It was a great pleasure to work with Ken Dickson, photographer, and the entire editorial team of Centered On Taipei, the magazine of the Community Services Center in Taipei. Please follow the link below to read the article on pages 16-20.
Taiwan residents consider the best response to the threat of invasion from China
Part 2 of a 2-part series
By John Groot(You may share this article in whole or part if you link to this post and mention me as author by name. TIA for respect to makers.)
“If China invaded Taiwan, would you fight? Or would you be on the first plane out?” That’s a popular question among expats in Taiwan. I suppose some hot-heads imagine themselves taking out People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks with Molotov cocktails, or stealthily emerging from the shadows like Rambo to cut a throat, grab a gun, and disappear again in the wink of an eye.
“More guts than brains” is an expression that comes to my mind. Expats here have no access to firearms, most have little or no military training, and the few that do have probably never trained with the Republic of China (ROC) military. Taiwan does not have a foreign legion or a territorial defense force like Ukraine that long-term foreign residents could join. So, any ragtag expat vigilantes would be short work for any properly trained and equipped PLA unit, with access to communications, intelligence, air support, and back up.
Despite that fact, a lot of expats here love Taiwan so much that they would want to stay and assist their adopted country in some capacity. And while participating in combat is not a realistic option, the best way to be useful is probably to have already prepared for the emergency, so you could keep your loved ones safe and help maintain order and sanity in your community. Many strongly believe that China will never attack, but this seems like wishful thinking. For those who do take the risk seriously, there are many differing theories out there, ranging from an attack between 2023 and 2027 before Taiwan gets too strong, all the way to an attack by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, by which time the PLA is expected to be able to take Taiwan at low cost.
Needless to say, war is a messy business, and any strong military action by China would badly disrupt daily life in Taiwan. However, an amphibious Normandy-style invasion is not the most likely scenario. If and when war comes to Taiwan, it will probably be in the form of fighter and naval battles, air and missile strikes, a blockade, and a massive cyberattack to disrupt all communications and infrastructure. These could be accompanied by an airborne “decapitation strike” by special forces aimed at taking over Taipei, abducting top leaders, and installing the PRC’s own interim government.
Taiwan would fight back of course, and allies like the US and Japan would most likely try to assist without starting World War III in the process. But whatever the eventual outcome, normal life would come screeching to a halt. Imagine that you have no internet, no phone service, and the power and water in your apartment goes off. ATMs cease to function, food quickly runs out at the stores, as does gas at the pumps. Restaurants are closed, police stations crowded and chaotic, fire and medical services strained and limited. You sit in your dark apartment at night, looking out the window at fires and explosions in the distance, clueless as to what is happening, wondering what the hell to do now.
It’s a horrible prospect, so maybe getting ready for it might not be so paranoid after all, especially given that emergency preparedness is also useful for things like devastating earthquakes and typhoons.
Brace for impact
Taiwan’s government has been getting ready, for sure. Since Xi Jinping upped his rhetoric about Taiwan, and the US increased its level of support, the ROC military has been busily acquiring new forms of weaponry. It has also dramatically increased its production of high-tech missiles. According to an August 14 article in the Central News Agency’s Focus Taiwan: “The National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology has completed several new facilities that are expected to more than double Taiwan’s annual missile output to 500, according to a recent Ministry of National Defense (MND) report.” Taiwan’s military also allegedly wants to get advanced hypersonic missiles from the US.
What’s more, after years of criticism and advice from experts worldwide, Taiwan’s military has begun to implement – or at least talk about implementing – “asymmetric” and “porcupine” tactics, such as having small, fast missile boats hidden in fishing ports, acquiring more drones, sea mines, and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles, as well as the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) that Ukraine recently received from NATO. The effectiveness of all this (combined with Russia’s lackluster performance in Ukraine, which must have increased the caution level of Chinese invasion planners) is one reason military experts doubt that the amphibious invasion scenario is something China would risk.
Taiwan has also upgraded its civil defense structure and reserve mobilization structure, to some extent at least. Civil defense means helping protect citizens and civilian infrastructure from the worst forms of damage in the event of disaster. In Taiwan, this is under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior, primarily through municipalities, counties, the National Police Agency, and the National Fire Agency. It’s not clear what kinds of new training or preparation are happening in these organizations at the moment, but some new online resources are now available, such as maps of bomb shelters and evacuation centers. Reserve mobilization is for military – not civil – defense, although in practice these two areas do need some joint coordination. January 2022 saw the establishment of the “All Out Defense Mobilization Agency” (AODMA) under the control of the ROC Armed Forces Reserves Command, to offer policy and coordination of mobilizing Taiwan’s approximately 1.65 million reservists – many with very limited training – in case of military emergency. AODMA has released a National Defense Handbook, a 28-page PDF document with a fair amount of useful information in it about dealing with air raids, power and water outages, etc. An unofficial English translation is also available. However, emergency preparedness experts have criticized the book as inadequate, and the government is working on an improved version. It is worth noting that neither online maps nor PDF books would be terribly useful if you have no power or internet.
Crisis, what crisis?
One interesting question in all of this is: How are average Taiwanese people responding to the perception of a growing military threat?
Well, after Nancy Pelosi’s recent dragon-poking Taiwan visit, the world was treated to the spectacle of China’s daunting 4-day show of force by the PLA in six maritime and aerial “exclusion zones” encircling Taiwan. Many dubbed this a rehearsal for a blockade – or worse. But as the waters and skies around the self-ruled democratic island crawled with military aircraft, ships, submarines and ballistic missiles, most Taiwanese stoically went about their business. Night markets and department stores were packed, and the mood was light and summery. Many even continued regular coastal activities, like taking beach selfies or free-diving with sea turtles in Xiao Liuqiu Island, less than 10 kilometers away from one of the exclusion zones in the Taiwan Strait.
How can they remain so placid when the rest of the world believes the sky is falling for Taiwan? One woman interviewed said: “After a long time of this, everyone becomes numb to it. People think it’s just words, that they won’t take real action.” Others say that they are used to decades of threatening Chinese rhetoric, and believe that if China were going to invade Taiwan, they would have done it a long time ago.
This ho-hum attitude is a concern to some, including Leo Lin, a colonel in the National Police Agency who works in the field of civil defense and national security. “Forewarned is forearmed” is a saying he likes to use a lot. “Look at the shooting of the former Japanese prime-minister Shinzo Abe. If someone told you a few days before the event that it might happen, you would think they were crazy.” Lin agrees that if there is the possibility of a threat, then that is a threat. “If there is a chance that something might happen, we should be ready for it,” he says.
Lin spent seven years working in Washington DC, liaising with agencies like the FBI and Homeland Security on Taiwan-related security issues. Since returning last year, he has noticed that many expats are more worried about war than are local Taiwanese.
One expat who is ready for anything is South African documentary filmmaker Tobie Openshaw. “When I first got to Taiwan, I was told not to worry, that China wouldn’t be able to invade Taiwan for another 10 or 20 years. That was 24 years ago.” Openshaw is technically proficient, having been an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist in the army, was a trained firearms instructor, and has emergency first aid and rescue training. He has leveraged this eclectic skillset to create a series of “bug-out bags” – backpacks of various size with survival related equipment, such as food, solar chargers, batteries, tools, etc., that he can use in different scenarios. He also has two-way radios and a satellite text-phone.
He says that, depending on the emergency, he would choose to either shelter in place, “bug out”, or “bugger off”.
Shelter in place means to just stay at home with family members and stay safe. He’s prepared for that with water, food, flashlights, batteries, an advanced medical kit, and a long list of other supplies and equipment.
