Lonely Planet: Slightly Alive

Lonely Planet: Slightly Alive

My first-coffee reading over the past few weeks has been a daily round of wistful memories and farewell group emails from my comrades at Lonely Planet. While Casualty of the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic may be the venerable travel publisher’s epitaph, the truth is more complicated. Some industry insiders (whose ranks include many Lonely Planet authors themselves) believe the company has been on its deathbed for years.

But maybe, just maybe, like Princess Bride’s Westley following his encounter with the Machine of Ultimate Torture, Lonely Planet is only mostly dead.

Follow me then, dear reader, on what may be my final article as Lonely Planet Author Joshua Samuel Brown. Like many of my travels over the past two decades, I’m not exactly sure where I’ll wind up. But I’m aiming for a hopeful place. After all, mostly dead is slightly alive.

The Author’s Credentials

Me, 90 seconds after turning in my first manuscript to Lonely Planet, covered in paperwork gathered during the project.

I started working for Lonely Planet in 2006, authoring or co-authoring a dozen+ guidebooks and contributing at least four times that many articles for the company’s many publications. My time with the company overlapped two changes in ownership (three, counting the interim Wheeler / BBC period from 2007-2011) and several management changes.

Sometime between my second and third books, Lonely Planet went through a ground-shaking management shift as Tony and Maureen Wheeler sold 75% of the company to BBC Worldwide for £88.1 million, or US$133 million. The Wheelers would remain an integral part of the company until February of 2011, when they exercised their option to sell their remaining stake to the BBC.

My pre-BBC merger time with the company was pretty short. Prior to the merger, Lonely Planet was as awesome a company to work for as you’d imagine. In early 2007 I went to Australia to visit some friends and stopped into the famous Lonely Planet compound in Footscray. Despite being a small (and very new) fish in a big pond, I was given a warm welcome, shown around the compound and generally treated like family. I popped into Tony Wheeler’s office, and was gratified to see that the book I’d given him the year before had earned a spot in the company library. (Click here for the full scoop on how I landed my first Lonely Planet gig, if you want to go down that rabbit hole.)

My Lonely Planet Salad Days

A Lonely Planet Party I attended, Melbourne 2010

People who’d been with the company longer than I have their own impression, but for me the BBC years were my Lonely Planet salad days. I returned to Taiwan, Singapore and Belize for more guidebook updates, as well as spending a month in China covering Yunnan province for what to this day remains among my most memorable LP trips (at least if the number of blog posts I churned out on that trip is an indicator).

Working for Lonely Planet was the ultimate remote gig. Outside of a few visits to various LP offices, a holiday party in Oakland I happened to be in town for and several sweet hangs with fellow LP people I was either working on projects with or ran into on the road, 99% of my interaction with editors, management and fellow writers were via email. From what I could tell, merger-years Lonely Planet blended the best aspects of English efficiency and Aussie laid back-ness (with bits and bobs of attitude and methodology from around the world thrown in, as befits a publishing company covering literally the whole planet).

Authors were largely free agents, working from contract to contract. Some of us had certain areas of specialty, and worked within the same pool of editors, authors and managers on multiple projects. Some authors were superstars, traveling the planet updating titles on multiple continents based on publishing schedules worked out well in advance via managerial alchemy designed to continually produce updated titles for destinations both on the rise and more niche. In general, all authors would pitch their services to editors in charge of various projects, with the editors making their decision based on multiple criteria including the author’s previous projects, their reputation for turning in good copy, contacts and experience in the target area and, of course, previous work on that specific title. In general, an author who’d done a good job on a title previously (and/or had a good working relationship with the editor to whom they were pitching) could expect favorable response to their pitch. I built working relationships with a few editors, and had a reputation as a highly dependable (though mildly quirky) author who turned in clean copy and didn’t miss deadlines. My geographical specialties were Taiwan, Belize, Singapore and China, so I worked with editors and writers who covered those areas, developing a camaraderie along the way which generally made things easier and more efficient.

Photos from various guidebook trips for Lonely Planet in Asia and Central America, 2008-2013.

My last guidebook project with Lonely Planet had me in Belize from November, 2012 until March 2013. It was my fourth trip around Belize, and my first time doing the book solo, so spending a whole season in Belize felt like a good idea. And here’s where the story gets weird.

Ch..ch..ch..Changes…

In 2013 Lonely Planet again changed hands.

