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My BooksBooks by Joshua Samuel Brown. Please visit my Author page for more information on the 13+ books I have written.
Publication Date: October 1, 2018.Formosa Moon, Things Asian Press. Available for pre-order. Authors Joshua Sameul Brown and Stephanie Huffman
June 2018 – Formosa Moon #1 Best Selling in Taiwan Travel Guides
How Not to Avoid Jet Lag and other tales of Travel MadnessA collection of creative nonfiction, journalism and hallucinatory dreamscapes from China, Belize, Taiwan, Singapore, and other exotic locales. Illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll. (Review from Tony Wheeler: "I've often thought that guidebook writing attracts the mad, the bad and the slightly crazed. If he didn't start that way - perhaps a pre-writing career as a bike messenger helped - his years on the road have certainly contributed to Joshua's off-kilter take on the world." ~Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet co-founder)
Vignettes of Taiwan
Category Archives: Taiwan
Quick repost of a twitter thread I put on twitter the other day concerning the ongoing discrimination against Taiwan by the World Health Organization and subsequent attempts by the WHO to re-frame the issue as a racist attack by Taiwan against WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
I’m an American travel writer who has lived in both China and #Taiwan. While I’m obviously not black (and thus cannot speak directly about the experience of people of color in either place), here is what I have witnessed in both places:
First off, I’ve heard from many people of color (Africans, African Americans, other folks whose full origins I didn’t know) who have had wonderful experiences in both China and Taiwan. As travelers, as students, as people doing business. So…Good people are everywhere.
Second, I’ve spoken to to people of color who’ve felt that they’ve been discriminated against in both places due to the color of their skin. So…Racists are everywhere. China, Taiwan, America…you name it.
That said, in all the years I’ve lived and worked in #Taiwan (over 15), I’ve never heard of or witnessed police in any #Taiwanese city specifically targeting people of color as part of anti-crime / anti-drug sweeps.
In the years I lived and traveled around #China (about 6, give or take), there were times when it was common knowledge that police in various cities were specifically targeting people of color, and that as a POC to enter certain areas was to risk arrest.
This is a Guardian article from 2007 about one such sweep in China targeting people of color. Nobody I knew in the expatriate scene in China was at all surprised that this was going on. In the late 90s and early 00’s (when I lived in Beijing), this sort of thing happened sporadically as well.
Nobody who has lived in China is surprised that harassment of people of color is happening there (with the #CoronavirusPandemic as ‘excuse du jour’). Nobody who knows America is surprised that the virus is bringing out the worst anti-Asian sentiment among American racists.
To quote the great @chrisrock (also talking about racism), “That Train is Never Late”
To bring this thread to a close, the idea that Taiwan (at the forefront of the battle against the global #CoronavirusOutbreak) refuses to accept banishment and disrespect by the #WHO because of WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ race (or indeed, that @DrTedros’ race is even relevant to anyone in #Taiwan) is a ridiculous smokescreen thrown up to cover up the #WHO’s politically motivated decision to continue ignoring, shunning and marginalizing #Taiwan.
As they say down south, That dog won’t hunt. #TaiwanCanHelp, #TaiwanIsHelping, and #Taiwan is absolutely needed in the battle against this #pandemic. That @DrTedros has resorted to playing the race card against Taiwan at the behest of China is only further proof that his argument – indeed, any argument that marginalizes Taiwan’s accomplishments anywhere (let alone IN THE FIELD OF EPIDEMIOLOGY, in which Taiwan is a global leader) is a cynical ploy, doomed to failure.
I’m @josambro, and I approve of this message.
Where does the time go? It’s been exactly one year since Formosa Moon, our groundbreaking dual-authored tale of love and strange adventure around Taiwan was published.
Since coming out with a pre-order bang, Formosa Moon has ranked consistently high in Amazon’s Taiwan Travel Guides category, hovering around Vignettes of Taiwan (JSB’s first book, still enjoying a strange cult following) and a few more recent Lonely Planet Taiwan titles.
The Asian Review of Books called Formosa Moon “both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other.”
Cha: An Asian Literary Journal called Formosa Moon “refreshingly honest about the many ways that travel can go sometimes go right, and sometimes go very wrong.”
The venerable Taipei Times not only gave Formosa Moon a great review (“ This is an outstanding book. With its baseball tournaments and High Speed Railway, Taiwan could be assumed to be simply a monument to things American, with an international modernity added on. But this is far from the case, and Formosa Moon time and again shows why.”) – they were inspired enough by it to write their own Top 7 non-fiction books about Taiwan article a few days later.
In honor of Formosa Moon’s 1-year anniversary, we’re asking friends and readers in and out of Taiwan – to take a minute or three to throw a little support behind the book, its authors, our publisher Things Asian Press, and of course, Taiwan.
How, you ask?
Buy Formosa Moon:
Even if you’ve already read Formosa Moon, why not buy a copy for one of your pals who’s thinking of traveling abroad? It’s a great way to entice them to visit (and maybe even live in) Taiwan.
Review Formosa Moon:
If you have read Formosa Moon (or feel as if you have an intuitive grasp of the book from having followed our escapades online…who are we to judge, being as much a part of the information economy as anyone else), go and write up a review at Amazon, Powells or GoodReads (though at this point, a verified review on our Amazon page helps out the most.
