Favorite News Cliches that Inaccurately Describe Taiwan

Serious journalistic interest in Taiwan among the western media typically ebbs and flows with Taiwan’s presidential election cycle, unless it is an issue of immediate military or economic importance to China or the US. Yet though the stories may differ, the language that’s used to describe key details often rehashes some well-established clichés.

By Stuart Hill

It’s not unexpected that journalists will write from and appeal to the perspectives of their readership. So when writing about Taiwan, the key themes often concern regional military stability and freedom of trade (in which the US and China have a huge vested interest), various forms of territorial competition and, more recently, the beacon of light that Taiwan represents for all Chinese people.

Taiwan’s history is dominated by a narrative of economic exploitation from opportunistic powers from within Asia and Europe. At the same time, there is a pattern of cultural colonialism that has seen the dispossession of Taiwan’s aboriginal inhabitants and the domination of local elites by multiple waves of more powerful external forces.

It’s in this context that today’s reporting about Taiwan is heavily framed by the last big influx of settlers to Taiwan, who happen to have fled the Chinese Communist Party after World War II and secured an ally in the United States, especially leading up to the Second World War, then later the Cold War.

Taiwan Mainland Map

Looking back at the large landmass it had escaped, Taiwan’s KMT could be excused for its description of China as the Mainland. Less than 14 kilometers separates China from Taiwan’s most outlying islands of Kinmen and both the KMT and CCP have held dreams of unifying the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. It’s still China’s key goal for any concessions it makes to Taiwan’s business and political leaders.


The language used around these events, and the wording used to define these relationships, still heavily influences the way Taiwan is described in the media today.

Here are some examples.

Mainland China

It’s almost impossible to hear or see something written by a journalist concerning Taiwan without this cliché appearing somewhere. It really is a lazy term that appears almost by default as the journalist’s only adjective to describe China, notwithstanding the classic “Red China”.

This term is a politically loaded way of differentiating between a China run by the Chinese Communist Party – what everyone today would understand to be China – and the part of “China” under the control of the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT) that fled from China and imposed itself on the remnants of Japan’s relinquished colony (with US help) which we know as Taiwan. After the Second World War, Chiang Kai Shek’s “Republic of China on Taiwan” had plans to take back “mainland China” by force, but it never eventuated.

Today, the possibility of a China that includes a mainland and “islands” is still justified by early Chinese imperial maps that ascribe ownership of these islands to China. Meanwhile the ongoing use of this language is a convenient point of difference for the US government’s support of a Free China (on Taiwan). Yet, in the context of a world where Taiwan and China are both separate political entities, there is no “non-mainland China”, there is only China.

To see how easy it is to get confused about which China is really China, take a look here:


1992 Consensus

Forget that the original consensus never existed between KMT and CCP delegates over the statement “there is only one China and that each side has its own interpretation”. Let’s also forget that the existence of any consensus was actually a huge KMT fib to make the same meeting appear to have achieved something of importance.

Fast forward a few years down the track to find the Chinese Communist Party clinging to its own definition of the KMT-inspired “1992 Consensus” as a non-negotiable pre-condition for any dialog about the future of Taiwan.

As with many discussions about Taiwan, it boils down to a patchy reconciliation between two Chinese adversaries dating back to the Chinese Civil War, with only President Ma Ying-Jeou and his KMT and President Xi Jinping and his CCP deciding that they had reached a new consensus on a lie about something that never even happened.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rejects the “consensus” on the basis that it does not effectively represent the beliefs or aspirations of all Taiwanese. In this dramatic love triangle, there really is no consensus.

1992 consensus

“Communist Party chief Xi Jinping yesterday told honorary Kuomintang chairman Lien Chan that the mainland would respect Taiwan’s choices so long as both sides negotiate under the “one China” principle. ‘We respect Taiwan people’s choices of their social system and lifestyle,’ Xi told Lien at their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse yesterday. But he also warned that cross-strait ties would be affected if both sides were not willing to adhere to the ‘one China’ principle under the so-called 1992 consensus.” (South China Morning Post, 19 Feb, 2014)

Read the article from the South China Morning Post where it refers to the 1992 Consensus and one-china principle.

Taiwan, the Renegade Province

You could imagine this phrase to be lifted straight from the Terms and Definitions pages of Xinhua News Agency describing Taiwan in the 1950s, but today’s repeated use in respected publications like The Washington Post surely does little more than denigrate the legitimacy of Taiwan’s long-standing self-government. Given that all hopes of “retaking the mainland” died along with KMT leader Chiang Kai Shek in the 1970s, and with borders that are clearly defined by the surrounding sea, it’s hard to imagine Taiwan as a provocative rebel base ready to stage an imminent take-over of China.

It wasn’t so during the 1950s to 60s, and Taiwan’s outlying islands are evidence of the huge battles that took place between the communist and nationalist forces over the right to command China. In China’s defense, Taiwan does have smaller islands in extremely close proximity to its coast which can be reached by fairly conventional cannons, and could be some justification for the hundreds of missiles China has deployed to “defend” its borders and get ready to take back this “breakaway province”.

