Friday, June 26, 2009

Pacific Paradise: Taiwan's Offshore Islands
Kinmen, Matsu, Penghu and More

Welcome to Paradise
By Stephen A. Nelson

Imagine a place where the turquoise ocean waters are crystal clear and the daytime skies are cobalt blue. A place where you can lie in the white sand and soak up the sun or bathe in the warm waters surrounded by the kaleidoscope of tropical fish that inhabit the coral reefs.

In the afternoon, you can wander through picturesque fishing villages where centuries old cultural traditions are as alive today as they were a hundred years ago.

At night, you lie on the rocks and gaze up at the clear sky stretched out like an endless black canopy studded with countless stars.

To some, this would be an unattainable paradise. For you, however, it is as close as the offshore islands of Taiwan. To get there, all you need is a map and a plane ticket. But when you arrive, you’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.

In big cities, high-rise buildings, city lights and urban haze can often obscure our view of Nature’s wonders. But when you come to Taiwan, you'll discover why early Portuguese explorers called this place the Ilha Formosa, “the beautiful island.” And when you visit our offshore islands, you’ll never want to leave.


Sometimes people forget that the country of Taiwan is not just one island — it’s a group of islands, including not only the main island but also several smaller islands in the Taiwan Strait and the Pacific Ocean.

Taiwan is right on the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire” — the fault line where the Euro-Asian and Philippine continental plates meet. It’s this unique geography that has sculpted the dramatic landscape and extremely diversified natural environment on Taiwan’s main island.

But this fiery force has also created the diverse and individual personalities of Taiwan’s offshore islands. From the mountains of Kinmen and Matsu off the coast of China, to the ocean hot springs of Green Island in the Pacific, each island has its own unique scenery, history and culture. And each offers its own version of paradise.

The main offshore islands are:

  • The Penghu Archipelago (also known as the Pescadores)
  • Green Island (once known as Fire Island)
  • Orchid Island (also known as Lanyu)
  • Kinmen (also known as Quemoy)
  • Matsu Islands (traditional home of the Goddess of the Sea)
  • Turtle Island
  • Little Liuqiu

Each of these places has it own unique scenery and culture, where the land has shaped the people — and where the people, in turn, have shaped the land. As a result, the scenery and culture on each island is as unique and diverse as the people and the land themselves. Therefore, each island offers you something different. Whether you’re here to go sightseeing, souvenir shopping or snorkelling — and whether you’re interested are in our history, our culture or our natural wonders — there is something here for you.


Taiwan is separated from China by the Taiwan Strait (Formosa Strait). The character of all the islands within these windswept straits is quite different from Taiwan’s main island. Where Taiwan can be mountainous and urbanized, the offshore islands are known for their sandy beaches, turquoise seas, and quaint fishing villages.

For centuries, these islands have been a favourite stopover for explorers, adventurers and migratory birds. They come here for the climate, the natural wonders the and for the fish. So if you’re looking for a place to get away from it all, you’ve definitely come to the right place — especially if you like seafood.

Picturesque Penghu

The Portuguese explorers who discovered Taiwan called it the Ilha Formosa, “the Beautiful Island.” But they had another name for the Penghu Archipelago — they called these islands the Ihla Pescadores, "the Fisherman’s Islands." And when you go swimming or snorkelling in the surrounding waters you’ll find out why.

Penghu is made up of 64 small islands situated about halfway between Taiwan and China. These islands provide quite a contrast from Taiwan proper. Whereas Taiwan has high mountains and is carpeted with verdant forests, Penghu is flat, dry and covered with grasslands and brush. This has made Penghu's islands an ideal habitat for migratory birds that flock here each year, turning the islands into a bird-watcher’s paradise.

