Get informed about Taiwan

We are now in the fifth month of the coronavirus pandemic, but Taiwan is still doing well at home while donating millions of masks and sharing its experience and research with other countries.

To help people know more about Taiwan, I’ve started a weekly newsletter called Taiwan Unraveled, which aims to unravel and unpack Taiwan in terms of politics, business, culture, tech, and sports. Check it out and sign up if you want to get a weekly list of the best articles about Taiwan.

To give you a taste, I’ve listed links to some of the best recent articles featured in the newsletter:

One of the major actions Taiwan took was to take control of facemask production and distribution. Thanks to this, Taiwan was able to ensure enough for its people as well as to donate millions to the world. But first, the authorities had to put together a team to ramp up daily facemask production in January. This article tells the fascinating story of a “national team” of engineers and technicians made this possible.

In March, I wrote about how Taiwan managed to successfully contain the coronavirus, employing a multifaceted approach that included early flight screening and travel restrictions, proactive measures including facemask production above, and the use of tech.

One of the biggest signs of how well Taiwan is functioning is that its baseball league was the first to start play in April, which has made sport-starved baseball fans in the US happy. Baseball is Taiwan’s most popular team sport and has a long history in Taiwan, having been introduced by the Japanese almost 100 years ago. The games were originally played behind closed doors, but on Friday (May 8), up to 1,000 fans were allowed into stadiums, making the Taiwan baseball league the only one now with live fans.

There are four reasons for Taiwan to look forward to the future, including a decent economy, better recognition from the world, stronger relations with the US and a growing “normalization” of Taiwan’s identity as a country.

Taiwan is becoming a haven for Hong Kong activists, as exemplified by the reopening of Causeway Bay Bookstore in Taipei by Hong Konger Lam Wing-kee. Lam was one of five booksellers who were kidnapped by Chinese agents in 2015 in Hong Kong and Thailand, secretly taken to China, and detained. Their crime? Selling books in the original Causeway Bay Bookstore about Chinese politics that were unavailable in the mainland but popular with Chinese tourists visiting Hong Kong.

Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s biggest southern city, widely considered the country’s second city (though population-wise it has been overtaken by Taichung). The port city is trying to develop a tech sector while building several major arts and tourism attractions along its waterfront.

Kavalan is a Taiwanese whisky brand that has quietly become one of the best in the world. The whisky is distilled in Taiwan’s northeast, where the local climate with winds blowing in from the Pacific is especially favorable.

National coronavirus success stories

The coronavirus pandemic still has a grip on most of the world and our lives, but there are a few bright spots. After over three months, here are a few countries in Asia and Oceania that are succeeding in one way or another in containing their respective outbreaks and resuming some parts of normal life.

Taiwan
I might be biased since I’m very pro-Taiwan and reside here, but the fact is much of society is still functioning like normal. This includes schools, offices and stores, as well as sports! As I’ve written before, Taiwan’s response includes early vigilance, proactive measures and transparency, as well as cooperation with private firms on making much more facemasks than normal. Taiwan did experience a small surge of imported cases from visitors and returnees coming back from the West in March, as well as a naval ship cluster, but they have had many days with zero or just one or two daily cases.

Vietnam
Remarkably, this country of over 90 million has less than 300 cases and no deaths due to the coronavirus. They did do a partial lockdown but there’s already talk of easing it. And just like Taiwan, taking early measures like shutting their land border with China and mass quarantining helped a lot. The one factor that hinders more recognition of Vietnam’s success is that as a Communist country, the government controls all information and the media is restricted and censored. There is a likelihood that the actual numbers might be higher but even then, not by too much, according to some experts.

South Korea
In contrast to the two countries above, South Korea got hit really hard by the coronavirus and at one point, had the second-most cases in the world. But despite over 10,000 cases, they implemented rigorous measures like mass testing, contact tracing, and public mask-wearing, and have managed to “flatten the curve” to the point where they only get low double-digit daily cases now. The public also played a big role as they voluntarily stayed home or closed down their businesses without being ordered to, so in a sense they did have a lockdown but it was a self-enforced one. South Korea might arguably be the most impressive success story because they actually experienced a mass outbreak within a short time and seem to have defeated it.

