Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A few thoughts on Tsu.co

I've signed up for Tsu.co, a social network which aims to break Facebook's near-monopoly on this facet of the Internet. The main difference between the two is that Tsu.co gives users a share of the advertising revenue the site generates (there are of course various catches, the main one being you won't see a cent until you've made US$100). What's more, users who get others to sign up receive a sliver of their friends' future earnings from the site. So I'm not being entirely selfless when I say, if you wish to register, you're most welcome to do so using my membership: http://www.tsu.co/StevenCrook

So far, I've done nothing more than post dozens of photos which otherwise will never see the light of day, among them the image here, which shows coins left at the feet of a statue of Mona Rudao in Wushe, Nantou County, central Taiwan. I've also posted pictures from trips in recent years to the UK, the Netherlands, Thailand, South Korea, and Poland.

The main drawbacks of Tsu.co compared to Facebook are that there are far fewer groups (so less chance you'll find a consistently interesting niche), and few people leave substantial comments on photos, articles or links. But you will find a shed-load of gorgeous images.

UPDATE: As you probably heard, Tsu.co closed down last year - before I'd earned more than 50 cents American...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Quoted on Forbes.com

Forbes' Taipei-based columnist Ralph Jennings quotes me in this piece, in which he looks at five indicators which suggest Taiwan could do a lot better. Among his criteria is the lack of greenery in urban areas, a topic I've touched on more than once, in articles such as this one from 2011
The photo here, which I think I took in Chiayi City several years back, shows copperpod trees (Peltophorum inerme). The species isn't native to Taiwan, but is common in several parts of Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

First travel-writing workshop under my belt

As I write on the blog I've created for these events, pretty much everything relating to my first travel writing and freelancing workshop went to plan. 

Of the ten spaces I made available, nine were filled within a fortnight of announcing the event, and the tenth soon thereafter. One person had to drop out for personal reasons, so I had nine paying customers listening to me, and often chipping in with interesting points or sensible questions. I just hope future audiences are this intelligent and amenable!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Uncontained Potential (Taiwan Review)

Of the world’s 20-million-plus intermodal shipping containers, around 60 are sited, more or less permanently, along the southernmost stretch of Highway 19A in southern Taiwan, between Tainan City’s Xinhua District and Kaohsiung City’s Gangshan District. None of these steel boxes are being used for their original purpose, which is to hold and protect cargo as it is transported from one place to another by ship, train or truck.

Several have been placed next to pineapple fields, and likely belong to farmers who use them to store agricultural equipment. Some have been extensively modified, with holes cut in the sides for doors, windows and air-conditioning units. These serve as offices for small businesses or accommodate betel nut vendors. The function of others is less obvious, but for sure most will never again see the ocean. Few things are less glamorous than an old freight container retired to the countryside and used as a kiosk. Yet Taiwan has a growing circle of architects and specialist builders who find the possibilities offered by containers much more exciting than any chance to attach their name to a big-ticket landmark.

“In my experience, the general public is quite open-minded about the use of containers as buildings,” says Lin Chih-feng, a Kaohsiung-based architect who has worked on several container-building projects. The social media buzz that accompanied the opening of Flyin’ Moose, a Kaohsiung gastro-pub Lin constructed according to the owners’ design concept early this year, seems to support his claim.

The restaurant’s main structure consists of six 40-foot-long (12.19-meter-long) containers, arranged to create indoor and outdoor eating areas. Standard containers are either 20 feet (6.1 meters) or 40 feet in length, 8 feet (2.44 meters) wide and usually 8 feet 6 inches (2.59 meters) high. “Containers can be utilized in various ways that are very interesting to imagine, but I’m still waiting for opportunities to turn some of my ideas into reality,” Lin says.

His passion for what some call “cargotecture” dates from his participation in the 2013 Kaohsiung International Container Arts Festival, the theme for which was using containers as habitable spaces. Working with Wang Chi-tsun, another Kaohsiung-based architect fascinated by the potential of containers, Lin devised a three-story dwelling with a 6-square-meter footprint. The duo’s contribution used four 20-foot containers. “The first floor comprised the living room, kitchen and bathroom. The second floor held the master bedroom and a kid’s room. The third floor could be used as a study,” Lin explains.

Of the various container buildings Lin has created, the one he is most proud of is located in Kaohsiung’s Pier-2 Art Center, a waterside cultural complex. Incorporating a dozen 40-foot containers, the NT$7 million (US$225,800) building serves as a waiting room for people about to board a tourist yacht. From the observatory atop two vertically positioned containers, visitors can enjoy views of the harbor and ocean.

Having been developed not to slide off ships as they pitch in heavy seas, intermodal containers are exceptionally stable. When fully loaded, they are robust enough to be stacked, one on top of each other, nine high.

Lin points out that since his building at Pier-2 opened to the public in April, Taiwan has endured several tremors and two strong typhoons. “The structure has come through these severe tests safe and sound. This proves container buildings are tough,” he says.

“In earthquakes, you’re safer in a container than you are in a conventional RC [reinforced concrete] building,” asserts Wang, who has been intrigued by containers since his youth. His father, who now works with him, spent a good part of his life as an ironsmith. During that period, the elder Wang was often tasked with dismantling old shipping containers. He used to lament that if only he had the right tools and skills, he would have been able to convert one into a durable and attractive dwelling.

Container buildings are by their nature robust enough to satisfy the structural strength regulations in Taiwan’s building code. They are usually small enough not to require fire safety certification. However, the rule that all new public facilities and business premises allow barrier-free access for the disabled adds substantial costs...

