Friday, December 11, 2015

Taiwan through the lens of Josh Ellis, Part 2

This is Part 2 of an interview with Josh Ellis, a Canadian photographer living in north Taiwan. (Part 1 is here.)

Do you do commercial photography?

Yes. I have to travel around the country getting shots for clients, which requires a bit of flexibility. Most of the people I do work for are overseas and probably don't understand the amount of travel involved in doing what I do for them. When I originally arrived in Taiwan, I started working for an English school and I'm still there part-time. They’re quite flexible with me and treat me quite well; they’re willing to accept that my workload will be considerably less than most of their other employees. I teach a few days per week for them and also help with training new employees. Teaching was always a means to an end, particularly when I needed a work permit. I'm now a permanent resident, so I can do pretty much whatever I want, work-wise. My friends often ask why I still bother to teach, but I like the flexibility my company gives me. Also, the income it brings stabilizes my fluctuating photography income.

Have you had any weird or unpleasant experiences when taking photos?

Generally speaking, Taiwan is a very photo-friendly country. Over the past five or so years DSLR cameras have become pretty common. A lot of people are trying their hand at photography and I find that the accessibility of so-called professional-level cameras tends to skew the line between amateur and professional; this is part of the reason why I don't like to use the terms very often. The amount of images floating around the internet really creates a lot of competition for working photographers, so you have to do your best to stand out from the crowd and only post your best work. That being said, Taiwanese people are generally pretty great when it comes to photography. When you do street photography it is all about the momentary relationship you create with a person. Sometimes you’ll find someone who doesn't want their photo taken but most of the time it is fine and people don't mind. 

In my decade of shooting here I’ve only been told not to take a photo of something twice. I remember each experience vividly because of the rarity of being told not to take a shot and the strangeness of the situations. The first time was a year or so ago on Shenkeng Old Street. I came across a store that had a bunch of cool-looking traditional hats and oddities on the storefront. What struck me about the place was how adamant the boss was about not wanting pictures to be taken. He had at least 10 different signs saying “No photos,” which I thought was quite extreme. I decided to take a photo out of spite since the boss was standing in front of me. The resulting photo [below] features a guy with an angry face, and it made an excellent street shot with what was happening in the background. 
More recently while I was shooting Zhinan Temple, near Maokong in Taipei. A temple volunteer took exception to me shooting a religious ceremony taking place and indicated quite rudely that I shouldn't be taking photos. She then proceeded to follow me around until I felt so uncomfortable I left. As a photographer you have to be considerate of people and know when something is okay and when it isn't. I do my best to be respectful and considerate of people in all aspects of life, so photography is just an extension of that. If anyone ever objects to what I do, then I will delete the shot and apologize. I think that is probably a general rule among most people who are fans of street photography – but for the most part Taiwanese people are very welcoming and don't mind having their pictures taken.

You live in Zhongli, which has something of bad reputation.

Before coming to Taiwan I didn't do much research. I had heard how beautiful Taiwan was when I was in China. The people there had talked about the country as a sort of Shangri-La they all wanted to visit but couldn't because of the political situation at the time. I thought that nowhere could be as bad as Beijing when it comes to pollution and weather, so when I decided to accept a position as a teacher I didn't really bother to check where it was. I noted that I'd be living close to the airport and a short bus or train ride to Taipei, but would also be close to the mountains and Hsinchu

After living in Zhongli [pictured below] for ten years, I can't say I have any complaints or that in my ignorance I made a terrible mistake. I have a love affair with the city, even though I know it has a bad reputation among expats. I think most of those opinions are unfounded. The way I see it is that I live in a city full of Hakka people, culture and food. I have a great respect for that culture and I think you'll see through my work that I've done a lot to promote Hakka culture and different tourist spots related to their history on the island. Zhongli isn't perfect – like any industrial city it does have its gloom, especially during winter. 
Living here for ten years means I've seen the city change and develop into much nicer, cleaner and greener place. I like the direction the city is taking. When the MRT line is completed, it’ll be another satellite city of Taipei and will attract people sick of the cost of living in the capital. People often ask why I don't move to Taipei, but I don't see why I'd leave where I am. Most of my work is done outside of Taipei and moving there would just require more travelling. Also, most landlords in the capital aren’t big fans of tenants who have pets. I have a Shetland Sheepdog that was saved from a shelter near here. My ancestry is 100% Scottish and one of the ways we celebrate our heritage is to always have a sheltie. My parents have one, my sister has one and when I found the opportunity to get one, I got one too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Taiwan through the lens of Josh Ellis, Part 1

Josh Ellis, who grew up next to the ocean on Canada’s east coast, has been photographing Taiwan since 2005. He describes his website as a “showcase for what I do, but also a way of promoting Taiwan and helping educate people around the world about how amazing this country is.” This is Part I of an interview conducted by email in October and November 2015. 
Is it true you ended up studying Chinese by accident?

Yeah, when I got to university, I found I had to take a second-language credit in order to graduate. I decided to try my hand at Japanese. The class was full of young guys much more invested in learning the language than I was, so on the first day of class, when the dean asked some of us if we would be willing to consider taking another language to free up space, I decided to take Mandarin instead. That decision pretty much shaped what’s happened since. I graduated with dual degrees in International Development and Asian Studies; before graduation I did an internship which brought me to China to further develop my language skills in an immersion program at Peking University, and to work on a Canadian government sponsored development project.

