Tag Archives: Taiwan

Taiwanese collection of priceless violins to make a homage visit to Cremona, Italy

Wen-Long Hsu presents a violin to Carlo Chiesa.

Wen-Long Hsu presents a violin to Carlo Chiesa.

On September 18, during a ceremony at the Chi Mei Museum in Tainan City, Taiwan, a collection of violins were displayed to the media and given a suitable sendoff by their caretakers before embarking on their journey to the Cremona Violin Museum in northern Italy. The heads of the Chi Mei Museum and the Chi Mei Culture Foundation attended the event. A string quartet performed on the antique instruments to set the mood for the occasion before a few notable speakers explained the significance of the collection’s return to their birthplace in Italy. The speeches stirred the audience, but the stars of the ceremony were the twenty-two priceless violins on display, which were famous Italian pieces produced in Cremona from the 1600’s and 1700’s.

Chi Mei Museum string quartet

A string quartet performed classical music on priceless violins from the Chi Mei Museum collection.

Wen-Long Hsu (許文龍), founder of the Chi Mei Museum recollected his childhood dream and reasons for collecting 1,350 valuable violins, violas and cellos, which date from 1566 to the 1700’s. After starting his collection in 1990, he has accumulated many of the best violins in the world. Mr. Hsu regularly shares his collection with violinists who dream of performing on them. As part of his ongoing commitment to share the culture with society, he has shared part of his collection with the Cremona Violin Museum for special exhibitions since 2005.

Carlo Chiesa, Curator of the Special Exhibition at the Cremona Violin Museum presented the historical significance of Cremona, Italy, home to the most famous violinmakers in the world. He explained that almost all of the musical instruments produced in Cremona have found their way to private collectors and museums all over the world, so the museum holds special exhibitions to bring the violins home to Cremona on a temporary basis. The Chi Mei Museum has provided part of its collection to Cremona Violin Museum since 2005, but this will be the first time that Chi Mei is the sole provider of violins for the special Italian exhibition. This occasion will also be the largest loan of violins ever made by Chi Mei Museum to another museum.

The collection of antique violins that will travel to Cremona, Italy.

The collection of antique violins that will travel to Cremona, Italy.

“I am here in Tainan because the Chi Mei collection is the most important collection in the world,” declared Chiesa, “What makes this occasion special is that Chi Mei Museum is providing the largest collection so far to Cremona Violin Museum for public study, play, and preservation.”

Traveling to Cremona, Italy with Carlo Chiesi and the collection will be a group of Chi Mei Museum directors and a camera team that will document the exhibition for a book and a short film. The special exhibition at the Cremona Violin Museum will open on September 21, 2013 and close on October 13, 2013.

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ANZTEC agreement between Taiwan and New Zealand opens new possibilities for the future

Taipei, Taiwan and Auckland, New Zealand

Taipei and Auckland, two of the most vibrant cities in the Pacific, will likely see increased cooperation and activities because of the ANZTEC.

World Indigenous Day on August 9, 2013 was celebrated throughout the world, as countries recognized the importance their indigenous people and cultures. This day provides annual recognition for the treaties signed by indigenous tribes, and promotes the building of alliances between indigenous peoples around the world. World Indigenous Day celebrations on the island of Taiwan are typically muted, however the Summer of 2013 provided Taiwan’s indigenous peoples something significant to celebrate.

New Zealand is an island nation over 8,000 kilometers from Taiwan, but the economic cooperation agreement known as the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (ANZTEC) 「臺澎金馬個別關稅領域與紐西蘭經濟合作協定(ANZTEC)」promises to make them closer culturally and economically. Signed in Wellington, New Zealand on July 10, 2013 by Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Wellington Representative Elliot Charng (常以立) and New Zealand Commerce and Industry Office Director Stephen Payton, this is Taiwan’s first trade deal with a country considered a “developed” nation. The significance of this development was touted by both governments as well as news outlets around the world.

It is not surprising that New Zealand pursued this relationship with Taiwan. New Zealand has been actively pursuing stronger ties with Asian nations, with trade agreements with Thailand, Singapore and Brunei (2005), China (2008), Malaysia (2009), and Hong Kong (2010). However, there may be another factor influencing New Zealand’s choice to forge a relationship with Taiwan. Their cultural connection does play a role in the agreement, as part of ANZTEC mandates the development of cooperative ties between New Zealand’s indigenous peoples known as the Maori, and the indigenous tribes of Taiwan. The indigenous people of both areas belong to a language family known as the Austronesian (南島語族) family. Scholars and scientists have presented considerable evidence in the past 10 year that the Maori settlement of New Zealand 700 years ago was part of a wave of Austronesian migration throughout the Pacific that began over two thousand years ago in Taiwan. Even today, the similarities between the distant cousins can be seen in the culture and language.

What does ANZTEC mean to the future of Taiwan? Although bilateral trade is relatively small, economic analysts and government officials have predicted millions of dollars in increase in trade, and thousands of new jobs. New Zealand should be able to increase its seafood, agriculture, dairy and meat exports, while Taiwan should be able to increase its exports of electronic components, chemicals, and agricultural products. While the most obvious benefit of the agreement is increased direct trade, there are other potential benefits that may have more long-term impact on the future of Taiwan.

Indigenous Taiwanese and New Zealand Maori carvings

Indigenous carvings from Taiwan and New Zealand.

