Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 in review

2013 certainly felt like a busy year. Between January and early November, much of my writing time was devoted to updating Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide, the second edition of which will be published in spring 2014. This naturally involved field research in addition to lots of time on the Internet and telephone; especially enjoyable were my expeditions to the Matsu National Scenic Area, Mount Dabajian (even though the weather didn’t cooperate), the coastline and forts near Keelung, and the eastern counties of Hualien (where, for the first time in more than a decade, I slept in a temple) and Taitung. A long motorcycle trip started in Taichung, took me on back roads to Puli, then on to Sun Moon Lake, Shuili and Chiayi.

The guidebook project caused me to turn down some work offers, but I found time to develop additional content for Life of Taiwan (most of the work for that site was done in 2012), and also write some longish pieces for Taiwan Review (following the abolition of the Government Information Office, this monthly is published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Taiwan Business Topics (on bats, among other subjects). I also contributed shorter articles to Culture.TW and Travel in Taiwan, three inflight magazines, and for the first time had my by-line in the South China Morning Post and Business Traveller Asia-Pacific.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sauntering Around Beigang (Culture.tw)

In many ways, Beigang is a typical Taiwanese town. It functions as a marketplace and religious center for the surrounding countryside; there are factories, auto-repair businesses and clinics. However, in terms of jobs and excitement, there is not enough here to stop young people from relocating to Taiwan's major cities. As a result the town's population (currently 42,000) has been shrinking and aging since the early 1980s.

If the prospect of living in Beigang excites few people, spending half a day in the town is a popular thing to do, especially around the time of Mazu's birthday (the 23rd day of the third lunar month; in 2014 it falls on April 22).

Beigang's best-known place of worship is Chaotian Temple. This folk shrine, founded in 1694, is one of the five most important in Taiwan devoted to the worship of Mazu, the sea goddess who has long been the island's most popular deity. Until the 1980s, Chaotian Temple was a stopover on the annual nine-day, 300-kilometer pilgrimage that honors Mazu before her birthday. But since a dispute between Chaotian Temple and Dajia Jenn Lann Temple - the starting point and organizer of the pilgrimage - the former has played no role in what is now officially called the Taichung International Mazu Festival.
Chaotian Temple is sacred in the eyes of its supporters, but no place for quiet contemplation. The faithful burn so much incense inside, and let off so many firecrackers in the grounds, that you may well cut your visit short without seeing the temple's oddest curiosity: An old iron nail embedded in a granite step...

The entire article can be read here. The photo shows Shunfenger (one of Mazu's retainers) inside Chaotian Temple.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival (Travel in Taiwan)

These days, Zuoying is a Kaohsiung suburb best known for Lotus Pond and the colorful temples that surround this pretty body of water. But back in the 17th century, just after Koxinga expelled the Dutch East India Company from Taiwan, it was the military and administrative headquarters of Wannian County and thus a place of considerable importance. Today the toponym lives on in the annual Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival. 

There are times when people on this island put their smartphones down and their 21st-century concerns and ambitions aside, and a much older Taiwan bursts into the foreground. The final day of the Kaohsiung Zuoying Wannian Folklore Festival was one such occasion. 

My friends and I were positioned in front of Zuoying's Cheng Huang Temple, enjoying a form of entertainment that's hardly changed in hundreds of years. Lion dancers, accompanied by drum-beating and gong-thumping musicians, teased children, snapped their jaws shut inches from spectators' faces, and threw candies into the crowd. But the professional and amateur zhentou troupes who perform these and other stunts aren't slavish in their adherence to tradition. Modern twists on old forms include Techno San Taizi or Techno Prince performances. Another example followed the lion dancers. Five young men dressed to resemble the key characters of Journey To The West danced disco-style to pop music. Even if you've never heard of this classic Chinese novel, you may well know the story (based on the adventures of a seventh-century Chinese monk who traveled to India to study Buddhist scriptures) because it inspired a Japanese TV series shown throughout the English-speaking world under the title Monkey. 

A few minutes later we turned our attention to the real star of the show – the Great Wannian Fire Lion. This effigy, cute yet dignified, is far larger than a real lion. But for a yellow underbelly, it was covered with red tinsel “fur.” Red, of course, is an auspicious color in Chinese culture. 

The lion is set ablaze at the very end of the festival so as to carry the wishes of the faithful up to heaven. Therefore it's designed to burn well. There's a very real risk of premature destruction, however, because thousands of firecrackers are detonated beneath and around it as it parades through Zuoying's streets prior to its sacrifice. I wasn't surprised to see a man following with a small tank of water and a hand-held sprayer, ready to put out any fires...

The complete article appears in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan, a magazine sponsored by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


With my permission, MataTaiwan has republished my recent article on efforts to revive the language of the Sirayan lowland aboriginal tribe on their website. MataTaiwan is an indigenous-themed website mostly in Chinese, and I'm very glad they want to bring my article to more readers.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Two of my articles translated into French

Taiwan aujourd'hui, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' French-language color monthly, translated two of my articles and published them in their September and November editions. The first piece, Le saumon formosan sur le fil, is about Taiwan's endangered Formosan landlocked salmon; the original English-language version is here. The second, Le Reveil du Siraya, hasn't yet appeared on the magazine's website.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tourists continue search for enlightenment (South China Morning Post)

Spiritually motivated travel is perhaps the oldest form of tourism. In Greater China, Taiwan remains the most vibrant religious culture centre, where centuries-old folk temples, especially in Tainan and Lugang, add colour and beauty to urban landscapes.
Taiwan's tourist industry is booming - international arrivals more than doubled to 7.31 million from 2006 until last year - and religious sites have reported growing numbers of visitors from Hong Kong, the mainland and Singapore.

