Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jiadong: Awash in Hakka Heritage (

Jiadong in Pingtung County (屏東縣佳冬鄉) has never been an important place. A much-used road between Kaohsiung and Kenting National Park runs right through it, yet few people stop here. Its architectural and historical treasures have been written about in specialist books and magazines, but they've not won much attention compared to similar attractions like the Lin Family Gardens (林家花園).

Much of Taiwan was originally inhabited by aborigines of Austronesian descent, and in Jiadong's case the natives were members of the Makatao tribe. Their name for this place was Cattea, and the Han Chinese migrants who began arriving in this area in the 1650s used a name derived from that toponym, Katang (茄苳). During the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722), Hakka people began to settle in the vicinity of Jiadong. Soon they were playing a role in Taiwan's history: Many Jiadong Hakka joined the “Left Unit” (左堆) of the Liudui (六堆) militia, a loyalist grouping of Hakka neighborhood-defense bands which helped the Qing Empire regain control of Taiwan at the end of the Zhu Yi-gui Incident (朱一貴事件) of 1720-21.

The best-known Hakka landmark in Jiadong is the Hsiao Family Residence (蕭家古厝). A grade-three national relic since 1985, the house was restored between 1994 and 2003. Situated in the heart of Jiadong, it is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday 9am until midday and 1pm to 5pm. On weekdays, visitors are advised to call 0932-200-024 in advance to ensure somebody will be there to unlock the front door, as only the rearmost portion of the complex is still lived in. Admission is NT$50 for adults and NT$30 for children.

Visitors are sometimes greeted and shown around by Hsiao Chia-hsiung (蕭嘉雄). A sixth-generation descendant of the first Hsiao to set foot in Taiwan, he told us his forebears settled first in Tainan, then Taiwan's administrative capital, and that the second and third generations grew wealthy making wine and dyeing cloth. The Hsiaos – who can trace their lineage back 24 generations, to Jiangxi Province on the Chinese mainland – became major landowners in Jiadong. According to Mr. Hsiao, the township was once 80-percent Hakka, but because of population movement, the ratio of Hakka people to those of Minnan (Hoklo) descent is now about 1:1.

Work on the Hsiao Family Residence [pictured right] began more than 150 years ago. Many of the craftsmen and much of the wood was brought in from the mainland especially for the job. Over the following four decades, the complex was expanded bit by bit until it covered 0.4 hectares. Brick, wattle-and-daub, and round river stones were among the materials used.

The crescent-shaped pond in front of the compound, created for geomantic reasons, was originally more than twice its current size. The only part of the mansion not classically Chinese is the terrazzo facade, added circa 1920 after a severe typhoon damaged the original.

Hexagonal and rectangular entrances connect different parts of the mansion. These are deliberately unaligned, as it was believed that having one doorway facing another was like setting one person's mouth in opposition to the mouth of another, and would lead to arguments among the residents.

There are almost as many cat-flaps as actual doors. Although they were not cherished as pets in the modern sense, the mansion's cats enjoyed access to every part of the compound because they helped keep the rat population in check.

Several clan members living in Tainan relocated to Jiadong during the early years of the Japanese occupation (which lasted from 1895 to 1945), so for a period the compound housed more than 100 people. In many cases, children shared a single room with their parents, the youngsters sleeping on a wooden platform above their parents' bed.

Few of the rooms and artifacts are labeled in English, but in many cases the function is obvious. The kitchen is surprisingly spacious, and has its own well. The adjacent storeroom, Mr. Hsiao told us, was where female members of the family killed time by gambling. Carved fragments of wood – presumably original parts of the building, retrieved when the house was renovated – lie stacked on shelves, but none are labeled and nothing stops visitors from handling them. Those who do not read Chinese are unlikely to guess the function of the huge ceramic pot in the hallway: It served as a one-person air-raid shelter during World War II.

Elsewhere, there are antiques and old garments, plus scores of photographs. These images show the Jiadong of yore, the house as it looked decades ago, and long-deceased members of the Hsiao family. One clansman married an Atayal woman; her portrait shows that, like many of her fellow tribeswomen, she had a tattooed face.

One of the five halls continues to serve as the clan's ancestor shrine. Noticing that several names on the main memorial tablet were covered by tiny strips of paper – and wondering if they represented family members “cast out” after doing something unpardonable – we asked Mr. Hsiao to explain. It turned out his name is one of those covered up; when the tablet was carved some years ago, he told us, every member of the fifth and sixth generation was included. Those still in the land of the living have their names obscured; when a death occurs, the relevant strip of paper (originally red, but most have faded to white) is removed, “adding” that person to the tablet.