Know someone who writes/reports on Taiwan/Asian news? Let them know about Formosa Moon.
Feel like introducing your favorite US Congressperson or Senator to Taiwan? Send them a copy of Formosa Moon! (Ted Cruz has a copy! Shouldn’t Bernie Sanders have one too?)
Are you a member of a book club? Suggest Formosa Moon as your next book.
Active on social media? Post a photo of yourself with Formosa Moon in front of something interesting on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtags #FormosaMoon #Taiwan.
Like Travel in Taiwan itself, the possibilities are endless.
Thank you kindly for your ongoing support for Formosa Moon!
The timing of today’s earthquake in Taiwan was particularly weird, striking as it did at 1:01 PM, about 45 minutes into a luncheon at the Nikko Hotel hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though former Congressman Paul Ryan had recently visited Taiwan, he was not in attendance. But I was, along with a dozen or so legislative aides to various political figures from the United States, all brought together to discuss the strengthening of Taiwan / US ties. I’d attended a similar luncheon last month, with a different but similarly-composed group of mixed Republican and Democratic political figures, roughly speaking half-and-half.
During last month’s luncheon, I’d delivered a brief, passionate speech about how defending Taiwan was a bipartisan issue, one of the few political issues agreed upon by American presidents from Reagan to Clinton, Bushes 1 & 2 and Obama, and now – insofar as determining where he stands on anything with any clarity – Donald Trump. It was a good speech, quite bipartisan indeed. I managed to quote (or otherwise invoke) presidents ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
I intended to deliver a modified version of the same speech today. It seemed a safe bet, seeing as the crowd was of a similar political disposition. But the earthquake changed that, starting at 1:01 PM, halfway through the second course, and lasting a good 30 seconds, with a few aftershocks in the minutes that followed. Though we were only on the third floor, it was disconcerting to say the least. Though the group took it in stride, people were clearly shaken (literally and figuratively).
One of the Taiwanese ministers made a joke that the earthquake had been planned to give the honored guests a genuine Taiwan experience. “It’s good to lighten the mood,” he said, “so I’ll turn the table over to Joshua Samuel Brown to continue lightening things up.”
Like I said, I’d planned on the same talk, but the earthquake seemed like a good excuse to begin instead by mentioning that the first article I’d ever written about Taiwan for an American publication occurred right after the 1999 Earthquake, still to this day the most devastating earthquake in Taiwan’s history. (Today’s quake was a mere temblor by comparison, 6.1, so far no reported casualties.) The article, which I’ll post below, was called Send No Money Now, and it ran in the print and web version of conservative magazine The American Spectator. As far as I am today from being your average reader (let alone contributor) to the American Spectator, I was even further twenty years ago. But at that time, support for Taiwan (albeit as “The Republic of China”, unsinkable battleship in the never-ending struggle against the entity known as “Red China”) was very much a Republican issue, with most on the left remaining comfortably mute on the subject with a few notable exceptions.
Times have changed, and its a good thing. These days, support for Taiwan is a bipartisan issue, though like the elephant in the fable of the blind men, supporters of Taiwan bring their own ideas to the table about what Taiwan really is. Bulwark against Communist China is still popular among anyone who has a beef with China (on either side). Home of the planet’s best health care system, from whom we could learn a great deal is definitely something that comes up more on the left. (Indeed, Bernie Sanders asked my Taiwanese friend about Taiwan’s health care system when we ran into him on the streets of San Francisco in 2016. I wrote about it at Snarky Tofu.) The Marriage equality issue still comes up, despite it having been dealt a setback in Taiwan’s recent election. Health care, freedom of the press, freedom of religion…honestly, with the exception of Taiwan’s draconian cannabis laws (think 1968 Texas and you’ve got the idea), Taiwan ranks very highly on the progressive end of the scale, and thus should be championed as much by the left as by the right, if not more.
Anyway, it was a good speech, not quite as one for the ages as my previous one, but a good speech supporting the argument that in 2019 support for Taiwan should be considered a fully bipartisan issue. Of course, getting to throw in my spot-on
Bernie Sanders impersonation worked to lighten the mood.
The luncheon was good, and following my talk, largely free of aftershocks. I sold a copy of Formosa Moon, always a good thing for a struggling writer. Anyway, since I mentioned Send No Money Now in my talk, and since the American Spectator Online doesn’t seem to archive as far back as 1999, I thought I’d post it below (with all the original incorrect Mandarin spelling intact). Enjoy!
Send No Money Now
I came home on September 20 to discover that Taiwan, my adopted homeland, had been hit by a major earthquake. I’d lived there for five years, and had just returned a few months ago. My first reaction was disbelief — that seems a common first reaction. I tried to call my friends and almost in-laws on both ends of the island, only to discover “da bu tong” — dead phone lines.
Then the shock kicked in. Taiwan is a country where every 7-Eleven has a fax machine, taxi drivers carry cell phones, and most kids can piece together the schematics for a PC motherboard by eighth grade. If the phone lines are down, something very serious is going on in Taiwan.
I moved to Taiwan in 1994, a naïve American whose grasp of the language consisted of two jerky greetings and a request for directions to the bathroom. I was invited to live on the fourth floor of the home of the Yeh family in Hsinchu, and spent the next two years basically being treated like a well-liked (but kind of slow on the uptake) special son. I later moved to Taipei, and lived there for three more years. I got by with a lot of love, encouragement, and the occasional use of minor career boosting guanxi (“pulling of strings”) from well connected friends.
