Friday, October 30, 2009

Watershed casino vote reaffirms Taiwan’s democracy (Taiwan Today)

On September 26, Penghu County residents voted on whether to allow casino developments in international standard hotels and resorts planned for the outlying region, which consists of 90 islands and islets.

The issue aroused the interest of people throughout the ROC, with the manner in which the referendum was conducted and its eventual result seen as having significant implications for the nation’s democratic development.

Out of Penghu’s 73,651 registered voters, just over 42 percent cast ballots, with 17,359, or 56.44 percent, against the proposal and 13,397, or 43.56 percent, in support. The result came as a surprise to those who assumed that securing a “yes” vote in the referendum was a sure bet. After all, Penghu’s pro-gambling faction was backed by international and local business interests, as well as the central government and several local politicians.

However, not everyone connected with the ruling Kuomintang supported the plan. On September 17, Control Yuan President Wang Chien-shien, an individual whose views carry significant moral weight, said a “disaster” would strike Penghu if casinos were allowed to open there.

Echoing Wang’s remarks, Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen urged Penghu’s voters to reject gaming September 21. But it was a coalition of non-governmental organizations and religious groups that deserves credit for the upset.

By rebutting several of the claims made by the pro-gambling side, and bringing in experts from overseas whose statements were widely quoted by the local media, the coalition was able to undermine casino proponents’ core argument that gaming would bring economic benefits for the majority of residents...

The entire commentary is here. For me and many people I know, the result of the referendum was a surprise, but a delightful one.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A photographer's paradise (Verve)

Not every visitor or expatriate develops a deep and enduring love for Taiwan, but few deny the island is visually striking, with streets jammed full of people and vendors, classical courtyard houses a stone's throw from ultra-modern skyscrapers, strange and wonderful foods, and steep mountains wrapped in forests and wreathed in clouds...

This article in the October issue of Verve, the inflight magazine of EVA Air, reports the views of four Taiwan-based photographers: Richard Matheson, Chris Stowers, David Barker and Craig Ferguson.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Old Hakka streets: In search of nostalgia in old Miaoli towns (Travel in Taiwan)

If you follow Taiwan’s travel scene, you’ll have noticed this trend: Instead of being bulldozed and redeveloped, as often happened in the 1970s and 1980s, traditional downtown neighborhoods are now being cherished, revamped, and packaged as tourist attractions.

When a thoroughfare changes from being simply “old” to an “Old Street,” it undergoes a striking physical metamorphosis. The buildings are scrubbed clean; modern accretions like air-conditioning units, stainless-steel water tanks, and television cables are hidden, either behind the houses or beneath the road; and the asphalt road surface is replaced with stone slabs. Entrepreneurs move in and begin selling goods that tourists like to buy — often snacks and souvenirs, sometimes antiques.

Almost every town in Taiwan, it seems, has an Old Street. Some, like Daxi near Taoyuan, have two or three, depending on who's counting. Xinhua, just outside Tainan, has what I consider to be Taiwan’s finest Old Street — superb early-1920s architecture and businesses that still cater largely to locals, not visitors.Because of their isolation, Nanzhuang and Beipu have retained a lot of their preindustrial character...

The rest of the article can be found, with a little searching, on the publisher's website.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Even a cathedral: Taiwan's rich Christian architecture (

Christianity has deep roots in Taiwan. The religion has been a continuous part of the island's religious landscape since the 1860s, although it arrived on Taiwan's shores much earlier. Spanish Dominicans arrived in the north in 1626; at the same time Dutch Protestant missionaries launched a conversion effort in the southwest.

No more than one in 20 Taiwanese is Protestant or Catholic, but Christian places of worship can be found in every corner of the ROC. Among them are buildings designed by world-famous architects, naves rich in local art, and even some intriguing examples of stained glass.

In recent years non-Christian Taiwanese have begun to embrace these chapels, basilicas and mission houses. Some want to learn how Christianity has influenced the development of Taiwanese society. For other Taiwanese, churches as exotic as folk temples are to visiting Westerners.

Many of the missionaries active in Taiwan in the late 19th century – men such as George L. Mackay and James L. Maxwell – were financially backed by co-religionists in their home countries. Some used this funding to purchase plots of land in locations that today would be unimaginably expensive or reserved for government use.

Taipei's Chi-nan Presbyterian Church, which faces Zhongshan South Road right beside the Legislative Yuan, is an example. Designed by Moli Yamasi of Japan and completed in 1916 for the use of students and faculty at what is now National Taiwan University Medical College, this building is something of a pastiche...

To read the entire article, go here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A second look at Sanxia (China Post)

Just over a decade ago I went to Sanxia in Taipei County for the first time. I wrote about that trip for this newspaper, and I don't need to refer to my old article to recall what struck me during that visit: the rainy, blustery weather; the magnificence of the town's major temple; and the dilapidated yet picturesque redbrick houses along what was then called Minquan Street.

