The timing of today’s earthquake in Taiwan was particularly weird, striking as it did at 1:01 PM, about 45 minutes into a luncheon at the Nikko Hotel hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Though former Congressman Paul Ryan had recently visited Taiwan, he was not in attendance. But I was, along with a dozen or so legislative aides to various political figures from the United States, all brought together to discuss the strengthening of Taiwan / US ties. I’d attended a similar luncheon last month, with a different but similarly-composed group of mixed Republican and Democratic political figures, roughly speaking half-and-half.
During last month’s luncheon, I’d delivered a brief, passionate speech about how defending Taiwan was a bipartisan issue, one of the few political issues agreed upon by American presidents from Reagan to Clinton, Bushes 1 & 2 and Obama, and now – insofar as determining where he stands on anything with any clarity – Donald Trump. It was a good speech, quite bipartisan indeed. I managed to quote (or otherwise invoke) presidents ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
I intended to deliver a modified version of the same speech today. It seemed a safe bet, seeing as the crowd was of a similar political disposition. But the earthquake changed that, starting at 1:01 PM, halfway through the second course, and lasting a good 30 seconds, with a few aftershocks in the minutes that followed. Though we were only on the third floor, it was disconcerting to say the least. Though the group took it in stride, people were clearly shaken (literally and figuratively).
One of the Taiwanese ministers made a joke that the earthquake had been planned to give the honored guests a genuine Taiwan experience. “It’s good to lighten the mood,” he said, “so I’ll turn the table over to Joshua Samuel Brown to continue lightening things up.”
Like I said, I’d planned on the same talk, but the earthquake seemed like a good excuse to begin instead by mentioning that the first article I’d ever written about Taiwan for an American publication occurred right after the 1999 Earthquake, still to this day the most devastating earthquake in Taiwan’s history. (Today’s quake was a mere temblor by comparison, 6.1, so far no reported casualties.) The article, which I’ll post below, was called Send No Money Now, and it ran in the print and web version of conservative magazine The American Spectator. As far as I am today from being your average reader (let alone contributor) to the American Spectator, I was even further twenty years ago. But at that time, support for Taiwan (albeit as “The Republic of China”, unsinkable battleship in the never-ending struggle against the entity known as “Red China”) was very much a Republican issue, with most on the left remaining comfortably mute on the subject with a few notable exceptions.
Times have changed, and its a good thing. These days, support for Taiwan is a bipartisan issue, though like the elephant in the fable of the blind men, supporters of Taiwan bring their own ideas to the table about what Taiwan really is. Bulwark against Communist China is still popular among anyone who has a beef with China (on either side). Home of the planet’s best health care system, from whom we could learn a great deal is definitely something that comes up more on the left. (Indeed, Bernie Sanders asked my Taiwanese friend about Taiwan’s health care system when we ran into him on the streets of San Francisco in 2016. I wrote about it at Snarky Tofu.) The Marriage equality issue still comes up, despite it having been dealt a setback in Taiwan’s recent election. Health care, freedom of the press, freedom of religion…honestly, with the exception of Taiwan’s draconian cannabis laws (think 1968 Texas and you’ve got the idea), Taiwan ranks very highly on the progressive end of the scale, and thus should be championed as much by the left as by the right, if not more.
Anyway, it was a good speech, not quite as one for the ages as my previous one, but a good speech supporting the argument that in 2019 support for Taiwan should be considered a fully bipartisan issue. Of course, getting to throw in my spot-on Bernie Sanders impersonation worked to lighten the mood.
The luncheon was good, and following my talk, largely free of aftershocks. I sold a copy of Formosa Moon, always a good thing for a struggling writer. Anyway, since I mentioned Send No Money Now in my talk, and since the American Spectator Online doesn’t seem to archive as far back as 1999, I thought I’d post it below (with all the original incorrect Mandarin spelling intact). Enjoy!
Send No Money Now
I came home on September 20 to discover that Taiwan, my adopted homeland, had been hit by a major earthquake. I’d lived there for five years, and had just returned a few months ago. My first reaction was disbelief — that seems a common first reaction. I tried to call my friends and almost in-laws on both ends of the island, only to discover “da bu tong” — dead phone lines.
Then the shock kicked in. Taiwan is a country where every 7-Eleven has a fax machine, taxi drivers carry cell phones, and most kids can piece together the schematics for a PC motherboard by eighth grade. If the phone lines are down, something very serious is going on in Taiwan.
I moved to Taiwan in 1994, a naïve American whose grasp of the language consisted of two jerky greetings and a request for directions to the bathroom. I was invited to live on the fourth floor of the home of the Yeh family in Hsinchu, and spent the next two years basically being treated like a well-liked (but kind of slow on the uptake) special son. I later moved to Taipei, and lived there for three more years. I got by with a lot of love, encouragement, and the occasional use of minor career boosting guanxi (“pulling of strings”) from well connected friends.
I should be in Taiwan right now, searching for the injured in the rubble of the Sungshan hotel. I should be repaying their kindness with more than words, but I cannot. Perhaps this disaster is, as disasters often are in Asian culture, a portent of political upheaval.
Taiwan is a strange place to claim kinship with once you’ve left, but let me try: The uncomfortable state of official non-recognition doesn’t always give Americans a clear picture of my adopted homeland. “That’s in China, isn’t it?” is a comment I’ve heard, to which I usually reply “No, um, well, officially yes but, um, not really. China is a one-party totalitarian state. Taiwan is a democracy. You know, government elected for the people by the people, the sort of thing you read about in college civics classes.
Taiwan is by no means a perfect democracy — legislative sessions (as the Chinese Communists gleefully point out in the “why democracy doesn’t work for Asians” section of the People’s Daily) have been known to erupt in the occasional bench-clearing brawl. Those rumors that you may have heard about the KMT representative from Central Taiwan hurling a baby pig at a political opponent are true, but it should be noted that he apologized immediately — to the pig.
Still, the Taiwanese people are free to gather peacefully, worship freely, live where they choose and say what they please. Their constitution is a lot like ours, only without the guns. Were it not for Mainland China’s stubborn refusal to do business with anyone who doesn’t adhere to its inflexible labeling of Taiwan as a “rogue province,” Taiwan might be as well regarded in the world community as England, except it has better food, nicer weather, and a more efficient economy.
A Taiwanese scholar recently compared the relationship between Taiwan and China to “living in the same house as a 900-pound gorilla who thinks he’s your older brother.” Taiwan, looking to America for support, is becoming increasingly skeptical that help will come when the chips are down. My Taiwanese friends look at me incredulously when I talk about the American ideal of democracy. “We are a democracy, so why doesn’t America recognize us officially?” is a common question.
