Monday, December 26, 2011

Kind words from a Taiwanese reader

It's always nice to get feedback from readers. The majority of responses have been from Western or Singaporean tourists who used my book while travelling around Taiwan, but here's what one Taiwanese reader told me in an email to Bradt:

Thank you for your lovely introduction of my beloved land--Taiwan!
I am a surgeon from Taiwan and studying for a PhD in London now.
I found this book in a secondhand bookstore yesterday and decided to keep it. I have had a wonderful reading time on Saturday evening.
The history part is amazing! I never learned a lot of Taiwan history when I was in school.
I like your way to describe Taiwan—very sensitive but neutral.

This is the best travel book I have ever read about Taiwan.

-- Anne Yeh

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Taiwan for Culture Vultures

Taiwan for Culture Vultures, my new downloadable travel guide published by Guidegecko, is aimed at visitors intrigued by Taiwan's fascinating blend of cutting-edge modernity and centuries-old tradition. Available for iPhones and iPads, it's priced at US$2.99. If you already have my Bradt guide, you'll find this app complements, updates and expands on the book's contents.

Electronic platforms have several advantages over traditional printed guidebooks. They're cheaper because there are no printing or distribution costs; they're lighter to carry and can be updated and corrected. As a writer, I've appreciated being able to avoid repetition. Instead of having to explain who a particular person (or deity or ethnic group) is each time there's a mention, I simply link to a background article, like the one on major gods, or brief histories of Taiwan's historic towns.
The guide features 95 places of interest, each entry averaging 250 to 300 words and accompanied by one to four photos. Taiwan-based professionals Craig Ferguson and Rich Matheson contributed many of the images. The app cover icon shown here was taken by Matheson.
Among them are museums, temples, churches, parks, and other landmarks. Taiwan's key cultural and architectural attractions - such as the National Palace Museum, Taipei 101 and Tainan's Confucius Temples - are featured, as are many lesser-known but just as fascinating attractions. At Ten Drum Culture Village, for instance, visitors can enjoy performances that are modern yet draw heavily on folk traditions, and which have won international acclaim.
Of the 95 sights, 31 aren't mentioned at all in my Bradt guidebook. In some cases, like Houtong Coal-Mine Ecological Park, they opened too late to be included. For many others, it was simply a matter of space; this is why the Zheng Family Shrine didn't appear in the book. I researched the app by combing both English- and Chinese-language sources, in addition, of course, to visiting each spot at least once. Many of the details I've included don't appear in any of the major English-language guidebooks to Taiwan.
There's plenty for those who want to learn about and appreciate traditional arts and crafts. If they want a more outdoorsy experience, they can head to the Old Mountain Railway Line. Those with environmental interests will enjoy the new Magic School of Green Technology. All in all, I think the app has a really good mix.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Buddha Washing Day

Last week I drove to Foguangshan to see the new Buddha Memorial Center, which opens to the public on December 25. It also happened to be the one day each year when the 14,800 Buddha icons in the Main Shrine are removed, cleaned by volunteers (above) and then put back in their sconces (below).

Friday, December 9, 2011

Books: Taiwan From the Eyes of a Foreigner

Nick Kembel, a Canadian who's been living in Taiwan since 2008, has produced an interesting and beautifully-illustrated book. Kembel's blend of history, travelog and personal observations is aimed at both Taiwanese people who'd like to know what Westerners think of their country and Western people curious about the island's culture. The text is in both English and Chinese; the two versions run side by side, which is very useful if you're reading one and want to refer to the other to find a place or person's name in its original language.

As someone who's read a lot of Taiwan's history (and been here much longer than Kembel), I expected to find a few odd interpretations of the past in a book written by a relative newcomer. But Kembel has clearly done his homework, and comes across as very fair-minded. As a result, this is a book I'd confidently recommend to anyone thinking of relocating to Taiwan. The 100-odd photos deserve a special mention. They're very good (if a little small), and show not only conventional tourist attractions like temple parades and aboriginal dancers, but also prosaic scenes such as crowds of commuters and parking lots packed with bicycles.