I revisited Sanxia a few months ago and found a lot has changed, mostly for the better...

The article can be read online here.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Despite typhoon, tourism sector showing resilence (Taiwan Today)

Within hours of the Jinshuai Hotel toppling into the raging waters of the Zhiben River in southeast Taiwan on August 9, footage of the six-story building’s spectacular demise had been seen by millions of people in Asia, North America and Europe.

The clip is unlikely to bring tourists flocking to Taiwan, and in the wake of Typhoon Morakot - the calamity that led to more than 200 confirmed deaths as well as the hotel’s collapse - the island's travel industry faces serious problems.

Reuters reported August 14 that the tourism sector would see total losses of NT$4.5 billion because several of Taiwan’s finest tourism assets have been put out of action or rendered inaccessible.

The historic narrow-gauge railroad that links the lowland city of Chiayi with the mountain resort of Alishan will not be fully operational for two years, Taiwan's Chinese-language media has reported. However, the main road to the resort should reopen by September 20...

To read the rest of this article, click on this link.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Changhua's stately Confucius Temple (China Post)

Despite its size - in terms of population it's one of Taiwan's ten largest cities - and economic importance, Changhua isn't a leading tourist destinations. It does, however, have enough attractions to make a day trip from Taichung or further afield thoroughly worthwhile.

The Great Buddha statue that stands atop Mount Bagua is deservedly popular. The views from the top of this hillock are often superb. On a clear day it's possible to see the wind turbines that dot the coast of Changhua County. If you're walking to Mount Bagua from the railway station (a stroll that takes little more than half an hour), you may as well take in some of the downtown's temples. One of the oldest and best known, the Taoist Yuanqing Hall, is currently being renovated after a devastating fire in the spring of 2006. It isn't scheduled to reopen to the public until March 2010, but you can see the main Jade Emperor icon in a temporary building next door.

Fortunately, Changhua's most famous shrine is still open to visitors. The city's Confucius Temple is one of Taiwan's three most important Confucian shrines – the others are those in Tainan and Taipei.

The temple is open from 8 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. every day except national holidays. Visitors should enter through a side gate on Minsheng Road, between Kongmen Road and Chenling Road, as the main gate on Kongmen Road is opened only on September 28, the birthday of the Great Sage.

This article appeared on Monday, but because I've been focused on Typhoon Morakot and its aftermath, I've only just got around to posting.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Domestic festivals, global attention (Taiwan Review)

Like all journalists, travel writers are skeptics. When picking up a leaflet from the Tourism Bureau of the Republic of China that gushes "Festival Island - Taiwan's calendar is filled with an endless stream of festivals... [that] can give you a deep and fascinating insight into the many faces of Taiwan," the reporter's instinct is to disregard or discount it.

Yet festivals are undoubtedly a big part of local life and a major driver of Taiwan's tourist industry. There is a historical reason for this: Before Taiwan became an affluent society, events like gods' birthdays and pilgrimages offered important diversions. For ordinary people, these festivals - along with family events like weddings - provided occasions when they could take time out from the daily struggle to relax and enjoy themselves.

Like most of those who attend the Lantern Festival, a colorful multi-day, multi-city event that occurs two weeks after the Lunar New Year, Taiwanese day-trippers account for the bulk of the visitors at the Songjiang Battle Array in Kaohsiung County, Hsinchu City's Glass Art Street Carnival or the Mid-Summer Ghost Festival in the northwest port city of Keelung. However, while international visitors remain a minority, their numbers are growing.

"Taiwan's festivals are without doubt a major draw for overseas Chinese," says Elisa Lim, a freelance reporter who has written about Taiwan for Chinese-language magazines and newspapers in Hong Kong and Malaysia as well as in her native Singapore. "Many are curious about the customs of an island that's often and rightly described as 'the most Chinese place on Earth...'"

The entire article is here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Taoyuan's unique Shinto relic (China Post)

Taiwan was ruled by Japan for half a century until the end of World War II. Dozens of splendid examples of architecture from that era can be found in Taipei and other cities, yet very little evidence of Shinto – the official religion of Japan throughout the colonial period – has survived.

A torii gate, part of a Shinto shrine, can be seen on the roof of what used to be the Hayashi Department Store in downtown Tainan. But a far more interesting relic of Shintoism exists in North Taiwan – Taoyuan Martyrs Shrine.

The Taoyuan Jinja, as the martyrs shrine was known during the colonial period, was inaugurated on September 23, 1938. Among those worshipped here were Amaterasu, the mythical ancestress of Japan's royal family, and Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa, the imperial relative who died of malaria while commanding Japanese military units during the 1895 takeover of Taiwan.

Made largely of cypress, the structure is classically Japanese in that it reflects the massive influence on Japan of China's Tang dynasty. It stands on the slopes of a forest-covered hill that's alive with birds and butterflies. Unless the weather is very bad indeed, you can look down over Taoyuan...

