Friday, January 28, 2011

My guidebook in Taiwan Today

Taiwan Today, a government-run website, has reviewed my guidebook.

The reviewer is very positive about the text, saying: "Out-of-the ordinary tales and enough wry comments to provoke occasional laughter make Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide a useful resource for those looking to experience something a little different while journeying around the island... A prolific writer on all things Taiwan, Crook has an intrinsic feel for what tickles the average reader’s fancy... a plethora of revealing observations sprinkled throughout that are sure to amuse and enlighten those already in Taiwan and wanting to learn more."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tainan's Magic School embraces green architecture (Taiwan Today)

Over the past year and a half, a striking building has been taking shape on the campus of National Cheng Kung University in the southern city of Tainan.

This pathbreaking structure, the Y.S. Sun Green Building Research Center, named in honor of the former ROC premier who died in 2006, is also known as the Magic School of Green Technology (MSGT). Its exterior has several nautical touches, including a ship’s prow, and railings like those on a cruise liner. However, its uniqueness goes beyond outward appearance.

One of the functions of the MSGT, which was inaugurated January 12, is to help people understand why sustainable architecture is important, and how certain design and construction methods can lessen a building’s impact on the environment.

With four stories and 4,799 square meters of floor space, the school is expected to consume just 43 kilowatt hours of electricity per square meter of floor per year—65 percent less than similar office buildings in the ROC.

The design is so remarkable that the building and its principal designer, NCKU architecture professor Lin Hsien-te, were featured in a Discovery Channel documentary while it was still under construction.

“Natural ventilation is the key issue for this building,” architect Joe Shih explained when asked how such large energy savings are possible. Throughout the project, Shih has endeavored to reconcile Lin’s sustainability targets with the properties of conventional building materials, budgetary limits, NCKU’s requirements, local building codes and his own “ways of dealing with light and space.”

“Extensive computer modeling and experimentation were conducted to find the best natural ways to increase indoor ventilation,” Shih said.

The school’s three solar chimneys are a result of these efforts...

To see the rest of this article, go here. Taiwan Today is a web-only publication produced by the Government Information Office.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sweet reflections (Unity)

One crop has shaped Taiwan's rural landscape like no other: sugar. This commodity looms large in the island's economic history, having been grown on the island and shipped to overseas markets since the Dutch occupied the Tainan area in the 1600s.

Sugar production peaked at 1.4 million tonnes in 1939. At that time, around one-fifth of Taiwan's agricultural land was devoted to growing sugar cane. Refined sugar accounted for two thirds of Taiwan's exports in 1920, and four fifths in 1950. Jack Williams, a geography professor at Michigan State University in the United States writing in the 1970s, described sugar as “the sweetener in Taiwan's development.”

The industry has shrunk to a fraction of its former size because other countries are able to produce sugar more cheaply. The state-run Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC), which still has 4,000 employees and more than 50,000 hectares of land, has diversified into floriculture, biotechnology, animal husbandry, and tourism.

Many of the largest fields in south Taiwan used to be planted with cane, but it is the region's old sugar refineries to which visitors flock. Of the 42 sugar refineries TSC used to operate, all but four have been closed down. Several of the shuttered mills now enjoy a second existence as tourist attractions. These imposing complexes – some are over a century old – delight architecture aficionados and industrial-heritage buffs. Their surroundings please those who want fresh air and greenery, while the snacks and ice creams on offer keep kids happy.

Trainspotters are thrilled to see locomotives that used to haul cane from fields to mills. Until the 1990s, TSC operated its own rail network, with about 900km of 762mm-gauge track. Some branch lines carried paying passengers as well as cane. At places like Nantsing in Chiayi County [pictured below left] and Xinying in Tainan, TSC marshaling yards are full of rusting wagons.

One of the very few sugar trains still working can be found 15km west of Chiayi City, at what is now officially called Zhetang Culture Park, but which locals still refer to as Suantou Sugar Refinery. The refinery (pictured top left) started processing raw sugar in 1904, and was active until a decade ago. On weekends, tourists board the train and enjoy a short ride through the surrounding countryside.The main refinery building is open to the public, and each crusher, roller, pulping vat and boiler is labeled.

At the Tsung-yeh Arts and Cultural Center in Tainan, the atmosphere is one of creative refinement rather than brutal mechanization. Formerly the Madou Sugar Mill, this complex was established by a Japanese conglomerate during Japan's 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. Several buildings have been renovated – among them a Kyoto-style wooden guesthouse – and turned into art galleries and exhibition spaces.

The architecture at Shanhua Sugar Refinery, about 10km to the south, is not nearly so elegant, yet it does have a small museum overflowing with documents, tools and photographs from the industry's mid-2oth-century heyday.