That BBC sold off Lonely Planet was more of a surprise to some than to others. There had been some ingratiation issues between old guard LP and new BBC hires, and some differences in opinion about how to incorporate a rapidly changing digital landscape into an old-school publishing business. But what surprised everyone I knew was the price (BBC wound up unloading LP for a paltry US$75 million, way less than what they’d paid the Wheelers for the company without even taking into account subsequent years of investment) and the purchaser, a previously unknown company called NC2 Media owned by  an American billionaire named Brad Kelley, who’d made his fortune in the tobacco industry.

This article from CNN managed to take a fairly neutral view while still painting a picture of the unusual pairing in its title:

BBC sells Lonely Planet to U.S. cigarette billionaire: A reclusive American land owner and conservationist will take over the Lonely Planet brand — but what’s he going to do with it? 

A lifelong consumer of British TV, I’d been happy to be working for a company that was part of the BBC family. Our new boss had earned billions getting poor people hooked on cheap tobacco, which caused me to make assumptions about his general ethos and worldview. By and large, my friends in the Lonely Planet author community’s feelings about the new management ranged from wary to deeply pessimistic.

The acquisition occupied a few news cycles, during which several LP authors were hit up for quotes by journalists from various noteworthy publications. This led to a directive through the usual internal channels that any further comments to media needed to be vetted with management. The overly ham-fisted tone seemed to confirm concerns among the authors that the new boss would be taking a distinctly more authoritarian approach to management than had previous management.

By this point social media (In its infancy when the Wheelers sold) was now a huge thing, and innocent enough things like hash-tag campaigns commemorating the Planet that was (#LPMEMORIES) were drawing enough ire from management to make authors wishing to stay with the company reconsider taking part. I’d already decided to take a few years away from travel (having lived the life of a fairly dedicated travel writer since before coming on board), I didn’t see myself doing any guidebooks for Lonely Planet until the next Belize update a few years down the road. But like other authors, I didn’t feel passionately enough about the issue to risk burning bridges with our beloved but swiftly tilting Planet. It’s probably for the best that I wasn’t asked for a quote, because if anyone had asked I’d have offered the following vaguely leftist analogy:

“Dr. Bronner’s Acquired by Dr. Phil*

*Dr. Bronner’s is a soap company started by a socially conscious eccentric. Dr. Phil is a conservative Republican TV psychologist. And this is why I’m rarely asked for quotes…

Following the purchase, the company was quickly restructured. Old-guard editors who’d come from the Wheeler’s LP and survived various culling phases of the BBC partnership were mostly excised. While small crews worked from offices around the globe (including London, Dublin and Melbourne), a new head office was built in Franklin, Tennessee, a bucolic suburb of Nashville. While some editors and employees took offers to continue working for Lonely Planet at the new location, for many the prospect of relocating from urban centers like London, Melbourne and the Bay Area to a town located on the edges of America’s deep south proved a bridge too far.

With the company restructured and with many of the old editors replaced, many long-standing author-editor relationships evaporated. If management cared little about the dissolution of these relationships, they cared less about the feelings of longtime Lonely Planet authors. Within a year of the NC2 buyout, management announced that, moving forward, authors would be known as writers, with the change in title being applied everywhere from online forums to business cards. With everything else going on this seemingly minor alteration in nomenclature struck many as yet another way for new management to make clear their opinion that authors (now writers), once a critical part of the guidebook process, were an easily replaced cog in an increasingly indifferent machine.     

I continued writing articles for Lonely Planet throughout the NC2 years, all in response to regular calls for pitches from editors in newly restructured editing teams. Some lovely books got made, and I had fun pitching articles that generally fell into either the category of Best In Food or Bucket List Places.

Some of  the Lonely Planet titles I contributed to during the NC2 years.

 Though Lonely Planet was no longer my main source of income, I was still proud to be a small part of a company that only resembled the one I’d started at a decade earlier if you didn’t look at it too long.

Money, Politics and Other Dirty Words

Being the planet’s top travel authority is inherently political. Travelers bring money, and money brings influence. During the Wheeler years, Lonely Planet did its best to present a largely neutral editorial tone in the face of political pressure. Probably the best example of this was the company’s decision to publish its Burma title despite calls by some (both in and out of Burma) for a tourism boycott. The decision was based on the ethic that travel could be used as a force for good, and that travelers needed to be informed enough to make their own choices. This tradition of remaining beholden to no one nation or political group but to the planet as a whole and the needs of travelers in particular largely continued during the BBC years.

From my perspective, this neutrality evaporated following the NC2 acquisition.

Best in Travel, 2015. My contribution that year was on Belize’s Deep South, y’all.