Taiwan from the Eyes of a Foreigner is published by Tsai's Idea, is available throughout Taiwan and costs NT$366.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fresh Facts V: The decline of farming

According to Taiwan: A New History, edited by Murray A. Rubinstein:

"The number of farm households fell from 51% in 1953 to less than 20% in 1990 as agriculture's share of the net domestic product decreased from 34% to only 4% [it's now something like 1.7%]. The dispersal of industry into Taiwan's villages has been a critical factor in this transition, at once raising farm household income... also making it possible for farmers to retain their residence in the countryside."

Nowadays many of Taiwan's small villages are dominated by elderly people, almost everyone aged 18 to 45 having moved away to study or work. Few Taiwanese, it seems, like living in a village and commuting to work. If anything, the reverse is more common. A great many people live in cities (because the schools are better, they say) even if they work in fairly rural places. South Taiwan Science-based Industrial Park in Tainan is a good example: Most of the engineers who work there live in downtown Tainan, not in nearby towns where housing is cheaper.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taiwan's new history museum

The National Museum of Taiwan History opened in late October. You'll be able to judge from its name whether or not it's the kind of place that'll interest you. In my opinion it's very good, as I say at greater length in this article.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fresh Facts IV: Mudskippers

Mudskippers are fairly widespread along Taiwan's west coast, and two species can be found. According to this scholarly paper

"Mudskippers are air-breathing, amphibious fishes, and one of few vertebrates that reside on [intertidal] mudflats," and that such places, "are highly productive ecosystems that impose severe environmental challenges on their occupants due to tidal oscillations and extreme shifts in habitat conditions. Reproduction on mudflats requires protection of developing eggs from thermal and salinity extremes, oxygen shortage, dislodgement by currents, siltation and predation."

Pictured here (photo from a Chinese-language Wikipedia page) is the smaller and more common of Taiwan's two mudskipper species, Periophthalmus cantonensis. This creature, which sometimes appears on restaurant menus, has a particular liking for mangrove swamps like those at Bali, New Taipei City. The other, Boleophthalmus pectinirostris, has a green-brown mottled appearance and grows up to 15cm long. It's a territorial species that's now endangered in Japan.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Books: Song of Orchid Island

Like the author's Chingchuan Story, Song of Orchid Island is an engaging first-person account of life and missionary work alongside indigenous people. Not published in English until 2006 (two decades after the Chinese-language version was a local bestseller), it was in fact written back in the early 1970s, just after Martinson had spent a year on Orchid Island (also known as Lanyu, 蘭嶼).

The island has changed a great deal since then. Martinson describes serious poverty and widespread, though never fatal, malnutrition. Age-old traditions were still observed, for example the requirement that fathers change their names to match their eldest sons':

"The man's name was Jayud. The son's name was also Jayud. The reason their names were the same was not because the boy had been named after his father, but because the father had been named after his son. Jayud explained that when a couple had their first child, the father changed his name to that given the child."

In one memorable episode, Martinson leads his students on a walk to another village many of them had never visited.

"At least two dozen of the mothers and fathers were going with us. The men wore armor and carried spears to protect their children from the spirits."

The book's 55 black-and-white photos, all taken by Martinson, are excellent. To buy this book, directly contact the publisher, Tau Books, or visit the specialist website

Monday, October 10, 2011

Taiwan Wine Cellar

Recently I dropped by the Taiwan Wine Cellar (go here for the address, a map and other details), a shop in central Taiwan that sells locally-produced wines and spirits. Opened in 2008 by Erlin Township Farmers' Association, it has an impressive range of alcoholic drinks, including liquors made from passion fruit and pineapples. Connoisseurs of good European or New World wines are unlikely to find anything to anything that pleases their taste buds, but if you're looking for liquid souvenirs of your time in Taiwan, this shop is a good bet.

Changhua County's Erlin Township (彰化縣二林鎮) is said to have the highest concentration of wineries in Taiwan; the staff at the Cellar told me there are 19 legal wineries in the area, a legacy of grape-growing on a large scale for sale to the government's Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau. When Taiwan joined the WTO in 2002, the monopoly was abolished and the bureau converted into a state-run enterprise, TTL. Because TTL now sources its grapes from elsewhere, Erlin's grape farmers have began making their own wine.