To read the rest of this article, click here. I took the three photos here at a 35-container structure in Taipei City's Beitou District which was assembled to promote a new apartment complex.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Paiwan cuisine and Paiwan art: Qiu Yue's Restaurant in Sandimen (Travel in Taiwan)

For some years, Sandimen in Pingtung County has been known as an excellent place to seek out and purchase art works and handicrafts produced by Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian minority. A bastion of the Paiwan tribe, this compact hillside town is home to artists and artisans who work with wood, stone, leather, fabric and other materials. It's also a great place for sampling aboriginal culinary specialties.

The Paiwan number almost 98,000; the tribe is Taiwan’s second largest aboriginal ethnic group. Sandimen can be considered the northwestern outpost of the Paiwan, who also inhabit townships in Taitung County, on the other side of the Central Mountain Range. Reaching the busiest part of the township involves a short but steep drive up from Shuimen, a lowlands community separated from the mountains by the Ailiao River.

Many tourists park, then browse the souvenir shops which line the main road. A few may wander into the backstreets, where they’ll hopefully follow the bilingual signs to, or simply stumble across, Sha Tao Zazurite Art Studio. In addition to being one of the area’s best glass-bead workshops, this store is the home base of a renowned indigenous dance troupe.

If visitors feel hungry, there’s a good chance they’ll buy a portion of sliced pork or some sausages from one of the town’s stone-barbecue stands. Rather than cook on a metal grill over charcoal, these vendors place choice cuts on a slate slab heated from beneath. Because the juices don’t immediately drain off, the meat is basted as well as roasted. For hardcore carnivores, the results are exquisite.

Visitors who like to head beyond Sandimen toward breathtakingly scenic Wutai know there’s a better eating option a minute or two further along Highway 24, the road which links these two indigenous townships to Freeway 3 and Pingtung City. It’s called Qiu Yue’s Restaurant, and in keeping with the township’s creative leanings, it was originally an artist’s workshop. Located just inland of the km24 marker, Qiu Yue’s takes its name from and is managed by Ms. Li Qiu-yue. Surprisingly, given the role she plays in the local community, Ms. Li isn’t Paiwan. She’s not even an aborigine. Like approximately four-fifths of Taiwan’s population, she’s a descendant of migrants from mainland China’s Fujian province. In addition to being an industrious promoter of local culture and a gracious host, Ms. Li is the wife of a prominent Paiwan carver-illustrator, and the mother of an up-and-coming artist.

Her husband is Sakuliu Pavavalung. If that name seems very different to others you’ve come across while reading about Taiwan, it’s because it’s a true Austronesian name. Sakuliu means “arrowhead” in Paiwan. The majority of native people still use the Han Chinese surnames foisted by the authorities onto their parents or grandparents soon after World War II. Sakuliu, however, is one of a growing number of aborigines who’ve taken advantage of a special law to “fully restore” his tribal name. A parallel movement is demanding that certain Austronesian place names be restored.

Sakuliu, a man of many talents, created many of the decorations which now adorn the restaurant. Among them is a set of alluringly asymmetrical chairs he made two decades ago. Each is hybrid of iron and wood, but the blend of materials is isn’t so much an artistic statement as a reflection of that period’s economic realities. “Back then, iron was cheaper than now, and the government was very strict about people taking large pieces of wood out of the forests,” Ms. Li explains.

A master potter to boot, Sakuliu can often be seen at the restaurant, when work isn’t calling him to other parts of Taiwan. These days he’s much in demand. If you’ve flown between Taiwan and New Zealand recently, you may well have come very close to one of his largest works...

To read the rest of the article, which includes a description of some of the dishes on the menu and the restaurant's address, click here - or pick up the November/December issue from a visitor information center.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Writing for Skyline

For 26 consecutive months in 2006-2008, I contributed a travel-related article for each issue of SKYLINE, the inflight magazine of Far Eastern Air Transport (a minor Taiwan-based airline also known as FAT). The magazine was produced for FAT by the Taipei branch of the Conde Nast media empire. 

I’d almost forgotten about this pleasant but unchallenging gig - which ended abruptly when the airline was forced into financial restructuring - until the other day, when I cleared out some of the hundreds of magazines I’ve accumulated in my writing career. Several of the pieces I produced for SKYLINE were rewrites/updates of previous work, such the articles about shopping for souvenirs in Taiwan and travelling with children. I also wrote about Siraya National Scenic Area, the north coast, as well as Taiwan’s old streets. If you know Taiwan at all well, you’ll know that, so far as domestic tourism is concerned, ‘old streets’ are much more than - and yet sometimes not even - streets lined with picturesque old buildings.

Monday, November 2, 2015

An Eye-opening Escape from the Big City (Travel in Taiwan)

For the past few centuries, Taiwan's southern lowlands have been the island's agricultural heartland. Thanks to reliably warm weather, and a vast network of channels and ditches which carry water to farms during the long dry season, the region produces an abundance of rice, vegetables, and fruit. It's no surprise, then, to find an exceptionally popular recreational farm in this part of the world.

Yet DaMorLee Leisure Farm is quite different to the majority of agrotourism destinations. Hardly any food is grown on site, and there are no sheep or goats to pet and feed. Rather, the farm demonstrates a variety of ecofriendly construction and living techniques which visitors are encourages to try.

“We want visitors who're interested in recycling and nature, as we provide recycling education in a great natural setting,” says John Lamorie, who owns and runs the farm together with his wife, Shelly Wu.

John and Shelly have been developing this 7,000m2 plot in Pingtung County's Ligang Township since 2007. Bananas, betel nut and other crops are grown in the area, which abuts a tributary of the Laonong River. 

“When we bought the land, it had been fallow for a number of years. The previous owner earned a little bit of money from the government by growing nitrogen-fixing plants which were then plowed back into the soil. When we took it over there was nothing on it – no trees, grass, or even weeds,” John recalls. 