But bird watchers aren’t the only ones who will enjoy the wonders of Penghu. In the summertime especially, the islands are bathed in the tropical sun, highlighting the stark beauty of the coastlines. There are more than 300 kilometres of coastline in the Penghu Islands. Anywhere you go, you can head to the shore for a panoramic view of nature’s mosaic: black basaltic rocks, coral reefs and sandy white beaches that are especially beautiful when warmed by the reds, oranges and purples of the setting sun.

Historic Kinmen

In Chinese, the word Kinmen (or Jinmen) means “Golden Gate,” and certainly Kinmen can be your gateway into Taiwan’s past.

Kinmen (also know as Quemoy), is a hilly, rocky island that lies just 2.1 kilometres off the coast of Fujian province in China. As the site of several major battles, and home to several underground military bases, it can give you fascinating insight into the relationship between Taiwan and China. Indeed, many of the historic sights and museums in this national park will show you a side of Taiwan you will not see elsewhere.

But Kinmen’s story is not just about the battles. It is about the people who live here and the lives they have built. When you visit the villages and towns, you will see historic temples and large numbers of houses built in the traditional southern Fujianese, three-sided courtyard style. Walking into these towns is like walking into Taiwan’s past, where you can literally breathe the rich atmosphere of how things used to be.

Magnificent Matsu

Like Penghu, Matsu is not actually and island but rather a group of islands — 18 islands to be exact — the largest of which are Beigan and Nangan.

These small islands are situated in the northeast corner of the Taiwan Straits and — like Kinmen — are separated from China by only a narrow strip of water. And like Kinmen — they are made up largely of granite.

So you won’t be surprised to find out that Kinmen and Matsu have other things in common. Like Kinmen, wind, water, and fire have sculpted the landscape of Matsu. On each of the islets, you can see the jagged coastlines where sand dunes and pebble beaches are framed by steep cliffs. This has made the Matsu islands an ideal habitat for migratory birds — and a great place to be if you are a bird watcher.

Because it is so close to China, Matsu shares Kinmen’s military legacy. So, like Kinmen, Matsu has several defensive fortifications and that serve as a reminder of the historic relationship between Taiwan and China.

Matsu also shares a cultural legacy with Kinmen, but here life is more laid-back and perhaps more like it used to be in the olds days. Here, too, you will see historic temples dedicated to Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea. And here you will see houses built in the traditional southern Fujianese style, with a three sides and a courtyard. The difference is that here, you will see these houses built on the mountainsides.


Green Island

Green Island is located some 33 kilometres off the coast of Taitung in eastern Taiwan, and is a volcanic island where winds blow and waters eat away at the rocks all year round, creating a beautiful and diverse coast. Taiwan has plenty of hot springs, but on Green Island you will find something truly unique in Taiwan — a seawater hot spring. In fact, this is one of only three such hot springs in the whole world.

Orchid Island

Banyu, or Orchid Island, is situated off the south-eastern coast of Taiwan and, like Green Island, its neighbour to the north, was raised from the sea floor by the accumulation of volcanic lava. It has a humid and rainy climate, and its mountain areas (which occupy most of the island) are covered with dense rain forests that are filled with a great variety of plant and animal life.

Coral reefs decorate the surrounding seas, and the Japan Current, which flows past, brings in large numbers of fish. This makes Orchid Island a paradise for fishermen and the place to be for snorkellers and scuba divers.

In addition to savouring the beautiful island scenery, during a trip to Orchid Island you can also enjoy a glimpse into the fascinating aboriginal culture. Orchid Island is inhabited mainly by the Yami tribespeople, who still retain much of their traditional culture and lifestyle. For example, their traditional stone houses are built largely underground to avoid extremes of temperature as well as the ravages of typhoons. And if you love ceremony and spectacle, the Yami Flying Fish and Boat Launching festivals are like no others on earth.

Turtle Island

This small, solitary island located about 10 kilometres off the coast of Toucheng in Ilan County has volcanic terrain that, from certain angles, looks like a turtle floating in the sea.

