Taipei Baboons RFC: Living it

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

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

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

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

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

Baboons Bali2


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

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

Mark Blank


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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best baboon


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Liu Bo 2 (2)

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

Logo 4.jpg


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

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



The Taipei Baboons RFC would like to thank their sponsors:



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Big Hearts, Big Plans: Haxstrong Charity

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

Hax logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Lads and lasses


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

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

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


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

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

Finding the light

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Devil is in the Details

Here’s a short bulletin from The Culture Shack!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This will probably save you some misery and some money!

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

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Hockey Night in Taiwan

The puck drops, and the two forwards Liu and Wang fight for it. Wang hooks it out to Chen, and Chen passes to Chen who return passes it to Chen! Chen to Li. Li takes it across the line. Li can’t get past Hsieh. Li to Wang, Wang shoots! Oh! Deflection off the post! Wang gets it again. Wang to Li, Li shoots! He scores! 2-0 for the Typhoon!

Go typhoon

It’s hockey night in Taiwan! More and more Taiwanese are playing ice hockey, part of the sport’s global growth in popularity. And -Surprise, surprise! – Canadian players and coaches are skating beside them in force.

British Columbian Ryan Lang is head coach for the Chinese Taipei Men’s International Ice Hockey Team, in the International Ice Hockey League (IIHF) Division 3. Manitoban Cullen Revel owns the company ROC Sports which manages two successful programs: The Tigers for kids under 12, and the Typhoon for older kids and young adults. Many Canadians not only coach or play themselves, but get their kids involved as well. It’s part of our national obsession, eh?

Go Tigers!


Ontarian Anthony Van Dyck – a founding board member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan – says his 10-year-old daughter Trudi plays with the Tigers. “Trudi is fascinated by the Canadian side of her culture because it’s the one side she can’t express on a daily basis.” Trudi is really into the game after finishing her first season.



Van Dyck says he likes the fact that hockey develops strength of character, because the practices take a lot of effort. “Cullen Revel is really ‘Go go go!’ with the kids. He’s everything you’d expect in a Canadian coach.” He says when Trudi falls down, she always gets back up with a smile. That’s something that can come in handy as an adult. Revel says the most satisfying aspect of his job as a coach is watching the personal development of the players. Lang agrees: “It teaches you teamwork, responsibility and accountability.”

But oddly enough, the recent history of hockey in Taiwan began with a Kiwi! About 25 years ago, New Zealander Geoff Le Cren was walking through Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall when he saw someone roller-blading by. He thought: “That looks cool!” So he got involved in the sport himself, and before long was coaching local kids and had opened up a shop selling equipment. Business was so good he was hiring guys to teach skating for him. “I had one Russian guy and one Canadian guy coaching for me on weekends, and they suggested we do some hockey. I said OK, and I fell in love with the game within a year!” And so the Holiday Cup league was formed, an inline hockey league in Taiwan. They started with just 50 players and the league now has about 100 teams, says Le Cren, who is Bauer Hockey’s sports equipment distributor for Greater China and Southeast Asia. He says there are about 1800 people playing inline hockey in Taiwan overall.

But what about ICE hockey, you know, hockey? Le Cren said that during the Vietnam War, US soldiers used Taiwan as an R&R location. “One of the facilities they had was an ice rink near Yuanshan. Soldiers used to play hockey and some Taiwanese guys used to play with them.” This was the beginning.

Since then, the development of ice hockey has been perennially hampered by a shortage of rinks. Some opened only to close again in a few years, and some of those that did stay open were less than ideal. Le Cren: “There was at a rink in Sanchong that had no insulation, so all the moisture accumulated in the ceiling tiles. One day, just as my class was lacing up their ice skates, half of the ceiling collapsed in the middle of the rink. Fortunately no one was on the ice!”