Of the many non-guidebook titles released by Lonely Planet, the most important is the annual Best In Travel book, where writers and editors offer their choices for must-visit places for the coming year. I’d done a write-up for Belize in the previous edition, so I submitted Taiwan for the 2016 edition. It’s a competitive list, and Taiwan can be a touchy subject, so I was surprised to get an acceptance letter asking me to write up the entry. I wrote up 400 words, couching the thing in the language of strategic ambiguity often employed by the Taiwanese government itself.

I was surprised that they accepted it in the first place, so I’m not really sure why I was surprised to hear from one of the sub-editors that they’d decided to replace Taiwan with another entry pretty close to publishing time. The sub-editor alluded to issues with printers in China, but didn’t give me anything specific. I called the Destination Editor in charge of the region, and we had a short and strategically ambiguous conversation in which she gave no specific reason for the last-minute omission and I didn’t specifically accuse Lonely Planet of throwing Taiwan under the bus to appease China.

The only certainty I got from the conversation (outside of an assurance I’d be paid for my work) was a strong feeling that pushing the issue any further would lead to my losing any shot at future assignments from the editor now in charge of the region where I’d spent half my career as a travel writer.

This caused me a few days of the dark tea-time of the soul variety. Fair play for all had long been a cherished Lonely Planet value, and I thought about writing an article that might gently shame the company into changing course before coming to the conclusion that letting it go was the best course of action. Doing so would allow me to continue getting stories about Taiwan into various (if less prestigious) Lonely Planet projects, thus continuing to support Taiwan’s various ongoing cultural diplomacy initiatives.

I wrote a few more articles for Lonely Planet and kept including pitches about Taiwan where appropriate. In 2017, another editor picked an article I’d pitched about Taiwan’s emerging coffee scene for a World’s Best Coffee book. Three weeks after submission I got a letter from an LP staffer stating unambiguously that the company had bowed to pressure from China to keep Taiwan from being included in the book.

“We have it booked in with a Chinese printer and our production editor has said that they will refuse to print the book if Taiwan is listed as one of the countries in the contents list.”

Though I wound up editing the text I’d written for Lonely Planet into a longer Taiwan coffee story for another magazine, it was clear to me that Lonely Planet’s days as an impartial gatekeeper in global travel was over. When the company dropped all pretenses of neutrality a couple of years later with their controversial decision to create sponsored content for the Saudi Arabian government, I didn’t bother feigning surprise.

Lonely Planet: A New Hope

Another day in quarantine, mid-May 2020 brings another round of wistful farewells from outgoing Lonely Planet employees, their centuries of cumulative talent, experience and brand loyalty being scattered to the four winds by their soon-to-be erstwhile employer.

But there is hope, if we squint enough to spot it.

Bored Billionaire Seeks Buyer for Legacy Travel Publisher?

Brad Kelley’s original motives in purchasing Lonely Planet remain a mystery. Articles about Mr. Kelley often refer to him as a reclusive billionaire. To summarize from his Wikipedia page, he’s worth two billion dollars (give or take) and, despite having made his fortune in the tobacco industry, is an ardent non-smoker. He’s also said to be a dedicated conservationist and equestrian. But even in 2013 (at fire-sale prices) purchasing a travel publishing company couldn’t have just been about the money.

One part of the Lonely Planet / NC2 timeline that bears mention is Mr. Kelley’s making a 24 year-old fresh college graduate named  Daniel Houghton Lonely Planet CEO, a decision which struck many as a bit too close for comfort to the plot of 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy. Though Houghton has since retired (at the tender age of 27), the theory that rapid elevation to CEO of one the planet’s largest travel publishing company was the whimsical decision of a boredom-prone billionaire is as good a theory as you’re going to get from me. And this bored billionaire theory gives me hope.

If Mr. Kelley is still bored owning a company whose future profitability is murky at best, it stands to reason that he might be interested in selling it at a reasonable market price. All we need do then is help locate a single billionaire (or a consortium of reasonably wealthy celebrities) looking for the undeniable coolness cachet that would come from owning Lonely Planet.

That the new owner would be able to hit the ground running by re-hiring an easily assembled crew of talented, well-traveled authors, editors and cartographers with fanatical brand loyalty is icing on the cake.

