Radioactive Blast from the Past: The Magic of Taiwan: ICRTeee!

Rick Monday, Mark Rogers, Lan Roberts, Ron Stuart.
Courtesy of SmokenFire

It starts with the calm, measured tones of US President Jimmy Carter making an announcement on December 15, 1978.

Good evening,                          

I would like to read a joint communique which is being simultaneously issued in Peking at this very moment by the leaders of the People’s Republic of China:

The United States of America recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China. Within this context, the people of the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.

The music starts: funky electro-jazz with a sharp beat. And then we hear the smooth, powerful voice of Bobby Kong.

Welcome to our Radioactive Taiwan podcast.

In this our first episode we’ll bring you back to the music and the politics of the 1980’s

And how a mixed bag of radio pros, Chinese students, and people literally plucked off the streets of Asia were able to help bring a fledgling outcast of a country into a new era of political freedom, worldwide respect, and democracy!

And so begins the fab new podcast about the Glory Days of ICRT, (International Community Radio Taipei) how it went from being Armed Forces Network Radio Taiwan, to a fully-fledged American-style commercial radio station with 3,000,000 listeners per day.

But more than that, claim the makers of this fun, slick, and even inspiring 5-part podcast series, ICRT became a force for American soft power in Asia, keeping the love for America going after the soldiers left. Not only did it allow a wide range of Taiwanese to tune in to the latest and/or greatest pop, country, rock, jazz, and classical hits, it also served as a window on the world with uncensored news 24/7, the only such public source in Taiwan, at that time under Martial Law. What’s more, it became a free source of English learning for young and old alike, encouraging many to come to America to study, and it promoted democracy, freedom, truth and the American Way of Life!

In fact ….

taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen was a regular ICRT listener

And if that seems a bit hyperbolic, shame on you! Old radio people never exaggerate; they just remember it better.

Radioactive Taiwan is the creation of a group of former (and one current) ICRTers. The writer is veteran radio-man Rick Monday, ICRT DJ and news guy at various points from 1986 to 2012.  Former ICRT DJ Bobby Kong is the silken-voiced main narrator for the show: 50+ years running as a pro DJ, said Rick, and still on the air in Tokyo. Nic Gould, a former ICRT newsman / marketing manager from 1988 to 2000, is the old guy who can still remember the most stuff, and was hence invaluable to the project. And then there’s Tito Gray, who did news and music for the Pinoy community in Taiwan on ICRT for years before retiring to the Philippines. He is still sending in his show AsiaNation that plays on Sundays. Tito’s the one-man production studio who put the show together and made it greater than the sum of its parts.

Former ICRT facilities at the American Village in Yangmingshan

This documentary series covers how when the US switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC on Jan. 1 1979, the armed forces had to leave. Armed Forces Network Radio Taiwan had already been a popular station, and very useful for the business expat community, who convinced the ROC government to let them take it over. In 1983 they hired an American guy from Hawaii called Craig Quick, a natural leader with broadcast experience and a bold vision for ICRT. Quick hired some talented, motivated people and they got to work up in the old fortified AFNRT studio on Yangmingshan. Leadership, talent, and teamwork – combined with having the only private radio license in Taiwan at the time – led to a huge success. ICRT became a media elephant. Not long after that, on July 14th, 1987, martial law was lifted, and the country saw a wave of openness and democratization that ICRT fit perfectly into. It was truly a golden time for the radio station.

But it was not to last: there were rough waters ahead. According to a Taipei Times article of April 16, 2014: “…in January 1993, the central government lifted its ban on new radio stations, going on to approve 46 new stations across Taiwan on Dec. 24, 1994. ICRT found itself floundering: Within the next few years, it had taken the AM channel permanently off-air and severely downsized its FM.”

It was too easy for the new Taiwanese-owned stations to simply copy ICRT’s successful format: popular western music, jingles, contests, phone-in requests, and chatty DJs. The loss of the monopoly position was a massive hit to ICRT’s advertising revenue.

But even as the station slowly started to fade through the late 1990’s and early 2000s, it still served the community. When I polled the Facebook hive-mind on favorite ICRT moments, many people talked about how Terry Engel’s morning show cheered them up on blue Mondays, or how Bill Thiessen’s jazz show chilled them out on Sunday nights. Good vibes!  Many also expressed strong appreciation for the news department’s solid coverage in the aftermath of the 9-21 Jiji Earthquake on Sep. 21st, 1999. In a similar vein, current general manager Tim Berge recalls how useful the station was to the international community when Typhoon Nari slammed into northeastern Taiwan on Sep. 16 2001. Much of Taipei was flooded and without electricity for a couple of days, but ICRT was there, back-up generator cranking away, keeping everyone up-to-date on conditions and recovery efforts.

Of course, everyone had a radio back then, whereas today probably most people don’t have one, unless they drive a car. Everything is online and on your smartphone. ICRT has tried to adapt with podcasts, live streaming, an app, and a presence on Facebook and Twitch, among other innovations. But let’s face it: in the media landscape they’ve gone (through no fault of their own) from being an elephant to a dwarf elephant; from 3,000,000 listeners a day to 500,000 per week; from number one to number 6. Tim Berge and the team, like Ron Stuart, Joseph Lin, Gavin Phipps – and many others – soldier on at their new digs in Xinzhuang, refusing to give up, keeping the legend alive. Thanks guys!

tim berge, general manager of icrt

Even Tim remembers the Yangmingshan days with fondness, how as “Captain Tim” the traffic guy, he beat his chest to simulate the sound of their non-existent traffic helicopter. Like everyone else, he was having fun and enjoying the moment, riding a big golden wave. Everyone was younger and more optimistic back then, as was Taiwan.

So if you want to uncork and experience those moments, the Radioactive Taiwan podcast is a powerful blast from the past. There’s a lot I didn’t share because you should experience if for yourself: the stories of concerts promoted, marketing triumphs, and cultural impact. There are cameo voice appearances by veteran ICRTers (including Craig Quick), notable expat personalities, famous politicians and recording artists, and more. The whole thing is not only informative, but also dynamic and fun like radio itself.

Give them a listen: I absolutely guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Here’s the link:

https://anchor.fm/radioactivetaiwan/episodes/Radioactive-Taiwan—Chapter-1—Setting-the-Stage-e134il6

If you like it as much as I do, and want to support some cool old coots preserving their glory days in a compelling way, they can use your vote at the People’s Choice Podcast Awards, a big-deal annual event.  Give them a vote! There is a brief, non-invasive registration process to make sure that people only vote once for any entry. I did it: it’s easy and didn’t lead to spam.

Go to www.podcastawards.com

Register.

Podcast’s name: Radioactive Taiwan 

Categories: Adam Curry and History 

And in these times of Covid-19, PRC saber-rattling, and squabbling on Facebook, you can still tune into the good vibes on ICRT or in this podcast.

So remember everyone: Taiwan’s More Than a Place to Live, Taiwan’s a State of Mind…

At ICRTeeeeeeee!

_________________________________________________________

I’m John Groot, the author of this blog and also Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan, the story of my walk around the shoreline of Taiwan, and also the story of the Taiwan I discovered. If you’d like to know more about my book, please check out its Facebook page here. Cheers!

https://www.facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet

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Walking Ghost

The 4th and final installment in my series of posts about the writing of my book Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan.

During my first few years in Taiwan, I used to love walking around the old neighborhoods of Taipei. On the main streets, much of community life took place on the sidewalks. Between the 7-Elevens and cafes were traditional, open-fronted temple-supply or dried-goods shops. There were also shops for tradesman filled with tools or paint, and old-fashioned clothing stores, the ageing owner serving the customers personally. Shops often had products for sale right outside, in the space between the main walkway and the road, so you actually walked through the shop while passing by. Occasionally there’d be a cluster of food stalls, with accompanying sounds and smells, and noisy banter in Taiwanese. There always seemed to be a lot of work going on in the daytime in these blue-collar neighborhoods: deliverymen parked their trucks creatively on the roadside, loading or unloading wares; men on stilt-ladders fixed electric signs, or motorcycles were repaired right in front of you. It was hectic but fun, and I would dodge and weave through this homey obstacle course.

In the early evening, I often enjoyed walking through the soft darkness of quiet side streets where, the business of the day concluded, families hung out in the front room of their small shop-homes, watching TV, or laughing with the kids. Some spaces were empty and silent, but illuminated by the red light of a small shrine to Mazu or Guanyin. I walked by outside in the dark, unobserved, peering briefly in, silently and affectionately. Then I often went to a riverside pathway and marched on for hours in a dreamy trance, seeing the lights of distant buildings across the water. Sometimes I joked to myself: “If you die in Taiwan, you might end up as a walking ghost, your restless spirit patrolling the streets forever.”

Years later, I shifted my focus to walking around the island, which was what gave me the chance to meet John Grant Ross. That fellow hadn’t been so lucky in his planned north-to-south mountain walk of the entire island, cancelled thanks to the 921 Earthquake. Instead, Ross did a series of trips around the island over the next two months – an interesting time to do so, as the island’s infrastructure was still being repaired. It was also a time when the Taiwanese really pulled together as one people, forging a greater sense of collective identity. Ross walked 30km from Fuiguijiao – the northernmost tip of Taiwan – to Tamsui. He solo hiked the Southern Cross Island Highway, closed to car traffic at the time (and now again). “I had the mountains to myself,” he told me. He has described the vista of the Pacific Ocean at the end of a descending series of ridgelines, as seen from the Central Mountains looking east, as a vision of “Taiwan before the Fall”, unbesmirched by civilization, a brief glimpse of its former wild beauty. Ross also biked around Kenting and up part of the East Coast, and did a few other trips to meet and interview some fascinating people.

In addition of course, he’d done a large amount of reading on Taiwan, alone in his room with only his beer fridge for company. Then he sat down at his desk, rolled up his sleeves, and started to write. One years later, it was done. He’d given it his best swing, and he’d knocked it out of the park. His book Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present frames Taiwan’s society and history through the lens of the island’s zeitgeist in that volatile period between the September 21, 1999 “921” earthquake and the March 18, 2000 election of Chen Shui-bian, the first opposition party president in Taiwan’s history.

Beyond merely capturing the excitement in Taiwan at the millennium, Formosan Odyssey gives tribute to the island’s deeper past. Interspersed between the brief sections on his own island tour are longer passages that bring to life the bold players of Taiwan’s early history, the European and Chinese colonists, the pirates and smugglers, the indigenous people and explorers. It is clearly the book of a “bruised romantic who would have been happier living in a less civilized time”, as Ross describes himself. There’s a lot of colorful stuff about various 19th-century “Wild East” characters like the Scottish-Canadian Presbyterian missionary George Leslie Mackay, who (with no medical training) pulled Taiwanese teeth in Tamsui. That is well known, but a story less commonly told is that he observed the execution and cannibalistic dismemberment of an aboriginal man by Han settlers in Yilan.

Ross also enjoys recounting tales of William Pickering, an English sailor who had been wandering the Orient until he joined the Qing government’s Imperial Maritime Customs Service in Fujian. Sent to Tainan, Pickering’s adventures in war, and peacemong the Paiwan people of what is now Kenting are as exciting as they are historically significant. They include his role as an interpreter on the ill-fated Formosa Expedition of 1867. Intended as a retaliatory raid on the Paiwan for killing 14 members of the American ship Rover that had run aground near the southern tip of Taiwan, Eluanbi, earlier the same year, the botched revenge expedition saw the death by musket fire of its leader, Lieutenant Commander Alexander Mackenzie. Ross also gleefully describes the arrival of 20 naked Europeans to Pickering’s office, after they had been stripped of all their clothes and possessions by Han Chinese pirates only a few kilometers outside of the town. They had been stripped and robbed the day before, then helped by a kind local magistrate who had given them food, a small amount of money, and rice bags for clothing. But on the way back to town they were robbed and stripped again!

William A. Pickering, 1869

Ross also brings Taiwan’s modern era to us in sections on Chiang Kai-shek, Lee Tung-hui, and Chen Shui-bian. But longer still is Ross’ account of his interview with Dr. Ko Shi-cheng, a world famous expert on foot binding, the bizarre practice that was inflicted on about three billion women over 1000 years. One fascinating detail divulged was that even in erotic prints of nude Chinese women performing sexual acts in explicit detail, the “lotus feet” are modestly covered.