Some were a lot better: one rink in Xizhi, in the basement of the Acer Building, served as the humble birthplace for a league that has become legend for expat hockey in Taiwan, the Chinese-Taipei Ice Hockey League, or CIHL. It started out on shaky grounds in 2003, but rebooted successfully in 2004, thanks to Le Cren and others. These included  local players Wayne Lin, Eddy Chang, and Michael Lee. Rich Lee was in charge of the ice facility, but the expats ran the league. It was Le Cren, Montrealer Bob Ford, and Craig Crawford from Saskatchewan who were the league’s executive officers.

When the Taipei Arena opened in 2005, with its Olympic sized hockey rink – still the only one in Taiwan – the CIHL really took off, despite a lack of protective glass for the first year. “One day, an innocent fan got a puck in the face, and the league had to pay,” Le Cren said. Then the arena put the glass up!

The teams were starved for ice time though, because to this day, only public skating is allowed from 9 AM to 9 PM, seven days a week. That means all hockey teams compete for the remaining morning and evening ice time not only with each other but also with figure skaters and speed skaters!



Despite this, the CIHL grew in leaps and bounds, and eventually had two divisions: a club level and a more competitive open division, where team leaders would draft players. This led to mixed teams of expats and locals, which was good for the development of hockey in Taiwan. According to Bob Ford: “It allowed the young Taiwanese who were coming into the sport a chance to play a higher, faster, more competitive level of hockey than they had previously.”

There were also some cultural readjustments that took place.

“At first, the Taiwanese players where really sensitive. If an expat drove them into the boards, or there was incidental contact and the Taiwanese player fell over, he’d be gunning for you!” Le Cren said. “Sometimes a Taiwanese player who knocked another over would go back and help him up, in the middle of play!” But gradually the local players adapted.

During the CIHL’s heyday, there were about 120-130 players in the open division, with teams coming up from Kaohsiung, Chiayi and Taichung to play on weekends.

They kept going until 2012, when suddenly, with no warning, the CIHL had all their ice time cancelled – after the season had already begun. It was a bitter blow, a puck to the pills, so to speak!

The reasons were a bit murky, but the general drift was that this was a takeover by some of the Taiwanese involved in promoting hockey who wanted to make money from the sport. So when the national hockey federation (CTIHF) tried to put together a successor league, the expat lads shunned them (Go puck yourselves!) This contributed to the new league’s failure.

The core of Canucks – along with some others – formed the Gentlemen’s Hockey Club. Others played in other clubs, or stopped playing ice hockey. The guys from Taichung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung no longer showed up. “It was like the breakup of the Soviet Union!” says Ottawan Alex Whalen, hockey stalwart and owner of Whalen’s restaurant, which sponsors the Gentlemen’s Hockey Club. “Everyone just went off in their own direction.”

A couple of years later, a local lady named Betty Liu started the Taipei International Hockey League (TIHL). The former CIHL lads joined and actively promoted her effort. The two division system was adopted again, and now there are four teams in the open league operating on a draft system: the Venom, the Black Bears, the Clouded Leopards, and the Snow Leopards. The ex-CIHL guys say that Liu is good at getting them ice time. Sweet!

TIHL (2)


So like little Trudi, when expat hockey was knocked down, it got back up with a smile. And Canadians are leading the way.

Ryan Lang, who coaches the men’s international team, says that Taiwanese punch above their weight at hockey, for such a small country with limited facilities. According to Bob Ford, one reason for this was the CIHL. “Most of the current men’s national team were all kids that were playing in the lower division when they were 12 years old and up and then joining the open [more competitive] division when they were 16.” That’s where they played with the expat lads, elevating their game.

Lang and a player


Lang’s CTIHL men’s teams play in tournaments in China, Malaysia, Thailand and beyond. There they battle other regional teams who also get strong coaching, as well as better financial support than Taiwan gives its team. It’s a tough slog against countries like China that are building ice rinks at a furious rate, Lang says, but: “Our under-18 team won a bronze last year at a big tournament. That’s a big deal. We were pretty stoked about that!”