The monastic and educational complex at Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM), 23km northeast of central Taipei, received about 12,000 non-Taiwanese visitors last year, says Bhikkhuni Guo-jiann Shih, director of DDM's department of international relations and development. DDM is also the global headquarters of a Buddhist foundation with affiliates in North America, Britain and Hong Kong. According to Bhikkhuni Guo-jiann Shih, non-Taiwanese visitors are especially interested in tours of the complex, retreats and how the Chan form of Buddhism is practised.

 At the end of 2011, another of Taiwan's major Buddhist organisations opened to the public what is perhaps the island's most striking religious monument. Fo Guang Shan's Buddha Memorial Centre houses a tooth, which the faithful believe was retrieved from the ashes after Buddha was cremated in 543BC. The centre, which cost an estimated US$300 million to build, welcomed 8 million visitors last year. At the original monastery next to the centre, monks, nuns and volunteers gave guided tours to more than 240,000 people last year, including more than 150,000 from the mainland...

This article appeared last Friday in a special report on Taiwan published by the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English-language newspaper. To read the whole article, click here. The photo above was taken at dawn recently at Henan Temple, Hualien County.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reawakening a dormant language (Taiwan Review)

In the summer of 2005, Chun Jimmy Huang (黃駿), then a doctoral student at the University of Florida, visited the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung, eastern Taiwan. Accompanied by his parents and his sister, Huang was expecting to learn about the people who lived in Taiwan thousands of years ago. By the end of his visit, however, he was feeling somewhat perplexed. 

“Inside the museum, there was a display titled ‘Siraya tools’ that included fishing equipment, bamboo utensils and a cradle,” recalls Huang, now an assistant professor of English and Applied Linguistics at the University of Guam.

The Siraya, an Austronesian-speaking group, dominated Taiwan’s southwestern lowlands before and for some decades after the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) 1624–1662 occupation of what is now Tainan City in southern Taiwan. In fact, the word Taiwan, many believe, is derived from the Siraya language. The Executive Yuan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) recognizes 14 ethnic groups as aboriginal tribes, but in recent years has rejected petitions seeking formal recognition for the Siraya.

“I realized I’d seen several of the museum exhibits in my home in Jiali,” he says of Tainan’s Jiali District. “Until then, I’d thought of myself simply as a ‘Taiwanese’—someone of Southern Min descent,” he explains. Southern Min is a term used to describe the people and languages of one part of Fujian, the mainland Chinese province closest to Taiwan. The majority of Taiwanese trace their ancestry to that part of China.

“I called relatives on my father’s side to ask about our identity. To my surprise, a great uncle told me, ‘Oh yes, our family is actually huan-a,’” says Huang, using a Taiwanese word which literally means “barbarian.” Commonly applied to Taiwan’s indigenous minority in the past, the term is now considered offensive.

This discovery surprised not only Huang, but also his father. “When he was little, his mother, my grandmother, used to take him to worship a pot like ones we’d seen in pictures in the museum. His grandmother called the deity Alid, and exactly the same name was in the notes beside those pictures,” Huang says. “My father, then 54 years old, was rather confused. Like me, he’d always thought of himself as a Southern Min Taiwanese. But later he remembered having wondered why his home religion was different from that of his childhood friends.” In the Siraya language, the word alid originally meant “deity” or “spirit” in the general sense, but in Siraya religion, Alid is also the supreme spirit that is above all other gods. It is the water contained in the pot, rather than the pot itself, that embodies the spirit of Alid...

The rest of this article, which appears in the October issue of the central government's Taiwan Review magazine, can be read online.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Seaside serenity (Silkroad)

In the more than 400 years since the first Han Chinese migrants crossed the sea from Fujian Province in China's southeast, they have made their mark on the island's culture and traditions. These immigrants brought their own distinctive styles of architecture and adapted cooking techniques to the native produce and seafood that locals and visitors alike enjoy today.

The biggest draw of the fishing harbour Donggang in Pingtung County is its seafood, and Guangfu Road is at the centre of it, with a number of long-running and highly regarded seafood restaurants. The town’s “Three Culinary Treasures” await gourmands... 

This article appeared in the July issue of Silkroad, Dragonair's inflight magazine.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Small wonders: The Penghu islands (En Voyage)

It takes less than an hour to fly from any of Taiwan’s major cities to Penghu, but a visit to this group of windswept isles is no daytrip. Look at a map and you’ll realize that the archipelago is simply too big and too spread out. 

There are 90 islands, only 19 of which have permanent human inhabitants. The two most- photographed sights — Jibei’s stunning sand spit and Qimei’s Double-Hearted Weir — are a full 60km apart. Nor should you try to cover everything in a weekend, even a long one. If ever a destination were suited to slow travel, it’s Penghu, where ocean views and ruined cottages [one pictured right] urge lingering attention...

This article, which appeared back in July in EVA Airlines' rebranded inflight magazine (formerly called Verve), can be read online. Click here and scroll through the pages.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Taitung - More than worth the trip (Taiwan Business Topics)

If you live in Taipei, one of the remotest parts of Taiwan is Taitung County. There are more scheduled flights per day to the Matsu islands (nine) than to Taitung (six to eight), and the flying time is a full hour, compared with 50 minutes to Matsu. Driving to Taitung takes a whole day, and there are no direct buses. The fastest of the 14 or so daily trains from the capital takes four hours, 40 minutes to reach Taitung City, although quicker service should be possible by the end of this year when the route is fully electrified and double-tracked.

