Tag Archives: Taiwan

Post-Disaster Tainan City In Mourning


The collapsed Wei-guan Golden Dragon building.

In the early morning hours (3:57 am local time) of Saturday, February 6, 2016, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck near the northern Kaohsiung City community of Meinong District. Although the quake was strong, the area surrounding Meinong did not sustain much damage. About 35 kilometers away in the Yong-kang Distict of Tainan City in Southern Taiwan, most people were asleep and ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday.  The almost 2 million people of Tainan City were abruptly awakened by a massive earthquake that subsided in about 30 seconds. There was a brief aftershock. The quake was felt all over the island of Taiwan and as far away as Mainland China.


A tall crane lifts a rescue team into the rubble to find survivors.

However, one community was shaken the hardest. It was in Yong-kang District of Tainan City, where the 17-story Wei-guan Golden Dragon building inexplicably collapsed. It was a large building with 4 floors of commercial space and 13 floors of residential apartments. The residents were mostly families and college students.


Rescue teams from all over Taiwan and Japan searched the disaster site around the clock for a week.

An English teacher who lived in down the street rushed to the devastated Wei-guan scene, because he had dropped off his two sons at the complex the night before. He arrived before the dust settled, and before the police and emergency crews arrived. He waited nervously for any signs of survivors. When rescuers arrived at the scene, his ex-wife was the first survivor to pulled out of the wreckage in front of the glare of television cameras. Her 10-day old baby did not survive the collapse, and her husband died trying to protect both of them. The teacher begged the rescue workers to keep searching the dangerous ruins of his ex-wife’s apartment, but to no avail, his two sons were not found.


Mayor William Lai worked tirelessly during rescue efforts to support the rescue crews and the victims’ families.

This personal tragedy was just one of many that unfolded over the next 7 days, with many parents losing their children and some children losing their parents. One-hundred-sixteen people died and more than 500 people were hospitalized in Tainan City. People waited days on end as the rescue efforts were carried out meticulously around the clock by professional teams during the first 100 hours. Their anxiety turned to grief, as the critical time for survival passed, and Tainan City Mayor William Lai (賴清德) made the difficult decision to bulldoze the wreckage to find the bodies deeper in the ruins.


The Taiwanese flag flies at half mast at Jing-sing Hall at the Tainan City Mortuary Service Office, site of the mass memorial services.

Trained rescue teams, including rescue dogs, military personnel, police, paramedics and medical teams manned stations around the disaster site, and coordinated their efforts very efficiently and professionally with the local authorities. Volunteers from Taiwanese organizations, especially the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, organized supplies and support services to the small army of rescue workers and victims’ families during the weeklong rescue operations. The Tzu Chi volunteers were the first ones to arrive on the scene to provide relief support, and the last ones to leave, cleaning the area, and recycling the waste. A wave of foreign and Taiwanese media descended on the area, and were treated to gracious hospitality by volunteers and local residents who opened up their homes to the visitors. It was noticeable that the disaster brought out the best in the people of the community.


Volunteers and family members pray and chant for the victims of the Tainan City earthquake.

On Friday, February 12th, mass funeral services were opened to help the community grieve for the 116 people who lost their lives in Tainan City. Family members, volunteers and officials joined the memorial service at the Mortuary Service Office in Tainan City in Jing-sing Hall. In attendance were Taiwan President Ma, Ying-jeou (馬英九), Taiwan President-elect Tsai, Ing-wen (蔡英文), Tainan City Mayor William Lai, and Kaohsiung City Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊). According to Taiwanese tradition, the souls of the deceased return home after seven days, so family members must provide them with food and blessings to take to heaven.


Buddhist monks chant to calm the spirits of the deceased and guide them home, before they proceed to heaven.

Survivors and the victims’ family members are picking up the pieces to rebuild their lives. Generous donations from Taiwan and other countries are making their way to Tainan City to make the process a little easier. However, for most families, no amount of money can replace what was lost during the Lunar New Year holiday of 2016. It will take time for the victims’ families to find closure, and they are still seeking answers to the cause of the collapse. Currently, the builders of the Wei-guan Golden Dragon building have been arrested while they are being investigated by Tainan City prosecutors for substandard construction practices. Also, it was discovered that a landlord tore down supporting walls and beams on the first few floors of the building to rent the space to a large electronics retail store.