In 1930, members of the family built a three-story Western style building on an adjacent plot of land east of the original mansion. That structure, called the Hsiao Family Western House (蕭家洋樓), is no longer safe to enter, yet alone fit to live in.

Like Anping in Tainan, Jiadong has plenty of characterful yet unheralded old buildings. One, at 111 Gouzhu Road (溝渚路), has a superb brick entrance [pictured top] and several fine wall decorations.

Jiadong's other major attraction is located on the northwestern edge of the town. The Yang Clan Shrine (楊氏宗祠, pictured left), another grade-three national relic, almost fell victim to the wrecker's ball. In 1995, when the government announced plans to demolish the shrine so a road could be straightened, conservationists and cultural experts declared their support for the site's preservation. Civic groups mobilized public opposition, and the proposal was soon dropped.

A major renovation effort was completed in 2009, just as the shrine marked the 90th anniversary of its founding. Notable features include a lintel with two European men, each down on one knee, bearing the roof on their shoulders. The upward-curving “swallowtails” on the roof are decorated with elephants and dragons. The former symbolize hope that members of the clan can attain the rank of general or ministerial office. Traditionally, the latter are believed to protect buildings against fire.

According to a notice in the shrine, in 2011 the management accepted donations from 59 individuals, nine of whom had surnames other than Yang. The amount given totaled NT$527,200, almost a quarter of that coming from one person.

The shrine looks splendid, but some think it lost part of its charm when renovated. The silver-haired man I met inside – he was surnamed Yang, of course – responded to my compliments about the appearance of the building with a wry smile and the words: “It was more beautiful before.”

Like my recent piece on Yan Hong-sen, this article was commissioned by and paid for by, but not published until December.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sun Moon Lake - An Enchanting Waterscape (Unity)

When they flooded a basin near Taiwan's geographical center to produce hydroelectricity, little did the Japanese colonial authorities then ruling the island know they were also creating one of Taiwan's most enduring tourist attractions. Two small bodies of water – one called Sun Lake, the other Moon Lake – merged, and gained the name Sun Moon Lake.

For half a century, this sublime expanse of blue surrounded by rugged green mountains has been one of Taiwan's most popular destinations. Many Taiwanese spent their honeymoons here, and the lake's fame has spread beyond Taiwan. For mainland Chinese tourists heading to the island, Sun Moon Lake is a “must see” alongside Taipei 101 and Alishan.

The surface of the lake covers 827 hectares and is 748m above sea level. The waters are around 30m deep. The water level barely changes from summer to winter, so boat excursions are possible year-round. Swimming, however, is permitted just one day per day. One of the most popular ways of seeing the lake is to spend a day cycling all the way around it – the distance (33km) is too long to be comfortably hiked, but ideal even for slow cyclists.

Whether you plan to pedal or ride a motorcycle, it makes sense to start in Shuishe, where electric scooters as well as bicycles and gasoline-powered motorcycles can be rented. The main lakeside settlement also has hotels to suit all budgets, lots of places to eat, as well as a bus station.

Before leaving Shuishe, spend an hour exploring the little finger of land that juts into the lake here. Chiang Kai-shek had a villa on what is called the Hanbi Peninsula. It is long gone, replaced by one of Taiwan's swankiest hotels, but the church where the late president worshiped still stands.

Boat tours, which cost NT$300 for adults and NT$200 for children and seniors, start from Shueishe Wharf (and some other points beside the lake) and last about one-and-a-half hours.

Many of those on two wheels proceed in a clockwise direction and make Wenwu Temple their first stop. This imposing piece of architecture is dedicated to Confucius and has a superb setting. For Western visitors, however, two shrines on the south side of the lake may have more resonance. Xuanguang Temple and Xuanzang Temple – the former is by the water's edge, the latter is 850m away, accessed by a gently sloping pathway – hold relics associated with Xuan Zang, a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk revered for traveling to India and translating religious texts. His adventures were retold in a classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West; a 1970s Japanese TV series based on the novel attracted a cult following when shown in English-speaking countries under the title Monkey.

On a hillside nearby stands Cien Pagoda [pictured right]. Built on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek as a memorial to his mother, the top of the pagoda is exactly 1,000m above sea level. Do climb the stairs to better enjoy the scenery.

The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway offers even better views for less physical effort. This 1.87km-long cable car system links the lake with the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, a theme park where indigenous culture is presented in entertaining formats. Tickets combining admission to the village with the ropeway are a good option.

To meet members of Taiwan's indigenous minority in more conventional circumstances, head to Ita Thao, a village across the lake from Shuishe and home to Taiwan's smallest aboriginal tribe. As of spring 2012, the Thao numbered just 722 adults and children. When the water level rose, they were forced to leave their ancestral home, Lalu Island in the lake's western half. However, they continue to revere the islet – now just a tiny speck of land – as the abode of their ancestors' spirits. Non-Thao are barred from setting foot on Lalu Island, but many boat tours sail around it.

