Thursday, December 23, 2010

Slow train to the high-speed rail station

Tainan's high-speed railway (HSR) station has an absurdly remote location southeast of the city centre. Getting to it is now easier, at least, thanks to the brand-new conventional branch railway that links Shalun (site of the HSR outpost), central Tainan and some nearby towns. Trains leave Tainan TRA Station bound for Shalun about every half hour between 05.53 and 23.18. Journey time is 23 minutes, so it's significantly quicker than the shuttle buses that link parts of the city with the HSR station. One-way fare is a bargain NT$25.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fresh facts I: Orchid Island

The first time Orchid Island (also known as Lanyu) appeared on a map was 1626, when it was included in a Spanish chart of the Philippines and its surrounding seas. Not until 1878 was it shown on Chinese maps, and when the Qing Dynasty ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895, the latter weren't sure of the island's status. Negotiations with the Spanish - rulers of the Philippines between 1565 and 1898 - confirmed that Orchid Island belonged to Taiwan.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wenshan Hot Springs to reopen

Last month I interviewed by email Yu Teng-lang (游登良), director of Taroko National Park Headquarters, for this article in the International Herald Tribune. Yu he told me something that will delight fans of natural, open-air spas: Wenshan Hot Springs, closed following a fatal rockslide in 2005, will reopen mid-2011.

In the past few years, a steady stream of people have climbed over the gate and bathed, official closure notwithstanding. In Taiwan, wide gaps like this between official status and reality aren't unusual.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Notable Taiwanese living in the UK

Unlike the US, Canada or Japan, the UK doesn't have a substantial Taiwanese community. However, at least three Taiwanese living in Britain have made a splash in their fields. They are:

Ching-He Huang (b1978, 黃瀞億) is a food writer who's gone on to present TV cookery shows. At age five her family emigrated to South Africa; six years later they moved to the UK. I interviewed her by email for this article.

Hsiao-Hung Pai (b1968, 白曉紅) is a campaigning journalist who has written for The Guardian and various other publications. I interviewed her and wrote about her first book, Chinese Whispers, for Taiwan Today, an English-language government website.

Richard Lin (1933-2012, 林壽宇) is best known for his modernist painting, one of which was sold by Sotherbys in 2008 for GBP34,850. Since the 1980s he's devoted himself to sculpture and spent more time in Taiwan than the UK. He first travelled to the UK in 1954 to study architecture and art, and then spent decades in London. He's a descendant of the rich and once-powerful Lin family of Wufeng, Taichung.

Although she's now based in Macau, Chu Mei-feng (b1966, 璩美鳳) - who lived for a time in London - is also worth mentioning. I'm guessing this former politician relocated to the UK to find peace and obscurity, having acquired more than enough fame and notoriety in Taiwan as a result of one of the country's most spectacular sex scandals.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Crystal bracelets

To a Westerner, the idea that certain crystals have special properties sounds distinctly New Age. In Taiwan, it's widely accepted that a bracelet made of clear crystal can boost the wearer’s powers of concentration and memorization; that turquoise helps one recover from surgery; and that yellow crystal attracts unearned wealth (such as lottery winnings) while also protecting the lungs (it's popular with smokers as a result).

Rose quartz is a love stone. If worn as part of a bracelet, it indicates the wearer is searching for love. Presenting a piece of rose quartz to a member of the opposite sex is a declaration of affection. A rose quartz sphere placed in the matrimonial bedroom should enhance a couple's sex life. Topaz is said to bring you love and happiness, and help you avoid accidents (fires in particular). Lapis lazuli is often given to children as it's believed to aid their all-round development, while amethyst is thought to confer wisdom.

Crystal bracelets are sold in night markets, in and near temples and online. They're seldom expensive but if you're not a gemologist, it's hard to know exactly what you're being offered.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Local elections

Local elections were held yesterday in the five special municipalities that together account for about half of the ROC's population. Of the directly-elected mayoral posts, the ruling Kuomintang held three by small margins, while the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party easily won the two southern municipalities of Tainan and Kaohsiung. For details see this report.

People planning to visit Taiwan needn't worry about political strife or election violence (though there was a shooting on Friday evening). However, quite a few people - locals as well as expatriates - get sick of the constant fireworks and noisy parades that cruise the streets in the days ahead of voting.

In the weeks ahead of any Taiwan election, colourful thickets of election banners like those pictured here appear beside every main road. A lot of these flags are recycled by farmers who use them as scarecrows. Thanks to Rich J. Matheson for the photo.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Taiwan's newest national park

Taijiang National Park, the newest of Taiwan's eight national parks, has finally got its own website, almost a year after it was established.

The park is an odd shape. In addition to segments of dry land, river estuaries and wetlands northwest of Tainan's city centre, it includes a large rectangular section of the Taiwan Strait that goes as far west as the southeastern tip of Penghu County.

The beaches around here aren't Taiwan's best. Nonetheless, the park draws at least two kinds of tourist: birdwatchers (many of whom come especially to see the black-faced spoonbill); and folk who want to visit sites associated with Koxinga or the now-defunct salt industry.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Betel nut and the young ladies who sell it

A lot of people are suspicious of the Want China Times, a new Taiwan-based English-language online newspaper, because its owners make no secret of their pro-Beijing sympathies. However, it's political reporting is no more biased than that in other Taiwan newspapers, and they do run some interesting features - such as one a few days back about betel-nut beauties, the skimpily-dressed young women who sell betel nut (and cigarettes, mineral water and soft drinks - but not sex, as some tourists assume) from roadside kiosks. Even if there's no girl inside, these stands are hard to miss. Like the one pictured here, they're always brightly lit and often garishly decorated.