Here, water and fire have carved out an island where steep oceanside cliffs give way to caves carved by the sea. Mountain peeks are filled with steaming volcanic vents and hot springs that well up from deep under the ground. The whole island is home to unique vegetation and its surrounding waters are teeming with rich marine ecological resources. It is a perfect place to study both the volcanic terrain and the natural ecology.

Little Liuqiu

If you’re in southern Taiwan, especially if you’re around Kaohsiung, look out to sea. About 14 kilometres to the southwest of Donggang in Pingtung County, is Little Liuqiu Island. It’s a great place to go for a day trip or for an overnight stay.

This islet is the only one of Taiwan’s offshore islands that is actually made up of coral. Strange coral rock formations are found throughout the island

The ocean scenery is entrancing. During the day, you can take a trip in a glass-bottomed boat to view the many different kinds of living coral reefs around the island. In the evening, you can join the other visitors as you stand on the shore and wonder at the amazing sunset.

Since this is a fishing island, you can expect two things. The first is a lot of seafood. The second is that the people here are intensely religious. There are a great many temples here — most of them dedicated to Matsu, Goddess of the Sea — each with its own unique features and special attractions.

If you are longing for a peaceful holiday spent on an island paradise, what are you waiting for? Let the clear ocean waters, blue skies, and local people calm your soul and enrich your mind!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Saving Face or Saving Lives?
In China, It's Wrong Only If You Get Caught

By Stephen A. Nelson

Wednesday, Aug 22, 2007

Although it's not part of China, Taiwan has a vested interest in China's tainted toy troubles -- partly because Taiwan is one of the biggest investors in China, and China is Taiwan's biggest market. So "when China sneezes, Taiwan catches SARS."

But Taiwan is also an interested party because its own manufacturers have shown the same "Chinese" attitude toward labour laws and environmental laws: It's wrong only if you get caught. Or as a prominent Taipei lawyer once told me, "Rule of law is a foreign concept in Chinese society."

Taiwan has a history as a place for "outsourced" manufacturing of everything from microchips to Barbie dolls.

People in Taiwan know that big U.S. companies such as Mattel were getting their products made in Taiwan long before they were sending their production lines to China.

The reasons were simple: In the 1980s and 1990s, cheap labour, few labour laws and even fewer environmental laws were the hallmarks of a third-world dictatorship hell-bent on economic development.

And when Taiwan's fledgling democracy started to implement even minimal labour and environmental protections, those same big companies moved their production elsewhere: places like Vietnam and China. Places where labour and environmental laws -- when they exist -- are hardly ever enforced.

Disposable labour and a disposable environment are the very reasons why manufacturers set up in China. And China, hell-bent on economic development, welcomes them with open arms.

That's why China is poisoning its own people even as it produces toxic products for "foreign" consumption.

The Chinese response to being caught out is the same as in Taiwan: Blame someone, then get back to business as usual.

Inside the country, the impulse is to find the scapegoat and blame him. Make him pay. And in a society where guanxi (relationships/connections) is everything, the pressure for "heads to roll" can take a very dark and perverse turn.

That's why Zhang Shuhong (張樹鴻) -- co-owner of Lee Der (the Chinese supplier making tainted toys) -- ended up hanging himself.

To the rest of the world, the reaction is to blame the outsiders: "Don't blame us. Blame the foreigners. It's not up to us to enforce foreign standards. It's up to the foreign companies."

In short, the whole thing is a foreign problem.

Neither of these responses is particularly sane. Neither will save the environment or save consumers from potentially lethal products.

But they will, in Chinese eyes, save face. So if manufacturers, consumers, environmentalists and governments really want to protect themselves, we have to make it a matter of honour. And we have to make it clear to China that it will no longer be "business as usual."

All of us have to make the Chinese understand that the only way to restore their reputation (and their profits) is to stop blaming and start taking responsibility; stop treating safety standards as something "foreign" and start treating them as something essential to the future of China and the Chinese.

And here is where Taiwan could show leadership.