Click here to read the complete article. The bronze horse shown here is an original feature of the Shinto shrine. During the colonial era the Japanese had a great regard for their horses - some military officers were buried with their steeds.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kending vacations: beach resort hotels at Taiwan's southernmost tip (Travel in Taiwan)

For a great many people, both Taiwanese and international travelers passing through the island, the words "vacation" and "beach" are almost synonymous. Within Taiwan the place that comes closest to being a synonym for "beach" is Kending, the immensely popular resort town on the island's southernmost tip...

The read the rest of this article, most of which is about one hotel in particular - and also the one below about cycling in Kaohsiung - go to the Travel in Taiwan website and do a search.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Riding under the sun (Travel in Taiwan)

There was a time, not long ago, when people would've looked at you very strangely — and possibly questioned your sanity — if you'd suggested cycling around Kaohsiung for fun. Times have changed. Kaohsiung's streets and air are much cleaner than before. Thousands of trees have been planted, and bike paths that keep cyclists safely separated from motor vehicles have been established in nine of the 11 districts of the metropolis. By the end of 2011, the total length of these routes will exceed 250 kilometers.

The city government has been doing its utmost to make Kaohsiung bike-friendly. Nothing can be done about south Taiwan's sweltering summers, of course, but there's another side to this coin: Between October and April temperatures are usually perfect for cycling, and more often than not the sun is shining...

The entire article appears in the most recent issue of Travel in Taiwan. Qijin Island (sometimes spelled 'Cijin') is especially popular with cyclists.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Meinong: Parasols, butterflies and curing sheds (Taiwan Business Topics)

“A destination that offers something for everyone.” A tired slogan in the tourism industry, to be sure, but Meinong comes closer than most. Even if you’ve never been there, you probably associate this little town in Kaohsiung with Hakka food, oil-paper parasols, and millions of butterflies.

You may not know that Meinong also has a network of cycle paths (seven in all, each devoted to a theme), and a legacy of tobacco barns that beguiles architecture aficionados.
For at least eight months out of every 12, the weather is excellent. Wildflowers bloom throughout the year. And possibly because of Hakka living habits - Hoklo Taiwanese sometimes describe their Hakka compatriots in the same way Italians talk about the Swiss - the buildings, streets, and fields seem to be tidier here than in other parts of Taiwan.

If you think a place this nice must be inconveniently remote, you are in for a pleasant surprise. As the crow flies, Meinong is 40 kilometers northeast of downtown Kaohsiung. The town is just 10 kilometers from the Qishan (Cishan) terminus of Freeway 10, a high-speed road that links both north-south freeways. For people who live south of Chiayi, Meinong makes for an excellent day-trip...

The rest of the article can be seen here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Taiwan's magnificent churches (Taiwan Business Topics)

Organized Christianity has been present in Taiwan since at least May 1626, when six Spanish Dominicans set up base on a small island near what is now the entrance to Keelung Harbor.

Efforts to convert Taiwan’s aboriginal inhabitants, and later Han Chinese settlers and their descendants, have had mixed success. Christianity is certainly accepted as part of the country’s religious landscape, yet no more than one in 20 Taiwanese is Protestant or Catholic.

Observers of religious life in Taiwan often contrast the situation here with that of South Korea, where it is estimated that Christians make up at least 26% of the population (some estimates put it as high as 49%). But Taiwan, it can be argued, is far richer when it comes to interesting, attractive, and historical church buildings.

It is easy to overlook these chapels, basilicas, and mission houses. Folk temples are so numerous, so colorful, and so noisy they tend to grab one’s attention. Yet among Taiwan’s churches are buildings designed by world-famous architects, naves rich in local art, and even some intriguing examples of stained glass.

From the late nineteenth century onward, Western missionaries in Taiwan such as George L. Mackay, James L. Maxwell, and Thomas Barclay were financially backed by co-religionists in their home countries. Some missionaries used this funding to purchase plots of land in locations that today would be unimaginably expensive, or reserved for government use. Taipei’s Chi-nan Presbyterian Church, which faces Zhongshan South Road right beside the Legislative Yuan, is a prime example. Designed by Moli Yamasi of Japan and completed in 1916 for the use of students and faculty at nearby Taihoku University (now National Taiwan University’s Medical College), this building is something of a pastiche – inspired by English country churches, but built of red brick rather than stone.

If you step inside, you’ll see a surprising amount of wood, much of which was torn out and replaced this spring. Renovation work should be finished and the church opened again by mid-summer...

The full article is here. The photo above shows a Catholic chapel in Shanhua, Tainan.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The shining waters of Dapeng Bay (China Post)

One of Taiwan's largest lagoons, Dapeng Bay has been earmarked for development into a major tourist resort since the late 1990s. Covering more than 400 hectares, the bay enjoys a dry, sunny climate.