Why did you move to Taiwan? 

After graduation, I spent a few months checking out the job market in Canada, but felt the itch to come back to Asia to improve my language skills and continue travelling. I saw an ad about teaching English in Taiwan, so decided to give it a try. I arrived in Taiwan in the summer of 2005, and I noticed almost right away that Taiwan was a lot different to China. I noticed how clean it was and how the people seemed to be quite similar to Canadians in terms of how they treated others. Some of these similarities are among the reasons I’ve stayed for over a decade. I love that I can be in a modern city with a population bigger than most Canadian cities, but still be so close to nature. Taiwan has spoiled me over these years and I have a hard time thinking what life would be like back home without all the conveniences of this beautiful country.

Were you already a keen photographer when you arrived?

I was always into photography when I was young but wasn’t really able to do anything serious about it. After arriving, like a lot of travellers I took pictures documenting everything I was doing, and all the things that were new to me, to show friends and family back home. After about a month of living here I decided to upgrade and buy my first DSLR. Since then, everything I’ve done has been somewhat photography-related. Photography has been a very important facet of my experiences here.
I hope that when people see photos I’ve shot and how I frame them, they’re able to learn something not only from the photo, but from the information I provide with them. It’s great to hear from Taiwanese friends that I’ve shot something they didn’t even know existed, or that they’d never really imagined it would look as cool as it does in one of my photos. I think when you’re a foreign photographer in any country you tend to look at things differently to the locals, and see what they might miss or think isn’t special.

Many photographers adore Taiwan’s temple culture. Are you one of them?

Absolutely. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring temples all over the nation and trying to learn as much about them as I can. I love taking shots which not only show off the beautiful architecture, but also the amazing details you find inside. 

Taiwan also offers a lot of opportunity for taking beautiful landscape shots. I’m often lugging heavy camera gear up some of Taiwan’s highest mountains and taking shots of the coastline, rivers and waterfalls. Taiwan may be a small country, but there are countless locations available to photographers to show off the beauty of the country. 

Apart from temples and natural landscape, what else appeals to you?

I’m also a big fan of street photography, which involves walking around and getting candid shots of people going about their everyday lives. I think not living Taipei means I have better opportunities to explore and take photos that tell the story of Taiwan’s people and their lives.  
I do a lot of research about the places I visit, and I’m still trying to gauge what my audience is most interested in. My posts about the Qingshui Cliffs [pictured above] and Mukumugi Gorge in Hualien generated quite a lot of buzz, but then so did my post about the controversial Pigs of God ritual; this might the only post where I criticize Taiwan. I posted a quick article about a local restaurant that I thought would be nostalgic for some of my ex-coworkers who’ve since left Taiwan; it ended up going viral with hundreds of thousands of hits since I posted it, something I never would have imagined. Earlier this year I did a project where I visited several of Taiwan’s biggest night markets to shoot street-photography-style portraits of the people working there and explain a bit about what they do. This project has been quite popular. I’ve finished the shooting and hope to have the last four posts, about Miaokou Night Market in Keelung, posted before the end of the year.

I think I’m a very organized person, so I’ve a long list of places I need to get to over a certain period of time. I recently hiked up to a peak that isn’t very well known, Yuanzui Mountain in Daxueshan National Forest Recreation Area. From the peak there’s an amazing 360-degree view of Taiwan’s mountains. The location is perfect for the kind of work I do, but unfortunately as I was nearing the peak the weather took a turn for the worse. Everything disappeared in a cloud of mist, which means I need to make another trip in the near future. Apart from mountains, I’ll be shooting some upcoming temple festivals, Taiwanese opera performances, and I’m hoping to get to Kinmen and Matsu in the near future.

Part 2 of the interview can be read here.

Monday, November 30, 2015

International Spotlight: South Taiwan

The Taiwan Tourism Bureau's International Spotlight program is designed to inspire and attract 'slow travellers', the kind of people who prefer to take their time, and who feel no compulsion to see each and every attraction. In addition to covering parts of the north and central part of the island, the program introduces the scenic, culinary and shopping highlights of Greater Tainan. 

Located just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Tainan is a relic-packed city which served as the island’s political and administrative center between the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1624 and 1885. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Taiwan was a neglected backwater of China’s Qing Empire. The weather is reliably dry and comfortably sunny between October and March. For anyone who likes to be outdoors, whether in an urban setting or deep in the countryside, Tainan and wintertime go together perfectly.

Tainan is already well known to tourists on account of its fabulous temples, fascinating fortresses and delicious street food. The pace of life here is far more relaxing than in Taipei; a great many visitors are happy to do little more than wander at random, on foot or with a hired bicycle. But, of course, those who explore with the assistance of a guide, or read up before setting out, will come away with a far better understanding of this ancient city and its many treasures.
The International Spotlight Southern Region has its own trilingual website where anyone considering a trip to the south can find theme routes and descriptions of historic neighbourhoods. One such zone lies around Zhongzheng Road and Haian Road. A must-see hereabouts is Shennong Street, perhaps Taiwan’s most traditional thoroughfare. As recently as the 19th century, before human land-reclamation efforts and natural sedimentation pushed the coastline further west, this part of the city was a stone’s throw from the ocean. A few of the old two-storey houses, built by merchants to serve as both homes and warehouses, have been turned into shops or bars.