There are wine producers elsewhere in Taiwan. One I've visited, and whose products I like, is CJ Wine Village (藏酒休閒農場) in Yilan County.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Free and discounted admission to the National Palace Museum

Over the past few years, several of Taiwan's museums, among them the Gold Ecological Park and Fort San Domingo, have scrapped admission charges. Visitors wanting to see the National Palace Museum's (NPM) unbeatable collection of Chinese antiques and art works still need to pay for admission. In fact, the normal ticket price has in the past decade risen faster than the rate of inflation, from NT$100 per person in 2001 to NT$160 now. However, there's good news fortourists: The museum recently adjusted its admissions policy in order to better manage the throngs of sightseers it receives.

Visitor numbers grew from 2.24 million in 2008 to 3.44 million last year, according to the museum's annual reports (click here to read the 2010 report). In a bid to encourage more people to visit during off-peak times, since the summer the museum has been offering half-price tickets to those entering between 4:30pm and 6:30pm.

Individuals who arrive in this period thus pay NT$80 each, while members of groups pay NT$50 per person. Students pay NT$40. Also, those who arrive in this period also qualify for discounts if that they dine in the museum's restaurant that evening.

The NPM extended its opening hours last year. It now opens its doors at 8:30 every morning, half an hour earlier than it used to. It stays open until 6:30 in the evening every day except Saturday, when it closes at 8:30pm.

Peak morning and afternoon times have been divided into four one-and-a-half hour slots, with no more than 2,800 people – independent visitors as well as members of tour groups – being allowed to enter in each period.

The 2010 report contains some interesting figures. To help meet running costs, which in 2010 totaled NT$1.015 billion, the NPM raises considerable sums from individual and corporate sponsors. In each of the past few years, around 100 people have paid NT$1,000 each to become Annual Friends of the NPM, and each year a dozen or two individuals donate NT$10,000 to become Lifetime Friends.

Corporate sponsorship amounted to NT$44.3m in 2010, up from NT$42.2m the previous year. The single largest donor was Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong-based Chinese-language broadcaster, which gave NT$25m in 2010 and NT$15m in 2009. Corporate supporters have also donated goods such as audio-visual equipment and services such as insurance for loaned artifacts.

The museum has developed other income streams that further reduce its dependence on ticket sales and government subsidies. In 2010, it sold NT$97.5m worth of publications. In the same year, companies authorized to make NPM-branded products sold NT$320.3m worth of wine, tableware, replica paintings and other items.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The southeastern coastline

A favourite spot of mine a few kilometers south of Xuhai (旭海) on the southeast coast, very close to the boundary between Taitung and Pingtung counties.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fresh facts III: Taiwan's Insects

Two things I learned in Taipei Zoo's excellent and very enjoyable Insectarium:

Relative to its land area, Taiwan has twice as many butterfly species as the Philippines, 17 times as many as Japan, and fifty times as many as the Chinese mainland.

Eighteen of the ROC's insect species are protected by conservation laws, including the Troides magellanus butterfly and Coptolabrus nankotaizanus, a ground beetle.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spelling issues

The problem with romanisation, whatever version is used, is that the results sometimes resemble English words with negative connotations. There is a place in New Taipei City usually spelled Shiding (新北市石碇區), but sometimes - to the amusement of English speakers - written Shiting.

As far as I know, the inhabitants of the village featured in the photo above are hardworking and honest. The village's name, by the way, is pronounced something like HO BOR; it's in the northernmost part of Tainan. The sign would, of course, look better if 'village' had been spelled correctly.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Religious parade

The celebrations a while back marking the renovation and reopening of Guangxing Temple (廣興廟) were the largest I've ever seen. This major shrine, which is dedicated to Shennong, is located in Tainan's Yongkang District (永康區).

We were invited along because it's the "mother temple" of the Shennong shrine in my wife's home village, about 15km further inland. A team from the village carried their temple's icon and banner (on the left) through the neighborhood before finally arriving at the temple.

Considering they'd been up all night - marching from one supporter's house to another's, collecting donations at each stop - the team from my wife's village (below in orange shirts and yellow baseball caps) looked remarkably fresh.

