Monday, August 31, 2009

Kinmen: Photos by Craig Ferguson

[Top] Shanhou Folk Culture Village, a set of 109-year-old buildings.
[Middle] Kinmen is full of distinctive Fujianese-style houses.
[Below] A watchtower. Cold War-era military installations across both the main island and Little Kinmen are a major attraction for some visitors.

All of the photos by kind permission of Craig Ferguson, a photographer based in Taipei. More of his photos can be seen at - and he can be contacted via - his website.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Visiting Taiwan after Typhoon Morakot

Here's the complete text of an article I wrote last week for Taiwan Today, a central government website, about the impact of Typhoon Morakot on tourism.

"Within hours of the Jinshuai Hotel toppling into the raging waters of the Zhiben River in southeast Taiwan Aug. 9, footage of the six-story building’s spectacular demise had been seen by millions of people in Asia, North America and Europe.

The clip is unlikely to bring tourists flocking to Taiwan, and in the wake of Typhoon Morakot—the calamity that led to more than 200 confirmed deaths as well as the hotel’s collapse—the island's travel industry faces serious problems.

Reuters reported Aug. 14 that the tourism sector would see total losses of NT$4.5 billion because several of Taiwan’s finest tourism assets have been put out of action or rendered inaccessible.

The historic narrow-gauge railroad that links the lowland city of Chiayi with the mountain resort of Alishan will not be fully operational for two years, Taiwan's Chinese-language media has reported. However, the main road to the resort should reopen by Sept. 20.

According to officials in Yushan National Park’s Conservation Department, all of the roads approaching Jade Mountain—Northeast Asia’s highest peak and a finalist in the competition to select the world's new seven natural wonders—are closed due to typhoon damage, and repair schedules have yet to be confirmed. “It might take a while,” they warned.

Rangers have yet to assess the state of the park’s many hiking trails and refuges, the officials said.

The Southern Cross-Island Highway, which runs through the southern part of the national park, has suffered massive damage. It’s one of Taiwan’s most scenic mountain roads and a favorite with independent travelers who rent cars or motorcycles, but park officials said “it may take months [to complete] reconstruction.”

Fortunately a great deal remains intact. The northern half of Taiwan—including the capital, Taipei, and its world-class National Palace Museum—was unscathed. Sun Moon Lake, Taroko National Park and the historic town of Lugang are all open for business as usual.

ROC Tourism Bureau Director-General Lai Seh-jen announced Aug. 17 that, in a bid to limit cancellations, the bureau is circulating a list of unaffected tourist attractions to overseas travel agents.

Tour operators stress that even in southern Taiwan, damage to road and rail networks should not cause too much inconvenience.

"Green Island is in pristine condition because the muddy downflow of rivers doesn’t get there and the island itself has no rivers,” said Eddie Viljoen, director of sales for Green Island Adventures, a Taichung-based company that provides travel packages to several destinations around the ROC, including Green Island, 33 kilometers east of Taitung.

"Water visibility is still at least 25 meters for scuba diving and snorkeling. And there’s an added advantage right now—there are fewer people around than is usual in the summer peak season,” said Viljoen, acknowledging the typhoon’s impact on visitor numbers.

Within days of the typhoon cutting the Kaohsiung-Taitung rail link, daily domestic flights between the two cities—suspended since 2001—were resumed. From Taitung it is a 12-minute flight to Green Island.

Viljoen is not the only person seeing a post-typhoon dip in business.

"The only guest we had between Aug. 7 [the day before the typhoon arrived] and Aug. 18 was a reporter,” said Lai Chi-ming, the co-owner of Haugau Homestay near Meinong, a town 40 kilometers northeast of downtown Kaohsiung that suffered no significant damage.

"For summertime that’s unbelievable,” remarked Lai, who said that 95 percent of his guests are Taiwanese.

"We were fully booked for the weekend of Aug. 15-16, but everyone canceled. Most said it was because of road conditions, although there are no problems between here and the freeway. A few people saw TV reports about Kaohsiung’s water-supply problems and were worried they wouldn’t be able to take a bath,” he explained.

Despite extensive coverage of the disaster in the international media, inbound tourism appears to be holding up better than the domestic market.

"Nobody has canceled from any of our tours to Taiwan because of the typhoon,” said Phil Colley, founder of The Oriental Caravan, a U.K. company that specializes in tours of East Asia. "None of our clients have expressed concerns about the safety of traveling in Taiwan. We’ve had a couple of inquiries about how the damage caused by the typhoon might affect our route and the itinerary.”

"From initial reports it seems most of the areas and facilities covered by our tour have not been seriously affected by the typhoon and so we have not as yet had to change the itinerary,” he said. “Taiwan is pretty new to our portfolio. We led our first tour in March of this year and have one full and one almost-full group for October and November respectively.”

The ROC is not the only country to have seen its tourist trade affected by extreme weather.

"A number of countries around the world face the prospect of being affected by natural phenomena–hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern U.S. states, for instance, or typhoons in Asia. This is an unfortunate fact of life, of which most intelligent travelers will be aware,” said Geoff Saltmarsh, managing director of the Saltmarsh Partnership Ltd., a public relations firm contracted to represent the ROC Tourism Bureau in the United Kingdom.