Getting to Taitung, in other words, is either time-consuming or expensive. Flying a party of four there and back costs around NT$16,000; one-way tickets on Tze-Chiang express trains are NT$785 each. The expense and inconvenience are probably the main reasons why, even though tourism is of growing importance to the county, Taitung receives relatively few visitors compared with other parts of the country.

According to Tourism Bureau statistics, just over 94,000 people entered Taitung’s Zhiben National Forest Recreation Area last year. In comparison, the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area – a favorite of mainland Chinese tourists – notched 2.08 million visits, while the total for the Xitou National Forest Recreation Area came to 1.45 million. Taitung’s best-known museum, the National Museum of Prehistory, had around 172,000 visitors in 2012, while the National Palace Museum sold 25 times as many tickets in the same period. If you want to get away from the crowds, yet still enjoy a range of natural and manmade features, Taitung is thus an excellent option.

The county’s 226,000 people are spread over 3,515 square kilometers; only Hualien and Nantou counties are larger. Almost half of the population lives in Taitung City, which is big enough to support one lively, friendly bar where English is spoken - KASA (102 Heping St., Tel: 0981-693-495; open 11 a.m.-12 midnight daily) - as well as an aboriginal restaurant praised in at least three English-language guidebooks, Mibanai Indigenous Cuisine Restaurant (470 Chuangong Rd., Tel: (089) 231-084; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. daily; Chinese-only website at www.mibanai.com.tw).

The county’s odd shape – it does not quite reach Taiwan’s southernmost tip, yet has a narrow band of coastal land tacked on to its northeast – is a result of mountains pressing in from the west and the north. The Central Mountain Range is so forbidding that road and rail routes linking Taitung with Kaohsiung swing far to the south. Although the Coastal Mountain Range is not nearly as high as the central sierra, it gives the eastern littoral an appearance strikingly different from Taiwan’s pancake-flat western lowlands...

The last of my three articles in Taiwan Business Topics' travel special. The whole piece is here

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Blessed by bats (Taiwan Business Topics)

In Western societies, bats are viewed with distaste and occasionally fear. Many people find their fur and tiny teeth repulsive. Unlike birds, bats are never brightly colored. It is fair to say they resemble demons or gargoyles, and they have long been associated with vampires. Some of those who suffer from chiroptophobia (a clinical fear of bats) worry they may be bitten by a blood-sucking species. Just three of the world’s 1,200-plus bat species feed on blood, however, and they are found only in Latin America.

In Chinese tradition, by contrast, bats are esteemed. Images of bats decorate many old buildings, among them the Lin Family Garden in New Taipei City’s Banqiao District. Patricia Bjaaland Welch, in her book Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, explains why: “Because both fú meaning ‘bat’ (蝠) and the sentiment fú meaning ‘good wishes’ (福) share the same phoneme... a depiction of a bat has come to represent good luck.” 

In Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs: An Alphabetical Compendium of Antique Legends and Beliefs, as Reflected in the Manners and Customs of the Chinese, C.A.S. Williams is emphatic: “The bat is by no means regarded with aversion as in other countries. On the contrary, it is emblematic of happiness and longevity. The conventional bat is frequently employed for decorative purposes, and is often so ornate that it bears a strong resemblance to the butterfly.” Williams goes on to say that bat symbols in mansions are often painted red – an auspicious color – and that five bats shown together represent the “Five Blessings” (五福, wǔfú), a recurring motif standing for wealth, health, virtue, reaching an old age, and dying a natural death. 

The National Palace Museum collection includes a number of items adorned with bat patterns, including glazed vases from the 1735-1796 reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong.

The Compendium of Materia Medica, a late 16th-century Chinese book on herbal medicine, links bats with longevity, stating: “In the caverns of the hills are found bats a thousand years old, and white as silver, which are believed to feed on stalactites. If eaten, they will ensure long life and good eyesight. The blood, gall, wings, and so on, are therefore prescribed as ingredients in certain medicines.” Of course, no bats live for a millennium, but some have been known to survive for almost 40 years, far longer than other small mammals such as mice and shrews.

Bat feces play a role in modern Chinese herbal medicine. Known by the Mandarin euphemism yèmíngshā (夜明砂, literally “night brightness sand”), they are believed to clear the liver and help with eye ailments such as night blindness and cataracts. The oft-repeated claim that bat droppings are an ingredient in some brands of mascara is erroneous. Bat feces, however, like seabird guano, are rich in nitrogen and thus an excellent fertilizer. 

Bats are mammals; like humans, they give birth to live young and nurse them with milk. Bats have considerably bigger brains than birds of the same body weight, and whereas birds have hollow bones, the bones of bats are filled with marrow.

Just as Taiwan amazes those who appreciate birds and butterflies, the island boasts a bat population of stunning diversity. Most bat species eat insects or fruit. Taiwan has an abundance of both, so it is no surprise that the island is home to an impressive number and variety of Microchiroptera (microbats, which are generally small and insectivorous), as well as three kinds of Megachiroptera (flying foxes, also known as megabats).

Taiwan has 35 bat species, confirms Wu Chung-hsin, associate professor of life science at National Taiwan Normal University and chairman of the Bat Association of Taiwan (BAT). Eleven of these species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. Japan, which has 10 times Taiwan’s land area, has 36 types of bat. The United States has 45. Unfortunately for people curious about the island’s bats, less has been written about them than Taiwan’s birds, Lepidoptera (the insect order that comprises moths and butterflies), or even its snails...