Here then is, in no particular order, an incomplete list of people who’d be welcome to fill in the blank of my nearly-done article’s final subhead:

Lonely Planet Purchased by ______________________

Because obviously the news would be released via an old-time-y newspaper headline…

  • Elon Musk: Billionaire, philanthropist, playboy, and, oh yeah, CEO of a company looking to expand mankind’s travel opportunities throughout the solar system. (Dibs on research for the first edition of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Titan.)
  • Bono: Nobody’s every accused singer-songwriter-venture capitalist of playing it safe. As of this writing, Lonely Planet’s  Dublin office is still open, and I’m sure everyone there (if anyone is still there) would be happy to let Bono kick the tires (so to speak) if he’d like to pop by.
  • Enya: She’s creative, rich, and definitely well known for her love of privacy. The LP team has become accustomed to working for a reclusive boss. Our passports are ready, Enya. Let’s sail away…
  • JK Rowling: What does the world’s wealthiest writer know about running a travel publishing company? I have no idea, but from what I can tell she’s pretty damned meticulous when it comes to planning her stories. I’m sure any of us would be glad to call this fellow creative our new boss.
  • Richard Branson: Internationalist, travel dude and well-known cool guy to work for, I’d be happy to call Richard Branson boss. Not sure what the asking price of the company would be, but I’m pretty sure Sir Richard can scrape it up.
  • Michael Palin: A few years before I came on board with Lonely Planet I was on an assignment in Yunnan, China, where I wound up working for three days with Michael Palin and his production company on his Himalaya project. At one point I got to translate for Mr. Palin as he sang The Lumberjack Song and Bright Side of Life to a group of bemused tribesman in Lake Lugu. Can Sir Michael afford to buy Lonely Planet? It hardly matters. The man is universally beloved and can probably ask the Queen to buy it for him.
  • Ewan McGregor: I have no idea if Scottish actor has the time, money or inclination to run Lonely Planet, but he’s a known travel fanatic and I’d love to work for him. Perhaps he and Sir Michael can go in on it together?
  • Cindy Gallop: OK, this was a suggestion from my partner, Stephanie Huffman, who assured me that Ms. Gallop would be an ideal owner for Lonely Planet with the quote “She’s revolutionizing the sex industry. Think what she could do for the travel industry.” After five minutes at Cindy Gallop’s website I’m totally on board.

The above list of course is incomplete, and I’m sure travel-industry friends and colleagues (or anyone else with skin in the game) might have other ideas for super-cool celebrities, billionaires or moneyed eccentrics with a passion for travel who might be interested in purchasing Lonely Planet. Circulate this article far and wide, travel friends! A new world is emerging from the old, and we’ll need guidebooks to navigate this perpetually changing, no less lonely landscape.

Me, same pose in 2013, covered with various books and other work I’d done for Lonely Planet since the first picture.

Thanks to Fodey.com for their very cool newspaper headline generator. 

Twitter Post: Taiwan & The WHO

Quick repost of a twitter thread I put on twitter the other day concerning the ongoing discrimination against Taiwan by the World Health Organization and subsequent attempts by the WHO to re-frame the issue as a racist attack by Taiwan against WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Taiwan vs WHO
I’m an American travel writer who has lived in both China and #Taiwan. While I’m obviously not black (and thus cannot speak directly about the experience of people of color in either place), here is what I have witnessed in both places:

First off, I’ve heard from many people of color (Africans, African Americans, other folks whose full origins I didn’t know) who have had wonderful experiences in both China and Taiwan. As travelers, as students, as people doing business. So…Good people are everywhere.

Second, I’ve spoken to to people of color who’ve felt that they’ve been discriminated against in both places due to the color of their skin. So…Racists are everywhere. China, Taiwan, America…you name it.

That said, in all the years I’ve lived and worked in #Taiwan (over 15), I’ve never heard of or witnessed police in any #Taiwanese city specifically targeting people of color as part of anti-crime / anti-drug sweeps.

In the years I lived and traveled around #China (about 6, give or take), there were times when it was common knowledge that police in various cities were specifically targeting people of color, and that as a POC to enter certain areas was to risk arrest.

This is a Guardian article from 2007 about one such sweep in China targeting people of color. Nobody I knew in the expatriate scene in China was at all surprised that this was going on. In the late 90s and early 00’s (when I lived in Beijing), this sort of thing happened sporadically as well.

Nobody who has lived in China is surprised that harassment of people of color is happening there (with the #CoronavirusPandemic as ‘excuse du jour’). Nobody who knows America is surprised that the virus is bringing out the worst anti-Asian sentiment among American racists.

To quote the great @chrisrock (also talking about racism), “That Train is Never Late”

To bring this thread to a close, the idea that Taiwan (at the forefront of the battle against the global #CoronavirusOutbreak) refuses to accept banishment and disrespect by the #WHO because of WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ race (or indeed, that @DrTedros’ race is even relevant to anyone in #Taiwan) is a ridiculous smokescreen thrown up to cover up the #WHO’s politically motivated decision to continue ignoring, shunning and marginalizing #Taiwan.