Overall, Formosan Odyssey is the book of a young man happily discovering a new country. Its sense of fun is infectious, but it still treats the important aspects of Taiwan’s history and society credibly and with appropriate gravity. Hence, it’s a unique and worthy piece of literature. 

Of course, before it could be appreciated, it had first to be published. Ross sent his manuscript to one of Taiwan’s premier publishing houses, but they rejected his work.  Other publishers turned him down as well. Too much fun, perhaps? Annoyed, but undefeated, he decided to self-publish. He then had a second setback: the printing company he contracted made a mistake, and there were some creased pages in every copy. Luckily for Ross they agreed to do a full reprint for free, leaving him with about 80 hard-to-sell, but easy to gift, copies of the book in which the creasing was fairly light. He said that he believes giving out these free copies helped create a buzz for the book, ensuring its long-term success. Lemons to lemonade!

However, Ross hadn’t given up on his plans to get his book published more professionally. He bided his time, reading volumes and drinking crates of beer, waiting for “someone good” to approach him. This happened in 2012 when he was contacted by Michael “Taffy” Cannings, who had skills with computer graphics and marketing. The original plan was just to publish Ross’ work as an e-book, but their venture kept snowballing. Mark Swofford joined as an editor, and the newly minted Camphor Press was off to a good start with eight e-book titles in 2014, including a reissue of Formosan Odyssey, T.C. Lin’s Barbarian at the Gate, describing his experience as a white guy doing military service in Taiwan, Richard Saunders’ travel guide The Islands of Taiwan, and another book by Ross, You Don’t Know China: 22 Enduring Myths Debunked. Since then, Camphor Press has grown both in terms of prestige and volume, publishing over 100 titles as of the time I write this. Well done, lads!

Something else happened in 2012: This was also the time that I met John Grant Ross. Long ago when I had just started the walk, we had communicated on Forumosa.com, where the cool foreigners used to hang out online before Facebook crashed the scene. Ross had enthusiastically supported my idea, and extended a cordial invite to drop by his place in the desolate wilds of western Chiayi when my walk took me through the area. About four years later, I finally got there, and took him up on it. There was a great meeting of minds, an even greater drinking of beer, and eventually he suggested that I write a book about my travels for Camphor Press, which was still very much in the developmental stages at the time. I instantly agreed.

Two years later, I finished my walk around Taiwan, and rested, aglow with contentment, for a year. Then Ross reminded me about the book idea, so it was time for me to get to work. I painstakingly reviewed and organized my eclectic collection of old blog posts and pictures, soon realizing two things: Firstly, that my story, while interesting, didn’t contain a sufficient variety of content for an entire book. I would have to add a lot of background material about the island itself. Secondly, I also had to come up with a narrative theme that connected the story of my walk to the story of Taiwan, matching my clockwise coastal circuit with the forward-moving arc of Taiwan’s history. In about a year, these two tasks were mostly accomplished, and I set to the business of wrestling with my text. When I had beaten it into a somewhat more book-like form, John Ross began to help me with editorial comments and suggestions. Soon it was starting to really take shape.

But then I noticed something strange: while Ross was responsive and helpful, there was little official word from the other two members of the company, Michael “Taffy” Cannings and Mark Swofford. They seemed to be dragging their heels on the book, and with no explanation why. Finally, I figured it out. They didn’t like my book, not for Camphor Press anyway. Too much fun, perhaps? Ross, the heart of the company from the literary side of things, did like it. But he was stuck in the middle: he couldn’t bully his partners – it was a “Three Musketeers” type of operation – and nor could he let me down, his friend, the person he had suggested write the book in the first place. He wasn’t that sort of bloke. What to do? Then I had a brainwave. The deal, I said, should be this: the Camphor crew would help me technically produce a nicely laid out printable PDF file (the modern version of a finished manuscript), and get it up on Amazon and similar outlets as a “print on demand” (POD) book. However, it would not be listed or referred to as a Camphor Press book.

This honourable compromise was accepted. Nevertheless, things continued to be problematic. Progress was painfully slow, which drove me up the fucking wall. It was a bleak year in my life, and involved me sending more than one angry email to Taffy, often in the early hours of the morning when alcohol made my angst boil over. But, eventually, finally, in April 2020, about two years later than I thought it would, the book file was finished. My nightmare of frustration was over. It was an immense relief, and a bright transition to a new personal reality.  

Taffy, to his credit, had said back in the autumn of 2019 that I could print up some copies locally and sell them myself in Taiwan. This hadn’t been part of our compromise, and despite our differences, he did it anyway. A tip of the hat to him on that score. It turned out to be an emotional life-saver, as Covid-lockdown-related deliveries overwhelmed Amazon during the spring and summer of 2020, sending online book purchasing into chaos, just as my own work hit the market. This could have been another massive frustration for me. Instead, I had a big pile of boxes in my office – 500 shiny new books to gloat over! Now I had to sell them. Being a self-published author in Taiwan forced me to do all the promotion myself, and I did, traveling around the country and having book signings in fine venues like MTB Teabar and On Tap in Taipei, the Green Hornet, Cheers, and Dazzler’s Fish & Chips in New Taipei City, The H.O.P. in Taoyuan, Hooked on Fish and Chips in Hsinchu, the Lighthouse in Kaohsiung, Roxy’s Bar in Douliu, and ABC Deli in Taitung. Great places all! These events were quite successful in promoting the book, and were also excellent opportunities to meet people,  and expand my real social network. Lemons to lemonade once again!

Speaking of Ross: while he was helping me with my book, he was also working on another one of his own, Taiwan in 100 Books, easily his most impressive product to date. In it, Ross writes that he (mainly) aimed to share what he thinks “are the best, the most important, and the most influential books” about Taiwan. His book is divided into 12 loosely chronological chapters, including “Early Formosa”, “Frontier Taiwan: Qing Rule”, “Japanese Taiwan”, and “2-28: A Bad Beginning” – about the inept and divisive early years of Nationalist rule. Other chapters cover books about big topics such as the American military presence, the White Terror, and the development of the democracy movement, and also smaller ones like ecology, sports, music, the railways, and crime.

However, Ross being Ross, his compendium ventures into more titillating topics as well, describing works on ghost-fetus haunting, sex work, and other lurid or salty fare. In fact, the opening chapter of the book, “Mysterious Taiwan”, starts in 1957 with the tale of the American millionaire John F. Gilbey arriving in Taiwan in search of legendary kung fu practitioners, some of who could reputedly suspend a weight of 100 kilograms from their genitals!

However, although Taiwan in 100 Books contains these glints of the laddish Ross we met in Formosan Odyssey, it is actually much deeper. For one thing, the writing style is more polished and literary, while still being clear, down-to-earth, and sensitive. What’s more, each of the 100 books chosen is insightfully evaluated, and includes the personal backstory to the author, key quotes, and the relevance of the work as a whole in the canon of “Taiwan Lit”. And that’s where the true value of the book lies. Before Ross tells us about his selected 100 books about Taiwan, he first had to read several hundred books, analyzing them as someone who has lived in Taiwan for 25 years, studying the island primarily through its literature. Who better then to be our trusted guide through the Formosan literary terrain? So if in Formosan Odyssey Ross is like John F. Gilbey, the newly arrived explorer with a hunger for knowledge, in Taiwan in 100 Books, he is more like the kung fu master himself, the man who could suspend 100 kilograms from his genitals. Although in Ross’ case, it is not weights but books that he supports. (Ahem! Sorry about that. Couldn’t help myself.)

Perhaps inadvertently, Ross has also given us a mosaic view of Taiwan itself, over time. We gain a picture of Taiwan’s land, history, culture, and society that is a composite of many written stories of the people who have traveled here (like most of us) to discover it. Each writer’s experience and perspective is different, whether it is the early explorer hiking with Indigenous people in the central mountains, the diplomat’s wife dealing with cliques in 19th-century Tamsui, or the pleasure-seeking writer bouncing from drink to girl in the late 1960’s Taipei “G.I.” bar scene. Each account is infused with the unique flavor of their consciousness. The result is a sort of “crowd-sourced” vision of Taiwan that is more organic and authentic than any one person’s view.

Another reason I really like Ross’ new book is because he chose my book, Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan as one of his 100 books! It’s a real honor, and also a practical boost for my project. But that’s not why it was included, of course. I think it made it on the list because of what it represents: the enduring love so many foreign visitors come to have for Taiwan, the spirit of plunging into the mystery of this land and trying to uncover more in one’s own unique way – and to share that; and the restless sense of being at home but never at home, and somehow not really minding.

In any case, it will help keep my book and the experience it’s based on alive. I am proud to have added one facet to our collective consciousness on Taiwan. No matter what happens to me, whether I’m dead and gone, old and gray, or simply far away, I’ll always be there on the bookshelf and in the minds of readers, and also in my memories, restlessly walking the shorelines of the island, from cape to cape, cliff to cliff, beach to beach, and harbor to harbor – a travel junkie with Taiwanese feet, in search of something beautiful but elusive, something I won’t know until I find it. In spirit, I will always be a walking ghost in Taiwan. And a happy one!

If you would like more information about the book Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan, you can click here: https://www.facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet

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THE MAD ADVENTURES OF THE OTHER BIG JOHN and how they led to a brotherhood of beer and books

John Grant Ross on the river in Papua New Guinea

Part 3 In the story behind my book “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

September 21st, 1999. In Dounan Township, Yunlin County, Taiwan, John Grant Ross (a huge, bookish, beer-guzzling Kiwi ) was starting to realize that his plan to walk the high mountains along the entire length of Taiwan – from Fuiguijiao in the north to Erluanbi in the south – was in ruins, as indeed was much of the country. There had just been a massive earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale in the early hours of the very day he had planned to set off. Reports were coming in from all over, and they didn’t sound good: Buildings had collapsed, bridges had fallen, and there were huge cracks in the earth, massive landslides, and a lot of dead bodies. It was a total mess. The “Nine-Two-One” earthquake as the Taiwanese call it, centered in Jiji township, Nantou, killed 2,415 people, injured 11,305, and caused NT$300 billion worth of damage. Ross was unharmed, but his trip was definitely off. Most of his intended mountain route was now in the emergency zone; trails had been obliterated, and in fact entire mountains had disappeared. As Big John Ross said, “My maps had suddenly become historical documents.” But not even a massive earthquake could derail the boisterous Kiwi’s enthusiasm for adventure.

Buildings devastated by the 921 earthquake

John Ross, from South Auckland, is the son of immigrants: his father was from Wales and mother from Scotland. His dad was a technical expert for Air New Zealand, so son John got cheap airfares, which suited the young book-lover very well. He had done his fair share of reading about adventures; now he could get on with having some of his own. On summer vacations from university he flew off to Argentina and Chile. Sometimes he stayed in normal accommodation in the towns, but at times was drawn to camping up in the mountains by himself. “I think of myself as a bruised romantic,” He told me, “someone who might have been happier in an earlier, less civilized time.”

Indeed, he planned to go back to South America and do a trip in the Amazon rainforest to trace the steps of lieutenant-colonel Percy Fawcett, a legendary British geographer, artillery officer, cartographer, archaeologist, and explorer, who had disappeared deep in the Brazilian jungle in 1925, trying to find the lost city of “Z”. Gradually, though, Ross’ travelers’ daydreams turned to other lands. Why fly all the way around the world to go after a lost city that had probably never existed? There was another mysterious jungle to explore much closer, in Papua New Guinea.

Percival Harrison Fawcett

In March 1989 Ross mounted a small expedition exploring the Lake Kopiago region in Papua New Guinea’s Western Central Mountain range, not far from the Indonesian border. His goal was to hike over the spine of the mountains, through what is now called the April Salome Rainforest. The travel plan was pure 19th century: go to the end of the road and just keep walking. As Percy Fawcett himself might have asked, what could possibly go wrong?

But first he had to make sure he was properly prepared: Trade goods and presents for the natives? (Some sharpening stones and metal pots) Check! Guide and porters proficient in the local tribal languages and also New Guinea Pidgin English? Check! Two pairs of hiking boots, one pair of shoes, tent, rain gear, fire making and first aid kits, flashlight, batteries, and machete? Check! Alright then, tally ho lads! 