It's an excellent spot for watersports – the wind is consistent, but the waves are minuscule because the mouth of the bay is so narrow. This April, Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area Administration held a windsurfing race from the bay, out to Little Liouchiou Island (Xiao Liuqiu) – a distance one way of 14 kilometers – and back again. It's hoped that the race will become an annual event.

Unlike some other parts of Taiwan's coast, which have been radically and repeatedly reshaped by typhoons, the bay has remained stable since at least the arrival of Han Chinese settlers in the 17th century. The Japanese used the lagoon as a seaplane base during World War II, and many of the tunnels and air-raid shelters they built were used by the ROC's armed forces well into the 1970s...

The rest of this article can be read here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lugang's glass gallery (China Post)

Lugang in central Taiwan is rightly known for its traditional architecture and stunning temples. Most of its inhabitants, of course, live thoroughly modern lifestyles, and the township has its share of factories. One of these, a plant operated by Taiwan Mirror Glass Enterprise Ltd., has thrown its doors open to the public.

In May 2006, the company – which started in 1943 with just two workers – unveiled the Taiwan Glass Gallery. The TGG is certainly more of a gallery (in that it shows what the modern glass industry is capable of) than a museum. There's precious little about the history of glass-making...

The rest of the article can be read online.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Taiwan Today

Taiwan Journal, formerly Free China Journal and then briefly Taipei Journal, is no more. The weekly print edition has been folded into a new Government Information Office website called Taiwan Today. The new site is updated daily and features translations of items from local Chinese-language newspapers as well as commissioned content. Articles I did for the Taiwan Journal (I've wrote features and the occasional op-ed for them between late 1998 and a month or two ago) can be read online at the Taiwan Today site.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Back in time: 2007

My output in terms of words has been pretty good in recent months. In terms of published articles, less so - simply because I've been devoted my time and energy to the guidebook. So, to keep this blog moving, here's a selection from my work back in 2007.

At the invitation of Wild At Heart Legal Defense Association, a Taipei-based environmental group, I visited Youcinggu, a ravine in Yunlin County that's being inundated for a reservoir project. The trip resulted in two articles- this one for the China Post and a longer, much more detailed piece for Taiwan Business Topics. To find out what's been happening with the Hushan Dam project, visit this blog.

For the China Post I also wrote about a forest reserve that's just down the road from where I live, a recreational farm, a haunted house, and Taiwan's greenest building. I wrote about that building - and another sustainable library from the same team of architects - for the government-backed website.

The now-defunct Taiwan Journal ran a two-part report of mine on Taiwan's translation industry, here and here. For the Taiwan Review I wrote about international interest in the academic field of Taiwan Studies.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

In the heart of a harbor city (Travel In Taiwan)

You're coming to Kaohsiung for the eighth edition of the World Games, the international multi-sport extravaganza that kicks off July 16 and lasts 11 days. But your favorite sports won't be played every day, and you've heard enough about Taiwan's second-largest metropolis to want to have a good look around. Now that you've bought your tickets and booked your hotel, you're wondering this: How best to use the time between events?

This article can be read online. Go to the magazine's website, then type my name into the search function. A list of the articles I've done for them since 2005 then comes up.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Big city lessons in traditional lifestyles (China Post)

Taichung is one of Taiwan's biggest and most modern cities. Just recently, its citizens celebrated the announcement that work will start soon on a mass rapid transit system. It also has, in the Tai­chung Folklore Park, one of the most interesting collections of antiques and traditional items anywhere on the island. Visitors spend most of their time in the Folk Artifacts Exhibit Room in the basement of the building at the back of the park... 
The rest of this article is here. The park will also feature in my forthcoming
Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Pondering history at the Martyrs Shrine (China Post)

The National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine isn't near the top of any list of Taipei's finest tourist attractions. Indeed, some Taiwanese people dislike this place for the same reason many shun Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. They see it as a celebration of war and authoritarianism, a holdover from a dark period of history.

When I had a free morning in Taipei a few months ago, I did not hesitate to visit the Martyrs Shrine. I went for the same reasons I visited Yasukuni Shrine a few years ago: I'm fascinated by 20th century Asian history, and I think it's important to hear every side of the story. For anyone interested in the history of China, the Martyrs Shrine is an engrossing – if somber – place...

To see the entire article, click here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kaohsiung gears up for the World Games (Taiwan Business Topics)

Despite the achievements of New York Yankees pitcher Wang Chien-ming and ultra-marathon runner Kevin Lin, plus the efforts of the nation’s golfers and tennis players, Taiwan’s impact in the international sporting arena has been minimal. It wasn’t until 2004 that local athletes won Olympic golds. And last August, Taiwan’s sportsmen and women returned from the Beijing Games of the 29th Olympiad with a paltry and disappointing four bronze medals.

This summer, however, Taiwanese have a chance to shine before the world – if not as record-breaking contestants, then at least as hosts. The Eighth Edition of the World Games, scheduled to open on July 16 in Kaohsiung City, will be by far the largest and highest-profile sporting event ever held on the island.