Around Taiwan, people are seeking answers and trying to learn from the lessons provided by this disaster. Many living in high rises are anxious and feel uneasy about when and where the next earthquake will hit. More people may choose to avoid living in high rises in Taiwan, but in many cities, finding alternate housing my not be an option. The owner of a reputable construction company Tainan City provided several factors to consider when people want to make the safest choices for high rise apartments in Taiwan. First, choose to live in a building that was built after 1999, when the government’s building regulations were strengthened after the notorious 9/21 earthquake. Second, choose a building where there is not retail space on the lower floors.

New Zealand celestial compass project publicly honors ancestral connection to Taiwan

Maori Celestial Compass Project

An artist rendering of the Star Compass project in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Drawing provided by Piripi Smith of Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

For thousands of years, Austronesian (南島) navigators (Tohunga) piloted primitive, double-hulled sailing ships called “waka” across vast stretches of the Pacific and Indian Ocean. These highly-trained sailors traveled across hundreds or thousands of kilometers discovering uninhabited islands, creating new colonies, and developing trade networks. What’s hard to believe is that these navigators traversed these great distances using no technology or maps, but instead relying on tuning into the stars, winds and Mother Nature. According to many scholars, these skills brought ancient ancestors from Taiwan to settle the vast area known as Austronesia, including the Philippines, Hawaii, Easter Island, Madagascar and New Zealand.

A traditional Maori waka sailing vessel

A traditional Maori waka sailing vessel

Up until modern times, these traditional sailing methods had been preserved by Polynesian peoples. There has been a recent revival of this method of transport, and to prove to the skeptics that the accuracy of guiding “waka” does not rely on luck, a new generation of navigators continues to sail between distant islands with no maps, compasses or GPS systems.

Waka Sailing Ships

Traditional Maori wakas sailing near New Zealand. Photo provided by Piripi Smith of Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

One group in New Zealand that prioritizes the preservation of this tradition is Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust, which manages a program called Waka Experience. The organization is led by Chairman Piripi Smith, who is an experienced Maori navigator. The Trust is partnering with Hawkes Bay Regional Council to undertake an ambitious project to build a large public project called the Star Compass. Not only will the project serve a functional purpose, it will also revitalize the historic Waitangi area.

The Star Compass will be used primarily as an education resource for a wide range of groups; trainee navigators of waka hourua, waka crew, school, youth and community groups. Visitors and tourists to the region will be able to understand the basics of how celestial navigation works. When asked why he was personally committed to this project, Piripi Smith stated, “It’s important to me as a trained navigator, as I now have a responsibility to pass this knowledge on to future generations, like it has been passed onto myself from my mentor Jack Thatcher.”

Mr. Piripi Smith, Maori navigator and Chairman of the Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

A photo of Mr. Piripi Smith, Maori navigator and Chairman of the Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust. Photo provided by Piripi Smith of Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust.

The Star Compass consists of thirty-two carved wooden pous (totems) approximately 2-3 meters high placed in a large circle outdoors. Six large limestone rocks will also denote the solstice points and centre of the compass. Four main pous for the North, East, South and West directions represent the four corners of the Austronesian world. The carved designs of the South Pou represents Aotearoa (New Zealand), the East Pou represents Easter Island, the North Pou represents Hawaii, and the West Pou represents Taiwan, home of the Austronesian ancestors.

The Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust worked with the ATAYAL organization and the National Museum of Prehistory (國立台灣史前文化博物館) in Taitung City (台東市) to select a design for the West Pou. Seeking a more authentic connection to their ancient ancestors, they sought an indigenous design from the appropriate region of Taiwan and time period. Chairman Smith explained, “We want to incorporate an ancient indigenous Taiwanese design so we can tell the story of where the voyages of our ancestors started.”

Director Shannan Chang of the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

Director Shannan Chang of the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory. Photo provided by the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

The museum houses the largest collection of ancient Austronesian artifacts from the island. Its director Shan-nan Chang (張善楠) and his staff presented an assortment of ancient pieces from the Beinan (卑南) people, who lived in Southern Taiwan over 2,000 years ago. The museum considers this cooperation significant for helping Taiwan expand its international connections and to help the Maori in New Zealand connect with their roots. Director Chang stated that the project aligns with the museums original mission to expand Austronesian studies through its cultural connections, and expressed, “It is our honor and responsibility to reinforce the relationships for the Taiwanese people.”

