Chia is thick with smoke from grills loaded with sausages, and with steam from soup vats that bubble like mud volcanoes.

Foods unfamiliar to Westerners (stinky fermented tofu, spicy ducks' heads, chickens' feet boiled in an unidentifiable black broth) have miasmas all of their own. There's often a dash of cigarette smoke, especially around the pachinko machines.

Pachinko parlors might be dying out in Taiwan, but every large night market - Feng Chia is no exception - features rows of these pinball-type distractions, plus other games of skill and chance. There are often coin-operated basketball machines (shoot the balls through the hoop as quickly as you can to win extra time), ring-throwing events (you might go home with a fluffy toy), and shooting ranges (blast away with an air gun).

If business meetings go on till late, don't fret that you'll miss the action. Instead of Feng Chia, head to Taichung's Zhonghua Road Night Market (close to Gongyuan and Minquan roads). Most of the merchants there operate until 4 a.m. every night of the week. Yet another big night market keeps more conventional hours right behind Taichung's old train station (not to be confused with the high-speed station on the outskirts).

Night markets are full of incongruent sights: An oyster omelette vendor may fry up his gooey concoctions right next to someone selling candy floss. And beside a table covered with cheap fashion accessories and other ephemeral distractions, you might come across a fortune teller ready to give advice on life's deeper questions.

Places like Feng Chia are excellent for people watching. You'll see entire families in pyjamas and flip-flops, noshing beside hip young couples dressed for a night on the town. A few of those portering boxes or shoveling food around hot plates sport large, swirling tattoos. They're gang members gone straight. Don't worry about them; microbes in what you're eating are a much greater threat to your health.

Don't expect to see anything resembling a salad, but neither should you assume there's nothing healthy to eat. In every night market, peddlers hawk freshly cut, ready-to-eat fruit. Bags of diced pineapple, peeled apples and sliced mango are sold with large toothpicks or tiny bamboo forks. These utensils are not so much to keep your hands clean as to keep the chicken grease already on your fingers from spoiling your enjoyment of the fruit. Thirsty? Look for vendors who squeeze oranges or guavas into fresh juices, or using high-speed blenders to make papaya, watermelon and carrot milkshakes.

There are traditional local desserts, too: Pineapple sorbet, and a kind of almond pudding made according to an ancient recipe.

Food is central to the Feng Chia experience, but you won't be bored if you're not hungry. Who's that giving a speech to an audience sat on tiny plastic stools? More than likely he's selling patent medicines or aphrodisiacs.

Compared to ten years ago, very few pirated goods are now sold openly in Taiwan. You might see counterfeit handbags being sold at absurdly low prices, but the CD/ DVD vendors have been driven underground. More likely, you'll come across a different sort of knock-off - a daypack, say - that bears a logo clearly modeled on but deliberately different from a world-famous brand. An R changed into a B seems enough to deflect lawsuits. You'd not be the first to find these goods so intriguing as to be almost collectible.

Most night market goods are inexpensive and there's little scope for bargaining. However, if you're buying something priced over NT$500, or if you need three or four items from the same merchant, it's worth asking for a discount. A grasp of Mandarin or Taiwanese helps but isn't necessary. Scribble numbers on paper, or use the electronic calculator most merchants keep at hand.

Often there's a Buddhist monk in attendance, and you may think he deserves a donation. Amid the noise and bustle of the night market, his sales pitch could well be the best. Standing stock still behind his begging bowl, expressionless and silent, you can't help but notice him.

Hong Kong Airlines is the inflight magazine of - it goes without saying - Hong Kong Airlines. The photos accompanying the print version were taken by Chris Stowers, a Taipei-based Englishman who I interviewed for this article.

Jingliao: Modern church, ancient homes (China Post)

Houbi, a rural township in Tainan County, is best known these days for being the center of Taiwan's thriving orchid export industry and the site of an annual orchid trade show.

For the average tourist more interested in heritage than horticulture, Houbi has some interesting attractions. The town's train station - a very picturesque wooden structure - dates from the final decade of the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945). If you've seen the station and like this kind of thing, drive northwest along County Road 82 to the village of Jingliao.

Jingliao is best known for the Saint Cross Church, a Roman Catholic place of worship designed in the 1950s by Gottfried Boehm, who was born in Germany in 1920...

The rest of the article is here. This photo shows one of Jingliao's traditional houses.