Visitors are unlikely to hear Thao being spoken. Nowadays only a few elderly people are able to speak the tribe's traditional Austronesian language proficiently, but activists are trying hard to save the tongue from extinction. The tribe's unique music, built around rhythms pounded out with pestles, is still going strong, and is often performed as part of the song-and-dance shows organized by the resort's major hotels.

The round-the-lake bus service is another way of circumnavigating Sun Moon Lake. Jump on/jump off tickets valid for one day are NT$80. Before each stop, announcements are made in English and Chinese.

Visitors wanting to get to Sun Moon Lake have a number of straightforward options. Motorists can take Freeway 6 inland toward Puli, then follow Highway 21 south. There are direct buses from downtown Taipei and Taichung High-Speed Railway Station. Anyone wanting to add the scenic Jiji Branch Railway to their itinerary can ride it as far as Shuili, then hop aboard a local bus to Shuishe. For more information, visit the website of Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration.

This is an edited and slightly shortened version of the article which appears in the November/December issue of Unity, the inflight magazine of UNI Air.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A private lock collection finds a public home (

Yan Hong-sen (顏鴻森) has a high-profile day job, and a hobby that has made him the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles. Yan is a university chair professor in mechanical engineering and executive vice president of National Cheng Kung University in Tainan City. Outside academic circles, he is best known for building up a remarkable collection of household objects that few people pay much attention to: Locks, specifically ancient Chinese padlocks.

Yan, who was born in 1951, was in the news again recently when he decided to donate the bulk of his collection to the National Science and Technology Museum in Kaohsiung City. On November 8, the museum will inaugurate a special exhibition of Yan’s locks. These items will then be displayed in other cities before taking up a permanent place in the Power and Machines Exhibition Hall on the NSTM’s second floor.

In September, some of Yan’s locks were displayed at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur - the first time any of them were exhibited overseas. Yan had to politely refuse previous requests to send locks to museums and other places outside the ROC; as an individual without the backing of a major institution, he lacked the time and administrative resources to handle shipping, insurance and other issues.

Between 1986 and 2007, Yan acquired more than 700 locks; media reports describing his collection as numbering more than 900 are simply inaccurate, he says. Although it is not a huge number, the collection is rich in different types and shapes. Some are the only ones of their kind remaining in the world. The oldest is around 2,000 years old, but the majority dates from the Qing dynasty or early 20th century. Not all are being consigned to the museum this year. The 150 currently exhibited in NCKU Museum will stay where they are until November 2014, then head south to Kaohsiung. Yan says he is keeping another 20 at home so he has something to show friends and visitors. However, those will also eventually go to the NSTM.

Yan is confident the NSTM will have one of the world’s great public collections of locks, such as the Locks and Fastenings Gallery of Science Museum in London and Germany’s Deutsches Schloss und Beschlagemuseum at Velbert. Yan has visited both, naturally.

Yan’s desire to collect came long before he knew what kind of thing he would concentrate on. He first pondered the possibility of building a collection in 1977, while studying at the University of Kentucky. His supervisor, Dr. D. C. Tao (陶德昌), had an interest in antique European furniture and let Yan to take a close look at the collection he had built. But such items were way beyond Yan's modest means, so he did nothing to turn his dream into reality.

A couple of years later, Yan’s interest in building a collection was rekindled when his doctoral supervisor at Purdue University, the late Professor Allen S. Hall Jr., showed him the 100-plus weighing scales he had accumulated. It was then that Yan realized: “To be a collector, it isn't necessary to be a millionaire. You just have to identify a good topic.”

By May 1980, Yan had decided that his future collection would have to be mechanical in nature, to fit in with his engineering background, and related to Chinese culture. Moreover, the items should be neither too large, too expensive, nor commonly collected. But years were to pass before Yan's “Eureka!” moment. One day in November 1986, killing time at a vendor’s stall near Taipei Main Railway Station at the end of a business trip, he found a traditional Chinese lock at least 50 years old. Immediately grasping that padlocks met all of his criteria, he purchased the piece.

By mid-1996, Yan had around 350 locks. Few collectors let their children play with the items they so painstakingly located and acquired, but the NCKU executive vice-president says: “For a kid, playing with a lock is like doing a puzzle. I'm not sure what my children learned by playing with the locks, but they did treat them as unusual toys which other kids didn't have.”

After being appointed the founding director of NCKU Museum in November 2007, Yan stopped collecting so as to avoid any possible conflict of interest. No one has ever sought to buy his collection; this, Yan says, is because he has always made it clear that he had no interest in selling his locks, and would donate them when the time and offer were right.