Far more modern yet still of considerable historic interest are landmarks which date from Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. What's now Tainan Meteorological Observatory is said to be the oldest Japanese-era official building surviving in Taiwan. Locals have nicknamed this 1898 structure 'the pepper pot' on account of its circular shape. Among the items displayed inside are old seismographs.

The Old Union Hall (also known as the Former Tainan Meeting Hall, pictured below) and the adjacent Wu’s Garden is a superb spot for a picnic. The former is a 1911 French-influenced structure that hosts occasional exhibitions. The latter dates from the 1820s and is named for Wu Shang-xin, a salt tycoon who owned this land and commissioned the garden’s creation.
Tainan folk are hardly exaggerating when they quip their city 'has a small shrine every three steps, and a major temple every five steps'. The Confucius Temple offers a sense of eternal tranquility, while the Martial Rites Temple (also known as the Official God of War Temple) is equally gorgeous. The former is dedicated to the sage now regarded as China’s greatest philosopher, while the latter honours Guan Gong, a general who lived and fought in China more than 1,800 years ago.

To the delight of those who have several days to explore Tainan, goes well beyond the usual tourist haunts. There are directions to Xihua Tang, an ancient Buddhist house of worship, the Great South Gate, a holdover from when Tainan was encircled by a protective wall, and the Temple of the Lord of the North Pole.

The majority of Tainan’s attractions are within 20 minutes’ walk of the TRA Station, which itself is linked to the high-speed railway by frequent shuttle trains. However, visitors should make at least one trip outside the downtown, ideally to Anping. This is where the Dutch established their trading colony in the early 17th century, and the bastion they called Fort Zeelandia is now a captivating ruin. This part of the city abuts the ocean, so it is no surprise that oysters and shrimps feature in the dishes enjoyed by many visitors.

Riding a bicycle from the Confucius Temple to Fort Zeelandia takes around 20 minutes. An alternative form of transport is city bus no. 2, which stops at Tainan TRA Station, the National Museum of Taiwan Literature and Confucius Temple en route to Anping. Having got that far, visitors may wish to explore the coast, parts of which have been incorporated into Taijiang National Park.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Taiwan's bike-friendly railway stations

At more and more train stations in Taiwan, I'm seeing ramps like these. Alongside the lifts installed mainly for the benefit of elderly, disabled and heavily encumbered passengers, these ramps make life much easier for commuters and tourists taking bicycles on trains. 

The rules limiting what kind of trains you can carry bikes onto, and whether you need to pay extra, are somewhat complex. Passengers with a folding bicycle in a bag needn't pay anything, unless they take one of the Puyuma Express services between Taipei and the east coast cities of Hualien and Taitung. Those with non-folding bikes must always pay, but never more than an adult does on the same route.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

International Spotlight: Central Taiwan

In many countries, the capital city has a lion’s share of traveller magnets. Yet it's also true that getting to know a nation means exploring well beyond the seat of government. Taiwan is no exception to this: Taipei has endless things to see and so, but to fly out having seen nothing of central, southern or eastern Taiwan would be to miss much of Taiwan’s loveliest scenery and most authentic culture. 

The Tourism Bureau’s International Spotlight campaign has two central Taiwan programs. Viewed as a whole, Taiwan's central region is incredibly diverse. It can be said that everything which can be found in Taiwan – scenery, ethnic groups and cuisines – can be experienced here. The coastal town of Lugang has a stupendous density of historic and cultural attractions, while Sun Moon Lake is famed for its pretty scenery and temperate climate. The region’s interior boasts several of Taiwan’s highest mountains as well as indigenous communities. 

One program focuses on Taichung, a thoroughly modern municipality with a population of 2.74 million, spread over 2,214 km2. The other introduces Chiayi, a much smaller city (271,000 people on 60km2).

The toponym Taichung literally means “central Taiwan,” just as Taipei means “north Taiwan,” Tainan is “south Taiwan” and Taitung is “east Taiwan”. It has an excellent range of restaurants (this city guide is useful if you want to find new places to eat), although many visitors prefer street food at the huge and often very crowded Feng Chia Night Market. 

Taichung (where I took the photo above, inside Wanhe Temple) is the home of Chun Shui Tang, a tea-house chain where pearl milk tea (also known as “bubble tea”) is said to have been invented. In case you don't know, pearl milk tea is a blend of black tea, chewy tapioca balls (the “pearls”), syrupy sweetener and cream that's usually drunk cold. It's one of Taiwan’s most successful culinary exports and is now enjoyed as far away as Singapore, London and Florida. 

One of Taichung’s newer tourist attractions is in fact a reconstruction of a pre-World War II building. What's now called the Natural Ways Six Arts Cultural Centre was once a dojo (a place where Japanese martial arts were studied) attached to a jail. It's a quintessentially Japanese structure which dates from Tokyo’s 1895-1945 colonization of Taiwan. The centre’s name alludes to the six disciplines ancient Chinese regarded as key to a gentleman’s education; rites, music, calligraphy, mathematics, charioteering and archery. However, the activities held here reflect the great interest many Taiwanese have in Japanese culture. There are classes in Japanese tea ceremony, ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), the martial art kendo, and the board game Go.

When the authorities decided to renovate and reopen the dojo, they no doubt hoped it would help draw tourists to the city. But the popularity of Rainbow Village – a place I've yet to visit – surely took them by surprise. 

