Sadly for folks like myself, The News Lens International doesn’t seem interested in commissioning original work from freelancers (although I did one profile piece for them soon after they launched), but at least so far they’re making a good job of selecting and sharing items published elsewhere. A lot of the articles and blog entries they’ve posted deserve a wider audience, and it’s gratifying to see features I wrote for both Taiwan Business Topics and Life of Taiwan appear on their site.
For the October/November issue of Scoot, the inflight magazine of the Singapore-based airline with the same name, I wrote two short columns on what to do, see and eat in the cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung. For the capital, among the tips I give are to visit the National Museum of History if you want to see some ancient Chinese artefacts without having to fight your way through the crowds which often pack the better-known National Palace Museum; and to enjoy cocktails at Alchemy. The two highlights I chose for Kaohsiung are Maolin's spectacular butterfly migration, and Gangshan's wintertime signature dish, mutton hot pot. The October/November issue, as well as previous issues, can be read online here. The photo here is one of mine and shows the old harbor mouth and Qihou Lighthouse.
Not long ago, if an abandoned building occupied prime real estate in one of Taiwan’s cities, demolition so the site could be redeveloped was almost inevitable. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, when the island’s economy was white hot, countless structures of historic or aesthetic importance were bulldozed. Attitudes have changed, fortunately. Taiwanese people now embrace their architectural heritage, and are trying to carry the best if it into the future. Rather than consign old homes and factories to the wrecking ball, dozens of places have been done up and given new roles. One of the best known examples is Huashan 1914 Creative Park in downtown Taipei. This former winery was established in 1914 (hence the name) and slated for razing when, in an episode much celebrated by social activists, a theater troupe marched in and took over. The actors argued that the warehouses were ideal spaces for rehearsals and performances. The government relented, and the Creative Park was born. There’s a similar story behind Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, 4km to the east. The surviving part of a 1930s tobacco-processing complex (much was cleared to make way for not-yet-finished Taipei Dome), the park hosts the Taiwan Design Museum as well as temporary exhibitions. The pond and surrounding foliage sustains valuable biodiversity in a neighborhood dominated by concrete and motor vehicles. As society becomes more health conscious, it’s very appropriate that places which used to make booze and cigarettes are given new and entirely wholesome reasons to exist. The main part of National Taiwan Museum was built in 1913-15 to commemorate the achievements of Japanese officials who ruled Taiwan soon after it came under Tokyo’s control in 1895, but the museum’s expansion makes innovative use of nearby landmarks. The NTM first took over a columned monolith that served as a bank branch between 1933 and 2006. Inside, there’s lots of information about dinosaurs, fossils, and the land reforms which had a radical impact on rural Taiwan in the 1950s. More recently, the NTM opened its Nanmen Park campus, just over 1km away on a site where the Japanese colonial authorities processed camphor and opium. The oldest extant building there is the two-story “White Palace.” It dates from 1902, and was constructed using stones retrieved when the Japanese authorities demolished Taipei’s city wall.