Piripi Smith’s team has chosen the main indigenous design, which is from a Beinan Period jade artifact, as well as some other design elements to use in Taiwan’s pou. He is currently in a fundraising stage to build the project. The Star Compass project is tentatively scheduled to open in February 2017, depending on the success of finding sponsorship and other funding.

A large moai statue at Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

A large moai statue similar to those found on Easter Island sits on the grounds of Taiwan’s National Museum of Prehistory. Photo provided by the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

Director Chang hopes to attend the opening ceremony of the Star Compass in New Zealand. When asked about what the design provided by his museum may mean to the Maori in New Zealand, he remarked, “This star compass project is really wonderful, because they can see an authentic design and feel the similarities of the connected cultures from the totem pole design.”

When the Taiwanese people look at projects like this, they shouldn’t underestimate what international opportunities Taiwan’s Austronesian heritage can provide for its future.

Ornamental jade ornament from the Beinan Cultural Period

The ornamental jade ornament from the Beinan Cultural Period chosen to be used in the Star Compass project. Photo provided by the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory.

Grand opening of the new ChiMei Museum fulfills a dream

The exterior of the new ChiMei Museum.

The exterior of the new ChiMei Museum.

Photos by Michael Sidebotham. Thank you, Michael!

On January 1, 2015, the new ChiMei Museum (奇美博物館) opened its doors to the public in Tainan City. When I visited, the sharply-dressed staff of about 100 people were busy greeting guests, polishing brass railings and adding the final touches to the exhibits. When I entered the grand lobby, I paused to take in the splendor, which was unlike anything I had ever seen in Taiwan. The museum has a striking resemblance to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, which I have visited several times.

Cultural displays of historic world cultures.

Cultural displays of historic world cultures.

The new museum proudly displays 10,000 pieces of its collection, much more than the 5,000 pieces once displayed in the old ChiMei Museum. Visitors casually strolled through marbled hallways to marvel at the collection of preserved animals, classic works of Western art, cultural relics, and of course, the prized ChiMei collection of violins. The new building is, in itself, a treasure, a new iconic landmark in Taiwan, providing 40,000 square meters in exhibit space.

The famous Thinker statue on display in the Rodin exhibit gallery.

The famous Thinker statue on display in the Rodin exhibit gallery.

I was surprised when I learned that the ChiMei Museum is that this grand vision began with the childhood dream of Mr. Wen-long Hsu (許文龍). When he was a small child from a very poor family in Tainan City, during the early 1940’s, he often visited a local Japanese cultural museum. The young boy visited the museum to “escape” from the hardships of wartime to let his imagination fly to Japan. It was incredible to him, that even during a war, the poorest of people could experience the culture of a faraway place. He made a promise to himself, that when he grew up, he would offer the same type of uplifting cultural experience to the people of Taiwan. Little did he know then that he would grow up to found one of the most successful companies in Asia and grow a private, world-class collection of fine art and cultural artifacts.

A delegation from AIT visits the ChiMei Museum.

A delegation from AIT visits the ChiMei Museum.

I am certain that the ChiMei Museum will attract foreign tourists and Taiwanese visitors. I don’t think that Mr. Hsu, as a young boy, could have imagined the magnitude of what he would gift to the people of Taiwan. It’s hard to believe that the project of building a suitable museum for the ChiMei collection, which began in 1988, almost failed to materialize on many occasions and for many reasons.  On the first morning of 2015, the organizers, like Patricia Liao (廖婉如) could bask in their accomplishments after overcoming stressful challenges with sometimes very creative solutions. Because of their commitment, the ChiMei museum is a crown jewel of culture available to everyone who visits Tainan City, the ancient cultural capital of Taiwan.

Visiting with Patricia Liao, Deputy Director and organizer of the new ChiMei Museum.

Visiting with Patricia Liao (廖婉如), Deputy Director and organizer of the new ChiMei Museum.

“I would like our museum to spark the interest of young Taiwanese to reach out to the world in order to become global citizens who are proud to share their culture and open to discovering the cultures of others.” — Patricia Liao, Deputy Director, ChiMei Museum

Visitors who wish to tour the new ChiMei Museum can visit the web site (http://www.chimeimuseum.org) to place a reservation. Demand is high, so you may have to wait 3-4 weeks for an available day you can visit. Admission is free for Tainan City residents and NT200 for non-residents. The museum is open every day, except for Mondays from 9:30 am – 5:30 pm. You can also call (06) 266-0808 for information. The location is No. 66, Sec. 2, Wenhua Rd, Rende District, Tainan City 71755 (71755臺南市仁德區文華路二段66號).