But the Taiwanese are nothing if not business savvy, they understand the mathematical realities of Sino-American relationships. There are only around 21 million people on Taiwan, as opposed to the the 1.2 billion potential consumers on the Mainland. If you’d each just agree to drink 100 bottles of Pepsi a day,” I tell my friends, “you’d stand a better chance at official recognition.”
Others picture Taiwan as nothing more than a gigantic industrial complex populated by drones spewing out low quality goods. The epicenter of last week’s earthquake was in Nantou, a rugged mountain county every bit as breathtaking as the Rockies west of Boulder. At that latitude it only snows at great altitudes, and when it does the roads are clogged with city dwellers hoping to see it before it melts. Taichung city, hardest hit by the quake, is only slightly less attractive than Denver, and with similarly toxic air. The east coast of Taiwan is sparsely populated by native peoples and the people who moved there hoping to push them out. The east coast highway is a two-lane road carved out of cliffs plunging into the sea, and is as beautiful and dangerous as any road you’d ever want to drive on.
The capital, Taipei is, to be fair, a rather ugly city*. But it is also home to many fine people. Even in the gray architectural sameness of neighborhoods like Hsinchuang and Sanchung, little pockets of beauty could be found. An old temple, the meticulously carved wooden pillars depicting legends of dragon and fable freshly painted, here. Two old men drinking tea and playing “xiangqi” (Chinese chess) on an ornate marble table there.
The Taiwanese have made a whopping contribution to the current cyber-driven world economy, one which is rarely acknowledged. That computer that you probably couldn’t live without at this point — some, if not all of the hardware, was born in Taiwan. A thank you wouldn’t kill anyone.
But don’t go packing up blankets, first-aid kits, and cans of tuna for Taiwan quite yet. Send that to Turkey, where the need is far, far greater. The Taiwanese have done pretty well for themselves over the last few decades, and should be able to pull through this disaster with the same quiet determination that pulled them through the “white terror,” decades of brutal martial law inflicted on them by Chiang Kai-shek, another leader with a somewhat unrealistic world view.
What these people need most costs neither money nor time: recognition as a free, conscientious, and eminently integral part of the family of nations. Some sort of acknowledgment is past due.
(Send No Money Now ran originally on 9/28/99)
* Taipei is an infinitely prettier city in 2019 than it was in 1999.
Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s many beauty spots. We got some very excellent material for the book Formosa Moon from the Sun Moon Lake research journey, though as often tended to happen, not quite the material we’d come for. Though we’d gone to Sun Moon Lake for some peace and quiet, specifically booking a hotel on the lake’s quieter side, our plans were altered by a funeral that happened to be going on in the alley next to the hotel. As I’d not slept the night before, it was particularly stressful, or so it seemed at the time before stress gave way to a strangely peaceful epiphany about acceptance. This would later become one of the most well-received chapters of Formosa Moon, “Sun Moon Lake: A Peculiar Mingling of Love and Death”. I’ll post that chapter below, but before that I’m posting the video we made from the roof of the hotel, shall we say, prior to the epiphany that would eventually become A Peculiar Mingling…
If you like the chapter and would like to read more, Formosa Moon is available in print and for Kindle. The print version is lovely, and makes a great gift for travelers, people interested in Taiwan, or anyone into humorous, heartwarming travel writing. Follow this link to purchase your copy of Formosa Moon.
Sun Moon Lake : A peculiar mingling of love and death
The sound of gongs and chanting were already pronounced as we turned the corner and approached our hotel at the alley’s end. Though we’d come to Sun Moon Lake for its legendary peace and quiet, so had Shi Ah-gong though in a markedly different way. Grandfather Shihad 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.
Thanks to everyone who came out to our reading on April 15th at The Center in Taipei. We had a good crowd, a selection of fine wines and cheese and more fun than you can shake a stick it. Tobie was gracious enough to film the thing, so I’ll go ahead and post two segments from the reading (which lasted about 90 minutes). The first clip is of us reading the chapter titled “The Talk”, which more-or-less sets the book up, and the second is from “Now We Have a Chicken”.
Below is the original invite to the event
Joshua Samuel Brown (Vignettes of Taiwan, Lonely Planet Taiwan) and Stephanie Huffman cordially invite you to a casual meet, greet and author reading from Formosa Moon at The Community Services Center – Taipei.
Published by Things Asian Press, Formosa Moon is a romantic and geeky cultural journey around Taiwan undertaken by a couple comprised of a seasoned guidebook writer intimately familiar with Taiwan and a first-time visitor who agreed to leave everything behind and relocate to Taiwan sight unseen. Along the way the couple lose themselves in Taoist temples, feast on street food and explore Taiwan’s breathtaking scenery while also engaging in less typical expatriate activities including filming a clandestine puppet show in a hijacked hotel lobby, accidentally taking up chicken farming in their residential Taipei neighborhood, and allowing themselves to be briefly sucked into a local religious cult…all in the name of cultural immersion.
Part travelogue, part guidebook, part memoir, Formosa Moon is a dual-voice narrative offering practical travel information about this young and vibrant democracy while commenting hilariously on their often unusual travel experiences around the country, ultimately inspiring readers to explore Taiwan on a deeper level. Join the authors of Formosa Moon for a refreshments and a reading from Formosa Moon with Special Guest Tobie Openshaw.
The tradition of running blatantly false news headlines on April Fools Day probably started with the English, because most things that are funny and involve
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Backstory to “Early Rejected Works: An open Letter to Beijing Starbucks: In the Autumn of 2002 I returned to Beijing with the intention of carrying on with the mission I’d started in 1999 at Beijing Scene, namely becoming the Hunter Thompson of China’s expat writer scene. Beijing Scene had met a fairly dramatic end two years earlier, and the new game in town was a magazine called That’s Beijing (which would later expand to That’s Shanghai, That’s Guangzhou and That’s China, before itself meeting its own fairly dramatic end). Anyway, I wrote maybe a dozen articles for them, but I didn’t quite fit in with the editorial staff in the same way as I had with Beijing Scene, and eventually ditched Beijing altogether for warmer, less complicated parts of China.
But during the three or so months I was in Beijing, I churned out most of my articles at one of the first Starbucks in Beijing. I think there were three at the time, which was ironic as one of the stories Beijing Scene had done in 1999 was about how Starbucks had just opened its first branch in Beijing, and was going the put the independent coffee shops out of business. If I recall correctly, it was a cover story, the title was “You Will Be Assimilated”, and most of the people we interviewed eventually wound up working for Starbucks.