Australia and New Zealand
As the only non-Asian countries here, the two neighbors both enacted hard lockdowns but have reached the point where easing is being discussed and even a “bubble” involving the two countries. Both countries have managed to clamp down on daily infections and keep the death toll at a minimum, which is laudable. New Zealand implemented a lockdown when there were only 102 cases, which has helped them contain their outbreak. Australia implemented a lockdown much later (when they had over 4000 cases) but in the weeks since then have also managed to contain the outbreak at a reasonable level. In both countries, widespread testing and contact tracing were implemented. New Zealand did reference Taiwan as an example, which is why they did the smart thing of cancelling mass gatherings very early, unlike some Western countries which continued to hold large sporting events and concerts until their outbreaks hit hard.

Hong Kong
At one point in February, HK was being likened to a failed state due to being a state of panic over the coronavirus and a perceived lack of toilet paper and instant noodles. But HK soon got past that and has reached a point where, like Taiwan, they have enjoyed zero-cases days. HK people do love wearing their masks, maybe overly so, but it has helped with containing the coronavirus so that there have been no hard lockdowns. Schools have been closed since February and there are social distancing limits on restaurants and public gatherings though. And like South Korea and Taiwan, rigorous quarantine measures and contact tracing have also been implemented.

 

No matter what, it’s still necessary to stay on guard and keep up precautionary measures, even here in Taiwan, and the situation could easily change quickly.
For now, hats off to all these countries (and Hong Kong) for beating back the coronavirus and let’s hope that more countries can follow in these countries’ footsteps soon.

Best books about a country

While it’s almost impossible to travel anywhere now and perhaps for the near future, we can still travel through books. With that in mind, here are several great books I’ve read that take you through a journey through time and across the length and breadth of specific countries. I especially enjoy country books because you get to know a lot about a country and its many places and attributes. Most of these books focus on travel, but they also feature history, politics, cultural commentary and personal and family narratives, which provides a richer and more in-depth account of countries and places. If you have any suggestions yourself, let me know.

Elephant Complex– John Gimlette
One of the most somber travel books I’ve ever read, Elephant Complex is a fascinating book about the South Asian country of Sri Lanka. Despite its small size, Sri Lanka is a land of complex history, identities, and conflicts. The country boasts some of the finest historical monuments, wildlife, and mountain scenery that you’ll ever see in a country of its size, but it is its human history that stands out. While going through the different parts of the country, Gimlette unpacks its colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch and British), its civil war and ethnic tensions between its majority Sinhalese and Tamils, and how this co-exists uneasily alongside the country’s tourist-friendly image (I visited it myself in 2016).

Swiss Watching– Diccon Bewes
While strictly not a travelogue, Swiss Watching explores the alpine country of Switzerland and reveals its personality and quirks. I’d always thought Switzerland was boring given that it’s famous mainly for watches, chocolate and political neutrality, but there is much more to it. From grassroots democracy to a complex mix of identities (four official languages, strong local pride and local rivalries), Swiss Watching shines a spotlight on this supposedly boring nation. Bewes is an English transplant to Switzerland so he presents the view of a longtime resident, not a visitor.

Indonesia Etc– Elisabeth Pisani
Indonesia must be one of the world’s most unique countries, being an archipelago made up of several giant islands and thousands of smaller ones. Across this reside over 250 million people of different ethnicities, languages and faiths (though Islam is by far the most prevalent) that are held together by 20th century ideals crafted after Indonesia’s independence. Pisani travels the length and breadth of Indonesia, also foregoing the big cities, while examining issues like corruption, feudalism, and political history. She also looks at Islamic extremism, which has only gotten more noticeable in recent years (the book came out in 2014). Indonesia Etc is a great mix of travel and history and commentary, though at the end, Indonesia will still likely a mystery to most readers.