The section of ANZTEC regarding cooperation of the indigenous peoples can produce unexpected benefits for the relationship between the citizens of both sides. With initiatives for cultural collaboration and media cooperation, people will be able to deepen their understanding and appreciation of their shared ancestry and culture. The sharing of a common culture could be a more effective means of strengthening the bonds of the bilateral relationship than the economic benefits. Learning how much the peoples have in common with each other can shorten the perceived distance between them.

An increased awareness of the cultural similarities has the potential to lead to increased cultural tourism. With the New Zealanders more interested in the rich diversity of Austronesian culture throughout Taiwan, indigenous communities on our island could see the most benefit from increased tourism. Indigenous tourism is good for Taiwan, making low environmental impact, and more importantly, giving Taiwan’s indigenous peoples financial incentive to teach their traditional culture to their children. Giving a boost to the sales of indigenous products can provide sustainability to a culture long-suffering from a low level of interest and appreciation. Increased cultural pride and self-reliance will make it easier for indigenous communities to preserve their languages and culture and reduce their tax burden on society. Increased activity between the Maori and indigenous Taiwanese can be a catalyst for increased cooperation with other non-indigenous groups in Taiwan.

Taiwan and New Zealand are two of the most important Austronesian territories. It is possible that other Austronesian nations may want to join Taiwan and New Zealand in an economic partnership that is inspired by their shared cultural ties. There are 400 million people living in 38 Austronesian nations, including Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Brunei, Fiji and Madagascar. Individually, they may not be wealthy nations, but together, they offer an abundance and diversity of resources, including oil and technology. With Taiwan’s ECFA agreement with China, these countries may eye the island as a doorway into the Chinese marketplace. Taiwanese people should recognize that their ancient Austronesian heritage can offer something to the world that China cannot duplicate of replace, and can inspire international cooperation. If Austronesian nations increased their economic activities with Taiwan, its value would increase as a trading partner to China, and give Taiwan a better position for future negotiations. Who in Taiwan would not want a stronger economy? The key to a brighter future in Taiwan may be found by looking to the past.

Bunun Ear-Shooting Festival (Mala-Ta-Ngia)

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A Bunun tribal elder showing golden millet grain, their staple food.

A tribal event showcasing physical strength and strengthening family bonds

After getting lost in the mountain roads of Yanping District, in Taitung County, Taiwan, I had almost lost hope that I would find the Bunun Ear Shooting Festival in the village of Yongkang. This two-day festival at the beginning of May had a reputation of being the biggest Bunun festival in the Taitung area, and I didn’t want to miss it. The  GPS wasn’t working well in the mountains, and I couldn’t find the flags indicating the location of the event. With persistence, I finally located the festival by catching the steady chorus of the Bunun voices singing their world-famous “Pasibutbut” songs. These songs, which resemble loud, clear chanting, are prayers to the gods and ancestors for a bountiful millet harvest. I am thankful the voices were so clear and loud, as they led me over a great distance to the festival.

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Visitors are encouraged to try the Bunun traditional customs, like archery.

The annual festival is named after one of its important competitions. The archery contest sharpens the hunting skills of the warriors and teaches the young boys. The traditional target was once the ears of the pigs or deer. Now, they are animal-shaped targets drawn on cardboard. I tried my hand at shooting the bow and arrow after waiting in line with the other tourists. I wasn’t as good as the Bunun warriors, but I think I could shoot a large cow if it was not too far from me.

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Most of the tribal participants and spectators wore the colorful traditional Bunun costumes of their village.

There were many Bunun from several villages around the district, as well as tourists from all over Taiwan. The two-day event brings people together in the spirit of friendly competition and strengthens family bonds. It is an important time for the adults to teach the younger generation survival skills. Like the other tourists, I relished the opportunity to learn the special characteristics of the 4th largest tribe in Taiwan. These included their special singing style, which could be heard for miles around in the mountains. Another notable item in Bunun culture is their thousand-year-old written calendar. It is the closest thing to a written language that existed in Prehistoric Taiwan.

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The millet grinding competition uses a traditional mortar and pestle, and requires synchronized teamwork.

For the Bunun, there is nothing more important than feats of strength and endurance. The men and women traditionally lived a hard life in the rugged mountains, and needed these qualities to survive. The competitive activities that I witnessed centered around their hunting and millet cultivation activities. The performance groups sang for divine blessing, before the contestants showed their skills at millet planting, weeding, harvesting, and grinding. The teamwork displayed with the pounding of the grain with mortar and pestle was impressive, while the women threshed the millet. Only the men were allowed to compete in the archery contest. They showed their strength in the wood-carrying, pig-catching, and wrestling contests. The wrestling matches made the crowds go wild, as short, heavy men with large bellies tried to pull each other to the ground.  I heard that the Bunun women consider the portly physique of their men to be sexy. “The larger the belly, the better,” I was told with a wink.

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Wrestling is a popular competitive event at this festival.

I looked down at my growing stomach, which was quite large after stuffing myself with millet and smoked muntjac meat, which was from a small species of deer. I thought, perhaps this was the one place on earth where soemone with my physique would fit in very well. Especially after the hosts shared their millet wine and offered so much cultural enlightenment and hospitality to all of their visitors, I felt quite at home.

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The Bunun elders made me feel like part of their family.