Anyway, I hung out at Starbucks because I was living semi-legally in a drab apartment block that was connected to what I guess was then Beijing’s central heating grid, which didn’t come on until Mid-November despite the fact that Beijing starts getting cold in September. So I hung out at Starbucks with my laptop for up to four hours a day, drinking their battery-acid coffee and listening to the two CDs they were officially permitted to play, over and over again.
Being a journalist, I quizzed the folks behind the counter and learned that the music selection had been mandated from the top, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that these two CDs were basically designed to create a relaxed, western vibe without accidently introducing listeners to any dangerous western philosophy. (Wouldn’t want the Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man” to give the citizens any funny ideas now, would we?)
The two CDs were “Best of the Eagles” and “Simon and Garfunkles Greatest Hits”, which they played at about a five to one ratio. It eventually drove me nuts, so I wrote what I thought was a funny editorial for That’s Beijing with a bunch of double entendre based on Eagles and S&G songs. The editor, a frat boy type from Conneticut, thought otherwise. I suspect he thought I was a weirdo. Our editor-writer relationship didn’t last that long.
Anyway, I just found the essay on my mystriously long lost hard drive, and since “Bad Music at Starbucks” seems to be trending, I thought I’d put it up as both an example of bad music at Starbucks and also a snapshot of life in a Beijing that’s long gone.
Author’s Note: As with many of the long-lost hard drive articles, “An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks” was slightly corrupted, and the first sentence has been turned into a mysterious mixture of nonsensical Chinese characters and religous symbols. I have left this gibberish intact, having no recollection of what compelled me to begin the article with a sentence ending in the words “unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus”
An Open Letter to Beijing Starbucks
आÀ䘀楍牣獯景⁴潗摲䐠捯浵湥unmarked by the cheery logo of a mermaid preparing to engage in auto-cunnilingus. While some – scruffy hippies and James Dean type uber-individuals, mostly – might disparage your borg-like saturation / assimilation tactics, our feeling is “why argue with success?” Bully for Starbucks!
However, there is one tiny thing that we at the magazine would like to bring up, a matter that threatens to work its way into our collective consciousness and disrupt the otherwise Peaceful, Easy Feeling that exists between us and Starbucks.We are, of course, referring to your, how can we put this, rigidly monotonous corporate musical policy. We all agree that the Eagles were a fine band, and far be it for any of us at the magazine to belittle their contribution to light, apolitical and “socially acceptable” rock and roll that helped western society heal from the jarring social rifts created during the 1960s. Nonetheless, even Don Henley might be driven to violence after hearing Hotel California two dozen times during an eight-hour shift. After only a few hours listening to the same bland seventies rock songs played repeatedly, we can’t hide our crying eyes. We can only imagine what sort of psychic toll this might take on your counter staff in the long run.
Likewise, Simon and Garfunkel were a fine folk duo, celebrated both for their harmonious crooning and their wistful take on the deeper existential questions which all much face. However, after hearing Feelin’ Groovy three times during one afternoon’s teatime, some of us have been known to curl up into fetal balls, whimpering “lai lai lai, lai lai lai lai” and cringing at imagined sounds of whip-cracks. If only it were true that a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. “Take it Easy! Take it Easy!” we tell ourselves, but still, Starbuck’s slavish corporate devotion to musical tedium is breaking out hearts, and shaking our confidence daily.
We assume that whoever is in charge of Starbucks, Beijing is not a hard-headed man so enamored with life in the fast lane that he would ignore the pleas of long-time customers and continue a musical policy sure to make us lose our minds. Of course, ultimately we have the option to simply avoid Starbucks, yet somehow we feel compelled to return. It is as if we are all just prisoners here, of our own device. Rest assured that such a rigid corporate musical policy will ultimately take it to the limit, putting us on the highway (to some other coffee shop, if we could only find one) and showing us the sign (that perhaps we should switch to snorting Ritalin).
So how about some new tunes, Starbucks? C’mon baby…don’t say maybe”
People often ask me how I landed my first Lonely Planet gig. I haven’t done a guidebook for the company in a few years, but I still contribute pretty regularly to what are known in the industry as T&R, or Trade and Reference books, stuff like Best in Travel and Best in Food, that sort of thing.
So while I more-or-less consider myself a former guidebook writer, writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet was a pretty big part of my professional output for a good chunk of years, and the story of how I got my first Lonely Planet gig seems like it’d make a good blog post – especially in light of a file I just discovered while going through a long-forgotten hard drive.
In 2005, I was living on Lamma Island, Hong Kong, working as a freelance contributor for a bunch of magazines and newspapers in HK and China, including the South China Morning Post, the HK Weekly Standard and a few others. (Long story short, Taiwan was considered a pretty niche destination back then, so I couldn’t sell enough stories about Taiwan to make a living as a freelance writer.)
But my heart was still in Taiwan, and so I pitched what would become my first book, Vignettes of Taiwan to a publisher I’d been writing for pretty regularly since 2001. The publisher – ThingsAsian Press – took me up on the offer, and the next year, VOT was published.
About a month after the book came out, my publisher at Things Asian Press told me about a book fair that was happening in town, so I grabbed a dozen copies of Vignettes of Taiwan and headed in. One of the speakers was Tony Wheeler, who had started Lonely Planet with his wife Maureen.
Being a brash young man, I approached Mr. Wheeler and handed him a copy of Vignettes of Taiwan along with a business card and comment along the lines of “Imagine what I could do with your next Lonely Planet Taiwan Guide.”
Mr. Wheeler was nicer about it than he needed to be, thanked me for the book and told me that if he liked it somebody from the office would contact me.
A few weeks later, I got an email from a woman named Marina at the LP office in Melbourne informing me that Tony Wheeler had liked my book, and that if I was interested in submitting a sample guidebook chapter the company would consider me for the upcoming Taiwan guide.
Did I respond to this kind offer with an enthusiastic All Right! What’s my next step?
No, I did not.
Instead, I hit reply and wrote something like “How do I know that Lonely Planet isn’t going to just use my sample chapter for some upcoming book?”
Because in addition to being a brash young man, I was also a suspicious young man. And I had the idea that Lonely Planet’s business model might somehow include getting a bunch of sample chapters for free from perspective authors and cobbling these into actual functioning guidebooks.
Marina, who really would have been well within her rights to just delete my email unanswered, instead responded with something like “Do it and the world will be your Lonely Planet oyster!” She attached a template for the project and wished me well.
I don’t have the actual email anymore, but I definitely remember the line “The world will by your Lonely Planet oyster!”
So I did.
I grabbed a then-recent Lonely Planet guide and headed up to Shekou, a neighborhood in Shenzhen, China, and pretty much used it as a guideline to do my own sample chapter to Shekou. I turned it in, and a few weeks later, Marina wrote me back to tell me I’d made the cut (though my mapping skills could use some improvement), and to offer me my first gig with the company, updating the upcoming Lonely Planet Taiwan book.