The article mentions one strip of highway in Yilan County as being especially famous for betel-nut beauties, but they're not difficult to find in the western and southern lowlands. If you're travelling along any major road, keep your eyes open.

Tobie Openshaw, a South African photographer living in Taipei, has made a name for himself with his portraits of these ladies; the two photos here are his. This video segment is an especially good introduction to betel nut girls.

According to one source, Taiwan is the world's second-largest producer of betel nut (檳榔), production having increased from 3,718 tonnes in 1961 to 165,076 tonnes in 2001. Only India grows more. In addition to the land given over to betel nut palms, quite many farmers earn a living growing piper betle leaves.

The effects of betel nut on the chewer's long-term health have been thoroughly researched. More information and links can be found here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Books: Chingchuan Story

You're unlikely to find Chingchuan Story outside Taiwan, and even on the island it isn't widely available. This is a pity, because it's an easy-to-read, engaging portrait of life in an aboriginal village.

The author, Barry Martinson, is a Jesuit missionary who has lived and worked in and around Chingchuan (nowadays often spelled Qingquan) in Hsinchu County since 1976. His writing style is unadorned and his anecdotes are arranged in short chapters. These cover his efforts to preserve Atayal culture as well as promote Catholicism. He doesn't shy away from unsavoury aspects of indigenous life (such as alcoholism), nor is he afraid of recalling episodes when he made a fool of himself.

One of the most memorable chapters deals with hunting and traditional cuisine. In it, he admits he has never been able to eat flying squirrel (now a protected species):

"Perhaps this has something to do with its preparation. The flying squirrel is seldom cooked. It is salted and placed in cooked rice for several days. Then it is eaten, by hand, straight from the soggy rice."

Later in the same chapter he relates another rodent-eating experience:

"I remember when Youmin and his family were cooking large field mice by placing them over the fire for a few minutes until their hair was charred off. Youmin broke off the feet and tails and tossed them to his little children to gnaw on. Then he slit open a mouse intestine and squeezed the contents onto a spoon [saying the Atayal regard it as a traditional medicine]. Reluctantly I tried it. It was over two weeks before I could get that taste out of my mouth."

For details of how to obtain this book or others by the same author, go to the publisher's website.

To read Martinson's article about Chingchuan's most famous former resident, the warlord-general Zhang Xueliang (Chang Hsueh-liang), go here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Know your traditions: Donating money for temple decoration

All of Taiwan's temples are privately funded, and many of the most famous ones are seriously wealthy. The pious, especially those who feel their prayers have been answered, donate cash or gold. Whenever a temple is redecorated or rebuilt, devotees are encouraged to pay for individual carvings or paintings. Some of these features are mass-produced, amateurish or slapdash, but many others are superb pieces of art. The donor's name is usually added to the finished piece.

Visitors to Chiayi's Cheng Huang Temple – the busiest place of worship in that city of 274,000 – will see, near the main entrance, two large panels on which are inscribed the names of those who funded the shrine's 1990 renovation. The list features nearly 3,000 names, arranged according to how much they gave. The majority forked out what must have been at least a week’s earnings.

I took these photos in a typical backstreet temple in Tainan. They show fresh wall engravings, together with red squares of paper showing who paid for them, and how much they paid. The one at the top was donated by two people surnamed Chen (the most common family name in Taiwan, incidentally). The lower picture was endowed by a person surnamed Lu. In both cases, the amount donated was NTD8,000 (about GBP160 or US$260).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Read extracts online

If you're curious about my new guidebook, click here and you can browse the contents thanks to Google Books. Text and maps are visible, but if you want to see the colour photos inside, you'll have to lay your hands on a print copy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Taipei's Museum of Drinking Water

The Museum of Drinking Water (台北自來水博物館) is one of Taipei's smaller museums. For many visitors, the attraction is not so much the information it contains about how the city was supplied with water and how that water was made fit for human consumption as the building itself. A superb Baroque structure that dates from 1908, it's one of the finest architectural legacies of the Japanese colonial era.

Taiwan's government classified the building as a national relic in 1993, several years after the pumping station inside had ceased operation. Much of the original equipment (see below) remains in place, although it's been repainted and polished up. The arc-shaped main building (see top left), which has small bronze domes at either end, was designed by Japanese architect Nomura Ichiro (野村一郎), the man also responsible for what is now National Taiwan Museum.

The station was planned by William K. Burton (1856-1899), an Edinburgh-born, Cambridge-educated engineer who worked for the Japanese colonial authorities. He risked disease and banditry in his effort to identify sources of clean water in the hills near Taipei. The dysentery and malaria he contracted in Taiwan also certainly shortened his life. Burton also planned another superb Japanese-era edifice which, unfortunately, is not open to the public: The Old Tainan Watercourse in Shanshang.

The museum is open 09.00-18.00 Tue-Sun. During the summer, opening hours are often extended. Admission, which is NTD80/60/40, also gains you access to a small network of trails and an open-air display of pipes and other water-distribution equipment. Of the latter, the most interesting is a heavy-duty pipe bucked by the September 21 Earthquake.

The museum can be reached by rapid-transit train. From Gongguan MRT Station on the Xindian Line, take exit 4, turn left at Siyuan Street and then walk a few minutes towards Tingzhou Street. Note these directions down before you set out as within the MRT station there's no English-language sign pointing the way.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Two butterflies and a temple doorway...