But to continue describing Taiwan’s democratically elected president and parliament, its legal system, military system, education system, and economy as that of a renegade province is a bit of a dramatic stretch. As Issac Stonefish says, even the Chinese just call the place Taiwan, Province of China.

Taiwan as renegade province

“China has protested to the United States after Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington hoisted a Taiwanese flag on New Year’s Day, and urged the US to respect the ‘One China’ policy. The US State Department said it had not been notified in advance of the ceremony and it was inconsistent with US policy. China deems Taiwan a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force to take it back, particularly if the island makes a move towards independence. The One China policy holds that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it.” (Stuff.co.nz 16 Jan, 2015)

Read the full Stuff.co.nz article.

Read Issac Stonefish’s plea to today’s media: “Stop Calling Taiwan a Renegade Province”

Taiwan Strait Status Quo

A decade or so ago, the status quo between Taiwan and China was still being dominated by the notions of Taiwan as a stateless entity, with sovereignty to be resolved. Taiwan was a place, not a nation, and as long as the ROC “authorities” did not redefine Taiwan as a nation, the question of ownership could remain a topic for future discussion between the KMT and CCP.

What complicated all this theory was the fact that the Republic of China (ROC) was established in China in 1911 with its own constitution, army and governmental structures, and these were imported with the KMT when it fled to Taiwan. Yes, it brought national institutions with it and then set about governing people – through military dictatorship initially.

That’s also why Taiwan has China Airlines, China Steel, “Chinese” Telecom, “Chinese” Post, China Petroleum Corp, etc., all government established businesses. This is why Taiwan today, still officially the ROC, operates as a fully functioning social and political entity; albeit without the recognition of many other nations.

At the political level, an uneasy, unofficial truce between both sides of the Taiwan strait held together an atmosphere of delicate peace, that allowed economies to prosper and each society to evolve. As Taiwan’s society and political dynamic gradually transformed into something less authoritarian and more democratic, the status quo slipped into a feeling of “keeping things the way they are” – though no-one ever dared elaborate what that actually referred to.

And here we are today, where “keeping things the way they are” means maintaining the institutions of a normally functioning democratic nation. Thus today’s status quo means a society where free choice is the norm, where society is run by an elected government, where law is adjudicated by (hopefully) an independent judiciary. Winding all that back could only be described as altering today’s status quo, which is not the same status quo the CCP desperately wants to protect.

Taiwan China Status Quo

“The summit between the mainland’s Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou created a new status quo – one that lets leaders on both sides talk on an equal footing under the ‘one China’ principle, experts say. The summit not only set a precedent for the two sides to have high-level talks but also set an example – and restrictions – for the future ruling party and president of Taiwan to accept the one-China principle if peace was to be maintained.” (South China Morning Post. 9 Nov, 2015)

See the full article from the South China Morning Post about how the KMT and CCP have shifted the definition of the status quo.

The Diplomat warns about the shifting and multiple Taiwan Status Quo definitions.

Taiwan Independence

To hear China and the US talk about Taiwan’s independence, you’d think that Taiwanese were living under an undemocratic regime, one that frequently stifles the media and book publishers, locks up lawyers and human rights proponents, places strict controls on access to social media, the internet, and foreign movies, and threatens students and academics with defunding. If we were talking about the “Republic of China on Taiwan” in the 1970s – or the People’s Republic of China of today – you would be spot on.

So what does it mean when a DPP leader is described as “pro-independence”? As if somehow the KMT welcome other people to tell them what to think and do. In fact, all Taiwanese are in support of independent thought, choice, and movement. Certainly no leader on either side of the domestic political spectrum has advocated submitting themselves to the Chinese Communist Party or any other party as the way of the future for Taiwan (though a quickly dumped presidential candidate on the KMT side did start to go there).

Indeed, the KMT is known to be “pro-unification”, but this notion stems back to their core delusion of taking back the motherland after their loss in the Chinese Civil War. In those days, unification was to be enacted with the KMT in control, and no doubt a triumphant return to the halls of power in Beijing, or Nanjing, or Chongqing, or Shanghai…wherever they felt the capital ought to be located.

Instead, Taiwanese today suffer other modern tyrannies: the tyranny of consumer choice, the tyranny of the people’s right to vote, the tyranny of bans on their national symbols (and country’s name) appearing at international events, the tyranny of unfair representation on international bodies. But they are hardly lacking their independence.

Taiwan independence debate

“I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title, I will not push forth the inclusion of the so-called “state-to-state” description in the Constitution.” Quoted from Chen Shui-bian in 2000 (BBC News, 2009)

Read about Taiwan independence as reported by the BBC in 2009

Taiwan independence

A typical response to Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections: “China’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned it would oppose any move towards independence and that Beijing was determined to defend the country’s sovereignty.” (CNBC via Reuters)


President Ma’s Easing of Tensions with China

UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s claim to fame was that he had negotiated peace with Hitler. That was before Germany began sweeping across Western Europe. It didn’t stop the blitzkrieg on London either.

You get the echoes of the past every time “peaceful relations” and “the easing of tensions” and Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou are mentioned in the same sentence. The over-arching media narrative is that since Ma was elected in 2008 (after 8 years of “trouble” caused by former President Chen Shui-bian), relations between China and Taiwan and the US have never been better.