However, if fires, explosions, or social chaos threaten, it would be time for him to “bug out” i.e., get out of Dodge. His bug-out bag – a portable survive-and-thrive kit – is already packed, and his all-wheel-drive Land Rover parked downstairs. “I have a cabin in the mountains which belongs to an indigenous friend, and we have an agreement that my family and I can stay there and wait things out. It’s a secluded cabin with an independent water and electrical supply,” Openshaw said.
For those without such careful plans in place, there is always the option of going to your local evacuation center.
“Bugger off” means evacuate out of the country, which he might do if ordered to do, or if he felt the situation was becoming untenable. “This would of course be dependent on evacuation flights being made available”, he says.
Is Openshaw pessimistic about the future? Not really. He’s a realist who has seen a lot of often-violent history happen before his eyes, or those of his friends. He lived through the 9 21 Jiji earthquake, and remembers peeing in the sink and humping buckets of water up 10 flights of stairs for two weeks until the water came back on. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is his motto. It’s a good one.
Serving the public interest
On the other hand, someone who is extremely concerned about the near future is Kameron Johnson, a young and idealistic Australian entrepreneur living in Hsinchu. Convinced an attack on Taiwan is imminent, he has formed an organization called the “Civil Guard”. Kameron says that ‘’If Taiwan falls, it will become the blueprint and gateway to end all democracies and free nations around the world.” The Civil Guard is a group with a quasi-military feel to it: they have a training platoon and a guardsman platoon; they use military-style radio SOP, and have a uniform. Despite the trappings, it is not combat oriented. The purpose of the organization is to protect people in case of a natural – or man-made – disaster. Kameron hopes to build up well-trained mixed groups of local and foreign members to help deal with sick and wounded people, evacuate civilians from combat zones, and get food, water, and medical supplies to those who need them. They have worked with different local organizations to conduct training, such as mountain navigation and firefighting, and hope to start a program to produce civilian MREs – meals ready to eat, high nutrition non-perishable meal units – that people can keep at home for emergencies.
Kameron hasn’t had a lot of expats signing up to his group yet, but he is soldiering on. ‘’The people of Taiwan have proven themselves as a positive asset to our world and the Civil Guard aim to help them continue that trend,’’ his organization said.
Of all the entities out there, the one doing the most to promote civil defense awareness is Open Knowledge Taiwan. The original Open Knowledge group was started in Cambridge, England by British economist, activist, and social entrepreneur Rufus Pollock in 2004. The group is dedicated to the idea of an open society, where citizens can access and share important information.
T.H. Schee, one of the founders of Open Knowledge Taiwan in 2013, said that after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the group decided to focus their non-profit work for 2022 on disaster preparedness and civil defense in Taiwan.
Schee is not your average Taiwanese guy: he drove a motorcycle across Australia at the age of 15 (without a license!) and later dropped out of university to join the navy as a radio communications technician. Now he’s a self-made computer consultant with clients around the world, and a long-time blogger and defense activist, with deep knowledge of Taiwan. He has friends in the citizen’s band (CB) and amateur “ham” radio community in Taiwan, some of whom hear the chatter of PLA air force pilots as they fly into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone. Schee is a big fan of ham radio as an effective form of emergency communications – both within Taiwan and to the outside world – as it’s hard to jam because there are so many frequencies.
This year he’s been busy, holding dozens of seminars and meetings to spread the word about civil defense.
Does he think Taiwan will have to deal with a Chinese attack? “I think it will happen some time in my lifetime,” Schee says, adding that most Taiwanese have relatives in the countryside somewhere that they can shelter with if need be. Of course, most of the men would be called up as reservists. They might have to fight, or more likely play a support role. “For every one soldier in the field, there are about 5 or 10 people supporting him” with food, logistics, etc.
What will most expats do? That really depends. Many I know personally have said that they’d leave the country as soon as possible. Some have left already. Openshaw said there’s a real chance of evacuation flights like those that took off from Afghanistan as the Taliban army approached Kabul. “There’s a military reason for that. The occupying force tells the foreign passport holders to go and lets them fly out. Then they know that those remaining behind are the enemy.” This is a sobering thought to those who might want to stay. Openshaw is a documentary filmmaker whose work has appeared on National Geographic and Al Jazeera. He said that he would support Taiwan by documenting events and sharing them with the world.
We all hope that we will never have to face the terrors of war: the death and destruction, of people, property, and maybe even the whole democratic Taiwan dream we love so much. But geopolitics doesn’t care about our feelings. The decision of what to do in case of war does is something every individual and family living here has to decide for themselves. There is no advantage to not being prepared.
Thanks to Dean Karalekas and Wendell Minnick for their advice on military matters.
Many people might want to prepare but don’t know how. Openshaw and his partners are working on a detailed Emergency Guide that will be available within a few months. Until then, here are a few pointers:
Have extra water, non-perishable food, a flashlight and extra batteries at home.
A crank-charged radio that also charges your cellphone is a very good investment.
Have a good first aid kit, and get training on how to use it properly. There’s a lot of information available online.
Access all online government information on civil defense and familiarize yourself with it, especially air raid shelters and evacuation centers. Print it out and make a few copies.
Make an emergency plan with friends and family members for what to do in various scenarios.
Ask questions. Tell us what information you want to know, and we will address it in the guide.
It’s what we’ve all been dreading for years, a massive military attack by an aggressive, repressive, authoritarian China. One minute, we’re peacefully going about our business in this free, democratic, and basically humane country, Taiwan. The next, life is turned upside down. Bombs are dropped and missiles launched, causing death and destruction to people, property – and maybe the entire Taiwan dream. It’s a nightmare scenario both for native-born Taiwanese and for expats who love their adopted home, like waking up to find that the monster has finally crawled out from under your bed.
Terrifying, yes. And also damned inconvenient. If China did attack, the internet would almost certainly be cut off, as well as much of the infrastructure we take for granted. Phone service, electricity, and even water services might be problematic. Food could soon run out, and access to medical services, fire fighters, the justice system, and banking all severely curtailed. Life as we had known it would be over, perhaps even literally over for people living too near a military target. Even those far from the battle zones would be seriously impacted.
But could an attack possibly happen? Will it actually happen? And if so, when and how?
Could it happen? Yes, it definitely could. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have consistently vowed to “re”-unify with Taiwan, by hook or by crook. China’s military build-up over the last few decades has been the largest peacetime military expansion in human history. And much of that enhanced capacity – such as the development of “carrier killer” hypersonic missiles – is based on being able to exclude the US and its regional allies from getting anywhere near Taiwan if the PLA decides to apply serious military pressure. PRC Chairman Xi Jinping – who is 69 years old – has said on several occasions that he wants to accomplish the “re”-unification with Taiwan within his lifetime. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine serves as a grim reminder that superpower politics can be very brutal indeed. Oh, yes it certainly could happen. Have no doubts on that score.
But will it? No one knows. It depends on a host of factors, including who’s running the show in Beijing, Washington DC, and Taipei. Will Xi get his 3rd term and thus likely be leader for life? Likely but not certain. Who will be the next US president? Will China hawks continue to prevail in the US State Department? Unknown. Will Taiwan finally harden its own defenses? Will the CCP accept some sort of compromise in talks with Taiwan? There are many opinions about all these things. But no clarity.
OK, so let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it does happen. When is the most likely time? And what is the most likely scenario for the attack? This is again unclear, but there are a few points most experts agree on.
Firstly, for an amphibious invasion, there are two main windows, October and April. In the winter, the winds in the Taiwan Strait are too rough for large-scale naval action. In the summer, there is the risk of typhoons. However, for missile and bombing attacks, there are no such limited time windows.
