Category Archives: Taiwan

Formosa Moon Authors on Radio Taiwan International

It’s a Radio Show! It’s a Webcast! It’s two fifteen-minute interviews on Radio Taiwan International with Formosa Moon co-authors Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman on the subject of their recent book, life in Taiwan, leaving Portland, puppetry and more. Why am I posting the second part first and the first part second? Because the second part is where we let our hair down, and let the puppets out. We like it more, OK: Just watch:

To quote the great Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO fame, “Do you really want more of this stuff?” Well then, below: Part one of the same interview, which is slightly more sedate and 100% puppet free:

Enjoy these videos. Share them with Taiwan-curious friends. And if you really want more of this stuff in beautiful book form, hey there, click here to purchase Formosa Moon on Amazon!

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 dies a little more.   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 uniquw 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:

The full show will be on YouTube at some point, and I’ll post a link.

Alpacas and Kitties and Coffee (Oh My)

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 2

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

Pet Cafes in Taiwan

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 10

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

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

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

Alpaca Cafe Tobie Shirt Collage

My own garments were worth barely a sniff.

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

 

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

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 3

 

Meeting The Alpaca Godfather

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

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

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

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

Of Course There Were Cats

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

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

How could we say no?

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

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

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 6

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

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

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 8

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

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

Alpaca Cafe Taiwan 11

Getting to Taiwan’s Alpaca Cafe

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

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Taiwan Fight Club

Mixed Martial Arts in Taipei

Taiwan Fight Club. (Photos by David Hartung)

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

It’s a hot August night in Taipei, and I am about to be beaten up in public.

Standing across the ring  (if you can call a cement square taped on a cement barroom floor a ring) stands a teenage kid with a mean, hungry glint in his eyes. He is pounding his gloves together in anticipation, his message clear:

“You’re going down, white boy.”

My last shred of confidence evaporates.

Where did this madness begin?  Was my strange, self-destructive approach to journalism somehow involved? Did I really need to ask myself that?

I’d heard about the club from some friends in Taipei who told me about a local bar that hosted an amateur boxing night every Saturday. They’d said the participants were generally overworked Taiwanese businessmen letting off steam in a completely controlled environment, with regulation gloves and padded helmets.

I’ve made many a Taiwanese businessman burst into tears simply by refusing to let them pick up the dinner check. How hard can it be, I’d reasoned,  to beat one in a boxing ring and then write a Hemingway-style story about it?

My friend Kyle came along, also intending to fight. True to character, He insisted on belting me several times on the way over.

“It’s for your own good,” he’d say with each blow, seeming to be enjoying himself a bit too much.  “You need to be able to take a punch.”

It was only by sheer luck that we managed to spot the silver letters “VS” inlaid on the round handle of a silver door located in the far corner of the lobby of a nondescript Taiwanese office building. The place was locked up, but the doorman told us to come back after nine.

We got back around nine to find the chest-high VS sign up and the door leading into the basement open. It was still early, and the place was quiet. Kyle sat down and ordered a coke while I scoped the place out. A decent sized basement club, the VS was separated into two rooms. Over to the left of the coat check counter (which doubled as a weigh-in station on fight night) was a large chill-out space complete with low-slung chairs surrounding a dozen or so tables and some plush couches over by the walls.

Behind the bar was a stunningly gorgeous bartender named Jo who was glad to talk up the positive aspects of the club’s most popular event.

“It really isn’t violent at all. Most of the people who compete are just regular people, businessmen mostly, though sometimes women fight, too.” She said, “Amateur boxing helps them to let off some steam.”

Vincent Dai, the club’s manager, told me that the club had been holding Fight Night every Saturday for about six months.

“The event has become increasingly popular with westerners living in Taiwan.” He said “They think it is like that movie Fight Club, with bare knuckles and no rules, but that isn’t at all the case. All our fights are two minutes, opponents are paired by weight class, and we use regulation ten-ounce gloves and padded helmets.”

There was some prize money involved, he told me, a few thousand New Taiwan Dollars for the most wins accumulated at the end of the month. But everything about the club was strictly amateur.

“And most importantly, it stays friendly. No grudge matches.” In addition to the professional referee, the club also employed two bouncers.

“To make sure everything stays friendly,” Vincent assured me.

At around eleven, people began to arrive, and by midnight, the place was packed. I scanned the faces of the patrons, seeing among them not one who looked like they’d ever even owned a tie.

