Sunday, December 18, 2011

Taiwan for Culture Vultures

Taiwan for Culture Vultures, the travel app I've been developing on and off for the past half year is now available as a download for iPhones and iPads, published by Singapore-based Guidegecko. As the name implies, it's very much a guide for those who enjoy temples, museums and architecture.

Much of the content can be read online. Among the entries I most enjoyed writing, and places I especially recommend to visitors, are: the Former British Consular Residence in Kaohsiung; Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park; and Lugang's Cheng Huang Temple. Those three entries, and many others, benefited from the photography of Rich Matheson and Craig Ferguson.

For more details about the project, see this post on my other blog.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ha! Ha! Hot Kaohsiung!

Ha! Ha! Hot Kaohsiung! is the name of a 120-page booklet just published by Kaohsiung City Government's Research, Development & Evaluation Commission. I was one of the editors for this project.

The booklet has a lot of tourist information (especially about Meinong, Fengshan and Zuoying districts), plus information about restaurants, homestays, shops and hospitals which have received English Emblem awards for bilingual service.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Expat birders race to spot Taiwan's feathered treasures (Taiwan Today)

Birdwatching contests, in which teams of enthusiasts compete to sight the greatest number of species, are nothing new in Taiwan, but the Second Yushan National Park Bird Race and Bird-watching Activity, held November 12-13 in and around Tataka, Nantou County, was a step forward in raising international awareness of the country’s exceptionally diverse wild bird population.

Including migrants, around 470 avian species have been recorded in Taiwan. Among the species which draw bird-watchers to the country are the black-faced spoonbill, an elegant water bird that spends the winter on the southwest coast, and the Chinese crested tern, an extremely rare seabird thought to be extinct until sighted in the Matsu Islands in 2000.

According to Charles C. Cheng, president of the Taipei-based Chinese Wild Bird Federation, Taiwan’s main bird conservation organization, this year’s Tataka event, “successfully integrated bird touring, conservation advocacy, and raising public awareness.”

“We have been conducting similar bird races around Taiwan for more than 20 years, and we’ve done them in three different styles,” Cheng said after the event. He explained that some bird races, like the event at Tataka, are limited in terms of both territory and time, noting that “Taiwan’s national parks and national forest recreation areas are very good sites for this kind of event..."

Go here for the whole article. The photo was provided by Barking Deer Adventures, which helped organized the participation of the two foreign teams. Until 2008, the Chinese Wild Bird Federation was known as Wild Bird Federation Taiwan. It changed its name under duress from China.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taiwan gets an almost-perfect history museum (

Twelve years after the project was initiated, the National Museum of Taiwan History (NMTH) finally opened its doors to the public on October 29, 2011.

Council for Cultural Affairs Minister Emile Sheng and Tainan City Mayor William Lai presided over the inauguration. Some of those who have donated artifacts to the museum – such as Taipei-based Dutch businessman and map collector Paul J. J. Overmaat – also attended. The celebrations featured local zhentou troupes and folk dancers, as well as cultural heavyweights like aboriginal singer Kimbo and Ten Drum Art Percussion Group.

Taiwan has long had science, literature and fine arts museums. There are also exhibitions devoted to Taiwan's Hakka and aboriginal minorities. The National Palace Museum is, of course, the world's greatest accumulation of Chinese art works and cultural treasures. There are even museums which celebrate the villages where Chinese Nationalist soldiers and their dependents lived after they retreated from the mainland in 1949. But until now, no single institution has presented a comprehensive historical overview of the entire island of Taiwan. The NMTH fills that gap, and does so almost perfectly.

According to the NMTH's Mission Statement, the museum was built to "preserve Taiwan's historical and cultural assets, construct the Taiwanese people's historical memory, facilitate ground-breaking studies of the history of Taiwan's traditions and culture, promote Taiwan's history, and build a diversified resource center for the use of scholars and the general public."

"The displays cover the history of Taiwan, its diversity and ethnic groups, to expand cultural horizons, and encourage Taiwan residents to know and respect each other," the statement continues. "The goal is to make people understand and cherish the multicultural land that is Taiwan."

Rather than present history in a traditional text-heavy format, the NMTH is filled with vivid models and images. The most striking of the former is the full-size replica of a single-mast junk, the kind of vessel that transported goods between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland during Qing Dynasty rule (1683—1895).

The junk is part of a recreation of the waterfront at Lugang as it would have looked in the 18th century, when the town (in central Taiwan's Changhua County) was one of Taiwan's busiest harbors...

The whole article, together with six photos, is here. The museum's official website doesn't yet have much English.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A paperless version of my second book

I've just noticed (the publisher forgot to tell me, it seems), that my second book, Dos and Don'ts in Taiwan, is now available in Kindle format. However, the publication date listed some way down the page is incorrect; the book came out in 2010, not 1995.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The multi-faceted splendor of Meinong (Unity)

Meinong is one of the loveliest corners of south Taiwan. Blessed with fertile, well-watered farmlands and a backdrop of steep hills, its population is dominated by the Hakka ethnic minority.

Forty kilometers northeast of downtown Kaohsiung, but easily accessible thanks to Freeway 10 and frequent buses, it draws several different kinds of visitor. Gourmands come for authentic Hakka cuisine; outdoors types enjoy the seven color-coded bicycle paths; shoppers look for souvenirs that hark back to an era before plastic; while eco-tourists seek out beautiful butterflies.