Taiwan could show the world that it is possible to stand up to Beijing and yet still do business with China. In fact, it could show the world that standing up to Beijing is essential to doing business with China.

The question is: Will Taiwan do it, or will it back down because it doesn't want to be accused of throwing stones while living in a glass house?

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Undiscovered Country: Taiwan
(Script from my first radio program
on Radio Taiwan International)

When I first thought about coming to Taiwan, I didn’t really know what to expect. Like many people, I came here with the idea of teaching English, making some money and – if I had time – travelling.

What little I knew about Taiwan I gleaned from an outdated version of the Lonely Planet’s guide to Taiwan.

Of course, that was before most people had the Internet. But even with the help of Netscape Navigator, I doubt I could have found out much about travelling in Taiwan.

The truth is, not many people outside of Asia think of Taiwan as a travel destination.

Millions of North Americans and Europeans visit Asia each year. They love to go to Japan and China to visit the cultural and historical places they’ve heard so much about and seen on TV.

They flock to the beaches of Malaysia and Thailand and Bali.

But travelling, exploring and discovering in Taiwan are not really high on their list of things to do.

For most of the world, then, Taiwan remains The Undiscovered Country.

And that is a great pity, because there is a great deal to discover.

Sounds of the City

The image most people have of Taiwan is one of a bustling, modern urban society of 23 million people who have turned this once rustic and agricultural society into a largely developed nation and an economic powerhouse: one of the “Four small tigers” of Asia’s economy.

This is definitely true. But at the same time, Taiwan is a “living museum” of history and culture – a place where traditional Chinese, Taiwanese, Hakka and Aboriginal lifestyles are not merely preserved but thrive.

Outside the cities, Taiwan’s urban jungle gives way to tropical forests that are teeming with exotic wildlife.

In short, Taiwan is a traditional Chinese watercolour painted on a tropical canvas with a digital printer.

OK, so that’s the big picture. But what people want to know is the nitty gritty.

I had been here less than a week when friends and family started asking the difficult questions:

Where is Taiwan?

If you’re looking for Taiwan on a map, it’s easy enough to find.

Find Japan and then trace your finger along the chain of islands that hug the coast of China.

When you come to the island that looks kind of like a tobacco leaf, stop. That’s Taiwan: The one the European explorers called Ilha Formosa – “the Beautiful Island.”

Taiwan’s main island lies about 160 kilometres off the south-eastern coast of China. It is separated from the mainland by the Taiwan Strait. Sitting on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, it is about 394 kilometres long and about 144 kilometres across at its widest point. Americans always say it's about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. Europeans say it's about the size of The Netherlands. I always say that Taiwan and its islands are roughly the same size as Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

That's because the country of Taiwan also includes several offshore islands. These include the Penghu Islands – in the middle of the Taiwan Strait — and the islands of Kinmen and Matsu that are so close to China you can almost spit and hit the mainland.

Like Taiwan proper, these islands still known to many in the West by the names given to them by the Portuguese explorers 400 years ago: The Penghu islands, for example are also known as the Pescadores. Kinmen is also known as Quemoy.

What’s the weather like?

In a word… hot. Hot and humid. Well, for most of the time anyway. And a lot depends on where you are.

You see, Taiwan straddles the Tropic of Cancer, and that automatically makes for two climate zones: Tropical in the south. Sub-tropical in the north.

So while there are four seasons, they are perhaps not quiet as distinct as the ones in more Northern climes. Summers will be longer and hotter. Winters will be shorter and not as cold.

The things you need to know is that Taiwan is affected by the monsoon winds. That means May and June bring heavy rains. And late fall tends to be a warm, dry season — making it a great time to visit.

Of course, we also get the occasional typhoons in summer and fall. To the traveller, these are generally welcomed as blessings in disguise because they do clear the air and cool things down quite a bit.

What is it like?