Of course, the map is not the terrain. The lovely clear line of road on the map turned out to be “a rutted piece of shit where vehicles lurched from pothole to pothole” according to Ross. At the end of this there was a police station, and the local district officer asked him if he was sure he wanted to do it, as the last group of outsiders – some Australian officers who had entered back in 1972 – had been attacked by arrows. The answer, of course, was an emphatic yes. For Ross, that was almost like waving a red flag at a bull.

Rough map of Ross’ expedition locations: Route in ORANGE Roads are YELLOW

Off they went into the jungle. It was tough going: thick, moist rainforest on steep slopes, without anything you could call a decent trail. The jungle was interesting though, as were the social interactions. His guide, a man about 40 years old who had grown up on the outskirts of this area, soon discovered that everyone he had known locally before had since died. The locals wore grass skirts, lived in small simple settlements, and had a variety of reactions to the “white gorilla” in their midst. They knew of the existence of white people of course, but most of them had never seen one. Ross said that some of the reactions to him were surprisingly natural. Many people just seemed mildly amused, while a few others froze in terror. Overall, the native people there had a generally positive view of white people, associating them with good magic and medicine. Sick people would come up to him – something he had encountered in his earlier reconnaissance trip- so he had stocked up on painkillers and antibiotics. In this way the young explorer connected with what he called his “lost family,” his self-deprecating play on the “lost tribe” trope. There were no attacks, though. Of course Ross would not have wanted either himself or anyone in his party to be killed or wounded. But I can’t help but suspect that his experience would have been enhanced if just one or two badly aimed arrows had been shot at him and missed! Not to worry: the land itself would give him all the adversity he needed.

Ross’ local guide

They hiked over the Central Range, but the hard work and humid conditions ate through all of his footwear. Once that went, the skin on his feet started to come off, and to make matters worse, he accidentally trod on a campfire. After this, he could no longer walk. This had all happened in just under three weeks. Hiking the jungle is no joke.

Local accommodation: Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Progress along the route had been slower than expected. They had run out of food, so his companions were exhausted, while the chubbier Ross made due off of his body’s reserves. But with his injured feet, moving forward was the issue. His mates made a simple raft for Ross, and floated him down the stream to the April River, and thence the village of Niksek. He rested there for a week, getting some skin back on his feet. Then he continued by raft – alone through the wild jungle – to the next village downstream, where he bought a dugout canoe for a metal pot, a machete and a bit of cash. In his new conveyance, he paddled down to the broad Sepik River, almost 1km wide in places, and journeyed along that for a while until he found a riverside settlement with road access. From there, he got a lift to the coastal town of Wewak, where he called his parents to tell them he was OK, after being out of touch and in the wilds for six weeks.

While he was hanging out at Wewak, Ross met a Japanese photographer named Masao Endo. Endo found Ross’ adventure to be quite interesting, and wanted to go on the river with him. So they went to where Ross had left his dugout canoe, and together carried on down the Sepik River. It was beautiful country and they enjoyed days of travelling, with Ross listening to Endo’s traveler’s tales from war-reporting in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Masao Endo, before the river incident

The two travelers happily chatted away as they paddled along the mighty river. Then misfortune, abetted by carelessness, struck. The dugout was in the middle of the wide river when a strong wind sprung up, kicking up high waves that soon swamped the small boat, overloaded with gear and two men. In just a few minutes, it became a matter of life or death. Endo opted for flight: he took off his shoes and pants, jumped into the river; and started to swim for shore. John Ross chose fight. He stayed in the boat and vowed to get it to shore by any means necessary. He knew it would be a huge effort, as he had lost the paddle, so he got a 1kg bag of sugar, mixed it with river water, and drank the mixture to turbo-charge him for what was to come next. Furiously he bailed the canoe out, then kneeled in the boat and paddled hard with just his arms, reaching a patch of swamp land. He caught his breath and waited to flag down a passing canoe, but nobody came. He decided to take the canoe down the river to find help, setting off paddleless, steering with his arms. After a while he noticed some thatch huts on the distant shore, and racing against the current, gave it all he had to cross the huge, turbulent river. It was a maximum physical exertion, but he made it to the village, then collapsed, exhausted – but not before he had told the villagers about Endo. A group of village men went off to look for Ross’ hapless companion, who they found in his underwear, hanging on for dear life up a small tree right on the swampy bank of the river. He had been almost eaten alive by mosquitoes. One arm had 400 bites, so there must have been thousands over his whole body, and he had to be taken to the hospital. Not sure how he felt about his decision to befriend Ross back in Wewak, though!

John Ross was chuffed with himself: He felt that he had handled the situation well, hadn’t panicked, and proven that he had “huge balls”, while wryly admitting that he had kind of fucked up by getting into trouble in the first place. But he’d survived, and the big thirsty Kiwi was up for some more fun.

Some of this involved bouncing between New Zealand, and Burma in 1991 (where he got malaria) and then Thailand 1992. One night on the Thailand trip, he met some Westerner ESL teachers who were on vacation from their life in Taiwan, who told him what a great place it was for travelers. In fact, Taiwan was just starting to be a known place on the backpackers’ trail of Asia at this time. It had recently come out of Martial Law, so travel to and around the country was much freer than before. There was a big demand for ESL teachers, so living there comfortably was not an issue; money could be made for trips in the region. Interesting, he thought. The travelers had planted a seed in his mind. One day some months later, while gold prospecting in the South Island of New Zealand, Ross sat in his tent, drinking heavily of homemade wine. It was then that the idea really took hold. I can imagine him thinking to himself, in true Kiwi fashion: “Struth! I may be out in the wop wops, pissed as a chook, but moving to Taiwan would be a cracker of an idea! I’ll do it! Sweet as!”   

So in 1994, at the tender age of 26, he moved to Taiwan. Of course, like so many of us, he enjoyed the novel food, temples, culture, lovely “silken skinned” women, friendly vibe etc. Although tamer than his usual haunts, Taiwan was more of an adventure back then than it is today. It had been mapped out for the traveler, but not in detail, and there was no Google Maps or anything like it. There were a lot of unknowns and new things to discover. The society itself was also a bit wilder back, with a more cavalier approach to “rules” and “laws”, and loads more traditional spectacles happening in public, like noisy parades, exploding firecrackers, temple strippers, god pigs, betel nut beauties, and more.

And the drinking! The drinking! It was heaven. There were restaurants where you could drink, some pubs, or cheaper yet, Ross could settle his massive frame onto a park bench where and swill cans of beer all day at a very modest price. Police? No problem. It was legally and socially acceptable.

Flash forward a couple of years. Ross had started to grok that there was something more to Taiwan, something deeper and more mysterious than the convenience and easy pickings of life for the English teacher/traveler. One day he was in Mongolia, chasing down some local Yeti legend, getting stymied by Soviet-era bureaucrats telling him he lacked the necessary internal travel visa, and sullenly drinking vodka in a crappy bar in a one-yak town. Suddenly an inspired idea floated into his head. He decided to walk from north to south down the mountainous spine of the country, and then write a book about it. It was going to be his Next Epic Adventure! In love with his new plan, he got organized, did his research, and made his preparations. He would set out on September 21st, 1999. Yes, that would be an excellent date, with the weather cooling down a tad and the end of typhoon season almost here. What could possibly go wrong?

When Buddha closes the door, he opens a window. Although the 921 earthquake put the kibosh on his mountain trekking plans, he did do a tour of the island, in which met some very interesting people, and came out with his first book “Formosan Odyssey”, in 2002. The reader of travel books had become a creator of one. (Much more about this worthy book in my following post.) Despite this fine achievement, which led to more books and the eventual establishment of Camphor Press, Ross still had a bit of lingering regret at not having done that big mountain spine walk as planned. Now, married, it was no longer an option.

However, one day he spotted a thread on Forumosa.com (Taiwan’s premier expat BBS back in the Before Facebook Era) by some guy called “Big John” who planned to walk around the coastline of the entire island. Yep, that was me. So online he wished me the best and invited me to drop by for a visit when I had stomped my way around the coast to near his digs Chiayi. Six years later, I did. It turned out to be several visits actually. And on one of them, after a genuinely improbable number of beers, the other Big John suggested to me that I write a book about my adventures. It hadn’t occurred to me before that moment. But I instantly agreed, in true Canuck fashion: “Beauty! I may be out here in the boonies with you bud, so hammered after that mickey and that 2-4 that I can barely hold on to the chesterfield. But writing a book about my walk is a totally excellent idea. I’ll give’er for sure, eh!”

For more information about the book, click here:

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Stay tuned for the 4th and last installment in this series on the story behind the book, coming SOON!

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Taiwan: My New Frontier

The coastline keeps going on and on, seemingly forever

Part 2 of the story behind the story of “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan.”

The captain announced that we’d be touching down soon, and we soared over the land from the flat blue ocean, overflying hectares of farm ponds dotted with white ducks, and then glided past the outer fences of Chiang Kai-shek International Airport to bump down on the big black runway. I had arrived! The airport mechanism duly ingested, processed, and ejected me with dreary efficiency, and then I was in for a bit of excitement: a Formula 1 racer wannabe type taxi driver showed me his need for speed along the highway into Taipei. Heart pounding, I peered out the windows and got my first view of the city: green hills, grey buildings and rivers, Mandarin characters everywhere. He dropped me off in Dadaocheng, one of the oldest parts of the city. I was on my own in this new land.

I had a hook-up though. I was to stay with friends of my Canadian buddy Sarah for a few nights at what turned out to be a weird old house, an elegant if somewhat faded Japanese-era mansion, invisible if you walked by because it was completely surrounded on all four sides by grubby, somewhat newer buildings. In fact, you had to enter through a small door at the back of a shop which had a roller belt for moving big bags of rice flour. The outside of the house had no number plate, I had zero Chinese, and no cell phone, so finding it the first time was an interesting challenge!

One of the oldest and most interesting streets in Taiwan

My first week in Taiwan was more than simply “a week”. It was a timeless period, present in the now and full of newness. An intense but random series of seemingly unconnected sights, sounds, and smells quickly coalesced into my first basic view of Taiwan on the ground. There was mad traffic, and funky old markets and temples that contrasted with gleaming new buildings and high-tech prosperity. There was a large variety of interesting food that was affordable, often delicious, and sometimes weird. Public spaces were crowded, and often very noisy with touts, announcements, or just people speaking loudly. Everywhere you went there were lots of people, the vast majority of them East Asian. There was not too much obvious ethnic diversity, so foreigners like me stuck out like sore thumbs, and I got lots of curious looks. But most people were very friendly and helpful.

The Goddess Mazu at Bangka Lungshan Temple

After a few days I got my first basic idea of how to function in Taiwan. It was quite a bit harder back then, as there was no Facebook or Google Maps. I soon moved into the cheap-ass “Taipei Hostel” near the main train station, where I shared a room, bathroom, and a common area with various other international travelers. They were mostly new Western arrivals like myself, looking to teach, but also a few older teachers hard up on their luck, drunk most of the time, as well as a group of traders from India. They were OK.

My first priority was making money, as I’d only arrived about $1200 Canadian. One of Sarah’s friends in the mansion hooked me up with a job at a private English-language kindergarten for Taiwanese kids. The work scene of the newbie foreign teacher here was a bit of a zoo: there was a high demand for teachers but low regard for quality. Those without real training or experience were usually relegated to “singing, dancing clown” types of jobs where Teacher Funny Foreigner makes the kids giggle. My first gig was no exception. There were 12 preschool kids to look after, who were very sweet but extremely exhausting. Controlling the kids, having to use the required educational materials – some of them way too tough for the level – and learning how to deal with local managers and teaching assistants, was a tough challenge at first. The days seemed to last forever. Then, somewhat worse for wear, I’d make my way through the crowded streets or subways to find food, and then back to the hostel lounge to swat mosquitos, watch HBO, and chat with my fellow residents.