Hakka cooking isn’t to everyone’s liking. It’s saltier, greasier and more vinegary than mainstream Taiwanese cuisine. Meinong’s most famous comestible is bantiao. These broad white noodles are made from rice flour, whereas conventional Taiwanese noodles are made from wheat. Bantiao may be fried with slivers of pork and carrot, or boiled and then served either in soup or dry with a few small slices of pork on top.

Another common dish in Meinong is ke-jia-xiao-chao, a stir fry blending dried squid, dried tofu, strips of pork and green vegetables. Meinong is no exception to the rule that much of Taiwan’s best food is to be found in the island's least pretentious eateries. Near Minsheng and Zhongzheng roads there are at least half-dozen places where customers sit on plastic stools. The service may not be polished, but the prices seldom top NT$120 per person.

Among Meinong's 45,000 inhabitants are a few dozen who make a living crafting oil-paper umbrellas. Few tourist destinations in Taiwan are so closely associated with one particular product as Meinong is with its colorful parasols.

Traditionally these umbrellas were used in both sunny and rainy weather. They also had a symbolic role – because the Hakka word for paper zhi is very similar to that for children zi, they were often given as wedding presents.

Made of thin strips of bamboo and varnished paper, the umbrellas are painted by hand – often with typically Chinese motifs like dragons, birds, delicate flowers or wise sages – and then dried under the sun. You should expect to pay around NT$1500 for a 19-inch umbrella...

Over the past few years, I've written several articles about Meinong, including this longish one, and another about the town's Hakka cuisine. The photo on the left shows a government-issued license to grow and dry tobacco, pasted to the door of one of Meinong's redundant tobacco curing shed. The photo lower right shows one such shed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Keeping behind the times in Lugang (Verve)

Nothing ever changes in Lugang (often spelled "Lukang"), and that's why so many people adore it. Halfway down Taiwan's west coast, the town is a place where tradition has stood firm against modernity.

For this we can thank the crude pursuit of profit that used to dominate the town, some stick-in-the-mud thinking, and the selfishness of a colonial power. Old school commerce made Lugang what it is. For over 100 years, from the early 18th century, the only settlement in Taiwan larger was the then capital, Tainan. Qing Dynasty mandarins seldom made their presence felt in Lugang, as disputes were mediated by the eight guild-like trade groupings called

The shape-shifting nature of Taiwan's coastline dealt the town a series of blows. Silt choked the harbor in 1717, but by 1740 it was again broad and deep. When times were good, thousands of vessels per year unloaded Chinese cloth and crockery, then shipped Taiwanese rice, sugar, hemp and ramie to the Chinese coast. In the late 19th century, sediment again blocked the port. And when the Japanese took control of Taiwan in 1895, they reoriented the island's economy, at a stroke rupturing ancient trade links between Lugang and Fujian. The town might have recovered were it not for the conservative outlook of local leaders. In the early days of the Japanese occupation, believing rail transportation would never catch on, they lobbied against a rail link...

This article appeared in the August issue of Verve, EVA Air's monthly inflight magazine.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Taiwan Balloons Museum blends fun and industrial heritage (

Several museums in Taiwan celebrate the industries which transformed the island from an agrarian backwater to an economic powerhouse. Former sugar refineries have been converted into tourist attractions, and there are places where visitors can learn how saxophones are made, or how hot glass is blown to make lampshades.

Taiwan Balloons Museum focuses on a line of business that few people think about unless they are organizing a wedding or a birthday party. In most people's minds, balloons are the humblest of products – cheap, simple and thrown away at the end of the day. But, as anyone who tours this museum will find out, there is much more to making a good balloon than meets the eye...

To read the whole article, go here. I visited the museum as part of this project.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Interviewed by Centered on Taipei

Trista di Genova interviewed me a little while ago for Centered on Taipei magazine. The print edition is now out, and the text is also featured in Trista's online magazine, where you'll find lots of interesting stuff about expatriates in Taiwan.

Monday, September 12, 2011

English Emblem 2011

For the third year running, I joined one of the Research, Development & Evaluation Commission's judging teams for the English Emblem program. In recent weeks we visited two dozen businesses in the counties of Taichung, Changhua and Yilan, among them a winery, some homestays, a mushroom wholesaler and two hospitals.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reviews of a book I edited

A book I edited last year, Troy Parfitt's Why China Will Never Rule The World, has been picking up positive reviews on

At the time of writing, 10 of the 33 reviewers had given it five stars, and 17 had given it four. One of the shorter five-star reviews says:

"This book is quite astounding. I hadn't realized when I started it that the book was so chock-filled with condensed and very informative and entertaining historical treatises. And I had thought that maybe the title was a little overboard given that the author had never lived for a substantial period in this sprawling toxic wasteland. Don't be fooled! Troy Parfitt knows his stuff, that is quite clear. He gives his subjects more than ample opportunity to prove themselves, and at every step they confirm his thesis. Of course, anyone who spends longer than a few weeks in China (4 years for me) will soon begin to have inklings of the same conclusion, that the Chinese are not, nor will probably ever be, ready for prime-time, and that we've been fed a steady diet of rah-rah China hype and BS in the Western media. Mr. Parfitt gives an almost scientific treatment to our suspicions. And one that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

Old China hands will likely suffer a sore neck after extended reading from near constant nodding in agreement with the author's experiences and well-documented conclusions. But the dreariness of the landscape he paints is regularly interrupted with moments of keyboard-splattering hilarity, as I mentioned, and with lots of myth-busting history dealing with the big players (Mao, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek) and major events (founding of modern China, the civil war, the war with Japan, and Taiwan).