“When we started, I only wanted flora and fauna native to Taiwan, but some compromises had to be made. I wanted the place to look more 'wild' than Shelly wanted, but we achieved a pretty good balance,” says John, who was born in Canada and later lived in New Zealand. 

“When visitors come, I lead the paper-house DIY activities, and any English components. Actually, many groups ask for us to do as much as possible in English. Shelly takes care of time management and food,” says John. 

Guests can make their own pizzas using German sausages, imported cheeses, and other choice items. Another food option is German Pigs' Trotters, a feast of Canadian meat and served with sauerkraut and mustard. DaMorLee's bread is deservedly popular, being packed with tasty morsels such as macadamia nuts, and figs marinated in rum.

According to Shelly, the farm gets 200 to 250 visitors during an average week, and groups should always book ahead. “We've had university groups and kindergarten groups, as well as tour groups. We try to limit larger groups to one bus in the morning and one in the afternoon,” she says.

John, an energetic sexagenarian, has acquired an impressive range of skills over the years. He's an eighth-generation woodworker who's held 45 different jobs over the years. He worked at a five-star resort in the US, and taught computer studies in New Zealand. Arriving in Taiwan in the late 1990s, he worked as an English teacher in Yunlin and Chiayi before settling in Ligang.

He designed and built all nine of the farm's finished structures, proudly stating: “About 95% of what I use is found, scrounged, or rescued.”

John paid a nominal amount for an old blackboard which he then dismantled and turned into roof beams for the farm's coffee-shop/restaurant. He crafted the window frames from a polished-hardwood floor torn out of a residential building. He made the tables from wood scraps and recycled panes of glass.

What's called the Japan House incorporates screens and windows John salvaged when a local friend demolished a family property dating from Japan's 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. The roof tiles were taken from the house, not far from the farm, where Shelly was born

A new addition to the roster of activities is traditional soap-making. As recently as the 1960s, factory-made cleaning agents were too expensive for many ordinary Taiwanese. Rural folk did their laundry with the aid of the fruit of the Sapindus tree.

Each Sapindus berry is about 1.5cm in diameter. Most of it is seed, there being just one or two mm of flesh beneath the yellow-black skin. As Shelly explains, the berries need no processing. If you break the skin of one with your fingernail, then start rubbing it between your fingers with a little water, suds appear straightaway. 

“We do sell bars of handmade soap and bottles of liquid soap, but really we want people to try and make their own,” says Shelly.

If any single attraction has made DaMorLee famous – it's been featured on at least 25 TV shows in Taiwan, as well in magazines and newspapers – it is John's use and advocacy of papercreteThose who've not previously heard of papercrete may well guess this portmanteau word describes a concrete-like substance made from recycled newspapers. 

Conventional concrete is strong and durable, yet requires a great deal of energy to produce. The associated extraction of gravel from riverbeds and hillsides has been blamed for environmental problems in certain parts of Taiwan. Concrete is very difficult to recycle. Also, when reinforced concrete roofs and walls collapse during earthquakes, the consequences for people inside are dire.

“The cost of papercrete is just a fraction of that of normal concrete,” says John. “Papercrete walls provide much better noise- and heat-insulation than concrete. Papercrete walls are less likely to fail during earthquakes, and even if they do fall on you, you're unlikely to be seriously hurt.”

John's papercrete production method results in bricks almost as big as cinder blocks, but no heavier than a small bottle of water. One drawback of naked papercrete is that it isn't waterproof. For this reason, exterior walls are sealed first with tung oil and then with elastomeric coating. Interior walls are treated with tung oil, then plastered with a blend of liquid papercrete to which sand and a little cement have been added.

Insects, especially termites, have long been an enemy of those trying to build in Taiwan using materials other than steel, glass and concrete. After several years' experience, John concludes: “Nothing eats papercrete, except snails!” 

To add an artistic flourish as well as let in natural light, John places vintage sake bottles between papercrete blocks.

John is now midway through his tenth building, a steel-framed, papercrete-walled structure on stilts that will be the couple's home. And he's considering assembling another, this time using bamboo, to serve two purposes. Elements normally hidden behind plaster or board would be left exposed, to educate visitors about vernacular architecture. (Even now, old single-story houses with bamboo frames and wattle-and-daub walls aren't uncommon in Taiwan's countryside.) Also, it would be a studio where he could indulge his passion for raku pottery. 

The farm may lack domesticated animals, but the 2,000m2 pond is an ecological hotspot. More than 20 species of dragonfly, plus butterflies, damselflies and water striders reward those who stand still and pay close attention to the surface of the water and the surrounding plants.

John estimates the fish population at around 6,000. “We've at least seven different fish species. Some of them are quite tasty, I might add,” he says. These water dwellers attract kingfishers, egrets and herons. There's also a handful of turtles.

This is an edited version of my article in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan. The entire magazine can be read online. Since the article appeared, the farm has been featured in a BBC report. And here's a Reuters report about the place from 2010. Both photos are taken from this Pingtung County Government webpage.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Tony Coolidge, A Taiwanese Aboriginal Activist from the US (News Lens)

The Atayal are an Austronesian tribe indigenous to the mountains of north Taiwan, so it's surprising to find one of the tribe's most high-profile members in Tainan City's Xigang District, a small lowlands town in the south. Even more unusual is that this man speaks to his wife and three children not in Atayal, or Taiwanese or Mandarin, but English.

It wasn't until 2009 that Tony Coolidge, as he's known to most of the world, gained his Atayal name, Shilan Sabi. Spurred largely by the lack of pride many Taiwanese aborigines show in their ancestry and culture, Coolidge has devoted much of the past two decades to projects which aim to build tribal dignity and bolster links between Taiwan's Austronesian minority and indigenous people in other parts of the world.

