Category Archives: Taiwan Journalism

To Boldly Go Where Tour Busses Fear to Tread

The author, traveling by carnival rabbit. 

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

~ Lao Tzu



The same could be said for a good travel writer, and as a member of said fraternity I’ve always interpreted Lao Tzu’s words as encouragement to travel for travel’s sake, considering destination merely a by-product. But how to put the emphasis on journey over destination?

My go-to method is to employ whenever possible non-standard modes of transportation which either extend travel time, are nerve-wracking enough to make time feel slower, or (with unreliable modes of transport), require a flexible concept of destination.

As a reader of this column you’re comfortably en voyage mid-flight yourself. Barring unusual circumstances (of either random celebrity spotting or flight attendant dumping a salad on your lap variety), the most memorable moment of this leg of the journey might be a toss up between finally watching Batman Versus Superman on the in-flight entertainment system or (for those with even less patience for convoluted narrative), reading this article.

You’d have no time for the former and barely enough for the latter were your current trip on a six-seat puddle-jumper flight, though the experience might feel longer. Such short-range flights are generally memorable. Engines (or engine, as the case might be) sounding like an overpowered coffee grinder, small-plane flights almost always guarantee personal contact with the pilot. You may be sitting next to them, though do resist the temptation to initiate mid-flight conversation. (A small gratuity for landing the plane in one piece, or at least at the agreed upon spot is always appreciated.)

Boats are an equally unforgettable way to travel, though not always in a good way. In the neighboring Philippines, Indonesia and other nations comprised mostly of ocean with a few scattered islands, water taxis are ubiquitous, indispensible and largely unregulated. Larger inter-island ferries usually have enough life preservers to go around, making diesel poisoning and seasickness the only real hazard. But travelers heading to less-trammeled Blue Lagoon locales may find themselves skirting islands and open ocean on single-engine speedboats. Operators of these tuk-tuks of the sea are generally more interested in speed than safety, which is partly economic and partly a function of maturity: Like their terrestrial tuk-tuk driving counterparts, many speedboat captains are barely out of adolescence. Anchors away!

Overland travel generally offers more in the way of less nerve-racking transit options, but the savvy traveler should be on the lookout for opportunities to make one’s journey more memorable by eschewing convenience and certainty for discomfort and adventure by hitchhiking.

Hitchhiking, generally looked down upon in wealthier nations, is an essential form of transportation in the developing world. In the United States, thumbing a ride is against the law in most places, so hitchhikers need to be on the lookout for police. The situation is somewhat reversed in Belize, where hitchhikers are advised to give up their seat for any law enforcement officials also thumbing a ride.

One interesting exception to the developed/developing world hitchhiking dichotomy is Taiwan, which is unique in that it’s both wealthy and hitchhiker friendly. But thumbing a ride in Formosa comes with its own peculiar price tag; many a westerner visitor to Taiwan has found themselves holding impromptu English classes in the backs of pickup trucks winding through the mountains. Some of these journeys have resulted in lasting friendships, and in at least a few cases, marriage proposals. This may not have been the experience originally intended on setting out, but it does come close to fitting Lao Tzu’s travel philosophy.