Secondly, there would most likely be a noticeable movement and buildup of forces and materiel in PLA bases near Taiwan in the months before any actual amphibious attack. US and allied satellites and other intelligence sources would notice this and probably publicize it in an attempt to pressure China into backing off.
Finally, given China’s political culture, there would need to be some sort of political pretext, a legitimization. It seems very unlikely that they would launch a surprise attack without a formal process being announced, such as a law passed in China, and the opportunity presented to Taiwan to enter formal negotiations (negotiated surrender) by a certain deadline.
Taken all together, these factors could amount to something like a six-month timeline from first clear warning sign to an actual amphibious invasion.
But let’s consider the full range of possibilities. Here are some hypothetical but (hopefully) realistic scenarios of Chinese military aggression against Taiwan:
Scenario 1: The minimalist approach. The PLA occupies Jinmen or Matsu islands, as well as Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea, and maybe even the Penghu Islands. They also declare part or all of the Taiwan Strait a “no go” zone to foreign military shipping. This would probably be fairly easy for the PLA, and Taiwan would probably not want to overcommit to naval action against the huge PLA Navy (PLAN) if it didn’t directly approach the main island.
Scenario 2: Hybrid warfare. Some sort of partial naval and aerial blockade of Taiwan intended to interfere with the economy, combined with stepped-up harassment, such as direct flyovers of Taiwan’s territory by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) jets, or incursions into Taiwan’s maritime space by China’s naval militia, protected by PLAN warships. This might also be accompanied by cyberattacks designed to shut down the internet and other infrastructure for days at a time. Taiwan would have no choice to assert a stiff defensive posture, resulting in real engagements between Taiwanese and Chinese forces, posing a serious risk of escalation.
Scenario 3: A serious attack but no invasion. This would involve air and sea warfare only, no boots on the ground. A full aerial and naval blockade, a protracted set of naval and aerial battles designed to degrade Taiwan’s military, combined with ballistic missile attacks on military targets. Aggressive cyberattacks turning off the internet and shutting down critical infrastructure for days or weeks. Once air and naval superiority were established, China could pick off targets at will, ratcheting up the threat until the government breaks.
Scenario 4: The Full Monty – a proper invasion. Total air and sea blockade, massive ballistic missile attacks on military targets, massive cyberattacks to paralyze virtually all military, governmental, and civilian communication and shut down critical infrastructure. Aggressive naval and aerial engagements to degrade Taiwan’s forces and achieve battlespace superiority, followed by sustained aerial assaults by fighters and bombers on military targets. A decapitation strike at Taipei by special forces units to try to seize key leadership personnel. Well-coordinated insider treason and sabotage actions by gangsters, planted CCP agents, and other groups sympathetic to China – the so-called “5th column”. An amphibious assault with close air support from fighters, helicopters, and battle drones at one or more locations in Taiwan, and very possibly a move to seize a major port, such as Keelung, Taipei Port, Taichung, or Kaohsiung. Then hundreds of thousands of troops would start rolling in until the island was occupied. That would be the plan, anyway. PLA success in such an endeavor is very unclear. But they could do a hell of a lot of damage trying. And yes, they might actually succeed, at least partially, such as in seizing and holding the region around Taipei.
Scenario 5: Worst Case (short of nuclear) scenario. Full air and sea blockade, massive ballistic missile attacks on military targets, massive cyberattack, aggressive naval and aerial attacks to degrade Taiwan’s forces and achieve battlefield superiority, followed by aerial assaults by fighters and bomber on military targets and area bombing of civilian targets. There are massive casualties, and Taiwan is crushed by brute force, surrenders, and then the occupiers enter the country and take it over.
At the current moment, as far as I have read, China could probably accomplish any of these scenarios except for scenario 4. Scenario 5 is so extreme that it is unlikely to happen. Scenario 4 is the riskiest for China, as they would have to deal with an angry populace, the ROC forces on their home turf, in addition to the aforementioned long warning window. Scenarios 1 and 2 are most likely to stiffen Taiwan’s resolve and get it even more international support, without really giving China what it wants. So, my bet is that scenario 3 is the one we have to worry about. If and when the PLA can accomplish effective area denial to allied forces, it becomes even more likely.
Of course, no one really knows. There are so many complex and unpredictable factors. But one thing is clear: tension is building and building, and no one looks ready to back down. I really hope that “scenario 0, no war at all” is what happens, as do we all.
But if and when war does come to this Fair Isle, are you ready for it? For most of us expats, it’s not like we can just go to Uncle Chen’s farm in Nantou and wait things out. The fact is that – barring the scenario of being allowed to board a plane and fly “home” – foreign residents would be at a relative disadvantage in coping with such an event. Most expats lack the benefits of family and other people networks, proper language skills, and detailed cultural knowledge, that would aid local Taiwanese in a major crisis.
So, what would YOU do if the stores ran out of food and medicine, the water stopped flowing from your taps, the electricity was shut off, your phone and Internet were cut off, and fires and explosions started occurring around you? Got a plan?
Some people do, largely thanks to the invasion of Ukraine. In my next article, I’ve interviewed four different people for their unique takes on the possibility of war and how everyday citizens can prepare for it. These include South African film-maker Tobie Openshaw speaking about his elaborate yet efficient bug-out bags and bugger-off plans; Taiwanese computer consultant T.H. Schee, a member of Open Knowledge Taiwan, a group that is focusing this year on promoting public awareness of wartime disaster preparedness; the young and idealistic Australian Kameron James who has created a quasi-military organization called the Civil Guard to help protect citizens in the event of disasters such as a war; and Taiwanese police colonel known only as Leo, who offers insight into civil defense in Taiwan. So, stay tuned for part 2.
John Groot is the author of “Taiwanese Feet: My walk around Taiwan”
Last time, in Part 1: “The Man in the Atayal Hat”, I started by talking about the great long-distance sea voyages of the Pacific Islanders thousands of years ago and how they have always amazed me. How brave and skilled the sailors, but also how lonely and perilous the voyages: a bit of bad luck, like a rogue wave or unexpected storm, and you could be capsized, smashed up on a hidden reef, or blown off course. And when things do go seriously wrong, that’s when you need your buddies to haul you out of the water and help you get your canoe back in order. Then you take a deep breath, reset your course, and keep paddling!
When Tony Coolidge showed up in Taiwan in 2009 with his wife Shu-min and his first son Johan, he knew it was going to be a challenge to get things set in a country he had never lived in before. But he had his movie, Voices in the Clouds, made with filmmaker Aaron Hosé, under his belt. The film – in addition to the friends he had made in his two previous trips to Taiwan – opened a lot of doors. “I couldn’t ask for a better calling card to really let people know what I wanted to do in Taiwan,” Coolidge said.
After networking for a few years, he tried to set up a Taiwan-registered NGO that could do legal fund-raising. Registering an “association” is notoriously laborious and bureaucratic in Taiwan, and requires getting members with Taiwan ID cards from all over the island to agree to endorse the group. But after they had worked on it for months, misfortune struck: “One day we found that the copies of all the cards form members had been lost,” said Coolidge. Oops! Oh, well. Keep paddling!
Later that year he had some much better luck: “We were invited to show the film Voices in the Clouds in New Zealand in 2012.”
The event was the Wairoa Māori Film Festival, held annually on the east coast of North Island, in the country the Māori call Aotearoa. It is an amazing event, according to Taipei-based South African documentary filmmaker Tobie Openshaw, who made the trip along with Coolidge. Openshaw was blown away by the quality of the films, many of which were made by students from the Māori Development Department of Auckland University of Technology. The program is supervised by Māori “powerhouse” Professor Ella Henry. Māori artists “have really adopted filmmaking as part of their tradition of storytelling,” said Openshaw, something he says he would like to see promoted in Taiwan’s Indigenous community.