Coolidge was born in Taipei in 1967. He moved to the US with his mother, Chen Yu-chu, and adoptive father, American soldier David Coolidge, in 1972, after one year spent at a US military base in Japan. But he didn't discover his aboriginal heritage until 1995, a year after his mother – who grew up in what's now New Taipei City's Wulai District – had passed away from cancer.

Neither Coolidge nor his mother ever returned to Taiwan between 1971 and her death. He didn't apply for a Taiwanese passport until 2009, when he decided to move back to Taiwan with his wife, Hsu Shu-min, who he met in Florida. Like most Taiwanese, Shu-min traces her ancestry to Fujian province in China.

“My mother missed her family very much, and it was her fondest wish to return for a visit..."

Earlier this year, News Lens - a Chinese-language website with Taiwan and Hong Kong editions - invited me to contribute to the International Edition they were gearing up to launch. After a few delays, my first article appeared earlier this week. To read the entire piece, click here.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Travel Writing / Freelance Writing Workshop: December 6

To promote the writing workshop I'm holding in Taichung on December 6, I've created a Facebook event page and a dedicated Wordpress blog. Anyone interested is encouraged to take a look at both. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

More dialogues for local government officials

Three years ago, I wrote a set of model conversations intended to help local government officials introduce their cities and counties (nine areas in all) to visiting foreigners. This summer, I joined a follow-up project to add two more counties, Chiayi (not to be confused with Chiayi City, which was covered in the first project) and Yunlin. Here's an extract from one of the Yunlin-related dialogues:

Narrator: With more than 600 species, including migrants, Taiwan has emerged as a top destination for international birdwatchers. 

Taiwanese official (TO): Do you like birdwatching or other kinds of ecotourism?

Foreign visitor (FV): I do. After going to lots of meetings, I find it very relaxing to get up close and personal with nature.

TO: I'm glad to tell you you've come to the right place. Yunlin County has mountains, forests, as well as plains and rivers. Along the coast there are several spots that attract waterbirds. One is Chenglong Wetland in Kouhu Township. The government has designated it as a “wetland of national importance.” It has featured in some birdathon events.

TO: What's a birdathon? A bird... marathon?

FV: Kind of. It's a competition for birdwatchers. People try to spot as many different species in a single day. Sometimes they start in the hills and then move down through the lowlands to the coast.

FV: Sounds like fun! Do you know what species I might see at that wetland?

TO: Let me have a look on my smartphone… hold on a minute… here's a list: Little Tern, Saunders' Gull, Common Kestrel, Painted Snipe… and several others, including the Black-faced Spoonbill.

FV: Very promising indeed! 

TO: If you want more information, I suggest you contact the Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, or have a look at their website. The scenic area covers part of Yunlin County. 

FV: Is there any good birdwatching inland?

TO: Lots! In the foothills around Huben and Hushan villages you may be able to see the Taiwan Blue Magpie and Swinhoe’s Pheasant. Both are unique to Taiwan. In the summer, the same area draws a lot of Fairy Pittas and Oriental Cuckoos.

FV: I know what a cuckoo is, but I don’t know anything about the pitta species you just mentioned. 

TO: It’s an incredibly beautiful bird, and attracts many photographers. It breeds in Taiwan but doesn’t stay year-round. In Chinese, we call it baseniao, which means "eight-color bird." 

FV: It really has eight colors?

TO: Some say seven, some say eight... 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Cover model!

Recently on Facebook, I posted a magazine cover designed around a photo I'd taken in Meinong. Few people know it, but in addition to snapping photos which have ended up on magazine covers (and hundreds which have appeared in newspapers), I've been a cover model.

Back in 2003, I posed as Santa Claus in a number of tropical settings for Compass Media Group, the Taichung-based publishers of city guide magazines. At that time I was the managing editor of their Kaohsiung/Tainan edition. On the left is the cover of Taiwan Fun, their north Taiwan edition. I forget who we borrowed the surfboard from. You can't see it, but I wore beach sandals instead of the fur-lined boots Santa usually has on his feet. To accompany the article, shown on the right, we got images of Santa praying at a shrine, buying betel nut (from a young lady who, sadly, had lost most of her teeth), and driving the kind of small blue truck used by Taiwanese farmers (surely more practical than a sleigh if you need to deliver presents to many locations).

I wasn't paid (and, to borrow a P. J. O'Rourke quip, I earned every cent) but the shoot, conducted by my old accomplice Rich J. Matheson, made for a fun change from sitting in front of a computer writing and editing.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Indigenous Fine Dining in the Hills of Taitung (Travel in Taiwan)

The emblem of Xiang Luo Lei Restaurant (響羅雷美食坊餐廳) is a snail, and for those reading the menu from left to right, which Taiwanese don’t always do, the very first item on the menu is Basil-Flavored Snails (塔香螺肉, NT$250 per portion). But edible gastropods aren’t the main reason why a cartoon snail represents this establishment.

Visitors who speak the language variously known as Minnanyu (閩南語), Taiwanese or Hokkien will quickly guess why the owners opted for a cute snail motif. The founder’s name is Mr. Luo Lei Pei-hua (羅雷陪華), and in Taiwanese snails are known as luolei. He's taken a childhood nickname and turned it into a brand. 

Two-syllable surnames are rare in Taiwan, and Mr. Luo Lei owes his to his mixed parentage. Luo was the surname of his mother, a member of the Puyuma aboriginal tribe. Lei was the family name of his father, who migrated to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland after World War II. Mr. Luo Lei grew up among Puyuma people, married a Puyuma lady, and considers himself Puyuma, hence his decision to put his mother’s surname first. All of his employees are Puyuma, too.