Perhaps it was witnessing similar experiences that prompted Confucius’ most well known travel aphorism “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”  China’s greatest sage was no stranger to travel, and spent much of his life on the road in an era where options for overland travel were limited by the technology of the day. Were he alive in this era, perhaps he’d also choose non-standard modes of travel, dispensing wisdom from a hovercraft or hot air balloon. But it’s equally likely that he’d employ the same mode of travel today as he did in his own life during the warring states period, namely walking. Though slow, walking allows for extended contemplation, which is well in line with both with the sage’s overall character and his second-best known travel aphorism: It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.

~~~~

“To Boldly Go… ” Appeared originally in EVA’s inflight magazine, Autumn, 2016 .

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Wind Warriors of the Pescadores

On the subject of windsurfing in Taiwan, one of the strangest years of a life with no shortage of strange years was spent living on an archipelago called Penghu, halfway between Taiwan and China. It’s a remote, beautiful and extremely windy spot. Like most of the other strange places I’ve lived, what brought me to Penghu was a combination of travel writing (my first guide for Lonely Planet had me covering the outer islands) and a woman (my girlfriend at the time, Laurie – who would later become my wife for an amusingly short period – was offered a teaching job there).

I haven’t been back since 2007, but I’m hoping to return in the next month or two to re-acquaint myself with the place, continue my windsurfing lessons and maybe write a few more stories.

This story originally ran in the Hong Kong Weekly Standard: Words and images by Joshua Samuel Brown. 

Wind Warriors of the Pescadores

(Windsurfing in Taiwan)

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan, 2006

It’s eight AM on the first day of the sixth annual Penghu ProAm windsurfing tournament, the first stop on the 2006-2007 Asian Windsurfing Tour, and the event promises to be a veritable sailing whirlwind.  The crème de la crème of the windsurfing world are gathered by the harbor, preparing to do precisely what sixties mystic troubadour Donavan once advised against; to try and catch the wind.  The sun is bright, there isn’t a cloud in the sky, and the archipelago halfway between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland,  statistically among the windiest places on the planet, seems custom made for competition windsurfing.

But by the water the faces of the sailors show concern, for one crucial element has failed to appear in expected quantity: wind.

“Last year at this time the winds would’ve blown your tits off, they were forty, maybe fifty knots,” says Dirk Michielsen, a Belgian designer of sports eyewear who’s made his home in central Taiwan for over a decade. “But this year, ach, it’s strange. There’s no wind.”

“No wind” isn’t quite accurate. There’s a fairly steady breeze of perhaps 15 knots blowing in from the Chinese mainland. But on Penghu, where farmers encircle their fields with walls made of interlocked coral to protect their peanut crops from being blown away and wind speeds that would send most Middle Americans running for the root cellars are the norm, 15 knot winds barely register as a breeze.

“Anywhere else in the world this’d be considered excellent windsurfing conditions.” Says Larry Davis, a long-time island resident slated to compete at the Masters level.

“But in Penghu, windsurfers call this bicycling weather.”
Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
Weather is a fickle mistress, and for windsurfers this can be especially frustrating. Wind, unlike snow, cannot be manufactured.  For this reason, professional windsurfing circuit events generally last ten days. But the Penghu Pro-am, an event that brings professionals and amateurs windsurfers together, is a three day event.  While the professionals have sponsorship, equipment makers like Neilpryde, Starboard and AB+,  most amateurs find taking ten days off to chase the wind an impossible luxury.  Before the events are slated to begin, local event organizers, who have a vested interest in making the name Penghu synonymous with windsurfing, head down to the nearby Matsu temple and make offerings of pork, chicken and fish to the goddess of the sea.

Perhaps the supernatural offerings are to thank; obviously there are more scientific expiations. Regardless, by 9 AM the winds have picked up enough to make competition possible.  An announcement comes over the loudspeakers, first in Mandarin, then in English, and the first round of competitors sprint for the water carrying their rigs.  Once immersed, the sailors hover next to their boards, waiting for the shrill blast of the air horn that will announce that the first heat, which, wind permitting, will be the first of many, is on.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
The first heat is a slalom run, its competitors big name sailors of the windsurfing world like Swede Anders Brigndal and Austrian Chris Pressler. The shrill sound of the starting air horn is followed quickly by a second sound, this one the galvanic crackle of sails inflating, straining against carbon fiber frames held fast by champion riders. Organizers and future competitors alike gather on the beach to watch as these champions of the windsurfing world attempt to outdo each other in a completion in which they’ll be judged both on speed and grace.  After five slalom runs, clear winners emerge, and first place is taken by Australian Jesper Orth, with second and third going, not surprisingly, to Brigndal and Pressler respectively.

After the event, Pressler, who is in Penghu for the first time, seems pleased with his performance, and says that the unexpectedly low winds should not detract from the overall competition.  “Everybody competes in the same wind,” says the Austrian. “These conditions are excellent for kinds of sailing that higher winds would make impossible, and I think a lot of the less experienced sailors will find them ideal.”  Nonetheless, Pressler says he is eager to test his skills against higher winds; he has already made arrangements to stay after the end of the three day competition to take advantage of the extreme winds which should come to Penghu ahead of a forecasted typhoon moving towards the Philippines in the next week.

Anders Bringdal is also planning to stick around to test his skill against the coming high winds. “Really the optimum speed for windsurfing is 30 knots,” says Anders Bringdal, who came equipped for higher winds. “Once you get above that, it’s a shit fight, you need a small sail to keep stable.”   Though he’s done well with his borrowed lower-wind board and sail, Bringdal seems eager to test his own high-wind equipment in the coming storm.
Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan
Professional windsurfers aside, most who have gathered in Penghu for what they hope will be three days of sun and high winds are talented amateurs, devotees of the sport who’ve come from across the globe. One group of Russian surfers hails from Vladivostok, Russia’s windsurfing capitol, where cold winds make sailing without a wetsuit impossible for most of the year, and seem happy just to be wearing shorts and tank-tops in late November.  There are also a few competitors from Hong Kong. Kowloon native Chou Siang Min, who winds up earning a respectable 3rd place showing in beginner’s slalom, has been to Penghu many times. “Hong Kongers mostly train in Sai Kung,” says Chou, “but anyone serious about windsurfing in the region needs to come to Penghu.”

Wind conditions combined with equipment limitations conspire to keep some from competing entirely.  Dirk Michielsen says he expected last years 30 knot winds, and came prepared accordingly. “You need high winds to push a 6.6 meter sail and narrow board like mine,” says Michielson. “I even brought my 5.1 meter sail in case it got higher, but in a breeze like this I’d sink like a stone with that kind of gear.”

Nowhere else is matching gear to wind conditions as crucial as in competition windsurfing, where having just the right size sail, or perfectly suited board can make a huge difference in speed.  Though an asset in high winds, a smaller sail doesn’t allow for enough forward velocity in a low-to-medium blow. Even variations over the short run (like, say in the course of an individual slalom heat) forces each sailor to make constant adjustments to their individual sailing techniques. Though the winds generally stay in the high teens for most of the morning, even gusting into the twenties at times, there are still periods when riders mid-heat find themselves faced with brief lulls. A sailor in this situation does whatever they can to keep themselves upright, jerking the sail like the handle of a water pump.