The various teams from the "daughter temples" had to wait their turn before moving in front of the "mother temple," where they performed in honor of the deity. Some had to wait well over an hour, but for photographers this was an excellent opportunity to get portraits of the pilgrims and members of the many different zhentou troupes, which included musicians, dancers, stilt-walkers and Ba Jia Jiang.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Birding in my backyard

Tainan has world-class winter birdwatching at Sicao (四草), now part of Taijiang National Park. It being the height of summer, it makes sense to look inland, so recently I spent two mornings birding in the foothills just east of my home in Xinhua (新化區), accompanied by a man who knows much more about avians than I do - Richard Foster of Barking Deer Adventures.

According to Richard, we spotted at least 18 species, including: White-rumped Munia; Black-naped Monarch; Black Drongo; Chinese Bulbul; Taiwan Barbet; Eastern Cattle Egret; Black-crowned Night Heron; Little and Intermediate egrets; Kingfisher; Taiwan Bamboo Partridge; Common Moorhen; and Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Also seen was a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker or something very similar, and various swifts and swallows.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Little drummer boys

Religious rituals in Taiwan are invariably accompanied by drums, bells, gongs, trumpet-like instruments and firecrackers. Some of the musicians are professionals but many are amateurs. A few, like these two boys I watched drum at Shoutian Temple a few months back, are not even ten years old.
Hsieh Shih, founder of Ten Drum Art Percussion Group, started drumming at the age of three, taking part in rites at the Taoist temple his father owned.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Two more reviews of the guidebook

Reviews of the book have just come out in two very different media. One is in Taiwan Business Topics, the monthly print and online magazine of the American Chamber of Commerce (disclosure: I often write for this magazine); the other appears in The View from Taiwan, one of Taiwan's most prominent English-language blogs (disclosure: the blogger, Michael Turton, is a friend of mine).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Gods and their property portfolios

A recent Taipei Times report reveals that around 2,300 plots of land around Taiwan totalling more than 200 hectares are owned by deities. Although the law specifies that land can only be owned by legal persons (such as humans, corporations or foundations), it seems many plots belong - on paper at least - to deities including Mazu, Guanyin (which the article refers to Avalokitesvara) and local land gods.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fresh facts II: Taiwan's beaches

On a recent trip to Pingtung, we dropped into the Shell Beach Exhibition Hall (砂島貝殼砂展示館), where I learned the following:

The sandy beaches and mudflats on the west coast were created by shale washed down rivers from the Central Mountain Range; many are quite grey. However, most of the beaches in the south (including those on Little Liuqiu) are crushed coral or shell beaches. North Taiwan's beaches are generally quartz sand, while the east coast is rocky, the boulders being metamorphic material washed down from the Coastal Range.

Shadao Beach, pictured above, is next to the hall. It's a nature preserve and the public can look at it, but not set foot on the sand.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Banqiao's Lin Family Gardens

Ticked off another place I've wanted to visit for years: Lin Family Garden (林家花園, sometimes called the Lin Ben-yuan Garden) in Banqiao, a substantial but little-loved city just south of Taipei.

It's one of north Taiwan's best-known attractions, and now that admission is free it gets very crowded on weekends and holidays. Despite the crowds (and the noisy tour guides, and the photography-club members clustering around models hired for the day) it's well-worth visiting. No one building in the complex, nor any particular aspect of the gardens that surround them, is jaw-dropping. However, there is a great deal to see, and if I wasn't pressed for time I could easily have spent more than two hours here.

The Lin Family Mansion and Garden was built 1847-1853 by one of north Taiwan's richest and most influential families. In the late 19th century, the garden was surrounded by rice fields, and Guanyinshan was visible in the distance. Now, of course, it is surrounded by tall buildings. Nonetheless, it's a beautiful oasis of greenery and a good place to see Qing Dynasty architecture, stone sculpture, wood carvings and other decorative arts. The main residence, the Three-Courtyard House (pictured top right), has 52 rooms and more than 120 windows and doors. Other buildings within the Garden bear endearing names such as the Revere the Cosmos Pavilion and the Fragrant Jade Anteroom. Entrances and walls bear auspicious bat or butterfly motifs (pictured lower left).

The garden (open: 09.00-17.00 daily but closed first Mon of each month; admission: free) is about 15 minutes' walk from Banqiao's combined HSR/TRA/MRT station. Fuzhong MRT Station on the Blue Line is very slightly closer.