I should be in Taiwan right now, searching for the injured in the rubble of the Sungshan hotel. I should be repaying their kindness with more than words, but I cannot. Perhaps this disaster is, as disasters often are in Asian culture, a portent of political upheaval.
Taiwan is a strange place to claim kinship with once you’ve left, but let me try: The uncomfortable state of official non-recognition doesn’t always give Americans a clear picture of my adopted homeland. “That’s in China, isn’t it?” is a comment I’ve heard, to which I usually reply “No, um, well, officially yes but, um, not really. China is a one-party totalitarian state. Taiwan is a democracy. You know, government elected for the people by the people, the sort of thing you read about in college civics classes.
Taiwan is by no means a perfect democracy — legislative sessions (as the Chinese Communists gleefully point out in the “why democracy doesn’t work for Asians” section of the People’s Daily) have been known to erupt in the occasional bench-clearing brawl. Those rumors that you may have heard about the KMT representative from Central Taiwan hurling a baby pig at a political opponent are true, but it should be noted that he apologized immediately — to the pig.
Still, the Taiwanese people are free to gather peacefully, worship freely, live where they choose and say what they please. Their constitution is a lot like ours, only without the guns. Were it not for Mainland China’s stubborn refusal to do business with anyone who doesn’t adhere to its inflexible labeling of Taiwan as a “rogue province,” Taiwan might be as well regarded in the world community as England, except it has better food, nicer weather, and a more efficient economy.
A Taiwanese scholar recently compared the relationship between Taiwan and China to “living in the same house as a 900-pound gorilla who thinks he’s your older brother.” Taiwan, looking to America for support, is becoming increasingly skeptical that help will come when the chips are down. My Taiwanese friends look at me incredulously when I talk about the American ideal of democracy. “We are a democracy, so why doesn’t America recognize us officially?” is a common question.
But the Taiwanese are nothing if not business savvy, they understand the mathematical realities of Sino-American relationships. There are only around 21 million people on Taiwan, as opposed to the the 1.2 billion potential consumers on the Mainland. If you’d each just agree to drink 100 bottles of Pepsi a day,” I tell my friends, “you’d stand a better chance at official recognition.”
Others picture Taiwan as nothing more than a gigantic industrial complex populated by drones spewing out low quality goods. The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was in Nantou, a rugged mountain county every bit as breathtaking as the Rockies west of Boulder. At that latitude it only snows at great altitudes, and when it does the roads are clogged with city dwellers hoping to see it before it melts. Taichung city, hardest hit by the quake, is only slightly less attractive than Denver, and with similarly toxic air. The east coast of Taiwan is sparsely populated by native peoples and the people who moved there hoping to push them out. The east coast highway is a two-lane road carved out of cliffs plunging into the sea, and is as beautiful and dangerous as any road you’d ever want to drive on.
The capital, Taipei is, to be fair, a rather ugly city*. But it is also home to many fine people. Even in the gray architectural sameness of neighborhoods like Hsinchuang and Sanchung, little pockets of beauty could be found. An old temple, the meticulously carved wooden pillars depicting legends of dragon and fable freshly painted, here. Two old men drinking tea and playing “xiangqi” (Chinese chess) on an ornate marble table there.
The Taiwanese have made a whopping contribution to the current cyber-driven world economy, one which is rarely acknowledged. That computer that you probably couldn’t live without at this point — some, if not all of the hardware, was born in Taiwan. A thank you wouldn’t kill anyone.
But don’t go packing up blankets, first-aid kits, and cans of tuna for Taiwan quite yet. Send that to Turkey, where the need is far, far greater. The Taiwanese have done pretty well for themselves over the last few decades, and should be able to pull through this disaster with the same quiet determination that pulled them through the “white terror,” decades of brutal martial law inflicted on them by Chiang Kai-shek, another leader with a somewhat unrealistic world view.
What these people need most costs neither money nor time: recognition as a free, conscientious, and eminently integral part of the family of nations. Some sort of acknowledgment is past due.
(Send No Money Now ran originally on 9/28/99)
* Taipei is an infinitely prettier city in 2019 than it was in 1999.
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Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s many beauty spots. We got some very excellent material for the book Formosa Moon from the Sun Moon Lake research journey, though as often tended to happen, not quite the material we’d come for. Though we’d gone to Sun Moon Lake for some peace and quiet, specifically booking a hotel on the lake’s quieter side, our plans were altered by a funeral that happened to be going on in the alley next to the hotel. As I’d not slept the night before, it was particularly stressful, or so it seemed at the time before stress gave way to a strangely peaceful epiphany about acceptance. This would later become one of the most well-received chapters of Formosa Moon, “Sun Moon Lake: A Peculiar Mingling of Love and Death”. I’ll post that chapter below, but before that I’m posting the video we made from the roof of the hotel, shall we say, prior to the epiphany that would eventually become A Peculiar Mingling…
If you like the chapter and would like to read more, Formosa Moon is available in print and for Kindle. The print version is lovely, and makes a great gift for travelers, people interested in Taiwan, or anyone into humorous, heartwarming travel writing. Follow this link to purchase your copy of Formosa Moon.