But occasionally the opposite happens; a sudden gust catches sails flagging mid-heat with a series of electric cracks, and within seconds boards, sails and sailors are skipping across the surface of the water like flat stones.  From that moment, the race is truly on, and as long as the wind keeps up, and again, remember the words of Chris Pressler, that all sailors share the same wind, the competition is entirely about each individuals skill and instinct.

Handling the board, knowing precisely how to tilt the sail to achieve maximum speed without sacrificing stability, is at the heart of competition windsurfing. Watching equally matched sailors compete in a slalom heat, one can’t help but be reminded of world-class track bike racers competing in a velodrome, each racer cyclist a course within a narrow band, tilting to shave inches and seconds off their end speeds.

But the crucial difference comes in strategy; whereas a cyclist knows the benefit of dogging an opponent, of conserving energy by drafting in a fellow rider’s wake before passing at a crucial moment, in competition windsurfing the strategy is almost entirely opposite. For nothing will kill a sailor’s speed more surely than getting too close behind a fellow sailor at the wrong angle.  A talented sailor with a slight distance edge can capitalize on this, especially while cornering around the buoy demarcating the turnaround point for the slalom course – in sailing parlance, this is called jibbing. With the right timing, the lead sailor can literally take the wind from the sails of the trailing sailor; the effects are instant, and often devastating. During the morning slalom runs on the first day at Penghu, more than one trailing sailor finds their sails deflated by the lead sailor rounding the curve. The move is known as “rolling your opponent,” and the sailor who’s been rolled knows they’re in trouble.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

An opponent gets rolled in Penghu

Windsurfing is not an old sport, at least not professionally. Whereas it’s well known in the surfing world that tribesmen on various Pacific islands took to the notion of standing upright on crude board hewn from tree trunks long before the phrase “hang ten” was ever uttered, the combination of surfing and sailing is something that really only came out in the latter half of the 20th century. The first windsurfing boards looked, more or less, like the mutant offspring of a regular longboard and a small sailboat. Cumbersome and difficult to master, the sport nonetheless attracted enough devotees to encourage the development of lighter, faster, and easier to handle equipment. encouraging more neophytes to take to the wind and waves.

Technological breakthroughs have made windsurfing accessible to those who might otherwise be intimidated by the taken martial arts devotion mastering the sport might have taken in decades past; nowadays the tourist can come to a place like Penghu and, after a few hours in the water with a moderate breeze and a good instructor like Alex Mowday, who operates Liquid Sports, Penghu’s oldest windsurfing club & pro shop,  should be able to harness the wind well enough to want to keep coming back.

“The equipment is better, and beginner boards are wider, more stable,” says Mowday. “In Taiwan, the sport is really picking up.”

Considering the fact that, during the days of martial law, and even for several years after, private sailing vessels were forbidden by law, water sports in general have come a long way in Taiwan. Nowadays surfers are a common site on Taiwan’s east coast beaches; two decades ago the few westerners brave or foolish enough to attempt to surf in Taiwan often found their fun curtailed by warning shots from an ROC coast guard boat.  That the local government of a key strategic area like Penghu should be so enthusiastic about promoting windsurfing on the island is a good indicator of just how far the ROC government has stepped away from its traditional defensive war footing.

Penghu has another potential ally in its bid for international recognition as a windsurfing training grounds, albeit one not old enough to shave.  At 16, Penghu native Chang Hao already shows many of the hallmarks of a champion.  With a lithe, compact frame built for speed and an islander’s instinct for the water, Chang Hao handily beats old older, more experienced sailors to take the gold in the morning Masters section on the first day.  The buzz locally and on the circuit is that Chang Hao is a sure pick for either the 2012 Olympics, and possibly even the 2008 competition, which is to be held in Qingdao.  If true, if this native of Penghu gets the chance to go for the gold on the international stage, Penghu’s position as a world class windsurfing training grounds, on par with the Canary Islands or Hawaii, seems assured. Chang Hao, who has already traveled internationally for the sport, takes it for granted that his home island is well on its way to sailing fame.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

“Penghu is better than the Canary Islands, and once word gets out windsurfers will be coming here in greater numbers, to train and to compete.”

It’s a brash statement, based at least partially on local pride. But it isn’t necessarily untrue. Penghu is perfectly suited for windsurfing, thanks to its fengshui – in the most literal sense. The three main islands of the archipelago, flat stretches of land connected by bridges, form a near-perfect horseshoe, with two narrow inlets to the north and one wider one to the south. The arrangement combines perfectly with the prevailing – and usually fierce – winds blowing from north to south, and for most windsurfers, this would be enough.

But for the true speed chasers, Mother Nature herself requires occasional augmentation. Enter the trench.

The trench is basically what it sounds like, a smoothed underwater channel constructed to provide ideal conditions for speed sailing. The local government is currently considering constructing one on one stretch of beach on the east side of Penghu’s main island. If completed, it’s hoped that the trench will become a magnet for the sailors seeking the holy grail of sailing – the thus far elusive speed of 50 knots (the current record, held by Irishman Finian Maynard, is 48.7 knots). Conditions need to be absolutely ideal to allow for this degree of speed, and the water must be absolutely smooth. To facilitate this, a section of the ground beneath is flattened and maintained regularly. Very few areas offer facilities like this for sailors, and by doing so Penghu hopes to increase its profile in the sailing world.

Windsurfing competition in Penghu, Taiwan

Surfing the Trench, Penghu, Taiwan

But terraformed ocean floor and just-right winds aside, no record can be set without a champion sailor equipped with the right rig.  In a way, both the current competition and the speed trench project is a lure to try to entice the best in the sport to help transform this barely-known vacation archipelago into a serious destination for water sport enthusiasts. Clearly the local government, already considering a number of schemes to vastly raise Penghu’s profile as potential vacation destination, chief among them less wholesome offerings, such as 24-hour casinos and legalized gambling, is looking at the wind as a major draw.

“We’ve always made good use of the wind, what with our windmills and so forth,” says Caroline Lee, a bilingual young Penghu native acting as a liaison and coordinator for the event. “Its only natural that we should use this asset to attract windsurfers.”

Luckily for all involved, Penghu has other assets besides wind, because by the end of the afternoon Matsu seems to have all but shut the tap, and the forecast for the next two days calls for calm wind and clear skies. While today has been one of judged and scored competitions, it’s likely that the next two will consist of just-for-fun, non-scoring events.  The assembled windsurfers, some of whom have either been on Penghu for several windy days prior to the competition, and others who are planning to stay for the very promising storm currently heading in from the east, take it in stride.

“This is part of the sport,” says Russian Igor Balabashir. “When there is no wind, we wait. Sometimes we play volleyball.”

His countryman, Yuri Markedonski, gets in the last word.

“Also, we drink.”