Yan, who feels his main achievement is preserving locks so they can be better understood by future researchers, says: “The real value of a collector isn’t just acquiring, but also researching, finding something new and sharing it.”

For some years, Yan planned to establish his own lock museum. A dozen years ago, he bought a plot of land in what was then Tainan County (now merged with Tainan City) for that purpose. But eventually he concluded a major museum would make a better home for his locks, and began letting it be known that he was willing to give away his entire collection if an institution could meet these conditions: That the locks be researched; and that they be on public display. Yan likens the hunt for a permanent home for his locks to, “making sure your daughter finds a good husband.”

Yan and the NSTM have a long relationship; he served as the museum’s director-general from 2002 to 2004. However, several years elapsed between Yan announcing that he wished to donate his locks to a museum, and agreement being reached with the NSTM. It was in January 2011 that Chen Shiunn-shyang (陳訓祥) - formerly Yan’s deputy at the NSTM and now incumbent director-general - told Yan that one of the museum’s curator positions was about to fall vacant, and that he was willing to appoint a lock specialist to the post if Yan were to commit his collection to the NSTM. Yan readily agreed, and comments: “To have one curator specializing almost full-time in one field is rare in Taiwan’s museums. Most curators have to cover several areas.”

Before Yan began writing papers about his hobby, almost nothing had been published on the subject of ancient Chinese locks. A second edition of his bilingual book The Beauty of Ancient Chinese Locks was published in 2003 by the Ancient Chinese Machinery Cultural Foundation, an organization Yan established with others who share his passion. In one of the book’s many fascinating sections, Yan explains that the keyhole of a lock is often an indication of the original owner's social status: “The shape of the Chinese character [] was used by civilians, [shì] was used by the intellectual class, and [] was used by nobles and high-rank officials.”

For some of the locks Yan acquired, simply having the right key does not guarantee quick access. The keyhole may be disguised, or the key and hole so oddly shaped as to create a 3D puzzle.

Yan found locks made of iron, bronze, copper, cupronickel and brass, and even silver. Locks of humble origin are usually wooden rectangles, while those crafted for nobles after Tang dynasty often bear fine engravings and are shaped like musical instruments or animals. Fish-shaped locks were especially popular, Yan explains, because fish sleep with their eyes open, and so were traditionally regarded as symbols of vigilance. Traditional Chinese combination locks do not use numerals like the combination mechanisms on modern suitcases, but rather Chinese characters.

The locks Yan spent years finding will no longer be in his possession, but he expects they will continue to play a major role in his life. He has no intention of ceasing to research, write and lecture about locks, saying emphatically: “This will always be my hobby!”

This article was written for Culture.Tw, a government-sponsored website. I was paid for it very soon after sending it in, but the website wasn't updated for some months and the piece didn't appear until late December. To see the online version, go here. The photos were taken by Sam Li and provided by Yan Hong-sen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Banana Kingdom (Travel in Taiwan)

More often bypassed than visited, Qishan (旗山, sometimes spelled 'Cishan') is used to being neglected by tourists who rush through en route to the Hakka district of Meinong or the religious center of Foguangshan. However, this bustling-yet-bucolic town - now officially part of the Greater Kaohsiung Municipality - is not only charming, but can also rightfully claim to have played an important role in Taiwan's economic and agricultural history.

Qishan is synonymous with one crop - the banana. Amid the cornucopia of delicious fruits grown in Taiwan, these yellow-skinned delights are quite humble. They're commonplace and inexpensive. When people want to make a gift of fruit, few opt for bananas. They're more likely to buy perfect peaches, gorgeous grapes or prestigious pitayas.

Half a century ago, Japanese consumers couldn't get enough of Qishan's bananas. Nienty percent of the bananas eaten in Japan were from Taiwan, and exports of the fruit generated a third of Taiwan's foreign currency earnings. An entire section of the Port of Kaohsiung was dedicated to the fruit. The warehouses where they were kept cool before shipping, now known as Banana Pier, have been revamped into a shopping-and-banqueting complex.

At the height of the boom, each banana tree generated as much income per year as a teacher earned in a month, and it's said that for every six bananas a farmer sold to Japan, he could buy a quality suit. Not that banana farmers made a habit of wearing fine garments - it's also said that even in their free time, while shopping or drinking with friends in Qishan's downtown, bachelor farmers liked to wear their sap-stained work clothes. This wasn't due to any sense of thrift; they did so because everyone knew banana growing was lucrative, and advertising one's occupation was a surefire way to attract a wife...

