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.