Formosa Moon– Joshua Samuel Brown, Stephanie Huffman
Taiwan is the island country I’m proud to call my home in Asia (and where my mother is from). But I haven’t traveled to that many places in Taiwan so reading Formosa Moon was a fantastic way of finding out about a lot of the country. The book’s premise was that Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat, wanted to show off Taiwan for Huffman, his romantic partner, so she could understand what she was getting into before moving to Taiwan (the two, both Americans, met in the US). They travel around Taiwan, visit all the touristy and some not-so-touristy ones, such as historical cities, an arts village, Taroko gorge, a mountain kibbutz, and an aboriginal settlement. It’s a really fun and touching account of the authors’ relationship with each other and Brown’s with Taiwan.

Looking for Transwonderland– Noo Saro-wiwa
Nigeria is not exactly a top travel destination but it sure is a complex, bewildering country. In Saro-wiwa’s case, she visits her birth country not just for travel but to reconcile with it after the state executed her father, activist Ken Saro-wiwa, in 1995. As such, it’s a little different from the usual good humor and adventure you find in some travel books, with Saro-wiwa not holding back on her views especially regarding major problems. Saro-wiwa travels to the different regions of Nigeria, including the southern oil-rich delta, where her family is from; the Muslim north, and several states. One of the most fascinating is when she visits a mountaintop village that retains a primitive “stone age” lifestyle but is free from modern problems. She also goes into Nigeria’s history, politics and ethnic issues, which is a huge cause of tension. The book will leave a lot of readers wanting more.

Engel’s England– Matthew Engels
Another book that is not exactly a travelogue, Engel’s England does actually cover the entirety of England, specifically 39 counties and London. Engels is a born and bred Englishman, so he brings the perspective of a local getting to grips with his own country. In this sense, there are some peculiar things that non-English people like myself might not really understand such as local (by this, I mean very local as in village or county) customs and festivals. Engels truly does cover off the beaten track, mostly foregoing major cities in favor of the surrounding countryside villages and small towns, which gives the book a lot of character.

Looking back at a tough 2019


There’s no hiding the fact that this year has been really rough in many ways. From political crises to growing unrest to economic problems, 2019 has had it all. Hong Kong has been in the midst of domestic turmoil for seven months with the protest movement looking very likely to continue into the new year. Even more deadly protests have taken place in Chile, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, India and several other countries. Environmental tragedies also happened, especially in Australia where giant bushfires have been raging out of control.

Besides protests, there were also serious geopolitical issues. Brexit will likely happen in January after Boris Johnson actually became prime minister of the UK and then won the election at the start of December. The US and China remain locked in a widening impasse that is about much more than just trade. And of course, China’s imprisonment of over a million of its minority Uyghurs was revealed to the world, to the point where China had no choice but to spin it as some kind of anti-terrorism rehabilitation campaign.

China also kept up its bullying of Taiwan through stealing its diplomatic allies, reducing Chinese visitors to Taiwan and trying to lure Taiwanese professionals to China, but Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen has held firm. More encouragingly, many Taiwanese have woken up to the threat of China and for the 2020 presidential elections, Tsai has surged ahead of the opposition candidate, a formerly populist mayor who has been revealed to be an incompetent and pro-China tool, though one can never be too careful.

Personally, I had a mixed but somewhat decent year. I moved back to Hong Kong earlier this year for work, while I managed to also do a little writing including about the protests. To be honest, I had no idea the protests would grow so big and last for so long, but I do think that the signs were there in hindsight. Even as I write this, there have been protests on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and there is a big one planned for New Year’s Day as well.

I didn’t do much traveling due to work, with only several brief visits to Taiwan and a short trip to Bangkok, one of my favorite cities. I did several hikes in Hong Kong but then hurt my foot in the middle of the year. I tried to rest for several months by not hiking, only to re-aggravate it recently.