Sun Moon Lake : A peculiar mingling of love and death
The sound of gongs and chanting were already pronounced as we turned the corner and approached our hotel at the alley’s end. Though we’d come to Sun Moon Lake for its legendary peace and quiet, so had Shi Ah-gong though in a markedly different way. Grandfather Shi had passed away at the age of 97, and his relatives had booked the entire street in the normally sedate village of Ita Thao to hold his three day funeral.
Taiwanese funerals are in many ways the opposite of their Western counterparts. Both are solemn affairs, but the Taiwanese have a different take on what constitutes solemn. A Taiwanese funeral will sometimes employ the services of paid mourners, women hired to behave as if they’re torn with grief at the deceased’s passing (despite never having actually met them).
Electric Flower Cars are another distinctly Taiwanese funeral custom. In addition to being a great name for a 1970’s prog rock band, Electric Flower Cars are covered flatbed trucks bedecked with flowers on which comely young ladies dance, sing, gyrate libidinously – and occasionally, pole-dance – to honor the passing of the deceased. Though still seen occasionally, this type of overtly risqué funeral ceremony seems to be going the way of betel nut girls in Taiwan, that is to say, still found on occasion but considered mostly passé.
Grandfather Shi must have loved Ita Thao. His relatives were certainly making his last hours there memorable ones. Though the ceremony did not have strippers (at least none that we saw), there was no shortage of other elements designed to produce the hot noise that’s an indispensable feature of any Taiwanese funeral. Designed both to celebrate the life of the deceased and ensure their smooth passing into the next world, Grandfather Shi’s hot noise included gongs mixed with rigorous Buddhist chanting, pop music, karaoke, and later, a live band complete with drummers and an accordion. All of this was taking place under a covered tent set up in the alleyway next to the Cherry Feast Hotel, where we’d booked a three day stay in advance.
The manager was sympathetic. This was the second day of the funeral, and she was aware that guests at the otherwise serene hotel might not appreciate the ceremony as the sincere and somber affair it was meant to be. She moved us to a room on the other side of the hotel, giving us an upgrade in the process. The new room was quieter, though the gongs and chanting still filtered in softly beneath the white noise of the room’s air conditioning.
Having slept poorly the night before and in desperate need of an afternoon nap, I initially fumed about our rotten luck to have booked a hotel next to a Taiwanese funeral. But after a long bath and a short nap, what had initially seemed bad luck transformed into epiphany.
Taiwan’s rhythm is peculiar, marching to its own beat, its own particular ebbing and flowing, and to the uninitiated this can seem peculiar, unpredictable even. The tourist says but I paid for three days of peace and quiet and peace and quiet is what I expect!
To this, Taiwan replies Grandfather Shi so loved Sun Moon Lake that his family chose this very spot, fifteen feet away from your hotel, to throw a raucous party with which to simultaneously mourn and celebrate him. As a guest, surely you understand this?
Getting the joke, the traveler responds, Fair enough. But I was told there’d be strippers.
To which Taiwan replies gently: You were misinformed.
Taiwan is kind, to its native born, adopted children and short term guests alike. But Taiwan doesn’t change its tempo for you. Instead, you must change your tempo to adapt to Taiwan. And this will make all the difference.
Author sketches courtesy of David Lee Ingersoll. Photograph courtesy of Tobie Openshaw.
Thanks to everyone who came out to our reading on April 15th at The Center in Taipei. We had a good crowd, a selection of fine wines and cheese and more fun than you can shake a stick it. Tobie was gracious enough to film the thing, so I’ll go ahead and post two segments from the reading (which lasted about 90 minutes). The first clip is of us reading the chapter titled “The Talk”, which more-or-less sets the book up, and the second is from “Now We Have a Chicken”.
Below is the original invite to the event
Joshua Samuel Brown (Vignettes of Taiwan, Lonely Planet Taiwan) and Stephanie Huffman cordially invite you to a casual meet, greet and author reading from Formosa Moon at The Community Services Center – Taipei.
Published by Things Asian Press, Formosa Moon is a romantic and geeky cultural journey around Taiwan undertaken by a couple comprised of a seasoned guidebook writer intimately familiar with Taiwan and a first-time visitor who agreed to leave everything behind and relocate to Taiwan sight unseen. Along the way the couple lose themselves in Taoist temples, feast on street food and explore Taiwan’s breathtaking scenery while also engaging in less typical expatriate activities including filming a clandestine puppet show in a hijacked hotel lobby, accidentally taking up chicken farming in their residential Taipei neighborhood, and allowing themselves to be briefly sucked into a local religious cult…all in the name of cultural immersion.
Part travelogue, part guidebook, part memoir, Formosa Moon is a dual-voice narrative offering practical travel information about this young and vibrant democracy while commenting hilariously on their often unusual travel experiences around the country, ultimately inspiring readers to explore Taiwan on a deeper level. Join the authors of Formosa Moon for a refreshments and a reading from Formosa Moon with Special Guest Tobie Openshaw.
The Community Services Center – Taipei on Thursday, April 25th.
(Tienmu District, No. 25, Lane 290 Zhong Shan North Rd., Sec. 6, Taipei, Taiwan 11161)
Click Here for details through Facebook
Reception starts at 6:30 PM, Reading begins at 7pm, followed by a Q&A session and book signing. A good time is guaranteed!
