Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Beginner’s Guide to Taiwanese Opera (Les Isles)

No interpreter is needed to enjoy Taiwan’s gorgeous mountain scenery, and the island’s culinary delights excite the palate even if you can’t speak a word of Mandarin. Getting to grips with Taiwanese opera is far trickier, however — and not just because it’s performed entirely in the local language known as Minnanhua or Taiwanese.

Like the better-known Beijing form, much of the movement in Taiwanese opera is symbolic, rather than realistic. The audience is expected to understand that a performer wringing his hands is expressing anxiety, for instance, and that hands clasped behind one’s back indicates
bravery. Operas are performed to the accompaniment of traditional instruments, such as three-stringed banjos, four-stringed lutes, and bamboo flutes. Gongs and drums punctuate dialog and provide cacophonous backing for the sessions of acrobatics that represent combat.

In 21st-century Taiwan, Beijing opera is confined to a handful of high-brow venues. By contrast, Taiwanese opera can be found in temple forecourts and small-town parking lots. Those who travel around Taiwan may well stumble across a Taiwanese opera in full swing, part of the celebrations for a deity’s birthday.

Shrine performances are often low-budget affairs...

Les Isles is the relaunched inflight magazine of UNI Air. The complete article (which is pretty short) can be read online here.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Neiwan Branch Line: Riding Back in Time by Train (Travel in Taiwan)

The first time I experienced the Neiwan Branch Railway was on another assignment for Travel in Taiwan, nearly twenty years ago. I thereafter rode the train to Neiwan once more, but that was long before the line’s closure, renovation and reopening in late 2011. So when the magazine asked me if I’d like to go back, my eagerness to see if the area had changed spurred immediate acceptance.

Even better, the editor wanted me to write something about downtown Hsinchu (新竹), one of my favorite Taiwanese cities. Hsinchu is usually thought of as a citadel of high-tech industry, which it is. But it also has some of the island’s finest traditional architecture, as well as a catalog of tasty local delicacies every bit as good as Tainan’s

On a glorious sunny day, with an unusual spring in my step, I walked from Hsinchu High-Speed Railway Station to the adjacent Liujia Station, which is operated by Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA). The construction of Liujia Station and 3.1km of new tracks was a key reason for overhauling the Neiwan Line. Commuters can now get from the HSR stop to the heart of Hsinchu in just 19 minutes.

Before boarding the dian-che (電車, “electric car”) to Hsinchu, I bought a one-day, jump-on/jump-off ticket valid for both the Neiwan and Liujia lines. These passes (which cost NT$95 for adults, NT$50 for kids and senior citizens) can also be purchased at Hsinchu TRA Station and some other stations, including Taipei. Sightseers heading straight to Neiwan should get off at the next station, Zhuzhong (竹中), and make sure they wait on the right platform. If you’re heading into the city from Liujia, as I was, there’s never any need to change trains.

Assuming you’ve come from Taipei (no more than 35 minutes by HSR) or Taichung (even quicker), and the Neiwan Branch Line is your main objective, you’ll probably not want to spend more than a couple of hours in the city. Fortunately, a bunch of interesting sights are within 15 minutes walk of the TRA station. I made a beeline for the City God Temple (aka Du Chenghuang Temple, 都城隍廟). The obvious route to this perpetually bustling place of worship takes you right past Yingxi Old East Gate (迎曦東門城). The gate is all that remains of the protective wall that once surrounded Hsinchu...

The complete article is in the November-December issue of Travel in Taiwan.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Blogging for the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area

This year I've been traveling frequently to the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung to write about places and attractions chosen by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration. Perhaps my favorite has been the bicycle trail between Yuli and Fuli, but Ruisui (the first time I rode an electric scooter) was also fun, and I'm always happy to write about Japan's architectural legacy in Taiwan. All of these articles, and several more about the East Rift Valley, are on my Bradt Taiwan blog.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Laksa Origin Debate, Borneo Edition (Roads and Kingdoms)

I had done a bit of research about Sarawak laksa before arriving. Not that I was any the wiser. Depending on who you believe, the most authentic pastes have 20, 30, 36 or even more components, among them garlic and lemongrass, as well as various spices.

It’s often said the first laksa vendor in Sarawak—a Malaysian state on the northwest coast of Borneo—was a Cantonese man who moved to Kuching from Indonesia at the end of World War II. He gave or sold his recipe to a Cantonese lady, who may or may not have passed it to a Mr. Tan who, in the 1960s, made a fortune selling factory-made “Swallow” brand laksa paste. None of these creation myths mention the other forms of laksa eaten in Malaysia and Indonesia. Mr. Tan’s product—and those of the imitators which soon appeared (one called itself “Eagle,” another “Parrot”)—made preparing laksa at home a great deal quicker and less laborious. Inevitably, it was a huge hit among Sarawakians living far from their home state. 

I had done less research about politics. But it seems many in Sarawak are unhappy with their place in the Malaysian federation...

The published version of this article is quite a bit shorter than the piece I sent in. In the original I made some references to Taiwan, comparing its so-far frustrated efforts to ensure its autonomy/independence, to Sarawakian discontent with the political status quo in Malaysia. To read the complete published article, go here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Branching out by train (En Voyage)

Once you know a spine of lofty mountains runs almost the entire length of Taiwan, the island’s rail map makes complete sense. The busiest stretch of railroad runs from the northern port city of Keelung, through Taipei and then southward to the cities of Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung. Near Keelung, another line goes east en route for Hualien and Taitung. The rail system didn’t go all the way around the island until 1991, when the completion of 36 tunnels and 158 bridges in the space of 98km finally made it possible to ride a train from the southwest to the southeast.

Look more closely at a rail map of Taiwan, and you’ll notice that, while no railroads go across the middle of the island, a handful of branch lines do penetrate the interior. The best known of these is the narrow-gauge Alishan Forest Railway, which climbs from 30m above sea level in Chiayi City to an altitude of 2,216m. 