You can definitely say that relations between the Chinese Communist Party (China’s CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Taiwan’s KMT) have never been better. The result of which has been less trouble and more cooperation. The easing of tensions has been heralded in much the same way obedience is applauded in a slave. President Ma’s trade and transport and communication deals, and his historic meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping in Singapore, reflect a renewed alignment in the ambitions and interests of the former adversaries.

So yes, at the regional level President Ma has reduced the headaches of the US, and made the Chinese feel that their unification strategy is working, but as Taiwan’s frustrated youth have highlighted through protest, and as Taiwan’s recent election results have reflected: what’s the ultimate risk and cost of Taiwan’s continued compliance?

easing of Taiwan tensions

“Relations between the two sides have improved since Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party under outgoing president Chen Shuibian was roundly defeated by the more mainland-friendly Kuomintang. ‘KMT Chairman Wu’s visit will be conducive to strengthening communication and dialogue of the two parties and will push forward the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations,’ the mainland’s Xinhua news agency reported” (AsiaNews 19 May, 2008)

To see the article about post-2008 easing of tensions in the AsiaNews.


Discover Taipei: Evergreen Maritime Museum

For shipping buffs, the Evergreen Maritime Museum should be a treasure trove of all things nautical, covering the history of shipping world-wide. Featuring a collection of maritime themed art, interactive exhibits, and no doubt the biggest collection of model ships – modern and ancient – in all of Taiwan, a half-day visit represents an intriguing and enjoyable adventure.

By Stuart Hill

Evergreen Maritime Museum Lobby

The first floor lobby provides model replicas of Asian, European and aboriginal vessels. This floor includes a gift shop and ticket counter.

The Evergreen Group is not just a well know shipping and airline brand, the ebbs and flow of its yearly revenue performance provide a bellwether for the Taiwan economy in general.

While the company itself started with a small second-hand ship in 1968, and has now become one of the world’s leading shipping fleets, the Maritime Museum only opened at its current location in 2008.

Evergreen maritime equiment

In addition to modern examples of shipping equipment, uniforms, maritime flags, and knots, the Evergreen Maritime Museum includes artwork, and detailed replicas of military, cargo, and transport vessels.

Evergreen’s buccaneering founder Dr YF Chang has amassed an enormous collection of maritime themed art and models, and his foundation has created an educational experience that provides a lot of interesting content that appeals to all ages.

The museum now occupies the old headquarters of Taiwan’s KMT party on ZhongShan South Road, located directly opposite the Presidential Office Building , which was sold to an Evergreen trust, with 5 floors converted into galleries and exhibition space.

Interactive displays at Maritime Museum

Evergreen Maritime Museum features interactive displays that provide practical information about sea trade and ship navigation.

After buying tickets on the first floor, visitors begin their journey on Floor 5 and gradually descend back to the lobby.

Floors 3-5 prohibit photography, explore the history of naval exploration, the technological development of modern shipping and an exhibition of nautically themed paintings and other artwork.

Floors 1-2 cover the equipment used for modern and ancient sailing, which covers tools for navigation, as well as new technology for communication and safety at sea.

Meanwhile tucked away in the basement is a modest restaurant/cafeteria where you can get discounts on simple meals if you also buy a ticket to the museum. The food provides the familiarity of dining on an EVA Air flight.

More Information:

Naval explorers at Maritime Museum

The Evergreen Maritime Museum covers the world history of naval exploration, travel, and transportation. You can spend half a day browsing its 5 levels. There is a cafe on the first floor and a restaurant in the basement.

Chiang Kai Shek’s Legacy at Rest

Former ROC president and Taiwanese dictator – Chiang Kai Shek – rests in his mausoleum in Cihu, a picturesque part of TaoYuan. In order to pay their respects, most visitors must pass by the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, a surreal resting place for effigies of the generalissimo.

By Stuart Hill

If the era in which you are born reflects the kind of person you eventually become, then early 20th Century China must have been a ruthless and precarious time to be alive. From the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, and the opportunistic encroachment of the Japanese in North-East China, to the vying of influence over China among the European powers, America and Russia, Chiang Kai Shek represents one of the period’s fiercest and longest survivors.

Chiang Kai Shek - Cihu Mausoleum

“One day when former president Chiang Kai Shek taking his vacation in Daxi, seeing this place was so similar to his home country, he decided to design a courtyard house called “Guesthouse of Dungkou”…Chiang Kai Shek passed away on April 5th, 1975. His son asked Mrs Chiang for permission to place the coffin here on April 7th, and the name was turned into “Cihu Mausoleum.” – on site sign at the Cihu Mausoleum.

Yet his vision for China – which eventually narrowed down to the parameters of the world he created for his political followers in Taiwan – ultimately reflected a distant reality to the world created by his long-time political opponents, and some-time allies, the Chinese Communist Party in China.

As a competitor in the Chinese race of big ideas as the basis of a reformed national government, Chiang Kai Shek was the clear loser. Despite what is echoed among those that inherited his political achievements, his “China legacy” has long been swamped by the propaganda and social development of the Chinese Communist Party. The core of his desire to free China from foreign domination and bring modernization to the country – once reinforced by the democratic ideals of his mentor Sun Yat Sen – was abandoned for the more pragmatic pressures of political exile and personal survival.