He was also impressed by the venue for the film festival, which was in a traditional wooden meeting house situated in a sacred communal space, known as a marae. “Entering it for the first time, there was a special ritual. The group had to wait outside and the leader would invite you in with a call-and response song.” Openshaw said. This hearkens back to days when visitors to the marae might not be friendly. Once inside, he admired the intricately-carved interior. It was only later that he realized what an honor it was to have been invited there.
Coolidge had a great time too: Voices in the Clouds won Best International Film. He also made an important discovery, although possibly a bit late in the game. “When I brought the film to New Zealand it was the first time I connected with other Austronesian groups. Seeing them watch the film, hearing them say: ‘Hey, she looks like my auntie. She looks like my grandmother. He looks like my uncle!’. So, the Austronesian connection became a big part of our organization,” said Coolidge.
Naturally, Coolidge and ATAYAL invited the AUT film kids to come to Taiwan, and this was announced officially at the festival. In an interview recorded by Openshaw, Prof. Henry said the trip would be in part about the Austronesian connection, but even more so about the “cosmological connection” that Indigenous people have, their common connection to “the gods of creation.”
TAPPING THE AUSTRONESIAN ROOT
“So, in 2013 I was able to keep that promise,” said Coolidge. The event was called the Tap Root Cultural Exchange Program. “We had a delegation from the Auckland University of Technology, who were the people who I was with at the film festival. It happened. They came. It was our biggest culture exchange project ever,” said Coolidge. “Nine people from New Zealand for fourteen days. We had to fund everything. For a group of volunteers who didn’t have much of a budget, it wasn’t easy.”
As is common in many organizations relying on volunteers, people let them down, promised services failed to appear, and while some planned events went well, other things went very wrong.
“We were supposed to have a bus to pick up the delegation at the airport,” Openshaw said. “But that fell through, and instead there were 4 or 5 different cars.” There was also a van for the elders (chaperones) too, but the organizers had wanted a proper bus for everyone and their baggage. Throughout the trip, the accommodation was often at places like school dorms, and the elders weren’t very happy with that, recalls Openshaw. “The students didn’t care though,” he recalled.
Then came a “rogue wave” event. Coolidge explains: “One time we had to find emergency accommodation because they [the elders] weren’t happy with where we set them up. And those emergency accommodations turned out to be a love hotel with sex toys everywhere. That was unexpected. And it was not just any love hotel. I’ve seen some but this was definitely a special one. They had like dental chairs in the middle of the room,” lamented Tony Coolidge, with a chuckle. Oops!
There was also a controversy over the central purpose of the trip. Although Prof. Henry had acknowledged the Austronesian connection and had even shown a positive attitude toward the “Out of Taiwan” theory, which says that Taiwan was the beginning-place of the Austronesian Expansion, the idea that indigenous Taiwanese are the ancestors of the Māori is not something accepted by all Māori. Their own origin story is that they came from a Polynesian island or group of islands called Hawaiki, and that Aotearoa (New Zealand)wasdiscovered by Tupe, the master navigator. Later, the seven Māori iwis (tribal groups) voyaged to the islands, and thus the lands were populated by humans for the first time.
However, in his pure enthusiasm, Coolidge had touted the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis as the central context for the trip. Although there is still some debate, the leading scientific theory is that Austronesian-speaking people first began their great migrations from pre-Han Taiwan about 3000 to 1500 BCE, spreading outward from there as far as Madagascar and Polynesia. Not only is it highly plausible, based on the evidence, it is also very popular with those who have some emotional connection with indigenous Taiwan. But perhaps it was not diplomatic to brand the trip accordingly, without okaying this with the visitors? Feathers were ruffled.
According to a December, 2013 Taipei Times article: “In bold lettering, the [Tap Root] Web site introduces the exchange program with a rhetorical question: ‘What if the great diaspora of 400 million Austronesian peoples from 38 countries strengthened their cultural bonds by uniting at the source of their cultural roots?’” The article also reports that one of the elders “said she had never heard of the theory that the Māori ancestral roots are in Taiwan. ‘It has been quite an experience meeting people from Taiwan but certainly we didn’t come here to look for where we came from,’ she added.’”
The article’s author fails to point out that it is a bit odd that the elder hadn’t heard of the “Out of Taiwan” theory, given that it had been first proposed in 1983, and has become steadily established thereafter. The elder in question was highly educated and taught classes about Māori culture at AUT. The article goes on to say: “Indeed, the Māori group gave a performance [Haka dance – probably the first ever occurrence of this at an indigenous wedding in Taiwan, according to Openshaw] at every stop throughout the trip, though not completely voluntarily, said the elder. “In New Zealand, we don’t expect our guests to entertain; whereas we have been required to entertain,” she said.
So that’s probably the crux of the grievance, a combination of faulty planning made worse by a cross-cultural communication error. In 2012, the AUT group had shown great hospitality to the Taiwan delegation, indicating proper respect, letting them stay in the marae. No doubt the hosts also felt that giving them the best international film award was also a sign of respect. However, when the AUT delegation came over, the returned hospitality was underwhelming, causing the elders to be offended, and thus inciting one elder in particular to complain to the press.
Openshaw, however, believes that this was an overreaction, because the most important people on the trip, the students, had “a fantastic time.” He also maintains that when Coolidge subsequently apologized for the problems with Tap Root, publicly taking full personal responsibility for everything that went wrong with the trip, that this was excessive. But the damage had been done. When Openshaw contacted AUT years later to discuss further projects, AUT declined any future cooperation. That bridge has been burnt.
What’s more, Coolidge had covered a lot of the costs out of his family funds, and had also spent many hundreds of hours preparing for Tap Root, instead of earning cash for his family. This strained his relationship with his wife to near the breaking point. Through a mix of bad luck and navigator error, the good canoe ATAYAL had been capsized. But as luck would have it, a buddy was there to help him out. “I couldn’t focus and I sort of gave the reins to Gary Smoke.”
FIRE IN THE SKY, SMOKE ON THE WATER
American Gary Smoke has spent 31 years in Taiwan, making him quite the expat old-timer. The tall, aging man-boy with an actor’s face and voice lives in a rooftop pad in Tianmu filled with books and bedecked with beer signs. He’s friendly and laid-back, but there’s a note of sadness and tension to his voice when he talks about Vietnam.
“In 1971, I was in the US Air Force in the Vietnam War,” says Smoke. “I was in Ubon Airbase in Thailand. I worked on a computer system that was responsible for air navigation and weapons delivery for the AC-130 Spectre gunship.” These refitted Hercules transport planes are famous for delivering massive fire power from above that can take out enemy positions and vehicles, and often provide close air support for troops on the ground. Their fearsome array of cannons – abetted by sophisticated sensors and control systems – are mounted to fire from the port (left) side. The plane does a continuous circular “pylon” turn over the target, pounding the hell out of it for far longer than a conventional strafing run.
That sounds cool if you’re a gung-ho military type, but Smoke wasn’t.
“They flew around at night at around 1100 feet (335 meters) and shot up trucks and troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” said Smoke, referring to the nickname the US military gave to the shifting system of roads and trails that ran from North to South Vietnam, often through Laos, used by North Vietnamese forces to move men and materiel to support the Viet Cong.
“But the US government denied they did any missions in Laos, which shows you a lot about how they lie about what’s going on,” said Smoke.
And although Smoke never fired a shot at the enemy, figuratively, he had helped load the gun.
Does that still bother him, so many decades ago? “Yes of course,” he said, sharply. “258,000 people died and it was really for no reason whatsoever. Other than the fact that the people who made my weapon system needed some way to practice using it and developing it to its best capabilities in a real-world setting.”
