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.

China “can’t fail,” but it’s certainly not winning

Another week, another set of negative incidents involving China.

First, I need to mention a recent New York Times feature article about China titled “The Land That Failed to Fail.” It’s an extraordinary headline as the article charts China’s economic and geopolitical rise during the last 30+ years as an amazing story. The article makes some valid points, such as that China managed to keep on developing whilst maintaining an authoritarian regime, albeit one that made constant adjustments. It is also true that China’s Communist regime has stayed in power while defying expectations that it would flounder. But the Times has put out this article (the first in a series of five) at a very strange time because the thing is that when one looks at recent news involving China, whether geopolitical or economics or even cultural, China looks like anything but a winner.

On the weekend in Taiwan, the Golden Horse awards, often considered the Oscars of the Chinese-speaking world, were held. This innocuous event saw a major controversy when Taiwanese director Fu Yue, winner of the best documentary award, spoke out about her hope that Taiwan can be recognized as an independent country (which it actually is) instead of being ignored on the world stage (which often happens). This led to a Chinese actor who, while about to present an award, said he was happy to be in “Taiwan, China,” thus implying Taiwan was part of China.

Afterwards, Chinese directors and actors at the awards refused to turn up for the post-awards banquet. The awards show was also cut off in China after Fu Yue’s speech, while a Hong Kong news media outlet reported that China has banned all Chinese films from being entered for consideration for next year’s Golden Horse awards show. Chinese commenters, not surprisingly, attacked Fu online on Chinese social media service Weibo, with many sharing a map of China that includes Taiwan and a phrase saying that not even one bit can go missing from China. Even Fan Bingbing, who has still not been seen in public after having been secretly detained by Chinese authorities after June, shared this post. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen weighed in on the controversy by highlighting Taiwan’s freedoms of expression while insisting (rightfully) that Taiwan is Taiwan, and not part of China.

Also on the weekend, Papua-New Guinea (PNG) hosted the APEC summit, which saw leaders from 20 Asia-Pacific countries meet. Even amid the tense atmosphere which centered around the ongoing US-China dispute, China still did some really paranoid and weird acts as reported by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. That Chinese officials tried to storm the PNG Foreign Minister’s office to demand a meeting with him after being turned away is bad enough. But they also, according to Rogin, tried to crash in on private conversations involving officials of other countries and yelled about countries “scheming” against China. The Chinese officials also filibustered to prevent a joint statement from being decided on due to a clause about fighting protectionism, then “broke out in applause” when time ran out. The summit thus ended without a joint statement for the first time. As it is, China basically opposed something which all other 20 countries had agreed on because it was scared of being held accountable for conditions mentioned in the statement.

Some people might think China can behave so recklessly and arrogantly with impunity because it is a rising superpower. I beg to differ because I think this reeks of desperation and a lack of confidence.

So again, does China look like a country that cannot fail, or is it a case of China finally being found out for what it really is?

Taiwan, China moving in different directions

One week from today, Taiwan will hold nationwide municipal, county and community elections on the 24th, as well as 10 referendums which the Taiwanese public can all vote on. This will be the latest example in recent months of how Taiwanese enjoy strong political and civic freedoms.

Last mont, Taipei held its annual Gay Pride parade on October 27, which saw over 100,000 participants enjoy themselves in East Asia’s largest such parade. The previous Saturday, October 20, Taipei also saw another massive rally, a pro-independence/anti-annexation event that also had many tens of thousands attending. The two events were not linked in any way, but they shared something in common as vivid examples of how completely different Taiwan is from China.

While Taiwan allows its citizens to enjoy a wide range of political and civic freedoms, China is ramping up censorship while further restricting its citizens’ rights. Over the last few years, China has cracked down on journalists, activists, and human rights lawyers and detained them incommunicado. Let us not also forget the country’s most famous actress, and the head of Interpol, who have both gone missing after being kidnapped by Chinese authorities. And most disturbing of all, there is the ongoing crisis in Xinjiang where China has imprisoned over a million of its minority Uyghurs.

The two sides could not be any further in terms of political systems and culture and freedoms enjoyed by their respective citizens. Yet China stubbornly claims Taiwan as an “indispensable part” of China and frequently issues warnings to the US and other countries regarding Taiwan.

What also made the two Taipei mass rallies in November striking is that attendees were not there just for a good time, but to criticize the government, something that is obviously impossible in China. Of course, protests do occur in China but they are met with violent and heavy-handed responses from the authorities and censored reporting.

At the Gay Pride parade, amid a festive atmosphere, participants called on the ruling DPP government to make good on their pre-election promise to allow same-sex marriage. The government has not done so yet, and there is a possibility of this being overturned due to two referendum items put forward by conservative groups in next week’s municipal elections which seek to ban same-sex marriage. There are also two referendum items in support of same-sex marriage in the November election (yes, this means there are competing items on the same referendum list), making for a total of 10 referendum items, something which both demonstrates the quirkiness and the progress of public participation in Taiwanese politics.