Taiwan’s other branch railways share the same gauge (1,067mm or 3 ft 6 in) and rolling stock as the main line. Instead of linking major urban areas, they provide access to more bucolic corners of Taiwan. Rather than carry commuters on weekdays, they shuttle sightseers from one quaint little town to another.

Business or family commitments keep many foreign visitors close to Taipei, so we’ll start in the north. From downtown Taipei, it’s possible to get to Ruifang – where the fun really starts – in around 45 minutes. There, travelers can buy a day-pass for the Pingxi Line and begin to explore.

This 12.9km-long spur was built so the area’s seams of coal could be more easily exploited. Mining dominated the local economy between 1918 and the 1980s. Since then, trains have transported tourists eager to view rugged landscapes, visit the impressive waterfall at Shifen, or launch sky lanterns at Pingxi (where I took the photo here). Painting your wishes on the side of a lantern (a wire frame covered with paper, and propelled upwards by the heat of the wick burning inside) then watching it float into the distance is very much the done thing.

If you’re the kind of person who’d rather not retrace his steps, take a bus from Shifen or Pingxi to Muzha near Taipei Zoo, then the metro back to your hotel. But if you still have a few hours of daylight, think about returning to Ruifang and jumping on a train to the end of the Shenao Line...

To read the complete article, get a copy of the August issue of En Voyage, EVA Air's inflight magazine.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Exploring Taiwan by Bus (Taiwan Business Topics)

Taiwan has more than 41,400 kilometers of freeways, expressways, highways, and urban and local roads. Despite the popularity of cars (ownership reached 322 vehicles per 1,000 people in 2014) and especially motorcycles (676 per 1,000 residents), much of Taiwan is served by regular public buses. For visitors and expatriates who find local driving styles unnerving, or who lack confidence when it comes to navigation, the bus network offers dozens of interesting options.

On commuter routes in Greater Taipei, buses do get crowded. Elsewhere, the chances you can snag a window seat to better enjoy the views are usually excellent. Each year, more and more buses display their destination in English as well as Chinese. All buses are air-conditioned; the prohibition on eating and drinking while aboard city buses in Taipei, Kaohsiung, and some other places does not apply on long-distance services. However, on some routes – notably the 6506 and 6739 – the vehicles are too small to have onboard restrooms. The 6506 also has the most expensive fare of the routes described in this article – NT$564 if you stay on from beginning to end.

It is possible to travel by bus from within 700 meters of Fugui Cape, Taiwan’s northernmost point, to 1 kilometer or so from the monument that marks the island’s southernmost point, near Eluanbi Lighthouse in Kenting National Park. With a bit of luck, the trip can be done in under nine hours with just three transfers.

North-south travel is a cinch, but those who hope to take a bus between Taiwan’s western plains and the east coast have very few options. On the western side of the Northern Cross-Island Highway (Highway 7), buses only go as far as Lower Baling. Each day, there are three services from Daxi, one from Taoyuan, and one from Zhongli. On the eastern side, Yilan-Lishan buses (two services per day in either direction) stop at Baitao Bridge, the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 7甲. The distance between Baling (a popular place for "herping") and Baitao Bridge is just over 39 kilometers, so walking from one to the other is hardly feasible, even though the scenery is excellent.

Until 1999’s 9-21 earthquake, buses plied the length of the Central Cross-Island Highway, from downtown Taichung to Lishan and through Taroko Gorge, terminating in Hualien City. The road has since been reopened – but only to private vehicles driven by residents of Lishan, and they are allowed to use it only at certain times each day.

Before Typhoon Morakot wrecked the road in the summer of 2009, a daily bus carried hikers from Tainan to Tianchi on the Southern Cross-Island Highway. From there, some walked or hitchhiked the 25 kilometers to the aboriginal community of Lidao, where they either stayed the night or boarded a bus to Taitung City.

Despite these natural disasters, visitors who have no interest in driving a rental car or hiring a car and driver can still enjoy Taiwan’s glorious alpine scenery. Parts of Yangmingshan, Shei-Pa, Taroko, and Yushan national parks can be reached by bus, as can Taiwan’s most famous high-altitude resort, Alishan...

The complete article is online, right here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Taitung by Train (Travel in Taiwan)

Sheltered from the busy, populous parts of Taiwan by massive mountain ranges, Taitung County is a charming rural part of the island where life is slower, the fields seem greener, the air fresher. This is a region where you want to slow down, rewind, take a deep breath, and regain your energy.

The East Rift Valley is one of Taiwan’s most important geographical features. Squeezed between the island’s mighty Central Mountain Range and the lower, yet still impressive, Coastal Mountain Range, the valley is also known as the Longitudinal Valley, or – because it sprawls across parts of Hualien and Taitung counties – the Huatung Valley. It’s around 150km long, but in places the hills on either side are no more than 4km apart.

Three rivers drain the valley. The Hualien River flows northward into the Pacific below the city of Hualien. To the south the Xiuguluan, Taiwan’s No. 1 whitewater-rafting venue, cuts eastward through the coastal mountains. The southward-flowing Beinan emerges from the Central Mountain Range and flows into the ocean on the north side of Taitung City. Thanks to plentiful water, agriculture thrives throughout this thinly-populated region and a great deal of rice is grown.

Because the only railroad between Hualien and Taitung is in the East Rift Valley (there’s no coastal line), the valley’s main attractions are accessible even to those who’ve no wish to rent a car or a motorcycle or take local buses. Careful planning is advisable, however, because Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) services are not so frequent here as in the crowded western half of Taiwan.

The TRA’s bilingual website is a good place to start. You can not only ascertain departure and journey times, destinations, and fare prices, but also pull up a complete list of trains stopping at a particular station.

A willingness to ride a bicycle will greatly expand your horizons – and there’s often no need to hire a set of wheels, because many hotels and B&Bs loan bikes to their guests.