That was in 2006, and for the next seven years, yeah…the world was pretty much my Lonely Planet oyster. Belize, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, back to China, back to Belize, back to Singapore, and so forth.
Anyway, back to the long-lost hard drive. I was going through said item yesterday, and came across a file called “Lonely Planet Shekou.” And while I’ve told the story about pressing a copy of Vignettes of Taiwan into Tony Wheeler’s hands many times, I’d apparently completely forgotten about doing the sample chapter, because my first thought on finding the file was I never did anything in that part of China for Lonely Planet. So I opened up the file and checked it out.
Definitely a freshman attempt at guidebook writing, to be sure. But since I had fun reading it, maybe you will too, so I’ll paste it below in all its virgin guidebook-writer glory.
I wouldn’t advise trying to get anything useful from it, though – China changes super fast, and I doubt anything I wrote about in Shekou in 2006 is even relevant. Still, I think it offers a decent insight into what goes into being a guidebook writer, or at least what went into hiring one in 2006. (Things have no doubt changed since then.)
(I’m particularly proud of having described Shekou as “A peninsular nipple on Shenzhen’s ever-expanding underbelly” )
Somewhere in a box in my father’s garage is the map I drew with colored pencil and crayon. If I ever find it, I’ll post it here.
General description of the town (or area within a city) and its attractions, plus any other info of interest. Should be punchy enough to make people want to visit (without sounding like a tourist brochure).
Shining with a playfullyseductive and only slightly jaded light, Penisualr Shekou (translation: “Snake Mouth”) dangles off Shenzhen’s southern coast. For those entering China via ferry from Hong Kong – a wise move as the port border is a line-free love fest compared to mad crush of the Lo Wu / HK crossing – Shekou is gateway to the get rich or die trying metropolis that itself is the jewel of the hyper-capatalist Pearl River Delta
If Shenzen is a yang monolithic glass and concrete statement to the righness of Chairman Deng’s maxim “to get rich is glorious,” then Shekou – the petri dish in which modern chinese capatalism was created – is a more Yin seaside district offering the following sly adendum to Deng’s words:
“…But have a good time along the way.”
Brief but informative and lively history of the town/neighbourhood.
Though Shekou’s history as an inhabited area dates into the Neolithic era (according to archeological evidence anyway), most of this was spent as a sleepy backwater harbor community overshadowed by more important neighbors. Exciting moments over the centuries have been few and far between. Legend has it that during the Late Song dynasty a powerful celestial goddess descended on the site of the present-day Tian Hou temple, and during the opium wars the area again saw some action as Chinese generals used the peninsula as a base from which to harass enemy ships. But for the most part, history passed quietly around Shekou. All this changed in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping chose this small nub of real estate as a petri dish in which to germinate the earliest seeds of post-revolutionary capitalism in China, allowing for the first time since 1949 foreign owned companies to set up shop on Chinese soul.
Once barren hills overlooking the harbor were transformed into the Shekou Industrial Zone, from which “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” quickly sprung forth, quickly growing to encompass greater Shenzhen in the early 1980’s. Today, with the entire Pearl River Delta region arguably the main economic engine fueling a capitalist China whose market economy Chairman Mao couldn’t even begin to imagine, Shekou has settled into a somewhat more relaxed stretch of harbor front property.
Information to give travellers their bearings in the town/neighbourhood.
Shekou is an easy place in which to get around. The heart of the neighborhood is Seaworld Plaza, a brick-paved pedestrian mall stretching south from Xinghua road to an extremely difficult to miss five story high cruise ship moored in concrete approximately a quarter-mile from where the harbor itself begins. North of Seaworld plaza are some lovely hills for light hiking, and east of the plaza lies a somewhat rundown residential and commercial district where most habitues of the more upscale businesses of Seaworld Plaza seldom venture. Three blocks east of Seaworld Plaza is the Shekou Ferry terminal, from which boats to Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai leave many times daily, and in front of this terminal is the bus station..
Give details of useful sources for travellers ie the tourist info centre, post office, availability of banks, Internet cafes, emergency medical facilities. This should be provided in list format in alphabetical order and comments added if needed. Note that details given after the practical info in brackets should start with a new sentence (not run on from the heading). Include phone numbers and addresses in brackets.
Located in front of the Shekou Passanger Terminal, the Shekou Bus Station has local busses leading to destainations throughout Shenzhen
Ferry Terminal [2558 8588]
The Shekou Passenger Terminal is an customs crossing point for daily ferries leading to Hong Kong, Kowloon, HK Airport, and Macau. Landing visas are available here with restrictions based on nationality. The terminal also services passenger ferries to Zhuhai.
While the neighborhood lacks an interet café, the Haitao Hotel [No.8 Gong Ye 1st road, one block east of the ferry terminal] has a lobby café with a free internet-ready terminal. Meal or beverage purchase is required for use.
Describe at least three main sights or attractions and give the following practical info (if applicable) in brackets: phone number, address, entry fee, opening hours.
The undisputed heart of Shekou, this brick pedestrian mall is lined with restaurants of varying ethnicities, coffee shops ranging from kitsch to corportate, and more bars than you can shake a stick at, all overlooked by the Minghua, a perpetually docked ocean liner-cum-tourist magnet from which Seaworld gets much of its nautical bragging rights. The wide, car free mall is a prime spot for people watching, peopled by expatriates of all stripes, tourists from around China, and – increasingly – locals flexing their newfound buying power. On weekends and holidays Seaworld Plaza takes on a carnival like vibe as it fills with artists painting portraits, merchants selling kites (for flying in the nearby park) and a wide variety of other trinkets and gimcracks. And in the evenings, the plaza is the center of one one of Shekou’s most happeing bar scenes.
In the center of the Seaworld Plaza sits the Minghua, a former French ocean liner that’s been moored in concrete and transformed into the area’s biggest tourist draw. While the lion’s share of the interior has been transformed into the Cruise Inn, a campy botique hotel, the exterior decks (accessable by gangplanks, manned naturally by sailor-suit clad staff) are open to the public and offer a number of bars and eateries. Naturally the decks have views of the harbor – its that blue bit about a quarrter mile to the south, just over the mini-mall and golf-driving range (themselves built on land reclaimed from the sea). The Minghua is cool in that quirky sort of way that only a completely incogrious juxtaposition (like an ocean liner surrounded on all sides by land) can be. If you like ships but hate the ocean (or just like microbrew – see our bar listings below), the Minghua is a must-visit.