As they say down south, That dog won’t hunt. #TaiwanCanHelp, #TaiwanIsHelping, and #Taiwan is absolutely needed in the battle against this #pandemic. That @DrTedros has resorted to playing the race card against Taiwan at the behest of China is only further proof that his argument – indeed, any argument that marginalizes Taiwan’s accomplishments anywhere (let alone IN THE FIELD OF EPIDEMIOLOGY, in which Taiwan is a global leader) is a cynical ploy, doomed to failure.

I’m @josambro, and I approve of this message.

Quarantine List: YouTube Channels

Well, now this is happening and it looks like we’ll all be spending a lot more time indoors in the coming weeks and (yikes) months, meaning we’ve got tons of time to catch up on our favorite Youtube channels. Here then, in no particular order or number (meaning I’ll stop when I’m bored and ready to do something else), my own favorite Youtube channels & content producers, with enough detail / amusing backstory to let the reader / viewer know what to expect.


Austin Goh is my internet Shifu, and he should be yours too. The Malaysian martial artist teaches a enough exercise techniques his through short, easy to follow videos to keep you in good shape while quarantining indoors. Just type “Austin Goh + (body part) or (symptom)” into the Youtube search bar and follow along. In two weeks you should start to feel better. Heart, lungs, lower back, kidneys, anxiety, eye-strain, insomnia. You name it. Austin Goh is a godsend. 


I found MovieBob several years back after Google searching “Boston Accents” to get my girlfriend acquainted with the distinctive patois of my sister’s family in Western Massachusetts prior to a planned visit at the end of 2016. Then trump got elected and we cancelled the trip, but we became fast fans of Bob Chipman aka MovieBob, whose take on cinema, comics and society is always worthwhile. He’s got a number of channels these days, including The Big Picture, Escape to the Movies, and probably a few others. We were going to meet for Chinese food when I was back in Boston last autumn, but it didn’t happen. Are restaurants even open in Boston now? Anyway, yes, big shout out to MovieBob (and his brother Chris, aka The Chippa).  Wicked smart stuff!


 Exurb1a‘s output cannot be summarized,  thumb-nailed or categorized. I have theories about who Exurb1a might be. British, certainly, but an expatriate, living in Norway or perhaps Bulgaria. It doesn’t matter. Exurb1a is a poet, philosopher and visionary. His videos are sometimes bizarre, generally erudite, at times confusing but nearly always uplifting. Just visit his page and click away. Clear your schedule. 


OK, so Crash Course Astronomy with Phil Plait, AKA The Bad Astronomer is part of the larger Crash Course series. Very high production value, and Phil Plait is exactly the kind of science nerd who makes learning fun. I may revisit the whole series again before diving into another subject. Why not? We’ve got nothing but time (until we don’t).


The Ryan George is best known as one of several identical twins/triplets behind Screen Rant’s Failed Pitch Meetings, whose catch-phrase “Super Easy Barely and Inconvenience” is now forever a part of the global lexicon. But the talented identical octuplets from Canada have way more up their collective sleeves, releasing video after video exploring important issues like “the first guy to ever steal something” and “why wishing your cat could talk is a bad idea.” Check it out!


Extra Credits is another learning hole well worth diving into, offering simple animated videos on subjects ranging pretty much all over the map of stuff worth knowing. History, science, philosophy, literature, mythology…you name it. I’m hoping to learn animation skills like this for an upcoming project. 


OK, this browser window has been open way too long. Anyone out there remember how time used to work before the quarantine? Anyway, that should do it.  Of course there’s always my Youtube Channel, which is a mixed grab-bag of videos I’ve made over the course of my travels

More soon…

Fear and Masks Redux (Let’s Hope the Coronavirus is as Kind as SARS)

Reports are trickling in on the Coronavirus that’s shutting down China and threatening to be either the next black plague (death toll 50 million), the next Spanish Flu of 1918 (death toll also 50 million, only we had cameras and radios) or the next SARS (death toll a paragraph or two down).

I’m no epidemiologist, but I have read plenty of books in which plagues have been central plot points (sci-fi and otherwise), and I was living in China through a good chunk of the SARS epidemic of 2003.  This makes me in a strange way hopeful that the story currently unfolding from Wuhan and reported to be going predictably international turns out to be more like SARS, a quick google check of which reveals took somewhere in the vicinity of 9000 lives, at least according to the World Health Organization.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died.

So as these things go, perhaps best to hope for the odds of that pandemic versus either of the previously mentioned two.