Bronze (2)


Ontarian Steven Clark, ex-CIHL player and current TIHL player, is the most experienced hockey player in Taiwan. “Clarky” played varsity hockey at Michigan State University, one stop shy of the NHL. He said there is an elite Taiwan Typhoon team that is distinct from the regular program run by Revel. “We got all the best players in Taiwan together,” says Clark. “We used to be the most feared hockey team in Asia.” Clark says they won several major international tournaments, but it’s getting harder. “I’m 36 years old now. Some of the teams we play against have ex-pros from Europe. It’s been a few years since we’ve won a tournament. I’d really like to win one more!”

Canadian Trade Official Tom Cumming played with the Gentlemen’s Club in Taipei, and his two sons played for the Tigers. He also took them to many tournaments in the region. Cumming is moving on (Happy trails, Tom!) to his next posting, Guangzhou, South China, where hockey has yet to take off. “It’s like starting at ground zero. I am not even sure if there is a rink there,” said Cumming. “But I made a promise to my son. I’ll do whatever I can to get ice hockey going there. After all, it’s my duty as a Canadian!”

Sports shrine




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Foreigner with a Taiwan ID

Here in expat haven Taiwan, where residence is easy but citizenship hard, it’s a dream of many long-term foreign residents to become legally Taiwanese, without having to first renounce their original nationality. It’s my dream as well.

World Citizen (3)

I hope never to renounce my Canadian citizenship. Canada is in my soul, and I’d hate to betray that feeling.

But damn! I’d love to have an ROC passport. Banking, getting a cell phone, and other personal and business-related tasks would be simpler. I could never be denied renewal of my residence permit. Last but not least, I wouldn’t feel that annoyance of always being a guest, somehow temporary, in the place I call home.

Yes indeed! I might never really become Taiwanese, but I do relish the thought of being promoted to “foreigner with a Taiwanese ID”!

But if you have the ID, doesn’t that make you Taiwanese? Don’t you mean “new Taiwanese” or some such?

No, dear reader! In my humble opinion, there is a difference.

From the 1950’s until the 1990’s, immigration to Taiwan was very low. But then movements of people between China and Taiwan became easier, which started a flow of “Chinese brides” – women hoping for a better life in Taiwan by marrying rural Taiwanese men. Brides from Vietnam and Indonesia, among other countries, also became in demand at this time, coming either from the blue-collar guest workers who started coming to Taiwan in large numbers in the late 1990’s, or sent over by agencies. A much smaller percentage of men also married into Taiwanese nationality.



Government statistics tally it thus: a grand total of 321,683 spouses from China proper have become Taiwanese citizens through marriage, 100,099 from Vietnam, and 28,191 from Indonesia, out of a total of 495,907 marriage-based naturalizations.

One key point about this demographic is that they are – generally speaking – readily assimilated into existing “Taiwaneseness”. Spouses from China integrate into Taiwanese society quite well due to the close cultural relationship between the two countries.

Southeast Asian immigrants come from societies with key cultural commonalities with Taiwan. They are family-oriented, and have that “work hard, save hard, make your kids study hard” approach to life. They also come from high-context societies with a strong focus on group identity and interdependence. When the spouses marry into the family, they usually adopt the language and customs of Taiwan, and their kids are most often brought up simply as Taiwanese. Some Taiwanese high school students I talked to, with many fellow students with a Southeast Asian immigrant parent, told me that in terms of appearance, language use and behavior, “They are just like Taiwanese, you cannot tell the difference.”

These are the new Taiwanese.



In contrast, most of the Western (or Western-influenced) people I know who want Taiwanese citizenship come from individualistic, multicultural societies. They usually don’t want to be completely assimilated into Taiwaneseness, but rather keep their original heritage alive and on display. That usually means keeping their original citizenship. This can also be pretty important for practical reasons, such as being able to return as needed to care for ageing parents, and also conferring citizenship on kids.