Elsewhere in Tainan, a former sugar mill in Jiali has become the Siaolong Culture Park, a venue for festivals and exhibitions.

Perhaps the finest refinery complex in all of Taiwan is the one at Qiaotou, on the outskirts of Kaohsiung. Here you'll find lots of information about Taiwan’s sugar industry in both Chinese and English.

But for the main smokestack, those arriving at Qiaotou's elevated KMRT station won't get the impression they're arriving at an industrial landmark. In fact, it's leafier than most campuses. Among the buildings are workers’ dormitories and air-raid shelters, plus a small bilingual museum. The refinery ceased operations in 1999. The hundreds of banyan, camphor and mango trees, overgrown railway sidings, and surrounding fields (former cane plantations now lying fallow or afforested) mean butterflies thrive here in massive numbers. This fact is celebrated in the title and details of the 36m-long image that enlivens the interior of the KMRT station: Land of Sugar, Home of Butterflies.

Fields of cane can still be seen in Taiwan's southwest. Mature canes are more than 2m tall, and those on the edge of a plantation need to be buttressed so they don’t get flattened by strong gusts of wind. As you would expect, the delicacies sold in and around former refineries appeal to those with a sweet tooth. TSC-brand ice lollies are especially worth trying.

For a thoroughly authentic experience, find a roadside cane vendor, and watch as he hacks off the bark with a machete and then chops each cane into sections. Do as the locals do: Buy a bag of chopped cane, chew the sticks until all the juice has come out, then spit out the fiber. Alternatively, buy a bottle of fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice.

This article appeared in the January issue of Unity, UNI Air's inflight magazine.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide

Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide has reached bookstores in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and Singapore, and it's also available from all major online booksellers.

Monday, January 10, 2011

My guidebook in Action Asia

Action Asia, a Hong Kong-based magazine that has long championed Taiwan as an adventure travel destination, reports the publishing of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide.

Here's the text:

Until just a few years ago Taiwan was poorly served by guidebook publishers, but there's been a noticeable uptick in quality since 2007 or so. The arrival of a new Rough Guide started the shift, and now comes this latest release in the Bradt series that will appeal to the more culturally-attuned traveller - as well as those keen to avoid the hordes of LP and RG acolytes.

Crook is a long-term resident and the book betrays his love of the island and its people in its attention to the sights and experiences that make it a place simultaneously fast-changing and deeply rooted in tradition.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Taiwan's export-processing zones: Shifting roles through the decades (Taiwan Business Topics)

Long before the science parks in Hsinchu, Tainan, and Taichung were established, Taiwan's government was administering areas specifically designed to attract foreign direct investment and nurture industries in the hope that they would help drive the island's economy.

The first of these, the Kaohsiung Export Processing Zone (KEPZ), was established in December 1966. Because the original 68-hectare harbor-side enclave – the very first EPZ in the Asia-Pacific region – was quickly filled with factories churning out radios, garments, and other items, additional zones were established in Taichung in 1969 and in the Kaohsiung suburb of Nanzte (now often spelled Nanzi) in 1971.

The Export Processing Zone Administration (EPZA), a unit of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, now supervises seven EPZs and two other special economic development areas with a total land area of 586 hectares.

As of late 1967, EPZ tenant companies were employing 5,625 people. By 1976, the total workforce had swelled to just under 75,000, four-fifths of whom were female. The image of thousands of young women on bicycles leaving the zones at the end of each shift is part of the collective memory of Taiwanese who lived through the 1970s.

According to the EPZA, the zones' contribution to Taiwan's exports peaked in 1974. In that year, goods produced by tenant enterprises accounted for just over 9% of Taiwan's total exports of US$5.64 billion. By 2000, exports from the zones amounted to US$8.7 billion, 5.86% of Taiwan's total exports. The zones' share of exports has continued to decline, and currently stands at around 3.5%.

Until 1986, EPZ tenant enterprises were required to export all of their output. This rule was later relaxed and finally dropped altogether in 1997. The proportion of EPZ-made goods entering the domestic market has since been growing gradually, yet the zones still live up to their name. In 2006, 66.2% of EPZ output was exported.

In their first 35 years, Taiwan's EPZs brought the country something like US$50 billion in foreign currency. “TVs and textiles really helped Taiwan earn a lot of foreign exchange in the 1970s,” says Shen Jong-chin, the director-general of the EPZA since May 2010.

Since Taiwan’s introduction of the concept, dozens of countries around the world have established EPZs. Few, with the exception of China, have been nearly as successful as Taiwan was at providing the predictable, productive, and low-cost environments that investors seek.