Kindergarten graduation in Taiwan

Xander during one of his kindergarten graduation performances. His costume is a Scottish theme to match the dance and music he performed.

Xander during one of his kindergarten graduation performances. His costume is a Scottish theme to match the dance and music he performed.

Parents around the world love to watch their little boy or girl get acknowledgment for their accomplishments during their kindergarten graduation ceremony. It is fun to watch very cute kids take the stage with their classmates and teachers. But there is nowhere in the world where kindergarten graduation is taken to such a level of significance by the schools and the parents as it is in Taiwan.

In Taiwan, the birthrate os the second lowest in the world (behind only Japan), which means parents are having fewer children. Class sizes are shrinking and schools are closing. This means parents are spoiling their precious child more than ever, and the kindergartens and finding it more competitive than ever to attract new students. Concerned that parents in Taiwan are choosing to have fewer children because of economic considerations, the government subsidizes all or most of the cost of kindergarten in Taiwan.

Kindergartens in Taiwan teach basic education, including math, and “be-pe-me-fe,” the basic building blocks that teach children how to read and write Traditional Chinese language. They also learn Taiwanese, because of a government mandate to help preserve the language nationally. Because of this mandate, kindergartens are not allowed to teach English, but many choose to do so “unofficially.” Children also get physical education, and a good dose of playtime. Nap time is an important part of kindergarten, and there are 3 years of kindergarten. The first two years are practically daycare services, as most parents work and need a place to drop off their little ones.

There are different levels of kindergarten. Some are attached to public schools and many are private schools. Some private schools still give out corporal punishment to the kids. For example, they may get a swat on the back of the hand if they forget their homework. Some schools offer specialized classes such as art, music, dance and rollerblading. Some even have piano or violin classes. It depend on the which area the kindergarten serves.

Xander performs during the Scottish routine.

Xander performs during the Scottish routine.

The graduation ceremony, marking the conclusion of 3 years of attendance at the kindergarten, is prepared for well in advance. Schools purchase cute costumes, create set designs, arrange choreography and start training the students a few months before the big day. With all of the parents, their relatives and friends in attendance, kindergartens must rent large auditoriums from a junior high or high school. It is a chance for the school to show the parents that their tuitions were put to good use. It is also a time when they can show off to the community, and attract new students. It is the biggest marketing opportunity that the schools have.

I experienced the kindergarten ceremony with my first son, and recently with my second son Xander. It was very cute and memorable. It is a great acknowledgment for them and a memorable way to send the children off to bigger and better challenges in elementary school, where singing and dancing are no longer part of the curriculum.

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Appreciation for teachers still exists

When I walked into one of my high school classes on Monday, I saw something I never thought I would see. I imagined I would find the likeness of Christ in a bowl of porridge before I would ever see an entire class of 60 high school students do this. At the class leader’s command, they all stood up in unison, smiled at me, and bowed deeply. When they rose, they all thanked me for being their teacher for a second straight year. Afterwards, the class leader presented me with a small gift.

Why did they do this? Were they all just raised to be extraordinarily respectful and humble? Was there something in the water on that day? Were the planets aligned?

It wasn’t Teacher’s Day or my birthday. I was caught totally off guard, and it was hard to hide my emotions. Even though the gesture was small, it seems incredible enough for me to want to film it for all to see. I grabbed my small video camera and asked them to re-enact it for me. It wasn’t nearly as good the second time, because they are shy, but at least it gives you an idea of what gratitude looks like.

Who says there is no appreciation and respect for teachers these days? It only shows you that teachers can still find appreciation in Taiwan and other places in the world for what they do.

Groundbreaking Taiwanese movie director falls short in bid for Academy Award nomination

Taiwanese movie director Te-Sheng Wei.

Taiwanese movie director Te-Sheng Wei.

On Tuesday, January 24, 2012, the final Academy Award (屆奧斯卡) nominees were released out of Hollywood. Notably missing from the final five nominees for the Foreign Language Film category was Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (賽德克‧巴萊). During the previous week, the movie’s director, Wei Te-Sheng (魏德聖), had high hopes of achieving official recognition on the movie industry’s most glamorous stage. That level of international recognition would have been a bonafide breakthrough for a Taiwanese film, although having a film that made it on the short list of 9 Academy Award nominees as the only representative in East Asia was an honor in itself.

Mr. Wei had already broken the benchmarks for the Taiwanese film industry, directing Cape No. 7 (海角七號) in 2008, a romantic comedy that became the highest-grossing Taiwanese film ever, earning over US $13,800,000 since its release. In 2009, Wei Te-Sheng began production on Seediq Bale, armed with the largest budget (US $25 million) in Taiwanese filmmaking history. The film, which screened in two parts, The Flag of Sun (太陽旗) and The Bridge of Rainbow (彩虹橋) in the Fall of 2011, did well in the Taiwanese box office, but has yet to break even financially. Despite the financial challenges of recovering its investment, the Seediq Bale team has been focused on efforts expand the value of the film. In November 2011, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale won the 48th Golden Horse Award (金馬獎) for the Best Film category. The Golden Horse Awards are considered one of the top honors available to Chinese-language films. The release of the DVD is scheduled for March 2012, and will be instrumental in allowing the film to achieve profitability.