There's no particular point to this post, just a photo of mine which I happen to like a lot. It shows two butterflies seemingly coupling (the process can take an hour or more) outside Zhen Fushe (鎮福社) a tiny and beautifully decrepit old shrine in Kaohsiung's Zuoying district. The temple has long been closed to the public.

Zhen Fushe is a stone's throw from the 18th-century walls of Fengshan and within walking distance of the Kaohsiung Museum of Military Dependents Villages.

Taiwan's English-language newspapers

For decades, Taiwan had two English-language newspapers, the China Post and China News. Both were pro-Chinese Nationalist (KMT), as was all media until political liberalisation kicked in in the late 1980s. In 1999, the China News was bought by a local conglomerate, renamed Taiwan News, and changed its political orientation. In the same year, Taipei Times - now Taiwan's best and most popular English-language newspaper - was launched. Taipei Times has always expressed 'Taiwan First' viewpoints and so is close to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

For a decade, these three titles served a tiny pool of readers. They've suffered, like newspapers around the world, from the rise of the Internet and shrinking advertising revenues. It's no surprise that one of them has just gone under. Taiwan News recently scaled down their print operation to the point you're very unlikely to find a copy; they've revamped their website but it's slow and useless. The print edition of the China Post, which remains pro-KMT, is still available islandwide. Sometimes it carries worthwhile reports on local events. Taipei Times is the English-language newspaper you're most likely to come across.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The book is here!

Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide is now in physical existence. It's real, not just a series of files on my computer! I received an advance copy yesterday (my other author's copies will follow in a few weeks, I'm told). Since then, apart from sleeping and driving, I've spent almost every moment reading it, checking that last-minute changes I requested were made, scrutinising the maps and photos, and simply enjoying the feel and heft of a nicely-produced tome.

It has 344 pages, 33 maps and 49 colour photos.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A close look at Lugang's Queen of Heaven Temple

On his Taiwan In Cycles blog, Andrew Kerslake has a lengthy and detailed analysis of the role temples play in Taiwanese culture and the relationship between temples and politicians. It's well worth reading even if you can't make it to the Tianhou Temple in the old coast town of Lukang; much of what he says applies to every shrine on the island.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

(Almost) No smoking in Taiwan

It wasn't until earlier this summer, when we spent some time in Malaysia - a country renowned for vigorous government - that I realised just how much progress Taiwan has made in curbing smoking in public places. Even in Kuala Lumpur, the well-run Malaysian capital, quite a few people smoke in places where they expose non-smokers to their exhalations.

In Taiwan, smoking is banned in shops, hotels, restaurants, pubs, train and bus stations and government offices. The law is very widely observed, though I've seen older men ignoring the no-smoking signs on railway platforms. In general, Taiwan has become a much more comfortable place for those with sensitive respiratory systems - partly because of the anti-smoking laws, but also because urban air quality is now much better than it was in the late 20th century.

There's talk of going even further, and making it illegal to smoke while walking along the street, driving a car, or riding a bicycle or motorcycle. The proposed new law could also compel smokers to carry their own ashtrays if they're in a place where there's no receptacle for disposing of cigarette butts. This is an excellent idea, as butts can be seen on almost every urban pavement. But would it be enforced?

Taiwan is a good place for those who dislike smoking, but a less-than-ideal destination for those trying to quit. Cigarettes are very cheap (about NTD60; US$2 or GBP1.20, per packet) and sold in every convenience store. 

2016 UPDATE: Cigarettes are getting more expensive, due to health taxes imposed by the government. Many brands cost around NT$90 per packet.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Things you may not know about Taiwan...

Taiwan is one of the world's leading pigeon-racing nations. Immense sums are gambled on races and gangsters have been known to try to influence races by doping pigeons. Sometimes, prize pigeons are kidnapped and held for ransom.

The Taiwanese language (a dialect of Fujianese) is rich in idioms. Alcoholics are said to drink like cows (not fish). Parents are said to raise their first child to be a genius, the second like a pig (it rhymes in Taiwanese). A middle-aged man with an eye for much younger women is described as "an old cow eating young grass."

Some of the island's aboriginal tribes continued headhunting until the 1930s. It's said that some tribes still keep secret stashes of skulls deep in the hills. A handful of elderly aboriginal women bear traditional facial tattoos.

As a percentage of its total land area, Taiwan has twice as much forest as Norway and nearly five times more than the UK.

Taiwan is thought to be the source of the Austronesian language family, spoken from Hawaii to New Zealand to Madagascar.

Vehicle number plates and government-issued ID cards never end in 4, as the number (pronounced si, written 四) sounds similar to the Mandarin word for 'death' (si, 死). For this reason, many buildings - especially hospitals - lack a fourth floor; they go from third to fifth.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Huashan 1914 Creative Park

The Huashan 1914 Creative Park is a collection of artists' studios, galleries, rehearsal spaces, performance venues and restaurants in central Taipei.

If you're in Taipei and want to know about upcoming events at the park, check Taiwan's English-language newspapers. The Friday edition of the Taipei Times is your best bet. In my experience, there isn't much point in dropping by the Park on a weekday afternoon, unless you're especially interested in the Japanese colonial-era industrial architecture (top right). Banyans have taken root inside some of the buildings; I thought this eye painted beside a doorway was a nice touch (below left).

Go here for a recent article on the site's history and management.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium

Friend and influential blogger Michael Turton has kind words and lovely photos about Taiwan's leading marine museum, which makes for a great stop if you're motoring down to Kenting National Park.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Know your traditions: Zhongyuan Pudu

Here in Taiwan we're approaching the end of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, so-called 'Ghost Month'. Ghost Month (click here for a short video) is when, it's believed by many, the gates of hell open and the spirits trapped therein are able to wander freely among the living.