The cows of Yangmingshan (some of them)

The deal was to work during the week, but live it up on the weekends! After a few attempts, getting around turned out to be quite easy. There were many attractions in and around Taipei: lush mountains covered in forest or tea farms, hot springs, temples, lovely rivers, museums, beaches, fishing harbors, night markets, quaint little towns and neighborhoods; it was a day-tripper’s paradise. Downtown, there was a lively party scene, with many bar and dating options. Us new arrivals soon became dandies, strutting about town with our white skin, high-bridged noses and “double fold” eyelids, all considered attractive by many of the local lasses. Once we got a few paychecks in, we found apartments, and then we could have house parties. During holidays we’d go down with our girlfriends to the south or east coast of the island, where the beaches were better, and things a bit more laid back. It was also an amazing blast to explore the wider region: Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia were all a short hop away. Life was good! Not only was my urge to travel being well satisfied by all the new sights and activities, but I was living in a safe, friendly society with universal health care, and I could easily find well-paying jobs. It seemed like the best of both worlds, traveling in a foreign country while living a stable lifestyle at the same time. Kind of like my dad used to do.

Teafields of Maokong

Flash forward five years: I was working at a much better teaching job with greatly improved confidence, and living with my new Taiwanese wife in a nice apartment. I’d visited all the special sites around Taipei, and many around the island. I had a posse of friends, and knew most of the major streets, subways, buses, restaurants, pubs, and markets. Taipei had become familiar and comfortable, and life had started to become something of a routine, albeit a generally pleasant one. But wait….Uh-oh! Was that a flashing yellow light on my dashboard? Had real life finally caught up with my endless escape?

If I’d had kids or a job that had room for real growth in scope and complexity, I might have invested my energies there. But I didn’t. Something else had to be done. The idea to walk around the island just seemed to float into my brain one day. I instantly fell in love with it, although it came as a complete surprise to my wife and friends. The usual response was a confused silence followed by some version of “You aren’t serious!” Of course, they probably hadn’t read the same books I had. When I still living back in Canada, and dreaming of traveling the world, I had become very interested in a certain sub-genre of travel literature you could call “adventurous expedition stories”. These were stories of people who skied across Antarctica (Shadows on the Wasteland), rode a motorbike around the world (Jupiter’s Travels), paddled a canoe from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon river (Paddle to the Amazon), walked from the mouth of the Orinoco to the mouth of the Amazon (Mad White Giant), or walked across the island of Borneo (Stranger in the Forest). I even remembered something from some other foreigner in Taiwan who had started his book talking of his plan to walk the mountainous spine of Taiwan, before his dream was dashed by the 921 Earthquake. Why not do my own little adventure, I thought? Why not walk around the entire island in stages, following the coast as much as possible?

Lai Lai wave-cut platform

It would also help me in another way too. I was starting to realize that there was an invisible barrier separating me from the Taiwanese, a force field that they were unconsciously projecting from deep in their minds. I was not and could never be Taiwanese. I was a foreigner, just as I was human and male. In time, people I was close to would come to see me as just “John”. But to the wider society, I would always be “a foreigner”. If I were to feel part of the island, I would have to do it on my own terms.

Good times with Jerry

One fine day, I set out on my merry adventure. I was once more moving forward into the new. The first few days felt a bit weird, but I was still excited. I soon settled into a rhythm, and did my coast walking thing on nice days, so there was just endless blue sky, blue sea, and coastal greenery. It was cool as well because I was seeing the stuff you usually whiz past as you’re going from one tourist attraction to another. Now I was walking past quiet “nothing special” beaches with a group of old guys fishing, a few scruffy dogs for an entourage, or simple houses by the sea, a lady sweeping up a courtyard, a small fishing boat coming into a tiny little harbor. At times the only coastal route was the highway, and I’d face down trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles as they zoomed by. Then I’d arrive at a proper town, and because sometimes the side streets were closer to the water, I’d take them instead of the main drag. I often cut through the back areas of fishing harbors where the Southeast Asian fishermen were working, sometimes directed by short, tough, gnarly-looking middle-aged Taiwanese men: captains or senior crew members. When I did chance upon the main tourist areas, I was sweatier than anyone else, and felt more like the cowboy who had ridden his horse across the dusty plains than the rich folk who took the train or stagecoach. So I’d keep moving on.

I was in it for the long haul. As I followed the coast, there was always the new view around each bend, and then the next outcrop or promontory in the distance, the new farthest point along my route I could see. And always I was getting farther and farther away from “home” in a strange land. I had been through most of this area by bus or train before, but it felt like a different place when I walked it. The experience was intimate, laborious, lonely, strange, and addictive. And then one day I met another traveler, who suggested I take the journey to another level. He said, “Why not write a book about your trip? I’ll help you.” He turned out to have a lot of interesting stories of his own. And shit did he like to drink beer!

To be continued …

Coming soon! Part 3 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Interested in the book? Check us out on Facebook. https://Facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/

Or look for us on Amazon

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TRAVEL JUNKIE

Part 1 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Finally! After 83 days of walking spread out over eight years, I finished my walk around the entire coastline of Taiwan. Day after day, I marched along beaches, trails, roads, seawalls, or rocky shorelines. I got broiled by the sun, buffeted by the wind, attacked by dogs, and almost hit by flying rocks. At various times I felt exhausted, bored, sad and lonely, or amused and fascinated, and was inspired again and again by the beauty of the island. I got to know the coastline extremely well, forged a deeper personal bond with Taiwan, and enjoyed a confidence boost from the achievement.

Then came the next part of my journey, spanning another six years: turning my original blog record of the trip into a readable book. This took hundreds of hours of online research to get deeper background knowledge of the natural, geological, and human history of the island, as well as further hundreds of hours of writing, rewriting, and editing on my own – not easy, as this was my first book. On top of this were endless emails and phone calls with the book team, discussing the editing, layout, and graphics, followed by me, with no artistic training, hand-drawing four maps. Then, at long last, my self-published travelogue “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan” was finally born. Oh yes, it felt good, and still does!

https://facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/

So there were two journeys, each one difficult yet fascinating in its own way. But it was contemplating the relationship between the two that gave me the deepest insight into my own life. By actually writing an adventure story, after having read so many over my lifetime, I realized how closely this behavior we call travel is linked to storytelling. It’s not the only source of infection, but travel literature – as well as traveler’s tales in other forms – is a carrier of the contagious travel bug, for which there is no known cure. The first symptom is the escapist pleasure of consuming the tale, which seems more interesting than the mundane life around you. This then progresses to day-dreaming, in moments of boredom, of exploring distant, exotic lands. In the final stages you get unbearably itchy feet, and there’s only one form of relief: off you go. That’s what happened to my dad, who grew up reading stories from around the British Empire as a boy, and then traveled all over the world when he grew up, taking his family with him. This got most of us infected (two of five kids were immune), and set me on my own life of travel, aided and abetted by the literature that constantly fueled the fire in my imagination to see The World. Somehow books were better for that than TV or movies; I don’t know why. Much later it became my turn to write about my own adventures. And if one person decides to travel because they have read my stories, I’ll have come full circle.

This chain of realizations was the end of the process. Now here’s the story of the beginning, of how my walk around Taiwan and the book about it – Taiwanese Feet – came to be. As it turns out, both of these journeys started the day I decided to come to Taiwan.  

September 22nd, 1999: I was living in Montreal, Canada, and seeing TV news reports about Taiwan’s massive 9 21 “Jiji” Earthquake, I called my good friend Sarah, who had been living in Taiwan for several years. Fortunately, she was fine: rattled by the quake, but unharmed. I had seen her just a few weeks earlier, when she came home for a visit during her summer break from teaching at the Taipei European School. She told me then that she thought I would love Taiwan. Her obvious happiness with life there was a strong recommendation, but it was her stories and descriptions that intrigued me. I wasn’t ready to jump just then, but the seed had been planted.  

Of course, I wasn’t exactly a tough sell. Before I arrived here in the early days of the 21st century, I had been ready for another foreign adventure for some time. It was in my blood. By my mid-30’s I had accumulated more travel experience than most of my friends, largely thanks to my dad, who had a bad case of wanderlust. He had done quite a bit of traveling as a young man, first to Karachi (then India, now Pakistan) with the RAF just after the end of World War II. Naturally, as an Englishman, he went over to do his bit for the Empire, although he joined up during the sunset of that great and terrible thing. But I am certain he would have been very curious to see it. I can imagine him as a teenager, hungrily reading accounts of Captain James Cook meeting Polynesians in the South Pacific, Stanley and Livingstone in the jungle, or battles between Shaka Zulu and the red-coated British regiments. And perhaps he’d read boys’ stories of tigers, jewels, and suttee in the Raj, tea and opium traders braving typhoons and pirates in the South China Sea, or fur traders killing bears and bargaining with the Iroquois in Canada. Such was the literary legacy of the British Empire, and my father, an avid reader, was always a sucker for “a rattling good yarn”.

My dad was taking the picture, so he’s not in this one! (Lol ; )

After he came back from Karachi, he never stopped traveling. First there were the motorcycle trips to southern France with his mates from university. Then, work as an engineer in Scotland, and later still emigrating from England to Canada with his Scottish wife – my mom – to start a family. But this stone (and my dad was as steady as a rock in most ways) kept on rolling. In 1975, when I was 10 years old, he took the whole gang off to Lesotho – a small mountainous land-locked nation enclaved in South Africa – where he had gotten a job working as an engineer for a Canadian government “Third World” development project. His own parents and his older sister had also emigrated from the UK, but instead of going to cold-ass Canada, they’d opted for warm South Africa during the apartheid era. From my dad’s perspective, the job in Lesotho meant a stable way to have a travel adventure, as well as a chance for the two branches of his family to interact.

The barren beauty of Lesotho

It was pretty exciting for all of us. I remember hiking the barren Lesotho hills with my dad and brothers, going to a very stiff British-style middle school, and then after class, running wild with my squad of multicultural mates, executing pigeons and mambas with our pellet rifles. There was also tennis and swimming – or occasionally sneaking into the movies – at the posh Maseru Club. At Christmas, our family would pile into the Kombi and do the all-day road trip to Durban, first through earth-toned rangeland, then next to the stunning Drakensberg Mountains, and finally, at night, winding down the long slope into the lush, humid, coastal belt with its smell of the sea and multitude of flowering trees and bushes. There lived my Aunt Mary, her husband, and their kids, as well as my grandparents. These were my best Christmases ever: Meeting new family, braaing by the pool, checking out the Indian markets of Durban, and playing in the waves on the white sand beaches of Zululand. But we all definitely felt the apartheid energy too, a kind of precise racial segregation that was clinical and surreal.

Segregated beach in Durban in the 70’s

We went to other fascinating places as well. In South Africa, we visited Kruger National Park, one of the world’s best game reserves. I was totally dazzled by the incredible variety of antelopes around every curve in the road. Then one day, it was time to go back to Canada. But the trip wasn’t over yet: On the way home we stopped off in Kenya for a turf and surf holiday: first Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, an amazing place. I recall one timeless moment there. From a hilltop, early in the morning, I could see Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, and all around me were dozens of dust-covered elephants, like huge red marbles with ears, moving through the bright green brush. I also saw lions mating next to a zebra carcass, which was quite an impressive spectacle. Then the surf: happy family beach life at the Two Fishes Hotel on the stunning Indian Ocean coast near Mombasa. For dessert, we saw Israel and, after that, a few days with my mom’s side of the family in Glasgow and Inverness. Finally, we landed in Ottawa, at that time a stodgy government town, where I was treated to reverse culture shock, being a newcomer at school, and a cold, cold winter. Ooph!

Ottawa’s Rideau Canal in winter

My next Groot Escape came about 10 years later. I spent six months in India, where my parents had moved. With the kids grown up, my dad had taken a job there. I traveled with parents, or more often solo, around this incredible place, thoroughly enjoying the carnival of intense sensations and impressions: riding in madly honking 3-wheeled motorcycle taxis through chaotic streets, being wowed by the Taj Mahal, tripping out on the fantastical religious multifariousness of Varanasi, sipping sundowners on the beach in Goa with free-spirited European travelerettes, and checking out the old market streets and colonial bling of Delhi and Calcutta. And of course, there was the quintessential travelers’ experience in India, taking the train: hours of relaxed people-watching, gazing out at ever-changing landscapes, and then the rude but amusing confrontation with the madness of an Indian railway station. On the other hand, there was certainly a very dark side to India: homeless families, squalid slums, public defecation, horrible air and water pollution, and incessant beggars. These all took quite some getting used to. But throughout my journey in these strange lands, (before the invention of the World Wide Web) the Lonely Planet guide became my Bible. I always brought the Good Book with me!