Can’t make the reading? Buy the book at Amazon.com!
The tradition of running blatantly false news headlines on April Fools Day probably started with the English, because most things that are funny and involve
- words, and
were started by the English.
In my two years as Editor-in-Chief of Taiwan Scene, I’ve tried to carry on the tradition, despite the tradition has far less cultural traction in Taiwan. (Indeed, a few years back an April Fool’s day headline about pandas at the Taipei Zoo being discovered to be Formosan Bears with white spots painted on them caused an uproar, drawing a sincere and somewhat indignant letter from the Zoo offering proof that this was not the case. Several local Chinese language newspapers reprinted the story as fact, not realizing that the English language paper was just following through on the long and noble April Fool’s Day Tradition of the profession.)
Last year’s April Fools Day Taiwan Scene offering was an article called Taipei 101 to Begin Multi-Nation Tour, in which “Taiwan Minister of Unspecified Services Kai Wan-xiao announced that Taiwan’s landmark Taipei 101 building would be sent on a year-long, multi-nation tour.” This article got a ton of hits in the first few days and netted me a few puzzled direct messages from a few friends who work for the Taiwan government asking me where I’d gotten this clearly false information. You can read the original article at Taiwan Scene.
This year I went a bit more rustic, with the only-slightly-less unbelievable headline Honoring Children’s Day in Taiwan, Taroko Gorge to be Child-Proofed, again turning to my old friend, Taiwan Minister of Unspecified Services Kai Wan-Xiao to tell the world that Taroko Gorge (which is basically a Taiwan-scale version of the Grand Canyon) was going to be filled with 15 trillion plastic balls for a single-day event, effectively being turned into the world’s largest ball pit.
This one got even more social media traction, with a few folks on Facebook offering various kneejerk reactions ranging from the negative environmental impact of filling one of the planet’s natural wonders with 15,000,000,000,000 plastic balls (an issue addressed by “Minister Kai” in the article, who stressed
The plan would not pose an environmental hazard, as the two-ply webbing stretched between the Park’s Eastern and Western Entrance beneath the Jinwen bridge would prevent any of the balls from floating downriver and entering the Pacific Ocean.
To a commentator who suggested that the fifteen trillion balls could be made “from biodegradable hemp” (a truly ridiculous suggestion given Taiwan’s strict drug laws).
I was gratified with how much traction the article got, more gratified still to read the Chinese language comments below various repostings of the article over social media, including 有人今天在日月潭捕獲一條鯊魚 (Someone caught a shark in Sun Moon Lake today).
I was even more gratified to get a message from TV Host Natalie Tso this morning, informing me that she’d discussed the article on her program, Taiwan Insider:
I predict good things for the hallowed tradition of Taiwanese April Fool’s Day media pranks in years to come.
- Easter eggs for geeks: Kāiwánxiào (Traditional: 開玩笑, Simplified: 开玩笑) means “Joking” in Mandarin, so that’s an obvious giveaway for Chinese speakers. Taiwan does not, to my knowledge, have a “Ministry of Unspecified Service” – the shadowy bureau that only seems to make announcements on April first is a nod to the late, great David Foster Wallace, specifically from his novel Infinite Jest.
Like travel and humor? Go buy one of my books! Formosa Moon, a dual authored narrative by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, available at Amazon. Or How Not To Avoid Jet Lag (And Other Tales of Travel Madness), my very own illustrated book of weird short stories, available through this link.
The truth, dear readers: For the last few months (perhaps a bit longer), my Taiwan mojo has been exhausted by a combination of work stress, adulthood dramas various and sundry, and Taipei life in general.
I’ve written a hundred articles about Taipei, and will probably sing the place’s praise in print and elsewhere until I die. Taipei is a cool city, and it can even be a chill city, but – and this is the important part – only if you don’t make the mistake of falling into the trap of full-time Taipei work. Come as a tourist. Visit the highlights. Explore the historic alleyways, temples, and lanes.
But TuDiGong (one of our many local deities, found in finer shrines throughout the nation) help you if you actually decide to work in Taipei, because Taipei is an activity-crammed metropolis that barely slows down to cram food down its hungry maw between shangban and xiaban (clock-in and clock-out, for you non-Mandarin speakers), times which are themselves eternally flexible and rarely in your favor.
This brief trip to Kaohsiung is proving to be quite the antidote, and while I may feel differently tomorrow when I’m meant to be joining some sort of a press trip organized by my company and culminating in a meeting with the new Kaohsiung Mayor, I’m feeling good this evening in my baseball-themed hotel room located just east of the Liuhe Night Market.
Kaohsiung is a chill city. The last time I was here was with Stephanie on our research trip for Formosa Moon. We’d come here looking for adventure and epiphany, but the best we could come away with was if Taipei was like high-strung NYC, than Kaohsiung was more like Los Angeles. Outside of discovering that the place was pretty chill while attempting (and failing) to deliver a postcard with Portland Mayor Bud Clark’s image to the former mayor, we found no real epiphany. The chapter that came out of the trip – Success and Failure in the LA of Taiwan – is a good chapter, but definitely not among the more dramatic ones.
