The Stolen Bicycle- book review

The Stolen Bicycle is a rare Taiwanese novel that has earned international acclaim, having been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Written by one of Taiwan’s best modern novelists, Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating story seemingly centered on bicycles but which winds through Taiwan under Japanese colonization, World War II battles, disappearing fathers, and even butterfly collecting.

To be honest, when I started The Stolen Bicycle, I found the beginning kind of perplexing. The story didn’t draw me in and the details seemed a bit overwhelming, especially the meticulous descriptions of bicycles by the story’s narrator. I stuck with it and gradually, the story began to feel more captivating. The plot became more complex but also more interesting as it covered disparate topics like antiques, butterfly handicrafts, and zookeeping. By the time it reached World War II, the story reached its stride with military invasions and battles.

The novel really brings Taiwan under Japanese colonization to life, including moments of turbulence such as when Taipei was even bombed by American aircraft during World War II. Certain characters are drafted by the Japanese into their army to fight in distant Malaya (Malaysia) and Burma (Myanmar). The military scenes are especially vivid and haunting, especially in portraying the hardship and terror of battle and retreat in remote jungles.

By this point, I didn’t mind all the details and I was actually impressed. The author did a fine job in being accurate with military history while making the characters and events believable, while conveying a strong sense of drama and danger. Just to give you an example, the story makes use of war elephants, which were actually used by both Japanese and Chinese armies in Southeast Asia to transport military goods. After the war, the KMT brought over a few of these elephants to Taiwan, one of whom became a beloved part of the Taipei Zoo and is also a part of the story.

War aside, there are nice descriptions of oldtime Taipei and Taiwanese society, as well as Japanese colonization, which while brutal to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, is regarded as having been somewhat beneficial. The inclusion of Japanese characters presents a rare Japanese colonial perspective of Taiwan.

Despite the honor of being longlisted, The Stolen Bicycle couldn’t escape political controversy arising from China. The Booker organizers tried to change the author’s nationality from Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” due to Chinese interference but luckily international criticism forced them to backtrack.

The Stolen Bicycle might have been challenging at a few parts, but reading the whole novel was a rewarding experience.

My mistaken China illusion

I wasn’t always such a strong supporter of Taiwan and its status as a country. There was a time when I had this idealistic, naive and silly illusion of a Great China entity, comprising China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a student up until living in Beijing, I harbored this fantasy. It was only a few years ago, while living in Beijing, that I came to my senses. I realized it was unrealistic and foolish to think China could or should rule Taiwan, especially as China’s Communist regime isn’t even good for its own people. I recently wrote about my change of heart in an article for Taiwan’s Ketagalan Online. However, I’ll also go over this briefly here.

Taiwan is a controversial and sensitive issue in the world because its status and freedom is bitterly contested by China, which claims Taiwan belongs to it. That’s why Taiwan is not part of the UN and is only officially recognized as a country by less than 20 countries (China forces countries it has diplomatic relations with to stop recognizing Taiwan as a country). Just in the past 2.5 years, China has stolen 5 of Taiwan’s allies.

Anyways, it’s common knowledge that Taiwan is its own state with its own government, judiciary, laws, schools, and military. Taiwan is a de facto independent nation. Even when I was pro-China, I was aware of this. However, what I was ignorant about was thinking Taiwan should be part of China because it didn’t have its own history or culture. I was very much mistaken. Taiwan also has its own history (which has at times been intertwined with China) and culture (much of which originated from China but which has evolved over time) and traditions. While most Taiwanese have Chinese ancestry, some don’t – the aboriginal people in Taiwan have been here for thousands of years.

As I’ve learned more about Taiwan and traveled to different parts such as the south, it’s apparent that Taiwan has its own history, culture and traditions fostered from almost 400 years of formal settlement. Of course, there is a strong Chinese element from most Taiwanese people’s ancestral origin, but given both Taiwan’s existence as an island and the development of democracy, Taiwan’s people have developed their own identity and the right to be seen as themselves and not little China with democracy and genuine traditions (which some people mistakenly believe).

This week marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and is a weeklong holiday in Taiwan. So as the Year of the Pig kicks off, here’s to better days and progress for Taiwan, and the world.

Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei’s Dihua Street annual Lunar New Year outdoor market

 

Taiwan kicks off 2019 by refuting China’s “unification” threat

First, Happy New Year everyone! I hope this year turns out great for everyone.