Xiang Luo Lei, a large open-sided structure made of wood and bamboo, looks over Taitung City from a foothills village 11 km inland of the downtown. There’s an hour of live music - typically a female vocalist accompanied by an acoustic guitarist - every weekday evening starting at 7pm. On weekends, local schoolchildren perform indigenous dances. 

Huge photographs - some historic, some recent - of aboriginal people decorate the walls, and there are a handful of unpainted wood carvings. The decor is understated and tasteful, which is as it should be. As far as most customers are concerned, what goes on in the kitchen is much more important than the interior, the performances, or the view. 

Whereas the hearty fare on offer at most aboriginal restaurants can be relied upon at least to satisfy gourmands, the cuisine here is a notch higher. Some standout dishes surely qualify as gourmet - and that’s a word this writer doesn’t bandy about.

The menu lists more than 60 dishes, and Mr. Luo Lei’s wife starts by recommending the snails. They’re available year-round, she explains, but become scarcer when the weather is hotter. 

At least four dishes on the menu are distinctively Puyuma, she explains. One is Meat-Filled Wild Bitter Gourd (野苦瓜鑲肉, NT$350), the foraged gourds being far smaller than farmed variants. Another is Teng Xin Pig’s Foot Soup (藤心豬腳湯, NT$400 to 500 per portion, also available with chicken instead of pork). It’s cooked using a wild vegetable foraged by indigenous people in several places in East Taiwan...

To read the rest of this article, go here and scroll on to page 36

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Nomads of the Digital Age (Taiwan Review)

The Internet has freed millions of workers from the daily commute. At health insurer Aetna Inc., education services company Kaplan Inc., and several other major US corporations, more than half of all employees regularly clock in from home. The prevalence of high-speed Internet has also led to the emergence of another, though much smaller, cohort of modern professionals known as “digital nomads.” Few of these individuals work full time for a single company. Many provide knowledge-based services, such as app or website development, to several clients. Others are entrepreneurs who have set up online stores.

While the typical telecommuter lives in the same region as his or her employer, digital nomads—as the term implies—can and do roam. Most require nothing more than a laptop and a reliable Internet connection to work and so take advantage of their mobility by staying in places where the cost of living is lower, or the weather better, than at home. Clusters of digital nomads can be found in Indonesia, Mexico and Thailand, with the Thai city of Chiang Mai often being described as the digital nomad capital of the world.

Taiwan, renowned for its cutting-edge information and communications technology industry, has thousands of public locations that offer free wireless Internet, including convenience stores, coffee shops and transportation hubs. According to the website Numbeo, which claims to be the largest database of user-contributed data about cities and countries worldwide, consumer prices including rent are around 35 percent lower in Taiwan than in the United States. And last year, US-based website Lifestyle9 ranked Taiwan as the world’s second-safest country for expatriates.

“Taiwan ought to be a digital nomad’s paradise,” waxes a May 2015 article ("10 great co-working spaces in Taiwan"on Tech in Asia, a site describing itself as “the online community for Asia’s technology and startup ecosystem.” The article praises Taiwan’s “ultra-efficient urban infrastructure, affordable prices ... and jaw-dropping Internet speeds.”

But according to digital nomad Greg Hung, Taiwan is often overlooked by roaming professionals. “I was fortunate in that I have Taiwanese friends in Vancouver. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have come here,” says the Canadian national, who decided to relocate to Taipei after visiting to attend a friend’s wedding. “The country is safe and affordable, and I wanted to learn Chinese while figuring out my business.”

(Click here for a videotaped discussion about Taipei between Hung and another digital nomad.)

Hung arrived in August 2013 and stayed for almost two years. He now lives in Chiang Mai, running various online businesses related to video. He films and licenses stock footage in addition to teaching video courses through platforms such as Udemy, an online learning marketplace. “Taiwan is well located, just a cheap flight from Japan, Korea, Singapore and Thailand,” he notes.

Not all facets of Taiwanese society are accommodating to this modern nomadic lifestyle, however. Hung says he was discouraged by certain aspects of Taiwan’s work culture. “It’s still very traditional in that people are expected to work for companies,” he states. “I was asked so many times what I do, and when I explained I’m an Internet entrepreneur, even younger Taiwanese didn’t really get it.”

He says one of the main problems faced by digital nomads coming to Taiwan is that renting apartments, particular on a short-term basis, can be quite inconvenient. “In Chiang Mai, it’s easy to get a one-month rental contract,” he notes. “Also, Taiwan is generally more expensive than Thailand, and the digital nomad community is very small.”

According to the website Nomad List, typical living expenses for a digital nomad in Chiang Mai are US$510 per month. The same website gives a figure of US$1,282 per month for Taipei, US$760 for the central city of Taichung, and US$455 for Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan. On his website Chicvoyage Travel, Hung says a digital nomad in Taipei who is single can live quite comfortably on US$1,070 per month...

The photo was supplied by and shows Ian Serlin, an American digital nomad who recently spent time in Taipei with his girlfriend. Serlin's comments can be found in the second half of this longish article, which can be read in its entirety here.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Bit of Hawaii in the West Pacific (Travel in Taiwan)

With a population of just 107,000, Taitung City doesn’t come close to being a major urban settlement. But it’s an excellent base from which to explore the east coast and the East Rift Valley.

Key to Taitung’s appeal - and one reason why this part of Taiwan is sometimes compared to multiracial Hawaii - is its unique blend of people. In addition to substantial numbers of Minnanren (Taiwanese whose ancestors moved to the island from China’s Fujian province two or three centuries ago), Waishangren (individuals who arrived from China since World War II and their children) and Hakka (many of whose forefathers came from Guangdong province), one in five city residents is a member of an indigenous Austronesian tribe. 