Because the market in Taiwan is limited in size, Mr. Wei and the Seediq Bale Team has turned their attention and efforts overseas, which has paid dividends in the form of reviews in the foreign media and a premier screening of the re-edited combined film, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, at the Venice Film Festival. This exposure in Europe led to distribution deals signed with Optimum Distribution in the UK and ICO/BAC in France. WellGo USA Entertainment has signed a deal for distribution in the United States, where there are limited theater screenings already organized for early 2012.

As a groundbreaker, Wei Te-Sheng has been traveling and working hard on promotional efforts, in order to ensure that the benchmarks for future Taiwanese films can continue to grow. In the process of ‘taking care of business’ for the film, Mr. Wei and his team continue to push the boundaries and increase the prestige of Taiwan’s film industry throughout the world. As for the Academy Awards, Wei Te-Sheng’s work fell short, but the expectations of his fans for future opportunities at the Oscars continue to rise.

A scene from Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.

A scene from Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale.

Recapturing our youth in Hsinchu

We arrive at the Hsinchu HSR Station on Friday at 3:30 pm. New friends meet for the first time. (From left to right: Leo, Gary, Henry and Neal)

We arrive at the Hsinchu HSR Station on Friday at 3:30 pm. New friends meet for the first time. (From left to right: Leo, Gary, Henry and Neal)

“This is like being young again,” exclaimed Neal, “like back when I was in summer camp.”

A group of my good friends and I are walking down the unlit street in Shoulan Village, nestled in a river valley between high mountains in Hsinchu County. My friends range in age from their late 30’s to their 50’s. Many are together for the first time, getting to know each other during this 1-day trip. My good friend Leo, our Taiwanese host, and his friends are leading the way into the darkness. Some of them have flashlights to light our path, while others follow, uncertain of our destination. On the main village road, we walk towards the river wearing our swim trunks, flip flops, slippers and sandals. The sounds of frogs, crickets and cicadas envelop us.

Our trip begins with a tour of the historic Hakka town of Neiwan. We enjoyed a personal account of the history of the area, which enjoyed significance as a logging town during the Japanese occupation.

Our trip begins with a tour of the historic Hakka town of Neiwan. We enjoyed a personal account of the history of the area, which enjoyed significance as a logging town during the Japanese occupation.

I stare up into the clear night sky and marvel at the thousands of stars I can see. I thought I saw a shooting star fly across the sky. Neal’s words hit me, and I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I am a world away from my life back in Tainan, but not only that. Emotionally, I feel like I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. I feel light, carefree, and joyous, free to enjoy the experience and connection between the people I was with.

“I haven’t felt like this since I was a teenager!” I shout.

New friends stand in front of the historic Neiwan Theater.

New friends stand in front of the historic Neiwan Theater.

Just a short while before, our group was really getting to know each other over a dinner of indigenous food over at Watan’s restaurant. After a tour of Neiwan, which is a historic Hakka town, and a long 90-minute drive on winding mountain roads, it was good to plant our feet on solid ground. We regained our sense of balance over dinner, and had lively conversations filled with laughter. Miss Hsu recognized Gary from TV commercials. Neal impressed the group with his singing talents that didn’t miss a beat since his days performing on Broadway. When Neal found a guitar, he started singing classic American songs, impressing us with his professional singing voice. My friend Gary also sang along, sharing his talents. The energy was high when dinner ended, and we walked to our dormitory to change into swimming clothes and to relax in a natural hot spring.

A stroll through the streets of Neiwan reveals that the entire town has been reinvented as a tourist attraction.

A stroll through the streets of Neiwan reveals that the entire town has been reinvented as a tourist attraction.

The walk to the river’s edge was somewhat perilous, especially when we had to walk over stones in the dark. Many times my slippers fell off, and I fell behind putting them on again, I was fortunate to have helpers (Miss Li and Miss Hsu) to carry my towel and light the way. Often they lent me a helping hand to climb up or down the rocks. Needing and accepting help, as I stumbled into the dark unknown only heightened the sense of youthful adventure.

We pose in front of the old Neiwan Police Station, which served the area about 100 years ago during Japanese occupation. A new police station will be built, and this one will be converted to a museum.

We pose in front of the old Neiwan Police Station, which served the area about 100 years ago during Japanese occupation. A new police station will be built, and this one will be converted to a museum.

We located and settled into a small spring filled with warm water at around 10:00 pm. It was only knee-deep in places, and the bottom was a mixture of mud, sand and rock. We sat on large stones with our legs in the water, or sometimes we sat in the water. When we shined the flashlight into the water, we realized we weren’t imagining things when we felt our legs tickled by something.

“Leeches,” said Gary sarcastically.

“No, they’re tadpoles, ” said Neal.

Neal and Henry take photos of the views from Yulao Village at the top of the mountain.

Neal and Henry take photos of the views from Yulao Village at the top of the mountain.

So there we were, five men sitting in the hot spring, staring up into the starry sky. We talked over the sounds of the raging, cold river next to us, and the chirping crickets. Tadpoles nibbled on our toes. Each of us had a beer in hand, and a few friends standing beside us made sure our cups did not stay empty.

I am thoroughly enjoying 21 C (69 F) weather outside again at the end of July, while we enjoy a cup of hot tea.

I am thoroughly enjoying 21 C (69 F) weather outside again at the end of July, while we enjoy a cup of hot tea.