I appreciate the opportunity to work in Hong Kong again, though this has also made me appreciate life in Taiwan more. I admit I don’t enjoy the crowds, the materialistic culture, and cramped spaces in HK, and being unable to hike, both due to my foot issue and the protests, took away a lot of the joy from being here. However, I have developed a significant respect for the protest movement, whose original aims of opposing the dreaded extradition law and the HK authorities I have always supported, and I hope that it can persist and lead to better changes for Hong Kong.

This year has shaped up to be one of struggle and resistance, both in Hong Kong and around the world, and sometimes this means that conveniences and certainties that we once took for granted have to be shed or broken. Not just political and societal developments on a broader scale, but also aspects of our daily lives such as questioning the effect of technology and social media companies like Google and Facebook on our mental health and thinking, and the increasingly serious effects of environmental and climate problems.

But while some people have said they might be glad to see the end of 2019, there’s no guarantee that 2020 will be better.


The views above and below were taken from the same hilltop in Hong Kong Island. 
 


Hong Kong wasn’t just all protests and hiking of course. Two nice new places that have opened are Tai Kwun, a restored former colonial court and prison complex, above, and the Mills, a restored former textile factory, below.


Two faces of Bangkok – modern, above, and heritage, below

Taipei’s traditional Spring Festival Dihua street market, above, and hiking in northern Taipei, below

Exploring Taipei

View of Taipei
Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world, having been my home for many years over the last decade. My mother and most of her family like my grandmother, aunt and cousins live in Taipei, having been there for decades. As a modern, orderly city, it’s got the advantages of being first-world and prosperous while also being relatively laidback, especially when compared with Hong Kong, Tokyo, or many Chinese cities. It’s definitely a great place to live, though working is another matter. A lot of people really enjoy the food in Taipei, but for me, it’s the comfort, safety and general pleasantness of the city that stands out (I like Taipei for living, not for traveling), as well as the hiking you can do in and around Taipei.

I recently wrote about Taipei for Rough Guides website, specifically on five places to enjoy and explore, that are not night markets, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum. Besides an article I wrote many years ago about Taipei’s Yongkang Street food places (my first and only food article), I haven’t really written about Taipei travel, because having lived there for so long, I don’t really see it as place to travel. This changed last year when I had some free time and decided to visit more places in the city, which culminated in the Rough Guides article.

I came to realize Taipei has a lot of different and fascinating aspects, especially nature and historical. These places might not be individually famous or spectacular but they are very much well worth visiting and make Taipei special.

These places are Yangmingshan mountain park; the city’s hiking trails; Beitou hot spring area; Guandu (which features a wetland park and a large historic temple); Daan Park, Taipei’s largest park; and the historic neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Besides these, there are other interesting, historic and scenic parts of Taipei.

Yangmingshan
This is a large park in a mountain range just north of Taipei which features dormant volcanoes and active fumaroles that spew sulfur into the air. Yangmingshan also has mountain trails, grasslands and gardens all entirely on the mountain range.
Yangmingshan fumarole, Taipei

Dadaocheng
This historic neighborhood used to be a busy trading hub in the 19th and 20th centuries due to its proximity to the Keelung river. Now, it’s Taipei’s best preserved historical district and features loads of colonial buildings, shops, and museums. It also hosts Taipei’s annual Lunar New Year outdoor market.
Dadaocheng, Taipei

Beitou
This is a historic hot spring holiday destination that fulfills the same purpose to this day. Beitou has a lot of hot spring resorts and an outdoor bath, a sulphuric lake and a cool library. See my post on my travel blog here for more about Beitou.
Thermal Valley, Beitou

Guandu
I’d never come here before but it’s a low-key area to the north of Taipei that just happens to have a wetland park as well as a magnificent temple, one of the biggest and most exquisite East Asian temples I’ve ever seen.