That said, it’s a new year but not new rhetoric from China’s Xi Jinping. Thanks to him though, my first blog post of 2019 is about Taiwan and China. In a speech on January 2, Xi chose to make a grand demand that Taiwan “must and will” agree to “unification” with China. He also said reunification would be peaceful, yet warned about using military force (the irony). Xi also said that “Chinese don’t fight each other” which is actually wrong because Chinese have always fought each other. Just in the last century alone, there was the Civil War which saw the Communists come to power, the Cultural Revolution, which saw millions of Chinese die at the hands of other Chinese, and the Warlord Period of the 1920s, when China was carved up by Chinese warlords. Not to mention the infamous Tiananmen tragedy in 1989.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen responded afterwards on the same day by refuting this demand, and rightfully so. Tsai was adamant that Taiwanese did not want unification, especially not under the “one country, two systems” concept, which has already been applied in Hong Kong and which has not had a positive effect. Tsai further added that talks could be possible between Taiwan and China, but only if both meet as equals as sovereign states.

China has claimed Taiwan for a very long time and has made demands for Taiwan to “unify” in the past. This year though, Xi’s speech focused heavily on “unification,” which raises concerns that he might turn to military means to force the issue. After all, starting a war against a foreign foe to divert attention from domestic troubles and boost nationalism is something that dictators have done before.

China is going through a lot of domestic problems now, especially serious economic issues and an ongoing trade war with the US (though further tariffs have been suspended for 90 days). The Chinese authorities have intensified crackdowns on major churches and even student Marxist organizations, while continuing to detain at least a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. So it would be plausible to think that Xi is desperate and deluded enough to want to attempt an armed invasion of Taiwan. I personally don’t think there is a big chance of success for several reasons though (as do some experts), but Xi has shown he thinks highly of himself, given he made himself leader for life last year by abolishing presidential term limits.

But whether Xi’s tough talk on Taiwan might be just talk or a prelude to something much more serious, the reality is that Taiwan is a country. Only its people, the Taiwanese, can determine Taiwan’s future.

2018 roundup

Taipei, Taiwan
As we come closer to the end of the year, I’ve got several things on my mind. First is that 2018 turned out to be a rough year for the world. While 2017 wasn’t so great, it seems like 2018 saw the world become more troubled. Donald Trump continues to baffle ad mismanage his own country, the UK can’t figure out Brexit, while civil wars in Yemen and Syria continue.

Taiwan had a decent year, though there was a shocking train crash in October that took 18 lives and injured almost 200 (train accidents are rare in Taiwan). However, the November local elections and referendum stunned and disappointed a lot of people. The ruling DPP party suffered huge defeats and lost many of Taiwan’s counties and cities, while the referendums showed Taiwan isn’t as progressive as many people had thought.

The bigger concern for me is the DPP lost big to the KMT, which is pro-China and openly intends to expand ties with China. As you know, China still claims Taiwan belongs to it, and continually launches provocative military flights, bars Taiwan from participating in international multilateral organizations (hence Taiwan is not a member of the UN), and even threatens invasion. It does not make sense to me for Taiwan to become more economically dependent on China and look to it as some kind of savior.

I still feel that Taiwan has several things that are going well such as increased investment from major international tech firms, a growing reputation for civic and political freedoms, and a president who is not afraid to stand firm against China. That said, President Tsai Ing-wen took a lot of blame after November’s election results, and was forced to step down as chairman of her party. Hopefully this will help her focus more on her presidency as she is freed from having to oversee the DPP.

China is going down a dark road, exemplified by its recent seizure of 3 Canadians on nebulous or made-up charges as revenge for the arrest of the Huawei CFO and founder’s daughter. China has also imprisoned over a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang in concentration camps or “reeducation centers,” for no reason other than to “re-educate” them. This was shocking when it was first reported, and China kept denying it. However, as more news and evidence came out about these mass detentions, China was forced to admit it though they still claimed that there was no sinister reason. China has also continued to threaten Taiwan with military planes flying close to and around Taiwan.

For me personally, the year was a bit mixed. I worked at a Taiwan company in a field that was new to me and things didn’t work out for various reasons. What was good is that I got to do more writing and was published in several major outlets. I wrote about China’s “victimhood” status which it exploits in international disputes such as against Canada over the Meng arrest, Hong Kong and the “Greater Bay Area“, about China’s state media’s global push, and the “disappearance” of yet another Chinese due to Chinese authorities. I also wrote about museums and arts attractions in Southern Taiwan, which I visited for the first time in many years. I also reviewed several books including a novel about Taiwan when its southern part was ruled by the Dutch and a travel book/memoir about a couple traveling around Taiwan.