These perfectly understandable desires are usually justified by reasons why it is good for Taiwan to change the law. Foremost is that it is unfair, and even silly, for Taiwan to have a renunciation requirement for aliens who wish to naturalize when the same requirement doesn’t apply to Taiwanese. One scenario: A Canadian man marrying a Taiwanese woman could help her get Canadian citizenship. Taiwan would not cancel her Taiwanese citizenship. The couple could also get Canadian citizenship for their kids. But the man would lose his Canadian citizenship if he became Taiwanese. Kafka would have smiled.

I think that many Taiwanese people would sympathize with these frustrations. But you’re not likely to get enough sympathy to get laws changed by talking about double standards to a country that recognizes your home country but isn’t formally recognized by them. Asking Taiwan to fix laws just because they seem weird to vote-less people affected by them doesn’t seem like a strong play. Essentially this is an appeal to compassion, which is weak because white-collar foreigners are viewed as privileged. Which we generally are.

The second major justification invoked is that Western-influenced foreigners bring in intellectual capital, such as creativity, critical thinking, global mindset, artistic skills and traditions, and tech and business knowledge. Thus, measures that encourage them to settle here are good for Taiwan, especially considering the well documented brain drain of talented locals to China, the USA and elsewhere.

Here I think most Taiwanese would definitely agree. But only to the point of making our life here easier, not equal. It’s common knowledge that the government has done a lot to facilitate the ease of life of foreign permanent residents, with liberalized permanent residence card (APRC) laws being the best example. And for those with a very high level of skills, dual citizenship is now on the table, as of March 24th, this year.

But dual citizenship in general for average Joes and Jills? That idea seems to inspire a certain fear of [threat]. Fill in the box with job losses, scams, social disruption, etc. Call it caution or call it xenophobia: it’s a cultural firewall that’s very hard to hack.



Let’s face it: most of us don’t want to become New Taiwanese: we want to become a completely new kind of Taiwanese. It’s a bold idea, a win win scenario, and one that I support 100%. But it’s not our call, and most locals aren’t there yet. Maybe in 10 years, maybe.

If you let go of your past citizenship, dear reader, take the plunge, you will pass the loyalty test and be welcomed to the fold. And you will be loved. But for now, at least, the dream of being a foreigner with a Taiwanese ID is just that.



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Vibrant Colors: The Indian Community in Taiwan

It was quite a contrast to return last week from multicultural Vancouver to Han-dominated Taiwan. But although there is less global variety here, there are still interesting groups like the Indian community that add new cultural colors – like food, yoga, henna, music and dance – to our everyday lives.


Holi Festival 2017

Speaking of color, I was miffed to find I’d missed out on the Holi festival in Yonghe on March 12th. I’ll definitely be at the next one! It sounds like a great time. Holi is an ancient Hindu springtime “festival of love” where young and old, man and woman, all throw multicolored powders higgledy-piggledy over each other!

It is fitting that Holi has become more global. India’s great diaspora continues. The country now has more people who were born there who are currently living overseas than any other country in the world, 30 million people!


According to Rajan Khera, former president of the Indians’ Association of Taipei (IAT), recently Holi in Taipei has become bigger and more inclusive. This year’s event saw a total of about 1000 participants. “We wanted to invite all the Indian groups,” said Khera. “We also had many non-Indians as well.”

The IAT – the oldest of the Indian groups – was started in the mid-1970s. Back then, Taiwan’s economic miracle attracted a number of Hindi-speaking traders who became exporters of Taiwan-made products to India and other parts of the world. Khera said that the group grew to include about 200 families. They celebrated Diwali and Holi together and other social and religious occasions at their own center in Tianmu.

But in the 90’s, exporting from Taiwan became less viable. Local prices went up, and profits went down. China beckoned with its own much larger economic miracle, so traders left to set up shop over there. At that time, Khera said, there were no direct flights and business links were very difficult. Hence, many families left for China, often settling in Guangzhou. The IAT shrunk to only about 41 families. But Khera says: “Over the last six or seven years, the number has been growing again. Now we are at about 57 families.”