Taichung City Government is responsible for an area totalling 2,214 km2. But instead of trying to cover the entire city, the International Spotlight encourages visitors to spend quality in the heart of the city. Over the course of a day, urban explorers can follow the Greenway to the National Museum of Natural Science and National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Adjacent to the former is a spacious botanical garden – be sure to go into the beautiful greenhouse – while the latter has a permanent exhibition featuring 82 works by major Taiwanese artists. 

Chiayi City is 86km south of Taichung. The most efficient way to get from the latter to the former is by TRA train; expresses take as little as an hour and a quarter and cost NTD224 one way. (Buses are cheaper but slower). Much of Chiayi can be explored on foot, although you'll want to jump into a taxi if you're heading to Chiayi Arboretum. I took the photo below, which shows a former Shinto shrine now serving as a local museum, in the sprawling park next to the arboretum. 

A key destination in Chiayi is Cypress Forestry Life Village, a cluster of Japanese-style bungalows originally built for timber-industry executives and their families. Recently refurbished, the village contains several art spaces and is within walking distance of Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park and Chiayi Motive Power Wood Sculpture Museum. At the former, train fans can get a close look at some of the locomotives and cars that ply the famous narrow-gauge mountain railway between Chiayi and the mountain resort of Alishan. The latter, once a power station, now exhibits prize-winning wood carvings.

Getting to central Taiwan from overseas no longer involves a two or three-hour bus, train or car journey from the airports at Taoyuan and Kaohsiung. It's not even necessary to use the high-speed railway; Taichung Airport has flights to/from Hong Kong, Shanghai and several other cities on the Chinese mainland, as well as scheduled and charter services to/from Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The skyline of Kaohsiung

These images show two of Kaohsiung's landmark buildings: In the foreground, Kaohsiung Exhibition Centre; behind it, the prong-shaped 85 Sky Tower. The former is a convention and trade-show venue which was inaugurated in April 2014. The latter was finished in 1997 and was for several years the tallest structure in Taiwan, until the completion of Taipei 101. Inside this 378m-high there's a swanky hotel, a great deal of unused office space, and some illegal homestays. One of the architects who designed it was C.Y. Lee, who later won great fame for Taipei 101. Kaohsiung's new light-rail system, which is due to commence regular services later this year, will offer very convenient transport to the exhibition centre. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

International Spotlight: North Taiwan

Taiwan's Tourism Bureau is sometimes criticized for appearing to focus on attracting ever-increasing numbers of mainland Chinese visitors while paying insufficient attention to other markets. It's certainly true the tourism boom of recent years has been unbalanced. Headline attractions such as Taipei 101, the National Palace Museum, Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge pull in so many Chinese tour groups that some Taiwanese say they now avoid these places. Also, many worry the crowds scare off other kinds of tourists, such as Japanese and Western backpackers who hope to really get to know Taiwan.

It's good to know, therefore, that in recent years the Tourism Bureau has been promoting its International Spotlight program. Proof the bureau understands the appeal of 'slow travel', it's an effort to draw discerning travelers to history-rich neighbourhoods and bucolic villages where they can sample local delicacies, appreciate traditional crafts, and savour unique scenes. The International Spotlight’s Chinese-Japanese-English website has details of five regional programs plus a few special offers.

Two programs feature Taipei, a delightful city in which to spend time. With a population of 2.7 million, it's far from daunting in size, yet big enough to contain everything an intelligent visitor could require, such as an excellent range of cuisines, dozens of places where you can get an invigorating foot massage, and coffee good enough to put everything back on track.

The Northern Region I program highlights Chengzhong, Dadaocheng, Daan, and Beitou. All but Beitou are in the heart of the city.

Chengzhong means 'in the middle of the area surrounded by the city’s walls'. (Taipei’s walls were demolished before World War I to make space for urban renewal). For well over a century, Chengzhong has been dominated by government offices. But like Westminster in London, between the ministries lie excellent restaurants, bookshops and architectural-historical gems such as Futai Street Mansion and Zhongshan Hall are here. The last, history buffs might be interested to know, is where the Japanese authorities in Taiwan signed the instrument of surrender to the Allies on 25 October 1945; at that time, around 170,000 Japanese military personnel, and perhaps twice as many Japanese civilians, were on the island.

In the late 19th century, Taiwanese oolong tea was in great demand, and Dadaocheng’s merchants grew prosperous supplying buyers as far afield as New York. Tea merchants still do business here but it's the colourful stores on Dihua Street (above, my photo) which best embody this neighbourhood’s traditional character. That said, Dadaocheng’s single most impressive building is devoted to religion rather than commerce: Dalongdong Baoan Temple.

Daan District, 2km to the east, is noticeably more modern. Packed to the gills with stores and restaurants, Daan’s Zhongxiao East Road is likely Taiwan’s busiest shopping zone. Many of the best eats are in the compact Kang Qing Long neighborhood, so called because it includes Yongkang, Qingtian and Longquan streets. Several bus routes stop nearby, and Dongmen MRT Station is just a seven-minute ride from Taipei Main Railway Station.
Beitou, which is also best reached by MRT, is famous for its hot springs. These can be enjoyed in various hotels from the affordable to the super-luxurious. For an inexpensive hot-springs experience, head to Longnai Tang, a Japanese-era bungalow with two small indoor pools (one for men, one for women). Senior citizens soak here on winter afternoons; office workers come just before dinner. Beitou also has a gorgeous Japanese-era Buddhist house of worship, Puji Temple (second image, also mine).

