Walking Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William A. Pickering, 1869

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About jaydeegroot

I am a Canadian writer, editor, researcher and trainer living in Taiwan. My primary areas of interest are cross-cultural relations and processes, in the context of global social change.
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