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.