[Seaworld Plaza, public decks open 4:30 PM – Midnight]
Tian Hou Temple
Shekou’s Tian Hou Temple is a cultural oasis in a town not overly reknowned for its culture, and a spiritual outpost in a city where dollar (or Yuan) worship is the overriding relegion. This 200 year old temple complex honors Matsu, godess of the sea, whose sphere of infulence is chiefly the protection of sailors and fisherman (and presumably the off-shore oil drillers who make their livings nearby). The temple was built on a hilly spot where the celestial godess herself was said to have visited during the Song Dynasty. Since the early eighties an industrial zone has grown around the temple, and on some days the shipping containers across the road are higher than the temple’s tiled roof. But save for the greying of the blue roof times in the ambiant pollution ubiqious to the area, little inside the complex has changed. Lay worshippers – particularly those who make their living on the sea – place incense in gigantic copper braziers outside the main temple before stepping inside for prayer, and tourists (refreshingly low in numbers) come to visit the temple and the small attached museum documenting the nautical history of the area. One wing of the museum is filled with statues and other works of art dedicated to the sea goddess, as well as antiques and other objects of art belonging to a bygone age. The temple offers one peculiar service – for a nominal fee of Y20, worshippers can scribe a wish or prayer onto the interior of a curved clay tile. The tile is then placed on the roof of the temple, where presumably Matsu will be better able to judge the merits of the beseechments.
Common prayers include bessechments for the godess to halt typhoons, or to direct the tides in a way that carry seaborne trash away from high value beachside property.
[#6 Chiwan road][Ph: 26853219][Y15 admission]
If applicable to the place you’re covering, review activities of interest to travellers and include the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, cost.
Note that Sleeping/Eating/Drinking/Entertainment/Shopping sections feature stand-alone reviews with the first full sentence beginning after the practical information in brackets (see a recent Lonely Planet guide for examples).
Probably the singlemost commonly engaged in activity in Shekou is hanging out at Seaworld Plaza, followed closely by either eating or drinking (or some combination therof). However, the hills to the north of the plaza offer decent hiking activites, as do the hills surrounding the Evergreen Resort. And if practicing your golf swing in the shadow of an ocean liner appeals to you (and really, how many places offer the opportunity), there is a fine golfing range behind the Minghua.
Review at least three accommodation places that travellers might use, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, Web site (if applicable), address, cost per night for singles/doubles (use abbreviations ‘s’ and ‘d’ instead of singles and doubles).
The Evergreen Resort
[2664 6988 / 2640 3988] [1 Quingqing St, Moonbay] [SY680 DY780 / Y880] [comment – this place has a variety of different rooms / prices – it doesn’t quite fit in with the “singles / doubles” format. I don’t know how you deal with this. I mention the smurf houses, which are the cheapest of the accomadations.]
Fans of Taiwanese mountain resorts will feel right at home at the Evergreen resort, a sprawling resort complex opened in 1995 by Lin Mei Kuang, a Taiwanese architect whose prior projects included a similar spa resort at Taiwan’s beloved Yaming Mountain. Though the rocky hills surrounding Shekou are a far cry from the lush green mountains of Isle Formosa, the Evergreen’s heavy use of naturalistic structural design and organic building give it a serious mountain resort vibe. Evergreen guests have their choice of standard rooms with ocean views in a traditionally-shaped hote, rustic redwood cabins with gorgeous hardwood floors, futons, and bathrooms with neck deep Japanese style tubs, or of smaller “tree house” structures that vaguely resemble smurf homes. Prices are incredibly reasonable, and a night at the Evergreen can cost as little as RMB 280, which includes the use of the facilities, which include swimming pools, exercise rooms, teahouses, an enclosed butterfly pavilion, and even a small tropical rainforest, complete with trees and flora transplanted from around SE Asia.
[0755/2682-5555][ Minghua Ship, Sea World Plaza] [SY680 DY780 / Y880]
Take two parts nautical whimsy, add one part Alice in Wonderland. Top with stained glass ceilings and serve on pearlescent tiled floorsand you’ve got the Cruise Inn, Shekou’s newest (and among China’s strangest) hotel. The Cruise Inn takes up much of the interior of the permanantly landlocked and docked Minghua, the ship that is Seaworld Plaza’s central feature. Accomadations are as interesting as the lobby décor. The “Romantic Seaview” does have a waterbed and harborview, though the presence of a driving range between ship and sea dispels the illustion somewhat. The captains suite looks out over bar street, and has two plasma screen televisions and a Jacuzzi. Standard rooms are clean, comfortable and, naturally, nautically themed.
[1 Gongye Yilu, next to ferry terminal] [2669–2888][1,560 – Hillview Room, 1,800 Seaview]
[comment – this is how rooms are listed here rather than as singles or doubles; also, discounts are available. I’m not sure how you list this.]
The oldest luxury hotel in the area, the Nanhai’s space-age exterior – rounded balconies that look as if they might detach from the mother ship at any moment face out into the harbor. The Nanhai has undergone extensive renovation in the last year, as reflected by the increased room rates (among the highest in the area). Still, if you want to stay in a luxury hotel of moderate class (the brochure calls it a five star, but we think this might be a bit of an exageration) with a lobby piano bar and attractive seaview rooms, this might be the place for you.
Review at least three good eateries, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, average cost of main course, meals open for ie breakfast, lunch, dinner and days closed if any.
 [First Floor of Seaworld Hotel, Taizhi Road, across from Seaworld Plaza] [Y40] [lunch & dinner only]
Foodfeast is the only restaurant in Shekuo offering genuine Hakka (ke jia) Cuisine, and is thus appropriately named as members of the Hakka clan are reknowned for their love of feasting. Specialties include (get some names). Foodfeast is also the only restaurant in town serving freshly made durian pancakes (delectable to aficionados, but potentially nausiating to those not endeared to the smelly “king of fruits.” ). If you’re in Shekou and sick of foreign fare, you can’t get better down home cuisine than what you’ll find at a ke jia ren, or “Guest Home People” restaurant – after all, “home” is a Hakka’s middle name.
The Paris French Kiss
[2688 0317][57/58 Seaworld Plaza][lunch and dinner][Y90]
High ceilings and curvacious columns give this restaurant (located in front of the good ship Minghua) a Napoleanic feel. Fare is european, and lunch specials are an especially good bargain, as for Y68 you’ll get a large main course, soup or salad, fresh brewed coffee, and a choice of crème brule or choclate mousse to top it off.
Drinking, Entertainment (with a nautical theme).
Review at least one drinking venue that travellers might visit, and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address. If there is only one drinking venue it can just be listed under Entertainment.