The following is adapted from a newspaper article written this time last year by my friend Rich J. Matheson (who also took this photo of Pudu rites in a Tainan temple):

[In] contrast to Halloween's donning of costumes and trick or treating, Ghost Month is a reverential and solemn affair. Ghosts without descendants to feed them are called 'wandering souls' [or] 'good brothers' and are widely feared. The 'good brothers' are blamed for many ills and must be placated. Placation comes in the form of feasts and chanting. Many taboos are observed during the month. Few Taiwanese will move, get married or open a business. Even swimming is frowned upon as the water is believed to be inhabited by ghosts that can only leave their watery grave by finding a replacement.

Originally, Pudu rites in Taiwan were held continuously throughout the seventh lunar month rotating from one household to another until the end of the month. Following government efforts to curb lavish temple activities, Pudu activities were, for the most part, consolidated on the 15th of the month. Currently, Pudu is often split into three parts: inviting the ghosts on the first, feeding them on the 15th and finally sending them away again on the 29th. For the invitation after the gates are opened, lanterns are hung to guide the ghosts to the offerings. One must be cautious, however, for if too many lanterns are hung attracting too many ghosts, and not enough food is supplied, the spirits could be angered, precipitating a bad year.

Feeding is the most important part of the Pudu rite. Temples will have feasts for the ghosts, but the majority of the feeding is done by the populace who set up tables laden with food in front of their workplaces or homes, and who also burn incense, ghost money and colourful paper dieties.

Pudu (which means 'universal salvation') are sacrificial rites with the intention of appeasing ghosts with no heirs to care for them. Zhongyuan Pudu (中元普渡) falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Similar to 15th of any lunar month, households will prepare food offerings and burn ghost money, only on a much larger scale, as these offerings are not limited to one's own ancestors but to any passing ghosts. These rites are very widely observed in Taiwan.

Finally, the lanterns are taken down. This day is accompanied by more feasts for the wandering souls and some temples invite the god Zhong Kui to assure the good brothers do in fact return, thus keeping the people safe from their mischievous ways after the gates close.
Zhongyuan Pudu is a blend of folk religion, ancestor worship, Taoism (the 15th of the seventh lunar month is also the birthday of a Taoist god, Di Guan) and Buddhism.

The Buddhist religion celebrates the 'Ullambana' rite on the 15th of the seventh lunar month, during which food is offered to the dead.
The story goes that Mu Lian, a disciple of Buddha, wanted to save his mother who was languishing in hell and unable to eat food without it turning to fire. Mu Lian organized a large gathering of monks to chant and offer food, thus alleviating his mother;s suffering. This custom has evolved into present-day Zhongyuan Pudu practices.

Zhongyuan Pudu activities of special interest are the Qiang Gu (搶孤) competitions in Toucheng (in Yilan County), Hengchun and Pingtung in which people compete to feed the most ghosts by climbing slippery bamboo poles, assuring themselves of an auspicious year.
The reading of the sutras to help wandering souls find paradise which can be seen in temples throughout Taiwan during Ghost Month. Other events include: Yimin Festival (義民節) at Yimin temples (20th day of the seventh lunar month), Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Festival (地藏王祭日) (29th day of the month) and the Keelung Water Lantern Festival (基隆放水燈) (14th day).

The prominence of Zhongyuan Pudu arose due to the dangers early immigrants to Taiwan faced, often without family to care for them in death. Therefore there were many wandering souls to appease lest even more calamities occur. Beyond this, however, the true spirit of Zhongyuan Pudu lies in compassion for suffering, strengthening social ties, teaching the youth about filial piety and harmony between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Monday, August 30, 2010

CNNGo lauds Kaohsiung for cyclists

CNNGo thinks Kaohsiung is the third best biking city in Asia, after Kyoto and Beijing, ahead of Jeju and Singapore. I also think it's a splendid place to ride a bike, but for different reasons. The C-Bike system isn't very useful (especially if you're a person of average or larger-than-average Western dimensions) and, as a comment below the article points out, users of the bike trails find themselves crossing major roads fairly often. The climate (reliably dry and sunny, yet not too hot, from October until April) is a massive plus, however.

The final sentence of the Kaohsiung entry suggests the writer didn't do her homework very thoroughly:

If you’re planning a two-to-four day trip from Kaohsiung, we suggest that you ride out toward Taitung City via the scenic South Cross-Island Highway.

The South Cross-Island Highway was mashed by Typhoon Morakot in the summer of 2009 and little has been done to reopen it. You'd have to be a very determined cyclist with a robust set of wheels to make it all the way to Taitung.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Palace Museum branch opening delayed

Yesterday's newspapers confirmed what many have suspected for quite a while: The National Palace Museum Southern Branch in Chiayi County won't be ready in 2012, as promised. A partial opening in 2015 is possible and the authorities are hoping to achieve full opening in 2017, say the reports.

Here's an informative if opinionated article on the matter. Go here for a feature article on the delay and the impact it'll have on the county.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Rebels of the Neon God"

A few days ago, I watched Rebels of the Neon God, Tsai Ming-liang's (蔡明亮) beguiling debut feature film. Tsai, who was born in Malaysia in 1957 and has lived in Taiwan since the late 1970s, is now regarded as one of the country's most talented filmmakers.