For decades, sugar accounted for more than half of Taiwan’s exports by value. However, because other countries are able to produce the commodity far more cheaply, the industry has gradually dwindled to almost nothing. The number of active sugar refineries across Taiwan has fallen from 49 to just three. Several have been demolished, but some are now cultural facilities. Two of the latter in southwest Taiwan are easy to reach by train. Between 1901 and 1999, the refinery at Qiaotou in Kaohsiung processed up to 1,000 tonnes of sugarcane per day. The 20-hectare complex - which includes staff dormitories and air-raid shelters, as well as buildings in which the cane was stored or crushed - is almost totally intact. Baroque and Japanese features excite architecture buffs, but go unnoticed by many visitors. Most of the latter come for a short ride on one of the narrow-gauge trains which used to bring in cane from nearby plantations, or to see a performance by the resident Ten Drum Art Percussion Group. Qiaotou is the second former sugar refinery utilized by Ten Drum. Since 2007, the group’s main base has been what’s now called Ten Drum Culture Village in Tainan’s Rende District, near Chimei Museum. Under the terms of their contract with Taiwan Sugar Company - the state-run corporation which still owns most of Taiwan’s refineries, as well as a great deal of land - Ten Drum is also responsible for preserving the local ecosystem and the site’s sugar-industry relics. One of the performance spaces at Rende is brick-lined cistern where water heated during the refining process was left to cool. Another is inside the principal building; as the audience enters or leaves, they pass immense vats and a tangle of pipework. In terms of visitor numbers, one of the most successful (and in design terms quite radical) building-repurposing projects of recent years is Miyahara Ophthalmology. Built in Taichung’s old downtown for Takekuma Miyahara, a Japanese-born ophthalmologist, this 1927 red-brick structure long served as an eye hospital. By 2008, however, it was in a terrible state due to neglect compounded by typhoons and tremors. Then a local confectionery company saw an opportunity, purchased the ruin, and gave it a thorough makeover. The facade was cleaned and preserved, but missing corners were not replaced. Inside, holes in the brickwork which once held wooden beams were left unfilled. However, the building was extended upward to make space for a restaurant above small shops which sell pineapple cakes, tea and other edible souvenirs. If one looks only at the street-level arcade, Miyahara Ophthalmology resembles an “old street” like that in Kaohsiung’s Qishan District. But from across the road, its hybrid personality is obvious. In the same part of city, the government has established Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park (where both photos here were taken), part of its efforts to nurture startups in broadcasting, design, and related fields. Many of the park’s buildings used to form part of a winery, and this aspect of the site’s history is celebrated in the Liquor Culture Museum (admission free; displays in Chinese and English). As at some other ex-industrial sites, artists have been invited to add vibrancy and color to what would otherwise be drab infrastructure. It’s easy to spend an hour exploring the park. Kaohsiung’s cultural-creative industries hub is its old waterfront where, thanks to the relocation of the harbor’s cargo-handling facilities, a great deal of land has been freed up. A warehouse here once used solely to store bananas (another of yesteryear’s major exports) is now known as Banana Wharf; the shops inside are often the first place visited by disembarking cruise-ship passengers. Another set of warehouses has been refashioned into Pier-2 Art Center. It’s a venue for performances and exhibitions, but real work also gets done. Among the digital-content outfits which have established a physical presence near Pier-2 are companies from the US and Japan. Pier-2 is the location of another interesting structure. It isn’t a repurposed building as such, but a building made of 12 recycled intermodal shipping containers. The lower part of this experiment in “cargotecture” is a lounge for tourists waiting to join boat excursions. Atop two vertically-positioned containers, there’s an observatory which offers good views over the harbor and the ocean. In addition to alluring edifices which have gained a new reason for being, there are also old buildings which, after an interval of decades, have had both their appearance and original function restored. One is the 92-year-old Xinhua Butokuden in Greater Tainan, on which almost US$700,000 was lavished between 2011 and 2013. In the daytime, visitors take photographs of this graceful and quintessentially Japanese structure. During the evening, the springed floor shakes as young people practice kendo and judo, just as it did in their grandparents’ childhood. This is the unedited longer version of the article I wrote for October's En Voyage, the inflight magazine of EVA Air. To see the published version, click here.
I've been writing web content and marketing materials for Life of Taiwan since the British-owned tour company was established in 2011, and at a the end of last month I took on a new responsibility. I now provide content for the company's just-launched blog. I expect to write a mix of seasonally relevant and 'evergreen' content, the former sometimes answering questions we've received from people contemplating a trip to Taiwan ('Is autumn a good season for visiting Taiwan?'), the latter highlighting intriguing facets of the country's culture, history and natural splendour. The blog will also feature occasional interviews with travel writers, photographers and others who have interesting things to say about Taiwan, and we're open to ideas for guest posts.