Having long ago fullfilled its original purpose as post-revolutionary petri dish of Chinese capatalism, Shekou has settled into a more mellow groove as Shenzhen’s entertainment pavillion. The hub of this is the nautically flavored Seaworld Plaza, a brick-paved pedestrian mall lined on either side with restaurants ranging from fast-food (the uniquious Mcdonalds and Starbucks) to cheesy theme restaurants (like XXX, a Brazillian Barbeque where meat is carved right of the spits by waitstaff dressed in full gaucho regalia). Seaworld plaza is the place to see and be seen, both for local expats working cushy jobs in the offices of nearby foreign owned companies and for local Chinese basking in the glory of their newfound middle class status.
Exepting perhaps the view from the roofs of any of these establishments, from nowhere in Seaworld plaza can the sea actually be seen. Seaworld’s moniker comes not from any ocean (or harbor) view, but from the Minghua, a (get size) ship planted smack dab on the Plaza’s (X) end.
Though it presumably once led a life more common to seagoing vessels (i.e., going somewhere on the sea), today the good ship Minghua is thorougly landlocked, floating in a stretch of open water that surrounds the ship’s hull in all directions for about 20 feet before ending in reclaimed landfill.
The Minghua’s multi-leveleled decks have been transformed into a series of outdoor bars and dance clubs, all of which are open and thumping from dusk into the late-late. The interior of the Minghua has been turned into a the Cruise Inn, a strange and whimsical budget Inn that
Mixes two parts nautical theme with one part Alice in Wonderland to create perhspas Shenzhen’s most tripped-out hotel
With the good ship Minghua as the hub, the entertainment complex of Seaworld Plaza extends in all directions; between ship and sea is a driving range built on reclaimed harbor landfill, making the Minghua perhaps the only ship on the planet from which one can watch revelers on a pedestrian mall from a (term)side porthole and golfers from a (term)side one. GET GOLF INFORMATION.
To the (x) the mall extends further, offering more clubs, bars and restaurants. To the X, it becomes X park, several acres of harborfront greenery with open fields, quiet paths, and a considerably more sedate revelers. Offering the best ground-level view of Shekou harbor, this area becomes extremely crowded with revelers and pickpockets during any festival in which firework displays are involved.
Though wealth may have smoothed her rougher edges, Shekou is still a harbor town, Further south between Seaworld Plaza and the passenger terminal stretches Taizi road, where the gentrified nautical kitch of the plaza melts away to reveal Shekou’s seedier side. Though most of the bars on this street are clearly designed with providing a place for sex workers (many of whom, thanks to the tremendous local economic boom, are actually from the Philipines) to meet and negotiate with customers. There is, however, one noteowrthy exception.
“X-TA-SEA,” according to the bar’s western owner “is not a cheap clip joint for picking up tarts.” Indeed, with its 100 inch flat screen TV with satellite sports channells on demand, regulation style American pool and foosball tables, X-TA-SEA fills a red-light district’s ecological niche, namely a place to drink and gamble without having to be tempted by more sordid sins of the flesh. X-TA-SEA
No. 2A Taizi Road, Behind Yin Bing Building,
136 9192 2585 2866-7649
If applicable, review at least two interesting shops that travellers might visit and give the following practical info in brackets: phone number, address, opening hours.
Though more of shipping than shopping hub, visitors looking to come away from their visit with more than pictures of Matsu or a hangover will have ample opportunity to obtain trinkets at the newly opened mini-mall
Getting There & Away
A penisular nipple on Shenzhen’s ever-expanding underbelly, Shekou is easily reached by boat, bus or taxi. Alas, the new and much touted Shenzehn Metro does not extend to Shekou, ending halfway from the Lo Wu border crossing at the Windows of the World Metro station. All the more reason to take the ferry if you’re coming from Hong Kong, as the boat comes directly to Shekou 13 times a day. Coming from the Shenzen Train Station, the fastest way it to hop a cab for about Y60. Or you could take the metro halfway and grab any number of busses which will let you off in front of the Shekou Passenger terminal. There are also eight boats a day to and from the HK Airport.
Give details on the main transport modes around town, location, frequency and cost etc.
Fairly compact, Shekou is an easy neighborhood in which to get around. It’s a quick walk from the ferry terminal to Seaworld Plaza. The only places in Shekou that really require taxis are the Matsu temple and the Evergreen Resort.
Weird spots pique my interest as a travel writer, which is probably why I wound up in Taiwan.
A few months back, my friend Tobie Openshaw forwarded me an email he’d gotten from a German production company called Maximus Film.
“We’re planning a filming trip to Taiwan next month, and we’re hoping to visit a restaurant called “Uncle Sheep” in Chiayi that makes an earth-oven lamb dish. We would love to visit Mr. Chou in his restaurant and see how he prepares the special dish. We would need one shooting day for this story. Do you have time to help?”
I’d acted as a fixer for TV crews in Taiwan before, and was intrigued by the idea of a family restaurant with a unique method of food preparation. As Tobie didn’t have time to make the trip, I offered to help Maximus out. The gig seemed pretty straightforward. But in Taiwan, things often go from straightforward to unpredictably complicated quickly.
My first inclination of how weird things were going to get came when I called up Mr. Chou, alternately known as “Uncle Sheep” and “Uncle Goats”. He was delighted at the idea that a TV crew from Europe wanted to do a segment on his restaurant. He seemed particularly happy to be receiving visitors from Germany.
“This is great! But I need to ask them to bring me something from home.”
Figuring he wanted strudel, I said I was sure this could be arranged.
“What do you need?”
“Four new fángdú miànjù.”
Having no idea what fángdú miànjù meant, I kept the conversation going, hoping for clarification through context.
“Four fángdú miànjù…” I said. “For cooking?”
“Yes, yes. Fángdú miànjù are a vital part of my cooking process. The ones I have are worn out, and without them, I can’t cook my signature dish.”
Still in the dark, I passed the phone over to one of my colleagues.
“Mmm…uh huh. Yes. Mmmm,” she said to Mr. Chou in Mandarin, then said to me in English:
“Fángdú miànjù are gas masks. Mr. Chou needs four gas masks.”
I took the phone back.
“Gas masks? You mean like what police and soldiers wear?”
“Exactly! I need them for my cooking process! My special dish is made inside of a walk-in oven, and you can’t go inside for even a minute without a gas mask. And the film crew will need to wear gas masks to film my process, so might as well bring four of them. The best come from Germany. Of course, I’ll buy them after the filming.”
I communicated this unusual request to the film crew, who said they were willing to bring four industrial-grade gas masks if it would secure the arrangement. After a bit of email back and forth, a date was set.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about eating a meal whose preparation required a gas mask, but I was certainly looking forward to writing about it.