As the product description says, this book is vital for anyone wishing to understand what China is, what it has been, and what it is likely to become."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A mention in the local newspaper

I heard about this a few days after the report appeared, but I didn't see a physical copy of the item until last week. On August 3, the China Daily News, a Chinese-language newspaper based here in Tainan, ran a quarter-page report and color photograph about my recent meeting with Yan Hong-sen, whom I was interviewing for a Hong Kong magazine. Professor Yan, an engineer and vice president of National Chengkung University, is quite famous in Taiwan for his collection of ancient locks. He's amassed almost 700 locks, and written a book on the subject.

The English version of the press release on which the report was based is still online.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Delicious street treats at night markets (Taiwan Business Topics)

Taiwan has chefs and restaurants deserving of Michelin stars, yet some of the very best food can be found at eateries that lack air-conditioning, where the only furniture consists of folding tables and plastic stools. Moreover, some of the tastiest snacks are sold by vendors who work in the open air and cook on mobile stoves.

Hawkers of ready-to-eat hot and cold delicacies can be found on every busy thoroughfare in every town and city. For many first-time visitors to Taiwan, the sight of vendors stirring vats of steaming soup and pushing oyster omelets around a hot plate has them reaching for their cameras. Taiwanese – and many long-term foreign residents – react differently. The smells wafting from such places are likely to make their mouths water.

Despite the advent of fancy malls and department stores, the streets where hawkers gather between dusk and midnight continue to attract droves of shoppers...

The entire text of this advertorial can be read here.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Seeing the sights in New Taipei City (Taiwan Business Topics)

A few weeks after Taiwan Business Topics assigned me to write about New Taipei City from a tourism perspective, I read a review of Dralion, a new show from Cirque du Soleil, in the online edition of an Ohio newspaper. “Captivating yet lacks a unifying theme,” wrote Margaret Quamme in The Columbus Dispatch. “[It] overloads the senses...wildly colorful, randomly multicultural...loud... nonstop movement.”

My immediate thought: These words fit New Taipei City to a tee. Many complain about the dense population and round-the-clock congestion in what used to be Taipei County. Thanks to its 41,000 residents per square kilometer, Yonghe has plenty of loud, nonstop movement. Yet Wulai has just 15 people per square kilometer, and is known for hot springs and birdwatching trails.

There is no “unifying theme,” for sure. In addition to the commuter towns and industrial parks that surround Taiwan's capital, the special municipality has some of the island's most attractive coastal scenery and a good number of mountains. New Taipei City is certainly multicultural. There are Hakka communities, including one in Sanzhi whose most famous son is former President Lee Teng-hui. About one in three of Wulai's inhabitants are Atayal aborigines. The Southeast Asians who live in Zhonghe and Yonghe celebrate the end of the Thai and Burmese lunar year with a raucous Water Festival. Hundreds of Western expatriates can be found in Danshui and Banqiao.

Because Taipei County has had a reputation for extreme urban ugliness, in this article I focus on New Taipei City's manmade attractions – to restore some balance, as it were. And as getting from one part of the donut-shaped special municipality to another can easily take an hour, I chose to home in on three regions: Sanxia, the mouth of the Danshui River, and the area to the east of Keelung's busy harbor. (Keelung itself is not part of New Taipei City). Worthwhile attractions elsewhere in New Taipei City include the Museum of World Religions in Yonghe, the Lin Family Gardens in Banqiao, and the Juming Museum in the hills above Jinshan...

The complete article appeared in the July issue of the magazine. I took the photo in Danshui District five or six years ago; it shows the less well-known of the two Old Li Houses.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fred Lobb: Bringing Taiwan's folk stories to an international audience (

Every student of the Chinese language takes his or her studies in a particular direction, usually in anticipation of a career in business, translation or academia. Fred H. Lobb [pictured right], a writing coach in California, has used his skills in Mandarin Chinese rather differently. For over 30 years he has been exploring myths, legends and folktales written in Chinese, and translating many of them into English.

Having lived and studied in Taiwan, and married to a Taiwanese woman, he has paid particular attention to Taiwan's own folktales. Some are variations on stories told on the Chinese mainland; some, however, are unique to the island. Since 2007, Lobb has been posting his translations of Chinese folk stories at

Earlier this year,, a specialist book seller based in Taiwan, released a compilation of Lobb's translations, Taiwan Folktales: Proverbs, Folk Sayings, and Folktales from Taiwan.

"The book contains the stories and proverbs that I personally enjoy and have found interesting. All my translations come from original Chinese-language sources. For a few of the stories, other English versions exist in print and online, but I didn't read those translations or utilize them in any way," Lobb says...

The complete article can be read here. Fred Lobb's book is published by, which also published the second edition of my first book, Keeping Up With The War God

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pingtung: Betting the sun will shine (Taiwan Review)

In the final phase of a business career that led to long periods in the United States and mainland China, Adam Lu and his wife decided they would move back to his hometown in the southern county of Pingtung when he retired. Lu had lived in the rural Pingtung township of Wandan until he was 15 years old, when he moved away to continue his education. His wife grew up in Yanpu, another of the county’s small towns. “I’ve always known Pingtung isn’t a very good place to pursue a career, but I did think it would be a great place to retire to—good weather, a stress-free environment,” Lu says.

Almost three years after hanging up his suits, however, the couple is enjoying life not in the town of his birth, but in a condominium in Kaohsiung City’s Sanmin District. “Access to hospitals and shops is important,” says Lu, whose wife is diabetic. “Also, we were attracted by Kaohsiung’s public transportation. We’re near a KMRT station. Plus, our daughter lives in Kaohsiung.”