Taiwan has long been an important producer of yachts and sailboats, though it is only recently that recreational boating has finally begun to catch on. One in every three new yachts sold in the United States between 1977 and 1981 was made in Taiwan. In 1987, the island exported 1,755 vessels worth US$190.8 million. Over 100 yacht-builders operated in Taiwan during that period, even though regulations initiated in the martial-law era made it illegal for Taiwan residents to own leisure craft until 2010. After the initial boom came two busts. Between 1986 and 1992, the NT dollar appreciated 58% against the US dollar, substantially raising the cost of Taiwanese vessels in their most important market. At the beginning of 1990, in addition, the U.S. government imposed a luxury tax on yachts and private airplanes. And like other manufacturing enterprises in Taiwan, boat builders faced rising land and labor costs. By 1994, dozens of boatyards had gone out of business. Taiwan’s yacht sales rebounded to US$323.5 million in 2008. But exports crashed in the wake of the global financial crisis, bottoming out at US$144 million in 2010. Since then, the industry has clawed its way to slightly better health. According to U.S.-based yacht magazine ShowBoats International, in 2015 Taiwan was the no. 6 builder of yachts in the world, behind Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Britain, and the United States. In 2014 – when Taiwan’s exports totaled US$172 million – the country ranked no. 7. Two Taiwanese companies appeared on the magazine’s 2015 list of the world’s 30 leading yacht builders. Ranked according to total length of new builds the previous year, the Horizon Group was no. 10 (up one spot from 2014), while Ocean Alexander was no. 14 (up from no. 22). “These rankings show the quality and technology of Taiwan’s yacht manufacturers has gained international recognition,” says Hsueh Po-yuan, chief of the Marine Industries Section of the Kaohsiung City Government Marine Bureau. Both Horizon and Ocean Alexander are based in Kaohsiung. Yet many of the 39 yacht-building member companies of the Taiwan Yacht Industry Association (TYIA) continue to struggle. “There’s been a shakeout in Taiwan,” says Johnny Chueh, head of sales at Ocean Alexander, which does business in the United States as Alexander Marine International. “Two companies – we’re one, Horizon is the other – generate 80% of Taiwan’s yacht-building revenue. The smaller yacht makers are fighting over the other 20%.” Chueh argues that if Taiwan’s yacht builders are to thrive in the face of rising costs, they must build ever-larger yachts. “As you go upmarket, your track record and brand become increasingly important,” he says. “Price isn’t the main factor determining purchasing decisions.” He attributes Ocean Alexander’s success to never having built yachts for other companies. “From day one, we worked on our own brand. That has given us a deep understanding of customers’ needs and trends. Also, we’ve been among the first in the world to introduce certain technologies to yachts, such as resin vacuum infusion, aerospace electrical systems, and aerospace-grade paints.” In 1980, Ocean Alexander sold 29 yachts with an average length of 45 feet. In 2000, it built 25 yachts averaging 62 feet each, and in 2010 the output was 10 yachts averaging 74 feet. The number of boats sold in 2015 was the same as 2010, but the average size had increased to 92 feet. “We’ve seen a reduction in units, but a steady growth in revenue,” says Chueh, whose father, the late Alex Chueh, founded the company in 1977. “For the price of a single 90-foot yacht, you can buy 20 45-foot vessels.” Longer boats are invariably wider and taller, and larger boats tend to have more expensive fittings, he points out. “In recent years, none of our boats have gone to Taiwan customers. Most of our sales have been to the U.S., with 10% to 20% going to Europe.” When Boat International Media Ltd. published its 2016 Global Order Book in late 2015, Ocean Alexander was working on 35 yachts, the largest being a 155-foot vessel for delivery in 2018. The smallest were 85-foot boats. According to the same source, Horizon was building 21 yachts. Only one other Taiwanese company had more than three projects underway: Kha Shing Enterprises Co. Ltd., with seven orders. Kha Shing, which trades as KSE / Monte Fino Yachts, was the world’s no. 9 yacht builder in 2004. As recently as 2013, it ranked no. 17. Kha Shing, which like Horizon and Ocean Alexander is based in Kaohsiung, also renovates old yachts. Whereas Ocean Alexander has continued to focus on the U.S. market, Horizon responded to the challenges of the late 1980s by seeking customers in other parts of the world. “After 1989, we started to target the European, Australian, and Asian markets,” explains John Lu, Horizon’s CEO. “During the early 1990s, more than half Horizon’s output went to Europe, but sales to Australia and Asia have increased steadily since 2010,” says Lu. “In 2015, the U.S. accounted for over 60% of our sales volume, with Australia being the second largest market. Since our establishment, about one in three orders have come from repeat customers...”
To read the rest of this lengthy article, go to Taiwan Business Topics' webpages here, or to the version posted on The News Lens. The photos are courtesy of Horizon Group.