CKS statue - Wounds and Regeneration

The CKS legacy deconstructed? The deliberately incomplete remains of an 8m statue of Chiang Kai Shek is a work of art by artist Guo shao-zong called Wounds and Regeneration, one of the thousands of “relocated” statues from around Taiwan, and is now located in the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park.

In uniting disparate factions against foreign invaders, Chiang Kai Shek had maneuvered his way to lead significant sections of China’s provincial leadership and merchant classes to resist Japanese colonialism. He and his equally capable wife – Madam Chiang (Song Mei Ling) – had successfully navigated the agendas of the world powers to generate financial and military support throughout the chaos of the years between World Wars I and II and beyond. Yet his inability to lead the masses of peasants to revolutionize the way their government was run, ultimately failed in establishing a society that delivered on the dream to enfranchise the majority of Chinese. Instead he was left to impose this dream on the people of Taiwan.

Literally fighting for their lives, Chiang Kai Shek and his defeated KMT, fled to the Chinese/Japanese colony of Taiwan. With the backing of the US, he maintained his own version of China, a construct of diminishing relevance to world affairs – if international recognition was anything to go by.

Sun Yat Sen statues

Among the many faces of Chiang Kai Shek reflected throughout the Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park are several stern and unimpressed-looking representations of his mentor –  and the father of the Republic of China – Dr Sun Yat Sen.

To a large extent the Taiwan of today owes its character and existence to the political tenacity, ego-centrism, and out-right avarice of Chiang Kai Shek and his closest followers.

It’s a humbling and poignant experience to see the resting place of this once-feared and revered leader become a post-modern grave site to the fallen imagery and rejected idolatry of the man’s own painful past.

CKS Memorial Hall Taipei

“In April, 1975, the entire nation mourned the passing of President Chiang Kai-shek…In response to suggestions from all sectors, the funeral committee members decided to build the CKS Memorial Hall in Taipei, in order to commemorate the memory of our great leader.” – CKS Memorial Hall website. The CKS Memorial Hall was opened on April 5,1980 to mark the fifth anniversary of Chiang Kai Shek’s death.

Taiwan Earthquakes and Tips for Survival

It can come as a real shock to experience an earthquake for the first time. The world starts to spin, and even after a few minutes pass, your body still feels as if it’s in motion. Taiwan’s precarious location on the geologically unstable ring of fire – pressed between the Philippine and Eurasian tectonic plates – makes earthquakes a common part of daily life. It helps to be prepared for them in every way you can.

By Stuart Hill

921 Earthquake collapsed buildings

Shoddy construction work and illegal modifications to buildings we blamed for the collapse of buildings across Taiwan in 1999. (Image sourced from internet)

It started in sleep as an uneasiness that rapidly intensified into a nightmare-like response that prodded me to semi-consciousness. My flatmate was already shaking me to wake up. “Are you okay?” she said. She sounded worried.

“Yes, what’s wrong?” I replied.

The lights were out. I pulled back the sheets and tried to get up. Books and other things were scattered across the floor beneath my feet. I moved carefully, sleepy and blind, out into the living room. My other flatmate was asking if I was okay as he fumbled for something in a drawer.

“What happened?” I asked, still not clear what was going on.

“There’s been a big earthquake.”

It was almost 2am, September 21, 1999. We’d just been hit with a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, the biggest in over 30 years, and the most damaging since the BaiHe Earthquake in 1964.

921 earthquake damage

Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake saw the collapse of key infrastructure such as roads, bridges and electricity towers. (image sourced from internet)

There were no lights on anywhere down the street. Power had been completely cut off. We checked the phone and surprisingly it was still working. My friend called her family who were living across town – they seemed to be okay. We sat in the glow of a single candle stuck to the kitchen table. A friend of mine called on the phone and asked if things were safe. “Yes, fine.”

And then it came; an aftershock that was extremely unnerving and was later measured to be 6 on the Richter scale, not quite as powerful as the original earthquake that shook Taiwan less than 30 minutes before.

It was then I understood that dread in the voices of my friends.

In the days that followed what is now known as Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake I met up with Australian friends who also had no previous experience of tremors, especially of this size and impact.

One was living around MinSheng West Road near the Mackay Hospital. She and her mother, currently visiting from Australia, moved out on to the park that is located above the Danshui MRT line. “We couldn’t go back inside.” But there was nowhere else to go.

921 Earthquake impact

In cities like Taipei it was hard at the time to visualize the full extent of the devastation and the severity of the earthquake across the entire country. (image sourced from internet)

Another friend, in town on business and staying at the Hilton opposite the Taipei Main Station, was shaken out of bed on the 11th floor of his hotel. A colleague staying a few floors above was still in shock when I met her the next day. Guests of the hotel were driven by fear to carry blankets out onto the street opposite the hotel, worried that the building might fall down. There was news of a hotel collapse in one end of town and with so many old concrete buildings crammed together, nowhere really seemed safe. The hotel’s power generator meant that the Hilton was operating on its own soon after everywhere else went dark. That next day, sitting in the bar, watching CNN reporting on the disaster with endless “no new news” updates, we followed every scrap of information with acute interest, reliving our anxieties in 15 minute loops.