These were no businessmen. These were hardened street punks. My bravado faded like a cheap dye job.

If the sight of my potential opponents shook my poise, the next person I ran into shattered it. He was a stocky, well-groomed American who bore with the look of a man who had broken many a brick in his life. But his appearance wasn’t what scared me. I could tell by the way he was dressed that he hadn’t come to brawl. It was what he said that threw me into a blind panic.

“The mouthpiece isn’t there to protect the teeth, it’s to protect you from biting your tongue in half when you get hit in the jaw…I’ve seen it happen. Very hard to stop the flow of blood from the tongue.”

Bill (full name withheld by request) was a lawyer and former kickboxing champion. He’d heard about the club, and wanted to see if the place was as colossally stupid as it sounded to a man with years of experience in competitive fighting.

“Even in a controlled situation, with experienced fighters, padded rings, and professional referees, injuries are bound to happen.” He said gravely “Here, a barroom situation with concrete floors, no mouthpieces, and untrained combatants. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

It was too late for me to back down, so Bill offered to bring me upstairs for a quick sidewalk sparring session, an offer I gladly accepted. He drilled on a few basic blocks and jabs, all the while giving me useful pre-brawl tips.

“Keep relaxed, keep a good posture, and keep your mouth shut so you don’t bite your tongue off.”

After a half an hour, I was confident of being able to survive this thing in one piece, and not much else. We headed back downstairs to find that the dance floor had been cleared and a makeshift boxing ring had been marked with white tape on the floor. The air was charged as the referee pushed through the crowd and began the big wind up. He laid out the rules in Mandarin and Taiwanese.

“No hitting below the belt. No elbows, knees or feet. No back of the head blows. Cross the white line once, a warning! Twice, disqualification!”

The Ref turned to address the crowd.

“I see that we have some foreign friends signed up tonight. Very good! We love watching our foreign friends fight here at the VS club, don’t we?”

The crowd cheered wildly, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the first combatants were called into the ring.

The first contest was between two young, scrawny teenagers who looked like they were barely out of high school. They didn’t “box” so much as flail wildly. I began to feel encouraged, figuring that I could have handled either of them. As I was contemplating this, the referee spoke up again.

“Uh-oh, our next match-up is between a foreigner and a Taiwanese – the best kind of fight!”

Which brings us back where we came in.

Calling into the ring…Joshua!”

The crowd is screaming as I press my way into the taped-off ring. One of the bouncers fits me into a sweaty pair of gloves and sparring helmet. I size up my opponent. He is taller than me, with a vicious look making previous two fighters seem downright angelic. The bell rings. I gulp. He snarls and runs at me swinging.

The strobe lights are blinding. Forgetting everything I’ve been told, I just try and block my face. A punch lands on the top of my head. I retaliate and miss. Another hits me on the jaw, rattling my teeth through the mouthpiece.

I am not having fun.

More punches hit my head, hit the back of my neck. I start grappling my opponent blindly.

The referee pulls us apart.

“You OK?” He yells.

I remember Bill’s last bit of advice: “If you’re clearly outclassed, don’t wait to tap out!”

I am clearly outclassed.

My opponent is declared “winner by surrender” and given his prize: A large beach towel with the Tiger Beer logo. I am handed a thin washcloth with the same logo and slink back into the crowd.

It is up to Kyle to regain some lost prestige for Taipei’s foreign community. Still breathing heavily, I watch as he matches the other fighter blow for blow before pushing him out of the ring. The crowd seems less than pleased.

Kyle emerges clutching his prize beach towel.

“I watched the other fights and realized it was more of a sumo match than anything else. So I just let him tire himself out before pushing him out of the ring. It hurt like hell, but was worth it.”

The fighting over, a floor show featuring bartenders juggling bottles of flaming alcohol begins. It seems like a bad idea in a crowded basement filled with alcohol, drunks, and no fire exits. I say goodnight to Kyle, still basking in the afterglow of victory, and leave the bar with teeth, tongue, and self-esteem more-or-less intact.

I’d done what I’d come to do, and if I didn’t get the story I intended to get, it was only because the actual facts had intervened. There’d been no thrill of victory, and no real agony in defeat. Only a reminder of what I should have known all along.

I was too pretty to be a prizefighter.

~~~

Taiwan Fight Club ran originally as Late Night Taipei Smackdown and is one of 33 stories featured in Vignettes of Taiwan.