Rebels of the Neon God was shot in 1992, and the outdoor scenes were flashbacks to the Taipei I experienced when I first arrived in Taiwan. No mass rapid transit system, just crowded buses; messy construction everywhere; grim apartment blocks; everyone smoking; and flotillas of scooters ridden by helmet-less commuters. YouTube clips from the movie can be found here and here.

The only other Tsai movie I've seen is The Wayward Cloud (2005), which didn't do much for me. This trailer (with French subtitles) will give you an idea why it attracted controversy.

This government-sponsored site has a lot of information about Taiwanese cinema.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The 921 Earthquake Museum

I have vivid memories of the September 21 earthquake of 1999, a disaster which Taiwanese refer to as '921', because it occurred at 1.47am on the 21st day of the ninth month. At the time I was working for a newspaper in Taipei. I had been in bed for less than 10 minutes when our apartment (the top floor of an eight-storey building) started shaking. I turned to my girlfriend (now my wife) and said: 'Don't worry, it's just an earthquake.' Having lived in Taiwan for about seven years at that point, I was used to feeling the occasional tremor.

The shaking got much worse and the power went out, so we got up sharpish. Before leaving the building, I quickly phoned a friend in south Taiwan. He agreed it was the strongest and most terrifying quake we'd experienced in our years in Taiwan.

There was no damage in our neighbourhood but elsewhere in Taipei scores were dead. In central Taiwan, tens of thousands of buildings had collapsed or were damaged beyond repair. Islandwide, the death toll exceeded 2,400.

The disaster hasn't been forgotten. A school campus wrecked by the quake has been turned into a very worthwhile museum which makes for a good stop if you're driving between Taichung and Sun Moon Lake.

The ridges left by the quake in the school's running track made for one of the disaster's most enduring images (see below). These, together with several wrecked classrooms (see above and bottom right), have been preserved as part of the 921 Earthquake Museum. The entire site is engrossing yet sobering. There's a great deal of information about why and how earthquakes occur as well as specific details of the 1999 disaster. Kids enjoy thumbing a panel linked to a seismograph and the regular 3D film presentations.

The museum is open from 9am to 5pm but closed Mondays. Admission is NTD50 for adults, NTD30 for children. The museum's Chinese name is 九二一地震教育園區.

Drivers using the freeway should proceed to Wufeng at km211 on Freeway 3, then turn right onto Highway 3. At km197 they'll see signs pointing to the museum. From Taichung TRA Station, bus #6100 departs every 10—20 minutes throughout the day. Journey time is 40 minutes and one-way fare costs NTD36. Bus passengers should get off at km197 on Highway 3 and walk for 10 minutes.

If you want to see more evidence of the quake's power, visit this ruined temple.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Renting quality bicycles

Most of the bikes available for rent in Taiwan are fine for a few hours leisurely touring but are too small or otherwise unsuitable for long-distance cycling. Fortunately, Giant – one of Taiwan's leading bike manufacturers – rents high-quality bicycles through some of its outlets.

Bicycles can be rented at one shop and returned to another branch. The basic fee for three days or less is NTD1,200, with each additional day costing NTD200. Bikes should be reserved well in advance and payment must be made by credit card; you'll be asked for your height and some other details. There's no central website in English or Chinese because the programme isn't being heavily promoted, but email the Hsinchu branch ( and you'll get sensible answers in English.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New NTD10 coins in circulation

The new NTD10 coin is the same size and weight as the old version. However, instead of an image of Chiang Kai-shek, the man who ruled Taiwan as a dictator between the end of World War II and his death in 1975, it shows Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水). Chiang Wei-shui never attained political office and died soon after his 40th birthday, but his belief in Taiwanese identity and self-rule are celebrated today.

Chiang, who was greatly inspired and influenced by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, co-founded two landmark political groupings: the Taiwanese Cultural Association in 1921 and the Taiwan People's Party in 1927. The former was suppressed by the Japanese colonial authorities in 1931, just before Chiang died of cholera.

The new freeway linking Taipei with Yilan (where Chiang was born) is called the Chiang Wei-shui Memorial Freeway, and there are city streets named after him in Taipei and Yilan.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Driving on the right side of the road

In Taiwan, vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road. Officially, that is. You can expect to see many motorcycles, even more bicycles and the odd car using the wrong side of the road. Everyone is used to it, nobody bats an eyelid. What I didn't know until today is that prior to 1946, traffic in Taiwan used the left side of the road (as in Japan, which ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

'A secret the size of a country'

That's how Steve White, the editor-in-chief of Action Asia, a Hong Kong-based adventure travel magazine, describes Taiwan.

In the foreword to the July/August 2010 issue of the magazine, he writes:

"Here at Action Asia we have always been fans of Taiwan and I have even used this page before to make the case that it is hugely underrated. Well, sorry to repeat myself, but staggering fresh from competing in the recent Salomon Suunto X-Trail event just outside Taipei, I am reminded yet again of the staggering opportunities there are there for outdoors lovers.

"The mountains start before you even leave the suburbs of Taipei - even the city's mass transit railway can get you close to forested hillsides and trails - and extend clear to the other end of the country. Few places can have a comparable percentage of mountainous land - in Asia, perhaps only Nepal, Bhutan and Hong Kong.

"The Taiwanese people are beginning to understand what they have got on their doorsteps, with hiking and camping really catching on, but their tourism board seems to prefer to keep this a secret from the world. That's your cue to go check it out before this little piece of wilderness gets more widespread attention. Besides the mountains to hike and bike, kayak through and paraglide from, there are empty east coast beaches, aboriginal tribes to meet, Han Chinese culture arguably more intact than that on the mainland, and a chilled-out and friendly people."