Taiwan’s government recognizes 16 aboriginal ethnic groups, but Taitung’s indigenous people are mostly Puyuma, Paiwan and Amis. Thanks to his musical achievements, one local Puyuma singer has won great fame: Kimbo. (This song is a paean to the community in which he grew up, and is accompanied by shots of Taitung's scenery.) 

Also known by his Chinese name Hu De-fu (胡德夫), Kimbo was born in 1950 to a Puyuma father and Paiwan mother. He is now an elder statesman in Taiwan’s music industry. An accomplished songwriter and pianist, he’s been credited with bringing aboriginal music to a wider audience, and has performed everything from traditional indigenous songs and Mandarin ballads to a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah...

One of two articles of mine in the new issue of Travel in Taiwan, this piece can be read in its entirety here. I took the photo above at the National Museum of Prehistory. We also visited the coast, a restaurant Kimbo helped start, and this church.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Holy Conflagrations: Boat Burnings at Taiwan’s King Boat Festival (Taiwan Business Topics)

For most of its history, Taiwan was a thoroughly pestilential place. In the 1700s, it was said that of every 10 Chinese migrants who reached the island, “Just three remain. Six are dead, and one has returned home” (三在六亡一回頭). Not until well into the Japanese colonial era was plague brought under control. In the late 1940s, cholera, scrub typhus, and bilharzia (a disease caused by parasitic worms) were still major health threats. Victory over malaria was finally declared in 1965.

Given the virulence of these ailments and the scientific ignorance of the island’s early settlers, it is hardly surprising that epidemics were blamed on malevolent spirits. Then as now, Taiwanese beseeched their gods for protection. Many people wore sachets of incense ash gathered from temples, similar to the amulets that now dangle from rearview mirrors in cars and trucks across Taiwan.

These notions and habits were carried to Taiwan by migrants from the China mainland. As Carol Ann Benedict explains in her book Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-century China (Stanford University Press, 1996), in southern China plague-god festivals “were periodically held in many communities as prophylactic measures against epidemics; similar rituals were held after an epidemic had broken out. Lasting about a week, the jiao (醮, sacrificial rites) included days of elaborate temple rites and liturgies, culminating in a large processional designed to expel all remaining plague demons and send the plague god back to heaven. This was done by placing the wenshen (瘟神, “epidemic gods”) on massive boats (wenchuan, 瘟船, “plague boats”) made of paper or grass that were then burnt or floated away.”

Some scholars think the discovery that fire is effective at destroying pathogens may be one inspiration for this custom, which could be 1,000 years old.

Within Taiwan, the term wangchuan (王船) is preferred to wenchuan. Two major ritual boat-burnings are celebrated each Year of the Goat, Year of the Dog, Year of the Ox, and Year of the Dragon – timing inspired by the triennial inspection tours made by mandarins in ancient China. The best known of these is the King Boat Festival (迎王平安祭) organized by Donglong Temple (東隆宮) in Pingtung County’s Donggang Township. As 2015 is the Year of the Goat, the King Boat Festival will run this year from October 4 to 11.

The other major ritual boat-burning ceremony is sometimes called Taiwan’s Foremost Offering of Incense (台灣第一香), and is centered on Qingan Temple (慶安宮) in Tainan City’s Xigang District. The 2015 edition was held May 28 to June 1.

Xigang is a nondescript town with a population of just 25,000. However, its wangchuan rites – first held in 1784 and now involving 96 villages – are said to be more faithful to tradition than the one in Donggang...

The entire article appears in the magazine's recent travel and culture special, and can be read online by clicking here. Both photos are mine, and were taken at the 2012 King Boat Festival.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Enjoying Taroko Gorge’s Fabled Beauty (Taiwan Business Topics)

The story of Taroko Gorge begins hundreds of millions of years ago with the accumulation of sediment and volcanic lava beneath what is now the Pacific Ocean. These materials blended with calcium carbonate from the bones of sea organisms and hardened into limestone. In due course, tectonic pressure compressed the limestone until it metamorphosed into marble, gneiss, and schist.

Approximately 6.5 million years ago, as the Philippine tectonic plate began sliding under the Eurasian plate, these layers of metamorphic rock emerged from the ocean. Rivers formed and began carving through the bedrock, creating the gully that eventually became Taiwan’s best-known natural attraction. This spectacular geological feature is thus far younger than the Grand Canyon, which scientists believe to be around 70 million years old.

Taroko’s cliffs, smoothed by grit-carrying water, are made up of white, cream, gray, silver, and beige boulders, some as big as vans. Yet if just one color is chosen to represent Taroko National Park, it should be green. Natural forests cover four-fifths of the park, with manmade woodlands bringing total tree cover to just over 90%.

Erosion continues to deepen the abyss, but because this region’s rate of tectonic uplift is one of the world’s highest – over 0.5 centimeters annually during the last glacial period, and up to 0.2 centimeters per year in recent millennia – the bottom of the ravine is still rising compared to sea level. (Some observers joke that this seems impossible, since Taroko Gorge gets so many visitors that the combined weight of tourists and their vehicles must surely be pushing the area down.)

Taroko National Park recorded 6.28 million visitors in 2014, a large proportion of them mainland Chinese on group tours. This total is sure to grow. As soon as improvements to the Suao-Hualien Highway are completed, probably by the end of 2017, the national park will become much more accessible for those coming from Taipei.

Managing the crowds is a serious challenge, admits Taroko National Park Director Yang Mo-lin, who took up the post earlier this year. “Visitor numbers have been increasing year by year, and this does cause congestion in certain places,” he says. “I’m often asked which part of Taroko is the most beautiful. Personally, I think every corner of the national park is worth visiting and savoring.”