Fans of traditional mansions heading to south Taiwan should make time for the Hsiao Family Residence and the Gupoliao Zhuang Family Residence.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Taiwan's Mazu pilgrimage

My friend Rich J. Matheson (who took the cover shot for the first edition of my guidebook) joined part of this year's Mazu pilgrimage. His website includes many photographs of traditional religious events.

The full pilgrimage lasts more than a week and winds through Taichung, Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi. For an excellent first-hand account of the 2010 pilgrimage, read Noah Buchan's Taipei Times article.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Million-dollar bathrooms

Nantou's Zhinan Temple (指南宮) is tiny and visually unimpressive, but exceptionally popular. On the day we visited it was all but impossible to see the main altar because of the crush of people. The temple is clearly very wealthy; in 2007 it spent a breathtaking NT$38.8 million (US$1.34 million) on the bathrooms pictured above.

They are very nice, it has to be said. Not only clean, well lit and spacious, but also decorated with works of art and equipped with a nursing room and an observation deck. The shape is supposed to represent fresh bamboo growing up out of the ground - not, as you might think, turds.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book: Taipei Characters (aka Taipei People)

This slim volume (199 pages in this edition, published in 1982 by Indiana University Press; other editions carry different titles) contains 14 stories, all of which deal with the lives of mainland Chinese who relocated to Taiwan around 1949, the year the Republic of China's was defeated by Mao Zedong's Communists. Written in the 1960s by Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung (sometimes spelled Bai Xianyong 白先勇), the stories in Taipei People depict various types of people – former military officials and their widows, academics, courtesans and restaurant owners.

Pai's writing style is economical and beautiful; several of the stories are exquisite masterpieces. My favourites are Love's Lone Flower (in which the narrator recounts the life and demise of a Taiwanese bargirl/prostitute) and Winter Night. In the latter, two mainlander scholars meet up again after two decades apart; one spent those years in the USA, the other in Taiwan.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

White-clad cleric

Taoist clerics in Taiwan usually wear black robes, so this one's white, harlequin-like attire caught my eye. I spotted him coming out of Shoutian Temple (受天宮) in the hills above Ershui, Changhua County. The character on his hat (gold on a red background) means Buddha.

The temple itself has an impressive location, yet looks as though it might slide down the mountain when the next big typhoon hits.

The Ershui area is famous for macaques, and we saw several when hiking up to the temple.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Back to Little Liuqiu

A couple of weeks ago, I returned to Little Liuqiu, this time with my wife and son in tow, for 24 hours of ecotourism on behalf of Travel in Taiwan magazine. While driving around the southeastern corner of the island, we approached what most maps call 'Indian Rock', because it resembles a North American native wearing a traditional headdress. Our guide, a knowledgeable young man working for Dapeng Bay Scenic Area Administration, pointed out that many visitors feel it more closely resembles Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu.

The highlight of the visit was a nighttime tour of the intertidal zone at Yufu Fishing Harbor (魚福魚港). The foreshore there is rocky and uneven, so there are countless pools and trenches where sea creatures hide out between tides.

The guide sensibly began by warning us not to touch anything until he gave the OK; some denizens of the intertidal zone – such as rock boring urchins – can inflict nasty stings. We waded what seemed a considerable distance from dry land, but never getting more than our ankles wet, and saw black brittle starfish, sea cucumbers, and metre-long black-and-white worms no thicker than a strand of spaghetti. More remarkable were the sea hares, soft gastropods that emit purple ink when under attack. This substance intoxicates and disorients fish; our guide said that when he was child, he and his friends would use it to help them catch fish.

Like any good entertainer the guide had a finale. Asking us to dim our flashlights, he began brushing the water with his hand. Within seconds spots of greenish lights appeared in the water. Bioluminescent plankton, the underwater equivalent of fireflies!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book: Far Eastern Journey

This book, which describes a journey made in 1960, has long been out of print. I found my copy in a secondhand bookshop in the south of England more than a decade ago. The author, Bernard Newman (1897-1968), was very prolific, writing at least 20 travel books and around 80 other volumes. Unlike his contemporaries, Eric Newby and Norman Lewis, his body of work has mostly sunk without trace.

This book describes a trip from Pakistan to Taiwan, via India, Hong Kong and Singapore. Nine of the 26 chapters deal with Taiwan, where he was clearly regarded as an important visitor, meeting both Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.