Even days after surviving the multiple shocks that literally rocked and shocked the nation, Taipei’s manic vibe had been reduced to a dull stillness. It was a kind of stupor. Our world had stopped. The flat cement pavement outside my apartment building now featured a crack along the full length of the four shops located there. It was its own fault line that had shifted a few centimetres apart, a kind of architectural imperfection left as a reminder of what we’d experienced. It eventually became a nuisance to pedestrians, making you decide which side of the pavement you wanted to walk on.

Before power had been restored to our section of Neihu, I had nights eating at my local ma and pop restaurants, often to candle light and blanketed in an unusual quiet created by blacked out TVs and the muted whispers of other patrons. One creative shop owner had lit up his store with the single beam of his motor scooter parked outside. Inside we ate basic stir-fry dishes cooked in the shifting shadows created by the light of gas burners in his kitchen.

921 Earthquake property damage

In addition to commercial and residential buildings, Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake caused extensive damage to temples, dams, parks and other public spaces. (image sourced from internet)

Over the weeks and months that followed, power was gradually restored to Taipei, while the rest of Taiwan slowly got back to a half-hearted life. There were announcements of huge donation drives for the people down south most affected by this national disaster. People were giving up blankets, food, and daily essentials so they could be sent to more needy people. Companies announced their employees were donating cash to the rescue and recovery effort. Meanwhile rescue crews arrived from around the world, while Taiwan’s central government seemed to be in disarray.

My Chinese classes had resumed after a postponement of two weeks. We were now moved from the basement of our language institute to the upper storey of our school. It was hot; there was no artificial lighting or air conditioning. The mood of the students was diligent, but we missed the enthusiasm of previous semesters. Our teachers did what they could to keep the routine of vocab drills going, but considering what we had survived neither teachers nor students were much interested in abstracted learning at this point.

Taiwan quake rescue criticised

One week after the 921 earthquake, the BBC reported on the poor response of the central government.


Earthquakes are an extremely common occurrence in Taiwan. The Central Weather Bureau (CWB) is responsible for reporting on them, and their website lists recent earthquake events.

In fact, it is very common for 3-4 magnitude earthquakes to be felt each month, especially off the coast of Hualien. Fortunately, shakes of greater scale and impact are rare, with only a few in the last few centuries causing extensive loss of life and property.

Some of the most notable events include:

  • 1792 centered on Chiayi, killed over 600 and destroyed over 24,600 buildings
  • 1848 centered on Chiayi, killed over 1,000 and destroyed over 14,000 buildings
  • 1906 centered on Chiayi, killed over 1,200 people and destroyed over 6,700 buildings
  • 1935 centered on Hsinchu, killed over 3,000 people and destroyed almost 18,000 buildings
  • 1964 centered on Chiayi, killed over 100 people and destroyed almost 11,000 buildings
  • 1999 hit Taiwan-wide, killed over 2,400 people and destroyed over 51,000 buildings

Here is a longer list on Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_earthquakes_in_Taiwan

Taiwan’s Central Weather Bureau provides some advice for dealing with earthquakes on their website. Some of their key tips include:

  • Turn off gas, water and electricity
  • Keep objects firmly secured, be aware of the potential for objects to fall (inside and outside)
  • Do not rush out of buildings during a quake, and don’t use elevators
  • After a major earthquake, be aware of the potential for tsunamis along coastal areas

To that I’d suggest the following for preparing for earthquakes in Taiwan (which you could apply to typhoons also):

  • Always have a torch and radio available with fully charged batteries.
  • When the earthquake starts, don’t stand near windows or shelves or anything that can fall on you or you can fall from (like a balcony)
  • Have a home phone that does not require electricity to operate
  • Keep a few food supplies at home that don’t require heating or water to eat
  • Keep a few bottles of water at home

A humorous look at what you can do to survive an earthquake (found on youtube):


More information:

Book Review: The Islands of Taiwan by Richard Saunders

Richard Saunders’ book The Islands of Taiwan provides a comprehensive backgrounder for anyone thinking about exploring Taiwan’s distinct island environments. It’s a valuable manual for how to get around and get the most from these exciting parts of the country.

Book review by Stuart Hill

Orchid Island, Lanyu

Stepping off the boat you can feel like you’ve arrived on a mysterious tropical island in the Pacific Ocean — and you basically have. Despite its beauty, Orchid Island reflects the realities of modernity and decades of colonialism by various external cultures.

It’s always quite hard to believe how Taiwan can have any areas of landmass NOT occupied by people. Famous for the severe density of the population of its cities, it might be a logical extension to assume that the whole country is teeming with people.

The opposite feeling is exactly what you get in the mountains of Taiwan and to a large extent the islands of Taiwan. In fact the islands’ distance from Taipei, their physical and psychological remoteness, compounded with the circumstances of their recent history, makes these places a dramatic contrast to the bustle of Taiwan’s major cities.