After living in Taipei, and, more importantly, working nearly full time there for two years, that non-epiphany (namely that Kaohsiung is a chill city) means a whole lot more to me. Nothing jumped out at me when I got off the HSR this morning, still wound up tight from having a well-meaning colleague in Taipei having had the temerity to plan out in quarter-hour increments what I’d pitched as a basic journalistic fact & fun finding mission. I hopped on a bicycle and rode around, visiting a few places she’d put on her list, ignoring a few others. It was only around sundown, hiking up Shoushan hoping to run into the monkeys who live there, that I finally started relaxing. I didn’t find the monkeys – apparently, I’d come a bit too late, but halfway up the mountain, I heard something I’d not heard for a long time in Taipei.
Silence, punctuated by the noise of night animals.
I started unwinding. Though I hadn’t logged out of work yet (heaven forbid – I still had take pictures of the Love River at night on my to-do list), I felt relaxed. I didn’t even mind having missed the monkeys.
I sat down and just…chilled.
A few evening hikers passed me going down the hill. They said good evening, and I replied in kind. After a while, I walked down the mountain until I found myself in a quiet hillside neighborhood, and, oddly enough as I’d never really lived in Kaohsiung, in the Taiwan I fell in love with way back in the mid-nineteen-nineties.
I walked a bit further, found a little outdoor restaurant and got some fish soup, digua ye (sweet potato leaves) and a fresh mixed juice for a few bucks. I walked on, and kept walking, feeling good. I stopped for a few chats, nothing heavy, nothing heavy, and – most refreshingly – completely devoid of the increasingly cloying flattery of Taipei. Just regular conversation, yi-dui-yi.
I passed through the Liuhe night market, big, spread out and relaxed, and had a few things to eat and a few more relaxed conversations before heading back to the baseball-themed hotel from which I write.
Tomorrow I’m back on the clock with the high-pressure crowd from Taipei. Tonight, I’m off the clock.
So yeah, Kaohsiung. 非常感謝.
Weird spots pique my interest as a travel writer, which is probably why I wound up in Taiwan.
A few months back, my friend Tobie Openshaw forwarded me an email he’d gotten from a German production company called Maximus Film.
“We’re planning a filming trip to Taiwan next month, and we’re hoping to visit a restaurant called “Uncle Sheep” in Chiayi that makes an earth-oven lamb dish. We would love to visit Mr. Chou in his restaurant and see how he prepares the special dish. We would need one shooting day for this story. Do you have time to help?”
I’d acted as a fixer for TV crews in Taiwan before, and was intrigued by the idea of a family restaurant with a unique method of food preparation. As Tobie didn’t have time to make the trip, I offered to help Maximus out. The gig seemed pretty straightforward. But in Taiwan, things often go from straightforward to unpredictably complicated quickly.
My first inclination of how weird things were going to get came when I called up Mr. Chou, alternately known as “Uncle Sheep” and “Uncle Goats”. He was delighted at the idea that a TV crew from Europe wanted to do a segment on his restaurant. He seemed particularly happy to be receiving visitors from Germany.
“This is great! But I need to ask them to bring me something from home.”
Figuring he wanted strudel, I said I was sure this could be arranged.
“What do you need?”
“Four new fángdú miànjù.”
Having no idea what fángdú miànjù meant, I kept the conversation going, hoping for clarification through context.
“Four fángdú miànjù…” I said. “For cooking?”
“Yes, yes. Fángdú miànjù are a vital part of my cooking process. The ones I have are worn out, and without them, I can’t cook my signature dish.”
Still in the dark, I passed the phone over to one of my colleagues.
“Mmm…uh huh. Yes. Mmmm,” she said to Mr. Chou in Mandarin, then said to me in English:
“Fángdú miànjù are gas masks. Mr. Chou needs four gas masks.”
I took the phone back.
“Gas masks? You mean like what police and soldiers wear?”
“Exactly! I need them for my cooking process! My special dish is made inside of a walk-in oven, and you can’t go inside for even a minute without a gas mask. And the film crew will need to wear gas masks to film my process, so might as well bring four of them. The best come from Germany. Of course, I’ll buy them after the filming.”
I communicated this unusual request to the film crew, who said they were willing to bring four industrial-grade gas masks if it would secure the arrangement. After a bit of email back and forth, a date was set.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about eating a meal whose preparation required a gas mask, but I was certainly looking forward to writing about it.
Before continuing, readers may be a bit confused regarding the genus (“ovine” or “capra,” for those looking for a bit more book knowledge) of the signature dish, being that the restaurant’s name is “Uncle Sheep”, its website is UncleSheep.com.tw, while Mr. Chou’s Facebook handle is “Uncle Goats Chou“.
The Chinese word for sheep is羊 (pronounced Yáng), while goat is山羊(Shānyáng, literally “mountain sheep”). However, Taiwan isn’t as big on mutton as China (most Taiwanese find it a bit strong, though its consumption is considered medicinal), so in meat-form the two are sometimes confused. In any event, Uncle Sheep’s signature dish is goat hot pot. So back to the story.
On the appointed day, I met up with the show host and her videographer in Chiayi city, and we were soon off by taxi to see Mr. Chou, AKA Uncle Goats, at Uncle Sheep Restaurant in Chiayi’s Minxiong Township. Located in a rural area about 20 minutes out of Chiayi (a town best known as a gateway to Alishan), the restaurant itself is a series of traditional Taiwanese houses. Pulling in a few hours before the lunchtime rush, we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Chou and his wife.