The city expects to welcome more than 5,300 athletes and officials from at least 90 nations. The Olympic Games may have more participants – 11,028 athletes represented 204 nations and territories at the Beijing Games – but the World Games is every bit as diverse. The 2009 gathering will include 26 official sports, among them field archery, racquetball, indoor hockey, and canoe polo. There will also be five invitational sports, among them dragon-boat racing, handball, and the martial art wushu.

Thanks to a relentless publicity effort backed by the Kaohsiung City Government, residents of Taiwan’s second city – most of whom had never even heard of the World Games five years ago – are now thoroughly clued-in about the event...

The rest of this article is here. Other pieces of mine about the event are here and here. The photo, courtesy of the Kaohsiung Organizing Committee, shows the main stadium prior to completion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Seeing the face of Matsu in Kaohsiung County (China Post)

In 1994, a lady in Florida made herself a grilled cheese sandwich. She took a few bites, but before finishing it she noticed what appeared to be the face of the Virgin Mary imbedded in the toast. Wondering if this would bring her good luck, she decided to keep the rest in a plastic box. A decade later she went public with her story, and amid worldwide news coverage sold the half-eaten sandwich on eBay for US$28,000.

Something similar happened recently
during the construction of a new temple in Kaohsiung County. Workers poured concrete for one part of the roof of what is now called the Shunsian Temple. Later, when checking to see if it had set properly, they found something that many people think interesting, and more than a few consider miraculous – among the stains and discolorations in the concrete, it's just about possible to discern the face of Mazu, Taiwan's Goddess of the Sea.

The temple, which was formally inaugurated on October 18, 2008, took more than a decade to plan and build. A photo of the site taken in August 1996 shows a dilapidated wattle-and-daub shack surrounded by long grass. Now, in addition to the temple and car parking lots, there's a sizable body of water called the Holy Mother Lake, and an annex where the pious can stay overnight, take meals or relax over a coffee...

The rest of the article is here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Medical tourism offers hope in global downturn (Taiwan Journal)

For the past year, ever since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou and his overtures toward Beijing, Taiwan’s tourism industry has been pinning its hopes on an influx of mainland Chinese visitors.

Whether or not vacationers from across the Taiwan Strait will come in great numbers is still moot. But even if expectations are met, the tourism industry and those government units responsible for assisting it should redouble their efforts to attract another kind of traveler: the medical tourist - a person who leaves their home country primarily to receive surgery or therapy abroad.

This market segment is more recession-proof than regular tourism, and much more lucrative per visitor. So far, Taiwan’s efforts to attract medical tourists have focused on nearby markets, such as Japan, where the population is rapidly aging, and mainland China. However, a more promising market exists on the other side of the Pacific, and it is one likely to grow as the economy worsens...

To read the rest of the article, go here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ballet with blades (Verve)

For many people, the link between Chinese culture and martial arts is as strong as China's association with chopsticks. Kung fu star Bruce Lee made even more of an impact in the West than he did in Asia, where martial arts movies were popular long before his debut.

Lee moved with legendary swiftness and fluidity. Whether facing a single opponent or taking on a whole gang, his performances were never less than compelling. But another image of martial arts in the Orient endures - that of scores of Shaolin monks leaping and rolling in unison, practicing saber thrusts or honing daintily-named yet deadly techniques such as the "plum flower fist."

In Taiwan, one place has become synonymous with large-scale martial-arts displays of this kind: Neimen, in the hilly interior of Kaohsiung County. Neimen is a nondescript little town of 16,000 people. It lacks the distinctive culture and butterfly valleys of Maolin, the aboriginal district 25 kilometers east. Nor does it have any famous foods or signature handicrafts like those that draw tourist to nearby Meinong...

The complete article is in the March edition of Verve, EVA's inflight magazine.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A world of sports for Taiwan's second city (Travel in Taiwan)

Even its most patriotic citizens admit the fact: Taiwan is not a great sporting nation. It wasn't until 2004 that the island's sports star struck Olympic gold. Last year, despite some inspiring performances, Taiwanese athletes returned from the Beijing Summer Games with just four bronze medals. However, for 11 days this July "Taiwan" will be synonymous with a number of globally popular sports, including roller-blading, ten-pin bowling, and karate. When the eighth edition of the World Games opens in Kaohsiung City on July 16, it will be by far the largest and highest-profile sporting event ever held on the island...

The entire article is on the Travel in Taiwan website.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Strange fruit at Fengshan Ecology Garden (China Post)

Located in one of the remotest and most thinly-populated corners of Chiayi County, Fengshan Ecology Garden isn't a place you're likely to stumble across.

However, if you're planning to drive between the small town of Jhongpu and Nansi in Tainan County via Highway No. 3, or take the breathtakingly steep and scenic section of Road No. 172 that links Jhongpu with the hot springs resort of Guanziling, you'll see signs pointing the way to this place, which is just inland of the small village of Yunshui.