Varanasi, India: Possibly the most interesting city on Earth

At the end of this, skinny, tanned, and ready for some “normal”, I arrived back in Canada in the dead of winter. It was back to the grind for a while, and then a few years later I was off to Venezuela for three months, where my sister had moved and started a family. I made full use of my time, hiking the misty Andes, riding up the Orinoco in a motorboat to visit indigenous communities in the rainforest, relaxing on the beaches of the Caribbean coast, and enjoying my first taste of Latin American culture: the spontaneity and warmth of the people, the passionate backbeat to life, and the interesting new food – all set against the crime, inequality, and corruption that plagues this beautiful country. Again, the Lonely Planet was my faithful guide.

“The Jungle Toboggan” near Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas, Venezuela

And then back to Canada again, all grown up now. I moved around a bit between east and west, trying to find myself. Although I had some exciting projects and wonderful human relationships, I was more turned on by my adventures away than by my normal life. I loved Canada, but often felt uninspired there. I had to face facts: I was a travel junkie. And in confronting that, I did find myself, in part at least.

So, what to do about it? By then I had started to become very curious about the “Far East”, i.e. East Asia and Southeast Asia. I hadn’t been there for one thing, and it seemed like a very important region not to miss out on, if one wanted to see The World. I’d read a fair amount about China and Japan, a mix of academic stuff and historical novels by James Clavell. I had heard stories about English teachers living the good life in Japan, but also reports that the scene was in decline. China still hadn’t quite fully opened up at that time, but Taiwan was newly on my radar thanks to Sarah, and sounded like a solid choice. The final push came when I got a copy of the 1998 Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan by Robert Storey. His lively and vivid descriptions of the island really appealed to me, and gave me a sense of where I would be heading. Considering my past experiences with Lonely Planet, it was a good omen. So, on to Taiwan! This time there were no family or friends waiting for me; Sarah had moved on, and so had my dad, permanently. This trip would be solo, like so many I had read about. I just made my basic plans, got onto the plane, and soared off into the night over the wide Pacific Ocean, toward my new life, whatever that would be.

To be continued …

Coming soon! Part 2 of The story behind “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”

Interested in the book? Check us out on Facebook. https://Facebook.com/Taiwanese.Feet/

Or look for us on Amazon

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Dancing Dragons, Running Bulls

Last year (2018) I attended some fascinating traditional festivals in Taiwan and Spain, worlds apart in physical and cultural space, but both wild and compelling. Mixed in among the noise, smoke, laughter, animals –real or magical – and general craziness, I learned a few things about myself. Travel can do that for you, at its best.

Bull-Dragon - Copy

Bull-Dragon - Copy (2)

In April, I went to the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event in rural Neimen Township, Kaohsiung City, southern Taiwan. It’s a temple procession in honor of Guanyin – “the Goddess of Compassion” – a Buddhist Bodhisattva that plays a major role in Taiwanese religion.

Early on a fine spring morning, me, the wife, and her “temple-granny” mom from the neighborhood, elbowed our way through the throng outside the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple, a venerable community institution. The wide plaza in front of the building was punctuated by pools, pagodas, and big brick ghost money burners. The far end of the square was skirted by a narrow lane, dominated to our left by noisy puppet-show trucks. (These maniacally squawking entities are so ridiculously loud they could plausibly be used by the residents of that Russian arctic town Belushya Guba to fend off invading polar bears. However, perhaps the locals would think it a poor bargain.) On the right there was a row of traditional shops selling stuff like beverages, noodles, steamed buns, and peanut candy.

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Directly in front of the temple doors, where the crowd was thickest, an open space was cordoned of by men in Qing dynasty garb. We went there to take a look, and soon the spectacle began, starting with some acrobat shows and campy old musical folk plays. But soon it was time for the main act: the palanquins emerged, carried forward out from the dark, incense-fumed temple interior. The crowd parted to let them pass, although some of the devout chose instead to lie face down in a single-file line along the path so that the palanquinned deities would be carried above their bodies. Thousands of people marched along behind: locals and their families, tourists, and various traditional groups that played a major role in the event. These included Dragon Dancers – my personal favorite – Lion Dancers, spirit mediums, and the stars of the show, troupes of Song Jiang Battle Array performers.

Off we went, our procession continuing for hours on a carefully planned “divine inspection tour” of the countryside, following winding lanes through fields, small villages, and hamlets. As we passed, locals set off huge chains of firecrackers, and presented food and drink offerings to the gods – and to us marchers as well.

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From time to time, the parade stopped at key temples, where tables groaned under the weight of dozens of freshly slaughtered pigs, beautifully presented fruit, and many other foods. Out front, the Song Jiang Battle Array performers displayed their martial arts moves, weaving, bobbing, jumping, twirling, thrusting and parrying with swords and spears, as the drums beat on and on and on, and massive explosions of firecrackers rent the air, creating clouds of grey smoke. Boo ya!

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The tradition of the Song Jiang Battle Array troupes dates back to the time when settlers from China during the Qing dynasty had to band together and form militias to defend themselves from bandits and irate Formosan Aborgines. Song Jiang is the name of the legendary leader of 108 righteous men whose lives were ruined by corrupt Song Dynasty officials, forcing them to become the heroic outlaws of the Liangshan Marsh in Shandong, China. The legend is depicted in the brilliant novel Water Margin, written by Shi Nai’an during the Ming Dynasty. Song Jiang is a symbol of integrity, military success, and resistance to a corrupt regime.

Song Jiang

When the Empire of Japan occupied Taiwan in 1895, it imposed strict law and order. The militia that had safeguarded villagers from real threats were no longer as necessary for security. However, they were encouraged by the Japanese to carry on practicing and performing their Song Jiang Battle Arrays as a folk art. This they have done to this day: Neimen Township has a population of just 20,000 people, but boasts over 30 Song Jiang troupes of around 40 members each. Maybe one household in three has a member in one of the troupes, which add color and fun to temple events, promote local pride in a healthy way, and attract money-spending tourists.

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I had a great day marching with the procession, positioned just behind a long, colorful, undulating dragon figure. But the event was more than just fun: it was also a window into the fascinating diversity of legends, deities, numerology, geomancy, and superstitions that make up Chinese folk religion. This is a colorful alternative universe of the imagination to explore, and one which is preserved better in Taiwan than anywhere else.

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My main connection to that universe has always been my wife’s “temple granny” mother, who loyally follows all the customs of her creed and temple. One of these is the bai-bai, or ritual obeisance to the gods, performed with incense. Every Lunar New Year I go with her and my wife to the Neimen Purple Bamboo Temple. We wave the burning sticks first in one direction, then another, then put them into the brazier. I go along just to make her happy. After all, everyone else is doing the same thing. It is kind of an interesting process, and the artwork in the temple is quite impressive, so I do it. It makes me wonder how popular religion would be if the acts of worship were solitary and dull!

I doubt that most of the people at the Luohanmen Welcoming Buddha Event under 60 years old really believed in the gods. Probably the majority of attendees were there for a bit of fun or to appreciate the traditional culture as an art form. The event was about remembering the past, yes, but was also in tune with the modern world.

THE BLOOD ALSO RISES

Bull run

In stark contrast, the Running of the Bulls at the Festival of San Fermin, Pamplona, Spain, is in no way in tune with the modern world. Although the outer skin resembles a modern tourist event, the core is a bloody taurine ruckus bubbling up from deep in the past. Six Spanish Fighting Bulls and six oxen run an 825-meter course along narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets in Pamplona’s medieval town center, through a throng of thousands of idiots brave men dressed in white and red. The men wait for the bulls, the bulls come, and the men run with them. Every year people are injured; since the beginning of record keeping in 1922, 15 men have died in the run, usually gored by a bull’s horns. Most injuries are not very serious, such as bruises or contusions, but one year a guy actually got gored up the ass. I’m not sure how macho he would feel telling that story, although it doubtless came as some consolation to him that Spain has the finest bull-related-trauma surgeons in the world!

The encierro originated 700 years ago, when young herders taking the bulls through the streets from their corrals to the bullring danced around them to show off their bravery. Today’s runners are still known as mozos – lads.

For hundreds of years this local tradition would be virtually unknown to the English-speaking world, until a young Ernest Hemmingway popularized it in his classic modernist novel “The Sun Also Rises.”

Soon, macho dreamers from all over the world were traveling to Pamplona from July 6 to 14. They became mozos, wore the white pants, white shirt, and red cap, neckerchief and waist bandana, and ran with the bulls like locals.

I hadn’t even read that book until after I came back, but I had seen some YouTube videos of the encierro that touched a chord in me I hadn’t even known was there, one that Hemingway had mentioned.

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I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided to participate in the “encierro de Sanfermines”, but once I had announced that I would, I had to go through with it. It was that kind of thing. Hem would have agreed.

So, when the time came, I got on a plane. Twenty-one hours later, stiff-legged and jet-lagged, I landed in the Spanish capital. I took the metro downtown, emerged into the streets, and then fell in love – with Madrid. The warm morning sunlight illuminated elegant old sand-colored buildings. In little café-bakeries, men stood at the counter reading newspapers over their breakfast of churros, orange juice, and coffee. A real reading culture it was indeed. People chatted at newsstands, and I even saw even people reading books as they walked by! I cut through Parque El Retiro; full of fountains and statues, its verdant trees shimmering in the sun, then crossed the flamboyant avenue Paseo del Prado near the Fountain of Neptune. As I walked into the Centro Historico, striking architecture delighted the eye. It was a testament to Spain’s many layers of history.

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Modern waves of change were also evident: there was a big LGBTQ festival in town, and many prominent buildings displayed the rainbow flag. There were also a lot of African migrants illegally selling stuff like cheap bags on the street. These guys had a tough, wary, dried-up look in their eyes, the mark, I thought, of real hardship. In the old public square called Puerta del Sol, there was a peaceful demonstration by FEMEN, a radical feminist group based in Paris. Spain’s old right vs. left divide, which dates from before their civil war, is still very much alive. In Pamplona, I was definitely going to be interacting with the older, conservative side of the culture. Bullfighting and running with the bulls was something “the Left” would ban if they could.

After a brief stay in stunning Madrid, I took a bus north to San Sebastian (Donostia) in the Basque country. It was a fantastic day by the window, gazing out at endless dry grassy plans and shrub-forested mountains. As if for foreboding, several times I saw bulls grazing on the slopes. We got into the coastal mountains, and the forests grew lusher. A rainstorm hit while we were switchbacking down toward the Atlantic Ocean. Finally the bus let us out in San Sebastian, and I fell in love again: “Donostia” as the locals call it, is a hauntingly beautiful place with a picture-postcard beach and delightful Napoleonic era buildings. The cool fresh soul of the Atlantic permeated the city. I happily tramped about, enjoying its amazing food and views for a couple of days.

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Then, early on the morning of July 6, I took the one-hour bus ride to Pamplona. Festivities were well underway! The city was awash in citizens bedecked in the traditional white and red of San Fermin. Even grannies and little babies in strollers were dressed up in the colors! As I walked through town, drunk youth were shouting and running about, and were empty beer bottles and cans were everywhere.

I checked into my hostel, and then got my first surprise. As I was having lunch in a little café-bar next door, live on TV they were showing the opening ceremony for San Fermin, meaning of course that I wasn’t actually there! A small rocket called the chupinazo was set off from a balcony in Pamplona’s city hall, formally starting the festival. An official shouted: “Viva San Fermin! Gora San Fermin!” and the crowd cheered wildly and threw wine all over each other – while I sat in a café eating a damn sandwich! How had I missed that? Anyway, I wasn’t going to miss the bull-run encierro. No way!