QinBi Village, Matsu

QinBi Village could be a small town on the side of a mountain in the Mediterranean, instead it is an old pirate holdout just off the coast of China. Matsu’s mix of local architecture and KMT military history is a key attraction for many visitors.

While travel books from the key publishing houses tend to highlight Taiwan’s islands as a “must see” for any Taiwan itinerary, their broader focus on Taiwan’s most famous sites and cultural features leaves them little room for much specifics or local detail.

Richard Saunders fills in the gaps of where these other travel guides leave off. His locally produced and nicely written The Islands of Taiwan should be a compulsory “how to” manual for anyone getting off the Taiwan “mainland” and heading out to these relatively unknown outposts.

Penghu Island beaches

Within Taiwan, Penghu is famous as a holiday destination during the pleasant weather of late spring to summer. As well as some beautiful beaches and spectacular rock formations, Penghu also offers the most urbanized lifestyle of Taiwan’s outer islands for those tourists bored by the layed-back seaside lifestyle.

As the sub-title of Saunders’ book explains, this is a guide to the islands of Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, Lanyu (Orchid Island), Ludao (Green Island), Xiao liu qiu, and Taiwan’s smaller north-east coast islands.

Saunders provides explanations for transport to and from these parts – by sea and air – and the best and most likely times you can visit during the year. As you can imagine for any small land mass surrounded by water, the weather plays an important part in gaining access to and enjoying the islands at their best.

The author provides a few choices for accommodation and perhaps more importantly advice for lining up places to stay. He also throws in a smattering of places to eat, and you get the distinct impression many of these are his favorite hangouts.

Taiwan Island Defences

Taiwan’s historical frictions with greater regional powers — both Asian and European — are recorded for visitors to see across many of Taiwan’s outlying islands, most notably on Matsu and Kinmen.

Saunders’ information reflects the thorough research that comes from personally experiencing the places he talks about. No doubt his years of hiking across all corners of Taiwan and the many books and articles he has written about these adventures are ample evidence of his passion for exploring places he’s never been to and then writing about them.

The Islands of Taiwan is divided into a section on each major island group, which is then subdivided into smaller islands, cities/towns, or geographic areas. What appear to be hand-drawn maps include essential points of interest labelled in English (and pinyin) – though maps you can get from a tourist center on arrival might help to provide even more specifics about streets and other local details.

Kinmen's Prosperous Past

Beyond the natural beauty of many of Taiwan’s outlying islands, the evidence of past prosperity is another great feature to learn about and appreciate.

Saunders imbues his friendly writing style with an obvious enthusiasm for the places he’s visited, and he provides his own list of “Don’t Miss” items at the beginning of each major chapter. That said, he also comments on those places or things he feels aren’t that great; ugly modern architecture being one of them.

This extract gives you a sense of the author’s witty and evocative writing style:

“…a few meters further steps lead down to a far more spectacular place, the Suicide Cliff, rightly Dongyin’s most famous site. It’s just a few meters from the road to the end of the natural, diving board-like tongue of land that extends into this fearsome ocean-eroded chasm, but the view down the sheer cliffs to the rocks a hundred meters below is spectacular and is guaranteed to give vertigo sufferers a severe case of the willies.” (Page 172, The Islands of Taiwan)

The book is illustrated with color photos of the main attractions on each island, while an even larger selection of black and white photos depicts many of the other things you will see at each location. Saunders’ own website provides the color versions of these photos and is well worth a look if you haven’t yet visited these places. http://taiwanislands.wordpress.com

Available from bookstores like Eslite and Caves for around NT$500, the 2013 version of the book has an eye-catching shot of Matsu’s picturesque QinBi Village on the front cover.

If there is any criticism to be made of the book it is the very serious attempt to create a bible for travelling around Taiwan’s islands and thus the fairly familiar “traveller’s guide” format of the publication. Without impacting the value of the information, the book may have been structured in other ways, such as according to things of interest (cultural, historical, gastronomical, ecological, etc). All these things are touched on and referenced, but never dealt with as topics on their own. The focus of the book remains practical and logistical throughout.

Taiwan's Island Culture and History

As stepping stones for maritime travel along the coast of China and between China and other places, Taiwan’s outlying islands feature lots of historical evidence reflecting the wealth and sophistication of the societies that once lived there (and still do).

The hand drawn maps should have provided a stylistic clue as to how the rest of the book might have been designed – which again isn’t helped by the disappointing over-reliance on grayscale images to provide visual evidence for the beauty and curiousness of these wonderful places. It’s probably a result of being published to a tight budget without the guarantee of a large international audience and a big marketing machine to promote it.

Despite these quibbles, The Islands of Taiwan is a useful and often insightful exploration of some of Taiwan’s best kept cultural, historical and ecological gems. In the words of the author himself:

“Whether you’re looking for history, culture, natural beauty, wildlife, a beautiful sandy beach, or simply a few day’s break away from the fast pace of life in Taiwan’s big cities, the outlying islands have a great deal to offer.”

For someone who has also visited many of the places mentioned in this book, I can’t agree more.

Taiwan Island Culture Diversity

Hundred’s if not thousands of years of migration both from China and regional islands have created interesting pockets of human development throughout Taiwan’s island groups. Whether its the Tao on Orchid Island, the remnants of Xiamen merchants on Kinmen, or new immigrants from Taiwan proper, each of the islands has their own unique historical flavor and modern predicament.