The same issue has an article on paragliding in Taiwan, written by a friend of mine, Matt Gibson. Back in 2003, I interviewed Steve White for a two-part article on Taiwan's great potential for sports tourism (Part One / Part Two).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Know your gods: Lord Chi

This serious looking individual is Lord Chi, 'Taiwan's most popular Wang Ye', according to the Encyclopedia of Taoism by Fabrizio Pregadio. '[His] cult appears to have developed in Fujian and can be traced back to the cult of the martial plague-fighting deity Wen Qiong.'

The words Wang Ye mean ‘royal lord’ but this name is more honorific than accurate – the only royal connection is that it's believed the original 360 of the many hundreds of spirits in this category were musicians and scholars employed by Emperor Tai Zong (reigned 626–649).

The Wang Ye cult is stronger in Taiwan than elsewhere in Greater China because of plague-expelling customs in Fujian. Whenever coastal communities in that province were afflicted by disease, they’d place Wang Ye icons on boats and set them adrift. Prevailing currents carried brought many of these vessels to Taiwan and to the southwest in particular. That region has more than two-thirds of the island’s 1,200-plus Wang Ye temples. Knowing exactly what the boats were, Han people living along Taiwan’s coastline received them with a mixture of fear and awe; they knew that ignoring the Wang Ye was to tempt fate, so they built shrines and burned incense.

'The origin of the Wang Ye appears murky, but the term appears in Qing-dynasty gazetteers from Fujian, some of which claim that temples to these deities existed as early as the Song dynasty,' writes Pregadio. He
quotes data compiled by the Japanese colonial authorities in 1918 and 1930 showing that Wang Ye temples accounted for about one in seven of all registered shrines in Taiwan; only land-god temples were more numerous.

Taiwan's busiest Wang Ye shrine is
Nankunshen Daitian Temple.

I took the photo above in a small temple in Tainan's Anping district called Xi Long Dian. Locals
go there to propitiate Lord Chi; tourists go there to see the effigy shown below. It represents a salt merchant who was deified after his death in 1948 and who's now regarded as a land god. The effigy is believed to actually smoke the cigarettes provided by devotees!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The role of the state in Taiwan's economy

Economics probably doesn't appeal to you as much as Taiwan's natural wonders and cultural treasures, but I think the following statistics (which I came across in a 1990 book published by Taiwan's government) are interesting.

In 1952, when sugar was Taiwan's no. 1 export and sugar refining was nationalised, the government controlled 52% of the island's industrial production. By 1972 this proportion had fallen to 19%, and by 1988 it was 10%. Of course, the state's declining role in industry isn't due so much to the privatisation of state-owned enterprises (though there has been some, for example Taiwan Salt Co. became Taiyen) as to the massive post-World War II expansion of the manufacturing and petrochemical sectors.

I wonder what the current percentage is?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Local colour VI

In old neighbourhoods throughout Taiwan, you can find hand pumps like the one top right, spotted in the old part of Kaohsiung's Zuoying district. Some still draw water from wells, others ran dry long ago. I've not heard of urban residences that lack their own supply of running water, yet I have seen people filling buckets from these pumps and carry them away.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Museum of the War of 1895

For Taiwanese, the key term of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894—95, was the ceding to the Japanese Empire of Taiwan and the Penghu Islands. Japanese rule lasted half a century.

Tens of thousands of Taiwanese took up arms when Japan tried to take possession of their new colony; a Republic of Formosa was declared on May 23 1895. Six days later, Japanese forces landed east of Keelung. Between early June and late August major battles were fought in Sanxia, Hsinchu, Dajia and, decisively, at Changhua.

The Museum of the War of 1895, located inside a Cold War bomb shelter on Changhua Mount Bagua, tells the story of Japan's military takeover and the resistance they faced. Unfortunately, the museum is entirely in Chinese with the exception of the official English-language version of Japan's official proclamation that it was taking control of Taiwan (it promises "all inhabitants of the ceded territory peacefully fully pursuing their ordinary and lawful avocations will receive full and constant protection"). There are very few artifacts from the era; even the Republic of Formosa postage stamps are reproductions (as of a decade ago, originals could be bought from stamp dealers in Taipei).

People who don't read Chinese can pick up a useful English-language leaflet.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Anping's Treehouse

This gorgeous photo was taken by Rich Matheson inside Anping's Treehouse, a long-disused and fantastically overgrown warehouse behind the Tait & Co Merchant House in Anping, the Tainan neighbourhood that's the oldest Han Chinese settlement on Taiwan.

For some history about the Tait building and the warehouse, read this entry on one of the blogs I recommended a few days ago.

One ticket covers admission to both buildings. Inside the Tait building there's a museum that focuses on the Dutch era. Despite a few translation mistakes ('flower' when it should be 'flour'), the museum is well worth some of your time. One memorable fact I learned: It was illegal for those working in the the Dutch hospital in Tainan to inherit anything from those who died while under their care.

There's not much left of the warehouse, but the banyans growing up through it are quite surreal.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Great Taiwan travel blogs

I'd like to recommend four excellent travel-related blogs .

Tainan City - An Aimless Guide has carefully researched and beautifully photographed entries on the former capital's attractions. I especially like the posts about Tiantan and the building that's now the National Museum of Taiwanese Literature.

Taiwan in Cycles features detailed descriptions of the blogger's bike rides around Taiwan

Wandering Taiwan is a bilingual (i.e. Chinese as well as English) blog with fairly short entries and nice photos. Most of the posts are about well-known attractions; one of the longest and most thorough is about Yingge near Taipei. The bloggers have also been to some places I haven't been to, such as Waziwei Ecological Reserve.