This is the second of the three articles I wrote for the travel and culture special of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei's monthly magazine. The photos are courtesy of the Bat Conservation Society of Taipei. The entire article is here.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Balancing on the brink (Taiwan Review)

It is a normal weekday at Wuling Recreation Area, which is under the jurisdiction of Shei-Pa National Park and lies deep in a mountainous part of central Taiwan’s Taichung City. Tourists are trickling through the park’s Taiwan Salmon Eco Center, a building named for and housing a small number of Formosan landlocked salmon [shown below left], members of an endangered fish species found nowhere else on Earth. “I didn’t know it was the fish on the money,” says one visitor, pointing to the image of two salmon on a replica of Taiwan’s NT$2,000 (US$67) banknote. Other sightseers comment on the salmon’s diet (mostly aquatic insects), or how healthy the fish look.

For most people, the center is the only place where they can get near enough to a school of Formosan landlocked salmon to see the spots that mottle the top and lower parts of each fish’s body. To protect the salmon, tourists are not allowed close to Qijiawan Creek [lower right], the nearby waterway that is the species’ main habitat. The creek, which is 15.3 kilometers long and 7 to 12 meters wide, drains an area of 76 square kilometers.

“The center provides a chance for the public to see these beautiful fish up close. When they can see the salmon, they’ll appreciate and recognize the need to protect them. Then, they’ll give their support to conservation measures,” says Lin Hsing-juh, a professor in the Department of Life Sciences at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung and leader of the Wuling Long-Term Ecological Research (WLTER) team. He explains that the salmon displayed in the center were not taken from Qijiawan Creek, but rather bred in captivity.

Official efforts to bolster the Formosan landlocked salmon population date from the 1980s, when the species was listed first as a valuable natural asset under the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act, then as a protected species under the Wildlife Conservation Act. Scientists, however, have been taking an interest in the fish for almost a century.

Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. In 1917, while visiting a police station in what is now Yilan County’s Datong Township, an assistant to Japanese scientist Masamitsu Oshima (1884–1965) was told that fish similar to Japanese trout existed in high-altitude streams in Taiwan’s northeast. With the help of Atayal aborigines in the Yilan area—who called the species bunban or kulubang—the assistant obtained a salted tail of one fish.
When Oshima returned to Taiwan from Stanford University in the United States early the following year, he was intrigued. He gathered additional specimens and set to work describing the fish’s characteristics in words and diagrams. In a June 1919 Japanese-language article in an agricultural bulletin, Oshima alerted the world to the existence of what is today commonly called the Formosan landlocked salmon.

In his initial report that year, Oshima dubbed the species Salmo saramao, Saramao being the name of an Atayal community near today’s Lishan Village in Taichung City’s Heping District from which a specimen was taken. But when David S. Jordan, a former Stanford president who served as Oshima’s research instructor, wrote the first English-language report about the discovery, he decided Oncorhynchus masou formosanus was a more suitable label, reasoning that Formosa (as Westerners then called Taiwan) was known to the outside world, whereas Saramao was not.

Originally regarded as a subspecies of the cherry salmon (aka masu salmon, Oncorhynchus masou) found in Japan, the Korean Peninsula and Russia’s Far East, the Formosan landlocked salmon is now regarded by most researchers as a species in its own right. Accordingly, its scientific name has been amended to Oncorhynchus formosanus, under which the species is listed in the Fish Database of Taiwan maintained by Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s foremost research institution, as well as in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Scientists agree that Taiwan’s salmon shares ancestry with its Japanese counterpart, and that DNA comparisons suggest the two species split around 800,000 years ago. In a paper published by the Journal of the National Taiwan Museum in 2010, Shieh Ying-tzung, a member of the museum’s Department of Research, theorizes that “the most likely timing of ... salmon straying and moving onto Taiwan is 0.78 million years ago after a meteorite strike.” The impact, he says, not only led to significant global cooling but also caused magnetic north and south to switch places. “This combination of cooler sea temperatures and the salmon’s potentially confused magnetic tracking sensitivity would have allowed northern cherry salmon populations to stray southward as far as Taiwan..."

To read the rest of this article, which appears in the August issue of Taiwan Review, click here.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Getting in touch with your inner farmer (Taiwan Business Topics)

Over the past half century, agricultural production has declined to less than 2% of Taiwan’s GDP. At the same time, agricultural tourism and leisure farms have boomed. The  introduction of two-day weekends are a major reason, but the government’s Council of Agriculture – which views tourism as a way of lifting farmers’ incomes – also can take some credit.

Relatively few Westerners take advantage of this aspect of travel in Taiwan. Most of the leisure-farm managers interviewed for this article said the bulk of the non-Taiwanese tourists they see are from Singapore, Malaysia, or Hong Kong.

Small Swiss Homestay, located in the tea-growing uplands of Chiayi County, welcomes plenty of foreign guests, both Western and Asian. But “only a few of them are interested in tea growing and processing,” says owner Charlies Liu.

Liu, a member of both the Taiwan Leisure Farms Development Association (TLFDA, tel: (03) 9381-269) and the Alishan Leisure Farms Development Association, says the leisure farms in the Alishan area do not currently receive a significant number of foreign tourists, but during meetings of these associations, members often discuss how more foreign visitors could be attracted. "The biggest problem is the language barrier, since most owners or their family members can’t speak English," Liu explains.

The TLFDA’s own promotional efforts seem to prove his point. The association does not seem to respond to English-language inquiries. Also, its website – which lists 202 member farms – has no usable English content.

Fortunately for those who would like to learn something about how food is grown, or who think a day or two in the countryside would be fun and healthy, several of Taiwan’s leisure farms are suitable for visitors who speak little or no Chinese.