The Northern Region II program embraces Taipei’s Zhongshan and Datong districts – both of which offer shopping, restaurants, and attractions including the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei – as well as some further-flung locations. To non-foodies, the most intriguing of these is in Muzha, near Taipei Zoo and Maokong Gondola. There, U-Theatre Ensemble performs at a hilltop venue reachable only be a steep footpath. This internationally acclaimed troupe has won rave reviews for mesmerizing drum-centered performances magnified by the natural setting.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Taxi fares in Taipei going up

For the first time in several years, taxi fares in Taipei, New Taipei City and Keelung are going up. In theory, all taxis should have started charging the higher rates on October 1, but because the majority haven't yet been able to adjust their meters, many are still using the old formula. Some, it seems, are using unadjusted meters then referring to a printed price list to calculate the right fare. If you're taking lots of taxis around the capital, be prepared for drivers who ask for a bit more than what's shown on the meter, and expect some confusion.

Here's the mathematics if you want to work it out for yourself: There's no change to the basic NTD70 charge for the first 250m, but from now on NTD5 will be added for every 200m, not 250m as before. When the taxi is stationery (at red lights or during a traffic jam), NTD5 will be charged per 80 seconds, instead of 100 seconds. 

According to media reports, typical journeys will be about 14% more expensive. Given that Taipei's public transport is pretty good, it is ever worth taking a taxi? It depends where you're going. If you're heading to the National Revolutionary Martyrs Shrine, for instance, a taxi ride from Yuanshan MRT Station will certainly save you some time. But for many other destinations, the MRT is likely to be just as quick. If there's three or four of you, a taxi may still work out cheaper than taking the MRT.

It's unclear whether certain set fares to more remote spots - such as from Wulai's bus stop to the village of Fushan - will also rise. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A typhoon-damaged shrine

Now the 2015 typhoon season is drawing to an end, I thought I'd post this image I took in a mountainous part of Chiayi County back in 2010, of a land-god shrine that was almost totally destroyed by a landslide during Typhoon Morakot, but dug out by nearby villagers, cleaned up and put back into use.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Free half-day tours for transit passengers at Taoyuan Airport

Like several other airports around the world (Singapore being perhaps the best-known example), Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport now offers transit and transfer passengers with at least seven hours before their next flight the chance to see a little bit of northern Taiwan for free.

Each tour last around five hours. The morning tour, which sets out at 8:00, heads inland to Sanxia in New Taipei City for a look at Zushi Temple before proceeding to nearby Yingge, a town best known for its ceramics industry and museumThe afternoon tour kicks off at 13.30 and goes to the heart of the capital, stopping at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Taipei 101

Not everyone can join these tours. Britons, Americans, Japanese, Singaporeans and others whose passports qualify them for visa-free entry are in the clear. Some other nationalities - among them Indians, Thais and Indonesians - can join the tours if they hold a valid visa for or permanent residency rights in the United States, Canada, Japan, the UK, any Schengen nation, Australia or New Zealand.

Each tour is limited to 18 people. It's not possible to sign up in advance, so it's best to get to the waiting point ahead of time. For more details, go here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dodging typhoons on the east coast

We managed to complete our recent East Coast expedition before either of the approaching typhoons made driving unpleasant. Stopping briefly above the gritty harbour town of Suao in Yilan, my wife took this photo of fishing vessels which would normally be at work on the high seas moored out of harm's way. 

Suao is at the northern end of the famously scenic but scary-in-places Suhua Highway; this webpage has several good photos taken along the road about a decade ago. Since then, some of the more dangerous curves and narrower sections have been replaced by tunnels. A major upgrade of the road, due to be completed by the end of 2017, will make getting from Yilan to Hualien significantly quicker and safer. For those who'd rather not drive, there are regular trains; for many years there's been no public bus service along the highway.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

On-the-spot sales tax (VAT) refunds for tourists

Foreign citizens visiting Taiwan can take advantage of a sales-tax (VAT) refund system if they spend more than NTD3,000 in a single day at any participating shop no more than 30 days before departing from the ROC. 

They’re required, of course, to take the items with them when they leave. Participating businesses (this official English-language list is likely incomplete, as it shows none in the eastern part of the island) includes almost every department store in Taiwan, some computer shops and several opticians. One recent amendment to the system provides that, if the total VAT refund amount is under NT$1,000 (which would be the case if the tourist has spent no more than NT$20,000) he or she may apply directly to the store for an on-the-spot refund. 

Visitors who want to apply for refunds when leaving the country can do so at either terminal in Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport; at Kaohsiung, Taichung or Hualien airports; or (if they're departing by cruise ship or ferry) in the passenger terminals at Keelung, Hualien or Taichung harbours. At present there's no refund counter in Kinmen County; the Matsu Islands; or Tainan Airport, which has flights to/from Wuhan and Hong Kong in China, plus - starting late October - to/from Osaka in Japan. 

The photo above is public domain, via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Synapticism: Fascinating blog posts about Taiwan

Synapticism isn't a blog specifically about Taiwan, but the photographer/DJ/digital nomad behind it (who goes by the name Alexander Synaptic) has spent much of the past two and a half years in Taiwan, and has explored the country in exceptional and fascinating depth. Rather than visit and write about popular tourist attractions like the National Palace Museum or Kenting National Park, he prefers to explore abandoned residential and commercial buildings, disused industrial sites and obscure but intriguing elements of urban life, such as the levees and flood-prevention barriers that surround Taipei.