“This reminds me of being out by a river or lake with friends during my college days,” I think out loud. I remember how during those days, my friends and I would share our personal thoughts and secrets with each other, so I asked each of my friends in the host spring to share their past experiences during their youth. It was a bonding experience haven’t had since my college days, and I never expected to have again as a mature adult, so I cherished every moment. I decided that this must be how tribal people feel when they are out together enjoying nature very often. I believe that the experience of adults letting down their walls and being intimate and vulnerable as friends is rare in the modern world and it strengthens bonds more than anything else can. It was a priceless experience.

“Best day ever,” yelled my friend Henry over and over.

It is Friday at 6:10 pm on the mountain top. We still have a 45-minute drive to Shoulan on the river far below.

It is Friday at 6:10 pm on the mountain top. We still have a 45-minute drive to Shoulan on the river far below.

After an hour in the water, we walked back to the dormitory relaxed and peaceful. We changed clothes, and gathered in the living room. When I got there, the table was set with drinks, dried squid, boneless chicken feet, peaches, bananas, and lychees. The karaoke machine and television were on. We sang until 1 am, singing familiar Taiwanese and English songs, and admiring each other’s singing abilities.

We arrive at Watan's indigenous restaurant in Shoulan around 7:00 pm, and dinner was already waiting. Our hosts and friends get to know each other better over food and drink.

We arrive at Watan's indigenous restaurant in Shoulan around 7:00 pm, and dinner was already waiting. Our hosts and friends get to know each other better over food and drink.

That night I lay in bed with the windows open, and the mountain air gave me the opportunity to sleep with a blanket. I basked in the warmth of my experiences, and enjoyed getting familiar with feelings from a forgotten time. I couldn’t remember when I laughed so much and sang in harmony without inhibition. Even more important to me was knowing that I helped bring people together, which gave everyone something special to remember for their lifetimes.

Neal finds a guitar and starts singing, kicking up the energy a few notches.

Neal finds a guitar and starts singing, kicking up the energy a few notches.

After a night under the stars in the hot spring, we return to the dormitory to enjoy karaoke.

After a night under the stars in the hot spring, we return to the dormitory to enjoy karaoke.

The dormitory that housed us in Shoulan and the black van that transported us.

The dormitory that housed us in Shoulan and the black van that transported us.

On Saturday morning I returned to the same place where the night before we talked in the hot spring under the stars.

On Saturday morning I returned to the same place where the night before we talked in the hot spring under the stars.

Our entire group poses in front of the Yulao Police Station on our way back to Hsinchu. (From left to right: Tony, Miss Li, Miss Hsu, Mr. Li, Mr. Jien, the local police officer, Gary, Leo Li, Neal, and Henry)

Our entire group poses in front of the Yulao Police Station on our way back to Hsinchu. (From left to right: Tony, Miss Li, Miss Hsu, Mr. Li, Mr. Jien, the local police officer, Gary, Leo Li, Neal, and Henry)

Yulao Village and Police Station are important stops for cyclists who visit the area from Hsinchu City. It is an impressive accomplishment to make it this far.

Yulao Village and Police Station are important stops for cyclists who visit the area from Hsinchu City. It is an impressive accomplishment to make it this far.

Our host from the area, Mr. Li, takes us on a 2 km hike up a mountain to build up our appetite for lunch.

Our host from the area, Mr. Li (foreground), takes us on a 2 km hike up a mountain to build up our appetite for lunch.

We are taken to a famous fish farm/restaurant in the area for an unbelievable feast of local Hakka and indigenous cuisine. The owner of the restaurant shows us the proper technique to de-bone a fried fish.

We are taken to a famous fish farm/restaurant in the area for an unbelievable feast of local Hakka and indigenous cuisine. The owner of the restaurant shows us the proper technique to de-bone a fried fish.

Click for more photos from the experience.

Taiwan’s Last Paradise

Exploring the rocky coast near the Sansiantai Bridge.

Exploring the rocky coast near the Sansiantai Bridge.

You’re walking on a glittering beach, looking for seashells, while a lone surfer rides the waves in the distance. You see the tracks of giant sea turtles on the sand. Glancing towards the East, you are charmed by the deep hues of blue sea topped by clear, azure skies. The sound of tribal drum beats beckons you to gaze towards the west, where you see a group of indigenous people celebrating life on the beach, where they have been doing so for hundreds of years. Behind them is a backdrop of awe-inspiring mountains and cliff sides that provides a stark contrast to the sea.

No, you’re not on Fiji, Tahiti, or Hawaii. You are in East Asia’s last remaining paradise… Taitung.

Taitung Map

Taitung Map

Taiwan map with Taitung highlighted.

Taiwan map with Taitung highlighted.

Taitung County is located in the Southeast corner of the island. Because it is the least-populated county on the island, it is also the least-developed. This means that this area is the last place people can visit in Taiwan to experience nature flourishing in an unspoiled semi-tropical environment.

One of many beautiful beaches in Taitung County.

One of many beautiful beaches in Taitung County.

No one understands and appreciates the value that the natural environment brings to the area than the indigenous local population. Taitung is a melting pot of peoples from most of the 14 official indigenous tribes of Taiwan, and the indigenous peoples make up the majority of the area’s population. Leaders and activist in the area are currently leading efforts to block developments that are destroying the natural environment. The building projects, which are occurring without environmental impact studies, and in some cases, without proper building permits, have the real potential of destroying the rare coral reefs, local wildlife, and sea life, some species of which are found nowhere else in the world.