I was living in Yangshuo, being put up for free as resident Westerner at a reasonably nice hotel called The Yang Guang (“Sunshine”) when word started going around about a new disease called SARS. Though nobody I or any of my various local acquaintances knew had come down with it, there was a great deal of fear in Yangshuo about the disease, which was killing tourism in one of China’s premier tourism hot spots, particularly among long-term China dwellers like myself. There was even talk that the government might soon block the roads into and out of town. Since I needed to make my then twice-annually pilgrimages to  Hong Kong to renew my visa, I decided the path of Wu Wei, the Daoist concept of going with the flow, would be to leave town. It was just before the Lunar New Year, and paying customers would need my room.

Among the publications I was contributing to at the time were The Albion Monitor, a political online site based in Northern California and The Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, an alt-weekly print publication out of Fort Collins, Colorado.

The Bullhorn met an ignoble demise just a couple of years later, its publisher, Joe Rouse, taking the newspaper’s server down with it in a strange final Kamakazi act, and all of my physical copies of the Bullhorn have long been used to stuff cracks in the walls of my sister’s old barn. But I’ve found an early draft of the article I filed on my return to the USA during the height of SARS, which to hit the WHO up for figures again, query “how many people in the US died of SARS

774
The SARS outbreak of 2003

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died. In the United States, only eight people had laboratory evidence of SARS-CoV infection.

Not going to query same for Spanish Influenza , putting my journalistic reputation on the line by guessing without fact-check that it was larger by a couple of magnitude.  And on that cheery note – and hoping however counter-intuitively that this one turns out to be more SARS-like than anything else:

Greetings From Hong Kong: City of Fear and Masks

(Published in the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, Mid-spring, 2003)

It’s ten PM on a Friday night, and Asia’s busiest airport is nearly deserted. Upstairs at the restaurant overlooking the long rows of check in counters, the Filipino house band is doing a jazz light version of Santana’s ‘Oyo Como Va’ for the mask-clad wait staff and a handful of customers who have (to put a positive spin on the situation) their choice of seats. I’m eating a bowl of soup to cushion the antihistamines I ate on the bus to quell my springtime allergies; sneezing as surgical garb security guards take my temperature might complicate my travel plans.

Greetings from Hong Kong, the city of fear and masks.

Not long hours ago I was crossing the border from Shenzhen; I could sense a palpable dread hanging over Hong Kong before I even hit what passes for customs – an X-ray machine manned by bored-looking guards. Hawkers selling cheaply made surgical masks of dubious use at five for ten yuan lined the bridge from Shenzhen station. Masked people hustled hurriedly towards the border while unmasked women stood in front of the empty dim sum places encouraged travelers to stop in for a last meal in the mainland before heading into Hong Kong, where the price of dumplings doubles. And me, one traveling freelance writer, fresh from a sleepless 13 hour trip on a sleeper bus from so-far nearly SARS-less Guangxi province, wondering “what the hell am I doing going into HK now?”

But the trip was mandatory – my six-month visa was up. This was hardly an unusual situation – I’d been doing HK visa runs for years. So why, rather than doubling back after a quick trip to the visa authorities, was I heading to the airport to beat an unplanned retreat from Asia? Was I just taking advantage of SARS induced cut-rate ticket prices (USD$500 for a r/t from HK to JFK)? Or was my sudden decision to leave based on a healthy desire to get out before the SARS hammer really dropped? Was it conceivable that the Chinese government might declare the HK/Shenzhen border closed in some ham fisted attempt to make up for five months of mind-numbingly stupid handling of the epidemic? Any China writer who hasn’t had the word “inconceivable” beaten out of their vocabulary just doesn’t understand the Chinese government.

Entering HK, I found myself in a city in the grips of two concurrent epidemics. The first, SARS, is a virulent and deadly form of pneumonia about which little is known, and for which there is no known cure. SARS victims in Hong Kong number, as of this writing, XXX souls.

(Please fill in for XXX ~ Josambro 2020 to JSB 2003.

Get stuffed old man ~JSB 2003 —> Josambro 2020)

This includes the hundred or so who have died, the nearly 600 who have been declared “recovered”, and those still in quarantine camps. The second epidemic is by far the more widespread one, and while not fatal, is clearly serious; this epidemic is fear, and few in this city of 6+ million are untouched by it.