I also did a little traveling. I hiked a mountain and visited ancient city ruins in Thailand, and I wandered through two superb Malaysian cities filled with historic buildings and street art. I also went to Kaohsiung and Tainan (first time in many years for both cities) in southern Taiwan, and I visited Hong Kong as well.

I do hope that 2019 will be better, but I feel it might be even more turbulent than 2018.

Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of the major temple ruins in Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand before Bangkok
Penang, Malaysia
Penang’s oldest Chinese temple
Hiking in Hong Kong
Hiking in east Hong Kong, near Tseung Kwan O
Tainan, Taiwan
Tainan’s restored Hayashi Department Store, just as classy as it was 80 years ago
Ipoh, Malaysia
Mural of tin miners on the wall of the Hakka Miners’ Club museum, Ipoh
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan’s northeast coast
Krabi, Thailand
View from Khao Ngon Nak, Krabi, Thailand

Formosa Moon- book review

As both a travelogue and a sort-of memoir, Formosa Moon sees Joshua Samuel Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat moving back from the US, bringing his girlfriend Stephanie Huffman to Taiwan for the first time. The trip stems from a premise years ago when after their relationship becomes serious, Brown makes it clear to Huffman that he would eventually return to Taiwan.

As a result, when Huffman finishes her studies in Portland, the couple decide to move to Taiwan and embark on journeys around the island nation so Huffman could see whether she could accept living there. The couple start off in Taipei, the capital, where Huffman is introduced to the usual tourist staples of night markets and the National Palace Museum. They then proceed down the East Coast and to Green Island, a tiny isle whose volcanic beauty belies its past as a prison for political dissidents during Taiwan’s martial law era. They then swing around to the southwest to Taiwan’s oldest city Tainan before coming back to Taipei. After a break, they travel back to the south to Yunlin, the south’s largest city Kaohsiung, as well as the central county of Nantou.

Usually, travel information on Taiwan is dominated by night markets, the National Palace Museum, and the east coast. Brown and Huffman do visit those places, but they also go beyond them to explore the quirkier and artistic aspects of Taiwan. As Huffman is deeply interested in art, especially puppetry, there is a strong artistic emphasis during their travels, especially the Taiwanese glove puppet folk art potehi.

Besides hitting famous spots like Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge, the pair also venture to lesser-known places like Smangus, an aboriginal commune set up like kibbutzes in Israel, and Gukeng, the heartland of Taiwan’s coffee-growing industry. In addition, there are visits to the world’s first hotel built around a scuba-diving pool, aboriginal artisans and a hot-air balloon ride over Taiwan’s most unspoilt county of Taitung.

Contrasting Brown’s longtime knowledge of Taiwan and Huffman’s first-time experience of the country, the book has separate dual narratives in every chapter. This constant change of pace in perspectives works well because the pair are candid and quirky people who are sincerely interested in Taiwan. It also helps that the book is filled with color photos so readers can see a bit of the places themselves.

It’s not all about travel as there are also a few chapters about life in their neighborhood on the hilly outskirts of Taipei and Huffman’s attempts to use Chinese and navigate the city by herself. The couple succeed in showing off Taiwan’s main attractions for travelers, which are not famous ancient landmarks or stunning beach resorts, but a combination of plentiful cultural and artistic sights and experiences, quirky places, and beautiful mountain and coastal scenery. Brown also succeeds in his goal of convincing Huffman to base their future in Taiwan, at least for the next few years.

One might wish for more about Taiwan’s other large cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung, which both get one chapter apiece. The Taichung chapter is particularly fascinating as Brown and Huffman stay at a hotel where guests could scuba dive in a 70-foot deep pool and explore Rainbow Village, which is famous for its gaily painted houses, all done by its lone elderly resident. For Kaohsiung, most of the chapter is filled with photos and descriptions of major Taiwanese food dishes. But the book is not intended as a definitive travel guide to Taiwan, so the sparseness of content on Kaohsiung is excusable.

There are several chapters on Tainan, arguably Taiwan’s most interesting city, not to mention two chapters on Yunlin, a relatively obscure county sandwiched in the region between Taichung and Kaohsiung that not even many Taiwanese have been to.

Brown and Huffman never shy away from testy moments such as describing arguments or doubts; if anything they are too frank. One of the more striking parts of the book is when a Tainan fortune-teller tells Brown never to marry Huffman and then tells Huffman she will have other lovers later on.