~~~

Wind Warriors of The Pescadores ran originally in the HK Weekly Standard, 
December 2, 2006. Words and images by Joshua Samuel Brown.

Interested in coming to Penghu to windsurf, kitesurf, bicycle or just enjoy the landscape? Drop me a line.

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Alpacas and Kitties and Coffee (Oh My)

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 2

Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe was someplace we’d been meaning to visit for almost a year but hadn’t made it to for a variety of strange reasons. We’d heard about it last year, a large cafe and restaurant in Sanzhi, a town located about 30 minutes north of Taipei city’s northernmost MRT stop in Tamsui. Though you’ll find it online by searching any variation of “Alpaca Cafe Taiwan,” the name of the place is Oia Art Cafe. The Chinese name 草泥馬, pronounced cǎonímǎ sounds dirty if you say it fast, at least according to our friend Candice who accompanied us. But Taiwan Alpaca Cafe would be a good name as well, since it’s a cafe whose claim to total uniqueness is the fact that a pair of extremely friendly – maybe even overly friendly  snow-white Alpacas wander the floor entertaining diners.

Pet Cafes in Taiwan

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 10

Animal-themed cafes aren’t a new phenomena in Taiwan, and while I’ve been to several good cat cafes (not as many as my friend Pauline, who’s chronicled a bunch of them at her blog The Neighbor’s Cat ), I’ve also visited a number of spots claiming to be animal cafes on fairly thin grounds. A bored house-cat or two, a few bits of dog-related artwork, that sort of thing.

Our group of four got there mid-day on a Saturday, and within ten seconds of walking through the front door it was clear that Oia Art Cafe wasn’t just going to live up to its reputation, but totally exceed it. The place was crowded with couples and families with kids, all happily eating ice cream and french fries, sipping coffee and soda as Snow and Li Bai wandered from table to table like celebrity restaurant owners interacting with customers. As our hostess (who spoke pretty good English – we found out later that this was her first day on the job at the Oia) weaved us towards our table, Snow, the larger of the pair came over to check us out, and I could almost imagine it sizing us up to see how many carrot sticks we’d be good for.