Like me, he's found that few places are as atmospheric or photogenic as semi-collapsed sanheyuan (traditional three-sided courtyard houses). One of his most recent - and most beautifully illustrated - posts concerns a region not far from my home: The 'moonworld' badlands of Tainan and Kaohsiung.

The photo above is from a blog post about Yumei Hall in Changhua County.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Oral history of the Puyuma people

Outside Taitung's Immaculate Conception Church, more than two dozen painted wall panels depict scenes from the legendary and oral history of the Puyuma people, one of 16 indigenous ethnic groups recognized by Taiwan's government. As of June 2015, just under 13,500 Taiwanese were registered members of the Puyuma (sometimes called the Pinuyumayan) tribe.
Most of the pictures lack captions in Chinese let alone English, so working out what they represent is far from easy. The top image presumably shows a Puyuma elder telling a foreign priest about his tribe's traditions. The second picture, I'd guess, depicts part of the Puyuma's creation myth.
Does this show a forest fire that resulted from carelessly roasting a pig? Typhoons and earthquakes are the most common natural disasters to afflict Taiwan, but serious forest fires do occur from time to time.
Here, a Puyuma brave fights a bear. Oddly, the animal doesn't resemble a Formosan black bear (Ursus thibetanus formosanus), Taiwan's only ursine species.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Zhiben Catholic Church

The exterior of the Immaculate Conception Church in Zhiben, Taitung County resembles neither a European church - there's no steeple - nor any of the Catholic houses of worship around the island which incorporate Chinese 'Northern Palace' architecture. Like many buildings that date from the early 1950s, it's a simple concrete box that leaks when there's heavy rain. Yet the grounds are spacious and the interior reflects the heritage of the indigenous Puyuma people who worship here.

According to the priest, around 70 people attend Sunday service, and both Mandarin and the Puyuma language are used in the church; click on the photo below to enlarge it, and you'll notice the hymn book has romanized Puyuma as well as Chinese script. Visitors should ask for permission from the priest or caretaker before entering the church, the address of which is 15, Lane 331, Zhiben Road Section 3 (知本路3段331巷15號). There's a map and Chinese-language information here. The wall which surrounds the churchyard has paintings which show scenes from the tribe's oral history.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Design*Sponge's guide to Taipei

A bang up-to-date and very comprehensive introduction to places to shop, eat, drink coffee and soak up culture, the Design*Sponge Taipei City Guide is recommended for people planning to spend a few days or more in Taiwan's capital. Among the 100-odd listings are sightseeing highlights like Bopiliao and Shifen, some of the city's museums, tea-houses, and the seafood market-restaurant complex called Aquatic Addiction Development, which I visited recently to research this article.  

The guide was compiled by Stephanie Hsu, aka The Thousandth Girl, on whose site you'll find other useful Taiwan-related articles.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

An online guide to Taiwan's wetlands

Throughout the world, wetlands are regarded as sites of exceptional biodiversity. In addition to hosting large numbers of aquatic plants, insects and birds, they help the overall environment in various ways. Wetlands are able to remove certain contaminants from water; they also absorb excess water and so mitigate floods. There's some evidence they're absorbing more carbon dioxide as the planet gets warmer, yet some studies indicate they're now releasing more methane than before. This is worrying, because as a greenhouse-gas it's far more potent than CO2.

Over the past four centuries, several of Taiwan's inland wetlands have disappeared, drained so Han Chinese settlers could farm the land. Parts of major coastal wetlands have been converted into industrial zones. In the past few decades, however, the country's remaining wetlands have been recognised as a valuable ecological resource. They now enjoy some legal and social protection. According to this government website, Taiwan has two wetlands of international importance, fifty of national importance and another forty of regional importance. In total, these wetlands cover around 57,000 hectares of land, or more than 1.5% of Taiwan's land area.

The fact the English-language section of the website obviously isn't complete and seems not to have been updated for some time hopefully doesn't reflect official indifference to the fate and state of wetlands around the ROC; the Chinese-language section is much better. The words 'Ramsar Citizen' may confuse some readers: They refer to the Convention on Wetlands that was signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971; Taiwan isn't a contracting party to the convention, no doubt because of its diplomatic isolation.

Both of the ROC's internationally-significant wetlands are in Tainan City, and both lie within Taijiang National Park: The estuary of the Zengwen River (曾文溪) and Sicao (四草, spelled Sihcao on the website). Officially, the Zengwen drains 1,177km2 (around 3.2%of the land area of the main island of Taiwan) and is 138.5km long. Within Sicao are nature reserves plus relics of the region's now-defunct salt industry. Both attract great numbers of birds, especially during the south's long, comfortable October-to-April dry season. 

Several of the wetlands described on the website are off-limits to the public. One is Yuanyang Lake Wetland (鴛鴦湖濕地), located in mid-elevation mountains in the north. It's Chinese name translates as 'Mandarin Duck Lake' - owls, woodpeckers and other avians abound. A surprising number of the sites listed are manmade. Among the locations in this category is Guantian Wetland (官田濕地), also in Taiwan, which I wrote about back in 2006.