On the second page of his account, he makes an observation that will cause anyone familiar with the crowded, chaotic streets of 21st-century Taiwan to chuckle:

"The great peril of Formosa was soon apparent: Not the people, who are very friendly and cheerful, but bicycles. They and their relatives, the pedicabs, bore down on me from all directions – from either side of the street, making their own rule of the road as they went along."

While in Taipei, Newman sees water buffalo pulling carts into the city, taking wood and farm produce to market. (I've never seen a buffalo in a city, but I've spotted more than a few in the countryside.) Visiting Wanhua's Longshan Temple, he sees effigies that strike him as “quite grotesque.” The Confucius Temple, however, is “much more dignified.”

His trip to Kinmen sounds exciting. The plane he travelled in, "flew very low... to avoid being caught on Chicom radar." These days, the Tourism Bureau suggests visitors go to Pingxi and release lanterns; Newman sent off a bunch of propaganda balloons in the direction of China's coast. In addition, he went to Sun Moon Lake and other places in the mountains; took in a Beijing opera performance; and witnessed a traditional funeral.

Politically, he's as naive as most short-term visitors. He pins all the blame for the February 28 Incident on Chen Yi, implying that Chiang Kai-shek did not plan or approve of the massacring of Taiwan's civic leadership. And he swallows the idea that while there weren't any proper opposition parties, the KMT regime wasn't really authoritarian.

"There have been a series of rumours...which suggest Chiang Kai-shek intends to found a dynasty, and has decided that his son, Lt. Gen. Chiang Ching-kuo, should be his successor. But actual events suggest that this is absurd. Chiang Kai-shek cannot defy the constitution."

Well, when the elder Chiang died in 1975, Chiang Ching-kuo was already premier (prime minister) and in day-to-day control of the government. Vice President Yen Chia-kan served out the remainder of Chiang Kai-shek's term, and no one was surprised when Chiang Ching-kuo became ROC president in 1978. Newman writes that at the time of his visit, there was talk of a new party being formed, the China Democratic Party. That party was crushed soon after it launched, and its leader Lei Chen was jailed for ten years.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A grave as big as a house

Spotted during my recent drive through Pingtung County, this ornate but slightly tattered grave of a physician surnamed Chang (張) who died in March 1958, and his wife. During the Japanese colonial era and for some decades afterwards, medical doctors were considered the elite of society, partly because senior government posts were reserved for Japanese (until 1945) or mainlanders (until the 1970s, at least).

The grave is located just south of the town of Wandan (萬丹).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hakka Cultural Artifacts Exhibition Hall

Several small museums around Taiwan celebrate the culture of the island's Hakka minority, and the one in Pingtung County's Xishi isn't bad, even though there's very little English labelling.

For me, the most interesting sections are those displaying traditional clothing and dealing with a custom that existed throughout the Chinese world, but which used to be especially strong in Hakka villages - that of scouring the streets for scraps of paper on which words were written or printed, picking them up and then taking them to a special furnace for burning. This tradition is said to reflect a deep reverence for learning and literacy.

According to Francis L. K. Hsu's often stupendously dull but occasionally fascinating book Americans & Chinese: Passage to Differences, traditional Chinese communities lacked the broad range of voluntary non-kinship groups we find in affluent societies including 21st-century Taiwan. Hsu says there were three exceptions: Associations that provided free coffins to the indigent, teetotalers' groups, and associations that, "hired men to roam the streets with bags on their backs and pointed sticks in their hands. They collected any piece of waste bearing written characters in the gutter or on the ground and burned what they collected at the end of the day in the specially provided urn in the local Confucian temple."

The museum includes a pair of dedicated baskets once used for collecting written-on paper (pictured above left).

I'm pretty certain the custom has died out. Would modern-day practitioners collect every single item bearing Chinese characters - cigarette packets, candy wrappers and the like?

The Hakka Cultural Artifacts Exhibition Hall (六堆客家文化園) is in the heart of Zhutian Township's Xishi Village (竹田鄉西勢村) and it's open Tuesday to Sunday, 09.00-17.30. If you read Chinese, you'll notice the Chinese name is actually "Liudui Hakka Culture Zone." The term Liudui doesn't refer to specific place, but rather to the six clusters of Hakka settlements in Pingtung and Kaohsiung who raised a militia to protect themselves during the Zhu Yi-gui (朱一貴) uprising of 1721.