Taiwanese Abroad: From Aussie Outback to the Cold of Downunder

Tzy-yun Liu, who goes by the English name Mars, first traveled to Australia on a working holiday visa. Leaving behind his marketing role at the Taiwanese brand BenQ, Mars landed in Australia to do all manner of part-time and casual jobs. Despite recent media reports highlighting the exploitation of Taiwanese on working holidays, Mars’ experience has been different and his opinions on the topic quite contrary. He is now studying at the University of Tasmania for a Masters in Social Work, and works part-time at a child care center. Here he provides his own insight into his experiences after leaving home on his Oz adventure.

by Stuart Hill, with Mars Tzy-yun Liu 

Child care with Mars

Like many under-30 year olds that qualify for a working holiday visa, Tzy-yun Liu (Mars) traveled to Australia looking for new experiences. What he found was a whole new vocation in child care. (Photo provided by Tzy-yun Liu)

SH: Do you think Australian’s take advantage of foreign students or foreign workers?

TYL: Take advantage? That’s a strong comment. I don’t think so. Foreigners have disadvantages, but having said that, Aussies don’t try to manipulate foreign workers — as far as I am aware.

Most Australian companies still follow the rules of work health and safety and there’s an ombudsman that has certain rights to investigate them if any issues emerge. Most illegal employers are non-Caucasians, which is known by most backpackers and international students (possibly some Aussie citizens could be aware of this too). It’s usually said by experienced backpackers that you should never work for an Asian boss if you want to pursue reasonable wages and expect reasonable treatment in the work place!

SH: So why would people work under these unfair conditions?

TYL: As an Asian, I feel some Asian backpackers and students just don’t want to adapt themselves into the Australian culture but would rather work in unfair conditions as they are aware of their own shortfalls.

Some people — such as Asians working on non-permanent visas — prefer to work at $10 per hour, while staying with their Asian peers. I guess that brings them a sense of belonging as they are located in an overseas place. They just physically live in Australia but emotionally and psychologically they are living in their mother country. They never watch local news or TV. Even at $8 per hour they can still make savings due to the relatively strong Australian currency.

However in these cases, they are following the old routines and not the Aussie way to behave in this new society.

SH: It sounds like you have chosen NOT to be like this, why?

TYL: It depends on the individual. I just keep trying…There’s always a chance. I’ve had about 10 different jobs. Some people just don’t want to try if the road is less (or never) travelled by his/her countrymen and women.

My first job was working as a kitchen hand 20 hours a week in Circular Quay. I also worked cash-in-hand at an Asian restaurant in Sydney’s Manly. I was a waiter, but I only did it for a month. I’ve worked as a construction worker for 1 day. I have Australia’s “white card” which lets me do construction work, but I quit because it was too hard and there was no insurance covering me for work injuries — which is highly possible to happen in that industry. It was cash-in-hand, in Canberra. The employer was Chinese.

After that, I realized how important it was to work legally and fairly to secure the best interests for myself as an employee. I feel people have to keep that awareness in mind regardless of what their status is in Australia. Once you are working, you are entitled to certain rights that are protected by law. This awareness will push you to be strong and eventually you will get what you should get.

Mars with roadhouse kids

Bomber and Charlotte, two kids who became good friends with Mars while he was working with their mother at an outback roadhouse. They were the inspiration for Mars’ pursuit of child care as a profession. (Photo provided by Tzy-yun Liu)

SH: Where have you lived in Australia, what was special about these places, and how are they different to where you have lived in Taiwan?

TYL: I’ve lived in Sydney and Northern Territory and am now located in Tasmania. They all have different characters and charms and they are absolutely very different to anywhere in Taiwan.

The Emerald City of Oz

TYL: Sydney is said by some people to be like any other metropolis in the world. It’s big, packed, hectic and with distance among its people. They could be right, but there’s still a sense of community that exists among suburbs.

I used to live in the eastern suburbs and they are quite socioeconomically advantaged. It’s hard to deny that it has a superior vibe over there; however, through the time I was there I saw different walks of life as I worked in local day-care centers, which allowed me the opportunity to witness part of the local family life.

Apart from the richness in the east of Sydney, people there hold a sense of community as we usually talked about local shops, eateries, weather, etc. It could be about a nice cheap eatery form the corner, biking on the weekend on Bondi beach (well, that could be interpreted as tourism but it’s actually part of local life), or who’s mum gave birth to a new baby. The longer I worked there, the more people I became familiar with and the more that kind of community sense was emerging. And I reckon once you start to get yourself involved in community, there will always be some nice people to drag you in even deeper.

Except for that, Sydney undoubtedly has some awesome natural beauty which is witnessed every day and everywhere. They have (mostly) beautiful weather and a handful of beaches (well at least for the east and inner west, taking prob 30 mins to get there). Imagine passing by the Sydney Harbour Bridge commuting every day or doing breathtaking coastal walks not far from your doorstep. I believe it’s worthwhile to spend a period of time living in this city.