Taroko National Park is triple the size of Taipei City. Yet within its 920 square kilometers, just three roads are open to the public: Highway 8, Highway 9, and Highway 14甲. The first is the Central Cross-Island Highway linking Lishan in Greater Taichung with Taiwan’s Pacific coast via the gorge. Only a short section of Highway 9 lies within the park; from it, tourists can appreciate the Qingshui Cliffs, which plunge dramatically to the ocean. Highway 14甲 enters the park’s southwest via Wushe and Qingjing Farm in Nantou County. At Wuling it reaches an altitude of 3,275 meters, making it the highest stretch of paved road on the island.

Tourists who venture no further than 50 meters from one of these highways, or who stick to one of the park’s several unrestricted trails, need not apply for any permits or pay any admission charges. This policy may change, however...

The rest of this article, which appears in Taiwan Business Topics special issue on travel and culture, can be read online here

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Taiwan’s Mountain Paradise for the Nature-minded (Taiwan Business Topics)

Fushan Botanical Garden (福山植物園) is located in New Taipei City’s Wulai District, 10km as the crow flies from the Atayal village of Fushan. There is no road – and no legal access for hikers – from Greater Taipei, so visitors must come through Yilan County’s Yuanshan Township. But inconvenience is not the only reason why far fewer people visit Fushan than Taipei’s lovely but invariably crowded botanical garden. Permission to enter must be sought well in advance, and no more than 500 people are allowed in each day (600 on weekends and holidays).

Because educating the public about ecology is central to the garden’s mission, admission is free. Multimedia presentations are made every half hour inside the garden’s Nature Center, which is on the right about 1km before the main parking lot.

Covering 410 hectares, Fushan Botanical Garden accounts for approximately a third of Fushan Experimental Forest, which straddles the boundary between New Taipei and Yilan at elevations of 600 to 1,400 meters. The annual average temperature is 18.5 degrees Celsius, compared to 22 degrees Celsius in downtown Taipei. Annual average rainfall is 4,125 millimeters, about 40% more than in the capital. At 94.1%, Fushan’s annual average relative humidity is also considerably higher than Taipei’s.

The garden is not a reserve in the sense of aiming to absolutely minimize humanity’s impact on natural ecosystems. That is the goal of another part of Fushan Experimental Forest, the 333-hectare Hapen Nature Reserve to the immediate south of the garden. The northernmost segment of the forest is the 356-hectare Water Source Reserve, most of which is broad-leaf forest. Both reserves are strictly off-limits to the public.

Before the 1895-1945 Japanese colonization period, this area was inhabited by members of the Atayal indigenous tribe. Hapen Creek, a stream which flows through all three parts of the experimental forest, takes its name from a long-abandoned aboriginal settlement called Hbun. These days, the nearest permanent human residents are a handful of Hakka farming households at Shuanglianpi (雙連埤), more than five kilometers away. In good weather, the 17.2-hectare body of water after which the settlement is named is strikingly beautiful.

That is a big if, however. Fushan itself gets rain around 270 days per year, and fog is extremely common. Visitors should bring umbrellas or rainproof jackets, even if Taipei and Yilan City are bone dry.

The actual garden is divided into four zones, and it makes sense to explore them in the following order: Natural Classroom, Tree Exhibition, Forest Discovery, and Plants and Human Life.

The route outlined in the English-language section of the garden’s website is 3.01km long. Good footwear is essential as the pathways are mostly gravel, and the boardwalk beside the Aquatic Plants Pond can get slippery.

The pond is artificial but filled with life. Egrets and grey herons prey upon finger-length Candidia barbatus, an endemic minnow species. There are also turtles and frogs. One of the latter, Babina adenopleura, is found only in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. During its March-to-August breeding season, the “ji-ji-ji” calls of male Babina adenopleura are especially audible, although the frogs themselves are hard to spot.

In total, 515 plant species belonging to 329 genera and 124 families thrive in the garden. There are some useful information boards around the garden; all are reproduced on the garden’s website. However, the labels in front of individual trees and plants provide the scientific and Chinese names only. Unless you carry a field guide, you may well find yourself googling names on your smartphone to find out more. Cellphone reception is serviceable in most of the garden.

Visitors familiar with Taiwan’s low-elevation mountain areas may well recognize one plant before they see any labels. What Taiwanese call “biting people cat” (咬人貓, Urtica thunbergiana) is a nettle whose sting is rightly feared. Not many city-dwellers know it can be cooked and eaten in soups.

The garden has few notably tall trees, because those that grow above the canopy are often blown over during typhoons. Unlike some other managed woodlands in Taiwan, fallen trees at Fushan are moved only if they block a pathway. The damp climate means the risk of forest fire is minimal, and rotting lumber plays an important role in arboreal ecosystems. Various creatures hide from predators or shelter from the sun inside dead trees. Beetles, spiders, and worms move and feed within the decaying wood. Most of the logs on the ground at Fushan host fungi.

Several of the species here have medicinal functions, including Mahonia japonica, sometimes called Japanese Holly-Grape. Scientific and common names notwithstanding, this perennial woody evergreen is native to Taiwan rather than Japan. It bears fruit that are no more than one centimeter in length and full of seeds, but quite edible raw or cooked. The seeds can be used to decoct a febrifuge – a substance that reduces fevers – while the roots and stems are said to have anti-rheumatic, detoxifying, and expectorant powers.

Standing out like a sore thumb – or in this case a sick tree – is a mature specimen of Prunus zippeliana. Most of its bark has come off, leaving the trunk and main branches a patchwork of ochre and clay brown, which is likely why this evergreen’s Chinese name is 黃土樹, “yellow-soil tree.” This sloughing is in fact proof of good health, an entirely normal mechanism to shed borers and parasites...