Voters demand change in Taiwan through its elections. Now what?

Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan

As an American journalist living in Taiwan for the past 6 years, I have enjoyed the fruits of living on this diverse island, but its people have been struggling to recover economically after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Before that, Taiwanese people were recovering from another drain on their economy caused by the steady flight of manufacturing jobs from Taiwanese companies moving their manufacturing to China since before 2000. During that time, along with the flight of companies and skilled labor to China, Taiwan also lost access to foreign investment capital and international markets.

There have been some promising signs of future recovery, however. According to a November 16, 2014 article in the South China Morning Post, Taiwanese manufacturers are beginning to move their operations back to Taiwan. Even though mainland China workers earn a minimum of US $2,472 per year, compared to a minimum of US $8,481 per year for Taiwanese workers, growing risks in the Chinese business environment and benefits of the Taiwanese marketplace are attracting more companies to return. Taiwan has added 89,000 new jobs since 2006.

The signs are positive, although the recovery has been slower than expected. Expectations were set high by the promises of President Ma’s governing administration (2008-present). The ruling Koumingtang (KMT) Party touted liberalization of economic activity with China, which they promised would result in more jobs and increased prosperity for Taiwanese people. After 6 1/2 years of governance by the KMT administration, Taiwan’s economy saw some improvement, but the results fell well short of expectations, and the citizens expressed their disappointment during the local Taiwanese elections of November 29, 2014. The ruling KMT Party lost leadership positions in unprecedented fashion. Many people believed the KMT losses were a result of slow economic growth,  dissatisfaction with the growing disparity between the income classes during the past six years, and they questioned the legislation and negotiation methods of the trade and service agreements with with Beijing.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s cabinet, and Prime Minister Jiang Yi-huah resigned from their posts, and according to a recent article by the BBC, President Ma also resigned as Chair of the Kuomingtang Party, stating that the KMT had failed to reform Taiwan quickly enough to meet the public’s expectations. The people have spoken through their votes, and new leaders from the “Green Camp” (Democratic Progressive Party and other Independent Parties) prepare for the upcoming Presidential election in Spring 2016. It is an exciting time for the new leadership, but they have the challenging task of finding solutions to give people the change and improvements they are looking for.

I know thousands of people in Taiwan, and most of them feel very insecure and uncertain about Taiwan’s future. This past year, over 100,000 recent college graduates could not find a job. I can sympathize with the many parents who invested their savings to educate their children only to find no sign of hope for employment. As a journalist and business entrepreneur residing in Taiwan while observing and learning about Taiwanese society, culture and business, I have my own ideas and thoughts about economic reform that I would like to share for the people’s consideration.

Improved relations with China has been a positive development for Taiwan, as a more relaxed environment has produced more opportunities and cooperation for both sides. There is nothing to gain from political and military tension (except for the people who hold power and supply weapons systems.) What I hope to see is for economic and cultural ties to continue to improve between Taiwan and China, but most people would prefer to see the process of negotiations to be transparent and follow the proper legislative procedures, so the terms of the agreements can be as mutually beneficial as possible.

Taiwan should continue to pursue dialogue and participation in other international agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but because of the lack of transparency in the negotiations, Taiwan’s leaders should carefully analyze the terms and make its agreements in a transparent manner in order to ensure equitable benefits. Taiwan should follow the lead of New Zealand, which has been firm in negotiating for terms that are fair for the people of their country. I don’t recommend accept terms “as-is” in order to reap potential benefits before weighing what level of autonomy the Taiwanese people will need to give up to gain the benefits.

The Taiwanese leadership should also examine and evaluate its current international agreements and relationships and decide what policies need to be changed to strengthen these relationships. Of course, Taiwan has signed the controversial Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, but it has also signed the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinsmen and Matsu on Economic Cooperation (ANZTEC). Taiwan also signed a free trade agreement with Singapore in 2013. I believe that continued efforts with these international partners can make Taiwan a more attractive trading partner.