In this article, we’ll look at attractions around six stations in the southern part of the East Rift Valley and further down to Taitung City and beyond, starting at Chishang, the most northerly station in Taitung County, and ending with Zhiben, which faces the Pacific Ocean. Zipping back and forth by train won’t cost you much; a one-way ticket between Chishang and Zhiben is never more than NT$122. Oftentimes it’s necessary to change trains in Taitung City, however, which is between 39 and 75 minutes from Chishang, and about 12 minutes from Zhiben.

Since the Japanese colonial period, the township of Chishang [where both of these photos were taken] has been renowned for the quality of its rice. If you stumble off the train feeling famished, within minutes you can be enjoying a meal including the flavorful local rice at Chishang Riceball Museum...

To read the complete article, get a copy of the July/August issue of Travel in Taiwan, or go to this webpage.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Herping and other Nocturnal Adventures in Taiwan’s Forests (Taiwan Business Topics)

When the temperature rises and rain falls, the life forms that inhabit Taiwan’s forests become more active. Some expatriates might loathe Taiwan’s sultry summers, but for snake aficionados Bill Murphy, Hans Breuer, and Dane Harris [pictured right, handling a snake], the season has definite advantages. All three spent many years in Taiwan before they began to appreciate the size and diversity of the island’s serpentine population.

“I’ve been interested in wildlife my whole life, ever since my grandmother used to explain the flora and fauna during hikes,” says Wisconsin-born Bill Murphy. “For the first decade I was in Taiwan, I’d occasionally see a snake, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them to the exclusion of other wildlife. Taiwan is an area of unusually fecund biodiversity. In the hills, I’ve come across flying squirrels, ferret badgers, pangolins, giant moths, glass lizards, rhinoceros beetles, barking deer, and Swinhoe’s pheasants.”

One day, Murphy was walking his dog, Ulysses, on Tiger Head Mountain in Taoyuan, the city where he has lived for most of the past quarter century. “I came across a large snake eating a toad. I had a video camera with me and recorded the incident,” recalls Murphy. He posted the video on a discussion website, where it caught the attention of Hans Breuer, a German then living near Sanzhi in New Taipei City.

“Hans asked me if I wanted to go out ‘herping’ with him some time. I’d never even heard the term before! He explained what it meant, and soon enough I joined him for a hike on a local hill, and then later we went road-cruising at night,” says Murphy. “A whole new world opened up for me!”
Unlike Murphy, Breuer was fascinated by snakes as a youngster. But, readily admitting to being the type of person who has “obsessions, not hobbies,” he says that his interest fell by the wayside when he discovered blues guitar at the age of 15.

The businessman, who first arrived in Taiwan in 1989, traces his adult mania for snakes to a revelatory experience a decade ago. “From 2000, I got into carnivorous pitcher plants. At one point, I had about 300 of them in my greenhouse. Then, in 2007, I went to Kuching [in Sarawak, Malaysia] to attend a pitcher-plant conference. While there, we went out to the jungle to see the plants in a natural setting.”

Breuer had never before seen pitcher plants in their natural habitat. “Seeing something in the wild, rather than a zoo or a greenhouse, is massively different,” he says. He got rid of his pitcher-plant collection and took up nature photography. Soon afterward, a professional herpetologist belonging to the same photography club invited Breuer to go out and look for snakes. His enthusiasm for serpents was immediately rekindled, and between 2007 and 2011, when he relocated to Kuching on a semi-permanent basis, Breuer went out herping up to five nights each week, often with his sons.

The best months for herping are May to late October, and not just because the temperatures are higher. Rain brings out insects, insects bring out frogs, and frogs bring out snakes. According to Breuer, damp ditches are especially good places to search for snakes.

Inside Yangmingshan National Park, Breuer was once confronted by a park ranger. “I managed to convince him I wasn’t catching snakes so I could sell them to collectors in Europe,” he remembers. On several occasions, he came across Taiwanese people catching snakes for profit. Breuer points out that when such people are asked about the size of snakes they have seen, the answer usually comes in terms of girth, not length, “because they see the snakes as food.”
The reaction of Taiwanese hikers to snakes sometimes dismays Breuer. “I remember one family who saw me photographing a snake. The mother screamed, and the father started looking around for a stick he could use against the snake. The teenage boy looked terrified, but his young sister showed curiosity rather than fear,” he says. After several such experiences, and seeing the strongly negative attitudes toward snakes in rural Sanzhi, he decided he should try to educate the next generation. By the time many Taiwanese reach their teens, he says, they have been “brainwashed” into fearing snakes.

Pitching his presentation as a safety lecture, he reached out to scores of schools and spoke to about 12,000 students before leaving for Malaysia. In a 90-minute program, he explained the role of snakes in forest ecosystems, then brought out a couple of non-venomous snakes which the youngsters were allowed to handle. “There’s no margin for error with potentially venomous snakes,” he stresses...

To read the complete article, go here. The photos above are courtesy of Dane Harris, Ryan Hevern and Hans Breuer. Murphy and Breuer's website Snakes of Taiwan is recommended.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Quoted in Taipei Times

Friend and noted explorer/blogger Richard Saunders asked me for my thoughts on Taiwan's wild hot springs, and the way they're often disfigured by hotels which pipe out the water for their own guests, or by visitors who 'modify' the work of Mother Nature. His article appeared in today's Taipei Times and can be read online here.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

KH Style

KH Style is the recently redesigned and relaunched bimonthly newsletter published by Kaohsiung City Government. For this issue, I edited articles on a vintage clothing store, a wetland popular with birdwatchers and a secondhand bookstore. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Island, the Harbor and the Bay (En Voyage)

Three very different places, each defined by water. Fisheries have made Donggang the busy town it is today. Dapeng Bay, one of Taiwan’s largest lagoons, is in fact saltier than the adjacent ocean. And 15km of brine separates Xiao Liuqiu, a 6.8km2 island inhabited by 12,400 people, from “mainland” Taiwan. All three are within striking distance of Kaohsiung, and very popular with day-trippers. But this trinity could easily fill a weekend, especially if you have an interest in ecology and a hankering for fresh seafood. 