This is the second of my two articles in the most recent Travel in Taiwan magazine. The other is here. The photo, which I took, shows an 87-year-old banana farmer checking on his crop.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stars Above Canvas: Camping in Central Taiwan (Compass)

Traveling within Taiwan has a lot going for it. The people are very friendly. Public transportation is reliable and inexpensive, and the road network allows motorists to get from A to B quickly. Food is available almost everywhere almost any time of day or night. There are lots of museums, many of which don't charge admission. One gripe, however, is the cost of accommodation. On weekends or during holiday periods, your hotel or B&B may well account for over half your daily expenditure.

One solution is to pack a tent in your car, motorcycle or backpack. For as little as NT$100 per person you can stay in a campground with toilets and hot showers. Many have additional facilities-possibly even a karaoke machine. "Guerrilla camping" is fairly common in certain places and costs absolutely nothing. Guerrilla campers typically find a good spot during the afternoon, loiter nearby until dusk, then pitch their tent on an empty patch of land without the knowledge or permission of the owner. Usually they're gone before breakfast.

On many weekends, guerrilla campers can be spotted in parking lots beside the highest sections of the Rt. 21 New Central Cross-Island Highway (新中橫), a spectacular mountain road that runs between Shuili in Nantou county (南投縣水里) Tataka in Yushan National Park (玉山國家公園). In and around Hehuanshan (合歡山), brave campers have found prime sites where they're tolerated by the authorities-so long as they pick up their garbage and refrain from making camp fires.

These locations-many have toilets but no showers-are breathtaking places to stay. Before retiring for the night, go for a stroll and enjoy views of stars you'd never get on the lowlands. When you step outside your tent the following morning, you'll likely catch sight of a dramatic "sea of clouds" filling the valleys below.

Parts of the New Central Cross-Island Highway are 2,000 meters or more above sea level, so city-dwellers must be prepared for temperatures much lower than those they're used to...

To read the rest of this article - cover story in the magazine's September issue - go here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fire and Art (Travel in Taiwan)

The single-story three-sided courtyard house is a timeless feature of Taiwan's countryside. These quaint abodes, known in Mandarin Chinese as sanheyuan (三合院), are recognizable by their tiled roofs and wings set at right angles to the main part of the house. Some sanheyuan are cramped; others have enough space for large extended families. The walls may be of pounded earth, wattle-and-daub, or round river stones cemented together, but if the owners could afford it, the material of choice was red brick.

Few sanheyuan have been built since the 1960s, and Taiwan's construction industry now prefers steel-reinforced concrete. Not surprisingly, many brick-makers have gone out of business. Of the 130-plus traditional brick-making kilns which used to operate in Kaohsiung City's Dashu District (大樹區), only three remain, and they all belong to San-He Tile Kiln (三和瓦窯, 94 Zhuliao Road; tel: (07) 652-1432; open: Monday to Friday 8am-5pm; Saturday & Sunday 8am-7pm; groups should book in advance). The company's Chinese-only website features gorgeous photos of the company's premises and products.

As recently as the 1950s, the area boasted 20 companies in the same line of business. All have fallen by the wayside, save for San-He, now managed by Lee Chun-hung (李俊宏), great-grandson of the entrepreneur who purchased the business in 1925...

The complete article appears in the September/October issue of Travel in Taiwan. The picture shows the side of one of the company's three traditional kilns. Two are still in regular use.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kaohsiung: A book

A beautifully-designed book I edited recently for Kaohsiung City Government has been printed and distributed. Simply called "Kaohsiung," it introduces the special municipality created in late 2010 by the merger of Kaohsiung City and Kaohsiung County, and includes sections on Kaohsiung's culture, agriculture, fisheries, fruit, sports scene, architectural landmarks and plans for the future. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

English Emblem 2012

I've just began the latest round of judging visits for the Research, Development & Evaluation Commission's English Services Emblem Project. This year, the team I'm with is set to visit Hsinchu, Keelung and Kinmen. Were it not for the typhoon currently dumping rain on Taiwan, yesterday and today we would have been in Yilan; those inspections have been rescheduled for early September.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dialogues for local government officials

Recently I completed the longest writing project (save for Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide, which weighed in at 166,000 words) of my career - a series of dialogues totaling 67,500 words designed to help local government officials introduce their cities and counties to visiting foreign dignitaries. I got to write about a lot of places I know well, and also learned some things about places I'm not so familiar with. The project covered nine areas, including Pingtung County, Hualien County, Taitung County and Hsinchu County. Here's an extract from Chiayi City section:

Foreign Visitor (FV): Is there a nice park near the downtown, somewhere where I can stretch my legs?

Taiwanese official (TO): Yes, there is. Officially it’s called Chiayi Park, but people often call it the Hundred-Year-Old Park because locals have been enjoying fresh air and greenery there for just over a century. Recently the park and the surroundings have been renovated, and you really should take a look around.

