Sunday, June 19, 2016

Books: Taiwan 101, volumes 1 and 2

The name Richard Saunders is well known among Westerners living in Taiwan, especially those who're into hiking. A classical musician by training, Saunders has spent much of the past 23 years exploring the island. No foreigners, and probably no more than a few dozen Taiwanese, know the hills and trails of north Taiwan better than he does. He’s shared his knowledge in a series of books, and has just published a new two-volume guide called Taiwan 101. The first volume covers Taiwan’s north and east, and contains background chapters on the country’s history and culture. The second focuses on destinations in central and southern Taiwan, plus outlying islands like Matsu. The books together have 101 chapters; the actual number of attractions featured is well over 500. GPS coordinates are provided for each place.

If you’re outside Taiwan, getting ahold of these books isn’t easy; contacting the Taipei Hikers group which Richard founded is perhaps your best best. For interviews with Richard, click here or here. For a very useful review of the book by a Taipei-based blogger, follow this link.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

National 2-28 Memorial Park

Ererba (二二八, “two, two, eight”) was “the darkest page in [Taiwan's] modern history,” according to this recent article by Linda van der Horst in The Diplomat. What's known in English as the February 28 Incident actually began on February 27, 1947 when a widow selling contraband cigarettes in central Taipei was accosted by government agents. When bystanders came to her aid, a shot was fired and a man died. Van der Horst's description of what followed is succinct and fair: 'That unleashed the wrath of the Taiwanese, who were unhappy with widespread suppression by and malfeasance of the newly arrived KMT rulers. Chiang Kai-shek launched a crackdown on February 28, 1947 that lasted for weeks and saw up to 28,000 civilian casualties (although the official number has not been confirmed). The [massacres were] the prelude to the era of White Terror from 1949 until martial law lifted in 1987, when dissidents and intellectuals were imprisoned or executed to assert KMT rule over the island.'

As news of the shooting on February 27 spread, government offices in various parts of Taiwan were attacked and ransacked. Mainland Chinese civilians, who were easy to pick out because of their different accents, were assaulted and in some cases murdered. With the local KMT-installed leaders set back on their heels, Taiwanese professionals in urban areas saw an opportunity to express grievances and demand reforms. However, as soon as Nationalist reinforcements arrived, Chiang's regime gave no quarter. In the wake of the incident, up to 80% of city- and county-level elites 'disappeared from the political field' (to use the words of a report produced for the government-backed 2-28 Memorial Foundation). In the years that followed, around 140,000 people were detained, and some were imprisoned for more than two decades.

Repression was especially bad in and around Chiayi, so it's hardly surprising the city was chosen as the site of the National 2-28 Memorial Park (二二八國家紀念公園). Its suburban location means few outsiders come here, but the site at Liucuo (劉厝, spelled Liutso on information panels inside the park) was chosen for a reason. Atrocities took place here in early March 1947 after Nationalist forces holed up inside the nearby air base (nowadays Chiayi's dual-use military-civilian facility) received information that anti-government rebels were hiding in the community. At least 300 people died during several days of violence.

While the park, which was dedicated in late 2011, isn't as educational as the well-known 2-28 museum in Taipei, it is a worthy monument to those who died. The profiles of notable victims, such as renowned painter Chen Cheng-po (陳澄波; monument pictured above), make for sobering reading. 

The park, which is located between Dafu Road (大富路) and Dagui Road (大貴路), never closes. The indoor exhibitions area is open Wednesday to Sunday, 9:30am to 4:30pm. According to Google Maps, it's 3.6km from Chiayi TRA Station and 13.4km from Chiayi HSR Station. If you're coming from the latter, you may as well also visit the National Palace Museum Southern Branch.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

How to eat like a local in Tainan on

This post is the better part of two years old, but thanks to the unchanging nature of Tainan, still extremely useful. And as we've come to expect from Synapticism, the photos accompanying the text (which includes Chinese script and hanyu pinyin pronunciation guides) are lovely; the one above features an eatery inside the downtown's old fabric market. I wrote about some of that neighbourhood's culinary highlights in this January 2015 article

Monday, May 16, 2016

Taipei: The Bradt e-Guide

Visiting Taipei for business or pleasure, yet lacking the time to go down island or explore the east? In that case, you might not bother to pack a guidebook which covers all of Taiwan. For the sake of such travellers, Bradt has extracted the Taipei chapter from my guidebook and repackaged it as a city guide. It's available only in electronic formats; unlike the full Taiwan guide, there's no print edition. 