Before continuing, readers may be a bit confused regarding the genus (“ovine” or “capra,” for those looking for a bit more book knowledge) of the signature dish, being that the restaurant’s name is “Uncle Sheep”, its website is UncleSheep.com.tw, while Mr. Chou’s Facebook handle is “Uncle Goats Chou“.
The Chinese word for sheep is羊 (pronounced Yáng), while goat is山羊(Shānyáng, literally “mountain sheep”). However, Taiwan isn’t as big on mutton as China (most Taiwanese find it a bit strong, though its consumption is considered medicinal), so in meat-form the two are sometimes confused. In any event, Uncle Sheep’s signature dish is goat hot pot. So back to the story.
On the appointed day, I met up with the show host and her videographer in Chiayi city, and we were soon off by taxi to see Mr. Chou, AKA Uncle Goats, at Uncle Sheep Restaurant in Chiayi’s Minxiong Township. Located in a rural area about 20 minutes out of Chiayi (a town best known as a gateway to Alishan), the restaurant itself is a series of traditional Taiwanese houses. Pulling in a few hours before the lunchtime rush, we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Chou and his wife.
After a brief and culturally-required pause for tea, fresh pineapple, and name-card swapping, we got down to business. For the next three hours the crew filmed Mr. Chou as he engaged in the daily ritual of preparing easily the most labor-intensive dishes this side of the infamous turducken (a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey), whose 12+ hour prep time is a bowl of microwave popcorn compared to Mr. Chou’s 7-day slow-cooked goat hot pot.
The recipe had been passed down from his grandmother, Mr. Chou explained as he placed several pounds of goat meat, a multitude of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs and eleven bottles of rice wine into a massive earthenware pot. But it wasn’t the ingredients that led a TV crew in search of good television across the globe, it was the method itself. After putting the lid on the pot (which now weighed close to twenty pounds) Mr. Chou carried it into the courtyard for the sealing process, wrapping it first with a layer of industrial-grade aluminum foil, then slathering it with a thick coating of mud, nearly doubling its weight.
From there, video camera rolling, Mr. Chou carried the heavy mud-slathered clay pot into the outer layer of what the German TV crew would dub in their show “die Höllenküche” – the kitchen of hell. Past this point, gas masks would be required. As we donned ours, making sure the seals were airtight, Chou explained the absolute necessity of wearing the masks inside of the smoke-filled walk-in oven.
“Even with the mask, I try to keep my time inside to just a few minutes per day,” he said. “Even that is bad for my health.”
Fully masked, we were ready to enter the hell kitchen, the heart of Chou’s operation. Though my job was to translate between crew and chef, within seconds of walking into the oven (where the air registers at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, appropriately close to 66.6 degrees Celcius) it was clear that communication was hardly possible.
Movement itself was difficult. As the cameraman filmed from the doorway, the host and I stood to one side and watched Mr. Chou performs his daily ritual of burying the sealed earthenware pot in a hole in the oven’s dirt floor, covering it with rice husks and setting the pile on fire. He then quickly checked on the other pots, shoveling burning embers here and there before donning a thick pair of gloves to remove one of the pots furthest from the door. Moments later, we were extremely grateful to be able to follow Mr. Chou out of the walk-in oven.
With great delicacy, he placed the dried mud-encrusted pot, visibly lighter than the one he’d brought in, on the stone table.
“This one is our lunch today,” he said, hanging his gas mask back on the wall hook as we did the same. “This pot has been cooking for seven days inside my oven, where temperatures can exceed 1000 degrees Celsius!”
As the cameraman repositioned the camera, Mr. Chou brought the superheated pot into the courtyard, where he broke off the baked mud and peeled back the blackened foil before opening the pot itself.
Despite the heavy seal, the liquid had reduced to about 70%.
We followed Mr. Chou and the pot into the kitchen, where he scooped the stew into six smaller serving pots. At this point, his dining room was full, his customers having started on appetizers. The main course could now be served.
So what does goat stew that’s been cooked for seven days taste like? Savory, delicious, and distinctly healthy, with the broth heavy with herbs and rice wine. The meat, heavy with flavor, was nearly butter-soft. Mr. Chou described it as “the best goat hot pot in the world,” and on that point, he’ll get no argument from me, or from the German TV Crew, who seemed to enjoy thoroughly a dish they’d traveled across the globe to taste.
Below is the TV segment that was shown on TV in Germany (in German) about Uncle Sheep Restaurant. For viewers who don’t speak German, don’t fret. Most of the dialogue from the segment has been largely covered in this article, and it’s worth watching both to get a glimpse inside of Mr. Chou’s kitchen and to see the look on the host’s face as she finally gets to taste his signature dish. (Keen-eyed viewers may spot your humble narrator inside of the oven – I’m the guy with the purple pants and gas mask!)
If the film and story have piqued your interest, Uncle Sheep’s Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner four days a week (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday). Click here for details. As you might expect from a restaurant whose signature dish has a 7-day prep time, advanced reservations are suggested.
The same could be said for a good travel writer, and as a member of said fraternity I’ve always interpreted Lao Tzu’s words as encouragement to travel for travel’s sake, considering destination merely a by-product. But how to put the emphasis on journey over destination?
My go-to method is to employ whenever possible non-standard modes of transportation which either extend travel time, are nerve-wracking enough to make time feel slower, or (with unreliable modes of transport), require a flexible concept of destination.
As a reader of this column you’re comfortably en voyage mid-flight yourself. Barring unusual circumstances (of either random celebrity spotting or flight attendant dumping a salad on your lap variety), the most memorable moment of this leg of the journey might be a toss up between finally watching Batman Versus Superman on the in-flight entertainment system or (for those with even less patience for convoluted narrative), reading this article.
You’d have no time for the former and barely enough for the latter were your current trip on a six-seat puddle-jumper flight, though the experience might feel longer. Such short-range flights are generally memorable. Engines (or engine, as the case might be) sounding like an overpowered coffee grinder, small-plane flights almost always guarantee personal contact with the pilot. You may be sitting next to them, though do resist the temptation to initiate mid-flight conversation. (A small gratuity for landing the plane in one piece, or at least at the agreed upon spot is always appreciated.)
Boats are an equally unforgettable way to travel, though not always in a good way. In the neighboring Philippines, Indonesia and other nations comprised mostly of ocean with a few scattered islands, water taxis are ubiquitous, indispensible and largely unregulated. Larger inter-island ferries usually have enough life preservers to go around, making diesel poisoning and seasickness the only real hazard. But travelers heading to less-trammeled Blue Lagoon locales may find themselves skirting islands and open ocean on single-engine speedboats. Operators of these tuk-tuks of the sea are generally more interested in speed than safety, which is partly economic and partly a function of maturity: Like their terrestrial tuk-tuk driving counterparts, many speedboat captains are barely out of adolescence. Anchors away!