Southwestern Taiwan is easy to get to, and easy to get around. The southern terminus of Freeway 3 is less than 1km east of Dapeng Bay, and frequent buses link Donggang with central Kaohsiung. Ferries from Donggang make the 30-minute crossing to Xiaoliuqiu several times a day, and once on the island it’s possible to rent a 50-cc scooter or electric bike.

For self-driving visitors, the bay makes a logical first stop. Half an hour for a leisurely circuit of the lagoon is probably enough, unless it’s dusk - an especially delightful time of day to be here - or one of your party is a birdwatcher. The six artificial wetlands which fringe the bay are avian magnets, especially during the winter. Fish farms left fallow draw Mallards, Black-crowned night herons and Black-winged stilts.

Dapeng Bay has emerged as one of Taiwan’s foremost watersports venues, and large yachts can access the lagoon and its marina thanks to Taiwan’s only folding vehicular bridge. If this sail-shaped, cable-stayed structure isn’t the bay’s most photographed feature, that badge surely goes to “oyster shell island” - the result of oyster farmers dumping unwanted shells at the same spot, year after year. Like an artificial reef, this  accumulation attracts and shelters fish.

And why the remarkable salinity? For most of the year, evaporation exceeds freshwater inflows. Also, because salt is heavier than water, it tends to sink and linger, rather than wash out through the bay's narrow mouth.

Visitors more interested in eating sea creatures than seeing them swim should head to Guangfu Road in downtown Donggang. Gourmets applaud the town’s “three culinary treasures” - bluefin tuna, sakura shrimp, and escolar roe. The availability of the first, which makes for divine sashimi, peaks in early summer. The second is usually served shallow fried and lightly seasoned on white rice. At its best, the third is truly symphonic. Eaten thinly sliced and cold, the roe abounds in subtle, almost cheese-like, tastes and textures.

The King Boat Festival is Donggang’s triennial media moment. The next edition of Taiwan’s most famous and spectacular ritual boat-burning is scheduled for October 2018. Expect dignified rites at several locations before a rough-and-tumble rush down to the beach where the climactic conflagration takes place. 

Travelers to Xiao Liuqiu board the ferry near Donggang’s Huaqiao Market, around which there are several seafood eateries, and disembark at Baisha’s little harbor. From there, it makes sense to move in an anti-clockwise direction, stopping first at the photogenic geological anomaly called “The Vase.” You’ll likely be tempted to wade out toward it, but do so only if you’ve something on your feet - shards of coral litter this and most of the island’s other beaches. 

As you work your way along Xiao Liuqiu’s north coast, and then around its southern end, explore every cave and trail you come across. Most attractions are free; one admission ticket covers them all. Place names like Mountain Pig Ditch and Black Ghost Cave obviously weren’t contrived to attract tourists, but each spot offers a good view, and sometimes also an intriguing backstory. The fewer the people, the better your chances of seeing crabs scuttle across the path. Look out to sea, especially late in the afternoon, as that’s when green loggerhead turtles come closest to the shore. 

Xiao Liuqiu’s oldest building overlooks Sanfu Fishing Harbor. The gorgeously delipidated Tai Mansion, which isn’t open to the public, dates from the 1820s. Formerly home to one of the island’s most prominent families, it’s said by some that when the harbor’s breakwater was built, the location’s fengshui was irrevocably disturbed, causing the family to scatter.

Continuing southwest, one comes to Geban Bay, also known as Venice Beach. This sublime cove appeals to both romantics and scientists. The former come for the sunset, the latter to marvel at foraminifera, five-pointed star-shaped shells of organisms less than 1mm across. (The local authorities forbid the collection foraminifera, other shells, pebbles or sand as souvenirs.)

Many sightseers treat Xiao Liuqiu as a full-bodied day excursion, but there’s a lot to be said for staying overnight. The most compelling reason is the chance to join an after-dark ecotour of the intertidal zone and see some of the hundreds of marine species recorded in the shallow waters. A knowledgeable guide will show you curiosities such as rock-boring urchins, ink-squirting sea hares, sea cucumbers, starfish, and bioluminescent plankton. 

Alternatively, bring your snorkel and roll out your beach blanket at any spot that looks inviting and safe. Just remember that the entire island is made of coral, which can be very sharp when it breaks, and that you shouldn’t touch any sea creatures. They won’t enjoy it, and if it’s a rock-boring urchin, neither will you.

Congestion and over-development have never blighted Xiao Liuqiu, and its tourism industry has always been driven by grassroots entrepreneurs. Overnighting on this gem of an islet is one of Taiwan’s finest slow-travel experiences.

This article appears in the print-only inflight magazine of EVA Air, May 2017 edition. The top picture was taken in Donggang's Donglong Temple, the house of worship which organizes the King Boat Festival. The lower picture shows Tai Mansion on Xiao Liuqiu.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The speed of government

Back in 2014, I noted that my letter of appointment to Kaohsiung City Government's Bilingual Living Environment Commission arrived in March, long after the appointment took effect. I've only just received the equivalent notification for 2017 (shown on the right). The letter is dated April 27, but again tells me my term as a commissioner runs from January 1, 2017 to December 31 (in 2018, as it happens - this time it's a two-year appointment). But it doesn't matter: The commission's mission is almost complete, and Kaohsiung can be proud of its provision of bilingual information. 

My other work for the city government is copy-editing for the Information Department. This is almost always interesting, as it brings to my attention interesting places which otherwise might never cross my radar.     