The Taipei e-Guide can be ordered direct from Bradt, and should be available via Amazon any day now.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Walking tours in Tainan

There’s nothing like being shown around by someone who both speaks your language well, and knows the area like the back of his or her hand. But even in Taiwan, where locals often go out of their way to greet and help visitors from afar, you’re unlikely to meet such a person by chance. Fortunately for tourists, walking tours are catching on. One organization which has taken it upon itself to organize regular pedestrian excursions is My Tainan Tour, backed by Tainan City Government. 

For more than two centuries until the 1880s, Tainan served as Taiwan’s administrative capital. It retains a stupendous density of historical and cultural attractions: When Tainan natives say, ‘there's a major temple every five steps, a minor shrine every three,’ they’re hardly exaggerating. 

My Tainan Tour currently offers two walks. The ‘Classic Tour’ takes explorers to the city’s sublime Confucius Temple, what’s now the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, and then the Altar of Heaven (aka Tiantan), a lively place of worship. The fourth and final stops represent, respectively, the Qing era and the Japanese period. The former is the early 19th-century Wu Garden. The latter is Hayashi Department Store. An always-bustling emporium which exudes traditional Japanese refinement, it has three features probably no other department store in the world can boast - an elevator with a mosaic floor, a restored rooftop Shinto shrine [shown above] and scars from World War II air raids.

The 'Local Life Tour' is less concerned with relics and more with how Tainan folk go about their lives. It's a stroll through a cluster of narrow thoroughfares around 700m northwest of Hayashi Department Store. The most famous of these is Shennong Street, much-loved and -photographed on account of its antique appearance. Largely intact traditional two-story houses with tiled roofs and wooden upper floors line both sides of the street.

Both tours last around two hours, depending on how fast you walk, how many questions you ask, and how many detours you make. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

National Palace Museum Southern Branch

The most important and expensive museum project for a long time - certainly since the National Museum of Taiwan History - the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院南部院區) finally opened its doors to the public a few days before the end of last year. I say ‘finally’ because the opening came several years later than originally scheduled. Among the various delays and controversies which dogged the project was the first architect quitting back several years ago.

Some have questioned the purpose of the museum, which according to Taiwan’s Executive Yuan (Cabinet Office) is to be ‘a world-class museum of Asian art and culture’. Famously, the NPM in Taipei has far more artefacts than it can display at any one time, but rather than provide additional exhibition space so more of these treasures can be shown to the public, the Southern Branch casts its net far beyond Greater China. A few people have wondered if this policy was part of efforts by President Chen Shui-bian (who gave the museum the green light in 2001) to water down Taiwan’s Han Chinese heritage, and thus build a distinctive and pro-independence Taiwanese identity. If this was the case, it’s surprising this aspect of the project wasn’t modified by President Ma Ying-jeou well before opening.

Daily visitor numbers are being capped, and reservations must be made in advance via the museum’s website, so getting into the Southern Branch isn’t easy. But thanks to my reporting background, I managed to jump the queue and pay a visit.

I took the high-speed railway to Chiayi because Chiayi HSR Station is much nearer to the museum in Taibao City (嘉義縣太保市, a city with a mere 37,200 inhabitants!) than Chiayi’s conventional train station. Rather than walk 4.6km on a damp day, I hopped aboard a minibus which stops at the museum before proceeding to Zhecheng Cultural Park (蔗埕文化園區), which is better known as Suantou Sugar Factory (蒜頭糖廠). There’s a bus every half hour (adults pay NT$24 one way). I was the only passenger.

The museum bus stop is 530m from the entrance, and none of the car parks are significantly closer, so visitors get a good look at the 70ha grounds before stepping inside. At the time of my visit, after some heavy rain, there seemed to be as much mud as grass. But I’m sure, within a few years when the trees have grown, these parklands will look marvelous.