"Responsible tourism authorities acknowledge the fact within their tourism information to allow potential visitors to make their own decisions. For example, the Taiwan website refers to the possibility of typhoons in the June to August period and advises visitors to monitor weather reports,” he said.

Saying he does not expect any negative long-term impact on Taiwan’s tourism industry as a result of Typhoon Morakot, Saltmarsh added: “A number of U.K. tour operators have told us that their forward bookings for Taiwan are showing an increase from last year.”

The article was originally published here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What you'd be missing if you came to Taiwan now

[Top] A flock of birds on the South Cross-Island Highway. The western section of the road was trashed by Morakot and will be closed for months.
[Middle] An early-morning 'sea of clouds' seen from the highest stretch of the same road.
[Below] Tackling the whitewater in Namasiya Township, an aboriginal district in Kaohsiung that was decimated by the typhoon. Landslides have changed the river completely - it's now shallow where it used to be deep, straight where it used to twist, and treacherous where it was once fairly safe.
All three of these photos were taken by Richard Matheson, a Canadian photographer I've worked with many times.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Know your traditions: Votive currency

Each year in Taiwan believers burn tens of thousands of tons of votive currency - also known as joss paper, spirit money or ghost money - during temple rituals, funeral rites and to mark important periods like Ghost Month (the seventh month on the lunar calendar). In the old days this money was made of rice straw; now it's conventional paper. There are different kinds of currency for different occasions and to benefit different recipients (gods, ghosts or ancestors), hence the different images and characters on the notes.

Ghost money is seldom sacrificed by itself; usually it's offered as part of a rite involving offerings of food and soft drinks (sometimes rice wine, too) and praying while holding incense sticks.

Ghost-money burning is a health hazard for people living in built-up areas. Even if it wasn't, it's so unpleasant many foreigners visiting Taiwan wish the custom could be taxed or somehow abolished. Some major temples have abolished the practice, or moved the actual burning to alternative locations where people are less likely to be affected.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Know your gods: Mazu

Taiwan’s most prominent diety, Mazu (媽祖) is said to have been born Lim Vo’g Niu (林默孃; in Mandarin, Lin Mo-niang) in Meizhou, a fishing community in Fujian, on the 23rd day of the third lunar month in 960. By the time she was in her early teens she had an excellent grasp of Buddhist and Confucian texts; she used her powers to heal the sick and exorcise evil spirits (often the same thing in those days).

Her most famous achievement came at the age of 16 when her father and brothers, then far away on a fishing expedition, were caught in a tremendous storm. She slipped into a trance just as the storm was at its fiercest. After she regained consciousness her father and brothers returned home safely, swearing that Mazu had projected herself out into the ocean to save them. (An alternative version has it that she saved her brothers, but because she was disturbed during her trance she let go of her father who then drowned; yet another legend says she swam out to sea to search for her father, drowned and was washed away in the Matsu Islands). She was revered as a rainmaker and also persuaded two mischief-making demons to ‘go straight’ and become her servants. Altars dedicated to Mazu are very often flanked by human-sized statues of these two: Shunfenger (‘ears that hear the wind’) and Qianliyan (‘eyes that see a thousand leagues’).

At the age of 26 she told her family she was going to leave this world. After climbing a nearby mountain, she ascended to the heavens. Fujianese migrants sailing to Taiwan very often carried effigies of Mazu with them to ensure a safe crossing. Both Koxinga and Shi Lang brought icons with them. Over time, Mazu has become much more than the patron saint of seafarers. Nowadays many Taiwanese who venture nowhere near the ocean seek her blessings in times of plenty and her aid in times of distress. Her eminence is made clear by one of her alternative names: the Queen of Heaven. Many of the 800-plus shrines dedicated to her around the ROC are called ‘Queen of Heaven’ temples, often romanised as 'Tianhougong' (天后宮).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Typhoon season


If you want to visit Taiwan, try to avoid August. It's peak typhoon month. There's the tail end of one blowing through the island as I type. Typhoon Morakot has killed hundreds of people here, it seems. In the south schools and businesses closed down for three or even four days, starting August 7.

During a typhoon, no one in their right mind goes to the beach, the mountains or the forests. When a typhoon comes, don't think you can simply shift to another part of Taiwan to avoid it. Often - as throughout the past weekend - almost all public transport shuts down, and the entire island is battered by dangerously strong winds and heavy downpours. There's nothing to do but sit it out.

Exactly fifty years ago, typhoon-related flooding in central Taiwan killed 667 people.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The temple town of Beigang

Two photos from our recent excursion to Beigang in Yunlin County, which is between Chiayi and Taichung. The town is home to - you could say it revolves around - a famous Mazu shrine, the Chaotian Temple (北港朝天宫). The photo below shows a votive bell shaped like an axe.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Festivals in Taiwan

This article I wrote for the government's Taiwan Review looks at three of the island's major festivals: the Songjiang Battle Array in Kaohsiung County, Hsinchu City's Glass Art Street Carnival and the Mid-Summer Ghost Festival in Keelung.