Category Archives: Taiwan

Send No Money Now (Revisited)

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.

My Table Badge of Honor

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.

You can not tell us apart over the phone.

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!

The Jiji Wuchang Temple, destroyed in the earthquake of 1999

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: A peculiar mingling of love and death

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

Formos Moon Joshua Samuel Brown by David Lee Ingersoll

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.

~~~

Stephanie HuffmanThe funeral services quieted down after dark and our air conditioning drowned out most of the music. It was hard to ignore the humor of our situation. The next morning we had our coffee on the garden balcony. The haze we’d awoken to yesterday in Nantou City had not come to Sun Moon Lake, and the sky was bright blue. We’d just started our breakfast, enjoying the majestic view of boats floating out on the peaceful waters of the lake when the funeral band next door . Loud drumming, and an impossibly jarring accordion quashed the tranquility I’d felt just a moment before. Was no place on this island quiet?

 

But my annoyance gave way to something more philosophical as I found myself wondering about the people attending the funeral next door. The world wasn’t stopping for them to grieve. Why should their grieving stop for us?

This part of our journey was offering a peculiar mingling of love and death. We’d booked this lovely hotel for a romantic getaway, while at the same time the family ten stories below had booked the alley to mourn the loss of their grandfather. Romance and mortality are normally kept apart, but isn’t this distance merely an illusion? I was finding the juxtaposition between the two more and more poignant.

Our plans for Sun Moon Lake kept getting changed from outside forces. Josh’s hope of getting me to bicycle around the lake got canceled by rain, so we bought boat passes instead and went to the more crowded side filled with restaurants and tourists before making our way to the more tranquil Qinglong Mountain Trail. This was exactly what I’d been craving-a quiet hiking trail with beautiful views. We passed only a few other people as we climbed past clustered bamboo clacking together peacefully in the breeze. The view of Sun Moon Lake was beautiful, and the trail led us to Xuanzang Temple, a temple that seemed profoundly spiritual to me. I’ve sensed other holy sites in Taiwan were sacred but hadn’t been personally moved. Maybe it was due to this monk being a traveler. Perhaps his backpacker persona resonated with me? Whatever the reason, the Xuanzang Temple felt like a place I could pray. A monk invited us to take some Buddhist texts. I chose “Taming the Monkey Mind” hoping it would help quiet my own inner chatter. She then invited us to write a wish on a prayer card.

At first I didn’t know what to wish for. Grandfather Shi’s funeral had reminded me to be grateful to be alive. I had just graduated college and was traveling abroad with a loving partner. What more did I dare ask for? I remembered my anxiety about taking this leap of faith, leaving home and the world that I knew. Change may be healthy but it is rarely easy.  

I wish for the tranquility that comes with enlightenment, I wrote.

Afterwards we hitchhiked back to our hotel, finding the funeral still in progress, though thankfully at a softer volume. But the vibe of Sun Moon Lake was sinking in. My insect bites and overall stress level had faded. We were getting writing done so decided to stay another day on the quieter side of the lake. Fewer hotel and restaurant choices meant fewer tourists and gave the area more of a small town feel. I found the people quiet friendly.

The next day Grandpa Shi’s funeral ended and the street emptied, the mourners taking any evidence of the event with them. After another day Josh and I would check out of our temporary love nest and housekeeping would clear out our room, resetting it for the next occupants. As I watched workers sweeping up the last evidence of the funeral I reflected on how everything is impermanence. These life cycles begin and end, sometimes paralleling each other. Life leads to death; death leads to life. Perhaps I was mellowing with middle age.

Like this chapter and want to read more of Formosa Moon? Purchase your copy from Amazon, Barnes And Noble, or Powell’s City of Books.

Author sketches courtesy of David Lee Ingersoll. Photograph courtesy of Tobie Openshaw.

Author Reading of Formosa Moon April 25, 2019 – 18:30-20:30

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.

Formosa Moon

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

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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!

How I Spread Manure To Help April Fools Day Tradition Bloom in Taiwan

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

  1. words, and
  2. bullshit

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.

Taiwan Scene April Fools Day 2019

Courtesy of Taiwan Scene. Photoshop Job by April Chen

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.

I got my Taiwan mojo back in Kaohsiung

 

Kaohsiung Mojo

This is basically me in Taipei for the last 9 months…

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 Mojo

You can’t make this stuff up…

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.

Kaohsiung Mojo

Night view from Monkey Mountain

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.

Kaohsiung

I did see this well-mannered dog.

 

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.

Kaohsiung Mojo

Night View, Love River

 

 

 

 

 

I Get Interesting Gigs: Goats and Gas Masks

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.

Taiwan liaison in gas mask

“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.

Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

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.

Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

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.

Taiwan_Scene_Chiayi_Uncle_Goats_2