Hiking Taiwan is the work of Stuart Dawson, with whom I had the pleasure of hiking to the top of Mount Jade last month. (The weather was foul, that's why neither he nor I have blogged about it). As I write in my guidebook, Snow Mountain is one of Taiwan's most beautiful hikes - and Stuart has winter photos to prove it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Know your gods: Obscure personalities

A recent exhibition at Kaohsiung Museum of History featured dozens of folk-religion effigies and images.

For me, the most interesting artifact was an icon of a Catholic priest (pictured right) from a mountainous part of rural Kaohsiung. Unfortunately, the label does not reveal if the aborigines who carved the statuette prayed or made offerings to it. (If they did, did they regard the priest as an addition to their pre-exisiting pantheon, or were they converts to Christianity who treated him as a saint?). Nor does it say when the carving was made.

Also intriguing is this effigy of Liao Tian-ding (廖添丁). Like many other divine personalities, Liao (pictured lower right) was once an ordinary human. However, unlike most of the entities worshipped in Taiwan's folk temples, he was born and died in Taiwan. Revered for fighting the Japanese then in control of the island, icons of him began appearing in temples soon after his violent death in 1909. Some biographical details can be found here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Local colour V

I spotted these betel leaves (also known as betel pepper or piper betle) outside a house in Taitung City. They're cultivated for use in Taiwan's massive betel-nut industry (betel nut is the island's no. 2 cash crop, after rice). The leaves are wrapped around the betel nut (Areca catechu), a stimulant favoured by truck drivers, manual labourers and others, and sold from roadside kiosks by skimpily-dressed young women.

According to this website, "The betel leaf is ised in a number of traditional remedies for the treatment of stomach ailments, infections, and as a general tonic... Some evidence suggests that betel leaves have immune boosting properties as well as anti-cancer properties."

If the last point is true, it's just as well chewers chomp on the leaves while enjoying betel nuts, as habitual use of the nut dramatically increases your chances of suffering from oral cancer.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Retro appeal

There's no English inside the Kaohsiung Museum of Military Dependents Villages, but the exhibits will appeal to those with a taste for 1950s bicycles, radios, telephones and TVs. After Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949, servicemen and their families were housed in hastily-built neighbourhoods near military bases. These "villages" - most are now abandoned and many have been demolished - were culturally distinct in that the vast majority of inhabitants were of mainland descent, that very little Taiwanese was spoken, and that support for the Nationalist regime was solid. The Kaohsiung Museum of Military Dependents Villages is built on the site of a former navy settlement in Zuoying; it's open from 9am to 5pm but closed Mondays and the days after national holidays. The full Chinese name of the museum is 高雄市左營區眷村文化館 and the address is 高雄市左營區海光三村左公二公園園區; tel 07 588 2775. The museum's website, on which there's minimal English, is here. There's a similar museum in Hsinchu.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A statue you don't see every day

Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) died in 1975. Some statues of the generalissimo have been removed (many have been sent to this park), yet the island still bears thousands of reminders of the dictator, among them road and district names (Zhongzheng, sometimes spelled Jhongjheng, 中正, is an honorific title for Chiang and one of Taiwan's most common road names).

Statues of Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) like the one pictured here, near Lotus Lake in Kaohsiung - are a rarity. Many Taiwanese have a positive impression of the younger Chiang thanks to his efforts to develop Taiwan. He was, however, complicit in many of his father's crimes.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Danshui-Bali Ferry

The very frequent ferry (top picture) that links Danshui, the historic seaside town near Taipei, with Bali, the town on the south bank of the Danshui River, makes for an enjoyable and inexpensive (NT$39 return) excursion.

Until a few years ago, there was very little to see in Bali. It now has a major museum, Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology, a cycling path and - right where you disembark from the ferry - mudbanks alive in crabs (lower picture) and mudskippers.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

'Typhoon Island'

I recently watched Typhoon Island, a 48-minute documentary co-produced in 2004 by the BBC, Germany's WDR, Austria's ORF and Taiwan's Public Television Service. It's an excellent introduction to Taiwan's ecology and highly recommended. A short excerpt can be seen here; my copy came courtesy of

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

By yacht to Taiwan

This article, posted on the internet late last month by a New Zealand couple who sailed their yacht from Japan to Kenting National Park, is worth reading even if you don't plan on arriving in your own vessel. Despite encouragement from the government, yachting has never really taken off in Taiwan. Cruise-ship arrivals are certainly picking up, however.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Local colour IV

Heping Street is one of the old thoroughfares that make up Daxi's charming if touristy merchant quarter. According to this website, the architecture that can be seen here, 'was popular during the Japanese colonial rule of Japan’s Taisho era. The picture patterns - including Greek mountains, Roman columns, Chinese-style fish and bats - seen at the stores on Heping and Zhongshan old streets, are a mixture of baroque, Taiwanese, Greek, and Roman styles'.