Overland travel generally offers more in the way of less nerve-racking transit options, but the savvy traveler should be on the lookout for opportunities to make one’s journey more memorable by eschewing convenience and certainty for discomfort and adventure by hitchhiking.
Hitchhiking, generally looked down upon in wealthier nations, is an essential form of transportation in the developing world. In the United States, thumbing a ride is against the law in most places, so hitchhikers need to be on the lookout for police. The situation is somewhat reversed in Belize, where hitchhikers are advised to give up their seat for any law enforcement officials also thumbing a ride.
One interesting exception to the developed/developing world hitchhiking dichotomy is Taiwan, which is unique in that it’s both wealthy and hitchhiker friendly. But thumbing a ride in Formosa comes with its own peculiar price tag; many a westerner visitor to Taiwan has found themselves holding impromptu English classes in the backs of pickup trucks winding through the mountains. Some of these journeys have resulted in lasting friendships, and in at least a few cases, marriage proposals. This may not have been the experience originally intended on setting out, but it does come close to fitting Lao Tzu’s travel philosophy.
Perhaps it was witnessing similar experiences that prompted Confucius’ most well known travel aphorism “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” China’s greatest sage was no stranger to travel, and spent much of his life on the road in an era where options for overland travel were limited by the technology of the day. Were he alive in this era, perhaps he’d also choose non-standard modes of travel, dispensing wisdom from a hovercraft or hot air balloon. But it’s equally likely that he’d employ the same mode of travel today as he did in his own life during the warring states period, namely walking. Though slow, walking allows for extended contemplation, which is well in line with both with the sage’s overall character and his second-best known travel aphorism: It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.
“To Boldly Go… ” Appeared originally in EVA’s inflight magazine, Autumn, 2016 .
A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake is a story that didn’t make it into Formosa Moon, and probably for good reason. Stephanie and I traveled to this fabled tourist destination for the book, and actually had a wonderful time. Alas, when we started posting little snippets of our lovely experience over the digital herpes machine that social media has become, we were predictably treated to the golden shower of comments from a few of our fellow expatriates concerning their own negative feelings about the place. Overdeveloped, not “the real Taiwan,” too many tourists, yadda yadda…
I suppose this was for the best, as it triggered my aforementioned contrarian nature in two ways:
First, I decided that I was going to absolutely love the place. This proved to be anything but a challenge, as Sun Moon Lake turned out to be the epitome of loveliness, and we got several great chapters from Sun Moon Lake for the book.
And second, being a comedy writer, I decided to use the juxtaposition of being in an absolutely lovely setting and seeing comments disparaging the place on my fairly innocuous social media posts about the area to write some comedy.
Without further ado, “A Nihilists Guide to Sun Moon Lake”
(Though it isn’t in Formosa Moon, I may include it in the audio-book version, but only if I can get Werner Herzog to read it. In my mind, the piece is best read in his voice.)
A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake
Driving through the mountains and valleys of Nantou County, we pass through towns and villages scarred by natural catastrophe, stopping to visit a plaza containing two ornate houses of worship. The first had been destroyed in an earthquake, and the second was built afterwards to house idols rescued from the first. Both are without meaning.
In a nearby market, villagers sell local fruits, teas and tonics for health, unaware of the futility of their industry for buyer and seller alike. After brief repast, we drive to the lake itself.
Thought by some to be among the most beautiful spots in Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake was formed by a cataclysmic strike coming without warning from the endless and indifferent void of space. The blow likely as not destroyed most of the island’s life at the moment of impact, itself a mercy.
Over millennia, the crater filled with water and slowly trees and plants grew around the damp hole. At some point, humans arrived and thought the place pretty. Then as now, this was merely a mental self-preservation construct designed as distraction from existence’s ultimate futility for whatever time it takes to ensure copulation, thus ensuring biological continuation of the ghastly charade. These days, there are many hotels diminishing the lake’s beauty while simultaneously providing a place for human sexual encounters. Contemporary social mores require such encounters be conducted indoors. Why is this?
We stop to visit the Wenwu temple overlooking the lake, inside of which ornate statues represent various folk deities. Local people pray to these idols, but their prayers go unheard. God is dead. On the third level is a temple constructed to honor the sage Confucius, who died alone as do all men. In the attached gift shop, foodstuffs can be purchased.
On opposite sides of the lake lie two collections of buildings, clustered in futility, seeking solace in number. We head to the smaller of these for shelter from the rapidly approaching night, pausing to watch from the pier extending timidly over the water the setting of the sun. The same star that gives our planet life will inevitably destroy it. This is inescapable fact.
Now it is time for evening sustenance.
There are many restaurants, but we choose instead to eat smaller items of foodstuffs from vendors who have set up small stalls in the alleys and streets of the villages. Village vendors wear clothing signifying belonging to the local tribal group, whose ancestors came to the area before those of the island’s current-dominant culture arrived in response to a multitude of political and social pressures in their own homeland, quickly exchanging the mantle of oppressed for oppressor. If the vendors are aware of various theories stating that their ancestors played a similar role with a previous indigenous group, the very existence of which is now lost forever, they make no mention of it. We who enjoy sticks of pork grilled over flame despite our own awareness of the sentience of pigs can hardly judge.
For dessert, we eat shaved ice served with crushed fruit, served to us in a shop in which a young girl happens to be sitting stroking a pet cat. In the natural course of things, both the cat and the girl will die, yet if the cat outlives the girl it will be considered tragic.
We return to our hotel room to bathe and though procreation is not our goal, we copulate. Despite the presence of road and futility of man’s every endeavor, tomorrow we will take a boat across the lake.
~ Fin ~
A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake does not appear in Formosa Moon, by Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman. You should purchase the book nonetheless at Powell’s City of Books, Amazon, or wherever else you purchase books to fill in the time before the inevitable occurs.
Formosa Moon, Things Asian Press. Available for pre-order.
Authors Joshua Sameul Brown and Stephanie Huffman
June 2018 – Formosa Moon #1 Best Selling in Taiwan Travel Guides
Amazon Rates Formosa Moon
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A collection of creative nonfiction, journalism and hallucinatory dreamscapes from China, Belize, Taiwan, Singapore, and other exotic locales. Illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll.
(Review from Tony Wheeler: "I've often thought that guidebook writing attracts the mad, the bad and the slightly crazed. If he didn't start that way - perhaps a pre-writing career as a bike messenger helped - his years on the road have certainly contributed to Joshua's off-kilter take on the world."
~Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet co-founder)
Vignettes of Taiwan
Vignettes of Taiwan. Short stories, essays & random meditations about Taiwan by Joshua Samuel Brown.