Sheipa Leisure Farm (tel: (03) 585-6192; email: spfm8910@ms59.hinet.net; no admission charge) has a comprehensive English-language website as well as some English-speaking staff. The farm, in Hsinchu County, has 78 rooms and cabins in European-style buildings; staying overnight costs from NT$4,020 to NT$10,240 per room, breakfast and dinner included.

As the name implies, Sheipa Leisure Farm is near Shei-Pa National Park. The Guanwu Forest Recreation Area is a short drive away. A nearby peak, Yemakanshan (1,923 meters above sea level), can be reached via an hour-long hike. When the weather is clear – often it is not – the scenery in this part of Taiwan is spectacular...

The complete version of this article can be read online, here, and appears in the July 2013 issue - the annual travel and culture special - of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei's monthly magazine. The photo above was supplied by Green World, a farm I contacted but didn't in the end include in the article.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Quoted in a Taipei Times article

Taipei Times, Taiwan's main English-language newspaper, devoted a whole page to Life of Taiwan, the recently-launched travel website to which I contributed about 27,000 words of text. I'm quoted in the second half of the article. Unfortunately, the email address provided at the very end of the piece - in both the print and online versions - is wrong. It should be "contact" not "contract."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Painstaking pace of recovery (South China Morning Post)

Taiwan, an archipelago with 70 percent of its land area covered by mountains, is a paradise for visitors who enjoy the natural scenery of the mountainous areas and the culture of tribes living there. Some of Taiwan's most beautiful mountainous areas are in the southern part of the island, such as Maolin and Namasia near Kaohsiung...

This article was written for a special Taiwan supplement planned then cancelled by the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English-language newspaper. In the end, the newspaper used it in another section of the newspaper.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

South Taiwan's Hakka bastions (Unity)

Taiwan's south is a stronghold of Taiwanese Holo culture, yet it also has some of the island’s most intriguing pockets of Hakka culture. Small towns and villages dominated by Hakka clans are close enough to Kaohsiung's urban core to make for easy day-tripping, yet distant enough to present scenes of bucolic tradition.

Southern Hakka often say their ancestors arrived in Taiwan during the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi (1661–1722). Dating the migration in this way is fitting, as many early settlers joined militias which not only defended Hakka communities from rebels but also helped imperial troops put down uprisings. These loyalist bands formed six units (六堆, liu dui in Chinese). Later, the term Liudui came to mean not just the fighting men but also the six zones of Hakka settlement in Kaohsiung and Pingtung.

Men from Meinong fought as part of the Liudui’s Right Unit. This town of 43,000 is still more than nine-tenths Hakka, and hundreds of residents live by making and selling handpainted oil-paper parasols or thick noodles.

Long before they became choice souvenirs, the former were popular gifts when couples married, and not only for their beauty. Auspiciously, the Hakka word for paper sounds like the word for children. Also, the word used to describe a parasol’s roundness has the same pronunciation as the word for completeness, so they came to symbolize family unity.

In souvenir stores miniature parasols decorated with images of birds and flowers can be bought for less than NT$500. Painted-to-order versions are also available.

Meinong’s most famous specialty dish is ban tiao. These thick white noodles are made from rice flour, unlike most of the noodles eaten in Taiwan, which are made from wheat. Typically fried with slivers of pork and carrot, or boiled and served in a soup with a little pork and a few greens, they go down well before or after exploring Meinong’s quaint neighborhoods...

This is part of an article which appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Unity. I took the photo on the outskirts of Meinong a few years ago.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

'Life of Taiwan' website launches

On February 24, Taiwanese people around the world celebrated when Ang Lee, who was born in Taiwan 58 years ago, won a second Best Director Oscar, this time for Life of Pi.  
Now, on May 7, 2013, comes a new website introducing the scenery, cultures, history and cuisines of Taiwan. Life of Taiwan has more than 150 pages of information about the East Asian island.

“International arrivals have been growing for the past decade, and we think Taiwan's tourism industry will enjoy a big lift thanks to the success of Life of Pi, which was made right here in Taiwan” said Mark Sinclair, founder and CEO of Formosa Services, the Taiwan-based startup behind Life of Taiwan.

“We’re providing high-end tailor made tours targeting professionals and their families. There is no safer place to travel than Taiwan and as everyone who has been here knows, the Taiwanese are a very special people.”

The website covers everything from Taiwan's aboriginal tribes and their festivals to the island's diverse and vibrant religious culture. Gourmands can read about Taiwan's tastiest foods, while outdoors types will discover that Taiwan has more than enough mountains, rivers and dive sites to keep them busy, plus hot springs where tired muscles can be soaked at the end of a tiring day. And if they're not already aware of Taiwan's treasures, birdwatchers and other kinds of ecotourist will find the website's description of Taiwan's spectacular natural diversity engrossing.

The website is gorgeously illustrated with photos taken by Michelin and Asian Geographic photographer Rich J. Matheson. Rich specializes in images of religious events and Taiwan's aboriginal groups; his work can be seen at http://www.thetaiwanphotographer.com

The text was written by Steven Crook, author of three books about the island – Keeping Up With The War God (2001), Dos and Don'ts in Taiwan (2010) and Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide (2010). Steven is currently updating his Bradt guide for publication in spring 2014.