Photo credit: Uncle Sheep Restaurant

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

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.)

Nihilist Sun Moon Lake

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.

Why?

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.

Formosa Moon Launch Party!

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),

Click here to RSVP through Facebook!

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

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.

Interested in more adventures around Taiwan? Formosa Moon is now available for pre-order.

 

I Get Interesting Gigs (Follow Alana)

Follow AlanaI get interesting gigs here in Taiwan, and since I already can tell this is going to be a series I’ve decided to go with the format “I Get Interesting Gigs” (Name of Gig in ellipses, in this case Follow Alana). I can already tell the little SEO / Readability widget is going to bitch about this. Fine. Every time I look at that damned thing, Henry Miller’s ghost moans louder.   

But read on if you like. Or skip right down to the videos, if you’re more visually inclined.

A few months back I got an email through my day job at MyTaiwanTour from a production company here in Taiwan that does a TV program called Follow Alana.

The long and short of it was that they wanted me to act as on-camera tour guide to the host, a beautiful and charming young woman called Alana who’s made a name for herself here in Taiwan doing a travel program despite the fact that Alana, who is technically speaking Taiwanese, can neither speak nor understand Chinese.

There are sound medical reasons for Alana’s unique state of being, and clicking here will open up a new browser window for the story I did about her for Taiwan Scene Magazine (the aforementioned day job) that’ll explain everything.

Suffice to say, she’s an interesting person.

I was initially too busy to do take the gig, so there wound up being a lot of back and forth. One of the things Alana’s production company was interested in using me for (besides I assume my good looks) was my expertise in Taiwan as a writer and my experience cycling around the island. There was some back and forth through email. I threw out a few ideas, they through out a few ideas, and in the end they decided me that they wanted to use me for their show in which Alana goes to Hsinchu. This turned out to kind of make sense, because while Hsinchu isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when I think of Bicycling in Taiwan, It was one of the first places in Taiwan where I lived for any length of time, so even though this was way back in the 1990’s, I can make the claim to know the place.

So after some more back and forth and trying to align schedules, we set a date to head down to Hsinchu to film the show for a Saturday in March. The day turned out to be unusually chilly for spring in Taiwan, chilly enough to warrant both of us dressing for the weather. Alana wearing a puffy sort of ski jacket, and me being the apparently excellent boyfriend I am, wearing my girlfriend’s hand-knit woolen pink hat with pigtail tassels, along with a long-sleeve black shirt and purple sweatshirt vest.

As we got closer to Hsinchu, the weather turned uglier, and by the time we arrived there a cold rain was falling. The director made the call to film the segment out of sequence.

Whereas in the episode we ride around exploring coastal Hsinchu before stopping off after lunch at a factory making traditional rice noodles for an impromptu cooking lesson, in reality we did the noodle part first.

Josambro and Alana View the Noodles

Viewing the Noodles

A good time was had by all, everything came out fine, and I learned that making rice noodles from scratch was way more complicated an endeavor than you might imagine.

But when we finished the noodle segment, even though it was still early afternoon, the weather was still pretty foul. Filming the cycling sequence just wasn’t going to happen that day. The production team asked me if I was willing to come back to do it later in the week, and being already committed, I said sure.

A few days later I got a text saying that the shoot had been rescheduled for Wednesday, and that it was vitally important that I wear exactly the same clothing as I’d worn on Saturday.

This is where it gets interesting, because on Wednesday morning  I left my Taipei apartment wearing the same sweatshirt and ski hat combination under full tropical sunshine at like 7:30 AM. By the time we got to Hsinchu, it was somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty degrees Fahrenheit.

Follow Alana Josambro

I met up with Alana on the coast, where we would start off by picking up a few bicycles for basically a half-day of cycling along the ocean. It was definitely no longer puffy ski-type jacket and woolen hat weather, yet to maintain appearances, we had no choice but to shoot all of our scenes that day wearing the same clothes we’d worn inside the noodle factory.

Josambro cycling with Alana

Cycling in the shade with Alana

We wound up cycling under the hot sun in ski wear into the early afternoon, when we switched to kite flying. (I’d brought my own kite, about which I am extremely proud.)

Shooting a travel segment isn’t exactly what you might imagine; it isn’t like we were just doing our own thing while being filmed. There was a whole lot of “Ride up that hill again, but this time tell Alana about the Mangroves” and “Let’s try riding that road again, only this time you need to be on Alana’s right side so we get a better shot.

For Alana (a stone-cold professional) it was just another day at the office.  For me, not so much. Every time we stopped to get new directions, I took off the knit hat and unzipped the sweatshirt. The production crew were pretty cool about it.

A few days ago I got two files from the production company, the first a promo that’s currently running on Taiwan TV for the segment:

And the second, a four-minute clip they cut together for me:

Finally, a few months later, and *voila* ~ the full episode.

(For the record, I have no idea where they got the idea that my nickname was “Windchaser” – though the kite is my own.)