Diwali IAT

                      Diwali with the IAT: Photo by Jefferey Wu

And this is only one group. According to community leader Priya Lalwani Purswaney, “There is a Punjabi group, a Malayali group, a Gujarati group, etc.” Purswaney also talks about the different occupations: “There are also the importers, who import precious stones to Taiwan. This has become the biggest group. Then there are those involved in academic work, doing graduate research, or bachelor’s degrees. Then there are global businesspeople working as managers for 3 or 4 years for multinational corporations like Unilever or Citibank.” There are also a lot of software engineers, she said. Altogether, the Indian community here now numbers about 3000 (numbers vary from year to year) of which 1600 are professionals. About 1400 are university students, attracted to scholarships and the good research components to Taiwanese tech training.

Purswaney knows these occupational groups well because of her direct experience. “My father was a visiting professor in mechanical engineering. I came to Taiwan in 1987 when I was 16. I was the first Indian university student in Taiwan.” She got her business BA from Tatung University, her MBA from NTU, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Translation and Interpretation from NTNU. With her top-notch language skills, she went on to work for various companies in marketing and translation, and also for India’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, the India-Taipei Association. Now she works as the only English – Mandarin simultaneous interpreter in Taiwan who is not Taiwanese, she says.


                                      Priya Lalwani Purswaney watching the cricket!

By all accounts, the Indian community here helps each other and hangs together in times of need. Purswaney says that she started the Facebook group Indians in Taiwan to help people get the information they need: good schools for their kids, where to buy Indian food, how to get visas etc. She hopes it will become part of an umbrella that includes all Indians, irrespective of age, occupation, religion, or state of origin.

Rajan Khera said, “Not too long ago a young male Indian student died. He was from a poor family, and his parents didn’t even have passports. But the community took care of it and sent the body back to India.” On a lighter note, one recent post on Indians in Taiwan said, “Is anyone flying from Delhi to Taipei on Flight XYZ on April 25? My old Auntie is flying here and she is traveling alone. If anyone could keep her company, that would be great!”

For many reasons, the Indian community here has also been growing and thriving. One reason is a good cultural fit with Taiwan. Many people I spoke with talked about the Buddhist connection. Buddhism originated in northern India around 500 BCE, and became important in China after 200 CE. According to Purswaney, a further similarity is that “both Taiwanese and Indians are very entrepreneurial. They like to start their own small businesses.“

Another is just that a lot of people love to live in Taiwan, and Indians are no exception. One is Mayur Srivastava. The well-known founder of Mayur Indian Kitchen has been offering great food to local diners, as well as jobs to local workers, since 2011. In addition, he has three children with his Taiwanese wife. Mayur loves Taiwan and is very happy here. Andy Singh Arya – the friendly owner of both Out of India and the Three Idiots Toast and Curry – also offers great food and is married to a Taiwanese woman. He too has nothing but good things to say about the friendliness, helpfulness, humility, and trustworthiness of Taiwanese. What better reason do you need than that?

Big Bums

                                          Andy Singh Arya and friends!




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Hongcouverstan: money and diversity have changed Pacific Canada forever

Just jumped the puddle for a long overdue family visit back in Vancouver. That city has always had the stunning backdrop of the North Shore Mountains, still capped with snow in early April. And it has always been Canada’s gateway to the Pacific. But socially of course it has moved with the times, the latest change being the continuing development of its exceptional degree of multiculturalism.

Van 1

Of the city’s population, 45% are immigrants, more than 52% of residents speak a language other than English at home, and only about 46% are ethnically European. Welcome to globalization!

It is a far cry from the Vancouver I first visited in 1984. Back then, only about 7% of the population was non-white, mainly from the long-standing Chinese and Japanese communities from before WW2. Other than that, you had a very Anglo-Celtic-Germanic-Slavic mix, with some Italian and Greek thrown in so it wouldn’t be too boring.