For further information feel free to contact us on contact@lifeoftaiwan.com or call +886 6 2088173.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Two articles, 100,000 readers

None of the articles I've written in the past three years for Culture.Tw, a government-funded website, has notched up more than 3,000 page views, and the four most recent pieces have been read online less than 1,000 times each, so far. However, two of my older pieces for the website - Many seams, far from exhausted: David K. Jordan on anthropology in Taiwan (from 2008), and An island under the microscope: Taiwan Studies in academia (from 2007) - have in total been viewed over 105,000 times, the latter being almost twice as popular as the former. It's very gratifying to know some people enjoy what I write and encourage others to read articles of mine.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Reinventing Kaohsiung (Business Traveller Asia-Pacific)

For much of Taiwan’s postwar history, Kaohsiung wasn’t so much lagging behind as written off. Business visitors described the oceanside city as irredeemably polluted, saying it had the sprawl and congestion of Taipei but little of the capital’s cuisine and none of its cultural attractions.

Until the late 1990s they were mostly right. An early sign of the city’s betterment was Love River changing colour. Even before Taiwan made the shift from authoritarianism to democracy, public demands that something be done about the smelly, tar-black waterway were too loud to ignore.

Sewage plants are one reason why Love River [pictured left] now has a much healthier hue, but ecological engineering techniques also played a role: so that the water’s edge would take on a more natural appearance, the river’s banks were covered with coconut-fibre matting in which aquatic plants could take root, but which will eventually decompose. The fact that many of the city’s nastiest industries have migrated to the Chinese mainland has helped. Kaohsiung’s sky, like its river, is bluer than it used to be. 

In late 2010, Kaohsiung City merged with the surrounding county, increasing the population to 2.8 million. The municipality now encompasses many rural districts, up to and including the south face of Mount Jade (Yushan), East Asia’s highest mountain. But even before the reorganization, urban Kaohsiung managed to go from way behind Taipei in terms of green space per resident to slightly ahead. It’s little wonder that "the general impression of Kaohsiung has taken a 180-degree turn," to quote a mid-2012 article in CommonWealth, one of Taiwan’s most respected Chinese-language publications.

Kaohsiung Software-based Technology Park (KSTP) is central to government efforts to wean the region from declining heavy industries. Established in 2005 on land formerly belonging to Taiwan’s state-owned oil company, the park quickly signed up Foxconn as a tenant. But the manufacturing giant had no plans to make iPads in Kaohsiung. Rather, it’s developing a cloud-computing centre.

The authorities hope KSTP will do in the 21st century what Kaohsiung’s export-processing zones did in the 1970s: attract foreign investment and know-how which can boost the economy and create jobs. The image of thousands of women leaving export-processing zones at the end of each shift on bicycles (in the 70s) or motorcycles (in the 80s and 90s) is part of Taiwan’s collective memory, but not a scene likely to be repeated, thanks to the progress made in public transport.

Kaohsiung’s mostly underground rapid-transit system, the KMRT, has two lines and 36 stations compared to Taipei’s 10 lines and 97 stations. Daily passenger numbers are a tenth of Taipei’s, which means you’ll almost always find a seat...

This article appears in the April issue of Business Traveller Asia-Pacific, a magazine published in Hong Kong and distributed throughout Asia.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Close Look At Dajia (Travel In Taiwan)

Here’s an an odd fact. Dajia (大甲) was named one of Taiwan’s top ten tourist towns last spring, yet - as far as bureaucrats are concerned - it had ceased to exist more than a year earlier. Ever since Taichung County was merged into Taichung City, the town has been a mere part of one of the municapilty's 29 districts.

The district’s almost 80,000 inhabitants aren’t fazed by these changes. The place called Dajia at the center of the former township is still a "town" in everything but name. It has great character and history, and it retains its preeminent place in Taiwan’s religious culture thanks to Jenn Lann Temple (鎮瀾宮). This house of worship is known throughout Taiwan as the start and end point of the annual pilgrimage honoring Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea who’s perhaps Taiwan’s single most popular deity.

The custom of worshiping Mazu was brought to Dajia and other points on Taiwan’s west coast by 17th- and 18th-century migrants from mainland China’s Fujian province, and Jenn Lann Temple was founded in 1732. However, as our guide explained, people were living in Dajia long before those settlers arrived. In fact, the toponym Dajia derives from the name of the lowland aboriginal tribe that once dominated the area, the Taokas.

Like Taiwan’s other indigenous groups, the Taokas were of Austronesian origin and spoke a language very different to Mandarin or Taiwanese, but somewhat similar to the Maori tongues of New Zealand. As a distinct tribe, the Taokas disappeared long ago, but some of their culture lives on in special local traditions.

That aboriginal beliefs have influenced local religious practices is obvious at the little shrine where childless couples hoping for a baby pray to a 30cm-high rock. At first glance, the Baogong Stone has a crudely phallic appearance. But if you look closely, you’ll notice what could be eyes and other facial feature...

This article appeared in the March-April issue of Travel in Taiwan.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Cycle easy in east Taiwan (Unity)

Off the airplane, and onto a bike. There's no better way to see east Taiwan than from the saddle of a bicycle, and you don't even need to bring your own. Several businesses in Taitung and Hualien countries rent out good bicycles, and there's a growing number of dedicated cycle trails to explore.

In the east, two-wheeled travelers can immerse themselves in a bucolic landscape of rice paddies, aboriginal villages and Hakka towns. Unlike visitors dependent on buses and trains, cyclists can stop whenever something takes their fancy, be it a folk shrine, a picturesque courtyard house, or a vendor selling custard apples or some of the other delicious fruits Taitung is famous for...