After a brief and culturally-required pause for tea, fresh pineapple, and name-card swapping, we got down to business. For the next three hours the crew filmed Mr. Chou as he engaged in the daily ritual of preparing easily the most labor-intensive dishes this side of the infamous turducken (a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey), whose 12+ hour prep time is a bowl of microwave popcorn compared to Mr. Chou’s 7-day slow-cooked goat hot pot.
The recipe had been passed down from his grandmother, Mr. Chou explained as he placed several pounds of goat meat, a multitude of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs and eleven bottles of rice wine into a massive earthenware pot. But it wasn’t the ingredients that led a TV crew in search of good television across the globe, it was the method itself. After putting the lid on the pot (which now weighed close to twenty pounds) Mr. Chou carried it into the courtyard for the sealing process, wrapping it first with a layer of industrial-grade aluminum foil, then slathering it with a thick coating of mud, nearly doubling its weight.
From there, video camera rolling, Mr. Chou carried the heavy mud-slathered clay pot into the outer layer of what the German TV crew would dub in their show “die Höllenküche” – the kitchen of hell. Past this point, gas masks would be required. As we donned ours, making sure the seals were airtight, Chou explained the absolute necessity of wearing the masks inside of the smoke-filled walk-in oven.
“Even with the mask, I try to keep my time inside to just a few minutes per day,” he said. “Even that is bad for my health.”
Fully masked, we were ready to enter the hell kitchen, the heart of Chou’s operation. Though my job was to translate between crew and chef, within seconds of walking into the oven (where the air registers at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, appropriately close to 66.6 degrees Celcius) it was clear that communication was hardly possible.
Movement itself was difficult. As the cameraman filmed from the doorway, the host and I stood to one side and watched Mr. Chou performs his daily ritual of burying the sealed earthenware pot in a hole in the oven’s dirt floor, covering it with rice husks and setting the pile on fire. He then quickly checked on the other pots, shoveling burning embers here and there before donning a thick pair of gloves to remove one of the pots furthest from the door. Moments later, we were extremely grateful to be able to follow Mr. Chou out of the walk-in oven.
With great delicacy, he placed the dried mud-encrusted pot, visibly lighter than the one he’d brought in, on the stone table.
“This one is our lunch today,” he said, hanging his gas mask back on the wall hook as we did the same. “This pot has been cooking for seven days inside my oven, where temperatures can exceed 1000 degrees Celsius!”
As the cameraman repositioned the camera, Mr. Chou brought the superheated pot into the courtyard, where he broke off the baked mud and peeled back the blackened foil before opening the pot itself.
Despite the heavy seal, the liquid had reduced to about 70%.
We followed Mr. Chou and the pot into the kitchen, where he scooped the stew into six smaller serving pots. At this point, his dining room was full, his customers having started on appetizers. The main course could now be served.
So what does goat stew that’s been cooked for seven days taste like? Savory, delicious, and distinctly healthy, with the broth heavy with herbs and rice wine. The meat, heavy with flavor, was nearly butter-soft. Mr. Chou described it as “the best goat hot pot in the world,” and on that point, he’ll get no argument from me, or from the German TV Crew, who seemed to enjoy thoroughly a dish they’d traveled across the globe to taste.
Below is the TV segment that was shown on TV in Germany (in German) about Uncle Sheep Restaurant. For viewers who don’t speak German, don’t fret. Most of the dialogue from the segment has been largely covered in this article, and it’s worth watching both to get a glimpse inside of Mr. Chou’s kitchen and to see the look on the host’s face as she finally gets to taste his signature dish. (Keen-eyed viewers may spot your humble narrator inside of the oven – I’m the guy with the purple pants and gas mask!)
If the film and story have piqued your interest, Uncle Sheep’s Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner four days a week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Click here for details. As you might expect from a restaurant whose signature dish has a 7-day prep time, advanced reservations are suggested.
A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake is a story that didn’t make it into Formosa Moon, and probably for good reason. Stephanie and I traveled to this fabled tourist destination for the book, and actually had a wonderful time. Alas, when we started posting little snippets of our lovely experience over the digital herpes machine that social media has become, we were predictably treated to the golden shower of comments from a few of our fellow expatriates concerning their own negative feelings about the place. Overdeveloped, not “the real Taiwan,” too many tourists, yadda yadda…
I suppose this was for the best, as it triggered my aforementioned contrarian nature in two ways:
First, I decided that I was going to absolutely love the place. This proved to be anything but a challenge, as Sun Moon Lake turned out to be the epitome of loveliness, and we got several great chapters from Sun Moon Lake for the book.
And second, being a comedy writer, I decided to use the juxtaposition of being in an absolutely lovely setting and seeing comments disparaging the place on my fairly innocuous social media posts about the area to write some comedy.
Without further ado, “A Nihilists Guide to Sun Moon Lake”
(Though it isn’t in Formosa Moon, I may include it in the audio-book version, but only if I can get Werner Herzog to read it. In my mind, the piece is best read in his voice.)
A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake
Driving through the mountains and valleys of Nantou County, we pass through towns and villages scarred by natural catastrophe, stopping to visit a plaza containing two ornate houses of worship. The first had been destroyed in an earthquake, and the second was built afterwards to house idols rescued from the first. Both are without meaning.