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Taking it easy in Taichung (En Voyage)

Quiz time: Which city is Taiwan’s second biggest? Most people would nominate the maritime metropolis of Kaohsiung, and by some criteria that’s a logical answer. However, Taichung not only already has more inhabitants than Taipei (2.77 million versus the capital’s 2.69 million), but is also expected to overtake Kaohsiung in terms of population within a few years. It’s time, perhaps, to stop thinking of central Taiwan’s economic and cultural powerhouse as the island’s “third city.”

Taichung has lots of people, and there’s a lot going on, but it also has plenty of space. Amid its 2,215 square kilometers, visitors can find dozens of spots where kicking back is the done thing. For the artistically-inclined, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts is a must-see. Except for special exhibitions, admission is free, and the third floor features works by Chen Cheng-po, Li Mei-shu, Richard Lin and other important Taiwanese artists. 

From the museum, a 15-minute walk along Linsen Road brings you to Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Center. The two buildings here formed part of a prison between 1937 and 1992 - yet they’re utterly gorgeous, and possibly the region’s finest relics of the 1895-1945 Japanese colonial period. The current name of this edifice honors the six disciplines Confucius regarded as essential to a good education.

Taichung’s other major exhibition space is quite different, and an especially good place to take children. In addition to geo-science and biology, you’ll learn about herbal medicine and Taiwan’s Austronesian indigenous minority. Make sure you’ve enough time for the adjacent botanical garden, the highlight of which is a soaring conservatory. The interior recreates a tropical rainforest ecosystem, complete with a waterfall and gurgling creek. 

Taichung City Government stitched together a number of green spaces to create the 3.6km-long Calligraphy Greenway, a broad strip of trees, grass and public art that links the two aforementioned museums. In the streets nearby, you’ll find many of Taichung’s best restaurants and most inviting coffee shops.

Because many Taiwanese are busy working or studying during the daytime, and few hope to acquire a suntan, you’ll see far more people in the city’s parklands after dusk than when the sun is shining. Public spaces bustle as late as ten o’clock in the evening, delighting visitors eager to make the absolute most of each day.

Anyone who goes to Fengle Sculpture Park expecting museum-style classicism is in for a shock...

To read the whole article, get a copy of the April issue of EVA Air's inflight magazine. The photo (which I took) shows Taichung Prefecture Hall.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Speeding Ahead (Taiwan Review)

When services launched January 5, 2007, the high-speed rail revolutionized travel between the north and south of Taiwan. Running at up to 300 kph, the bullet trains shortened the journey time between Taipei and Kaohsiung cities from roughly five hours to less than two.

As it enters its second decade of operations, the 350-km line can claim a host of achievements. The system has been expanded since its launch, now servicing 12 stations in northern Taiwan and along the heavily populated west of the country. Ridership increased from 30.58 million in 2008 to more than 50 million in 2015 and again in 2016. In December last year, it carried its 400 millionth passenger.

The high-speed rail is also noted for its service quality and reliability. Over the past decade, the system has maintained punctuality records in excess of 99 percent, while operator Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp. (THSRC) said that annual passenger surveys indicate satisfaction rates for equipment, ticketing and station facilities of above 90 percent.

To celebrate its 10-year anniversary, the company in January launched the Taiwan High Speed Rail Museum in the northern city of Taoyuan. Featuring 19 themed exhibitions, a driver’s cab simulator and interactive displays, the museum draws the curtain back on the line’s design and construction as well as its contributions to the development of the nation’s economy, tourism industry and transportation network.

Premier Lin Chuan said at the museum’s opening ceremony that the system is an outstanding example of public-private sector collaboration. “The success of the high-speed rail underscores the flexibility and management expertise of Taiwan companies, as well as the government’s commitment to supporting projects bolstering the nation’s industrial prowess.”

According to THSRC, it is the only company without railway construction or operational experience to have built a high-speed rail line, completing the world’s largest build-operate-transfer (BOT) project in six years while effectively controlling costs. As the bullet trains are based on those used in Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed rail network, THSRC employed dozens of foreign technicians and drivers in its early days. The company said it is working toward autonomy and localization of materials in terms of operations and maintenance, explaining that its goal is to fully master the technology and help raise the level of Taiwan’s railway industry. When passenger services began in 2007, the company’s workforce was around 3,100. This figure has since grown to more than 4,300 due to factors such as increasing passenger volumes and the opening of additional stations.

Yeh Kuang-shih (葉匡時), a professor at the Graduate Institute of Technology, Innovation and Intellectual Property Management at National Chengchi University in Taipei who served as minister of transportation and communications from 2013 to 2015, said that the system has delivered significant benefits since its launch. In particular, he noted that it has helped promote economic and social decentralization, encouraging more people to move to the northern cities of Taoyuan and Hsinchu as well as central Taiwan’s Taichung City. “It has also reduced traffic congestion, and thus pollution, in the western corridor,” Yeh added.

According to data presented at the High-Speed Rail and Sustainability Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley, in November 2012, between the line’s launch and 2011, the percentage of intercity journeys along the western corridor conducted using private cars decreased from 78 percent to 70 percent. In the same period, air travel fell from 3 percent of all journeys to a negligible amount. With regard to energy consumption per passenger-kilometer, the system uses a fraction less than the conventional trains operated by the Taiwan Railways Administration, barely one-third of that of buses, less than a quarter of that of cars, and an eighth of that of airplanes.

Initially spanning eight stations, the system has added four additional stops in the last two years. New stations opened in Miaoli, Changhua and Yunlin counties at the end of 2015...

The entire article can be read online, here. Both photos here were taken at Hsinchu HSR Station, and are courtesy of Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Chugging along the coast (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan is an island, but it’s easy to ignore the sea which surrounds it. Many visitors fly into Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and head first for Taipei. After taking a look at Sun Moon Lake, Alishan and Tainan, they may not glimpse the ocean until they reach Kaohsiung's Former British Consular Residence. A good number make sure their itinerary includes Kenting National Park and/or Taiwan’s gorgeous east coast, but it takes a special effort to see any of the west coast.