But since the late 1980’s, wave upon wave of immigrants have built up a very diverse population. More than 30% of the city’s current residents are ethnically Chinese. There are large populations of Filipinos, Punjabis, Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, as well as Latinos, Poles, Russians, Pakistanis, Iranians, and more. The list goes on. This means a variety of faces and languages, and also of food. The best huaraches in town on Commercial Drive, man! And not just restaurants, but also little grocery shops. Go on in and get some sangak, baba ganoush, samosas, or gulab jamun!

Van 3

Why so many immigrants? One reason is that having a family member in Canada makes it much easier to immigrate. An example of this is in the Filipino population. A lot of the Filipinos came over as maids and nannies for well-to-do families in the 1980’s and 90’s. Many eventually became citizens, and slowly saved up enough money to bring over their families: usually kids they had not lived with for over a decade. These poorer immigrants often have an inspiring work ethic and purity of purpose that makes them natural contributors to the country.

In addition, Canada has gained doctors, professors, scientists, business managers, and investors from other countries’ elites, not to mention computer industry skills from globally mobile migrant workers.

But is there a downside to all this?

The “Rain City”  has lost a certain laid-back folksy charm. Back in the day, it was a one of the friendliest cities in Canada, if not Planet Earth. You’d get a really nice “Hello!” from almost anyone you stumbled across, and lots of “please” and “thank you” to boot. If you stood at the curb looking to cross the street, drivers (there were far fewer cars on the road) would stop for you even if there was no crosswalk. But not anymore. In fact, my globe-trotting Iranian brother-in-law once drove through a crosswalk and didn’t notice someone who had just walked up to it – not onto it – at the last second. The guy yelled at him and gave him the finger! How dare you not stop immediately the instant I show up!

Courtesy has become a bit strained, as I saw for myself. On the last day of my visit, in order to walk off some of the amazing food my sister had been shoveling into my pie-hole., I did a 9k walk around Stanley Park’s outer seawall. It was a lovely sunny spring day, with fine salt air, in a beautiful location. There were groups of all cultures out enjoying it. Taking a photo, I inadvertently stepped into the bicycle lane. A woman on a bike hurtled toward me and said in a loud and unfriendly tone of voice, “You are on the bicycle path! Please get off!” She had a point of course. But couldn’t she have said it a bit more nicely? About 20 minutes later, a gruff guy on a bike yelled at a whole bunch of walkers: “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”

It seems like that old-school Vancouver courtesy has now sometimes been replaced by rude outbursts at people – many of them originating from elsewhere – who don’t follow the rules!

Beyond that, cultural experts talk about the gradual erosion of interpersonal trust and civic spirit in “hyper diverse” cities like Vancouver. Rather than fuse harmoniously or have open conflicts, diverse communities tend to “hunker down”.

One thing immigration has undoubtedly done to Raincouver, one of the most livable cities in the world, is to drive property prices way way up. A decent home in a nice neighborhood can easily go for around two million Canadian dollars. If you are a long-term resident and homeowner, that’s a great thing! But if you are typical couple like a school teacher and an engineer, looking to buy a house, fuggedaboutit! In Vancouver, economic inequality, just like the police and the gangs, has transcended ethnicity.

Van 4 (2)

But change is a constant. One longtime Vancouverite, Dave, chatted with me as we caught some sun on a bench by the seawall in Stanley Park. “Canada needs populating! Our population is too small, and we don’t breed fast enough. We need more people,” he said. “We get all kinds of people coming in here. As long as they aren’t crazy or don’t blow stuff up, they’re welcome!”

I caught the little ferry over to Granville Island, famous for its covered market under the Granville Bridge. There were tourists from all over, eating, relaxing, and enjoying the view. I sat outside, sipping BC wine and listening to a folk singer playing songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. In the warm sunshine, I basked in music-conjured emotion, the sadly happy feelings from songs I heard in my youth. Gone they were, never to return, just like the Vancouver of yesterday. It’s a big grown-up world city now.