“When I went back to the USA after my deployment, I thought I’d never come back to Asia,” Smoke said. Then his life followed a progression that will sound familiar to many expats. He met a Taiwanese woman in Washington State, fell in love, and sometime later ended up back in Taiwan, married to her and with a kid.
The marriage didn’t last, unfortunately, but he stayed in Taiwan while his son went through the Taipei American School. He did various jobs, working at a bar – the Wild Cherry – teaching English, TV acting, and started his own business, the English Library.
One day a guy from the US emailed him and asked if he was interested in getting some more books for his library. It was Tony Coolidge, preparing for his move to Taiwan. The deal with the books never actually happened, but Coolidge eventually came by just to meet Smoke, and the two became friends. Smoke then started to work with Coolidge at the ATAYAL Organization. “Because of my time in the military I had some remorse for some of the things that we did and I figured that this would be a good way to give back by joining up with Tony,” Smoke said.
One of his roles was being Santa Claus at ATAYAL’s annual “Christmas in Wulai” events, where they brought presents and a musical show to kids in Wulai, the Atayal community turned mixed-ethnicity tourist town where Coolidge’s mother had been born.
Later, when Coolidge hit the wall after the Tap Root Cultural Exchange visit from New Zealand, Smoke got the group involved in the Tribal Canoe Journeys, a big event for the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast. Coming from Washington State, he had some friends in the indigenous community, and was able to make the connection.
These journeys are a big deal, with up to 30,000 people from communities from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington State, and Oregon paddling canoes to and converging on one community. Said Smoke: “It’s an opportunity for elders in the tribe to show the young people, to pass on that tradition of the ways of traveling over the water. People come from as far as Alaska and they’ll come to Vancouver Island and they’ll paddle down. If you’re from the south they’ll start on the Washington Coast. They’ll paddle around the coast, down the Straits of Juan de Fuca and then into Puget Sound. Everyone eventually ends up where the host canoe family is. You’ll go to wherever your canoe family starts from and you’ll paddle to the next destination on your way to the final powwow. At each stop you ask for permission to come ashore. They go through this ritual to show non-aggression. Then they take you to the campgrounds where you pitch your tent. They provide food for you: you don’t have to stay in a hotel. You don’t have to buy food.” He said that these coastal indigenous people are expert harvesters from the sea. “They bring out the crabs, the clams, mussels, salmon. Good food!” says Smoke. “And then you go on to the next destination and it’s the same thing over again.” At the end there’s a big gathering.
A delegation from Taiwan joined the Tribal Canoe Journeys in 2017, 2018, and 2019. They were hosted by the canoe family skippered by Hanford McCloud, a Nisqually Tribal Council Member, of the Coastal Salish people. In 2019, the destination was the Lummi Nation, (also known as Lhaq’temish or People of the Sea) a Native American tribe of the Coast Salish ethnolinguistic group near Bellingham, Washington State.
Although most of the participants were Native Americans and First Nations from the Pacific coast, McCloud said in an interview with Coolidge that he liked “this vision of bringing indigenous Taiwanese into the canoe family and paddling with them. We always have a seat in our canoe.” This is because another family had offered McCloud’s group a seat in a canoe back when they were just starting out in the journeys, and he likes to pass on the generosity.
Reaching out is a family tradition, he said. “My grandma did it for us, our grandchildren. She took in delegations from other countries”. Regarding indigenous people: “We are all the same. But we all need to work together.” McCloud has been working on this for almost 15 years, and he loves it: “It’s that feeling you get. You want everybody to experience this. I want that story to continue. So, my grandmother, myself, my son my kids. That’s what I’m looking at.”
He said that a lot of indigenous youth don’t focus on tradition because they get so caught up in mainstream society. But that when you get indigenous youth together from all over the world, “the atmosphere changes. Over time the kids have become more open, relaxed, and connect better.” They also identify more with their indigenous identify, while getting to know about the songs, games, and food from other indigenous groups, says McCloud. “They are also growing together, so they do have that connection, when they get older and bigger. They’ll thank you for it.”
McCloud wanted to bring a delegation over to Taiwan, and Coolidge and Smoke were ready to welcome them. It seems like a lot of these indigenous connections are about returning the hospitality. But then along came Covid-19. Not only did it prevent the Nisqually delegation from coming over, it even caused the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 Tribal Canoe Journey events in the USA. Sadly, it also took the life of Tony Alton, the well-liked British musician who handled the music at the Christmas in Wulai events.
But regardless of setbacks, you’ve got to keep paddling! The ATAYAL Organization has. They’ve learned from past mistakes and have become much more professional in their planning and execution. Their current Indigenous Bridges Youth Ambassador program is pretty slick, incorporating local partnerships with Dong Hwa University in Hualien, the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung County, the Tao Foundation from Orchid Island, and also the Council of Indigenous Peoples – the Taiwanese government organization responsible for supporting and coordinating policy about Taiwan’s indigenous groups. Their main international partners are the Nisqually Indian Tribe, their host family for the Tribal Canoe Journeys, and the Lummi Nation, both of Washington State.
And while face-to-face has been put on hold by Covid-19, like everyone else they’ve migrated online.
“Our next step will be doing the virtual online conference,” said. This will include guest speakers on reviving indigenous tourism in post-pandemic times. But the real stars of the conference will be the students themselves. “We need more students in the USA and Taiwan,” said Coolidge. “Every tribe that participates will have some candidates who will write an essay and a video to introduce their culture. If chosen, they’ll get a scholarship and an opportunity to represent their tribe during these online conferences.” They will also be invited to participate in the Tribal Canoe Journeys in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, having participated or intending to participate is a requirement of the program. This program will bring new people to the canoe events and keep the cultural exchanges happening for Taiwanese indigenous youth as well.
Their vision statement for the Indigenous Bridges Youth Ambassador program is: “The future of the Indigenous peoples is one where tribes of the world are connected and cooperating to develop sustainable solutions from their inherent knowledge and wisdom. It will take a future generation of empowered leaders to realize this vision.”
(LINK TO INDIGENOUS BRIDGES YOUTH AMBASSADOR PROGRAM)
There’s still a long way to go, for all of us, so let’s keep paddling! There are so many different journeys in different “life canoes”: long journeys of healing for indigenous communities, dealing with multiple serious problems; a movement away from the War Machine and toward life and positivity for Gary Smoke; and the ongoing quest to promote awareness of indigenous culture for Tony Coolidge. These are all part of the new age of great indigenous journeys. And in a global society that seems increasingly divorced from nature, these voyages are important to all of us.
“Indigenous cultures are very important right now,” says Coolidge. “Because we’re in danger of losing a lot of what makes us human.”
Sometimes I like to contemplate great voyages, like those of the Pacific Islanders in legendary times as they spread across vast expanses of ocean. I imagine their thousands of journeys: maybe 20 people on large, outrigger canoes, the navigators way-finding by reading the signs of nature: the birds, the stars, the swell of the water, and even the color of the sky. Then, if they don’t get hit by a rogue wave or a fierce storm, everyone arriving grateful and stiff-legged at their destination, a pristine gem of an island where they could live as their own masters.
Fast forward to the present day: With very few exceptions, the Pacific Islanders – like indigenous people worldwide – have been colonized and subjugated. Navigation is done by GPS, and you can fly from Hawaii to Taipei in 13 hours, including the stopover in Tokyo. In places like Tahiti, rich Western and Asian guests stay in luxury hotels with indigenous art decorations, served by a staff of friendly brown locals. When many Pacific Islanders make long journeys now, it is often to the USA or New Zealand, where they live as a minority under a dominant culture, in a world rediscovered and reimagined by someone else.