It can be done, however. And thanks to Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), there’s no need to rent a car. For over 100 years, the TRA has provided essential and inexpensive transportation throughout the island. The high-speed railway (HSR), launched in 2007, now handles a lot of north-south traffic, but tourists often use TRA services to get to places like Keelung and Hualien.  

Not all of the TRA expresses which zip north to south follow the same route. Just outside Zhunan in Miaoli County - an hour and a half down-island from Taipei - the main line bifurcates. One set of tracks takes a more direct southward route, through the booming metropolis of Taichung. Another less-traveled railroad follows Miaoli County’s coastline, and it’s to this area I was sent recently by Travel in Taiwan.

Whether you tour coastal Miaoli from north to south or the other way around may depend on what you have planned for the end of the day. Getting from Zhunan to Miaoli HSR Station (from where it’s 43 minutes to Taipei, and a mere 17 minutes to Taichung) is a cinch, thanks to regular TRA services to Fengfu (travel time: 10 minutes), the stop adjacent to the bullet-train station. But in this article we’re going south to north, because we like to begin with a full stomach. 

Yuanli (35 to 48 minutes from Zhunan, NT$61 to 85 one way) is an excellent place to enjoy the morning markets which are still a key feature in urban areas. Less than 100m from Yuanli’s railway station, a block bordered by Weigong Road, Tianxia Road and Datong Road is crammed full of vendors. Some sell vegetables, others sell fabrics. The range of hot and cold snacks is enticing. One especially popular option is the glutinous, pork-filled disks at Jinguang Meatballs (open daily 8 am to 9:30 pm).

In the days of yore, triangle-rush weaving underpinned Yuanli’s economy. The industry is celebrated at Triangle Rush Weaving Exhibition Hall, 5.5km southeast of the station. 

One stop and six minutes north of Yuanli lies Tongxiao. Stopping here is recommended, as both fresh-air freaks and history buffs can indulge their passions in Hutoushan Park. 

This isn’t the only place in Taiwan literally called “tiger’s head mountain.” There are others in Taoyuan, Nantou and Tainan - surprising when you consider that the sabre-toothed tigers which once roamed Taiwan were extinct long before humans settled the island. At Tongxiao’s Hutoushan, the reward/exertion ratio is very much in your favor. The top is just 700m from the railway station, and even if the weather isn’t absolutely clear, you’ll be able to see up and down the coast, and inland across foothills as far as the majestic peaks of Shei-Pa National Park.

First, you’ll see the remains of a Shinto shrine (pictured above) built in 1937 by the Japanese authorities then ruling Taiwan. After World War II it was preserved, but rededicated to heroes of the Nationalist Republic of China (ROC), the government which reclaimed Taiwan in 1945. Despite earthquake damage and modifications which reflect postwar political correctness (among them a Chinese Nationalist “white sun” emblem on the roof), it retains considerable elegance.

A little further up, what was once a military lookout post is now shaded by an immense concrete lotus. In Buddhism, the lotus flower is a symbol of purity, so this is perhaps an attempt to counter the site’s military atmosphere with peaceful sentiments.

At the very top of hill, there’s a monument which since 1945 has celebrated Taiwan’s return to the Chinese fold, but which was originally erected by the Japanese to mark a crucial moment in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. 

Getting to the next railway station takes just five minutes, but as the gap between services on this stretch of railroad often exceeds an hour, do carry with you a list of train times. These can be found on TRA’s bilingual website...

To read the full article, go here and scroll forward to page 57 of the electronic version of Travel in Taiwan's March-April issue.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Evolution of Wuling Farm (En Voyage)

People head to Wuling Farm to enjoy nature at its very best, but much of what makes this high-altitude retreat so alluring is the result of carefully thought-out human intervention. The farm occupies a valley deep in Taiwan’s mountainous interior. No part is lower than 1,740m above sea level, and from it hikers set off for the summit of Snow Mountain, which at 3,886m is the second-highest point on the island. 

Some of the scenes which greet visitors in 2017 are quite different to those of a generation or two ago. Just as the palisade from which Wall Street gets its name eventually disappeared, agriculture is no longer one of Wuling Farm’s main reasons for being. But before explaining why that change has occurred, we should outline the farm’s history.  

Members of the Atayal tribe, one of Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian ethnic groups, hunted and gathered here for centuries. The outside world finally arrived in the early 1960s when the valley was identified by the government as a place where some of the many thousands of servicemen who’d followed Chiang Kai-shek from mainland China in 1949 could be resettled.  These soldier-pioneers cultivated cabbages and built stone cottages. Several of the latter still stand, and it’s possible to arrange an overnight stay in one. Accommodation details and other useful information can be found on the farm’s bilingual website.

Around this time, the valley gained its current name. Wuling is the name of a place mentioned in Peach Blossom Spring, a prose work by Tao Yuanming, a poet who died almost 1,600 years ago. This classic of Chinese literature concerns a man who loses his way, follows a stream, and comes across a sublime grove of peach trees. Continuing onward, he discovers an idyllic yet secluded community. Receiving a warm welcome, he stays for several days. When he eventually returns home, he tells the local magistrate what he found, but despite the sending out of numerous search parties, no one is able to relocate the utopia. 

Taiwan’s Wuling, by contrast, is very easy to find. Motorists can approach via Hehuanshan (this stretch of road is the highest on the island, ascending to an altitude of 3,275m) or from Yilan in the northeast. Driving to the farm from Taipei takes just over three hours.

Soon after the farm was set up, the managers realized good profits could be made growing fruits which can’t thrive in Taiwan’s sultry lowlands. Apple, pear and - fulfilling a prophecy implied by the valley’s new name - peach orchards were established. Red and green maples were added to the landscape, as were Chinese cork oaks and sweetgums. Together with native Formosan Alders and walnuts, these trees offer fall visitors an astonishing range of yellows, oranges and reds. Those who arrive around the end of winter are treated to gorgeous displays of cherry and plum blossoms.