When you pull into the car park - parking and admission are free - you'll find Fengshan Ecology Garden is actually quite a popular destination on weekends. Operated by the central government's Council of Agriculture, Fengshan is neither an urban botanical garden nor a forest recreation area. At first glance, it looks like much of the surrounding countryside: Narrow roads connect isolated farming households, and the skyline is dominated by betel nut trees...

The rest of the article is here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Beehives of Yenshui ('76 Pyro)

By global standards, southern Taiwan has few truly exceptional geographical or cultural features. However, it does boast what is probably the most extreme and exciting pyrotechnics event in the world: The Yenshui Fireworks Festival, also known as the Beehive Rockets Festival...

'76 Pyro bills itself as "a magazine for people who love fireworks." Several months ago they contacted the people who first published this article, asking for reprint rights. The publishers asked my permission. I gave it, and promptly forgot all about it until the magazines arrived a few days ago. The photo here was taken by Richard Matheson.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book illustrations

Book no. 2 is still some months away from hitting the bookstores, but the publisher has emailed me some of the illustrations that will go in it. Here's one about Taiwanese people's identity crisis... Strange, it looks fine on my computer, but loses colors when posted onto the blog.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chiayi's Tropic of Cancer landmark (China Post)

Anyone who's driven along the main road between Tainan County and Chiayi City will have seen it. If you've taken the train — the slower conventional train that is, not the high-speed railway — between Chiayi and points south, you'll likely have noticed it. It looks somewhat like a water tower, but with windows. Some people think it resembles a flying saucer on legs; others describe it as “a giant concrete mushroom.”

It's the Solar Exploration Center in Chiayi County's Shueishang Township. This impossible-to-miss landmark is located a few meters east of Taiwan Highway No. 1 (a road which many locals still refer to by its old name, the 'Sheng-dao,') and just to the west of the main north-south railroad.

This site is of geographical significance: It's where the Tropic of Cancer cuts across Taiwan. Those parts of the island north of the Solar Exploration Center are, officially, sub-tropical. The one-third of the island that lies to the south is within the hot, humid Tropics. So why is the Solar Exploration Center here, and not someplace else? Why not on the east or west coast, or on the southern slopes of Yushan? Taiwan's highest mountain peak is a mere two-and-a-half kilometers north of the Tropic of Cancer.

The reason has to do with the adjacent railway line. After Japan seized control of Taiwan in 1895, work on the north-south rail link, which had begun in the 1880s, was speeded up. In 1908 the railroad reached the Tropic of Cancer. To celebrate this achievement a commemorative pillar was erected...

The rest of the article is here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Always worth the effort - Tackling Mountains in Southern Taiwan (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan does not lack mountains. Forty-five percent of its land area is more than 500 meters above sea level; some 258 peaks reach 3,000 meters or higher. Spokes of the Central Mountain Range sprawl into 12 of the island's 15 counties. And in terms of inspiring hiking options, the south of Taiwan is every bit as rich as the northern half of the island.

The star, of course, is Yushan (Jade Mountain). Reaching a height of 3,952 meters, Yushan isn't merely the tallest mountain in Taiwan. It's the highest point in Northeast Asia. Japan's Mount Fuji is 3,776 meters; Baekdu-san, the highest point on the Korean peninsula, is 2,750 meters.

It's counterintuitive, but the best seasons to visit South Taiwan's high mountains are fall and winter...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Taiwan's cultural capital: Four short tours in the Tainan area (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan's Kyoto. A city with an ancient temple on every street. The island's first capital, and today still a bastion of traditional culture. Surrounding it, one of Taiwan's most important agricultural regions. The Tainan area has so much to offer tourists that visitors have to be selective, or else they'll run themselves ragged trying to see everything.

If you take the high-speed train to Tainan, you’ll need to get from the station, 11 kilometers southwest of the city, to the downtown district. You can rent a car at the station, jump in a taxi, or take one of the free shuttle buses that go into the heart of the city. Those who use the older, slower Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) trains will arrive in the center of the action. There are several bus stations and bus stops within 200 meters of the TRA station...

This article is on Travel in Taiwan's website, where you'll have to do a search using my name. The photo here shows the Former Tainan Meeting Hall, a superbly-renovated Japanese-era building.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Good intentions, disastrous consequences (Highway 11)

Shu Jen Chen, who was born and raised in Taiwan, is a campaign manager for Humane Society International, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that addresses animal issues worldwide. Chen was involved in the recent successful campaign to persuade the restaurant in the National Palace Museum to take shark fin soup off its menu. Soon, Chen will begin working with local animal and environmental groups in an effort to end the Buddhist custom of ‘mercy releases.’

H11: What are ‘mercy releases’?