I also believe that Taiwan’s tourism sector is widely underdeveloped for international tourists. Efforts by the Taiwanese government has been focused on Chinese tourists, and I have never really seen any substantial efforts to attract tourists from other countries.

Austronesian Tourism in Taiwan: A visit with the Bunun Tribe

Austronesian Tourism in Taiwan: A visit with the Bunun Tribe

I have worked to promote cultural exchange between the indigenous (Austronesian) tribes of Taiwan and the 400 million Austronesian peoples in 30 plus countries of the Pacific and Southeast Asia, so I believe that another opportunity exists for Taiwan through its Austronesian cultural ties. The 15 recognized Austronesian tribes in Taiwan represent a minority of about 2% of the population, and their culture and language (and DNA) more closely resemble the cultures of Polynesia, New Zealand and Madagascar than the Chinese. Dr. Marie Lin has performed groundbreaking research to show this DNA link.  I believe that if more Taiwanese people could take DNA tests, they would be surprised to discover how closely related they are to the world’s Austronesian population. What does this mean for Taiwan?

As more Austronesian peoples are discovering their cultural and historic links to Taiwan, there is more interest in cultural and academic exchange. As awareness grows, there is also a growing opportunity for tourism from a marketplace of 400 million people. Indigenous tourism and ecotourism is already growing in Taiwan, but efforts to attract international tourists through Taiwan’s Austronesian cultural connection would accelerate that, and develop a type of tourism that has less impact on the environment.

Because of the ANZTEC agreement with New Zealand and the connection with the Austronesian Maori tribe from New Zealand, Taiwan is increasing its cultural activities with New Zealand. But, is anyone prepared to leverage this activity to produce more economic cooperation between the two partners? There may be groups in Taiwan who wish to develop and promote this type of economic development, but in my opinion, they need more recognition and support to create lasting results.

Lastly, I believe the people of Taiwan have a real opportunity in their hands. Being a player in a global economy can bring prosperity, but without self-sufficiency and authoritative self-regulation, Taiwan loses much of its leverage, and puts itself in a weak and vulnerable position with other nations. We can look at the multiple food scandals in Taiwan over the years and see how reliance on food products from Vietnam, China and other countries has put the health of the Taiwanese people in jeopardy. We can also see how lax regulatory oversight and light punishment has led to food industry executives to pursue profits over stricter standards to protect their customers.

As the future leaders of Taiwan start looking for solutions for the future of Taiwan, they should take the time for self-reflection. If they can enact policies that improve the lives of the Taiwanese people, and the environment, other opportunities will fall into place. Take care of the Taiwanese people, and they will happier, healthier, and more productive. In other words, make Taiwan a more attractive place in the world to live and to do business, and the opportunities will naturally come.

Kaohsiung (Taiwan) metro station rated as one of the most impressive in the world

Dome of Light in Kaohsiung MRT

Dome of Light in the Formosa Boulevard MRT Station in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Living in Taiwan, I have admired the cleanliness and efficiency of the railways, high speed rail, and even the metro rapid transit (MRT) systems. Public transportation in Taiwan has long been very impressive by international standards.

Recently, the Metro Station and Formosa Boulevard in Kaohsiung has been recognized by CNN as being one of the 11 Most Impressive Metro Stations in the World. I have visited this metro station a few times, and I have to agree with CNN’s assessment. The central terminal is bright and colorful, thanks to its one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a glass mural that comprises the entire ceiling of the center of the terminal, known as the “Dome of Light.” You can see a video of this mural here on Facebook.

Other notable MRT Stations on CNN’s list include:

  • Fulton Transit Center (New York, USA)
  • Westfriedhof (Munich, Germany)
  • Toledo (Naples, Italy)
  • Komsomolskaya (Moscow)
  • Olaias (Lisbon, Portugal)
  • Westminster (London, England)
  • Khalid Bin Al Waleed Station (Dubai, UAE)
  • T-Centralen (Stockholm, Sweden)
  • Various Stations (Pyongyang, North Korea)
  • Bockenheimer Warte (Frankfurt, Germany)
  • Fosteritos (Bilbao, Spain)
  • Palais Royal (Paris, France)
  • Admiralteyskaya (St Petersburg, Russia)
  • Plac Wisona (Warsaw, Poland)
  • Staromestska (Prague)
  • Universidad de Chile (Santiago, Chile)

Click here to view the article on CNN.com

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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.