The zone's other feature is an Yimin Temple
(忠義祠). Similar temples throughout Taiwan celebrate the sacrifices made by militiamen during various rebellions. The exhibition hall and the temple side by side, about 500m from Xishi TRA Station.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

As seen in many temples...

The character 囍 (pronounced) is often prominent in temples and also on the red paper banners glued to household doorways around the Lunar New Year. It means "joy" or "double happiness," and is thus greatly auspicious.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

SketchUp images of Taiwan landmarks

Drawings of dozens of temples, city gates, public buildings and other notable structures in Taiwan can be found on Google's SketchUp pages. However, doing a search isn't easy if you don't read Chinese.

Among them are Lukang Folk Arts Museum, the Japanese-era Assembly Hall in the same town, Taiwan's oldest Catholic Church, (in Wanjin, Pingtung County), and the ornamental gate of Donglong Temple in Donggang, also in Pingtung.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Religion and political correctness

This fascinating 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal relates how some temples in Kinmen County, an archipelago within shelling-distance of China, have toned down their anticommunist message in recent years, ever since tourists from the mainland - rather than ROC soldiers posted there to keep the communists at bay - have become a backbone of the economy.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A typical winter's day in the mountains of the south

Driving towards Namasia in Kaohsiung, on the final day of the Year of Tiger. Days like this - sunny yet not unpleasantly hot - are very common in the southern half of Taiwan between October and March. In the north, winters are decidedly wetter and colder.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Books: When Valleys Turned Blood Red

This book, written by an expert in Chinese and Taiwanese religions, explores a 1915 rebellion against Japanese rule in south Taiwan that left well over 1,000 dead. As author Paul R. Katz explains in his Introduction, the Ta-pa-ni Incident:

"[which was] named after the town where the fiercest fighting took place, was one of the largest acts of armed resistance to occur during the colonial era... [rebels] quickly overwhelmed numerous police stations in the mountains of today's Tainan and Kaohsiung counties. The uprising lasted for over one month and was put down only after sustained counterattacks by Japanese military and police forces."

That town is now known as Yujing (玉井). Fighting also convulsed the districts now called Nanhua (南化) and Jiaxian (甲仙). Because the rebels were led by a Kaohsiung native called Yu Ching-fang (余清芳), the revolt is also referred as the Yu Ching-fang Incident.

Japan did a great deal to develop Taiwan's economy and infrastructure. However, the beneficiaries were more often than not Japanese businessmen and corporations. (Most of the European and American firms active in Taiwan in the 1880s and 1890s found themselves squeezed out by World War I). As Katz explains, many local gentry resented Japanese rule for this reason, and ended up throwing in their lot with the rebels. He also explores how religion motivated the leaders.

It's a thorough and interesting book, but the subject matter is perhaps a little obscure for most readers.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Local colour VII

Morning mist settles over a betel nut plantation in the foothills of Chiayi County.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Of snails, bats and fish

Wherever there's greenery, there are snails; Taiwan is very green, so the island has an abundance of gastropods. Of approximately 300 snail species and sub-species, 70% are found nowhere else on Earth. At least one of Taiwan's snail species, an invasive exotic, is a major pest (pictured here). While most species are considered inedible, folk in the countryside (including my in-laws) do collect certain kinds for cooking and eating. After the snails are removed from their shells, they're scrubbed with guava leaves to remove the slime. They're then shallow fried with garlic, ginger or basil.

Bats are also common in Taiwan, even in urban areas. Eleven of Taiwan's 35 bat species are endemic. The Bat Conservation Society of Taipei's website has basic information in English plus several photos.

Fishing and changes to the island's rivers (especially canalization and the building of weirs and dams) have pushed 20 of Taiwan's 220 freshwater fish species close to extinction. The country's most intriguing fish is undoubtedly the Formosan landlocked salmon, first described by Japanese scientists in 1917. Two endemic fish species - Acrossocheilus paradoxus (sometimes known as the Taiwan stone minnow) and Candidia barbata - can be seen in Penglai Stream Biological Tour Area (蓬萊溪自然生態園區) in Miaoli County. Visitors can also expect to spot crabs, grey herons and clusters of butterflies.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Glove puppets and prison cells

Last week I took my son, a fan of Taiwanese glove puppetry, to Huwei in Yunlin County, home of Taiwan's best-known puppetry troupe, PiLi International Multimedia. The company's name reflects its high-tech approach to the art form; their TV shows (clips here and here) are spectacles full of acrobatic sword-wielding puppets, dry ice, pyrotechnics and sound effects. The photo above is from an exhibition in Kaohsiung a few years back.