I walked back into the old town. It was full of really cool old medieval buildings, albeit on a smaller and quainter scale than Madrid. You could picture a drunk guy riding a donkey through these streets, singing in the moonlight, in the time of Don Quixote. But today the narrow alleys were absolutely jammed with partygoers, thousands and thousands of people guzzling booze: calimocho – half wine and half coca cola – proper wine from wineskins, and one-liter bottles of San Miguel beer. It was totally nuts, but quite merry and unaggressive, and here and there small bands played traditional music.

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Google Maps helped me trace the route that the bulls would follow the next day, and I gently barged through the fiesta madness, walking each part of the course. That done, I relaxed and chatted with other festival-goers over a few drinks – but not too many! Tomorrow was the big day.

The next morning, I woke up at 5 a.m. Time to face the music. I had hatched this crazy plan, day-dreamed about it, and now it was today, not tomorrow. I strode through the streets at dawn, in awe at the evidence of truly massive drinking from the day before: an army of garbage trucks and men were getting rid of hundreds of thousands of booze containers; people were sleeping it off in parks or simply passed out on the sidewalk, and others were still at it.

On the encierro route, crews of workmen were quickly and expertly putting up the stout wooden barrier fences that would contain the beasts and protect the spectators. The spaces between the slats were wide enough for a runner in danger to slither through, but not a bull.

I arrived at the rallying point, the Plaza Consistorial, in front of the town hall, a lovely building from 1760. Other beautiful structures framed the small square, with people out on little balconies looking down at the gathering crowd. My fellow mozos were a mixed bunch: drunk young backpackers trying to sneak wineskins in past the sharp-eyed cops; groups of Spanish men in their 20s and 30s; and gringos like me. Excited, I chatted with people standing next to me. Some had done this before, others seemed not even to have done much homework on the run. Outside the fence, it was the modern world, with TV cameras, ambulances on stand-by, and people using their smartphones; inside the fence was something far more primitive.

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Excitement was building. By 7:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the release of the bulls from their corrals, the square had become much more crowded, and there was a sense of heightened expectation. Disturbingly, however, I noticed that a line of policemen had formed a cordon around the group of about 50 guys I was in at one corner of the square. The cops suddenly extended their arms and shoved, compressing and jamming our group together. It was scary and totally unexpected, and none of us knew what was going on. After a couple of minutes of this, it was becoming hard to breathe. Suddenly a wooden barrier was thrown open nearby and we were unceremoniously ejected! Later on I figured out that we had been standing in a dangerous turn where the bulls might careen into us. I get the cops’ logic, but not why they were so rough. It seems that is a local tradition too:

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What a letdown! But I still wanted to see the bulls. I ran around to one of the wooden fence areas where people could watch the run. It was jammed with onlookers, police, and TV cameras. I ran to the next one, which was much less crowded, and told a young Spanish couple standing there: “I wanted to run with the bulls but the police kicked me out!” The woman said: “Just go back in! There are no police here right now.” Aha! I slipped through the slats on to the street, and was back in the game.

I jogged down to “Dead Man’s Corner”, a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill which has proven particularly deadly over the years, and turned right on to Calle de la Estafeta, a long straight lane where the bulls don’t have to deal with tight corners on slippery cobblestones. I had read that this was the easiest and safest place for newb runners like me. After going along Estafeta for about 30 meters, I turned around and waited for the bull herd. The crowd roared at the sound of the two rockets signaling that the bulls were on their way. Soon they arrived.

The YouTube videos I’d seen of the encierro were always from an elevated angle, with a clear view of the approaching bulls. But bulls are shorter than men, so as runners on the ground we couldn’t actually see them coming until they were right on us. What we did see and hear was an approaching shockwave of panicked people shouting and jumping out of the way. When that wave got close, the bulls shot out, black and scary as hell. Those animals were as juiced up as anything I have seen: fierce as tigers, glossy and beautiful, lively beyond belief. Mixed in with them were the brown steers there to guide them. The herd ran by much faster than I had expected, at about the sprinting speed of a college athlete. Transfixed and without a programmed reaction, I watched them gallop by from the other side of the lane. One bull slowed down for a second, cast me an angry eye, then carried on. Another bull and a steer ran by. Was that the last of them? I looked back warily, and saw a strange thing, three oxen joined by a belled wooden yoke, followed by a bull herder. It was the sweeper team. I ran behind them all the way to the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, but immediately after the oxen entered, a line of security guards blocked the path, and the door to the arena was shut. My run was over!

Later that night all six bulls would be killed at a corrida, or bullfight. I had seen one before in Mexico City, a brutal, graceful, and bloody spectacle. But here in Pamplona, at San Fermin, which has more than 1,000,000 visitors from around the world, the bullfights had been sold out long ago; getting in would have been impossible.

Feeling happy about the entire experience, I had a few drinks with some other mozos and foreign travelers, then finally walked back to my hostel.

It was only in retrospect that I realized what I should have done, and felt some regret and disappointment. In addition to having missed the chupinazo, I had also missed the San Fermin procession on the morning of July 6, when thousands of people follow a 15th century statue of the saint that gets carried around the old part of town. (Funny the similarity to Taiwanese religion.) I also should have actually run with the bulls instead of just watching them go by and chasing them. Why hadn’t I? The bulls went by so fast I hardly had time to react, so I just went on instinct. Believe me, if you were there you would not have instinctively run toward those bulls! But the bottom line was that I had not programmed myself with the correct response for the occasion once I was actually next to the bulls. I hadn’t imagined the moment.

Despite that fact, I don’t feel that my performance was a failure. I did it! But it was only Act One. I must go back to Pamplona and finish it right. I’m going to do it. Next time, I will wait in exactly the same place, and when the bulls appear, I’ll start running as fast as I can. I know they will catch up with me! When they do, I’ll do my best to run with them all the way into the Plaza de Toros. And then my mission will be accomplished. Ole! New program uploaded.

How about the bulls’ point of view? Many people feel that the encierro and subsequent bullfights are brutal and unethical. I agree. However, they are far less unethical than the routine slaughter of meat animals. Spanish Fighting Bulls – Toros Bravos– live wonderful lives until their moment of truth, an average of five years under almost ideal conditions, grazing peacefully in open fields. That’s far better than the slaughtered pigs I saw in Neimen, which had lived for a maximum of one year in a crowded barn reeking of feces and urine. Think of battery chickens, veal calves, the slaughter of lambs: the list of meat cruelties is a long one, and on a scale millions of times greater than blood sports with bulls. But that’s old news. Enjoy your pork chop!

Looking back on the whole thing, it was very interesting to learn first-hand how programming can affect behavior under stress. I guess we are all behaviorally programmed to a large extent, so if we learn how to program ourselves, that’s a step forward then, isn’t it?

Other than that, I can only share the clichéd observation that as societies with long histories move forward into an increasingly weird future, it is emotionally important for them to maintain their connections with the past. Taiwan and Spain both do so in a lively and enjoyable way, and outsiders like you and me – travelers for life –-are welcome to join in. So I’ll end with a very sincere xie xie damas y caballeros! Nimen de cultura antigue zhen de hen hao!

Hemplona

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Taipei Baboons RFC: Living it

Rugby, it has been said, is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen. However, in Taiwan, it is a hooligans’ game played by baboons – the Taipei Baboons Rugby Football Club, to be exact, Taiwan’s oldest expat Rugby Union team.

Baboons FB pic (2)They comprise three teams: the Taipei Baboons (men’s rugby); the Babeboons (women’s rugby); and the Silverbacks, (men’s over 40 rugby).

They’re a tight-knit crew, a band of brothers and sisters with many stories to tell, some of which can actually pass the censors and be printed. Others, well, “What happens on tour stays on tour!”

But their most central story, and one they don’t keep quiet about, is literally a bloody tragedy. Fifteen years ago this fall, on October 12, 2002, terrorists blew up Paddy’s Pub in Kuta, in Indonesia’s resort island of Bali, and then a minute later, exploded a car bomb outside the open air Sari Club across the street. The blasts killed 202 people.

The Baboons, down for a rugby tournament, lost five of their own: James Hardman, 28, of Australia; Daniel Braden, 28, of England; South Africans Godfrey Fitz, 39 Craig Harty, 35, and Eve Kuo, 24, of Taiwan.

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THE BABOONS IN BALI, OCTOBER 11th 2002

Australian Max Murphy was one of the lucky ones: “I was talking to Peter Chworowsky about opening a sports bar before I went to the toilet. On the way back I stopped to watch Emenim dressed as a Taliban singing “Without You” – This was the song playing when the bomb went off. The first bomb went off  at Paddy’s Bar across the road. …Then the second bomb – the car bomb – went off. C4. It was just a wall of force that’s all…I’m not sure if I passed out. It was just pitch black and silent. Then I heard the fire and the screaming. I was under the roof but could get free. I am sure all around me died. I got up and saw a wall of fire and thought to myself that I am going to have to run through this to survive. Then I heard my brother screaming at me from up the wall. I went towards him. As I went that way there was one guy buried under rubble from the wall that had fallen in. He looked too far gone. His face still haunts me. … Walking out to the main road – it was chaos. Bodies everywhere. We ran to the store to get water and pour it on burns etc. and try to get people on bikes that the locals were riding to get people to hospital. There was flat bed bikes full of bodies – not sure if living or dead. After a while we weren’t sure what to do and headed back to the hotel to see if others made it.”

“The timeline over the next week is hazy. I remember fielding lots of calls from relatives and telling them that we don’t know what happened to their loved ones – that was extremely difficult….There were lots of meetings at the Hard Rock Hotel that were full of emotional relatives demanding answers. There was shouting etc. At the end of one of these emotional meetings, James Hardman’s dad pointed a shaking finger at us and said “Live it guys, just live it”. This is now the Baboons motto, and is written on their jerseys.

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SILVERBACKS PLAYER MARK BLANK WITH THE CLUB MOTTO

“After about a month, I called Peter from my car driving back from Taoyuan and said. ‘Remember we were talking about opening a sports bar before the bomb went off? Let’s do it’”, said Murphy. So they opened the Brass Monkey on Fuxing North Road, which became the team’s hang out. A memorial jersey was hung on the wall with the date of the attack on it. The jersey has since been taken down, but Bali will always be one of the defining moments for the club.

Another key moment for the Baboons’ was their beginning, 12 years prior to Bali. The man that helped them get organized was a Taiwanese rugby enthusiast named Best Wu. “One rainy day in 1990, down at National Taiwan University, I was playing rugby with some friends,” said Best. “Afterward a French guy called Pascal came over and asked me how he could get involved in rugby in Taiwan.”

 

It turns out that there was a bunch of French guys who used to meet up regularly at the Landis Hotel, where one of the chefs was an avid rugby player. But for expats back in the days before the World Wide Web, figuring out how to get things organized here in Taiwan was a real challenge.

This Frenchman had asked the right guy. Not only did Best speak English, but when it came to rugby in Taiwan, he knew the score. Involved in rugby since his teens, he had been captain of his high school rugby team down in Tainan. “Back then, rugby was very popular. In 1967, there were rugby championships between northern and southern league teams at a former baseball stadium in Tainan. About 15,000 people attended.”

Best said that rugby continued to be popular in Taiwan through the 1970’s and 80’s, largely because it was supported by Chiang Ching-kuo, (the son of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek). Chiang Ching-kuo was ROC Defense Minister from 1965 to 1969, premier from 1972–78, and then president from 1978 until his death in 1988. All through his time in government, he actively promoted rugby as a training sport in the military both for teamwork and rough-and-tumble athleticism. Many boys who knew they’d be doing rugby in their two-year military stint got into the sport in high school.

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CHIANG CHING-KUO

Best studied at National Chengchi University, where he became both rugby player and team coach. Later, he played rugby hard during his own two years in the military.

When he got out of the army, rugby union in Taiwan was going strong. There was a national team, and many club teams. One team in particular, the Old Boys (OB), former students from the elite Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, dominated club rugby in their distinctive black jerseys. “For ten years, they beat every other team,” said Best.

This led to the creation of their would-be nemesis, the Giants. “We wore white jerseys, to be the opposite of the OB!” When they finally beat the Old Boys in a game, with Best as one of their star players, it was a sweet victory!