But the age of great indigenous journeys isn’t over. In fact, a new phase has just begun. These are voyages of the heart, of discovery of heritage, of uncovering lost links to the past, and of friendship and family that are both very personal and also global in scale.
One interesting modern journey is that of Tony Coolidge, founder of the non-profit indigenous awareness group ATAYAL.
I spoke with Tony on a video call a few weeks ago to hear his story. A guy who is very comfortable with media, he was sitting in front of a neutral green back drop, wearing a somewhat formal black hat. I guess he does a lot of calls for various professional reasons, so I had to remind him that this was an interview about ATAYAL. “Oh!” he said. “Then I’ll have to put on my indigenous hat.” He disappeared for a second, and came back with literally a Taiwan Indigenous style hat. Interesting, I thought.
Then he told me his story, which explained the different hats.
“My biological father was an American soldier who left my mother before I was born. When I was three years old, my mother met and married my adopted father, David Coolidge, a military intelligence officer in Taiwan. We moved around a lot, Japan, Germany, and the United States.” Then they settled in the USA. Being a bi-racial child wasn’t easy. “I probably resented being Taiwanese at the time, so I had no interest in knowing more about it or embracing it. Because that’s what made me different from everyone else. It made it hard for me to fit in.” Tony remembers. “They didn’t know what I was.”
But neither did Tony. Even though he was always close to his mom (his adopted dad and she had separated by this time) she had never celebrated her Taiwanese cultural identity, or encouraged it in him or his brother and two sisters. Then, just after Tony graduated from college, tragedy struck: His mother found out that she had cancer, and had only had a few months left to live.
“Her life wish was to see her family that she hadn’t seen in 20 plus years. The only thing holding us back was a few hundred bucks.” So instead, Tony took her to a theme park called “Splendid China” for Mother’s Day. It was a lovely day together, but soon after that, she passed away. The next year, he decided that he had to visit Taiwan himself, for her, and to see where she came from.
“And that’s what changed my life.”
Arriving in Taiwan, his first thought was: “Whoa! What is this place?” There were tall buildings, signs in Mandarin, and thousands of motor scooters. Then the taxi took them into the mountains of Wulai, with its green hills, waterfalls, and butterflies.
He recalls nervously approaching the door where his mother’s side of the family was waiting for him. The door burst open and there were dozens of friendly people who had come to welcome back the returning son. There was food, drink, children, and laughter. Their love for his mother poured over him in a big friendly wave.
Later, as he walked around Wulai, he noticed not only that it was a tourist place, but also the tribal motifs in the decoration in the village, which reminded him of Native American culture. His Taiwan family told him that his mother was from a tribe called “Atayal,” an indigenous group. Because of the language barrier, they couldn’t tell him much about it. But it was the first time he realized that his mother was from this background.
Back in the US, he started to do research about the Atayal people and the other indigenous groups in Taiwan, and in 1997 he wrote an article called “Village in the Clouds” (link below) about his experiences and discoveries. And he kept going from there.
“I never realized how much people are interested in indigenous culture. We founded the ATAYAL organization in 2001,” said Tony, who had by this time met and married a Taiwanese woman named Shu-min who had been visiting Florida on a work exchange program. She helped him with the organization. “We started humbly, with no money, lots of volunteers, sharing information in any capacity. At schools or international culture fairs, we’d do our best to represent,” Tony said. “There was a gradual evolution. Then we got the opportunity to make some documentary films. We wanted to go to film in Taiwan, but lacked the budget.”
So instead, they found a group from Taiwan and invited them to come to Florida to join their first Indigenous Heritage Festival in 2004. Luckily, Tony also got a chance to go to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2004, shortly before his group’s planned festival.
“It’s a big forum of all indigenous nations that happens every year – so I was there with world leaders and tribal leaders, my mind was blown, and I had the chance to tell people there about this festival.” This helped promote his Indigenous Heritage Festival. What’s more, the Taiwanese group showed up too, among groups from all over the world.
“That experience was of reaching out, of touching and connecting. The way they accepted me into their group was like being part of their family.” Tony said. “Before that, I was all about the sharing information about culture. But when I saw the interactions between all these indigenous peoples, it changed my thinking. I saw these people who were separated by thousands of miles and who had never met but they were hugging each other as if they were long lost relatives. That showed me that bringing them together would create magic. And I wanted more opportunities to see what could be created from that magic. So, our organization changed from information sharing to culture exchange.”
The head of the Taiwanese delegation to his festival, Alice Takewatan, took a shine to Tony; she liked the fact that he wanted to discover his indigenous roots and share his discoveries with the world. She invited him to come to Taiwan, and promised to help facilitate the trip. She would arrange everything.
So, Tony, along with his brother Steve and filmmaker Aaron Hosé, flew to Taiwan the following year.
It turned out that Alice Takewatan was the best possible guide. “She gave me access to people, places, and experiences most westerners would never get to see, and wouldn’t even know how to look for,” Tony said. He saw artists and craftspeople, working hard to keep the legacy of indigenous culture alive, and attended events with song and dance, traveling down the east coast of the island.
Then he did a long difficult hike in Pingtung to an abandoned village, which was a sad experience. The people who had once lived there were compelled to come down and live in lowland settlements. This made Tony want to meet people who had one lived in similar villages. So, through his contacts, Tony was introduced to an Atayal woman called “Yaki Vinai” (Grandmother Vinai) who was more than 100-year-old, in the indigenous village of Wufeng in Hsinchu County. She was tiny and wrinkled, and still had her traditional face tattoos – given as a sign of respect and maturity for adult women – one of very few surviving women who did. She lived alone in a tiny house by the road. Somewhat frail but still feisty, she became quite animated and cheerful when she met Tony, touched at this man’s journey to find his roots, the journey back to being Atayal. “You are Dayan!” she said happily, using the group’s own word to describe itself.
The good old days were long gone for her. No one else around her had a face tattoo, and most of her family were long gone – the curse of living to a great age, perhaps. Although born and raised Atayal (Dayan), she had been ordered down from her carefree mountain home to an urban settlement by the Japanese.
“During her long life she had to adopt different identities,” said Tony. “First tribal, and then Japanese, language and name. And then Chinese and then Taiwanese. That’s really what her life was about. Not really knowing who she was.”
After meeting some other very elderly indigenous women who had been through a similar process of forced assimilation, he came to new understandings. Even later generations like his mother’s were stigmatized and had to deal with discrimination, on top of the social problems like hopelessness and alcoholism caused by being subjugated under a dominant, colonizing culture.
“I can really understand my mother wanting to fit it, wanting to get ahead, wanting to have a life without struggle, without harassment,” Tony said. “I could see her wanting to hide from it. I could see her running away from it. And that’s what led her to the United States. And how it led to her hiding it from her children.”
Back in the USA, Tony and his team, including producer and director Aaron Hosé, gradually edited the video footage from Taiwan with other stuff they had been shooting for years. Eventually, in 2008, they came out with the documentary film, “Voices in the Clouds”, which won many international awards. It is a beautiful story, and a must-see.
Inspired and captivated by his experiences in Taiwan, and with a Taiwanese wife and child, Tony decided to move back there and continue his work as an Indigenous culture advocate. In 2009, his journey would continue. He moved back to Taiwan, where his mother had come from, the great-granddaughter of someone like Yaki Vinai perhaps, who had started life high in the mountains, and had a facial tattoo she had earned as a sign of respect.
For many indigenous voyagers, the journey back is also the journey forward into a world where their identity is reclaimed. But how to define the journey of someone like Tony? According to a DNA test he did, he’s part White, part Han, and part Austronesian. He was raised around the world and educated in America. So, is he really Atayal, or is that just a hat he puts on for public events?