The Outback of the Northern Territory of Australia

TYL: Northern Territory is another kind of authentic Aussie experience. Most people might get confused when hearing of moving to outback Australia. It could be hard to live there in the first place, but things get settled down once you get familiar with the surroundings.

You can imagine the heat, wilderness, and possibly the danger there. People can’t imagine living in a roadhouse with just 6 residents while the closest town is 300 km away (regardless of a village with 60 residents which is 60 km away; well they are lucky to have a police station!).

No mobile reception, no supermarket, no daily newspaper, with only TV channels 7 and 9 available. I could only spend 5 bucks per week to get an ice cream, with nothing else to spend my money on (which could be nice in terms of savings!).

I reckon it’s all about a sense of connection and belonging. People did feel that I was strange, as I am possibly the first or only Asian they have seen in their lifetime. I couldn’t even communicate with them, which brought up conflicts in the beginning. Having said that, they are people with a true Aussie spirit as they are genuine, and once they know you they will gradually include you and share life with you. That can be really fun as the lives of cattle station people, truckies (truck drivers), and national wanderers are so unbelievable.

These moments in the outback not only empowered my physical skills, such as language and working skills, but also enhanced “soft” perspectives such as reflecting on myself and my life journey. Eventually I become good mates with all my customers and they jokingly said I didn’t have to leave as the Immigration Dept. wouldn’t find me in the middle of nowhere!

I was also invited to visit a massive thousand-hectare cattle station, which felt like walking into a movie scene; and trust me, not just any tourist would have that chance! I am proud of being a Territorian, and that does change me as a person.

Australia’s Southern Isle of Tasmania

TYL: Tasmania is totally opposite to Northern Territory (NT) as it’s seriously freezing weather-wise. It has some similarities to NT as most mainland people feel awkward if someone is moving to the Apple Isle with Australia’s highest unemployment and possibly more corresponding socioeconomic problems.

However, I love it here for being compact enough but always picturesque at every corner. Meanwhile because of the small scale of the capital, it owns this strong sense of community as you can meet anyone somewhere always unexpectedly! I reckon that helps for new comers to build a sense of belonging, as you realize that this is where you will always have someone. And certainly people are still or way more friendly than mainlanders!

I am invited by local families to have parties or meals with them, either with my colleagues or church friends. Though we don’t have much fancy stuff like in Melbourne or Sydney (well, we can do seasonal shopping in Melbourne by an hours flight away if you want!) but we do possess awesome people and a ridiculously arty vibe (many gigs happening around town all the time and MONA!), not to mention we have a 24hrs Kmart; Sydney doesn’t!

We have heaps of lovely tiny markets with proudly Tassie produce. Ignoring the terrible weather (could be an advantage as we are Snowbart!), Tassie is a wonderful place once you can support yourself — at least you won’t be starving!

SH: Coming from Taiwan, how do you feel about the cost of living in Australia? It must feel like a very expensive place to live…

TYL: I think you know everyone feels it is expensive here. But when compared to (what you can earn on) a legal and regular income, Australia is not really expensive, especially if you buy groceries and cook at home. Most people cook. Food is cheap when compared to a reasonable hourly income rate. Clothing as well.

Mars making coffee

When he first arrived in Australia, Mars held a number of part-time and temporary jobs before finding more regular work in child care. (Photo provided by Tzy-yun Liu)

Discover Taipei: The Taipei Guest House

The luxurious residence of the Japanese Governor-General offers a glimpse into Taiwan’s past under Japanese rule, a great place to visit for a few hours exploring Taipei on foot.

By Stuart Hill

The Taipei Guest House, built as the official residence of the Japanese Governor-General, is an impressive Renaissance building designed by Japanese architects and completed in 1901. The building was expanded around 1911-13, at which time the appearance of the building was transformed into a more opulent Baroque style.

guest house front door

The European south garden of the Taipei Guest House front entrance.

Gardens on both the south and north sides of the building reflect a western and Japanese aesthetic, respectively. In additional to being the formal residence of the Governor-General, the grounds and interiors were used to host foreign dignitaries and local government-sponsored events – and this function was continued by both the KMT and later DPP governments in more recent years.

Guest house staircase walls

The ornate walls above the staircase leading to the Taipei Guest House second floor.

As an example of European-inspired Japanese-built architecture key details and features include roof tiles, wall paper, stained glass windows, fireplace tiles, wooden paneling and many other flourishes.

Extensive renovations made between 2003 to 2006 saw the building closed but today the intriguing building and its grounds are open to tourists on the first Saturday of each month – as is President House on Ketagalan Boulevard – from 8:30am to 4:30pm. No bookings are required.

Taipei Guest House meeting room

As a venue for hosting foreign dignitaries, Taipei Guest House features several opulent meeting rooms, featuring crafted fireplaces, intricate wallpaper and carpets.

The only disappointing aspects of the interior displays relate to the role that the building played in Taiwan’s more recent history – specifically the Treaty of Taipei in 1953 – with the description written in Chinese deceptively claiming it represented the return of Taiwan to the Republic of China.

Guest House restoration

The Taipei Guest House underwent extensive restoration between 2003-2006, which is evident in the beautifully preserved details of many of its rooms.