Later that night I flew back to Taipei, where I am the perpetual newcomer hoping for greater status and security, the shoe on the other foot, the coin neatly flipped. Except for the massive difference in attitudes toward immigrants.

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Snot-nosed Jack

Beyond our cultural differences, we find our human similarities.

Source: Snot-nosed Jack

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Snot-nosed Jack


Cross-culturalists talk about the distinctions between internal guilt cultures like the West and the public shame (face) cultures of Taiwan and the East. But I believe there is something that transcends and underlies both of these cultural distinctions – the sense of justice. I think this is hard-wired for the entire human race. Alas, it’s a part of us that is too often activated in the negative.


When I was ten years old, my family moved to Lesotho in Africa from 1975-77. The country only had a population of one million people back then. It is a sovereign country geographically surrounded by its much larger and more populous neighbor, South Africa. It is called “the Roof of Africa” because the entire nation is above 1000 meters. At those altitudes, the sun cuts razor sharp shadows through the dry air. There are winter frosts, and a sky full of stars. It’s an almost forestless country, and the many sheep and cattle grazing on the mountain slopes keep it that way. To make up for the lack of trees however, their dung can be combined with mud to build huts, and is a good fuel for cooking fires, although its smoke adds a tinge of pungency to the air.


Maseru, the capital city, had a whopping 30,000 inhabitants. The roads downtown were OK, and led you past a few fancy buildings like an art shop shaped like a gigantic Basuto hat, and some banks and government offices. There was one small truly posh neighborhood, a couple of nice ones, and then in declining order of poverty, plain-Jane concrete block homes, and then shanty towns. You could hear the summer rain coming at a distance by the sound it made on the tin rooves.

Out on the street, you could see who lived where: African in a brand new Mercedes-Benz with driver? Posh area! Anybody in a Land Rover, Volvo, or kombi? Nice area! Any Whites? Nice area! African walking on the street in decent white-collar garb? Cinder block homes. Tsotsi hat, blanket, or overalls? Shanty town. Little blond boy in safari shorts and sandals? That would be me, dear reader! I must have gotten that world-class African smile ten times a day, especially from older countryside women who would beam down at me, touch my hair and say “Heh heh! Such pretty hair! Heh heh heh!”


My father was a civil engineer on a Third World development project, building a small center of civilization in a remote mountain area. He was on site most of the week. I went to the international elementary school with the other expat kids and the local elites. We lived in a nice area in a lovely old brick house with grape vines, rose bushes and plum trees in the garden. We had a coal fireplace for winter, no TV, and a 4-digit phone number. We had maids who lived in the shanty town, chubby cheerful women.


We lived right across the street from the Maseru Club, the colonial era country club, with swimming pool, tennis courts, golf course, etc. There was a bar where white dudes would get florid on Saturdays. My band of ruffians and I wandered the grounds and beyond, playing kick-the-can, talking about Formula race cars, and shooting at pigeons with pellet guns. Once we killed a Black Mamba hiding in a rock crevice after shooting it about 20 times! Occasionally we had run-ins with a group of homeless African boys who caddied at the gold course. They waited around by the cars until a group of players came in, hoping to be hired. Those not actively caddying would open the car gas tanks, lower a piece of string with a rag at the end into the gas, and then sniff it to get high. After a few years of this their neurological and physical health was shot. When we cut through the car park sometimes they would shake us down for change. I was scared of them, because there were a couple of mean older ones who looked pretty f***ed up. There were also some scrawny younger kids. These poor guys had a pretty rough life. But my band of privileged young expats and I happily roamed far and wide. We were ninjas who could sneak into any part of the club undetected. God help us if we did get caught! We’d get a hoarse-voiced yelling at by “The Colonel”, an old British soldier who’d lost a lung in India in World War II. He’d come after us shaking his cane in the air, and kick us out for the rest of the day, if he found us up to no good.