Which city has two botanical gardens compared to Taipei’s one, a reservoir said to have been dug by the Dutch in the 17th century, and Taiwan’s only Japanese colonial-era former jail [pictured right] open to the public? If your answer is Chiayi, you almost certainly live there.
The city (population: 271, 000) is surrounded by yet administratively separate from Chiayi County. Whereas the county stretches from abandoned saltpans on the coast to the western slopes of Yushan, Chiayi City covers a mere 60 square kilometers. It has no shoreline, and no point is more than 99.4m above sea level. Chiayi is also the hometown of the first Taiwanese artist to win fame beyond the island. In 1926, Chen Cheng-po (1895—1947) became the first Taiwanese painter to have a work included in Japan’s most prestigious art exhibition. Chen’s works, which embody both Chinese landscape-painting conventions and aspects of Modernism, continue to be very popular; his 1935 Sunset at Danshui fetched US$6.5m when auctioned in 2007. But these days he is remembered as much for the way he died as for his artistic achievements.
Chen was a member of Chiayi’s city council when the February 28 Incident erupted. With other local leaders, he approached Nationalist Army units, hoping to begin negotiations. He and three others were immediately arrested; on March 25, 1947, they were marched to the train station and shot dead. The military authorities forbade their families from collecting the corpses immediately; the remains of Chen and the others were left to decompose on the street for several days. Surprisingly, there is nothing at the station — not even a simple plaque — to memorialize this grisly event.
Tourists need not go out of their way to see Chen’s paintings. Reproductions have been set on steel easels at various points around the city, including several in the park across the road from the small Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum (228-12 Guohua St; open: 9am to midday and 1pm to 5pm, Mon—Fri; free admission).
The front section of the Chen Cheng-po Cultural and 2-28 Museum displays duplicates of more than 30 of Chen’s paintings, along with bilingual commentaries. The back room is given over to Chinese-language information about the 2-28 Incident in Chiayi. Chen also makes an appearance at Chiayi Municipal Museum (275 Zhongxiao Road; open: 9am to 5pm, Tue—Sun; free admission), where visitors will also find some interesting fossils and a great deal of geological information.
More unusual is the ceramics collection in the basement of the Cultural Affairs Bureau building between the museum and the main road. The Koji Pottery Museum (open: 9am to 5pm Tue—Sun; free admission) is a good introduction to the gorgeous art form that is sometimes called Cochin ware, and which is a key element of Taiwanese temple decoration.
Unfortunately, the municipal museum says little about Chiayi’s past. The city’s written history begins in the 1640s, when Dutch East India Company officials passed through an aboriginal village hereabouts. The Dutch — who are said to have later created Lantan, the 2km2 scenic body of water in the city’s eastern suburbs — spelled the village’s name Tilaossen. Fujianese settlers called it Tirosen, and rendered it in characters which Mandarin speakers pronounce Zhuluoshan.Because Zhuluoshan’s inhabitants successfully resisted Lin Shuang-wen’s anti-Qing rebel army in 1786, Emperor Qianlong in Beijing rewarded them with a more distinguished toponym name: Jiayi in Mandarin (Kagi in both Taiwanese and Japanese), meaning “commendable righteousness.”
After an earthquake flattened the city in 1906, the colonial authorities reorganized the city, giving it the straight but narrow roads it has today. The following year, work started on the narrow-gauge railroad which eventually reached Alishan. Large-scale logging around Alishan was halted in the 1960s, but the impact of the timber trade on the city remains very visible. The pond outside the Cultural Affairs Bureau is far older than the building; red cypress trunks from the mountains were kept in it so they would not crack or warp in the heat of the lowlands.
All over Taiwan, individual wooden bungalows from the Japanese era or just after have been restored and repurposed. What makes Hinoki Village (aka Cypress Forest Life Village) unique is the scale of the project. The village comprises 28 buildings, most of which were dormitories for forest-management officials and their families. The most elegant, however, is a 1914 cream-colored former clubhouse [pictured immediately above] with Tudor architectural elements. The village does not have much historic atmosphere, but it is photogenic, and a good place to stop for a coffee.