It’s still possible to buy locally grown fruit at Wuling Farm, but since 2003 many of the orchards have been replaced with stands of native trees. Shei-Pa National Park, which oversees the valley as well as pristine highlands to the north, south and west, is particularly keen to preserve species like the Taiwan red pine, the Taiwan Hemlock  and the Taiwan Douglas fir. Where fruits (and tea) are still grown, pesticides and artificial fertilizers are no longer used. 

Many of these changes have been made for the sake of a fish, and 2017 marks the centenary of its discovery by scientists. A hundred years ago, while visiting a police station in the area, an assistant to Japanese scientist Oshima Masamitsu was told that fish somewhat similar to trout could be found in several high-altitude streams in this part of Taiwan. With the help of some Atayal – who called the species bunban or kulubang – the assistant obtained a salted tail of one fish.

After further research, in 1919 Oshima published a description of the fish scientists now call Oncorhynchus formosanus. The second part of the name, you’ll likely guess, derives from Formosa, the name by which Taiwan was known in the Western world between the 16th century and the mid-20th century. In terms of appearance and habits, Oncorhynchus formosanus isn’t exceptional. They seldom live more than four years, and few are longer than 40 cm. The mere fact they’re endemic - meaning they’re found nowhere else on Earth - isn’t really that special. Of Taiwan’s 220 freshwater fish species, 36 are unique to the island. 

What’s commonly called the Formosan landlocked salmon isn’t just rare, but also the world’s southernmost salmon species, and the one surviving at the highest altitude. For these reasons, both scientists and the Taiwanese public regard it as extraordinarily precious. Its status as a national icon was cemented in 2002 when it appeared on Taiwan’s new 2,000-dollar bills.

What makes this type of salmon landlocked isn’t a lack of access to the sea, as you might assume, but rather the species’ intolerance of warm water. Its eggs cannot hatch if the water’s temperature goes much above 12 degrees Celsius, and mature fish begin to suffer from fungi and bacteria when temperatures top 17 degrees Celsius. 

Official efforts to bolster the Formosan landlocked salmon date from the 1980s, by which time the population in the wild had fallen below 300. Formerly abundant in six tributaries of the Upper Dajia River, which drains into the Taiwan Strait 67 km west of Wuling Farm, the salmon now thrives only in Qijiawan Creek (pictured here). 

This stream, 15.3 km long and never more than 12m wide, is one of the valley’s scenic focal points. Whether you pause at the road bridge near the entrance to the farm, or the crossing which leads to Taoshan Waterfall (three hours’ walking will get you there and back), you’ll likely find this waterway so attractive you’ll loathe to tear yourself away.

The weirs which once punctuated the Qijiawan are gradually disappearing. One was destroyed by a typhoon, but five others were removed by the national park after scientists concluded they were made the stream run slower (and thus warmer), and impeded the salmons’ breeding. Thanks to these and other measures, the wild salmon population has recovered to over 3,000. Live, artificially hatched salmon are on display in the Taiwan Salmon Eco Center (which has more than one English name, and is closed on Mondays), as are Taiwan shovel-jaw carp, another species which makes its home in the creek.

A few salmon and carp fall victim to the valley’s Tawny fish owls. This bird, Taiwan’s largest owl, isn’t seen nearly as often as the local population of Taiwan partridges, Brown dippers, and Plumbeous redstarts.

Just as the valley has rare fish and unusual birds, it also boasts a stunning range of flowers. More than 270 species have been recorded, and March is said to be when the farm’s wildflowers are at their best. This coincides with the fruit-tree blossoms. Those who come a little later in the year will be treated to exuberant rhododendrons, while after late July golden needle flowers (also known as day lilies) are a highlight. There are no bad times to visit Wuling Farm - only bad times to forget your camera!

Because En Voyage is currently a print-only publication, I've posted the entire article.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Tainan, original Taiwan

This is the cover of an eight-page booklet recently published by Tainan City Government's Tourism Bureau, for which I wrote the text (just a few hundred words) late last year. The tricky part was conveying so much information (for instance, that Tainan's history includes Austronesian, Dutch, Qing and Japanese episodes) in so few words. I enjoy this kind of challenge, and have written quite a few tourism-related advertisements in recent years. It's quite different to writing advertorials, as the latter are very like feature articles, except you're required - to quote the song - to "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative... latch on to the affirmative." 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Hubs of Collaboration (Taiwan Review)

The number of people in Taiwan who work remotely for major employers is minuscule compared to the US or the UK, but the country does have a growing cohort of freelancers and self-employed specialists who see no reason to rent or equip a conventional office. Many of the latter work from home, but some take advantage of a type of establishment that did not exist before the internet age: the co-working space.

Unlike in conventional offices, those who toil in co-working spaces seldom share employers or even similar goals. They also have very different reasons for paying the membership fees that entitle them to sit there all day—and maybe all night—making the most of the ultrafast Wi-Fi.
Some do it because they find the atmosphere motivational. “Seeing other people working hard helps me concentrate on what I need to do,” said Marvin Kuo, a software coder and regular at Tsohuespace in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City. “If I stayed at home, I’d waste half the day watching movies.”

Freelancers whose home environment is conducive to productivity are sometimes attracted to co-working spaces because they want to clearly separate their work from their free time. Still others hope to network with people whose skills complement their own. This kind of cross-pollination is one of the goals of SD Coworking Plaza in Taipei City.

The facility currently has 10 regular users, and three or four others who come occasionally. “We’ve financial specialists, bloggers, programmers, a manga artist, startup owners and e-traders,” said Tsai Yi-ting, one of the three co-owners. “We aim to increase the variety of our co-workers to make cooperation and creativity among members more likely.”

SD Coworking Plaza is accessible to members 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also offers ergonomic work chairs, unlimited coffee and tea, a microwave and oven, as well as lockers and an en suite room that members can rent when they need to stay overnight. “We’ve invested around NT$2 million [US$62,895], but we feel it’s worth it when our members say, ‘This is the kind of place we dreamed about for so long,’” Tsai said.