CHEN: ‘Mercy release’ means the freeing of captured animals. Some Buddhists buy captured animals and release them into the wild in the belief that by releasing a captured animal they not only can bring themselves longevity, fortune and good luck in this life, but can also atone for their sins from previous lives and help make their next life a better one. This tradition began long ago with spontaneous acts of compassion. However, the modern version of mercy release is completely different. The vast majority of animals used in mercy release today were caught for the sole purpose of being released. Many do not survive the ordeal of capture. Some are killed by the traps or nets. Others starve or suffocate in the cages used to transport and store them. These animals are often provided little or no food or water, as their purpose is not to be pets, but for release. Therefore, the animals’ long-term health is not the main concern of the trappers and dealers involved in the trade.

H11: Are the animals used in ‘mercy releases’ in Taiwan captured here or overseas?

CHEN: Both species native to Taiwan and imported species are used in mercy release. Many are bought from conventional pet stores. Fish, turtles and birds are preferred animals, but a wide variety of others are released as well. Most large ‘mercy release’ ceremonies are held by temples, and we understand that at least 400 temples in Taiwan are involved in the practice.

H11: What happens to the animals after they’ve been released?

CHEN: Many animals don’t survive for long after being released. They may die directly from illness or injury, or may be easy prey for hunters or predators. Often, hunters will wait near releasing sites to recapture the animals and sell them again for profit. Many die because they are not released into their natural habitat. For example, freshwater turtles are sometimes released into the ocean, or saltwater fish into ponds or rivers.

H11: What about the animals that do survive?

CHEN: Some released non-native animals flourish in their new habitat, causing enormous problems for native species. Some become competitors for food and territory, or mate with native species, threatening their gene pools. Others introduce foreign diseases or parasites to native populations, with devastating consequences...

The rest of the interview is here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Young man with a mission: Language activist Jimmy Huang (Highway 11)

Jimmy Huang is a special assistant to the chairwoman of the Siraya Culture Association (SCA). This Tainan County-based group is endeavoring to reconstruct Sirayan culture and win government recognition for the Siraya tribe, a lowland aboriginal group that used to dominate Southwest Taiwan, but whose language has not been spoken for a hundred years.

In 2008, Huang was awarded a grant by the Foundation for Endangered Languages, a charity registered in the United Kingdom, to help fund the preparation of Sirayan-language teaching materials and the compilation of a Sirayan dictionary. Highway 11 recently interviewed Huang, a PhD student at the University of Florida, by e-mail.

H11: When did you realize you were of Siraya descent?

HUANG: In the summer of 2005, I came back to Taiwan and visited the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung. There I saw a display entitled ‘Siraya tools’ that included fishing equipment, bamboo utensils and a cradle. I realized that these things were common in my own home. I was confused because back then I had thought of myself simply as a ‘Taiwanese’ – ethnically speaking, Southern Min. I called my native home in Jiali Township, Tainan County, to ask about my identity. Surprisingly, the elders in my home told me, “Oh yes, our family is actually ‘fwan-a’ [‘barbarian’ in Taiwanese].” That’s when I first learned I was in fact a Siraya aborigine. The discovery of my true identity got me into thinking about issues such as the social connotation of labeling and the survival of minority languages in modern nation-states: Why did my folks feel ashamed about our aboriginal ethnicity...

The rest of the interview can be read online.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Guidebook blog

I've launched a second blog on which I'll be posting information and photos from my research trips for Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Adventure abounds on world-class hiking trek (Taiwan Journal)

Taiwanese mountain enthusiasts and hikers have long regarded their home as a paradise for short walks, long-distance treks and camping in the wilds. Forty-five percent of the island is 500 meters or more above sea level, while some 258 peaks exceed 3,000 meters.

Japanese hikers have known about the mountains of Taiwan since the years of Japan's 1895-1945 colonial occupation of the island. In 1900, Japanese anthropologists Torii Ryuzo and Mori Ushinosuke made the first confirmed ascent of Taiwan's tallest peak now known as Jade Mountain. With a height of 3,952 meters, the massif exceeds Japan's highest and most famous peak, the 3,776-meter Mount Fuji.

North American and British travelers have been publishing accounts of climbing and hiking in Taiwan since the 1930s, but even so the island's alpine treasures are not well known in the West. However, efforts to draw international visitors to Taiwan's mountains have received a boost from National Geographic Adventure, a monthly magazine published in nine languages by the U.S.-based National Geographic Society.

In its November 2008 issue, the magazine included Taiwan on a list of 25 Best New Adventure Travel Trips 2009. Describing the island as "standing shoulder to shoulder with the world's great trekking destinations," National Geographic Adventure also included Indonesia, Nepal and eastern Russia in its Asia section.

According to Pete Royall, a manager with UK-based firm KE Adventure Travel that set up the 15-day itinerary in Taiwan, the company is always on the lookout for new routes and destinations to offer its clients. "To many people in the West, Taiwan may not immediately present itself as a destination for adventure travel, but the scenery is superb with lots of hiking above the tree line," he said. "Taiwan's ranges are crisscrossed by established trails which give relatively easy access to wild and remote areas."