On Sundays, families would gather for a curry buffet on the veranda. The women folk would come out, ladies with hats and make up, young girls in pretty dresses. After curry, all the kids would watch Sunday matinees like silly Dean Martin movies, or Tarzan. After that, us boys would hang around outside as parents gradually came out to collect their kids, get into their cars and drive away. That’s when I got into a fight with a local kid. It was my fault.

One day when we hanging around a bunch of the caddies came to beg for change. There was one skinny little guy who had mucus constantly running out of his nose, maybe from sniffing gas. He had his hand out, and I pretended to give him some change, but then pulled it back and put it into my pocket – an obnoxious boyish prank. Oh, that pissed him off! He yelled at me, and then took off his belt and tried to whip me with it. This wasn’t very effective because he had to hold his pants up with his other hand! He was a scrawny little guy, probably as least as old as me but physically no match due to general poor health and nutrition.

All the other caddies and local elite or expat boys knew at once without speaking that no one else should get involved. The fight was on! “Get him, John!” “Go for it man!” He kept whipping at me with the belt and hauling up his pants with the other hand, his eyes glaring at me, snot running down his face. I got bolder and rushed him, chasing him around a parked car, and then closed on him, grabbed the back of his head with my left hand and went to punch him in the face with my right. He grabbed my punching hand with both of his, stopping my fist about 10 centimeters from his mouth. He had dropped his belt and probably his pants too, but I didn’t notice! I made a big effort and got in a pretty good punch right on his grimacing mouth. Bop! He whimpered and blood suddenly formed clear red lines in the cracks between his teeth. My whole feeling changed at once. I suddenly lost all desire to fight, so I let him go. He ran a short distance away, and threw rocks at me until a big Canadian boy – a silent friend – came up and clobbered him one. The kid, bloodied and beaten, ran down the road sobbing, clutching his pants, back to the golf course he called home. I had won the fight. Later we named him “Snot-nosed Jack”.

A few weeks later, I was completely alone, walking across the polo field toward the Maseru Café to score some chappies chewing gum or perhaps a Stoney’s ginger beer when I suddenly saw – to my shock – Snot-nosed Jack. He was alone on the road right by the polo field, only about 100 meters away. He shouted, then climbed through the four-strand barbed wired fence and came at me. I was scared! He came right up, full of angry words, and started to take off his belt. I told him no, it’s OK. I don’t want to fight. I offered him a small amount of change. He could see that I was scared. His face totally changed. He beamed at me, very happy, and refused the money. This was a point of honor. He walked away happily, waving goodbye. There was no sneer, no attempt at retribution. We were good.

That brings us back, dear reader, to my starting point. The “standard” cross-cultural analysis is that Africa is more of a shame culture, which involves public space. But the boy hadn’t “shamed me back” in front of my crew or his. There were no witnesses. I think his happiness was about warrior culture, something ingrained in boys in Africa. He had stood up again and prevailed against this strange “rich” White boy who had insulted and beaten him. He had proven his courage, and hence his value as a man, hence as a human being.

I don’t think this kind of thing would have happened in Taiwan. I think here he would have got some friends and jumped me, or just stayed away. But I think anybody reading this story from Taiwan, Canada, Lesotho or whatever country would feel that somehow justice had been done.

painEPILOGUE: I don’t think this incident is a metaphor for race relations, but feel free to interpret it any way you want. Lesotho is in terrible shape now, ravaged by AIDS. We can thank both Western and African superstitions for that. The Thaba Tseka Project my dad worked on is now considered a textbook case in Third World development failures, of how simply throwing money at a problem doesn’t work. South Africa – also AIDS blighted – has transitioned from competent apartheid to incompetent freedom, for now. Let’s hope for the best! And Snot-nosed Jack? Here’s where I’d like to have a rosy conclusion and say that maybe somehow he’d remember me as a friend.

But the truth is he’s probably dead. Where’s the justice in that?

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