Huffman is upfront that being new to Taiwan (and Asia), she finds Taipei very intense and at times discomfiting as it is the largest city she has ever lived in. It seems appropriate that Taiwan is her introduction to Asia because, as seasoned expats and travelers know, there are many more intense and crowded places across the continent.

Formosa Moon is both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other. It is also a very welcome addition to the collection of English-language literature about Taiwan.

This is the abridged version of my review of Formosa Moon, the full version of which I wrote for Asia Review of Books.

Taiwan’s election shocks

Last Saturday, Taiwan held a monumental local election. Taiwanese voted for city mayors, county and village heads, local councils, and, concurrently, voted on an unprecedented referendum with 10 items on issues like same-sex marriage, nuclear power and the official name of Taiwan’s sports teams. There were shocks in both the election and referendum as the ruling DPP (it controls the presidency and legislature, and had ruled the majority of cities and counties before this election) suffered massive losses in the elections while progressive causes on the referendum slate were defeated soundly. Many op-eds and analyses have been written about this online and in media outlets, so I will add my two cents here.

The ruling DPP, which is pro-independence and originated in the south, lost control of 7 cities and counties, holding on to only 6 of them. The KMT’s city and county winning margin of 15-6 (with the capital Taipei still undecided due to an appeal by the KMT candidate) was bad enough. However, the big shock was the DPP losing their southern stronghold Kaohsiung, the south’s biggest city, to a populist KMT populist candidate who ran a remarkable campaign. The DPP also lost Taichung, Taiwan’s biggest central city, and several southern counties. While the DPP won Tainan, another of their southern strongholds, it was by a much smaller than expected margin. The DPP’s defeat was bad enough that President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as the DPP’s chairman, while Premier William Lai offered to resign.

This is a serious blow that has far greater ramifications beyond domestic politics, because the DPP and President Tsai had been in the vanguard of resistance against China. Now, President Tsai’s authority has been weakened and she will be vulnerable in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. The DPP has to do a lot of thinking about what went wrong and how to recover.

The KMT is openly pro-China, having originated in China and then come over after losing the civil war to the Communists. While the KMT allowed Taiwan to become democratic after decades of martial law, they have always maintained their old view of Taiwan and China being one country. Already, several KMT winners, such as Kaohsiung’s Han Guo-yu, have already said they will want to turn to China and follow the 1992 Consensus (a made-up agreement coined after a meeting between the KMT and China in which both sides are supposedly part of the same country). Obviously, the DPP and President Tsai have refused to recognize this because it implies Taiwan belongs to China, and obviously China and Xi Jinping are annoyed with this.

The DPP have been blamed for several issues ranging from a botched labor law reform effort to pension reform to economic problems to failing to be progressive enough, which brings me to the following point.

For many locals and expats, the big disappointment was with the referendum results. This was because gay marriage took up 5 of the 10 questions. Three questions were anti-gay marriage while two were pro, a reflection of Taiwan’s political freedom and quirky nature. In the end, all the anti-gay marriage questions passed while the two pro-gay marriage ones failed.

This caused some people to question Taiwan’s supposedly progressiveness, given Taiwan made international headlines in 2017 for being the first Asia nation to legalize gay marriage. However, the government did not follow through and did not pass a law to do so, hence why this issue ended up on the referendum. A lot of people think that this reflected a lack of courage from the government.

Personally, I’m not surprised the pro-gay marriage referendum items did not pass since there are still a lot of older people as well as conservative traditionalists (many, but not all who are indeed old). I also think the referendum should not have listed 10 questions which was a lot and caused voting delays in some areas, especially Taipei, as people struggled to understand all the questions.

Coming back to the city and county elections, I think the DPP failed because it overextended itself and got complacent. It made too many promises which meant a diverse array of society, from the LGBT community to pro-independence advocates, put a lot of hopes in the DPP. When change failed to materialize as quickly and as easily as thought, a lot of people were sorely disappointed. I agree with the head of a Danish NGO focused on Taiwan matters quoted here who said that the DPP’s economic initiatives haven’t taken effect yet since two years (President Tsai was elected in 2016) is not enough time. Taiwan’s economy has been in the doldrums for over 10 years and the previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, couldn’t do anything during his eight years in power. Chinese interference in the elections can hardly be ruled out, whether it be secret donations to KMT and other groups, the spreading of fake news and other forms of online propaganda.

While Taiwan’s progressive reputation may have suffered a setback, I also think that the fact many people still voted and endured long lines to do so, displayed Taiwan’s democracy is still strong. What concerns me is the weakening of President Tsai and the DPP, while the KMT now has a bigger chance for 2020.