A peaceful protest rally at a hotel construction site on the beach near Dulan.

A peaceful protest rally at a hotel construction site on the beach near Dulan.

With the increase of tourists to the area from mainland China, the interest in development on the beaches has increased. The local people are not against development, because jobs are welcome. But what they want is for development to be done with their consultation, to ensure responsible planning and reduced environmental impact. They also don’t want people to be shut out of the beaches, which have been the community gathering places for the local tribes for hundreds of years.

An indigenous activist in front of the hotel construction site near Dulan.

An indigenous activist in front of the hotel construction site near Dulan.

Ideally, the local people would like their native homelands to be a haven for eco-tourism and cultural tourism, which the area is well-suited for. People throughout Taiwan, including all ethnic groups and foreigners have joined in peaceful rallies and demonstrations on the beach to attract attention to the cause. They want to save Taiwan’s last paradise, which is likely the last unspoiled paradise in all of Eastern Asia. Even more troubling, a planned dump site for nuclear waste in the southern part of the county near Daren is threatening the grandeur and future potential for Taitung.

The fountain at the front entrance of the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung City.

The fountain at the front entrance of the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung City.

Aside from its natural assets, Taitung County has much cultural value to offer visitors. Taitung City is the capital city and the administrative center for the County. It is like other small cities in Taiwan, with schools, department stores, Starbucks, and night markets. There is a different local atmosphere that is colored by the many indigenous peoples in the area. You can find many restaurants selling indigenous cuisine and shops selling indigenous clothing and crafts. Located in Taitung City is Taiwan’s National Museum of Prehistory. In the museum, people can view ancient artifacts from tribal people who inhabited the island thousands of years ago. More importantly, visitors can discover and understand Taiwan’s cultural importance in the world and their link to the Austronesian cultures worldwide. Many people have moved to Taitung City to enjoy a healthier slow-paced lifestyle in a cleaner environment.

Many displays and dioramas in the National Prehistory Museum give visitors a glimpse into indigenous life in Taiwan, from ancient to modern.

Many displays and dioramas in the National Prehistory Museum give visitors a glimpse into indigenous life in Taiwan, from ancient to modern.

Highway 11 is the main highway connecting Taitung City with the rest of the county north and south. Going south, the highway winds around curves on top of the mountainous cliffs along the sea. The views are gorgeous, and there are many kilometers of uninhabited beaches all the way to Daren in the south. The only civilization you will find along the 50 kilometers between Taitung City and Daren are a few lonely fishing villages.

Artists and musicians regularly hang out at the Dulan Sugar Factory, which was converted into a center for arts and music.

Artists and musicians regularly hang out at the Dulan Sugar Factory, which was converted into a center for arts and music.

Driving north on Highway 11 from Taitung City, you will pass many natural and cultural attractions along the coast. One of the first attractions you will see is Shiauyeliou. It has some of the most interesting geological formations you will find in the world, coming from a combination of wind and water erosion.

The tofu rock formations at Shiauyeliou.

The tofu rock formations at Shiauyeliou.

The mushroom rock formations at Shiauyeliou.

The mushroom rock formations at Shiauyeliou.

About 10 km north of Taitung City is the sleepy town of Dulan, in the Donghe Township. Dulan has a strong arts community, attracting artists and musicians to reside in an affordable and beautiful setting. Dulan is where tourists go to see Water Running Up, a walking path alongside a small stream that appears to be running uphill. You can also visit Dulan Site, an archaeological site with stone tombs dating to 3,000 years ago.

In Dulan, tourists visit a site where a stream appears to be flowing uphill.

In Dulan, tourists visit a site where a stream appears to be flowing uphill.

Driving north on Highway 11 from Dulan, you will find Duli in the Chenggong Township. Visiting the East Coast National Scenic Area Administration there is worth your time. The office, and cultural center are nestled in beautiful parkland between the ocean and mountains. On the grounds of this park is the Amis Indigenous Cultural Arts Center, where visitors can visit traditional houses, and watch traditional performances of music and dance from the Amis tribe.

East Coast National Scenic Area Administration Center

East Coast National Scenic Area Administration Center

The interior of a traditional Amis family house at the Amis Indigenous Culture Art Center

The interior of a traditional Amis family house at the Amis Indigenous Culture Art Center

Further up the coast is Chenggong, a large town that is a notable fishing port. While in town, check out the fishing docks, especially after the boats return from sea with its harvest, and try the fresh, inexpensive seafood. Also, check out the National Aquarium, where you can see many varieties of clown fish, and the only giant white dragon moray eel in captivity.

The fishing port of Chenggong in Taitung County is known for its abundance of fresh fish.

The fishing port of Chenggong in Taitung County is known for its abundance of fresh fish.

Just north of Chenggong is another remarkable, must-see site, the bridge to Sanshiantai Island. The famous bridge, with 8 arches, is surrounded by a lush nature preserve. The walk through the preserve, alone, is worth the visit, but one can also enjoy the pebble beach, and after a long walk over the bridge, you can explore the uninhabited Sanshiantai Island.

The Sansiantai bridge

The Sansiantai bridge

Children enjoy exploring the magical area around Sansiantai.