We sat, ordered lattes, fries, waffles and a few other items, and long before our items had arrived Snow had already decided that one of us had something that she wanted. The someone turned out to be Tobie, and the something, apparently was salt, or to be more specific, sweat. Tobie had been out all morning at an outdoor wedding, and while hardly odoriferous in any way, Snow’s keen nose detected that his shirt contained nourishing electrolytes and proceeded to chew it gently on and off for the duration of our stay.

Alpaca Cafe Tobie Shirt Collage

My own garments were worth barely a sniff.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 1Prized by knitters, alpaca fur is cloud-soft and known for its durability and warmth-retaining properties. As an integral part of an animal that’s nuzzling your armpit and demanding cuddling, its pretty safe to say alpaca fur is the creme brule of animal fur in general. As we sipped our lattes (which were strong and excellent) and ate our food (which was pretty good pub fare), both of the Alpacas made the rounds and nuzzled us before moving onto other customers.

 

After finishing our coffee, we headed out back to a larger area housing a small flock of brown alpacas on one side and a tribe of goats on the other. Both animals were friendly enough to be pet, but clearly not hygienic enough to be allowed inside of the dining area. I’ve long had an affinity for goats, and while alpacas are Oia Art Cafe’s main attractions, I found the pygmy goats friendly and seemingly some of the more intelligent of the cafe’s resident animals.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 3

 

Meeting The Alpaca Godfather

Heading back inside, I was approached by a man sporting a magnificent mullet. This was Michael, the Oia’s owner, and while chatting about what inspired him to open the cafe in the first place, my first thought was that Michael may well be a contender for the title of “World’s Greatest Dad.”

“My daughter really loved alpacas, and we used to watch films about them on the internet. The more we watched, the more she fell in love with them, so we flew down to New Zealand and imported some.”

You can watch the rest of the interview in the film below (most interesting not so much for the noisy multilingual conversation as for the fact that you can watch Snow and Li Bai greeting customers in the background). But if you’re more into bullet points from this and later conversations with Michael:

  • The Oai has been open for almost five years.
  • Some of the alpacas were imported from New Zealand, and the younger ones were born in Taiwan.
  • Snowy and Li Bai are the two who have been raised with humans the longest, and are therefore the only two “House Alpacas”. They get bathed and groomed a few times a week, while the ones in the back lead a bit more of a hippie lifestyle.
  • Michael has been a lover of unusual animal-related business ventures for most of his life. An earlier animal-related business endeavor involved raising donkeys to make Pule, a Serbian cheese made from the milk of donkeys which, at over USD $1,000 per kilo is probably the most expensive cheese in the world. (I’d never heard of Pule, and asked Michael how his came out. “I was not successful,” he answered.)
  • In addition to the alpaca cafe, Michael also raised a small group of very unusual Mangalica, woolly pigs originally from Hungary, on a farm he owned in the mountains. (“They are very cute, but also quite delicious,” Michael told me, mentioning that he also sold sausage made from the unusual, apparently tasty, swine.)

Of Course There Were Cats

Michael turned out to be a wonderful host, and in addition to the indoor alpacas, their outdoor brethren, the pygmy goats and the off-site woolly pigs, he also counts among his extended menagerie a pride of Savannah cats bred from a group he’d brought from the United States. I’d seen a few of these when I came in, but it turned out he had many more upstairs in the floor below his living quarters.

“If you like cats, I can take you to visit them.”

How could we say no?

A criticism that’s been made against certain American situation comedies involving 20-30 year old’s living together in generally super-expensive cities like New York and LA is that their apartments are way too big for any actual 20-30 year old’s to ever be able to afford. The space that these cats had was kind of like that, if it had been designed by cats. The area, about half as big as the cafe downstairs, was mostly taken up by an enclosed area with huge windows and a series of catwalks leading to perches, ledges and other feline walkways. There was even an old sofa that had been turned into a massive scratching post.

Inside, abut a dozen of the most beautiful cats we’d ever seen sat, lay, reclined, played and otherwise were doing what cats do.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 6

“Just don’t let them downstairs,” Michael said. “They can be naughty.”

We went inside for a visit with Michael’s feline family while he told us how he’d fallen in love with this specific breed, which looked like miniaturized leopards, on a trip to America. The cats were typically cat-like, alternating between demanding attention, rubbing against our legs and ignoring us entirely.

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 8

Heading back downstairs, Michael asked us if we wanted to head to the farm to see the woolly pigs.

“Let’s save it for the next visit,” I said. “I get the feeling we’re going to be regulars here.”

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 11

Getting to Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe

The Oia Art Cafe (Oia伊亞藝術咖啡館) is located in Sanzhi in
New Taipei City. The address is Sanzhi District, 252新北市三芝區後厝里北勢子12-1號. Your best bet if you’re not in a car or on a bike is to take the MRT to Tamsui (also spelled Danshui) and hop in a taxi or on a bus to Sanzhi. The trip from Tamsui station takes about 40 minutes.