Many other Pingtung natives have decided their future lies outside the county’s 2,776 square kilometers. Between 1997 and the end of 2010, the population shrank almost 5 percent to 873,509. During the same period, Taiwan’s population grew more than 6 percent.

Pingtung has substantial aboriginal and Hakka minorities, but in other respects data compiled by the Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Household Registration suggests Pingtung folk are not very different from their compatriots in other parts of Taiwan. The county is not a black spot for social problems like divorce, nor for health issues like infant mortality. The population is somewhat older than the national average, though, with 12.49 percent of county residents being aged 65 or over compared with 10.63 percent nationwide.

Economic issues were not a factor in the Lus’ decision to live in Kaohsiung, but are undoubtedly a major issue for many of those who leave Pingtung. The government’s 2009 Survey of Family Income and Expenditure found that while the average number of employed persons per household in the county precisely matches the national average, household incomes are almost a fifth lower.

According to Pingtung County Magistrate Tsao Chi-hung, the county’s people have “a sense of relative deprivation,” which results from decades of the central government and private investors favoring the north over the south, and urban areas over the countryside.

Some investors have steered clear of Pingtung because of transportation difficulties. Until 2004, the county did not have any freeways or expressways. It remains the only part of western Taiwan to lack a high-speed railway station and have no prospect of getting one. While visitors to Pingtung often adore the slow pace of life, residents bemoan the impact this has on the county’s development. This sentiment is reflected in a local idiom, zhan wei bao shuai, which means, “At the end of the line, all is languid.” 

Tsao, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party who was elected to a second term in 2009, thinks two ongoing infrastructure projects will give the county a major boost. One is the building of a world-class auditorium in Pingtung City, the budget for which is NT$11 billion (US$380 million). The auditorium is scheduled to open in mid-2013. The other is the conversion of Taiwan Railway Administration’s Pingtung-to-Chaozhou railroad into a rapid-transit line at a cost of NT$25 billion (US$862 million). “Twenty-four level crossings will be eliminated, meaning road travel will become safer and smoother,” says Tsao, who stresses that the project, due to be completed in 2013, goes beyond cutting travel times, elevating the tracks and remaking the stations. “It’s a good opportunity to adjust surrounding roads, add bicycle paths and reconstruct urban areas,” the county magistrate says. 

“There can be no doubt that tourism and high-value agriculture are crucial development directions for Pingtung,” Tsao says. “We should also make good use of our abundant sunshine, which is an advantage when developing green energy and encouraging the public to use solar power...”

The entire article appears in the August issue of Taiwan Review, the Government Information Office's monthly magazine. The interview with the chief magistrate of Pingtung was done by email; the interviews of businesspeople were all done face to face.

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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Yanshui (Centered on Taipei)

Yanshui, best known for the Beehive Fireworks Festival held here early each spring, is a charming old town. Also, it's ideal for exploring on foot, the side streets being full of quaint houses, small shrines and old-fashioned shops...

The summer issue of Centered on Taipei, a free English-language magazine aimed at Taiwan's expatriate community, features this piece, which I adapted from Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide. Yanshui - previously spelled Yenshui or Yanshuei - is one of my favorite towns in Taiwan's south.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tying the knot in Taiwan (Taiwan Business Topics)

Couples planning to marry in Taiwan are expected to follow various customs and respect certain traditions. Before any formal engagement, both parties will submit their birth dates and times to a fortune teller who then determines if they are destined to spend the rest of their lives together in blissful prosperity, or if the match is doomed from the start.

Ahead of the actual marriage, the couple has to supervise the designing and printing of invitation cards, and choose wedding cakes to send out to friends and relatives.

In the past few decades, these age-old practices have been supplemented by another convention. Nowadays, some weeks before the traditional wedding banquet, almost every Taiwanese couple will spend one or more days with a professional photographer, posing in various costumes.

Pictures are taken both in a studio and outdoors at picturesque locales. Typically, the groom in his tuxedo and the bride in her white wedding dress will hold hands on a beach, or gaze into each others' eyes while sitting on a lawn in front of a historic building. These images are staged, of course, but far from stiffly formal. A skilled photographer can imbue such portraits with humor and elegance, as well as beauty and lashings of romance.

Just as important is what the photography studios then do with the images. Rather than simply print standard 4x6s, a great deal of thought and creativity is put into combining the pictures with captions, mottoes or song lyrics into an exquisitely produced album. The couple thus gain a souvenir of their youth and their wedding that will endure for decades.

Taiwan's wedding photography culture is very different to the West's, and the island's wedding-photography entrepreneurs can be considered world leaders in their field. This is largely the result of hard work, innovation and years of experience. However, the men and women who work in the industry readily admit nature has dealt them a strong hand.

Strange as it may seem, the brides- and grooms-to-be who step gingerly out of minivans so as not to crease gowns or muss hairstyles have something in common with the extreme sports enthusiasts who flock to Taiwan aiming to work up a good sweat. Both benefit from the island's incredible geographical diversity and year-round sunshine. In not much more than an hour you can get from downtown Taipei to Baishawan's pristine sandy beach. Scenic spots in mountainous Yangmingshan National Park and waterfalls near Wulai are equally accessible.

Taiwan's capital is full of manmade attractions such as Taipei 101. Imposing edifices built during the Japanese colonial era (1895—1945), such as the Museum of Drinking Water, are also popular backdrops. All in all, wedding photographers and their clients are spoiled for choice...

This is the first half of an advertorial text that appeared in the May issue of the American Chamber of Commerce's magazine.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Three culinary treasures (Travel in Taiwan)

Tell a local gourmet you're heading to Pingtung's west coast, and he or she is sure to rhapsodize about Donggang's Three Culinary Treasures. The town has always made it living from the ocean, so it's no surprise that all three of signature delicacies are seafood.