This article appears in the March-April issue of Unity; the photo shows a couple of cyclists I ran into at Taitung's railway station. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

City Walls, City Gates: How Taiwan's Towns Tried to Stay Safe (Culture.tw)

In places inhabited by Han Chinese, walled towns and cities have long been symbols of civilization and imperial authority. A few centuries ago in China, a major settlement without a wall was almost unthinkable. The Chinese character cheng (城), it is often pointed out, can mean either "city" or "city wall." Taiwan before the Japanese occupation was no exception to this phenomenon, and fascinating remnants of the walls which once surrounded Taipei, Tainan and other places still exist.

Tainan was Taiwan's administrative capital from the island's incorporation into the Qing Empire in 1684 up until 1885. Because of its political importance
not to mention the wealth that could be plundered many of the rebel armies which ravaged Taiwan during the 18th and 19th centuries tried to seize the city. Zhu Yi-gui (朱一貴) and his followers were the only ones to succeed, in part because the settlement at that time lacked a defensive wall. It took the Qing authorities two months to recapture Taiwanfu (台灣府), as Tainan was then known. Four years later, in 1725, the city's first wall was built–a simple wooden barrier reinforced with thorny bamboo.

Lin Shuang-wen (林爽文) and his partisans were unable to overrun Tainan, but their 1787-1788 uprising – the bloodiest in Taiwan's history – showed wood or bamboo defenses were ineffective. Consequently, Tainan's wall was upgraded in 1788-91. The new structure was 5.76m high, 6.4m wide at the base, and 8,064m long. To see the mix of materials used–river stones, slabs of granite, bricks and soil–there is no better place to go than the campus of National Cheng Kung University (國立成功大學, NCKU), where two short yet original segments of wall flank the Little West Gate (小西門).

This stretch of wall survived because it formed one side of an Imperial Japanese Army barracks. The relic has been in a sorry state for years, but a renovation effort was launched at the beginning of 2013.

The Little West Gate was reassembled at NCKU in 1970, having originally stood near what is now the intersection of Ximen Road Section 1 and Fuqian Road (西門路一段府前路口), about 2km away. Ximen Road means "West Gate Road." Less than 20m from the Little West Gate's current location is where the Little East Gate (小東門) stood between 1725 and 1916, when the Japanese colonial authorities finished demolishing almost all of Tainan's walls, five of the original eight gates and five of the six gates in the outer walls. The latter had been added in 1835-36 as the city sprawled both inland and toward the Taiwan Strait...

The rest of this article can be read on the Culture.tw website. The photo above shows part of Hengchun's town wall.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Homes away from home (Taiwan Review)

When Charlies Liu quit his civil service job with the Kaohsiung City Government and returned to the place where he grew up so he could be with his ailing mother, he did not think he would soon be embarking on a new career in the tourism industry, and that within a decade he would have hosted visitors from more than 40 countries.

In November 2003, on land that has belonged to his family for more than 80 years, Liu opened Small Swiss Homestay, a lodging establishment with four rooms and mountain views. Located in a tea-growing district in Chiayi County, southern Taiwan, not far from Alishan National Forest Recreation Area, Small Swiss Homestay is in many ways a typical minsu, as bed-and-breakfast (B&B) establishments are known in Chinese.

Over the past decade, Taiwan’s tourism industry has transformed significantly. Perhaps few of the changes have enhanced the travel experience more than the proliferation of minsu. In these small lodges, guests can stay in a family-run establishment and enjoy a blend of informal hospitality, local knowledge and natural scenery that few hotels can match. Liu, for instance, takes many of his guests to Fenqihu, a nearby town famous for its quaint character, and Yushan National Park, where they can see Taiwan’s highest peak.

Until December 2001, when the Regulations for the Management of Home Stay Facilities were issued, minsu existed without a legal framework. The regulations define “a home stay facility” as “a lodging facility run as a family sideline business, using the spare rooms of a self-used residence to provide tourists with a rural living experience.” 

In practice, while many homestay businesses match these criteria closely, quite a number are purpose-built accommodations that provide the family’s main source of income. Most of these latter establishments are fairly modest, though, and retain the personalized service of a family-run business. The rules state that such operations should have “no more than five guest rooms, with a total floor area of no more than 150 square meters,” although local governments can authorize up to 15 rooms for homestays with “specific tourism features” such as those located on a tourist farm or in a remote area.

To be licensed, a B&B must satisfy fire safety rules and undergo inspections that check, among other things, whether each “guest room and bathroom [has] adequate ventilation and ... sufficient light,” according to the website of the Tourism Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. Operators must purchase insurance, and cannot be individuals with convictions for drug, firearm-related, sexual or other serious criminal offenses.

Since the regulations came into force, the number of fully licensed establishments has been growing nonstop. According to statistics issued by the Tourism Bureau, new minsu registered with the authorities at a rate of more than one per day between 2004 and 2008.

“At the end of September 2012, the national total of legal B&Bs was 3,619,” says Chen Yu-chuan, director of the bureau’s Hotel Inspection and Supervision Center. This central government unit oversees Taiwan’s homestay industry, but local governments are responsible for day-to-day enforcement. “City and county governments do from time to time, in accordance with the provisions, carry out inspections of B&Bs,” Chen says, adding that violations, such as a lack of firefighting equipment, are dealt with as dictated by the law.

“The Tourism Bureau offers operators of legal B&Bs guidance so they can upgrade their services. The bureau has also held many business management classes, and granted money to local governments and industry associations so they can organize workshops,” Chen says... 