Visit them on Facebook

Like reading heartwarming and somewhat off-kilter tales about Travel in Taiwan (often involving animals, puppets and the occasional funeral? We’ve got a whole book of ’em called Formosa Moon! Buy it at Amazon now.


 

Does Humor Belong in Diplomacy?

Humor is a tricky thing to translate, which is a pity since humor is also such a good icebreaker.

Last week I gave a talk on promoting tourism in Yunlin (an agricultural county in Taiwan), and while they didn’t bring me there to do a stand up routine I still managed to get a few big laughs (in Mandarin, no less). The quip that got the biggest laugh was an anecdote about coming across an event and seeing a strip-tease performance in the mountains of central Taiwan.  It was my first year in Taiwan, and I assumed the event was a bachelor party.

A Taiwanese Funeral Dancer. Photo by Tobie Openshaw.

Taiwanese Funeral Dancer. Photo by Tobie Openshaw.

Actually, it was a funeral.

What made my audience laugh wasn’t the obvious fact that strip-tease acts are sometimes part of a traditional Taiwanese funeral ceremony, which would have been the punchline for a western audience. They were laughing at the idea that a newly-arrived westerner stumbling across a party with scantily clad women dancing on a neon lit stage would think it was something besides a funeral.

So while humor may be universal in the broadest sense, what makes people laugh differs between cultures.

Humor is also unique in that it seems to be a tool that people falling broadly into that somewhat open-ended political category of progressives are able to use more effectively than those on the other end of the spectrum.

This is only partially subjective.

While I find left-wing comic Margaret Cho (whom I interviewed last month for Taiwan Scene just before her first gig in Taipei) funny and right-wing comedian Dennis Miller unfunny, there’s no objective way for me to call one funnier than the other outside of maybe who’s sold more concert tickets over the last twenty years.

A more useful barometer would probably be to look at the fact that the longest running political satire shows in America tend to skew left. Humor shows skewing right tend to go off the air quickly, not for a lack of a right wing audience, but because conservatives (or regressives, as I believe we should call the ethos) seem to have a hard time using humor as effectively as progressives.

Similar trends apply on the international stage, with nation-states steeped in liberal tradition being able to wield humor more effectively than authoritarian counterparts…at least intentionally.

Humor in Dipmomacy

Ri Chun Hee, the North Korean newswoman who regularly comes out to promise death to imperialists is very funny to western sensibilities, though this likely isn’t her intention.

As political entities go, Taiwan falls squarely on the progressive end of the scale.

Taiwan’s government is a parliamentary democracy bearing many of the hallmarks commonly associated with liberalism: Universal healthcare, a willingness to protect gay, lesbian and transgender citizens from discrimination, an overall commitment to human rights that befits a nation with a large Buddhist population. 

What’s more, Taiwan has the sort of commitment to free speech that tends to develop in countries where having been denied free speech is part of the living memory of anyone over 40.  

But Taiwan is also unique, having a “nation but not in name” status that colors nearly every aspect of its relations (diplomatic and otherwise) with the rest of the world.

Though Taiwan very much wishes – and deserves – recognition for its contributions to the betterment of the world at large…and here it gets complicated way beyond the scope of this article, calling into question whether said recognition would come to it as Taiwan or The Republic of China…Taiwan is blocked at nearly every turn from doing so by the government of the People’s Republic of China (which refuses to allow it to be recognized by either name). 

As a result, Taiwan has had to become particularly adroit at using what’s known in international politics as soft power diplomacy. This manifests itself in myriad ways, including (but not limited to):

  • Sending volunteer teams to disaster areas;
  • Providing finance and intellectual assistance to developing nations;
  • Getting the name Taiwan out there in positive ways.

One of the problems with western media in general is that it tends to take a copy-paste approach to complicated subjects, and in the case of Taiwan that CTRL+V shortcut inevitably winds up to be some variation of

“Taiwan split from China in 1949.”

Which is a) an oversimplification, and b) inaccurate.

Writers with academic backgrounds have written about this issue at great length and from all sides, so for my part I’ll just do a CTRL+V of my own from the Taiwan In A Nutshell boxed text from my upcoming book Formosa Moon:

Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

Though neither academic nor historian, I do seem pretty good at writing funny stuff (as my presence on the contributor’s list of the highly esteemed American humor magazine Funny Times, in which FUNNY literally makes up half its name proves).

Funny Times May 2018

Funny Times May 2018

I’ve been contributing to Funny Times for three years or so, mostly lighter side of travel stuff, but I’ve also done a few Taiwan-specific articles for them as well.

This one seemed a natural fit. A few months back Taiwan was trending in the international media not for anything having to do with its ongoing disagreement with China (Taiwan believes it should be allowed to chose its own form of government; China disagrees with this), but over the as silly to experience as it sounds issue of an artificially induced toilet paper shortage.