In a nearby market, villagers sell local fruits, teas and tonics for health, unaware of the futility of their industry for buyer and seller alike. After brief repast, we drive to the lake itself.
Thought by some to be among the most beautiful spots in Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake was formed by a cataclysmic strike coming without warning from the endless and indifferent void of space. The blow likely as not destroyed most of the island’s life at the moment of impact, itself a mercy.
Over millennia, the crater filled with water and slowly trees and plants grew around the damp hole. At some point, humans arrived and thought the place pretty. Then as now, this was merely a mental self-preservation construct designed as distraction from existence’s ultimate futility for whatever time it takes to ensure copulation, thus ensuring biological continuation of the ghastly charade. These days, there are many hotels diminishing the lake’s beauty while simultaneously providing a place for human sexual encounters. Contemporary social mores require such encounters be conducted indoors. Why is this?
We stop to visit the Wenwu temple overlooking the lake, inside of which ornate statues represent various folk deities. Local people pray to these idols, but their prayers go unheard. God is dead. On the third level is a temple constructed to honor the sage Confucius, who died alone as do all men. In the attached gift shop, foodstuffs can be purchased.
On opposite sides of the lake lie two collections of buildings, clustered in futility, seeking solace in number. We head to the smaller of these for shelter from the rapidly approaching night, pausing to watch from the pier extending timidly over the water the setting of the sun. The same star that gives our planet life will inevitably destroy it. This is inescapable fact.
Now it is time for evening sustenance.
There are many restaurants, but we choose instead to eat smaller items of foodstuffs from vendors who have set up small stalls in the alleys and streets of the villages. Village vendors wear clothing signifying belonging to the local tribal group, whose ancestors came to the area before those of the island’s current-dominant culture arrived in response to a multitude of political and social pressures in their own homeland, quickly exchanging the mantle of oppressed for oppressor. If the vendors are aware of various theories stating that their ancestors played a similar role with a previous indigenous group, the very existence of which is now lost forever, they make no mention of it. We who enjoy sticks of pork grilled over flame despite our own awareness of the sentience of pigs can hardly judge.
For dessert, we eat shaved ice served with crushed fruit, served to us in a shop in which a young girl happens to be sitting stroking a pet cat. In the natural course of things, both the cat and the girl will die, yet if the cat outlives the girl it will be considered tragic.
We return to our hotel room to bathe and though procreation is not our goal, we copulate. Despite the presence of road and futility of man’s every endeavor, tomorrow we will take a boat across the lake.
~ Fin ~
A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake does not appear in Formosa Moon, by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman. You should purchase the book nonetheless at Powell’s City of Books, Amazon, or wherever else you purchase books to fill in the time before the inevitable occurs.
Joshua Samuel Brown (Vignettes of Taiwan, Lonely Planet Taiwan) and Stephanie Huffman cordially invite you to a book launch party for their latest book, Formosa Moon, at Taipei’s Red Room! Published by Things Asian Press, Formosa Moon is a romantic and geeky cultural journey around Taiwan undertaken by a couple comprised of a seasoned guidebook writer intimately familiar with Taiwan and a first-time visitor who agreed to leave everything behind and relocate to Taiwan sight unseen. Along the way the couple lose themselves in Taoist temples, feast on street food and explore Taiwan’s breathtaking scenery while also engaging in less typical expatriate activities including filming a clandestine puppet show in a hijacked hotel lobby, accidentally taking up chicken farming in their residential Taipei neighborhood, and allowing themselves to be briefly sucked into a local religious cult…all in the name of cultural immersion. Part travelogue, part guidebook, part memoir, Formosa Moon is a dual-voice narrative offering practical travel information about this young and vibrant democracy while commenting hilariously on their often unusual travel experiences around the country, ultimately inspiring readers to explore Taiwan on a deeper level. Join the authors of Formosa Moon for a reading, live reenactments, book signing, food, drinks, puppetry and more at the Red Room on Saturday, October 27, starting at 5pm. Admission is free, and a good time is guaranteed!
What: Formosa Moon Launch Party
When: October 27, 2018 – 17:00 – 21:00 (5pm-9pm)
Where: The Red Room, Jianguo S. Rd. Sec.1 #177 (1st building on the left, 2F) 建國南路一段177號 （入口左邊第一棟灰色大樓2F),
Can’t make the party? Order your copy of Formosa Moon online!
The Red Room is an ever-expanding community exploring and extending the boundaries between audience and performer through events centered around the spoken word, music, visual arts, theater, and family friendly activities, Red Room is a community hub where participants can explore their passion with other artists and creatives.
What people are saying about Formosa Moon
“I don’t know if this is the most exhaustive book ever written in English about Taiwan, but I feel like it might be the coolest and weirdest. It’s definitely a lot of fun.”
Freddy Lim, New People’s Party Legislator / Chthonic Lead Singer
“Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman have pulled off something remarkable: A love letter to Taiwan grounded in deep experience and fresh eyes. A beautiful book for the beautiful island. “
Andrew Leonard, Salon.com
“What a delight! Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman offer readers an affectionate, clear-eyed view of Taiwan that highlights its complexities, its eccentricities, and its wonders. A must-read for both returning and first-time visitors to Taiwan.”
Shawna Yang Ryan, Author Water Ghosts, Green Island