A string of minor attractions links Hinoki Village with Chiayi TRA Railway Station, 1.6km away. At the time of writing, Chiayi Lumber Factory was closed for renovation, and Chiayi Motive Power Wood Sculpture Museum — a former power station — was between exhibitions. The narrow-gauge rolling stock on display at Alishan Garage Park will appeal to rail enthusiasts, and Beimen Station’s wood-walled, tile-roofed ticket office/waiting room looks as quaint as ever.
Beimen Station is less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Former Chiayi Prison (140 Weixin Road; open: Wed—Sun; free admission). Between 1922 and 1994, this jail held up to 300 male convicts, plus 30 women in segregated facilities. Inmates were held in three wings arranged so the corridors could be surveilled by a single officer from his desk. The main doors, made of yellow cypress from Alishan, the workshops in which convicts labored, and the bathhouse where they washed, have all been preserved. Visitors can only enter at certain times (9.30am, 10.30am, 1.30pm and 2.30pm) and must stay close to the guide. Call (05) 276-9574 in advance and it may be possible to arrange an English-language tour.
Among facts often related by the guides are that male staff, including the warden himself, were forbidden from entering the women’s section; and that inmates trying to escape over the wall often hurt themselves jumping down on the other side. Some limped around the corner to St Martin de Porres Hospital (founded in 1966 using money donated by American Catholics), where they were treated before being returned to captivity.
The city’s liveliest religious site is ChengHuang Temple (168 Wufeng North Rd; open: 5.30am to 9pm daily), which was founded exactly 300 years ago. As its name suggests, the main deity here is the city god, Chenghuangye, and his effigy is in the very centre on the first floor. The temple was important enough to escape the ravages of the Kominka Movement in the late 1930s; that campaign by the Japanese authorities to “Nipponify” its colony resulted in the demolition or conversion to secular use of at least sixty shrines in Chiayi. Among the 600-plus icons inside Cheng Huang Temple are representations of Mazu and Guanyin, as well as heaven’s matchmaker, the Old Man under the Moon. Beizihtou Botanical Garden is adored by birdwatchers but gets few other visitors, despite having such arboreal wonders as Garcinia subelliptica and Canaga odorata. The first, sometimes called the Happiness Tree, bears a fruit resembling the satsuma and related to the mangosteen. However, the leaves are more valuable; in the Taiwan of yore they were used to produce a yellowish dye. In Chinese as well as English, the second is also the Perfume Tree. Stand downwind, and you will notice a pleasant fragrance.
Like Beizihtou, Chiayi Arboretum was established during the early years of Japan’s 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan. At 8.3 hectares, it is nearly twice the size of Beizihtou. Almost all the trails are shaded; the canopy is impressively dense thanks to a range of tree species, including teak, mahogany, and hoop pines (Araucaria cunninghamii Sweet).
Chiayi Park, adjacent to the arboretum, includes a few notable structures. Near the bland Confucius Temple is the 62m-high ChiayiTower (open: 9am to 5pm Wed—Fri, 9am to 9pm Sat). If the weather is clear, do buy a ticket for the tenth-floor observatory (NT$50 for adults; children NT$25). The Shinto shrine that once stood here was demolished long ago, but the shrine’s former office survives in the form of Chiayi City Historical Relic Data Museum [lower picture in this post]. The displays inside are unlikely to engross you, but the sublime exterior is perhaps the city’s single most beautiful spectacle. Admission is free.
Few new museums have been as highly anticipated as the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum (NPM). Rather than simply provide additional exhibition space for the world-renowned NPM in Taipei, the Southern Branch’s stated mission is, according to the Executive Yuan’s website, to be “a world-class museum of Asian art and culture.”
According to the original plan, the museum was to have been designed by US architect Antoine Predock and ready by 2008. But Predock quit the project before construction began. He was eventually replaced by Kris Yao, a Taiwanese architect best known for LanyangMuseum. Another deadline came and went in 2012, but Yao’s edifice — which some compare to a giant black slug — was given a soft opening on December 28 last year.