So I wrote The Great Taiwan Toilet Paper Panic for Funny Times.

Funny Times Taiwan

Funny Times Taiwan

(Paper scan is strictly for reference. You can read the full text at My Several Worlds; Funny Times is strictly old-school.)

I wrote this article for several reasons (besides that sweet, sweet Funny Times money, which is the main thing keeping Dave Barry retired).

First, the idea of a substantial portion of a nation’s population going cuckoo over toilet paper was intrinsically funny. And second, I was happy to be able to get the name Taiwan out there for something other than travel related stuff (my day job) or, Buddha forbid, something actually newsworthy that might require me to explain Taiwan split from China in 1949 following a particularly heated argument over the origin of Kung-pao chicken. 

As I mentioned at the start of this column, humor doesn’t always translate.  I showed the article to a few Taiwanese friends. They were perplexed by one part of the article in particular, where I’d included Chinese text:

It was then that Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je took to the airwaves, making a speech that moved the nation to tears.

“全台灣人民是一個家庭” Said the Mayor. “就像是在家裡有人會占用廁所太久. 可是說真的,我們都只有一個屁股要擦。我們可以停止這衛生紙囤積的行為嗎?說真的,我們的鄰居都覺得我們瘋了!”

Translated from Mandarin, what the Mayor said was “Taiwanese people are one family, and like in any family, someone is always spending too long in the john. But we’ve all got one ass to wipe, so seriously people, can we just knock it off with the toilet paper hoarding? Because our neighbors are starting to think we’ve gone nuts.”

“Did Mayor Ko really say this?” One Taiwanese friend asked quite seriously.

“Well, kind of. I took something I heard he had said and exaggerated it for humorous effect. In the context of the article it makes sense.”

But the point wasn’t to make Taiwanese people laugh (By the time the article ran most here had forgotten about The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2018, because news moves fast in Taiwan). It was to get the name Taiwan out there in a normal, not connected to cross-strait politics way to John and Judy Q Public of Des Moines (my biggest – and only – fans in Iowa), to promote the mention of the name Taiwan in casual conversation. Like…any other country, a la

“I’m thinking of trekking in Nepal this summer.”

or

“Belgium! There’s a nice place to visit if you like beer!”

or

“Where is Canada again?”

Because Taiwan deserves to be talked about for more than just its status as a political anomaly. It should be hailed as a place where people build churches shaped like glass slippers for no apparent reason, an island where three-story high inflatable ducks explode in harbors, a nation where for reasons probably better left unexamined, for a few weeks in 2018 a significant portion of the population suddenly started hoarding toilet paper.

Because these things are funny, and humor breaks the ice. And while breaking the ice isn’t the goal of diplomacy, it’s a good place to start.

Taiwan’s Diplomatic Allies

Taiwan’s diplomatic allies have been much on my mind lately, not so much on a national level like will Honduras be the next to flip but more along the lines of elements within the American government coming out on Twitter to support Taiwan, and, in a few cases are coming to Taiwan personally.

To say that I’m deeply conflicted would be an understatement.

Because while there are some non-right wingers involved (thank you, Senator Edward Markey of the great state of Massachusetts), by and large the people currently speaking out for Taiwan are from America’s deeply right wing, and not the now-comparatively sane right wing of yore that once flocked to the defense of “Free China” because it was an unsinkable battleship with courageous Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (who they called Cash My Check behind his back), but the bat-shit fanatical foot-soldiers of Trump whose motives are far, far uglier, and with whom it seems nearly unthinkable to make common cause.

Ah, for the halcyon days when you could embody the struggle as one between Yippies and the John Birch society. It was an illusion, I know, but one that was easily encapsulated (as this illustration from the Book of the Subgenius does nicely):

Far Left meets Far Right: From the Book of the Subgenius

Far Left meets Far Right: From the Book of the Subgenius

It’s far more complex these days, especially where Taiwan is concerned.

Today’s right wingers aren’t grandpa’s right wingers. Whereas the conservatives of the mid-twentieth century supported “The Republic of China” as a fellow right-wing client state that was a handy bulwark against an ultra-leftist China, today’s Republican party shares far less common ground with the political realities of present day Taiwan. To wit:

Taiwan is a thriving democracy; today’s Republican party subverts democracy at home and abroad.

Taiwan is liberal; today’s Republican party despises liberalism.

Taiwan is a defender of human rights and increasingly considers itself a haven for immigrants. today’s Republicans have turned their back on human rights and are vindictively anti-immigrant.

Taiwan is pro gay rights; today’s Republicans are viciously anti-gay (Which is funny considering the high number of “family values” Republicans that wind up having their pictures splashed across the internet after being caught having gay sex. But I digress.)