The entire article, which appears in the February edition of Taiwan Review, can be read online

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fengshan's Divine Magistrate (Culture.tw)

The Chinese folk pantheon is massive, and includes many deities said to have once been ordinary mortals. Most of these personalities - Mazu is an excellent example – are semi-legendary, and are believed to have spent their human lives on the Chinese mainland.
Some, however, undoubtedly existed, and spent all or part of their lives in Taiwan. Zhu Yi-gui is one. Born in Fujian, he migrated to Taiwan in 1713. While earning a living as a duck farmer in south Taiwan, he led an uprising against the Qing Empire in 1720. The rebellion collapsed and he was put to death, but he is now worshipped as one of a trinity of city gods in Tainan's Xiaonan Chenghuang Temple.


The likes of Zhu Yi-gui are commemorated because in their lifetimes they displayed great wisdom, righteousness or kindness. These are not qualities often associated with politicians and government officials, many of whom are regarded as self-serving and vain. So if a government appointee is still revered more than 150 years after his death in one of the places where he held office, he must have been an exceptional individual.

Cao Jin seems to have been such a man. A Qing Dynasty scholar-bureaucrat, he was born in what is now Qinyang City in Henan Province  in central China. Cao was already 51 years old when he arrived in 1837 in what these days is Kaohsiung City's Fengshan District in 1837. At that time, it was the administrative headquarters of Fengshan County, Taiwan still being part of Fujian Province and divided into four local government units. Cao’s position as Fengshan County magistrate gave him power over and responsibility for an area more or less equivalent to today’s Kaohsiung City and Pingtung County

Like other parts of Taiwan, Fengshan County had a lot of land that would have been ideal for farming if only water supplies were reliable. Realizing this, Cao ordered the digging of a 9km-long irrigation canal between the waterway now called the Gaoping River, but then known as the Xiadanshui River. Work began in the winter of 1838 and took two years.

Although the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the West - and it is said steam engines were used in China back in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) - all the work was done by hand. Some 44 branch canals were also dug, and together they provided water to around 2550 jia of arable land, equal to 2,473 hectares. Even before it had been completed, Taiwan’s governing prefect, Xiong Yi-ben, decided to rename the waterway the Cao Gong Canal to celebrate the magistrate’s achievement. Cao Gong can be translated as “the honorable Mr. Cao.”

Intact sections of the canal can be found near Fengshan Railway Station. In recent years, the waterway has been tidied up. It is now a lovely place to stroll, and a fitting memorial to the magistrate. Look into the waters and you will see lots of fish, a few turtles and some frogs.

The Fengshan area was not the first part of Taiwan to have its fortunes transformed by irrigation works. Lugang was founded in the mid-17th century, but did not grow rapidly until after the completion in 1719 of a huge privately-financed irrigation system in its hinterland. Rice output rose dramatically, providing the surpluses which the town’s merchants exported to Fujian. Nor was it the last. The inhabitants of the Chianan Plain had to wait until the 1930s, when Hatta Yoichi (1886-1942) masterminded the construction of Wushantou Reservoir and a network of channels and ditches which converted more than 100,000 hectares of drought-prone, malaria-stricken land in Taiwan’s southwest into highly productive farmland generating three rice crops per year.

Cao Gong’s contribution to Taiwan’s development is not as well known as Hatta’s, but in Fengshan at least he is far from forgotten. Less than 500m from Fengshan Railway Station, a medium-sized house of worship is dedicated to his memory. Cao Gong Temple stands on Cao Gong Road; the school on the other side of the road is named Cao Gong Elementary School.

From the outside, Cao Gong Temple is little different to a thousand other shrines in Taiwan. Established in 1860 - 11 years after Cao’s death, and 15 years after he left his final Taiwan posting in Danshui (淡水) - it was totally rebuilt in 1992. The effigy of Cao on the main altar is no bigger than a child’s doll. Every summer, memorial ceremonies are held here on the 15th day of the eighth month on the lunar calendar. Inside the temple there are four-character inscribed boards presented in recent years by representatives of Cao’s hometown on the Chinese mainland. More interesting are the black-and-white photos which show how the canal looked a few generations ago, and the Chinese-only timeline of Cao’s life.

Cao Gong Elementary School boasts an ancient and gnarled bishopwood tree that was planted as a memorial to the official sometime after his death (no one is sure precisely when). During weekends and school holidays, outsiders are free to enter the campus via the gate on Fengming Street to look at what is called the Cao Gong Giant Tree. At other times, if you set foot in the school’s grounds you risk annoying the security guard. 

Fengshan has other relics within walking distance of the railway station. Two can be found if you go a little further east along Fengming Street. Fengyi Chenghuang Temple at no. 66 is one of the district’s three historic houses of worship; the others are Cao Gong Temple and Longshan Temple. Fengyi Chenghuang Temple was founded in what is now called Kaohsiung City’s Zuoying District, back when that place was called Fengshan and served as the headquarters of Fengshan County. After a rebel army led by Lin Shuang-wen captured old Fengshan in the late 1780s, the Qing court decided to relocate the county offices to the southeast. The city-god deity was moved at the same time, and the temple reestablished.

Adjacent to the temple, Fengyi Tutorial Academy was built in 1814 as a school where young men could study the classics and prepare for imperial civil-service examinations. The complex has 37 rooms, but has long been closed for much-needed renovations.

Fengshan’s Longshan Temple is not as well known as the houses of worship that share its name in Lugang and Wanhua. Nonetheless, it is worth visiting on account of the delicate carvings and paintings inside. If the temple is your last stop, the most convenient way of returning to downtown Kaohsiung or Zuoying High-Speed Railway Station is to take the KMRT’s Orange Line from Dadong Station.

This article was originally published on Culture.TW, a website sponsored by Taiwan's central government. As it's no longer online, I've posted the whole thing here. The photo shows a library in Fengshan.