Scanning the headlines of the local papers, I had to ask myself if the media was somehow to blame for the virulence of this second epidemic, if the line between responsible information provider and purveyor of abject terror had not been crossed. Picking up a copy of Friday, April 25th’s Daily Standard, I came across a two page spread featuring three maps representing Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. Over each map circles were drawn to represent neighborhoods where SARS patients have been identified. The circles varied in size according to the number of patients in the area, and were reminiscent of blast radius maps. The largest circle on HK Island covered an area from Quarry Bay to Chai Wan. The actual death toll for the whole area; five, in a circle encompassing a few square kilometers. Were the illustrations meant to suggest that the presence of five Sars victims in the neighborhood represented mortal threat to a quarter of a million people?

Later on, over tea at Wanchai central, I posed this question to my friend Nury Vittachi, a columnist for the Asian Wall Street Journal, and probably the most widely read humorist in Hong Kong. Some say if you haven’t been mocked by Vittachi, you aren’t a HK player.

“Hong Kong is coming to the end of what I like to call ‘the science fiction phase’ of this epidemic, that is, the point where fear overcomes rational discourse about the problem.”

Nury tells me, his blue surgical mask (mandatory equipment for anyone working in an office) hanging around his trademark Nehru collar shirt. I suggested that perhaps the blast radius illustration met the public demand for science fiction, and then went back to discussing some ideas for a comedy review based on life during SARS time. Nury is, after all, a humorist, and the silent majority of Hong Kong must learn to appreciate that even the worst curse spits up an occasional gift, such as “SARS benefit #13 – masks level the playing field for ugly people in single’s bars.”

Still, the glibness of our conversation was as much a whistling-in-the-graveyard reaction as anything else. I’d only been in HK a day, and still flinched at the sound of a slight cough or clearing throat. I could only imagine what Nury, with three children and a life steeped in Hong Kong society, must be going through.

Nury donned his mask and went back to the office to spin out more much-needed humor, and I checked my email at a public terminal (noting Sars blessing number #14 – no waiting at public internet terminals). If Hong Kong was coming out of the science fiction phase, the email I got from my friend Phelim Kyne, a Dow Jones correspondent in Beijing, confirmed that Beijing’s was just entering the eerie grips of some post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick:

“Last night around 7pm I wandered out of my office building in the center of Beijing’s business district and made it three steps toward the pedestrian escalator before I registered that something was definitely wrong. I looked around and realized that it could have been midnight Sunday rather than high rush hour Wednesday – few people, little traffic and very, very quiet. It could have been a cheap local version of that 1970s made-for-TV post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick “Where Have All the People Gone?”

Channel surfing back at the Ibis North Point hotel (strangely unharmed in the center of the HK Standard’s blast radius) confirmed both the quiet of Beijing’s streets, and the panic buying sweeping Beijing’s supermarkets. CCTV9, China’s English language station was the optimistic exception, bringing reporters through a local greenhouse filled with produce in an attempt to allay any fears that food shortages were immanent. This, of course, came as no surprise. The official Chinese media’s Pollyanna-like handling of crises are legendary. If anyone wanted to cause a nationwide panic in China, the fastest way to do this would be to print up a million bogus copies the People’s Daily with the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly looking Chinese characters on the cover. The nation might never recover.

With the specter of SARS cover up hanging over the central government, The popular buzz among columnists is that SARS will be China’s Chernobyl as the ugly story of leaders more concerned with saving face than saving lives comes out and creates a backlash felt throughout the world.

Some question weather the current dearth of Sars cases being reported in Shanghai might be more then just a case of the fickle winds of contagion. Politics may well be involved. Since last year’s dubious changing of the guard, Beijing has been, at least on the surface, Hu Jintao’s turf. But Shanghai is Jiang Zemin’s town, and some are speculating that the reason that SARS figures for Beijing are being allowed to be made so public is part of some grim power struggle between the former president and his protégé; hazing rituals have always been par for the course for new leaders in communist China.

With a few hours to kill before heading up to the airport, I head out for some dinner. I pass by two nearly empty side-by-side Western-style eateries in the Quarry Bay district with opposing styles of reassuring their customers. One has a sign that reads “To promote a healthier environment, we encourage our wait staff to wear masks.” The other has one that says “to promote a less scary environment, we encourage our staff not to wear masks.” I skip them both and have some dumpling soup at some hole in the wall with no signs at all, then head for the bus stop. The streets are nearly deserted as the double-decker bus cruises through the heart of town. I pop two antihistamines, lest an ill-timed sneeze derail my travel plans. HK airport, in normal times among the busiest on the planet, is empty save for a scattered handful of passengers, and a small battalion of doctors, nurses and guards, all in full surgical garb. I feign nonchalance behind a sweaty mask while a nurse sticks a thermometer in my ear, hands me a yellow card with “the bearer of this card has passed through an infected area” written in ten languages, and waves me through to my check-in counter. The plane from HK is about half full, and nearly everyone is wearing a mask.