Nowadays, when so much of the talk is about such sectors as biotechnology and cultural-creative industries, Taiwan's EPZs seldom make business headlines. Yet it would be very wrong to speak of them in the past tense. According to EPZA statistics, the zones currently host 449 companies. Output in the first 10 months of 2010 was NT$313.1 billion (US$10.4 billion), and for the whole year the figure is likely to exceed NT$370 billion (US$12.3 billion).

In the 1970s, typical EPZ products were hair dryers, fishing poles, and sewing machines. By the 1980s, factories in the zones were making cameras, microscopes, and golf clubs. Nowadays, semiconductor testing-and-packaging operations and LCD companies are mainstays. This progression is outlined in a small museum inside the EPZA's headquarters.

Advanced Semiconductor Engineering Inc. (ASE), part of the ASE Group and the largest IC tester and packager in the world, has 12 factories in the Nanzte EPZ. “The science parks focus on industries that are capital- and technology-intensive, which is why wafer foundries and designers can be found in Hsinchu, Taichung, and Tainan,” says Shen. “For semiconductor testing and packaging, the technical requirements are not so high – it's lower-end but still high-tech – but the EPZ can provide very good tax incentives for packager-testers to locate here.”

“Clearly, for the semiconductor industry, the EPZs do have an important role to play,” he adds...

To read this article, which appeared in the December 2010 issue of Taiwan Business Topics, go here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Handy Guide for Foreigners in Taiwan

I just received my copy of the third edition of The Handy Guide for Foreigners in Taiwan, a 112-page booklet published by the central government's Research, Development & Evaluation Commission. I served as one of five English-language advisers (by far the most eminent of whom was Doris Brougham) updating the book. Rather than go through the booklet word-by-word, line-by-line, we made suggestions as to what should and shouldn't be included, and how the layout could be improved.

The guide is packed with useful telephone numbers and website addresses, and explains to expatriates and visitors how to travel around the island (public transportation and self-driving), as well as studying, investing, and health care.

Copies should be available at local branches of the National Immigration Agency. If you go to this page and scroll down, you'll see a link to the pdf of the English-language edition.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

All three of my books are now available from, a Taiwan-based Internet bookseller that specialises in ecology-related books, maps and other items.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Local publishers, foreign tongues (Taiwan Review)

A few decades ago, well before Taiwan had developed as a tourist destination, the island was a dream destination for bargain-hunting bibliophiles from English-speaking countries.

Phil Briggs, an Australian accountant who worked in Hong Kong between 1982 and 1994, describes how several of his business trips to Taiwan ended: “As soon I’d wrapped up my meetings, I’d head to the city’s booksellers and start browsing. One time, I took 26 kilograms of books back to Hong Kong with me. Taipei back then was especially good for dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference books.”

“I knew that, in many cases, these books were being reproduced without the publishers’ or authors’ permission. At the time, I did see the irony of doing something which, while not breaking local law, wasn’t exactly in keeping with the spirit of my profession,” adds Briggs, who is now retired.

Many of the businesses that published foreign-language books in that era have long since disappeared. One that continues to thrive is Bookman Books Co. Ltd. The Taipei-based company now has around 60 full-time employees, as well as bookstores in Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung. Since its founding in 1977, it has put out approximately 2,000 titles, with almost one in 10 published in English.

“Before 1987, we did local reprints of US and UK publications with or without permission of the original publishers,” says Jerome Su, Bookman’s chairman. “According to the ROC’s copyright law of that time, any foreign works not registered with the copyright office here in Taiwan were deemed to be in the public domain, and therefore could be legally reprinted to facilitate education and spread knowledge,” Su explains.

Although book reproduction of the kind witnessed by Briggs has been almost totally eradicated in Taiwan, local publishers continue to produce a surprising variety of books in foreign languages. According to the English-language Publishing in China: An Essential Guide released by Thomson Learning in 2004, around one-quarter of the titles published in Taiwan are in languages other than Chinese, with English (19 percent) and Japanese (5.8 percent) dominating.

On the face of it, the 24.8-percent figure is astonishing; few Taiwan bookstores stock more than a handful of items in languages other than Chinese. However, if one adds up books produced locally and aimed at ROC citizens studying English, titles put out by educational bodies such as Taiwan’s foremost academic and research institute Academia Sinica, and publications issued by official agencies such as the Government Information Office (the publisher of Taiwan Review), the tally becomes believable...

The rest of this article can be read online here, or in the January 2011 issue of Taiwan Review. Book piracy is still fairly common in Taiwan, especially around college campuses, as this report notes.