The Southern Branch offers five permanent exhibitions, among them a brief and mostly monolingual look at the history of Chiayi, and a multimedia gallery where three videos introducing Asian art are played (none has English subtitles).Far more engaging are the sections on tea culture in East Asia, in which you will learn that steeping tea leaves in hot water is a relatively modern method of preparing the drink, and on Buddhist artifacts drawn from the NPM’s collection. The highlight of the latter is a kangyur (a compilation of Buddha’s sayings) in Tibetan script created for the Emperor Kangxi in 1669. Although the individual pages are quite plain, the boards made to protect and separate parts of the canon are quite fabulous, and call to mind the illuminated manuscripts drawn by Christian monks in medieval Europe.
Of the temporary exhibitions, the most remarkable continues until October 12 this year. Treasures from Across the Kunlun Mountains: Islamic Jades in the NPM Collection features dozens of lustrous tea cups, spittoons, Quran stands, and other items fashioned from nephrite or jadeite. Several are inlaid with precious stones or gold thread. Some originated from Mughal India or the Ottoman Empire, and were gifted to Qing Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735 to 1796), who then had poetry inscribed on many of the bowls and plates.
For details of forthcoming exhibitions, see the museum's website.Like Chimei Museum, access to the NPM Southern Branch is limited to those who make online reservations in advance. Standard admission is NT$250, but until June 30 residents of Yunlin and Chiayi counties and Tainan and Chiayi cities can get in for free, so long as they hold ROC citizenship. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Sunday.The southern branch is located in Chiayi County’s Taibao City. Every half hour, a shuttle bus connects the museum with Chiayi HSR Station, 4.6km away (NT$24 one way). The museum’s bus stop is 530m from the entrance — the parking lots are not significantly closer — so visitors get a good look at the 70-hectare grounds before stepping inside. In a few years, when the trees have grown a bit, the surroundings should look magnificent.
This isn't the version which appeared in the magazine's recent travel and culture special issue, but rather a shortened version of the article as I submitted it. The editor decided the National Palace Museum Southern Branch was the most newsworthy element, so moved that segment to the front. The published piece (and some excellent articles by other writers) can be read online.
If an exhibition center wants to be taken seriously – yet displays a stuffed polar bear across the corridor from medieval Indian weaponry, while oil paintings by the likes of Anthony van Dyck share the upper floor with jukeboxes – it had better state its mission clearly. Chimei Museum, which reopened in a purpose-built landmark building at the start of 2015, does all of these things.
Since the early 1990s, bentuhua (“localization”) has been a powerful force in Taiwan’s cultural sphere. The National Museum of Taiwan History, 14 kilometers from Chimei Museum in another part of Tainan, is the finest expression of this trend. But despite being founded by a man who served as a senior presidential advisor to Chen Shui-bian, Chimei Museum tacks in an utterly different direction.
Shi Wen-long, the tycoon behind the museum, was born in 1928. He founded what is now the Chi Mei Group in 1960. In addition to manufacturing acrylics, resins, and consumer electronics, the group operates three hospitals.
Shi has been passionate about museums since his youth. He was fortunate enough to attend an elementary school near one, and recalls in the preface to the book Highlights of the Chimei Collection: “For a child, free admission to a museum full of wonderful treasures was so fascinating that I spent most of my time after school there. This museum not only gave me vivid childhood memories, but also inspired me to later build a museum for the public. The founding essence of the museum has always been ‘to promote music comprehensible to the common ears, and to collect paintings beautiful to the common eyes.’”
The young Shi also fell in love with the sound of the violin. Because his family was unable to afford an instrument, he fashioned his own, taught himself to play, and eventually became a talented musician.
“Chimei Museum aims through its collection to demonstrate art history and the lineage of violin luthiers. Our current acquisition policy focuses on completing the mapping of these historical puzzles,” says Patricia Liao, the museum’s deputy director. “Mr. Shi’s dream is to start a cultural renaissance in Tainan. He has selected artworks which Taiwan residents would otherwise have to spend an enormous amount of time and money to view in person. This is why his collection is mostly Western works of art. Our job is to help him choose works that enhance the museum’s educational functions.”
The museum holds approximately 12,000 items. By comparison, Taipei’s National Palace Museum (NPM) has close to 700,000. Despite having a brand-new, specially designed building, Chimei Museum shares one problem with the NPM: Not enough space to put everything it owns on display...
The complete article appears in the July 2016 issue of Taiwan Business Topics, and is online here.