In a renovated government building in the centre of Huwei, PiLi has set up a museum. There's very little English but the scores of puppets on display are still worth seeing. (An even better collection of puppets can be seen here). During the Japanese colonial era, the building had multiple functions, one room being divided into three jail cells. Yunlin Glove Puppetry Museum (雲林布袋戲館) is at 498 Linsen Rd Sec 1 (虎尾鎮林森路一段498號); tel 05 636 4826; open Tue-Sun 10.00-18.00.
The town of Huwei owes its growth to Taiwan's sugar industry. According to this article, Huwei's sugar refinery is one of just two on the island that still operate; at the time of our visit, it was belching steam.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Know your traditions: Divination in temples

Divination has been an aspect of Chinese religious life since the beginning of the country’s long history, when tortoise shells were heated and the resulting cracks ‘read’ in a process called pyromancy.

In 21st century Taiwan, a popular method of divination is the drawing lots. The lots are numbered bamboo slats (often 60 in total) placed in a cylinder on or beside an altar. Supplicants pick up the cylinder, give it a good shake and then pull out the slat sticking out the furthest. They read the number and, after casting poe (moon boards) to confirm it’s correct, take a sheet of paper from a tiny numbered drawer or off a numbered hook (pictured top left). On the paper there’s a message that usually 30 to 60 Chinese characters in length. Because the language is often obscure and/or archaic, expert help may be needed to understand it. The volunteers who clean and watch over temples sometimes assist temple-goes to interpret these short texts.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Taipei MRT Luzhou/Xinzhuang Line

On my recent trip to Taipei, I used the MRT's brand new Orange (Luzhou/Xinzhuang) Line for the first time. It's entirely underground, so as a travel experience it's no different to most of the capital's rapid-transit system. The line adds nine stations (most of which are in New Taipei City) to the network; it joins the Red (Danshui) Line at Minquan West Road and the Blue (Nangang/Banqiao) Line at Zhongxiao Xinsheng.

The line is more useful for commuters than tourists, but it will take you close to Dihua Street, and also to one major house or worship not mentioned in my guidebook: Xingtian Temple.

Monday, January 3, 2011

It's New Taipei City, not Xinbei

The central government has confirmed the English name of the local government area formerly known as Taipei County: New Taipei City. I and many other English-speaking expatriates think it's a bad choice. It makes confusion with Taipei City (the ROC's capital) very likely indeed, and it implies the capital (which it surrounds) is 'Old Taipei'.

For months, it seemed that after the county was upgraded to a special municipality, it would be known to the outside world as Xinbei City, a direct romanisation of its Chinese name (新北市, literally 'New North City'). That's why I used Xinbei in the first edition of my guidebook. Fortunately, this shouldn't cause problems for visitors, as they'll be boarding buses and trains to places within New Taipei City such as Danshui, Wulai and Sanxia (pictured left).

I feel better knowing I wasn't the only one caught out. The new edition of The Handy Guide for Foreigners in Taiwan (published by the central government in November 2010, but I've only just received my copy) says that the new name of Taipei County will be Xinbei City.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Xinbeitou's Longnai Hot Springs

My guidebook entry for Longnai Hot Springs (瀧乃湯) (244 Guangming Rd, Xinbeitou, Taipei; admission NTD90/50; open: 06.30—21.00 daily) reads: Almost lost amid much taller and newer buildings, Longnai offers a thoroughly traditional bathing experience. There are two pools inside this slightly decrepit 70-year-old wooden bungalow, one for each gender; no swimsuits needed. The water is usually 38—42 degrees Celsius. From Longnai it’s less than 500m to Xinbeitou MRT Station.

All of the above is correct, but a few more words can be added: No towels are provided, and there's no WC inside the building - so go before you pay for admission.