Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Buddha Memorial Center: A New Place of Pilgrimage in Southern Taiwan (Travel in Taiwan)

One of Taiwan's major Buddhist monastic orders, Foguangshan has flourished since its founding in 1967. It has branch temples on five continents as well as throughout Taiwan. It also runs publishing houses, schools and Buddhist colleges, and does a range of charity work.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun, Foguangshan's founder, was born in mainland China in 1927. A monk from the age of 12, he arrived in Taiwan in 1949, and has been spreading his version of Humanistic Buddhism ever since. It's said he was the first Buddhist in Taiwan to propagate the religion through radio programs. In keeping with the times, Foguangshan now runs its own TV station, publishes a daily newspaper, and has an informative and bilingual website.

Foguangshan's base in Kaohsiung City's Dashu District is within sight of the Gaoping River and the Central Mountain Range. Over the years it has grown into a complex of shrines, dormitories and museums, and currently more than 100 monks and around 200 nuns are resident. Large numbers of lay followers stay for short retreats and courses.

Long an excellent place to learn about Buddhism as it's practiced in 21st-century Taiwan, tourists now have another reason to visit Foguangshan. Buddha Memorial Center, which formally opened on December 25 last year, is a new architectural and religious landmark...

Written before my other article about the center, but published later, the complete text of this piece can be found in the January/February issue of Travel in Taiwan. The photo here shows one of the eight pagodas.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Western faces, Taiwanese schoolbooks (Taiwan Business Topics)

A decade or two ago, if you saw a youngster with a Western face in Taipei, it was reasonable to assume he or she attended Taipei American School (TAS) or another international school. Nowadays you cannot be so sure, because more and more expatriate families from North America and Europe are sending their children to regular public schools in which the language of instruction is Mandarin Chinese.

Although detailed statistics are hard to come by, the Ministry of Education says that 250 non-ROC nationals were studying in public senior high schools and vocational schools in the 2009-2010 school year. The ministry did not provide numbers for earlier years, nor indicate the students’ nationalities.

When this writer, following the ministry’s suggestion, began asking local governments how many foreign citizens are enrolled in their elementary and junior high schools, a civil servant explained why such tallies may not mean much. Speaking anonymously, the official pointed out that some youngsters in local schools reside in the ROC on foreign passports, even though both their parents are Taiwanese, and “no one” regards them as foreigners. Also, under Taiwan’s Nationality Law as amended in 2000, children born to foreign fathers and local mothers after 1988 were permitted to take up ROC citizenship. As a result, many “ex-foreigners” became local students.

Local schools have been attracting an increasing number of foreign families living in Taiwan for two reasons. The first, a consequence of China’s rise, is that many parents hope their children can master Mandarin Chinese. The second is that some international companies operating in Taiwan no longer offer their foreign staff such generous expatriate packages.

Sending a child to TAS costs at least NT$532,000 (about US$17,700) per year. There is also a one-time capital fee of NT$200,000 per student. Now that many of Taiwan’s cities and counties have abolished lunch, textbook, and other fees, local public elementary and junior high schools are effectively free.

“We think it's important for all children to have the opportunity to learn a second language, and Chinese is the obvious choice given where we live,” says Morgan Everett. Her youngest son, Lucas, has been attending a private, church-affiliated Chinese-language preschool since the American family relocated from Thailand to Taiwan three years ago.

“It’s important to us that our children are given the opportunity to learn the language of the culture around them. We want them to feel they’re part of the community they live in, and be able to develop friendships with children in our neighborhood,” says Morgan. “We also feel that learning Chinese will benefit their future, as we think that China will continue to become more influential in business and on the world stage...”

The complete article is online here, and also in the December 2011 print issue of the magazine. The photo here, courtesy of the Everett family, shows Lucas Everett and one of his kindergarten teachers.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Keeping up with the war god reviewed by The Wild East

The Wild East website, which interviewed me last summer, has given my first book a very favorable write-up: "[It is] a fantastic read for anyone who’s already perused all the guidebooks and now wants to delve into some of the deeper historical contexts behind important people, places and mind-bending customs... [it is] a classic for sure, a compact, 133-page treasure for hard-core Taiwan-history-lovers..."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Land of rain and gold: Taiwan's north coast (Unity)

Taiwan has been blessed with 1,600km of tremendously varied and breathtakingly scenic coastline, and some of the finest littoral landscapes can be found within 35km of Taipei.

As green as maritime Ireland (and, at times, just as wind- and rain-swept), Taiwan's north coast has few beaches, but more than its fair share of quaint bays and stunning promontories. The region's two most intriguing towns are set high above the waves, on the hills full of valuable minerals.

Reached via twisting mountain roads, Jiufen and Jinguashi are close neighbors. They flourished in the first half of the 20th century thanks to an abundance of gold and copper. But when mining ceased in the 1980s, most of the inhabitants moved away, leaving behind decrepit tarpaper-roofed bungalows and a fascinating collection of industrial relics.

The Chinese characters jiu fen mean “nine parts,” and it is said the hillside was settled in the late 18th century by nine families. Accordingly, the era's merchants prepared nine portions of salt and other commodities before portering goods up to the settlement from what is now Keelung.

Jiufen's economy rebounded after Taiwanese movie director Hou Hsiao-hsien shot his 1989 film City of Sadness in the town. Many of those who saw this movie were enamored by the traditional dwellings and the steep, narrow lanes; they came to see the sights and spend money on souvenirs and local delicacies.

Crowded yet charming, the town's stores – which once sold essentials to miners and their families – have been converted into tea houses and restaurants.

For culinary tourists, there are at least two “must eats.” One is Jiufen taro rice balls. Like many other famous snacks around Taiwan, it is said that the inventor of these tasty morsels started off cooking them for friends and family only. However, as word got around, he turned it into a business which thrived. Imitators – some of whom are every bit as good as the original – can be found in Jiufen and other Taiwanse towns.

Another savory delicacy are hongzao meatballs. These stuffed pinky-purple glutinous dumplings are quite filling – just the thing if you expect to spend the whole afternoon walking

Before the opening in 2004 of the Gold Ecological Park (GEP), few tourists ventured beyond Jiufen to Jinguashi...

The complete article appeared in the January-February issue of Unity. The gorgeous panorama above, was taken from the tourist town of Jiufen by Taipei-based Craig Ferguson, whose photos accompanied the print edition of the article.