First and foremost is bluefin tuna, the availability of which peaks around the start of summer. It's often served Japanese-style as sashimi or sushi. If you order some, do try it before you sample any other dishes. Top-grade bluefin sashimi costs around NT$300 per slice, so it deserves a clean palette. In appearance, it resembles marbled beef. In taste, obviously, it's very different.

If raw fish doesn't appeal, order a tuna dish that's been deep-fried or steamed.

The second treasure is sakura shrimp. These are usually shallow fried, seasoned and served on a bed of fluffy white rice.

The third is escolar roe. Dark brown in color and surprisingly like cheese in both texture and taste, this dish is served cold and thinly sliced.

All three of Donggang's culinary treasures can be sampled at Sunrise Restaurant, a three-story landmark establishment that's been in business over 40 years. Like many banquet-style restaurants, the food here is best enjoyed by large groups who can order several dishes.

According the owners, Sunrise's chefs much prefer freshly caught seafood to farmed fish. Despite the emphasis on seafood, the menu caters for vegetarians and those who'd rather eat land-roaming creatures. For NT$400 to NT$500 per person, you'll enjoy a real feast.

Little Liuqiu has several seafood eateries, and one of the best is Baihai Restaurant. It's easy to find. If you're walking from the center of Baisha to Lingshan Temple, it's one of the last buildings on the left.

Not everything on the menu comes from the ocean. Locally-made pork sausages, chopped into slivers and served with lettuce, are a favorite. Baihai also serves up what locals call a Little Liuqiu Pizza It contains neither cheese nor tomatoes, yet in terms of shape and size it does resemble a pizza. Filled with prawns covered with flour and seasoning, it's deep-fried until golden brown – and it goes down a treat.

This short piece was one of three accompanying my ecotourism report on Little Liuqiu and Dapeng Bay in the May/June issue of Travel in Taiwan magazine. I'm not going to post the other two (about places to stay and souvenir buying); see my previous post if you need an explanation of how to read the magazine online.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A big bay and a small island (Travel in Taiwan)

Despite the best efforts of the Tourism Bureau's Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area (DBNSA) Administration, there are still tourists who've not heard of this area in southwest Taiwan.

Just in case you're one of them, here are some basic facts: Dapeng Bay is divided between the townships of Donggang and Linbian in Pingtung County. The waters of the lagoon here cover 532 hectares and average five meters in depth. Used by the military until the 1970s, the bay later became one of Taiwan's most important oyster-farming areas – it's said a man could get from one side to the other, a distance of 1,800 meters, by clambering from platform to platform.

The bay is stirred by consistent winds, but because the mouth is narrow, the waves never reach any great height. Conditions are thus perfect for all kinds of water sports. For those who like to stay dry, a bicycle path stretching 13.3km rings the lagoon.

On this occasion, however, Travel in Taiwan was not heading south to get fit. We were there to learn about the unique ecosystems of the scenic area, which consists of the lagoon and Xiao Liuqiu, an island 14km offshore.

The DBNSA official showing around the bay, began by telling me something so counterintuitive I had to double-check it. The bay, he said, is saltier than the nearby ocean. Surely not, I thought; freshwater inflow would reduce the salinity. Yet only two small creeks feed into the bay, and year-round sunshine evaporates a great deal of the water. Also, because salt is relatively heavy, it tends to sink and linger rather than being washed out through the bay's constricted opening.

A pleasurable way of seeing the bay is to get on a boat...

This longish article appears in its entirety in the May/June issue of Travel in Taiwan. To read it, go here and click on the cover of that issue (it's mostly green, and bears the numbers 5/6 in the top right corner). The second half of the article, which I've not posted, focuses on Little Liuqiu, and I've blogged about that part of the press trip, and posted some photos. For a previous article of mine about Dapeng Bay, go here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sailing and vacationing at Dapeng Bay (Taiwan Business Topics)

As increasing numbers of foreign visitors are discovering, Taiwan's coastline is more than a place to soak up the sun and play in the surf. It is also a paradise for birdwatchers and a heaven for lovers of seafood.

The region that includes Dapeng Bay in the southernmost county of Pingtung is well known on both counts. Each winter, the bay and the wetlands that surround it attract scores of migratory bird species, while the adjacent town of Donggang is renowned for its world-class bluefin tuna and other delicacies.

Dapeng Bay has another advantage, one that is immediately obvious to those who have a chance to get on a windsurfing rig or aboard a sloop. In addition to year-round sunshine, the bay enjoys consistent winds. Yet because the mouth of this 532-hectare lagoon is so narrow, the waves are minuscule. As a result, it is an excellent place for all kinds of watersports. In a word, sailing here is a breeze.

Some 3.5km long and about 1.8km across, the bay has an average depth of five meters. Among its unique features is a small island which consists entirely of discarded oyster shells. This islet, which is a legacy of the years when more than 13,000 oyster-raising platforms covered the bay, now nurtures schools of lively fish.

The Pen Bay, a resort inside Dapeng Bay that will boast world-class facilities, is nearing completion.

The entire region's profile will be lifted this month with the 2011 Dapeng Bay International Regatta, which promises to be the most exciting yachting event in Taiwan's history. The regatta will be preceded by the inaugural Taiwan Strait Race, a 350-nautical-mile dash from Hong Kong to Kaohsiung, the waterfront metropolis that brands itself Taiwan's “ocean capital.”