I asked Tony about his identity and the answer was complicated, naturally.
“The Taiwan identity is not clear. Some people say they’re Taiwanese and some people say they’re Chinese. It’s just a matter of how you feel about yourself. And it’s about what people in other countries recognize. So, say you’re Taiwanese: a lot of people don’t know what that means in America. So, I used to call myself Asian-American, but as a mixed-race person with a White father and an Asian mother. But the Asian part is also a little cloudy because of the indigenous heritage.”
Tony said: “When you’re a mixed-race person, I used to think that it put me at a disadvantage. A lot of mixed-race people have to go through a stigma of not being accepted from one race or the other because they are different. But as you get older and more mature, it’s either a disadvantage or an advantage depending on how you choose to see it for yourself. It can be a great opportunity itself. I’ve taken on the opportunity of being a bridge between two cultures.”
Some of these new indigenous voyages are voyages of the heart, so they should be measured in terms of the heart. Tony’s quest was to find the source of his mother’s life, in order to deepen and preserve his connection to her love. In that voyage, he found her Atayal origins, and received the love of her family. He is the returning son.
Then he met a tribal elder – passed away now, sadly – a real remnant of the ancient times. She had seen him as a member of her extended family, coming from a great distance, to connect with his Atayal roots, roots that she had never forgotten in all her long life despite all the efforts of society to convince her otherwise. I guess that tattoo on her face never let her forget. This was a deep and happy meeting of two hearts connected by one line of identity that has not yet been broken. If Yaki Vinai could accept Tony as a member of her Atayal family, that has to stand for something – whatever other hats he may wear.
THIS IS PART 1 OF OF INDIGENOUS JOURNEYS. STAY TUNED FOR PART 2.
Established in 2004, the mission of the Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) is to offer a comprehensive range of legal aid services for the financially disadvantaged in Taiwan. Mainly funded by an endowment from the Judicial Yuan worth just over 1.5 billion NTD (about 55 million USD), as of 2021, the LAF has 22 branch offices around Taiwan employing 300 staff members, and with 3,000 private lawyers actively connected to the foundation’s operations.
Here are the top ten takeaways for those who wish to use or recommend the use of this organization:
1. The Taiwan Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) mainly offers services in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English. It is sometimes possible to access services in other languages, such as Vietnamese, Thai, or Bahasa Indonesia, but provisions for this are limited.
2.The LAF offers a range of services, including initial legal advice through online Google Meet video-conference at no cost for English-speaking foreigners currently living in Taiwan. This service will be a one-off advice session for your case and it must be arranged by appointment beforehand. The session is up to 40 minutes maximum and a free translator will be provided throughout the video-conference. If you would like to use this service, fill in the form ( https://forms.gle/22YM9TvAQW4pREen6 ) and LAF will arrange a time for you. This advice is for actual legal situations, not for general public information. Don’t use this service if you are just curious or doing general research.
3. You can call the LAF from police or judicial custody to request assistance if you are being interrogated or interviewed by police or prosecutors, or will be soon, or just have been. Please note that in Taiwan you can legally refuse to answer questions until you have obtained legal advice. It is always better to have legal representation or advice during these procedures.
4. If you are a non-native Mandarin speaker, you have a legal right in Taiwan to a court-certified legal translator. This may be provided privately, by LAF or by the judicial system itself. So, if you don’t have one, arrange for one or politely insist on having one. Needless to say, don’t sign anything that is in Mandarin unless it has been translated for you by a court-certified legal translator.
5. After the initial advice, you can apply for a legal aid grant for full or partial legal representation for any criminal, civil, family, or administrative legal issue. This includes launching a criminal complaint, lawsuit, or other legal action as well as responding to one. You may visit the LAF website for more information about applying for legal aid.
6. However, whether you are granted aid or not depends on a means test. For example, if you are a single-person household living in Taipei City, you may be granted full aid if your monthly income is less than 32,027 NTD. For a two-person household, the cut-off is a combined monthly income of 53,378 NTD. For partial assistance, in which the LAF services consumer would pay for a portion of their own legal costs, household income would need to be between 32,027 NTD and 38, 432 NTD for a single-person household, and between 53,378 and 64,054 NTD for a two-person household. For larger households (three-person, four-person, and so on) the cut-off level for household goes up. The cut-off level is highest in Taipei City and lower in other areas. The total amount of aid granted will not exceed 500,000 NTD for full aid and 600,000 NTD for partial aid for both one-person or two-person households, and 800,000 NTD and 960,000 NTD respectively for a four-person household, and so on, up to a family size of ten persons. The fact that some money or other assets may be unavailable due to the actual cause of your legal predicament, i.e., spousal control of a bank account, or non-payment of wages owed, etc., will be taken in to consideration by the LAF.
7. If the committee accepts your application for aid, you will be connected with either a staff lawyer or an associated private lawyer. If you are rejected, you have the right to appeal the decision. If the appeal does not rule in your favor, the LAF may not officially recommend any lawyer for you. You need to reach out to friends and other support groups or individuals who can offer you a confidential recommendation of a competent, reliable, and effective lawyer.
8. The financial means test for legal assistance may be waived in some situations. The organization is limited in resources and scope, and must follow the law, as well its own policies, and regulations. However, there is sometimes room for discretion in making decisions, so don’t give up on advance because you think they might reject your case.
9. When dealing with the police, always have a smart and mature local Taiwanese friend or relative come with you. Make sure you get correct documentation from the police for any complaint or report. Your attitude and behavior with the police may influence their treatment of your case. For example, wearing office attire such as a tie or suit, speaking whatever Mandarin you can to show cultural respect, adopting a polite and formal style of behavior, etc., may influence them to treat you and your case more seriously.
10. Last but not least, be smart with the law in Taiwan, as it is a foreign country for you. The rules and how the game is played may be very different than your home country. Become aware of the law for driving accidents, defamation, divorce, public insult, etc. Work legally, pay your taxes, and avoid all illegal activities. But don’t forget that you have rights, so become aware of any relevant labor, accident, or family laws that might protect your legitimate interests. For general information, do some online research. But if you are in a real legal situation, or think you might be, get legal counsel. DO NOT substitute posting on Facebook for getting actual legal advice. And if you are of limited means at the moment, reach out to the LAF by phone, walk in to make an appointment, or get a friend to assist you. The LAF is there to help.
One of the noble truths of Buddhism is that suffering is an innate part of life, and I admit that when I have to listen to death metal it certainly feels that way! But I’ll make an honorary exception for one band, Dharma, possibly the only Buddhist death metal group in the world. With their face paint, robes, and trippy lighting, they look as if the classic glam-band KISS just got back from a few years in a Nepalese monastery. But Dharma’s vibe is more than just theatrics: they have a bona fide Buddhist nun with them on the stage. Their frontman is Joe Henley, a tall, gaunt, figure screaming out actual sutras. And if you can’t make out the lyrics, that’s because they’re in Sanskrit.
If you talk to Joe after the show, (once your ears stop ringing) his persona changes considerably, from otherworldly to down-to-earth, from a screamer to reserved, unpretentious and even a bit shy. But still a Buddhist. In fact, it’s the calm focus of this spiritual path that helps him keep his head together. Joe says that his inner life has had some serious downs, and that the practice of Buddhism helps him stay on an even keel. His occupation hasn’t helped. Having been a fulltime freelance writer for the past ten years, the stress of this notoriously unstable line of work have caused their wear-and-tear on the emotionally sensitive Saskatchewan native. “Sometimes I’ve had to wait months to get paid. It made me very anxious and angry.” Buddhism has caused him to quit drinking as well, which has also improved his quality of life.