Children enjoy exploring the magical area around Sansiantai.

In the north end of Taitung County is the pleasant little town of Changbin. We found a surprisingly affordable air-conditioned hotel room with 4 beds, bathroom with a bath tub, a television and refrigerator for only NT1,200 (US$40) per night. After a good night’s sleep, we had the energy to explore new sites. We began by exploring the Basian Caves, just outside of Changbin. These natural caves are home to the Eight Immortals. In each of eight caves, visitors can see temples, with monks residing within. It is quite the hike up the cliffside to see all eight of the dieties in their caves.

One of the eight temples inside one of the Basian Caves.

One of the eight temples inside one of the Basian Caves.

It took four days to visit many of the interesting sites along the coast of Taitung County, and to fall in love with the area. There was so much that we didn’t see, but what we did gain was greater appreciation for Taiwan and we understood what the locals have been trying hard to protect.

To see more of the photos, you can visit the online photo galleries:

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

A Mother’s Day to Remember

My relatives in Tsongtzi Village in Wulai are honored for Mother's Day.

My relatives in Tsongtzi Village in Wulai are honored for Mother's Day.

Sunday, May 8, 2011 was the most amazing Mother’s Day I ever had the pleasure of experiencing, since my mother died in 1995.

Tsongtzi Village, where my great aunt Mei lives with her younger sister.

Tsongtzi Village, where my great aunt Mei lives with her younger sister.

My wife drove me to Chiayi High Speed Rail Station, and I gave her a quick happy Mother’s Day wish, with a kiss and hug. I then told my three boys to be extra good for their mother on this day. I purchased one business class ticket to Taipei, just for a new experience, so I could write a comparative article. (See article on the Taiwan High Speed Rail Business Class) The ride to Taipei passed very quickly, and I arrived around 10 am.

The mother's at the Catholic church in Tsongtzi Village are honored by the minister.

The mother's at the Catholic church in Tsongtzi Village are honored by the minister.

I caught the Taipei MRT (subway) to Hsintien Station, and then a taxi cab (chee-chen-chuh in Mandarin) to Tzong-zi Village in Wulai District. I wanted to surprise my great aunt Mei, who recently returned to Taiwan for good from the USA. She wasn’t at home, so I went to the Catholic church nearby and found her and many of my relatives attending a special church service dedicated to honoring Mother’s Day.

Great Uncle Masagi Lin gives a stirring sermon in the native Atayal language.

Great Uncle Masagi Lin gives a stirring sermon in the native Atayal language.

It was really nice seeing my great aunt Mei standing in line with other mother’s arm-in-arm, and holding a bouquet of flowers. I was fortunate to share the beautiful moment. She was very surprised to see me, as was all of my relatives there. There were many, including a few who I hadn’t seen in 20 years. My great uncle Masagi Lin, still a respected elder in the village, took the microphone and gave a sermon in the native Atayal language. It almost moved me to tears hearing the magical language being spoken and echoing throughout the large room. I closed my eyes and imagined I was in Wulai during a distant time. He acknowledged my return to the minister, and gave me the microphone. I thanked everyone and gave all the women, including my deceased mother, a warm Mother’s Day blessing.

My Wulai relatives in front of the Catholic church.

My Wulai relatives in front of the Catholic church.

When the service ended at noon, I greeted my relatives and everyone returned home for lunch. My great aunt Mei lived with her younger sister, which was a short walk away. I followed her home. She was leaving for a shopping trip with my uncle Henry and aunt Mei Lin, so I stayed with other relatives at the house. I was invited to stay for lunch made by one of my aunts that I did not see for 20 years. (Yummm!) Her two daughters were also there, and I took the opportunity to get to know them better. They were 6 and 7 years old when I last saw them, but they were now beautiful young women. After catching up on each other’s lives, they offered to drive me to Taipei to my film festival screening. I went by car with my aunt and two cousins to the Huashan Culture Park in downtown Taipei, arriving about 3:30 pm. I spent an hour introducing my relatives to Western cocktails and tiramisu in a little Italian place in the culture park. They left at around 5:00 pm. I used the time to write a speech for the opening of the film and for the Q & A session.

Great aunt Mei with my two cousins. I last saw them when they were 7 and 8 years old.

Great aunt Mei with my two cousins. I last saw them when they were 7 and 8 years old.

I returned to the site of the Urban Nomad Film Festival, a warehouse converted into a movie theater. I met festival founders Sean Scanlan and David Frazier, as well as some of their staff. They are a great group of people. At the front entrance of the movie house, there were two large bouquets of flowers sent by my friend Mr. Leo Li to wish me success. They were screening a film about Ai Wei-wei, and I passed the time by meeting people. Soon, Alice Takewatan and Li De-wei arrived. Both of them were instrumental in making my trip to Taiwan possible in 2005, when I traveled around Taiwan to film Voices In The Clouds. They prepared a table with traditional Atayal food and drink, generously provided by a good friend of theirs named I-na (ee-nah).

My aunt and two cousins in front of the film festival site.

My aunt and two cousins in front of the film festival site.

I give my relatives a first taste of tiramisu.

I give my relatives a first taste of tiramisu.

Flowers from my friend Leo adorn the front entrance.

Flowers from my friend Leo adorn the front entrance.

The Atayal traditional food and drink were generously provided by I-na.