The Taiwan itinerary includes 12 days of what the company's brochure describes as "demanding trekking," and 11 nights spent under canvas or in mountain refuges. On most days, the trekkers will be walking for five to seven hours, but there will be some longer days of 11 hours or more.

For the main part, the trek follows a route that is well established but seldom used. This trail, which local hikers call "South Section Two," stretches from the Southern Cross-Island Highway - a mountain road that links the city of Tainan with the island's southeast - to Dongpu, a hot springs resort in central Taiwan's Nantou County. For its entire length it is within Yushan National Park, the nature reserve named for and centered around Northeast Asia's highest mountain.

One of the highlights of the hike comes on Day 4 of the trip, the first day of real trekking. Jiaming Lake, an elliptical body of water around 100 meters in diameter, is not only sublimely beautiful, but almost unique in terms of geology. It is one of just a hundred or so lakes around the world to have been created by a meteor strike, and possibly the youngest.

The following day, trekkers will ascend Sancha Mountain (3,496 meters) before crossing the Lakuyin River, a narrow stream where large, dark brown deer known as sambars can often be seen.

Yushan National Park is exceptionally rich in wildlife. In addition to sambars, some 130-bird species, 27 different mammals, 17 reptile species, 12 kinds of amphibians and 186 butterfly species have been recorded in the park. At many points along South Section Two, hikers have reported hearing sound of Reeves's muntjacs foraging during the night. The muntjac, an endemic mammal species that looks like a small deer, makes a sound so much like a dog's that it is often called a "barking deer."

In National Geographic Adventure, the tour's local representative Richard Foster explained that by walking along the spine, a trekker would experience different ecological zones and have a great view of other mountain ranges. "There, far from the crowds of Taipei, the chances of seeing bears, marmots, ferrets, and butterflies are better than seeing humans," he said.

"South Section Two is just one of many excellent long hikes in Taiwan," Foster said. "Hopefully, some of the people who join the 2009 treks will return to Taiwan in the future and tackle the Holy Ridge or South Section One."

The entire article is here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On the trail of Taiwan's Confucius (China Post)

Everyone in Taiwan knows the story of Koxinga, the Ming Dynasty loyalist who fled to the island from the Chinese mainland, and defeated the Dutchmen then ruling Tainan and its hinterland.

Not so many people have heard of Shen Guang-wen, a scholar sometimes called "Taiwan's Confucius." Shen was one of many thousands of mainlanders who fled to Taiwan after the Manchurians - then in the process of establishing the Qing Dynasty - seized the imperial capital and gradually extended their rule southward.

Shen was born in 1612 and died in 1688. He arrived in Taiwan a full decade before Koxinga. His life and achievements are celebrated in the Qingan Temple in Tainan County's Shanhua Township. The temple is a third-grade national relic. It is usually described as having 300-plus years of history, but like many other landmarks in Taiwan, the structure visitors see today is not the original...

Go here for the complete article.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A gourmand's visit to Meinong (China Post)

The lepidopteran inhabitants of the Yellow Butterfly Valley have yet to emerge, you already have a hand-painted oil-paper parasol, and disused tobacco-curing barns hold no interest for you. Or, just as you arrive in the picturesque town of Meinong, the skies open and the rain comes pouring down.

What then is there to do in Kaohsiung County's Hakka heartland? The answer, of course, is eat. Meinong is one of the best places in Taiwan to enjoy authentic Hakka food. There are several unpretentious eateries in the downtown, places where the customers get to sit on plastic stools, and where the food is slapped down in front of you with the minimum of ceremony.

Hakka cooking isn't to everyone's liking, because it's saltier, greasier and more vinegary than mainstream Taiwanese cuisine...

The rest of the article is here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Take home a piece of Taiwan (Dynasty)

Taiwan's economic miracle was founded on manufacturing. The island's prosperity stems from making and exporting practical consumer items - cheap clothes and shoes in the 1960s, then high-tech must-haves since the 1990s.

These items have found their way to every corner of the world. Taiwanese people are rightfully proud of this, but it does mean visitors are hard-pressed to find charming and distinctive mementos they can take home and share. Everything sold here, it seems, is available everywhere else...

This article appeared in the December issue of Dynasty, the inflight magazine produced for China Airlines. It's not the first time I've written about souvenir hunting in Taiwan; for an earlier article, go here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Meinong: Home of the Hakka (Verve)

Tell your friends you're going to Meinong, the little town 40 kilometers northeast of Kaohsiung City, and their responses are pretty much guaranteed to include these keywords: Hakka people, bantiao noodles, paper parasols, and tobacco. Those images have remained through the years.

The Hakka are Taiwan's largest ethnic minority. At least three million people across the island are wholly or partly of Hakka descent. Unlike Taiwan's aboriginal tribes, the Hakka are considered Han Chinese, but they have their own language and a distinctive set of customs...

The complete article is in the December issue of Verve, EVA Airlines' inflight magazine.