As fine as all that is, however, Buddhism is not simply about improving one’s own life. “Selfish Buddhism” is an oxymoron. The creed advocates embracing the world with compassion, actively seeking to reduce the suffering of others. This Joe does according to his three righteous ways.
Number 1: Buddhist Death Metal
Joe has been involved in death metal since college, and got into it in Taiwan years before Dharma was formed.
“My first band was called Revilement and I was doing vocals. It’s not a band I started. It was just a bunch of Taiwanese guys. They met me at a festival called Formoz. They had just recently lost their vocalist and I had hair down to my ass and a big beard. I looked like a metal guy so they just picked me out of the crowd,” Joe recounts.
He joined Dharma in 2018, and although was unsure at the time if he could pull it off, has gone on to front the group to great effect at local music festivals.
Joe’s onstage Dharma persona is actually a feature of Buddhism, where certain demon-like deities scream and terrorize away evil spirits that plague the earth. What’s more, the intensity of the death metal sound is apparently also soothing for people with inner angst. So that’s not screaming, that’s helping!
Number 2: Writing for Noble Causes
With a degree in journalism and finding himself not a good fit for the local ESL teaching scene, it was not long before Joe was writing a music column for the Taipei Times.
Then one day he got a lead that would change his life. “A woman called Jasmine Bonang Sanchez contacted me on Facebook in late 2014 or early 2015. She had been involved in the punk underground scene in the Philippines so she thought maybe we had some common ground. She said we’ve got a bunch of people and we’ve started an advocacy organization called MKT. So, I went to Taipei Main Station and she had 15 or 20 people with her,” Joe says.
“There was one woman in particular. She’d had 3 or 4 employers and with each one she’d endured some form of sexual trauma. She wasn’t the only one who told me stories like this. But for it had happened at each and every place she had been transferred to since she’d arrived in Taiwan. It was basically her employers thinking it was OK to offer her a bonus for some sort of sexual transaction.”
This would be creepy and traumatic enough for a western expat. But it’s worse if you have the wrong passport and visa. For migrant workers in a bind, there’s not a lot they can do. “If you raise your voice, you’re probably going to lose your job, your means of income, your means of supporting your family back home. You’re talking to somebody who is probably holding your passport, your ARC, all forms of identification. You can’t go anywhere; you can’t run away without running afoul of the law. If you just leave your employer, you’re a runaway, then you’re in the country illegally and you’re facing deportation,” says Joe.
This and other encounters led to him writing a series of articles in the Taipei Times and other publications about the mistreatment of the overseas migrant workers (OMW) in Taiwan, who are overwhelmingly from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This cohort of blue-collar expats numbers above 700,000 people – about 30 times the total number of white-collar foreign workers in Taiwan – and compose about 60% of the industrial workforce. They’re a big part of what drives Taiwan’s impressive economic engine. But according to human rights groups, these factory workers, farm laborers, fishing fleet workers, and domestic caregivers, routinely face a litany of abusive practices, including excessive brokers’ fees, dangerous working conditions, bad food, very long hours, having passports withheld, poor accommodation, being locked into dorms, as well as verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.
Joe’s research on this issue took him all the way to slums of Manila, and eventually led to the publication of Migrante, (Camphor Press) a 2020 novel about the sad life journey of Rizal, a young man who grew up in a cemetery slum in Manila. Rizal’s story is based on the accounts of real people so poor that they live where no one else will – in the mausoleums of other people’s families in urban cemeteries. It’s a dangerous and unhealthy life without basic services, and with little chance of escape through education or gainful employment.
With few prospects at home, Rizal signs up with a broker to become a “migrante”, an overseas migrant worker in Taiwan. He’s assigned to a fishing boat, where a violent and callous-hearted captain treats him and the other migrant fishermen abusively, abetted by the ever-watchful police, there to stop the migrant workers from running away. Rizal’s strange and turbulent life intertwines with other migrant workers in a story that reveals the dark underbelly of endless labor, futility, and exploitation, which is hidden beneath the bustling, brightly-lit surface world of Taiwan’s prosperous democracy.
It’s an important story that needs to be told. What’s more, Joe is dedicating 100% of his share of his book royalties to various advocacy groups that help migrant workers. But despite these chivalrous acts, he insists that he is no white savior.
“The people at the forefront of this movement are of course local people such as Lennon Wong of the Serve the People association. He’s been fighting this fight for a number of years,” says Joe.
“Another is Allison Lee of the Yilan Migrant Fishermen Union based in Nanfang-ao Harbor. She’s been heading up that union for a number of years as well. And she’s been doing so entirely selflessly and without salary. She’s been doing this because it’s something that she cares about.
“And another one who I will mention is Julia Mariano who is a young student here in Taiwan, she’s from the Philippines. She’s become the spokesperson for the Taiwan chapter of Migrante International, which is a labor rights advocacy group. She’s politically aware, incredibly intelligent, and she’s a great orator and a great leader. I think, in terms of the future of this movement, she is the future.
“These are the people who lead the charge. I’m just somebody who reports on what they do. I’m an ally. And I think that’s where my role in this should be, not a leader, but as somebody that provides background support.”
Humble words indeed. Coming from someone else I might groan and suspect them of insincerity and virtue signaling. But with Joe, I’ll buy that he means it. However, as an actual point of fact, I disagree. In my opinion Joe is a leader in terms of bringing this issue to light. Maybe he’s not a general in this fight, but he’s certainly a field officer leading the awareness mission into the world of western expats. And beyond: It will be very interesting see the reaction from some Taiwanese when the Mandarin translation is published next year. His stark critique of Taiwanese society is probably going to piss some people off and he should be ready for a possible backlash. Maybe, says Joe, but: “If it doesn’t incite people, what’s the point?”
He would, however, like to make one thing clear: “I am not trying to make Taiwan look bad. I love Taiwan, it’s where I was able to live my dream. I just want Taiwan to be as good as it possibly can.”
Number 3: Caring for Stray Cats
Joe and his wife Jill – who he calls his “partner in crime” – are habitual cat burglars. That is, they do a process called “trap, neuter, release” (TNR) in an area on the side of Elephant Mountain where there are lots of stray and feral cats. His wife is a certified animal behaviorist specializing in cats. She has her own business where she helps pet owners out who might be having trouble with their cats it’s called Pet Buddy. Joes says that Jill’s “A cat whisperer and she’s extremely dedicated and really good at what she does.”
When they noticed the problem with feral cats in the neighborhood, they decided to intervene. After the TNR, “if the cats were friendly to people, we would get them adopted out to suitable families,” said Joe. “Or if they were just happier being where they were we would just put them back after they had surgery and had recovered. The total that we’ve helped is around 50 in the past few months.”
In Buddhism, there is a type of enlightened being called a “Bodhisattva”. Guanyin, the “goddess of mercy” so beloved in Taiwan, is one such entity. Although there are a few subtly differing definitions of Bodhisattva, the most common one is someone who is capable of achieving true enlightenment and Buddhahood, but delays taking this final step, choosing instead to remain on the earthly plane to help those who are suffering.
Now Joe’s no Bodhisattva. But he is consciously on the path of enlightenment. What’s more, he’s a relentlessly humble do-gooder trying to alleviate suffering on the spiritual, human, and animal levels all at once. I bet Totoro would take an immediate shine to him. So let’s call him a Buddy Cattva! Joe Henley, ladies and germs: a fine Canadian fellow who through his interpretation of Buddhism in daily life, has made Taiwan his Om! away from home!
Please buy a copy of Migrante: It’s a great book for an excellent cause.
It starts with the calm, measured tones of US President Jimmy Carter making an announcement on December 15, 1978.
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 ….
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”