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.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A passion to serve (Taiwan Review)

Not many people would take a job if there was a serious risk of being caught in a landslide. Even fewer would go back to such a job after being hit by rocks, especially if they were not getting paid to do so. But such is the dedication of Pauline Cheng, a volunteer tour guide at Taroko National Park in eastern Taiwan, that she has done so more than once.

“Twice when leading groups I’ve been hit by falling rocks,” Cheng recalls. “The first time I was hit on my leg and it wasn’t too serious. The second time I was hit on my hands, and because of the pain I passed out and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance.”

After both mishaps, it took Cheng about two months to recover fully from her physical injuries and psychological trauma. Nevertheless, she returned to her duties. When she visits places prone to rock falls these days, Cheng wears a safety helmet like those the park loans out to tourists.

In addition to political leaders from the Republic of China’s (ROC) diplomatic allies, she has guided parliamentarians and Nobel Prize winners at Taroko, usually by speaking in English but occasionally in Japanese.

“On average, I’m asked to show people around three to six times a month,” she says, noting that while some of these tours are as short as three hours, others last an entire day.

According to a report compiled in 2009 by the Construction and Planning Agency under the Ministry of the Interior (CPAMI)—the central government unit that oversees the ROC’s eight national parks—almost 2,000 people serve as volunteers in the parks. Four-fifths of them are interpreters like Cheng. They are on the front lines, dealing with the public, handing out maps and leaflets to tourists and answering questions in service centers...

To read the whole piece, which is in the March issue of Taiwan Review, go here.