At Inchon, Korea, I switch planes and have my temperature taken again. I pop another antihistamine over the great lakes, contemplating whether deplaning wearing a mask will make me look like a responsible citizen or potential bio-hazard. In the end, I stuff the thing in my pocket. But the guard at JFK barely glances at me before swiping my passport, leaving my yellow SARS card not looked at before waving me through. White people with Christian names don’t fit the threat profile at customs, microorganisms be damned. At the taxi stand, I pause to discard the sweaty, crumpled face mask and with it, my sense of impending doom, in the trash.

Formosa Moon: 1 Year Anniversary !

Formosa Moon Where does the time go? It’s been exactly one year since Formosa Moon, our groundbreaking dual-authored tale of love and strange adventure around Taiwan was published.

Since coming out with a pre-order bang, Formosa Moon has ranked consistently high in Amazon’s Taiwan Travel Guides category, hovering around Vignettes of Taiwan (JSB’s first book, still enjoying a strange cult following) and a few more recent Lonely Planet Taiwan titles. 

Hitchhiking in Taiwan AKA The Research Phase

Over the past year we’ve been interviewed by Natalie Tso at Taiwan Today, James Thomas on his 4 Seas 1 Family webcast, Taiwan’s Business Weekly, and The News Lens , to name just a few.

The Asian Review of Books called Formosa Moon “both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other.”

Cha: An Asian Literary Journal called Formosa Moon “refreshingly honest about the many ways that travel can go sometimes go right, and sometimes go very wrong.”

The venerable Taipei Times not only gave Formosa Moon a great review (“ This is an outstanding book. With its baseball tournaments and High Speed Railway, Taiwan could be assumed to be simply a monument to things American, with an international modernity added on. But this is far from the case, and Formosa Moon time and again shows why.”) – they were inspired enough by it to write their own Top 7 non-fiction books about Taiwan article a few days later.  

In honor of Formosa Moon’s 1-year anniversary, we’re asking friends and readers in and out of Taiwan – to take a minute or three to throw a little support behind the book, its authors, our publisher Things Asian Press, and of course, Taiwan. 

Free Hugs are Optional

How, you ask? 

Buy Formosa Moon:

If you haven’t already read Formosa Moon, go out and buy a copy from Amazon, Powells, or some other fine retailer.  

Even if you’ve already read Formosa Moon, why not buy a copy for one of your pals who’s thinking of traveling abroad? It’s a great way to entice them to visit (and maybe even live in) Taiwan.

Send your friends to this lovely bridge…

Review Formosa Moon:

If you have read Formosa Moon (or feel as if you have an intuitive grasp of the book from having followed our escapades online…who are we to judge, being as much a part of the information economy as anyone else), go and write up a review at Amazon, Powells or GoodReads (though at this point, a verified review on our Amazon page helps out the most.  

Or you can fight the power like our pal Mister Ogay (featured in Formosa Moon)

Other stuff:

Know someone who writes/reports on Taiwan/Asian news? Let them know about Formosa Moon.

Bernie Sanders, seconds after asking Formosa Moon Co-author Joshua Samuel Brown about Taiwan’s awesome healthcare system

Feel like introducing your favorite US Congressperson or Senator to Taiwan? Send them a copy of Formosa Moon! (Ted Cruz has a copy! Shouldn’t Bernie Sanders have one too?)

Are you a member of a book club? Suggest Formosa Moon as your next book.

Active on social media?  Post a photo of yourself with Formosa Moon in front of something interesting on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtags #FormosaMoon #Taiwan. 

Like Travel in Taiwan itself, the possibilities are endless. 

The Endless More
The Endless More

Thank you kindly for your ongoing support for Formosa Moon!

Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman
Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman AKA Team Formosa Moon


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.

Like stuff like this? Check out Does Humor Belong in Democracy.

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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

Thanks to everyone who came out to our reading on April 15th at The Center in Taipei. We had a good crowd, a selection of fine wines and cheese and more fun than you can shake a stick it. Tobie was gracious enough to film the thing, so I’ll go ahead and post two segments from the reading (which lasted about 90 minutes). The first clip is of us reading the chapter titled “The Talk”, which more-or-less sets the book up, and the second is from “Now We Have a Chicken”.

Below is the original invite to the event

Joshua Samuel Brown (Vignettes of Taiwan, Lonely Planet Taiwan) and Stephanie Huffman cordially invite you to a casual meet, greet and author reading from Formosa Moon at The Community Services Center – Taipei.

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

Click Here for Map

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