FV: What’s there to see? Anything apart from the usual trees, bushes, flowers and benches?

TO: Let talks about those trees and bushes first. Right next to the park is Chiayi Arboretum, which was founded by the Japanese colonial authorities in 1909. The range of trees here is quite wide, because the Japanese imported lots of different species from Southeast Asia, Australia and South America.

FV: Why did they bring in those foreign trees? You told me earlier than Taiwan has a lot of forest. 

TO: They wanted to research which species would do well in Taiwan’s climate. There are mahogany, blackboard and breadfruit trees. The Japanese also planted a lot of rubber trees - more than 1,000 are still there - because the Japanese Army needed lots of rubber during World War II. Apart from trees, there are some special buildings in the vicinity of the park. If the weather is clear, a trip to Chiayi Tower - also called the Sun-Shooting Tower - is a good idea. 

FV: Sun-Shooting Tower? That’s an intriguing name! 

TO: It comes from an aboriginal legend. Traditionally, the Bunun tribe believed that their culture began after they had shot down a second sun, which then became the moon. 

FV: Cute story. How tall is the tower?

TO: Twelve floors or 62m. You can take an elevator to the observation deck at the top and enjoy a cup of coffee while taking in the view...

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Yilan: Sights At The End of The Tunnel (Taiwan Business Topics)

Yilan County has always been a bit different. It is in the east, but fans of Hualien and Taitung belittle it as a Taipei suburb lacking true indigenous culture. To the politically aware, it is the part of Taiwan that was a green-camp stronghold long before the Democratic Progressive Party existed. And few places have had their prospects and character changed so much by a single piece of infrastructure as Yilan has been by the completion of Freeway 5 and the world’s fifth-longest road tunnel.

“One-day tourism is booming,” says Jack Cho, general manager of Toucheng Farm, a leisure farm in the northernmost part of the county. He points out that while the Xueshan Tunnel means residents of Greater Taipei can return home the same day – and are thus less likely to spend money on a hotel room or dinner – at the same time it has made two- or three-day excursions to Yilan much more feasible for residents of central and southern Taiwan. 

Freeway 5 is a godsend for anyone wanting or needing to travel between Yilan and Greater Taipei, yet some drivers find getting on it more difficult than expected. Those starting their journey in downtown Taipei should take Xinhai Road southward until it becomes Freeway 3A (in Chinese, 3甲). This spur is just 5.6-kilometers long and joins the main trunk of Freeway 3 near Muzha. Heading north on Freeway 3, it takes mere minutes to reach the interchange with Freeway 5. Care is necessary, however – just a few hundred meters before the two freeways meet, a quite separate turnoff veers east. Those who take this road will find themselves winding over the hill to Shenkeng on Route 109. Rather than backtrack, anyone who makes this mistake is advised to press on until he or she sees signs pointing them to the Shiding Interchange. 

Drivers coming from further south should be aware that some signs near Xindian that point to Yilan refer to Highway 9 – the old, slow Taipei-Yilan road. Cyclists, as well as those with tunnel phobia or a surplus of time, will find this route a highly scenic alternative. Freeway 5, like Highway 9, enters Yilan County via Toucheng Township. Accordingly, this article focuses on Toucheng and other parts of the county most easily accessed via Freeway 5. During the winter, the hot springs in Jiaoxi are extremely popular, but for those planning warmer-weather excursions, it is less alluring than the city of Yilan or the nearby townships of Luodong, Wujie, and Yuanshan. 

With a population of 73,000, Luodong is Yilan County's largest settlement after Yilan City (which has 95,000 inhabitants). Luodong’s night market is revered by Taiwanese gourmands, but others may find the Luodong Forestry Culture Garden more intriguing. Logging used to be a major industry in the Yilan area, and the garden formerly served as a timber collection and processing plant. The Forestry Bureau began transforming this 16-hectare site into an ecological and industrial-heritage attraction in 2004, and opened it to the public in 2011... 

To see the complete article, click here. The photo here shows one of the puppets on display in the county's Taiwan Theater Museum

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Out and About in Historic Lukang (Taiwan Business Topics)

Lukang, as every Taiwanese knows, is a place where the forces of modernization have failed to make much of an impression. In terms of architecture and genuine living, breathing tradition, much remains of the old settlement. If anywhere in Taiwan deserves to be called “a living museum,” it is this town, 155 kilometers south from Taipei. 

In middle of last year, Lukang's historical importance received an unusual form of recognition. The Ministry of the Interior decided that because the spelling “Lukang” has been used by non-Chinese since at least 1842, road signs and official documents would continue to use that version, rather than “Lugang” – the town's name when spelled according to hanyu pinyin, the system of romanization adopted by the central government. Road names within Lukang are to be romanized according to hanyu pinyin, but as in many other parts of Taiwan, older signs often show different spellings. 