Taiwan is pro-universal health care; today’s Republicans are adamantly against universal health care.

I could go on, but you get the point. In nearly every way that matters with the notable exception of cannabis laws (which are about the same in Taiwan as they were in 196o’s Texas), Taiwan is thoroughly progressive and today’s Republican party thoroughly regressive.

Hence, the aforementioned deep conflict at the sudden outcropping of support for Taiwan by people whose politics are so far removed from my own.

(I have more in common with yesterday’s John Birchers than I do with today’s Republicans. We’re both against fluoridation, but for different reasons. But again, I digress.)

A few days ago I watched Metal Politics Taiwan, a film about Freddy Lim. Lim (for readers not familiar with either Taiwanese politics or Heavy Metal) is the lead singer of the band ChthoniC 閃靈. He’s also a member of Taiwan’s parliament. It’s a great film, one which really encapsulates the current zeitgeist in Taiwan.  I hope it gets wide distribution.

Metal Politics Taiwan

Metal Politics Taiwan

One scene from the film sticks out in particular: Lim, having been elected to Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, heads to America for Trump’s inauguration. Clearly not a fan of Trump’s politics, Lim nonetheless had to suit up and show up for the inauguration of a man who’d now become extremely important to Taiwan’s relationship with the USA.

Like Lim clearly did at the inauguration, I, too, feel conflicted with the nature of Taiwan’s new allies.  Taiwan clearly needs every friend it can get, and it’s a well-worn maxim that politics makes strange bedfellows. Equally well worn is the saying the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But I can’t help but also be reminded of a lesser known quote by Henry Kissinger, namely

“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.”

At no point in history has that statement seemed more relevant, and I’ve got no answers at the moment.

Perhaps music is the answer? I’ve gone ahead and embedded Chthonic’s Supreme Pain for the Tyrant below, which in addition to presenting a very clear picture of the band’s feelings towards the regime so beloved by the American right wing of old also seems to illustrate a general antipathy towards authoritarianism.

Looking to read more about Taiwan? My latest book, Formosa Moon (co-written with Stephanie Huffman) will be available for pre-order in July. Click here for more details.

48-hour Taiwan Cycle Marathon – Taiwan Journalism

Cycling in Taiwan

Co-leading a tour around Taiwan with Bicycle Adventures, October 2015.. This shot taken in the Rift Valley.

48-hour Taiwan Cycle Marathon – Taiwan Journalism


The Taiwan Cycling Marathon is a tenacious 1000 kilometer slog around the perimeter of the leaf-shaped subtropical island. The race draws 150 of the crème de la crème of the Asian cycling scene to Taiwan each year.



I had to be aggressive from the start, literally leaping over my seatmate on flight 31 from Vancouver. We’d both spotted the empty row of seats to the right at about the same time, but I’d been slightly quicker. She was from Shanghai, and I needed to stretch out and sleep more than she did. I needed to bank the rest desperately for the race, 48 hours around Taiwan.

The race was a marathon, the second year it was to run, bringing 150 of the crème de la crème of the Asian cycling scene for a tenacious 1000 kilometer slog around the perimeter of the leaf-shaped subtropical island, and, having scored a place on a team’s support vehicle I was committed, specifically to somehow being as close to several places simultaneously as possible. Yes, the Taiwan Trade Association had invited me, sprung for a fine hotel close to the convention center with a generous meal stipend in exchange for which I’d be writing up the show itself, four days of the finest, latest and shiniest in the bicycle kingdom.

But there was the matter of the race itself, which was, as these things go, connected with the show in the ethereal way that connections often exist in Taiwan. The race would start at the Cycle show mid-way through the first day before taking off in a sprint to circle the island. And somehow I’d be following it, while at the same time maintaining something of a presence at the show itself, or at least showing up with enough energy 48 hours later, which would be midway through the third day of a four day event, to cover the final day and a half of the event.

So the reader can understand why I jumped with great aggression at the chance for a halfway normal night’s sleep on the plane, risking the stigma of rudeness to do so.

After a brief rest and brilliant breakfast at the Proverbs Hotel in Taipei, I headed out to Nangang to start work, attending the opening ceremony for the show. In the midst of listening to a presentation, leather-clad arms grabbed me from behind. It was Vicki, with whom I worked last year, and who was now expecting me to ride shotgun for the increasingly detrimental to my sanity 48-hour race around the island. She pulled me away from the main convention over to the north entrance, where some riders had already gathered for the pre-race laying out of rules, about which I’ll write with greater clarity when I’m back from the race, which kicks off in 3 hours.

Off to the convention center for a few hours of business journalism before being sucked southward in a whirlwind of extreme marathon sports journalism, followed by what promises to be an extremely disheveled return to the Taipei Cycling Show for another day and a half of business journalism. I should have been born twins. Follow this spot. Tell your friends.

Hengchaun Wall Taiwan

On the wall in Hengchuan