The Taiwan Strait Race will begin at 12.10 p.m. Hong Kong time on May 21. In terms of International Sailing Federation (ISAF) ratings, it is a Category 1 offshore race – meaning that participating yachts are required to be completely self-sufficient for extended periods of time, and prepared to meet serious emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance. The race is being organized by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club with assistance from Kaohsiung City Government and the Chinese-Taipei Sailing Association.

For crews, crossing the Taiwan Strait will involve a lot of physical effort and likely a little discomfort, but they can look forward to a warm welcome when they reach Kaohsiung. Taiwan's second-largest city not only has a comfortable climate and friendly people, but also a fine selection of restaurants, several fascinating museums, and enough retail outlets to satisfy hardcore shopaholics. Getting around the city is very easy, thanks to the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit system, plentiful and inexpensive taxis, and a growing network of bicycle trails.

The arrival of foreign yachts in Kaohsiung is fitting in an historical sense, because this city is where merchants from Europe and North America arrived in sail boats in the 1860s, seeking tea, camphor and other Taiwanese products. As the yachts sail into Kaohsiung Harbor, they will pass within sight of a relic of that era, a hilltop redbrick villa. It once served as the official residence of the British Consul, and is now one of Kaohsiung's most distinctive buildings.

Dapeng Bay International Regatta will begin on May 27 with a skippers' briefing in Kaohsiung. The following day, participants will race southeast along the coastline to Dapeng Bay, a distance of 18 nautical miles.

May 29 will see a series of inshore races in what has been dubbed Taiwan's maritime “golden triangle,” the patch of ocean between Kaohsiung, Dapeng Bay and the tiny yet scenic island of Xiao Liuqiu. On May 30, the vessels will head back to Kaohsiung. On the last day of May, they will leave Taiwan.

The regatta is being hosted by Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area Administration, Kaohsiung City Government and Pingtung County Government, and organized by various sports bodies including the Chinese-Taipei Sailing Association.

The regatta's organizers will assist entrants with entry and customs matters as well as anchorage. Various free services will be provided, including 24-hour security for moored vessels, airport pickup and transfer, plus an evening banquet. When not sailing, regatta entrants can enjoy the 13.3-kilometer-long cycle track that encircles the bay, or join free on-land excursions organized by the ROC Tourism Bureau.

Several facilities have been added to Dapeng Bay in recent years, but central to the transformation of this former military base (from the early 1940s to the late 1970s) turned oyster farming center (until 2003) into a hot spot for recreational sailing has been the construction of Taiwan's first drawbridge.

This brand new addition to the landscape – inaugurated in early spring – opens so large yachts can enter and leave the bay. Some 579 meters long and 71 meters high, this striking asymmetrical structure can be seen from several kilometers away.

Since 2009, Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area Administration and Pingtung County Government have been holding an annual windsurfing competition that sees entrants sail from the bay all the way to Xiao Liuqiu, a one-way distance of nine nautical miles. This year's races will last from May 21 to May 27.

Xiao Liuqiu itself is deserving of everyone's time. Just 6.8 square kilometers in area, it is surrounded by pristine ocean rich in coral, fish, turtle and other marine species. The island has a restful ambiance quite different to that of Kaohsiung, and a thoroughly traditional community life.

This is a slightly modified and shortened version of an advertorial I wrote for the Tourism Bureau that appeared in the April issue of Taiwan Business Topics.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

1st Taiwan Book Fest

I'm back from the second and final day of the 1st Taiwan Book Fest, which was held in Taipei's Huashan 1914 Creative Park on April 23 and 24. The event was organised by my old friend John Ross, long-time Chiayi resident and author of Formosan Odyssey, plus an earlier book about Burma. John introduced me and asked a series of questions about my writing experiences before opening the talk up to members of the audience.

A good number of Taiwan-based writers, translators, and readers turned up, including the author of this well-received Taiwan-themed novel, the author of this bilingual look at Taiwan's history, and the writer of several locally-published guides to parts of north Taiwan.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Taiwan Review's 60th anniversary special issue

For their 60th anniversary special issue (April 2011), Taiwan Review asked me - and other readers, contributors and former editors - for their thoughts on the magazine. They printed my response:

Magazines that give writers 2,500 words - sometimes more - on a single issue are few and far between, and that's one of the reasons why I enjoy writing for Taiwan Review. With that word count, I can really get my teeth into the topic. Few things are more frustrating than researching a subject that I find really interesting, interviewing fascinating people, and then having to leave half of what I've discovered in my notebook.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

'Innovative, Unique and Powerful'- Michael S. Berry on Taiwan's cinema (

“One of the great luxuries of my profession is that I have an incredible amount of freedom when it comes to determining my research and writing projects,” says Michael S. Berry, associate professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). “So if I were to give you a 'wish list' of what I would like to be working on, it would probably be very close – if not identical – to what I’m actually doing at any given moment.”

Berry, a jury member at the 2010 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, has written extensively about Taiwanese and Chinese cinema. He has also translated key works of Taiwanese literature into English, such as Chang Ta-chun's (張大春) Wild Kids (Columbia University Press, 2000). He is nearly finished translating Remains of Life, an award-winning novel by Wu He (舞鶴). 

“I think one of the primary characteristics of Taiwan cinema that draws me in is simply the incredible array of unique and powerful cinematic voices that have emerged from Taiwan over the past several decades, people like Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), Edward Yang (楊德昌), Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮), Chang Tso-chi (張作驥), Cheng Wen-tang (鄭文堂), Chung Mong-hong (鍾孟宏) and so many others,” says Berry.