Lukang’s heyday lasted about 100 years, starting in the middle of the 18th century. During that period it was a population, trading, and shipping center second only to the then capital of Tainan. Until the arrival of the Japanese in 1895, commercial and civic affairs in Lukang were dominated by three clans and eight guilds. According to American anthropologist Donald DeGlopper, who did fieldwork in Lukang in 1967, until the 1930s the three clans – surnamed Shih, Hsu, and Huang – had an unusual way of letting off steam: “The men... would gather every year on one day in the early spring, line up by surname, and throw rocks at their fellows of other surnames... The rock fight was a festive public occasion; women and children watched and cheered; vendors sold snacks. Blood was shed and teeth lost, but no one was ever killed. [Some people] believed that if blood was not shed in the spring, then the community might suffer bad luck during the coming year.” 

Of the eight guilds, one consisted of merchants who traded with Quanzhou in Fujian Province Another comprised those who exported rice and sugar to, and imported timber from, the Kinmen archipelago and the Fujian towns of Xiamen and Zhangzhou. A third guild imported salted fish products from Guangdong and Penghu; the others focused on oil, cloth, dye, sugar, and groceries.

Town elders are sometimes blamed for the passing of Lukang’s glory days. It is said that in the early days of Japanese rule, when the authorities were determining the precise route of Taiwan’s north-south railroad, town leaders lobbied against routing the rail line through Lukang. They failed to understand the economic importance of a rail connection. Perhaps, like 19th-century Chinese, they believed this new, noisy technology would upset the area’s fengshui. 

A look at a map of Changhua County gives this explanation less plausibility. It is unlikely the colonial authorities seriously considered having the railroad veer toward the ocean, and then back inland, to link a town whose harbor had silted up – the main reason for the town’s decline – and whose leading businessmen had begun moving elsewhere...

For an online version of the complete article, click here. For a pdf version with photos, click here. I took the photo here inside the town's Tianhou Temple.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Taiwan's newest museums (Taiwan Business Topics)

Since the 1990s, new museums in Taiwan have, to use a Chinese idiom, been springing up “like bamboo shoots after rain.”

Undoubtedly the most important one to have opened in the past two years is the National Museum of Taiwan History. The opening of this 20-hectare complex last October was a major event – as it should be, because it filled a glaring gap. Taiwan has long had museums dedicated to the arts and sciences, and also to its ethnic minorities; countries of comparable size and wealth have had history museums for decades, if not longer. But Taiwan’s peculiar history has meant that, until quite recently, building a consensus about the past – let alone the island’s future direction – was extremely difficult. 

The project was conceived during Lee Teng-hui’s presidency and nurtured by the Chen Shui-bian administration, but the finishing touches were not made until well after the Kuomintang returned to power in 2008. As a result, many who toured the museum just after it opened were curious to see if it presented a “green-tinted” or “blue-tinged” version of Taiwan’s past.

Anyone looking for a political subtext inside the NMTH will be disappointed, however. The museum has not attracted criticism of the kind leveled at Taipei’s 2-28 Memorial Museum, and it manages to be both thorough and engrossing. The standard of English throughout the NMTH is very high, even if the text is often too small for comfortable reading.

Rather than present history in a traditional text-heavy format, the second floor’s permanent exhibition, “Our Land, Our People – The Story of Taiwan,” is filled with images and models. It goes all the way back to the days of Taiwan's earliest known human inhabitant, “Zuozhen Man,” 30,000-year-old fragments of whom were found in a riverbed about 20 kilometers inland of the museum.

Of the several tableaux vivants on the second floor, two in particular stand out. One is a recreation of Lukang’s waterfront as it would have looked in the 18th century, when the central Taiwan town was one of Taiwan's busiest harbors. The diorama features several lifelike waxworks figures, among them stowaways (who cower in the hold of a single-mast junk, hoping to evade the imperial ban on migrating to Taiwan), the vessel’s captain, stevedores, and an official wearing a traditional mandarin’s gown.

Another depicts a traditional religious parade. Anyone curious about the roles played by Bajiajiang (fierce-looking young men with painted faces who prance menacingly in front of the palanquin bearing the effigy of a god) and others during such events will appreciate the clear and concise information – even if they have to kneel on the floor to read some of the panels.

According to a museum spokeswoman, more than 200 waxwork figures (actually fiberglass) were crafted for the museum, and the physique and face of each one was modeled on an actual living person – including, in one case, NMTH Director Lu Li-cheng.