But Best said that the glory days of Taiwanese rugby were coming to a close. When Chiang Ching-kuo died in 1988, the subsequent change of the guard left no high-level supporters for military rugby. In addition, sports universities had started offering full scholarships for top rugby athletes. This meant that the non-sport universities soon couldn’t compete with them, and their programs faltered. With no clear future in rugby, high school programs withered as well. Things were looking glum for the game. The glory days of 15,000 people in a stadium for Taiwanese rugby were over. “The biggest games now only got a few hundred people,” lamented Best.

He played on as a top club player until he was 38 years old, and then started to tone it down a bit. Until one day in 1990, when Pascal Deville approached him on a muddy field.

Best generously offered to share his local knowledge and help the expats organize. Soon they got together the requisite 15 players for a team: 7 Frenchmen, and 8 players from New Zealand, the UK, Canada and the USA. There were two ideas for a name put forward, “the Frogs” and “the Baboons”. The French went for “Frog” en bloque, but they were outvoted 8 – 7. And so in 1991 the Taipei Baboons came barking into the world!

In these early years, Best says that the members were mainly expats here for a couple of years. Some of them were businessmen, others engineers working on the MRT. There were also some government officials, including David Hughes, Canada’s de facto ambassador to Taiwan. Best was a key part of the team, serving in different years as president, honorary president, and then general secretary.

During the ’90s, The Baboons started getting involved in international rugby, going to places like Bali and Manilla. Best wasn’t usually playing in competition games anymore, but remembers how in the 1994 Manilla 10’s, one of their players wasn’t allowed into the Philippines due to a visa glitch.  Best had to fill in for him on the pitch. He nailed it! “People still remembered me for that game when I went back to Manilla in 1995 and 1996!”

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OLD SCHOOL: BEST WU STANDING ON THE RIGHT

And so the team played on, time neatly divided between pitch and pub! But their style of play started to evolve, partly due to demographics and partly due to growing cultural awareness.

“You play to the ref,” says Australian Mark Goding, aka Mr. Sausage. But this message was lost on some of the more experienced expat guys who just played rugger the way they had grown up to. According to Peter Chworowsky – Dan Ryan’s and Brass Monkey co-founder, Bali survivor, and former Baboons president – these old school guys had a more aggressive “on the edge” style of play, pushing the envelope on static with opposing players, and talking back to the referee. One former Baboon told me that direct physical violence, like an elbow to the head, used to be common between opposing forwards, when they could get away with it. Mr. Sausage said that there were also some miscommunications, as in if you said “Fuck!” after a ref’s call, that would be interpreted as telling the ref to fuck off, which was not the intention. Chworowsky said, “We got the reputation as a bit of a dirty team, so some teams wouldn’t play us.”

Then the demographics began to shift, and with it the team culture. In the 2000s, there were starting to be fewer business expats and more English teachers. (More recently, there have been many foreign students as well.)

“These new guys tended look up at us older guys who had been here longer, and we were able to help them meet the local cultural expectations,” said Chworowsky. Hence, the playing style became looser and less “mano a mano.” This is probably a good thing. Chworowsky himself has had his neck broken while playing in Manilla. Fortunately, he recovered. Not so fortunate was Jack Liu, a young Fu Jen University student who had tragic spinal damage in 2009 and is paralyzed. Rugby is a violent game.

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MR. SAUSAGE

Mr. Sausage is one of the older “new school” ESL guys who got into the game. Like his hairy appearance, kangaroo Dundee accent, and oft-successful attempts at humor, his personal history is good for of comic relief. “When I started playing rugby, the Baboons had a lot of South Africans who didn’t like to pass the ball to a newbie with two left feet. They also tended to speak with each other in Afrikaans. So I decided to make some boerewors (traditional South African farmers’ sausage) and share it with them. But I got the recipe wrong: instead of using dried coriander seed, I used cilantro. I remember sharing it with the Saffas and they were like, ‘What’s this green stuff man?’ But at least they opened up to me a bit more.” This led to him becoming a sausage maker by trade, opening Mr. Sausage’s Kitchen, which supplies sausage to many prominent local restaurants.

Current president Welshman Andrew Leakey says that now there are lots of Baboons who have married Taiwanese women, have kids, and who speak Chinese. This also helps them get along better with the locals. Mr. Sausage, married to a lovely Taiwanese lass, said that he can show up at a game of the local team “Giants RFC” and they’ll happily let him play with their jersey – a huge step forward in cross-cultural relations. It’s also part of what Leakey says is the special nature of club rugby in Asia, the social side. “Back in Wales, if you play rugby, you play rugby, and it’s very serious. But here, almost anyone can play.”

But this evolution from old school to new school didn’t happen overnight, and the Baboons had yet to get through their roughest year ever: In 2002, stalwart Best Wu moved to China, and key members and former presidents Pascal Deville and Roger Rosbenburger left Taiwan. The changing of the guard had begun. Then came the carnage in Bali.

Best said that, after the bombings, “The Baboons were really lucky they had Peter Chworowsky to take over and lead them”. Chworowsky became president in 2002 and held court as “El Dictator” until 2007. After that, there were a series of presidents doing shorter terms, including Bernie Moore and Travis “Trash” Boyer (There’s a great story about “Trash” in Manilla I can’t tell!) until 2010 when Andrew Leakey took the wheel. Leakey’s biggest club-related peeve is that they don’t have a real home pitch to play at, and instead must use the Bailing public pitch in Shihlin District.

Leakey said that there are about 80 Baboons in total, but there are hundreds of ex-players, friends of the team, and family members who are connected because of Bali and other events. The Baboons went back to Bali for the 10th anniversary of the bombings in 2012, and on Saturday, October 14 this year, they played a memorial game to honor the fallen five for the 15th anniversary of the blasts.

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Sadly though, they also had two more fallen rugby brothers weighing heavily on their hearts. One of these was rugby legend Liu Bo-Yi, who died of cancer this summer at the age of 57. Mr. Liu was integral to Taiwanese rugby since the 1970s, being on the national team and participating in the Hong Kong 7’s, Asia’s premier rugby event. After retiring from pro-rugby, he helped develop youth rugby in Taiwan, and played with the Giants RFC. The other was a Baboons player: Logo Alimau Nafatali, a 22-year -old Tuvaluan business student at Ming Chuan University, who perished along with his girlfriend in a rooftop fire in Shilin in August.

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LOGO ALIMAU NAFATALI HOLDING THE BALL

“It’s been a rough summer,” Leakey said.

But the club carries on, draining kegs of beer, training or playing matches at Bailing field, rain or shine – or going on tour in Taiwan and around SE Asia. There’s always the next party, practice or game, and in the face of the death the team has endured, what else can they do but live? So, faithful to their motto, the Baboons are living it.

 

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The Taipei Baboons RFC would like to thank their sponsors:

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Big Hearts, Big Plans: Haxstrong Charity

Sometimes life slaps us in the face. It’s annoying as hell, we curse and moan, then get over it. But sometimes life knocks us to the ground and kicks us in the head: a serious traffic accident, a child in the ICU, a cancer diagnosis – or mental and emotional problems that take us to the edge. That’s when the language and cultural obstacles in a foreign land can be maddening, and we really need our extended family and deep social network back in our other home. But they aren’t here. So how can we cope?

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Contact the Haxstrong Charity, that’s how! This newish group led by Gregg Haxton, Shaun Bettinson, and a team of dedicated volunteers, have made it their mission to make sure that in your time of crisis, should it come, you will never, ever, be alone.

And they mean business. It’s a dedication based on personal experience. Haxton, from Queenstown, South Africa, is a totally likeable guy with a big smile and an even bigger heart. Back in 2010, after teaching English at Hess schools for three years, he parlayed his charisma into a gig working as a manager at the Pig and Whistle pub (for Max Murphy of Brass Monkey fame) down in Kaohsiung. This helped cement his status as one of the most universally loved figures of the Kaohsiung scene, who would befriend – genuinely – anyone who came into the pub.

“He was like a 1-man welcoming party (and I do mean party) who made an instant impression in the best way on all who met him,” said one of his friends, Ryan Jones.

But the laws of biology and physics do not spare the charismatic. “One night at the pub, I’d had a few too many. My friends took my motorcycle keys away from me,” relates Haxton. “But then another friend got them back for me. “ Oops!

His friend Henry was the first on the scene at the hospital. “It was a Sunday morning around 4:00a.m. and I was called by the police and asked if I knew Gregg, then when I said yes, I was told to go to the hospital because he’d had an accident.” But when Henry got to the hospital he was told that Haxton was near death. “There was no real expectation of his survival except from the brain surgeon Dr. Yang, who vowed to save him through sheer force of will.”

Another friend, Yero Rudzinkas recounts: “I remember finding my way into Gregg’s hospital room a couple of hours after the accident, before anyone else was allowed in, and man–It was something else. A twitching mass of bloody purple bandages, unrecognizable as anything except damaged.”

Drunk, Haxton had collided with a car whose driver was also drunk. (Don’t drink and drive folks!) Among other physical injuries, he had a burst eyeball and a fractured skull with brain hemorrhaging. He also lost a femur, since replaced with a titanium rod. But in the days and weeks after the accident, he was hanging on to life by a thread.

His Kaohsiung buddies took over management of his affairs. And thus unofficially, the Haxstrong Charity was born. Ryan Jones coined the term “Haxstrong” because he wanted Haxton to be strong again. To cope with his grief, he created a poster of Haxton – nicknamed “the Plesh”- looking hale and hearty, as he had been before, and as they all desperately hoped he would be again.

Another friend, Henry George Young, took charge of the situation: “I had to make the medical decisions for him. I got hold of his mum a few hours later. I also contacted a trauma surgeon friend in South Africa whose son is a mutual friend of Gregg’s and mine, who was able to liaise with the Taiwanese doctors.” He also took care of Haxton’s family when they came to Taiwan a few days later, and kept the steady stream of visitors to his room down to a manageable level.

Rudzinkas called a meeting to get fundraising started. Haxton was in a coma (at his worst, a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale) and even in Taiwan, intensive care isn’t cheap.

There were a series of fundraisers at venues such as the Brickyard to cover the lion’s share of the expenses. The love energy at these events created what Jon Hemmings called, “a sense of unity, fire and purpose” that helped people overcome their despair.

By all accounts, it was Haxton’s warm and loving nature that had inspired the intense emotional response to love him back to life.

And then seven weeks after his accident, he came out of his coma.

His mom was there, and he asked her why, and Haxton said she told him, “You’ve already asked me that question five times.”

“My perception of reality had become severely distorted – the only way to describe it to imagine that you are in one of those dreams that that feel so incredibly real that you cannot believe that you are dreaming –until you wake up, that is.

“But for me, there was no waking up…. this was my reality. Indeed, due to the damage done to the frontal lobe area of my brain, I did not even know who I was any more.”

After several operations and court cases, Haxton went back to South Africa to cocoon with his family. But he was far from happy. “I began to suffer from severe depression.”

Mood swings are a normal part of recovering from head trauma. But part of what brought him down was his diminished physical capacity: being weak and damaged, and hobbling around on crutches was frustrating to the former rugby player and outdoorsman. His mental capacity was also diminished, and he was plagued by the constant sense of unreality.

“It was a very dark time full of sadness, confusion, anger and other negative emotions. It got to the point where I was feeling so overwhelmed by negativity that suicide began to become a very real possibility.”

But then he made a breakthrough. Counseling helped him understand that the sense of unreality would fade with time, and that he would get stronger and better. This was a huge relief to him. But there was another understanding as well, sad but useful: he would never be the old Gregg Haxton again.

So he embraced a new one. He became inspired with a mission: return to Taiwan and turn Haxstrong into a charity to help anybody who needed help – and emotional support – in a desperate hour. “What I stand for is sharing love and being by the side of those that need it.”

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MIGUEL

February 2012, one and a half years after the accident: Back in Taiwan, Haxton and his fellow big hearts started to get busy helping others. One case was José “Miguel” Rios, an American yacht designer who was stricken with a bad case of Japanese Encephalitis back in 2012, and has been in various stages of ill health ever since. They helped with fundraising and also visited him frequently to brighten his mood.