Wetlands Taiwan has lots of good photos and Chinese-language information on its website. The photo above comes from the Society of Wilderness page on Shuanglianpi (雙連埤) in Yilan County, accessed by the road to Fushan Botanical Garden.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dragon Boat Festival is coming

Possibly the oldest sport in Taiwan, dragon-boat racing is an integral part of Duanwu Festival, an annual celebration for people of Chinese origin for over 2,000 years. The festival’s key date is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which this year falls on June 20. Each boat is guided by a drummer whose beats help the 20 paddlers synchronize their strokes; the vessels get their name from dragon-head decorations at the bow and the dragon tail at the stern.

Duanwu Festival is also when Taiwanese people make and eat sticky rice dumplings, known in Mandarin as zhongzi (粽子). These contain pork, mushrooms, peanuts and sometimes other ingredients. They commemorate Qu Yuan, a poet and government official who lived more than 2,300 years ago. Qu is remembered for his patriotism and loyalty. While in exile, he learned the emperor he had served had been overthrown. Distraught, he tied rocks to his feet and ended his life by jumping into a river in what is now mainland China’s Hunan province. Because Qu was so respected by those who knew him, when they heard about his demise they hurled rice balls into the water, so his body wouldn't be eaten by fish. That is how the rice-dumpling custom got started; the dragon-boat races are inspired by the local people who rushed out in their boats in a bid to save Qu.

While Taiwanese aren't nearly so keen on team sports as Americans or Australians, they've embraced cheerleading with a passion. Any event, including dragon-boat races, is an excuse. (Both photos taken from Changhua County Government's website.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Political protests at Taipei 101

Because it's a popular attraction with mainland Chinese tourists, Taipei 101 attracts a range of political protestors, among them Falun Gong practitioners and advocates of Taiwan independence. This man, who I met a couple of months ago, was demonstrating in support of an intriguing but much derided and utterly impractical idea. According to him and the likes of Roger C.S. Lin, Taiwan should be under US military administration, because the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco did not specify who should take control of the island once Japan had renounced all rights to it. Lin filed a suit in US courts, seeking to force Washington to recognize its own rights and responsibilities regarding Taiwan. Even though the suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2009, diehards haven't abandoned their campaign.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The old logging village of Lintianshan

These images are displayed in Hualien County's Lintianshan (林田山), which between the 1920s and early 1970s was a centre of Taiwan's timber industry. According to this article, at one point over 2,000 people lived here. Now just a handful of households remain. Lintianshan itself is at the base of the mountains; the actual felling was done at higher elevations, reached by a network of narrow-guage railroads (see the pictures below) and cable links. In the photo above, notice the man on the right has a baby strapped to his back!
Industrial accidents were surely very common given the absence of helmets and harnesses, not to mention the precipices and unstable cliffs which characterize Taiwan's mountains.
To get an idea how far Lintianshan's logging railway penetrated into the interior, see maps 27 and 28 in the Central East Taiwan section of

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Rushing waters in Wulai

One of the better photos I took on the murky but highly enjoyable day I spent in Wulai in January, researching this article. Even though the main village was crowded (it being the height of the hot-spring enjoyment season), peace and quiet wasn't far away...

Monday, April 6, 2015

Books: On the Road to Freedom

On the Road to Freedom: A Backpacker’s Guide to Taiwan’s Struggle for Democracy is a niche guidebook published at the end of 2013 by Taiwan Interminds Publishing, the company behind the excellent series of guides to Taiwan’s indigenous communities by Cheryl Robbins. It was written Wu I-chen (吳易蓁), a theatre director and filmmaker, and translated into English by Harry Yi-jui Wu (吳易叡). Despite their similar names, they appear not to be related.

Anyone interested in Taiwan's political history will find this bilingual 238-page an interesting read and well worth the price (NT$380), even though there are some annoying spelling and style inconsistencies. The city and county just south of Taichung is spelled Changhua (彰化) at one point, Zhanghua at another. On page 51, the first Taiwanese person to receive a PhD degree is referred to as Mosei Lin (林茂生), which is also the spelling used by Wikipedia. On page 98, however, he's Lin Mao-seng. Both entries mention his disappearance and likely execution in the wake of the 2-28 Incident. The former Yilan county magistrate and justice minister Chen Ding-nan (陳定南) is Chen Ting-nan in the table of contents (a spelling very seldom used in news reports), then Ding-nan Chen on page 131.

Overall, I could find very little wrong with the book. It covers not only museums, memorials and locations where important events happened, but also graveyards and former jails. There's useful information on several places I've never been to and a few I'd not even heard of. The section on Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水) and his campaigning during the Japanese colonial era is especially good. However, there's no mention that Cheng Nan-jung's (鄭南榕, aka Nylon Deng) widow, Yeh Chu-lan (葉菊蘭) went on to enjoy a high-profile political and ministerial career. Also, readers might be interested to know that one of Lin Yi-hsiung's (林義雄) daughters survived the 1980 murders (pages 60 to 63), grew up in the United States, and later returned to Taiwan as a missionary. She's now known as Judy Linton. The only actual error I found is on page 136, and it's far removed from the book's main theme. Tien Sung Pi Train Station in Yilan County isn't “one of the only two remaining wooden train stations in Taiwan.” There are three in Greater Tainan alone.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The disappearance of Taiwan's tobacco farms

Just as the demise of Taiwan’s salt industry doesn’t mean people have stopped adding salt to their food, and the dwindling of the sugar industry doesn’t indicate people are eating less candy, the near-collapse of tobacco growing in Taiwan isn’t the result of people quitting smoking. Fewer young men appear to be lighting up than before, but young women are fast picking up the slack.