The pro-independence rally was organized by the Formosa Alliance, a civil society group whose main aim is to push for Taiwan to be able to change its official name through popular referendum, something which would be interpreted as pushing for de jure independence. While Taiwan citizens can vote for many issues through referendum, such as in the upcoming elections, constitutional issues such as Taiwan’s official name, currently the Republic of China, are off limits. The authorities are reluctant to allow this because if this succeeds, China would very likely use this as an excuse to use military force to attack.

However, the fact that citizens can still vote on 10 referendum items in November is another sign of civic progress in Taiwan. Whereas Taiwanese have been allowed to vote on referendums from 2003, rules were overhauled this January to lower the threshold for proposing and putting referendum on ballots as well as lower the minimum required voting turnout.

Taiwan’s strong media, political and civic freedoms have been acknowledged in other forms. The Oslo Freedom Forum was held just last week in Taipei, the first time it has even been held in Asia. Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders set up its first-ever Asia bureau in Taiwan last year, having reportedly considered Hong Kong, which in the past would have an undisputed choice for international organizations setting up a regional office.

China might still use stupid threats and hollow Cold War-era arguments to try to claim Taiwan belongs to it. But events like the Gay Pride parade and the anti-independence rally and the upcoming referendums demonstrate vividly why these claims of Taiwan being part of China are so foolish.

Taiwan faces many serious problems such as a sluggish economy, stagnant salaries, a decreasing birthrate, and environmental issues, but it is surging ahead with civic and political freedoms. In this, Taiwan is moving in the right direction even while China is going further in the wrong one.

Taiwan cross-country photo roundup

Taoyuan Airport, Taiwan
I’ve spent over six years living in Taiwan and have called this island nation home during most of my time in Asia, but I haven’t traveled to that many places here. However, I have visited all the big cities, all the counties in the north, and most of the counties in Taiwan. Here’s a photo tour of Taiwan, featuring the cities and counties I have visited.

The capital Taipei is in the north, surrounded by New Taipei City, which formerly used to be Taipei County and is still more of a collection of large towns and villages than an actual city. On the northern coast is Keelung, a port city which has a distinct status as a provincial city.

Taipei skyline
Sanxia, New Taipei City, Taiwan
Sanxia, one of New Taipei City’s many districts
Keelung, Taiwan
Keelung harbourfront

The other big cities include Taichung, in the central, Kaohsiung, in the south, and Tainan, Taiwan’s oldest city (and perhaps most interesting), and also in the south. All three of these cities, like Taipei, are located along the west coast. Continue reading “Taiwan cross-country photo roundup”

Rallying for Taiwan

On the weekend, a massive anti-annexation rally was held in Taipei. Many tens of thousands (organizers claimed over 100,000) of people showed up, even coming from southern Taiwan, to listen to speakers and performers. Their message was to demand a referendum on changing Taiwan’s official name, because Taiwan is an independent country, is not part of China, and deserves to be a recognized member of the international community. That’s what the anti-annexation means, to resist China’s claims to Taiwan and threats of force to annex Taiwan.

The organizers, the newly-formed Formosa Alliance, want the government to approve a public referendum to allow Taiwanese to vote on whether Taiwan should change its official name from the Republic of China (ROC)* to Taiwan. The government is reluctant to do so, even though the Democratic Progressive Party, is in power. This is because it is very concerned that China would see this move as an attempt to claim independence, which Taiwan already has de facto, but not de jure. As such, the local authorities refused to allow the rally to be held in front of the Presidential Office and the DPP banned its candidates (for the upcoming November nationwide local elections) from attending.

I attended due to both curiosity and because I genuinely believe Taiwan is a country and that it needs to assert this. Even though Taiwan’s government has to be wary about what it says and does due to the threat and pressure from China, Taiwan’s civil society can still speak up for the people. I also feel that there will come a time when push comes to shove, and Taiwan cannot back down and be quiet.

Having arrived midway, I went to the secondary site, bordering the main site, where the speakers were being broadcast on a large screen. Even at this smaller site, there were several thousand people. Many were old people, which was not surprising, but there were some middle-aged and a few young people. The majority of the speakers spoke in Taiwanese Hoklo, which is different from Mandarin and a language I can’t understand, but I was definitely able to sense their passion and underlying sentiment. There were former politicians, a Christian pastor, and a few candidates from smaller opposition parties. Each of them gave fiery and enthusiastic speeches.

I don’t often go to rallies, even though I’ve lived in Taiwan for years, but I don’t think this would be my last.

*The ROC name is a holdover from when the KMT regime ruled China from 1911-1949. Having lost the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s to the Communists, who still rule China, the KMT fled to Taiwan and ruled it as an authoritarian regime. Unlike China, Taiwan became democratic gradually from the 1980s and has become one of the world’s most liberal and open nations. Unfortunately, due to the claim of China that Taiwan belongs to it, less than 20 countries recognize Taiwan as an official country. The UN also does not recognize Taiwan and does not allow it to participate. In the multilateral organizations that Taiwan is able to be a member of such as the Olympics and APEC, Taiwan does so under an artificial name like Chinese Taipei. Taiwan is thus unable to fully be a member of the global community as the ROC or as Taiwan.

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan Taipei, TaiwanAnti-annexation rally, Taiwan
Companion rally at a third site adjacent to the secondary site that was going on at the same time