Like their counterparts at SD, the founders of Happen in central Taiwan’s Taichung City [where the photo above was taken] wanted to create a platform that could encourage collaboration. “Happen is a space where people can exchange ideas and professional skills,” explained Sandra Chan, project manager at the establishment.

Founded in November 2013, the co-working space occupies the first and second floors of a 70-year-old house in the heart of the municipality. “As well as gadgets like a printer and scanner, we have a shared kitchen so people can prepare their own drinks and snacks, a tatami area where they can take a nap, and shower facilities,” Chan said. Tatami is a type of Japanese-style straw mat. According to Chan, satisfying the legal and licensing requirements for co-working spaces was not difficult. “We’re treated the same way as rented offices, coffee shops and event venues. We’ve passed the fire safety inspection, and we have insurance.”

Afternoons are when Happen is busiest, but it is possible to buy a “workaholic” membership, which allows access 24/7. Conventional members are restricted to Happen’s regular hours of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday. “We’ve had 82 co-worker members since we opened,” the project manager said. “Most of them are doing design or engineering work, or programming or online marketing.”

Recently, Happen has been collaborating with the Taichung City Government to assist startups. “We’ve expanded our business model to include projects that focus on local culture, and to incubate startups,” Chan said. “We’ve incubated 25 teams over the last two years. Most of them are businesses focused on local culture, or social innovators.”

In Kaohsiung, the local government has played a more direct role in the establishment of co-working facilities, overseeing the transformation of an abandoned public retail market into a base for entrepreneurship and innovation called Digital Art Kaohsiung United Office (DAKUO)...

This article appeared in the January-February issue of Taiwan Review, which is now a bimonthly rather than monthly publication. The whole piece can be read online here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fungus Among Us – The History of Mushrooms in Taiwan (Taiwan Business Topics)

We eat too much of what is bad for us, experts say, and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. But one positive trend is visible in some parts of the world: People are eating more mushrooms than they did a generation or two ago. That is good news from a nutrition perspective because many types of mushroom contain vitamins (especially B1, B2, B3, and B6) as well as iron, selenium, and other minerals. They are rich in antioxidants that can survive cooking, and there is some evidence mushrooms have cancer-fighting properties.

Global mushroom cultivation grew tenfold between 1981 and 2002. Since the mid-1960s, annual per capita mushroom consumption in the United States has risen from 0.7 lbs to 3.7 lbs. In recent years, fresh mushrooms account for three quarters of this total. Precise data on mushroom consumption in Taiwan is hard to find, but anecdotal evidence points to a steady increase. Edible fungi find their way into hot pots, stir fries, and soups, as well as the “mock meats” eaten in vegetarian restaurants.

In Taiwan, the systematic cultivation of fungi dates back over a hundred years, with many of the original techniques introduced by the Japanese during the 1895-1945 colonial period. However, the industry did not properly take off until the late 1950s, after domestic shortages prompted the U.S.-ROC Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR) to expand local mushroom production.

Early trials were conducted in mountainous areas such as Xibao (915 meters above sea level, and now within Taroko National Park), but very soon farmers in the west-central region came to dominate production. According to a report prepared for the Federal Reserve’s Division of International Finance, the American economic aid program (USAID) provided US$82,574 to help develop sanitary harvesting and canning practices, as well as for the construction of processing facilities. The return on this investment was fantastic. “Taiwan first began to export canned and bottled mushrooms on a regular commercial basis in 1960,” states the report. “By 1963, Taiwan had become the world’s foremost exporter of mushrooms…supplying one-third of the total amount of mushrooms imported by all countries.”

About 80% of the canned mushrooms sold in the United States in 1963-64 were from Taiwan. Annual exports of canned mushrooms peaked in 1978 at US$120 million, before Chinese and South Korean growers ate into Taiwan’s share of the global market.

In 2013, the Council of Agriculture’s Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) estimated that the industry’s annual sales had reached US$295 million. In recent years, fungus farmers have been shipping around 140,000 metric tons of produce annually to domestic and overseas buyers. Relatively few farms now concentrate on the species that kick-started the boom – the humble Agaricus bisporus, also known variously as the common white mushroom, button mushroom, or champignon mushroom.

Frank Tai and his cousin Chu Rui-Jong are second-generation mushroom farmers in Taichung City’s Wufeng District. Both men grew up helping their parents cultivate button mushrooms, which Taiwanese often call “Western mushrooms” (yang gu, 洋菇).

“Wufeng has the right conditions for successful mushroom farming,” says Chu. “Northern Taiwan is too humid and the south is too warm, but the Taichung area is ideal.” Local weather patterns no longer matter much, however, as both men’s operations are now more like food factories than traditional farms. Growing the mushrooms indoors enables them to fully control temperature and other factors.

Their families, and hundreds of others, have benefited from the presence in Wufeng of TARI’s Edible and Medicinal Mushroom Laboratory. Among the laboratory’s many contributions are introducing the king oyster mushroom (xing bao gu, 杏鲍菇) – currently one of Chu’s principal crops – to Taiwan from France and devising ways in which this unusually sensitive fungus can be protected from micro-organisms.

Tai, who was born in 1970, graduated from Soochow University’s Department of Microbiology, choosing this major knowing he would eventually manage the Tai Mushroom Farm, currently Taiwan’s number-one producer of enoki mushrooms (jin zhen gu, 金针菇). He also grows shiitake (xiang gu, 香菇) and shimeji (liu song gu, 柳松菇) mushrooms. Until it was overtaken by growers in China, the Tai Mushroom Farm was regarded as Asia’s largest in terms of output...

This is the second of our articles in the Wine & Dine 2017 special issue. To read all of it, go here. To see the first (on guabao), follow this link. I took the photo at Wufeng Story House, near Frank Tai and Chu Rui-Jong's mushroom farms.