Haxstrong holds an annual fair called “Life’s Peachy”, in honor of a 28-year-old American woman named Debbie Peachy who passed away suddenly from cancer in 2012 in Kaohsiung. The event gives hope to patients and family members and helps Peachy’s loved ones deal with their loss. It also raises money for cancer charities.

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HAVING A PEACHY TIME

Haxstrong also helped with some famous cases of infants with medical issues born to parents who were both non-Taiwanese nationals. Until the age of six months old, such infants aren’t covered by Taiwan’s national health insurance, often leaving the parents with huge medical bills.

One famous baby case in 2016 was Bas and Erica Brull whose identical twins had in utero complications, and required incubator care after birth. Haxstrong and many others helped publicize their GoFundMe campaign. The hubbub over this case and others helped get a draft law automatically granting coverage to such infants passed in May 2017. It is awaiting final acceptance.

Another well-known case that Haxstrong was a big part of was of Canadian John Kelly, who was struck by a car in Taichung last October, receiving serious head trauma. Doctors suggested he be medevacked to Canada, but that plus his already considerable bills was more than his family could afford. So another GoFundMe campaign and fund raising events helped out by Haxstrong. Unfortunately, Kelly passed away in Canada last December.

This is where the current president of Haxstrong, Shaun Bettinson, came in. If Haxton is the heart and soul of the organization, Bettinson is the business brain. He has a degree in Business Computing, and experience in sales to the IT sector in Belfast. He also currently has his own company that sells indoor air quality meters called a “Laser Egg”.

Bettinson also had a history of event management, fund raising, and generally helping out. Back in 2009, an expat named Patrick Byrne in Taichung had a young child who had a serious health problem. “There was a text message going around looking for blood donors,” said Bettinson. Apparently, prevalence of blood types in Taiwan among locals is different than for many foreigners. “Then I heard later that he might have developmental problems. It cost about 15,000NTD per day in the intensive care unit (ICU). The parents owed almost half a million NT dollars!”

Bettinson and others put together a sponsored walk in Metropolitan Park in Taichung, and raised 250,000NT in a day. The news coverage of the event caused the hospital to take 100,000NT off the bill. With other donations, and a BBQ/raffle, they raised 750,000NT and cleared his bill!

Lads and lasses

LOVING LADS WITH LOVELY LASSES: HAXTON AND BETTINSON

Bettinson had actually met Haxton years ago in Singapore at a Hess training event. So when the John Kelly accident happened, and it became clear that Haxstrong was getting involved, Bettinson offered to consult as “their man in Taichung.” Over time, he became the vice president, and then president; his organizational acumen was exactly what was needed to grow a stable and efficient charity.

The Haxstorng team has big plans: Bettinson says there’s a list of about 700 donors for rare blood types who donate on a regular basis. “I bet not one of them is a foreigner.” He’d like to get expats on that list to reduce the time between needing and getting a transfusion. He also is creating an online database listing reliable lawyers and doctors, legal and health insurance information, and so on. They are signing up volunteers -vetted volunteers, actually willing to do work – who can be mobilized when needed. Long term, they even hope to have offices with staff and drop in centers in some locations in Taiwan.

It’s an ambitious goal, and some might shake their heads and doubt they’ll achieve. It. But in response, Haxton would only smile and quote his hero, Nelson Mandela: “When people are determined they can overcome anything.”

https://www.facebook.com/haxstrongcharity/

http://haxstrong.org/

Haxoriginal

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Expats With a Heart: The Community Services Center in Tianmu Turns 30

When people think of the Community Services Center, they often think of what British author and classical musician Richard Saunders calls “that whole Tianmu tai-tai scene”. Indeed, the Center is often associated with survival Chinese classes, cross-cultural orientations for newcomers, and even cooking lessons. Located in Tianmu, and having links with the international schools, the Center certainly is a convenient neighborhood fixture for Tianmu expats.

Finding the light

But Saunders, who has published numerous books and articles through the Center, also says “It’s much more than that. It’s much better than that. People should really use it more.”

The Center’s primary work is mental and emotional health counseling, issues so private that they are rarely talked about publicly. But on the occasion of the Center’s 30th anniversary, as it is still struggling to make ends meet, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at this fascinating and vital Taipei institution and how it has evolved to fill a painful need in the expat community.

“Nice place you’ve got here!” I said to Adam McMillan, the director of the Community Services Center, which has three floors of offices, counseling rooms, and even a teaching kitchen. “It is now!” he said, “But it was in pretty bad shape when I first took over in 2012.” The carpet was moldy, the furniture old, and the whole place badly in need of renovation. The problem then (and now and always) was money. “We were broke!” he said, and so he had to soldier on with the endless quest for donations. He very gratefully received 300,000NT worth of furniture from IKEA. (Lots of DIY work on that one!) McMillan also secured a targeted donation from a multi-national company to pay for a complete renovation.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: ADAM McMILLAN

The Center conducts an average of 5000 counseling sessions per year by highly qualified psychologists, who help people with anxiety, depression, marital problems, parenting issues, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance abuse.

“We’ve helped thousands of people. We’ve saved lives” said McMillan. “I see people’s faces a month to six weeks after they’ve started the counseling. Many of them make full recoveries. It’s nice to watch.”

This good work done by the Center got started because of a ghastly tragedy.

Back in 1985, three boys – students at an international school – walked into an area of abandoned and overgrown military housing in Tianmu. They got stoned on cough syrup containing a now-banned psychoactive ingredient. Then two of the boys beat the other one to death with a baseball bat.

The body was found the next day by a man out taking his dog for a walk. When the news broke, the expat community was completely stunned.

In the aftermath, expat community leaders – business, religious and AIT – met to figure out the implications of this horrible incident. What emerged was that there was a foreign teen drug problem bigger than anyone knew, and a lack of community resources to deal with it. More meetings, and then a stroke of luck. In 1986, thanks to the US State Department, they found a model to emulate: The Community Services Association of Cairo, an expatriate mental health program started in Egypt by two Americans, Joel Wallach and Gale Metcalf. They were contacted, which eventually resulted in them moving to Taipei to become The Center’s first directors. On August 1st, 1987, the “Community Center” became officially operational under the legal auspices of the Taiwan Adventist Hospital.

In 1993, it was agreed that the Center was “growed up” enough to become its own entity, the “Taipei International Community Services Cultural and Education Foundation” in Chinese (國際社區服務文教中心) or in English, the Community Services Center. They were permitted as a foundation on February 13th, 1993, and registered by the Taipei District Court on April 1st of that year. No fooling!

COMFY COUNSELING ROOM

As the Center conducted its work, the whole range of mental and emotional health issues affecting the expat community gradually became clear. Of course, any population of people is going to have a certain amount of these problems. But for expats, the situation is more complicated. For one thing, studies have shown that expats have a higher incidence of mental and emotional health issues, especially anxiety and depression. Dealing with a foreign culture can be a genuine stress factor, especially if one’s spouse has some resistance to moving abroad, or the kids have a hard time fitting into their new country after being yanked away from their peer group.

COUNSELING TOOLS AND TOYS FOR TROUBLED CHILDREN

And if things do go sideways, who can you turn to? Your familiar network of extended family and old friends back home aren’t there to keep a friendly eye on you. And local counselors may not have the cross-cultural experience to make a good connection with you. So who’s going to give you the tough-love advice, the shoulder to cry on, or organize an intervention for you when you are far from home? Well, maybe the Center will.

McMillan told me about one case the Center handled. About a year ago, a European woman just stopped showing up for work. Her friends were worried about her, but she wasn’t answering the door or her phone. However, she trusted the local Li Zhang (neighborhood leader). What she said to him worried him, so he called the foreign affairs police, who called her country’s trade office (de facto embassy), who called McMillan at the Center. So, out he went to her place. With the Li Zhang with him, he got her to come out and talk. Her behavior was very odd, recounts McMillan, as she avoided making eye contact with him. But then she said, “Mr. Director, occupant conditioning, and ocular implants!” Clearly the woman was suffering from a psychiatric condition. Eventually, she let the foreign affairs police drive her to a hospital and she was able to get the care she needed. She also got free outpatient housing from Taipei City. Her condition stabilized, and a family member came out from Europe and took her home. A happy ending!

McMillan says this case is now cited in Taiwan as a textbook model of how cooperation between city services, foreign affairs police, the health department, together with institutions like trade offices and the Center, can help deal with expat health crises.

Urgent cases are dealt with almost once a week at the center. And cases like this show that, at 30 years of age, the Center is coming of age, in more ways than one. By all accounts, McMillan’s management approach has helped this. McMillan, who hails from Tennessee, first came to Taiwan to study Chinese back in 1987, but was not connected to the Center then. He came back in 1998, and worked at various engineering and marketing management jobs as he raised his family. Then there was an opening at the Center. Sick of long commutes to Hsinchu, he went for the job. He brought his tech industry experience with him. “I’m very data driven,” he told me. When he first started, records were poor. But now he uses special software for health care institutions to store and crunch the numbers.

Americans account for 36% of those treated, and Taiwanese for another 24%. People from Europe are at 14%, and those from Asia outside of Taiwan also represent 14%. A total of about 40 nationalities have been counseled.

In terms of age groups, 26% are under 18, and a total of 60% are between 23 and 50 years old, although McMillan says that they have counseled people from 3 to 91 years old!

The magazine Centered on Taipei, edited by long-time Center stalwart Sue Babcock, is published 10 times per year, and puts out 2230 hard copies per issue. The web version of COT gets a monthly average of 325 page views, with a reading time norm of just under 5 minutes.

Some other important figures: the Center’s annual budget is about 23 million NTD per year. In terms of how much of that money is on programs, McMillan says that it’s a whopping 75%, way above the 68% that’s considered the “gold standard” for NGOs. The bottom line though is a 6 million NTD operating deficit per year. The need for funds is relentless. That’s why the Center has their annual charity auction, which will be on Friday October 20th this year. So sign up for that and give them your support. You never know when you – or someone you care for – might need theirs.

https://www.communitycenter.org.tw/

https://www.facebook.com/TheCenterTaipei/?ref=br_rs

 

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The Devil is in the Details

Here’s a short bulletin from The Culture Shack!

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I remember two years ago when I was active with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan’s Small Business Committee, I gave a short talk – one among many other speakers – at DV8 Pub on Fuxing S. Rd (Gary’s place) for one of the events. Carrie K was there, John K was there, Josh Yang was there, Jenna, Andrew Lunman, Joe O’Brien, and many others. Maybe you?

The gist of the talk was slightly uncomfortable: Beware of being in a business relationship with Taiwanese partners – investors, contract partners, etc. – where you lack important leverage or knowledge, because they have a home-team advantage that might make you an easy mark.

Who you gonna call? Cross-cultural busters? I don’t think so! Sorry, eh!

Locals have detailed, deep and varied and local knowledge –language, customs, guanxi (connections), legal status, etc. You don’t. If you’re smart, you’ll get that.

In my brief talk, I summarized a few sob stories about expats who’d put a lot of  time, passion and money into small enterprises here, only to get burned badly.

Two years later, looking back, after various experiences, inputs and considerations, I’d like to reiterate this message:

Nothing has changed at all. Be very careful about the devil in the details in a business relationship with Taiwanese partners – investors, contract partners etc. I mean it.

The locals’ have home-team advantage might make you an easy mark, if they are so inclined.

This is intended for expat small business start up people. The big companies hire big lawyers and avoid this kind of BS. You have to do this using your own noggin.

I’ve just heard two recent stories that only confirm this:

  • One expat I know signed a bogus rental contract for a new business location that was actually scheduled for demolition.
  • Another signed what they thought was a rental contract for a new business, but was actually an agreement stating that they would guarantee payment of the rent if the actual tenant could not.

Both “contracts” were in Mandarin and were not checked out by CPAs, lawyers, or trusted Taiwanese people with close unambiguous relationships.

Both expat guys got screwed, and not in the good way.

Conclusion:

  • For any location search and contract negotiation, get the help of a Taiwanese person with local connections to the area in question whose business interests AND social interests align (or at the very least do not conflict) with yours.
  • For any contract, use a CPA or lawyer, for whom YOU (or your very very trusted Taiwanese partner) are “The Client”.

This will probably save you some misery and some money!

Or take your chances and add your list to the “I got screwed in business in Taiwan!” club.

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