In terms of providing barrier-free access for the elderly, pregnant and disabled, Taiwan is doing much better than a decade ago. I was pleased to see, at the visitors centre near the bus stop, golf carts available to take people to the door of the museum (NT$50 per person). At the same spot, bicycles can be rented (NT$100 for the whole day).

Opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and getting into the museum costs most people NT$250. Until June 30 this year, residents of Yunlin and Chiayi counties and Tainan and Chiayi cities can get in for free, so long as they’ve made a reservation and they’re ROC citizens. Like the NPM in Taipei, the Southern Branch of the NPM is one of a handful of institutions which doesn’t believe in extending to tax-paying foreign residents of Taiwan the same benefits given to local citizens. Disappointing…

So is the museum worth the time and trouble? Externally, it’s striking but far from beautiful. I agree with those who’ve compare it to a giant black slug. It doesn’t come close to the Lanyang Museum, the landmark which made architect Kris Yao (姚仁喜) justly famous.

And inside? The Southern Branch has five permanent exhibitions, among them a multimedia gallery where three videos introducing Asian art play in rotation. As far as I could tell, none of the three has English subtitles. There’s also a brief and mostly monolingual look at the history of Chiayi. This focuses on folk beliefs, and displays some original documents relating to the suppression of Lin Shuang-wen’s rebellion.

Far better, in my opinion, are the sections on tea culture in East Asia, and on Buddhist artefacts drawn from the NPM’s collection. In the former I learned that steeping tea leaves in hot water is a relatively modern method of preparing the drink. The highlight of the latter is a kangyur (a compilation of Buddha’s sayings) in Tibetan script created for the Emperor Kangxi in 1669. Although the individual pages are quite plain, the boards made to protect and separate parts of the canon are quite fabulous, and made me think of the illuminated manuscripts drawn by Christian monks in medieval Europe.

Of the temporary exhibitions, one greatly impressed me: Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection will be here until October 12 this year. Among the dozens of items were lustrous tea cups, spittoons, Quran stands, and other prized exhibits fashioned from nephrite or jadeite. Several of the non-Chinese pieces are inlaid with precious stones or gold thread.

Jade art is often thought of as quintessentially Chinese, but here were exquisite objets d’art from Mughal India or the westernmost provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the former were gifted to Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796), who believed these imports were better than any produced by Chinese artists.

For me, the Southern Branch’s lack of paintings and other two-dimensional arts makes it currently less interesting than its big sister in Taipei. I’ll be back, no doubt, but not very soon.

(The photo is taken from the museum's Chinese-language Wikipedia page.)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mihu Trail near Alishan

The Alishan area has an abundance of short but exceptionally pleasant hiking paths. One I hadn't tackled until recently – but which I'll be adding to the guidebook next time around – is the 2.3km-long Mihu Trail (迷糊步道), not far from the indigenous village of Dabang (達邦) and the Hakka hamlet of Dinghu (頂湖).
Most tourists arrive by car or motorcycle, and park at km66.4 on Highway 18. There are toilets here, but none along the path. The trail follows the Miyang Creek as it plunges toward the Zengwen River (曾文溪), but for the most part you hear rather than see the waters. The path is is well designed and well maintained. The concrete steps have been textured to resemble timber; there are wooden railings where necessary, as well as thatched pavilions where visitors can rest in the shade. In fact, thanks to the trees and bamboo, hikers are seldom exposed to direct sunlight. It's really worthwhile scanning the forest, and not only for the numerous birds that can be spotted. We saw lizards, and this bug, which reminded me of a moose...
Just be careful of the 'biting cat' nettles! At the end of the trail, you have three options. Like most people, we climbed back up to the car park at km66.4. If we'd had more time, and someone to pick us up there, we would've continued along the 1.88km-long Fushan Historic Trail (福山古道) to the village it's named after, and then to km68.6 on Highway 18. Alternatively, one could tramp along Road 169 to Dabang, from where a few buses each day head to Chiayi City. That would be time consuming, but very scenic.