Berry – whose wife Suk-Young Kim is also a UCSB academic, specializing in Russian literature and North Korean theater and film – is currently wrapping up a book project on Hou. According to Berry, Hou and the others, “offer a rich series of perspectives on Taiwan’s history and society, while, at the same time, using their films to provide much broader and more profound statements about the human condition.” 

“Many of these filmmakers have also been innovators in terms of what they have brought to the art of filmmaking, such as Hou’s aesthetic reinvention of the artform through his combined use of techniques such as the long-shot, long-take, and employment of non-professional actors,” says Berry.

“Any work of art is of course also tied to the social, historical and the economic circumstances from which it originally emerged and, to that end, Taiwan cinema is also a reflection of Taiwan’s dynamic journey in the modern era. From the Japanese colonial period to the island’s integration into the Republic of China in 1945, up to the incredible economic and democratic reforms witnessed over the past decades has provided the landscape for cinematic reflection.”

“At the same time, Taiwan cinema also serves as a fascinating counterpoint for other Chinese-language cinemas emerging from Hong Kong and mainland China,” adds Berry, who
studied Mandarin in Nanjing and Taipei before receiving a doctorate in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University.

Berry got the idea for his forthcoming Chinese-language book, Memories of Shadows and Light: In Dialogue with the Cinematic World of Hou Hsiao-hsien (光影記憶:對談侯孝賢的電影世界), several years ago. “The project’s origin actually goes back to my book Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers,” he recalls. 

Speaking in Images (Columbia University Press, 2005) – published in Taiwan in 2007 by Rye Field (麥田) under the title 光影言語:當代華語片導演訪談錄 – contains dialogues with 20 leading figures in the film industries of Taiwan, mainland China, and Hong Kong. For the book, Berry interviewed Hou alongside his longtime screenwriter, Chu Tien-wen (朱天文).  

“That turned out to be one of the standout interviews,” he recalls. “Not long after, I began playing with the idea of doing a second book with just a single director, which would allow me to really dig much more deeply into the filmmaker’s complete body of work, influences, formative experiences, reflections on the industry, and a wide array of other topics.”

Hou was Berry's first choice for the project. “I believe I first mentioned the idea to him sometime around 2007. He eventually agreed and we finally found a month [for interviewing] in 2009.”  

“I went into the project with more than 50 pages of questions and we recorded over 20 hours of interview material,” recalls Berry. All of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin. “The book represents the single most comprehensive document of Hou’s reflections on his life and work. From childhood reminiscences to his experience shooting automobile commercials, the book attempts to delve deeply into all aspects of Hou’s creative activities, with extensive sections devoted to each of his films.” 

The core of the book, a dialog with Hou, is supplemented by interviews with Chu (best known in the English-speaking world for her novel Notes of a Desolate Man) and actor Jack Kao (高捷) another of Hou’s most frequent collaborators. Berry believes these will provide alternative perspectives on Hou’s creative process and the nature of his collaborative process. 

“The book will also feature a very personal essay by mainland Chinese film director Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯) reminiscing on his own relationship with Hou and his films,” he adds. 

Memories of Shadows and Light will be published in the second half of 2011 by INK. 

Asked what he thinks of the recent box-office triumphs like Monga and Night Market Hero, Berry replies: “Overall, the success of these films brings promise to the local Taiwan film industry, which for many years – particularly during the 1990s – faced great challenges. This has been a slow process with films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Double Vision (2002) contributing to the gradual reinvigoration of the local film market in Taiwan over the past decade.”  

“While some might argue that films like these might point to a 'dumbing down' of the industry, the simple reality is such that film directors like Hou and Tsai Ming-liang are essentially art-house film directors who’s work, in large part, is not meant to have widespread commercial appeal. This shouldn’t be surprising since art-house cinema throughout the world usually only appeals to a very niche market.”  

“Perhaps there are certain misguided expectations in Taiwan because many art-house film directors achieved commercial success. However, as Chu Tien-wen once hinted at in an interview, this initial success was more of an anomaly and art-house films like those produced by the leading voices of the New Taiwan Cinema should not be expected to be breakout commercial hits. Clearly, the types of films that mainstream audiences want to see are more commercial fare like Cape No. 7 and Monga.” 

Nevertheless, Berry thinks the recent success of local commercial cinema can also boost contemporary Taiwan art-house cinema. “Different Taiwan films are often promoted side-by-side as examples of local filmmaking. It isn't uncommon to see a commercially successful genre film – like the gangster film Monga – displayed side-by-side with a more experimental film like Hou Chi-jan’s (侯季然) One Day in stores,” he points out. 

“What has happened is that the success of a few films has created an appetite for contemporary Taiwan cinema, opening a window of opportunity for a wider interest in different cinematic genres and styles coming from Taiwan. Equally important, the box-office success of these films helps crush deeply entrenched stereotypes and misconceptions about the industry that Taiwan cinema is somehow synonymous with art-house film. Once funding sources start returning and the industry’s infrastructure gets rebuilt, the entire filmmaking community, including art-house cinema, will reap the benefits.”

The website where this article first appeared has been closed down, so I've posted the entire piece here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A park honoring a Japanese engineer (Taiwan Business Topics)

The Japanese, who ruled Taiwan between 1895 and 1945, left their imprint in every corner of the island. Taiwan's people have mixed feelings about the colonial period. Japanese rule was often harsh, and the economy was organized to meet Japan's requirements and benefit Japanese enterprises. Nevertheless, during the colonial era Taiwan enjoyed rapid development and social stability.