The Atayal traditional food and drink were generously provided by I-na.

I popped next door to Alley Cats to have their famous pizza for dessert, and waited for my friend Henry Liao, Weifan, and his wife. I saw a live cat at a booth making herself at home, and understood why the restaurant had its name. We caught up with each other, and I asked for Henry and Weifan’s help to take photos of the event. We returned to the theater and started mingling. I introduced my friends to whomever I could. Philip Diller arrived early. It was great to see him and Alice together. They both worked together in 2005 to make my film possible. Catherine Su arrived with her husband. She wrote a very nice article about Voices in the Clouds for the Taipei Times. I finally met David Reid, a well-known blogger who publishes David on Formosa. David wrote a nice article on the film as well. I met well-known author and democracy activist Professor Jerome Keating, who said he would like to work with me on his project. There were many nice people that I met, and I can’t remember all of their names.

Co-founder Sean Scanlan was always behind the scenes at the Urban Nomad Film Festival.

Co-founder Sean Scanlan was always behind the scenes at the Urban Nomad Film Festival.

Voices in the Clouds was the closing film on the last day of the Urban Nomad Film Festival. We were quite proud of the acknowledgment. The film opened at 7:45 pm with a special ceremony with 4 people on stage. Alice and I shared a Paiwan dual wedding cup and David Frazier and Angelika Wang, the founder of TOFU, shared another cup. Alice made a statement and we all shared out millet wine together.

The drinking ritual opens the screening of our film.

The drinking ritual opens the screening of our film.

I gave a speech about why I made the film, and how it really honored my mother and her culture. It was on Mother’s Day in 1995 that she passed away and wrote her last words to me, “I love you.” The film played to a packed audience of around 250 people.

Tony, Alice and Philip together again.

Tony, Alice and Philip together again.

I sat next to Alice Takewatan and Philip Diller in the front row. Alice occasionally held my hand during the screening. It was emotional to watch scenes of my mother and of the trip that Alice was instrumental in making possible.

Members of the audience during the Q&A session.

Members of the audience during the Q&A session.

After the film, I took to the stage once more, and presented thank-you gifts to I-na, Alice, and Philip Diller. I was very touched when Philip thanked me as someone who inspired him. The question and answer began with Gary Smoke thanking the ATAYAL organization for their donation to help a tribe in Western Washington State. When another man asked me if the Taiwanese government was doing enough for the preservation of the indigenous culture of Taiwan, I deferred the question to Alice. She took the microphone and said something that struck a chord in me. She said the government spent a billion NT dollars for cultural preservation efforts, and said that this film and Tony’s efforts accomplished something that the government has not been able to do… to touch people’s hearts. She also said the footage of the tattooed elders is an important documentation of Taiwanese cultural history. All of a sudden, I felt an increased sense of importance for the film and whatever my future may hold.

Breaking down the festival site also included putting the alcohol away.

Breaking down the festival site also included putting the alcohol away.

After a lively Q&A session, the crowd slowly dispersed, but most stuck around to socialize and to enjoy the leftover beer and Jaegermeister. I tried Jaegermeister for the first time, and chatted with as many people as I could. The Urban Nomad crew worked diligently late into the night to break down the makeshift theatre in the warehouse. I left at about midnight, catching a cab to the Taipei Main Bus Station and catching a Ho-Shin bus to Madou.

I want to personally thank David Frazier and Sean Scanlan, the founders of the Urban Nomad Film Festival for honoring Voices in the Clouds as the closing film, and for providing the translators and great hospitality during the event.

Taiwan High Speed Rail Business Class

The modern, sleek Taipei HSR bullet train pulls into Chiayi Station.

The modern, sleek Taipei HSR bullet train pulls into Chiayi Station.

I have come to love the Taiwan High Speed Rail system since moving to Taiwan two years ago. It has redefined convenience to me, shortening a 5 hour trip on the highways of Taiwan, to a 1 and 1/2 hour journey in a quiet, comfortable setting. More importantly, it has allowed trips throughout the north and south Taiwan to become reasonable, efficient and less damaging to the environment.

The Standard Class seating in the Taiwan HSR Bullet Train.

The Standard Class seating in the Taiwan HSR Bullet Train.

I have always taken Standard Reserved Class, and it has always been nothing short of perfect. But on my latest trip to Taipei, I decided to take Business Class to experience for myself what the differences are.

On Sunday, May 8th, 2011, I took the train from Chiayi to Taipei to attend the Urban Nomad Film Festival. Instead of paying NT 1080 (US $36) for a Standard one-way ticket, I chose the Business Class ticket for NT 1455 (US $48). As I walked onto car #6, I noticed a difference immediately. Instead of 6 seats per row, there were 4 seats. The seats were larger, and also included a 110 volt electric outlet and a jack for music that was streaming on different channels. The aisle was carpeted, and there was a padded footrest.

Business Class seating is more spacious, with 4 seats per row.

Business Class seating is more spacious, with 4 seats per row.

The service in the Business Class car was better. An attractive attendant provided passengers with free coffee, muffin and a selection of daily newspapers. There was an extra pictorial magazine just for Business Class as well. It was a more relaxing experience, reading the paper to jazz music, and the trip seemed to pass much more quickly.

Free amenities are provided with the Business Class fare.

Free amenities are provided with the Business Class fare.