The town itself, in Taoyuan County, makes for a good stop if you're heading inland to the North Cross-Island Highway. It can also be visited in conjunction with Sanxia, a short distance away in New Taipei City.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cover design confirmed

The cover photo for my book was taken by Rich Matheson and was taken in his wife's home township, Namasia in Kaohsiung County. The book is now listed on and as available for pre-order, although it won't hit the shops until October or thereabouts. One hopeful sign: According to the ranking system, it's already selling better than my first book about Taiwan, Keeping Up With The War God.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Caught in a culture clash

Neil Taylor, who writes the Bradt Travel Guides to Estonia and Baltic Capitals, visited Taiwan last month for the British newspaper The Independent. His article appeared on March 20; here's the first third:

"My favourite fact about Taiwan's capital, Taipei, is this: within two years no resident nor office worker will be further than 50 metres from an entrance to an underground station. It puts the estimate that Londoners are never more than 20 yards from a rat to shame.
"Taiwan has been off the map, almost literally, for decades from the British traveller's perspective. It used to style itself the "Republic of China", much to the irritation of the much larger People's Republic of China, 100 miles away on the mainland – which has long regarded this surprising and dramatic island as a thorn in its ideological side.
"China exacted all kinds of diplomatic revenge: when BA flew briefly to Taipei, for example, the airline had to create a subsidiary, "British Asia Airways", to serve the route for fear of losing its valuable rights to fly to Beijing.
"But rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait means that the first non-stop flights from London start next weekend, helping to open up an island that has much to offer besides excellent public transport. Early in the year of the tiger, Taiwan is burning bright.
"In 1971, I led a pioneering tour to the People's Republic of China; at the height of the "Cultural Revolution", we were treated to an abundance of propaganda. This month, I redressed the ideological balance with a visit to Taiwan – and, for the necessary history lesson, headed straight to Taipei's memorial to Chiang Kai-Shek.
"You can't miss it: modelled on the temples in the Forbidden City in Beijing, it continues a Chinese tradition of honouring former rulers with folie de grandeur rather than grandeur on its own and is therefore plumb in the centre of the city. Carefully tendered lawns and flower beds on all sides, and then the marble of the building itself, topped with blue-glazed tiles, make clear that this is a shrine and nothing else. Eighty-seven steps – one for each year of Chiang's life – take pilgrims from ground level to the exhibition hall..."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Local colour III

A woman washes clothes the traditional way at a spring-fed trench in Nanzhuang, Miaoli County (苗栗縣南庄鄉). Nanzhuang is a delightful township far from the sea. The population is mostly Hakka with a significant aboriginal minority.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Know your traditions: Burning incense

Worshippers place incense in the main censer at a temple in Taoyuan City. The offering of incense to gods and ancestors is central to Taiwanese folk religion; even in those temples that now discourage the burning of joss paper, the pious tend to hold three incense sticks in their hands when praying. In several places, you'll see incense sticks as thick as your thumb and as long as your forearm glowing and smouldering. A shrine where incense isn't burned throughout the day is indeed a strange - or neglected - place of worship.

According to this article:

"The burning of incense is considered a means for communicating with the spirits. It is said that when people hold a stick of incense in prayer before an image of a god their soul becomes transparent and the god knows what they are thinking... [It is believed] that fragrant scents attracted good spirits [and] smoke from incense carried the wishes of the supplicant to heaven."

A lot of incense is made from sandalwood, but as with joss paper, there are many different kinds for different purposes.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Strange and wonderful place names

These days, Taoyuan (桃園) is unrepentantly industrial city of almost 400,000 with a name that strikes 21st-century visitors as oddly bucolic: táo (peach) yuán (garden). Before it became Peach Garden, it bore a much more vivid toponym. The pioneers who settled hereabouts in the late 1700s dubbed it Humaozhuang (虎茅庄) meaning ‘the terrace covered by plants with leaves as sharp as tigers’ teeth’.

Kaohsiung (高雄) was long known to the world as Takau. This name, often spelled Takao and sometimes Dagou, stuck for more than three centuries, until the Japanese colonial authorities decided the written form – two Chinese characters with the literal meaning 'hit the dog' (打狗) – was undignified. They replaced it with different characters (the current 高雄) meaning 'lofty hero', pronounced Takao in Japanese and Gāoxióng in Mandarin.

For the same reason, they renamed what's now Minxiong (民雄), a town just north of Chiayi. Originally dubbed Damao (打貓, ‘hit the cat’), the colonial regime selected the current set of characters, which mean ‘citizen’s hero’. Endearing place names can still be found throughout the countryside. One neighbourhood on the outskirts of Tainan is still marked on maps as Gourou (狗肉, ‘dog meat’ – perhaps its first resident was a butcher selling canine steaks). In tea-growing country not far from Alishan, there's a Niushihu (牛屎湖,‘cow-dung lake’) and near Jiaxian in rural Kaohsiung, one small valley is known as Goushikeng (狗屎坑, ‘dog-faeces hole’). Kaohsiung has another of my favourite toponyms: Agongdian (阿公店), literally 'grandpa's shop'.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Formosan macaque

The Formosan rock macaque (Macaca cyclopis) is Taiwan's only monkey species. It isn't difficult to find. An estimated 250,000 macaques roam the foothills and mountains; troupes vary in size from around 20 to 50 or more individuals. Females outnumber males but the ratio is usually less than two to one. These creatures, which weigh between five and 18kg and measure 35 to 45cm long (body only; the tail is another 30-odd cm) prefer mixed forest to bamboo or grasslands.

Occasionally they're hunted for meat. Many farmers consider macaques a pest because they steal fruit, sweet potatoes and other foods. In captivity - some people keep them as pets - they live up to 30 years.

The photo here was taken by Rich J. Matheson. More photos and information can be found here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Paragliding in Taiwan

At first glance, Taiwan should be an excellent place for paragliding because it's covered in hills. However, as this website points out, much of the airspace is restricted for military reasons and power lines get in the way at several other promising sites. There's more about the sport here and here, and a map with paragliding sites in Taiwan here.

I took this photo from Tigerhead Mountain, near Puli in Nantou, three or four years ago.