Of individual Japanese fondly remembered for their contributions to Taiwan, none are revered more highly than Yoichi Hatta (1886—1942), a civil engineer. By unlocking the agricultural potential of southwestern Taiwan, Hatta helped feed four generations of Taiwanese.

Hatta's achievements have been the subject of numerous Chinese- and Japanese-language articles and books. His life story inspired a feature-length cartoon – Yoichi Hatta: The Father of the Chianan Canal, released in 2009.

Tourists interested in Hatta and his legacy will soon have a new place to visit. To honor the man and highlight his contributions, the Siraya National Scenic Area has established the Yoichi Hatta Memorial Park. Anyone interested in the lifestyles and architecture of 1920s Japan will enjoy the park, which is expected to become one of the national scenic area's leading attractions.

Around US$300,000 has been spent on the 3.9-hectare park, but more important than the budget are the care and attention lavished on the project. Scholars and historical organizations in both Taiwan and Japan were consulted during the design phase, as were Hatta's descendants, to ensure every aspect is historically accurate.

The centerpiece of the park – which is located less than a kilometer from Wushantou Dam, the landmark with which Hatta is synonymous – is the house where he lived with his wife and eight children.

All four of the Japanese-style wooden bungalows on the site, including the former Hatta residence, have been faithfully renovated using traditional materials. The beams are cypress, an especially fragrant wood which the Japanese call hinoki. Some of the internal partitions are paper, while others are wattle and daub (lattices of bamboo smeared with a mix of soil and rice husks).

The furniture and furnishings inside the buildings [pictured lower left] are either genuine heirlooms from the 1920s and 1930s, or articles chosen and arranged to match the mood of the period. In front of the house is a new bronze statue of Mrs. Hatta, who also showed a great love for Taiwan.

Elsewhere in the park there is a service center and an exhibition hall where visitors can watch multimedia shows about Hatta, his work, and the Chianan Plain. In addition, the tennis court laid out for the use of Hatta's colleagues has been recreated. Hatta was loved by his workers because he took good care of them; he built a school and a hospital, and organized sport events and entertainment.

Within just a few years of graduating from Tokyo Imperial University, Hatta had proved his capabilities while working on water-supply projects in the north of Taiwan. In 1920 he was assigned to a remote site about 30km from the ancient city of Tainan. At that time it was a sunbaked and malarial flatland, prone to both floods and droughts.

Japan was then suffering from food shortages, and Hatta's job was to create from scratch a reservoir and a network of irrigation canals that could transform this unproductive, hardscrabble landscape into rich agricultural land.

That he succeeded is obvious to 21st century visitors driving across the Chianan Plain (so called because it accounts for much of Chiayi County and Tainan Special Municipality). Scenes of bucolic prosperity greet the visitor. Rice – then as now a staple food in Taiwan and Japan – is grown in large quantities, as is corn, sugarcane, and sweet potatoes.

When Hatta arrived, the region lacked roads, so he ordered the laying of a branch railroad that could bring in building materials and heavy machinery. Some solutions were low-tech, however. To compact soil for the laying of foundations, herds of water buffalo were used to trample it down.

Over the course of a decade, Hatta supervised the construction of a number of tunnels (one being three kilometers long), plus several thousand kilometers of canals [pictured lower right], channels and ditches to carry water to fields. Central to the project was the 1,273-meter-long, 66-meter-high rock-filled barrage now known as Wushantou Dam. In terms both of size and technical complexity, the dam is a watershed in the history of civil engineering. Nothing like it had been attempted before in Asia, and it literally changed the face of a good part of southern Taiwan.

In recent years, a coalition of academics, farmers’ associations and civic groups have campaigned to have the entire irrigation system added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The 1,300-hectare reservoir is fed by more than 30 streams, and its nickname, Coral Lake, is inspired by its shape. With numerous peninsulas and inlets, in aerial photos it does indeed resemble a piece of blue-green coral.

In addition to irrigating 100,000 hectares of farmland, the waters of Coral Lake generate hydroelectric power. The surrounding trees, bamboo and thick foliage make the lake an especially good place for camping, barbecues and nature rambles.

In 1931, local people showed their gratitude to Hatta by commissioning a bronze statue of the engineer [pictured top left]. It can be seen inside the Wushantou Reservoir Scenic Area, atop a hillock shaded by camphor and beefwood trees.

The statue itself is rather unusual because of a condition set by Hatta when he reluctantly agreed to pose for it. He said it should not be stiffly formal nor idealized, but rather an accurate depiction of how he looked when working – sitting on the ground, scratching his head with his right hand and gazing wistfully into the distance, as if pondering an especially difficult engineering problem.

When Taiwan returned to Chinese rule in 1945 at the end of a long and brutal war, many symbols and relics of the Japanese colonial era were done away with. Sympathetic locals removed the statue, fearing the new government would order it to be destroyed. Kept hidden until 1981, it was then restored to its original place. These days, visitors will often see fresh flowers in front of the statue – further evidence of the high esteem in which Hatta is still held.

Nearby stands the Hatta Memorial Museum, a one-room exhibition hall filled with fascinating photographs; some show Hatta with his family, while others chart the construction of the dam. In one corner, some of Hatta's clothes have been preserved for posterity.

Yoichi Hatta Memorial Park will be open to the public every day, and admission will be free, at least for the initial period. Wushantou Reservoir Scenic Area is open from 6am to 6pm daily, and admission is NT$200 per person (parking extra).

This is an advertorial I wrote (paid for by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau) that appeared in Taiwan Business Topics, the monthly magazine published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. Researching and writing it was much more interesting than many jobs of that kind, so I'm posting the whole text here.