Guandu Nature Park wetland, Taipei

City hikes
Taipei is ringed with mountains and hills, several of which offer pleasant hikes and fine views of the city. While Xiangshan is the most popular due to its being close to Taipei 101, Fuzhoushan offers a nice, less-crowded alternative where you can also see Taipei 101. Jiantan Mountain is a fine ridge walk that also has some nice views (see the photo at the top of this blog post).
Fuzhoushan, Taipei

Daan Park
It’s Taipei’s version of Central Park, though much smaller. It’s also got a cool MRT subway station that resembles a giant turbine engine.
Daan Park MRT, Taipei

 

Doing the unthinkable in Hong Kong- slowing down

I’ve been spending some time in Hong Kong recently so I think it’s fitting I publish this short essay below which I first wrote last year on whether Hong Kong should try and slow down.

As a major regional business hub, many Hong Kongers take pride in working and talking quickly. An English-language book released by a local well-known HK writer a few years ago (and which I bought) was titled “No Place for Slow Men,” implying only fast doers thrive in Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong is full of fast talkers and movers and shakers. But is this really something to continue to be proud of?

While Hong Kong is a bustling business hub that tops many business-related lists, it has developed an unabashed money-first mentality and a stressful society that lags in certain measures of livelihood including happiness. Maybe Hong Kong should take a look at elsewhere in the region.

Take Taiwan as an example. The stereotypical image of Taiwanese are of people that are laid-back, friendly and not in a rush. While there is a lot of truth to it, the fact is the “laid-back” Taiwanese are not sitting around relaxing and doing nothing. Many working Taiwanese face just as much or even more stressed than their counterparts in Hong Kong. Salaries are much lower, annual leaves are shorter, and working hours are among the highest in the world.

Frankly, as someone who has worked in both Hong Kong and Taipei as well as on the mainland, my Hong Kong colleagues were no more hardworking than those in Taiwan or Beijing, actually took more days off and seemed the most happiest, spending much more time hanging out in the office and chatting.

When it comes to customer service, the difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is like night and day. And the politeness is matched by efficiency. As someone who has lived in Taiwan, I can safely say that going to the bank, hospital or convenience store is almost always a quick and efficient experience. Over the last decade, I have flown on Taiwanese airlines Eva Airlines and China Airlines as well as Cathay Pacific many times and I would say service on Eva and CA are better than Cathay, especially in recent years.

Going beyond work ethic and customer service, Taiwan has achieved significant progress in areas like recycling and e-government.

In Taipei, residents must separate food waste, paper, plastics and regular garbage into different bags so they can be recycled accordingly. In contrast, the HK residential building I lived in did not offer any recycling so I had to take my paper waste to the public bin out on the street or even to my workplace. The local recycling industry is small as the vast majority of Hong Kong’s waste is sent to mainland China. Hong Kong has no paper recycling plants nor is food waste able to be utilized. Hong Kong is however set to implement a new garbage fee on the public to help reduce waste. Similar schemes have already been undertaken in Taipei and Seoul, while Hong Kong’s will start, not right away, but sometime in late 2019. It is striking that the speed with which Hong Kong authorities approach business-related matters is not replicated in policies that are not economic-related.

Let’s also look at Hong Kong’s regional rival Singapore. Almost every other week, it seems there is at least one article in local media about yet another area in which Singapore has outperformed Hong Kong. Yet I remember once overhearing in my workplace elevator a Hong Kong lady give her opinion on Singapore to someone next to her, “It’s alright, but the people walk so slowly there! They are not fast like us [Hong Kongers].”

Nevertheless, those Singaporean “slowpokes” have outpaced Hong Kong in things like Smart City initiatives and mega-projects like Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa. One can just as easily look at the more spacious and green urban layout and the affordable and bigger public housing flats, and see a big gulf between Hong Kong and Singapore in the latter’s favour.

Hong Kongers might still revel in thinking they walk and talk very fast, but that hasn’t prevented others from overtaking them in many aspects. As unpalatable as it might sound to Hong Kongers, being less obsessed with moving fast, taking the time to concentrate on issues other than business, and being more considerate might actually be a good thing.

Maybe it is time Hong Kongers should consider slowing down a bit, and realize fast is not always the best.