This is one of three articles I have in this year's Taiwan Business Topics Travel and Culture special issue. To see the entire article, click here. I took both of the photos during my visit to the garden earlier this year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Taipei - Rich, Fresh Diversity (Le Pan)

Among Greater China metropolises, Taipei has a unique history, and this has created a culinary scene of exceptional richness. Early migrants from Fujian adapted their cooking traditions to the wild game and seafood they found in abundance. Indigenous Austronesians and Hakka clans still live on the fringes of this city of 2.7 million, and present their ethnic cuisines in scores of restaurants.

Japanese dishes began appearing in homes and restaurants soon after Tokyo seized control of Taiwan in 1895. Japanese rule ended in 1945 - but you might not think so, given the ubiquity of sushi and miso soup, plus an enduring love for sashimi.

A second influx occurred just after World War II. Following his defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek set up a Nationalist government in-exile in Taipei. His followers included foodies from every part of the Chinese mainland, and within a decade the city boasted excellent Shanghainese, Hunanese and Szechuan eateries.

By the 1970s, Taipei was a key player in the global economy. But rather than business visitors, the key demographic nowadays for international restaurants are Taiwanese whose tastes have been shaped by travel or study overseas. For quite some time, Taipei folk have not lived by rice alone.

Even now, many Taipei housewives still shop at traditional markets four or five mornings per week, and the expectation that all ingredients are ultra-fresh influences how restaurants present their offerings. Glass tanks filled with fish and crustaceans are a feature of seafood establishments throughout the region, but in Taiwan similar thinking is also found in many places where beef is served. Look carefully, and you will likely see a notice stating the number of hours from slaughter to table.

Considering at least a tenth of Taiwan’s population eschews bovine meat for semi-religious reasons, the popularity of one dish in particular is striking. Among Taipei residents, few issues are more contentious than the question of which eatery serves the finest beef noodles, and the city government organizes an annual festival. Few people blog so frequently and passionately about food as the citizens of Taipei, and online appraisals of beef-noodle restaurants judge dishes not only by the quality of the meat and the taste of the soup, but also by the freshness of the scallions and mung-bean sprouts, and the presence or absence of garlic, tomatoes, hot bean paste (doubanjiang, 豆瓣醬) and star anise. Brisket is the usual cut, but there are some who favor tendon or shank.

Hot pot is another type of meal with a massive and devoted following. Herbal-medicine and mala (numbingly spicy, 麻辣) broths are perennial favorites, but restaurants here offer at least a dozen variations on the theme, including pots which incorporate milk, yoghurt, Korean kimchi, or lemongrass and other Thai ingredients.

The arrival post-1945 of people with roots in northern China manifests itself in the range of wheat-flour foods available on every thoroughfare...

Le Pan (The Art of Fine Wine Living) is a new online and print publication focusing on gourmet food and top-notch wine in East Asia. My article is part of Le Pan's 'Culinary Capitals' series, which to date has also covered Tokyo, Singapore, Barcelona, Rome and other international cities. I took both photos in Addiction Aquatic Development, where Japanese cuisine is served in a seafood-market setting.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A trip to Poland

Just before the summer I spent a week in Poland on assignment for a media company which promotes the country as a tourist and investment destination. It wasn't a junket in the traditional sense; I wasn't part of a group led from place to place while being kept well fed and watered. Instead, several months back I was asked to devise an itinerary which interested me. The company checked and amended it, so it didn't overlap with the plans of other writers they've invited to Poland. (To date, more than two dozen have taken part in this programme, from as far afield as Brazil and Japan). Once the plan was hammered out, I flew in and travelled around by myself, spending one night in Warsaw, three in Krakow and two in Zakopane.

Within hours of my arrival I was impressed by Poland as a vacation destination. Everything seems well organised and most people under the age of 40 speak English well. Prices are far more reasonable than those in the UK. Accommodation is significantly cheaper than in Taiwan (I'd say 30 to 60% less pricey, depending on the place). Public transport is a little more expensive, yet still excellent value compared to the UK. Eating out wasn't ruinous. And as you might expect in Eastern Europe, alcohol was pretty cheap.

In Warsaw (which I wasn't writing about) I stayed less than 100m from where I took the photo, top left. The shorter, older skyscraper is the Stalin-funded 1950s Palace of Culture. I explored Warsaw's old city, which was rebuilt from scratch after World War II, and spent a morning in the engrossing yet sobering Warsaw Uprising Museum. 

Then it was off to Krakow, which is to Poland what Tainan is to Taiwan – a former capital (between the 11th and 16th centuries) and still a centre of arts, scholarship and culture. Like Tainan it has an abundance of antique buildings, but quite unlike Tainan – where architectural treasures are somewhat scattered – these are clustered in a distinct 'old town' in the heart of the urban area. The Historic Centre of Krakow is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site which rewards patient, random exploration. While in the city I made two excursions beyond the old heart of Krakow: One to the old Jewish quarter, and another to Benedictine Abbey of Tyniec (pictured above). The latter involved taking trams to the edge of the city, then hiking upstream along the Vistula River for around two hours. But the exertion was certainly worth it: The views along the river and from the abbey once you're there are lovely.

Zakopane (final image) struck me as a Polish version of Alishan: A mountain resort that in itself is a bit tacky and suffering from piecemeal over-development, but which is surrounded by impressive mountains. Like many Taiwanese tourist towns, it even has an 'old street' which isn't especially old, but which is a good place to watch people and find something to eat. For me, the highlight was undoubtedly the opportunity to do some short hikes, through temperate forests and up on to nearby ridges from where I could enjoy the scenery. I'd love to go back to Poland!