Elsewhere on the second floor, displays look at the role of irrigation, camphor, and sugar in Taiwan’s development. Financiers will be interested to read that in the mid-1600s, four currencies – Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese – were in daily use in those parts of Taiwan controlled by the Dutch East India Company. Exchange rates were, by modern standards, very stable...

To read the rest of this article - which also covers National Taiwan Museum's Land Bank Annex, the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Artifacts Museum, Lanyang Museum (the photo above shows part of an exhibit about Atayal aborigines) and Xiaolin Pingpu Culture Museum - go here. I have three lengthy pieces in this year's Taiwan Business Topics' Travel & Culture Special, and will post the other two in the next few days.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Havens Apart: Taiwan's Green Island and Lanyu (Unity)

Green Island and Lanyu are similar in some ways – and utterly different in others. Both lie off Taiwan's southeast coast, and both are nubs of solidified magma pushed up by ocean-bottom volcanic eruptions. Also, both are thinly populated. Lanyu has an official population of 4,700, while Green Island has just 3,400 registered residents.

Neither has any industry nor even much farming. This is bad news for the inhabitants – most adults spend several months each year working on Taiwan proper – but it also means the islands are unpolluted. There are no traffic jams, and visitors can find secluded coastal spots where they need not share the sea and sky with others.

Lanyu is unique among the ROC's islands in having an aboriginal Austronesian culture. Green Island's people are of Han Chinese descent, but its history and character have been influenced by those who stayed here unwillingly. Between 1951 and 1990, it was a place of imprisonment for those found guilty of political crimes.

No one can dispute the aptness of Green Island's name. Hilly and verdant, it covers just 15km2 at high tide. At low tide this expands to a little over 17km2 as coral platforms rich in fish, crabs and other creatures are revealed. Snorkeling is the best way to explore this tidal zone, and local tour operators have things set up so even non-swimmers can catch glimpses of what lives in the shallows.

Green Island can be visited as a day trip, although staying at least one night is recommended. Superb scuba diving can be had, especially in the winter when underwater visibility is often 20m. For non-divers, April and May are better months. Temperatures and humidity levels are comfortable, while the strong winds that can make winter ferry crossings unpleasant are seldom a problem.

Most tourists explore the island by motorcycle...

This is part of the article that appears in the July/August edition of Unity, the inflight magazine of UNI Air.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Seeing the Sights in the New Tainan (Taiwan Review)

Around 7 pm each Saturday, tour buses stop at a rate of more than one per minute outside Flowers Night Market in Tainan City, southern Taiwan. The peckish passengers they disgorge quickly join queues—some already a dozen deep—in front of the market’s 300-plus food and drink vendors. 

Many of those coming here to taste local delicacies like oyster omelets and dan zi noodles are outsiders, and not only from other parts of Taiwan. Mainland Chinese accents are often heard, and for most Hong Kongers and Singaporeans visiting Tainan, the night market is a “must-see.”
Tourism in Tainan, a special municipality created at the end of 2010 when Tainan City merged with Tainan County, is booming, and Flowers Night Market is not the only attraction drawing dense crowds. Tourist days spent in Tainan typically include visits to the city’s Confucius Temple and to Fort Zeelandia. The temple was founded during the Kingdom of Dongning, a mini-state established by Ming dynasty (1368–1644) loyalists who had fled from mainland China under the leadership of Koxinga. Better known to Chinese-speakers as Zheng Cheng-gong (鄭成功,1624–1662), Koxinga is remembered for forcing the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) to leave Taiwan in 1662. Fort Zeelandia, built by the VOC soon after the trading enterprise established a colony in what is now Tainan in 1624, is one of the oldest European buildings in Asia.

According to statistics from the Republic of China’s (ROC) Tourism Bureau, since late 2011 around 80,000 people per month have been visiting Fort Zeelandia; in 2008, the monthly average was just more than 52,000. During the same period, the number touring the Koxinga Shrine, a temple where Zheng is revered as a deity, has more than doubled to about 25,000 each month.

“The former Tainan City has a high density of monuments, characteristic architecture and traditional culture, while the former Tainan County has folk customs, agriculture and natural ecosystems,” says the municipality’s mayor, William C.T. Lai (賴清德). “In addition, there’s a diverse festival culture. Other cities and counties have unique orientations, but none of them has as many resources as Tainan. The integration of festival activities, ecology, customs and local industries will naturally attract more tourists and boost consumption, and this is Tainan City Government’s core development concept for the tourism industry...”

The whole article can be read online, or in the July issue of Taiwan Review. The photo above was taken on a typical Saturday night in Flowers Night Market (that's the official English name; many sources refer to it as Huayuan Night Market). You can see I wasn't exaggerating when I wrote about dense crowds and long queues.