Since Taiwan joined the WTO in 2002, the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp. (TTL) - a state-run enterprise and still the island’s dominant maker of cigarettes - has been buying much less tobacco from local farmers, and far more from cheaper overseas suppliers. The price of Taiwan-grown Virginia tobacco has slumped to the point where few farmers see any point in cultivating this once-lucrative cash crop.

Meinong (美濃), now part of Kaohsiung City, is the place in Taiwan most closely associated with tobacco, and the best place to go see what remains of the industry. Now that fields of tall green tobacco plants are hard to find, the most obvious sign of tobacco’s role in the local economy of yore are the town’s distinctive but redundant curing sheds. 

These small, sloping-roof buildings [pictured right] seldom cover more than 40m2 of land, and are made of various materials. Each shed has two floors. On top, there’s always a ventilation tower, which looks like the kind of place where you might lock up a mad aunt.

If you’re driving in from Qishan (旗山), before you reach downtown Meinong, turn right down Fuan Street (福安街). Several tobacco sheds, and also some of the best-preserved traditional courtyard homes, can be found in this community. The shed at no. 24 may not be as attractive as other tobacco buildings in Meinong but it is, almost certainly, the oldest surviving tobacco building in the area. It dates from 1938, the year in which Meinong’s farmers began cultivating tobacco.

Before 1938, Meinong’s principal crops were sugarcane, bananas, and black beans. Meinong wasn’t the first place in Taiwan to grow tobacco, and after 1938 it wasn’t the only place where Virginia leaf was cultivated. In Chiayi, Taichung, Miaoli, Yilan and Hualien, significant amounts of land were given over to tobacco [a field of which is pictured here]. 

Meinong’s first curing sheds were constructed according to Japanese designs; in architectural terms, they are regarded as “Osaka-style.” Some are brick. Others have a concrete first floor, and a second floor made of cheaper materials. The roofs are usually tile, with rusting ironwork atop the ventilation tower. Many are made of wattle-and-daub, the wattle consisting of slats of split bamboo, onto which daub (a mixture of clay, soil, rice straw, chaff, and pig dung) has been slapped. A lot of traditional homes and farm buildings in Taiwan were constructed the same way; it’s a cheap, easy way to build, but if the hard surface of the wall gets cracked, the entire structure deteriorates very rapidly.

To better understand the curing process, do take a look inside one of these sheds. You’ll notice that the central chamber, where the curing took place, has thick walls and a thick metal door. If this door is open, gaze inside and you’ll see that the room goes all the way up to the ventilation tower at the top of the building. Instead of floors or ledges, there are wooden racks on either side. This is where the tobacco would be hung for curing. 

The curing fire would be under the floor of the central chamber, and it would be fed through small portholes like those on the side of a traditional kitchen stove. The shed’s other rooms were used to store firewood. Flue curing consumes a great deal of fuel, and ecologists say this stage of the tobacco-plant-to-cigarette process is disastrous in environmental terms, and has become the No. 1 cause of deforestation in Malawi and other countries.

As soon as tobacco is harvested – in Meinong, the leaves were usually gathered around Lunar New Year – most of the water must be removed from it, hence the need for curing.

There are at least four different ways to cure tobacco. Air curing involves simply hanging the leaves under a shelter that protects them from rain but exposes them to breezes. Sun curing - spreading the leaves out under the sun - is done in a few places. Taiwan’s climate is too humid for either air- or sun-curing to be successful. Fire curing needs little explanation; flue curing, practiced in Taiwan, takes the hot air generated by a fire (but not the smoke or sparks), and circulates it through a tobacco-filled chamber.

With all forms of curing, timing is critical. If done too fast, the leaves end up discoloured, with can affect their flavor. If done too slowly, the leaves rot. Moreover, humidity within the curing chamber must be carefully regulated so as to allow the leaves to dry out slowly. Too-rapid drying would cause them to turn black.

In Meinong, the temperature within the chamber would be permitted rise by five degrees Celsius per day for eight to ten days, until it reached 73 to 80 degrees Celsius. Tobacco farmers used to take turns to watch the fire throughout the days and nights. By the 1990s, however, the process was computer controlled.

During the curing process, the leaves would change colour from green to yellow [see above]. Once cured, the chamber would be opened to fresh breezes, which would slightly re-hydrate the leaves, ensuring they were not too brittle to be turned into cigarettes. 

If you read Chinese, you’ll probably notice glued to the metal door some old curing licenses issued by the Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau (the central government agency that later morphed into the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp.) These were issued annually [shown left]. 

According to a 2004 survey, Meinong used to have 1,814 tobacco barns. By the time of the survey, 402 had been demolished or destroyed by fire; 991 had been converted (often into garages or storerooms), and 421 remained intact.

As well as being the only legal retailer of cigarettes on the island, the Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau enjoyed monopsony power - it was the only legal purchaser of tobacco on the island, and could therefore determine prices. However, Meinong’s farmers weren’t ruthlessly exploited; during the industry’s heyday, a tobacco grower typically earned two to three times more than a civil servant. Not surprisingly, the area devoted to the crop expanded from 234 hectares in 1946 to 1,342 hectares in 1957, and around 2,300 hectares by the late 1960s. As recently as the 1970s, one in four Meinong families grew tobacco on their land.