Taiwan proper – like many of the surrounding islands – lies on the western edge of the Pacific “rim of fire.” That means that it was forged by volcanoes and earthquakes. All this prehistoric activity has created majestic mountain peaks, rolling hills, sweeping plains and dramatic coastlines. This sceptred isle also features placid lakes and gorgeous gorges.

On the East Coast, the jet-black cliffs seem to spring straight from the sea. Further inland, the Central Mountain Range features some of the highest mountains in this part of Asia. Among these is Jade Mountain (or Yushan).

At over 3,000 metres, this is a climb for only the most adventurous. The less adventurous Nature Lovers can try to Alishan (or Ali Mountain). There you take a ride on the historic Alpine railway that is unique in this part of the world.

These mountains are covered with forests, making them a virtual Noah’s Ark of wildlife.

Here there are birds and beasts of every kind – about 18,400 known species in all – with more than 20 percent of them considered rare or endangered.

For a more relaxed holiday, you can also soak up the sun in beautiful Kenting; take a romantic journey to placid Sun Moon Lake or visit the offshore islands of Kinmen and Penghu.

What about the culture?

Taiwan is truly the Beautiful Island. But Taiwan has more than offer than just natural beauty. There is also the beauty of more than 10,000 years of culture.

Of course, the Aboriginals were the first people here and their tribal cultures, languages, arts and religious practices can still be witnessed today in the villages around Taiwan.

But through the centuries, Chinese culture has taken root in Taiwan and the country has been developed with a Chinese sensitivity toward culture and art.

You can see this in the ornate temples and religious ceremonies of the Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians. These include not only the famed Longshan Temple and Confucian temples in Taipei, but in the thousands of temples and shrines found in every corner of every town in these islands. Some of the oldest "Chinese" temples in the world are in Taiwan.

You can also see the “Chinese characteristics” in the Taiwanese love of arts such as calligraphy, ceramics and paintings. When the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT) fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war, they brought with them the crème de la crème of China’s treasures. That’s why today, the National Palace Museum in Taipei houses what many experts consider to be the finest collection of Chinese art in the world!

Taiwan is also one of the best places in the world to see and learn about the Chinese “performance arts”. In fact, if you want to learn about Chinese dance and Beijing opera (or is that Peking Opera?) – forget about Beijing: Taipei is the place to be.

So, are the people in Taiwan, like, Chinese?

The simple answer is yes – and no. Well, maybe. But not really.

Chinese people — including today’s Taiwanese and Hakka people — have been settling in Taiwan for hundreds of years, especially since the 1600s.

But Taiwan’s rich and colourful history dates back much further — 10,000 years in fact — to the early Aborigines who are believed to have come from nearby Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as from other islands in this part of the Pacific.
The descendants of these tribes remain in Taiwan today. In fact, some of the 12 tribes representing almost half a million people still practice and preserve the traditions of their ancestors.

With its natural resources and strategic location, Taiwan has also been a natural stop for colonizers, both Western and Oriental. Beginning in the 15th century, both Holland and Spain fought over control of the island. And for 50 years — from 1895 to the end of World War II — Japan occupied Taiwan and claimed it as its own.

These colonizers are gone now, but their legacy can be felt even today.

Each of these groups has contributed to the today’s Taiwan. Here, the different elements of religion, architecture, language, living habits and food have been pieced together in an exciting and vibrant mosaic.

What’s the food like?

Perhaps the best example of this cultural mixing and matching is food. Only in Taiwan can you find in one place all the different styles of cuisines from the diverse parts of the China.
Here you will find the famous Cantonese and Sichuan cooking styles, the renowned Beijing and Shanghai cuisines and the lesser-known but equally good Zhejiang, Hunan and Yunnan styles.
Of course, wherever you go, you can also enjoy traditional Taiwanese cuisine, as well as the local delicacies of each area.

And while the Japanese colonial rulers may have left, the Taiwanese fondness for Japanese food has not. Almost anywhere you go in Taiwan, you’re sure to find a restaurant that serves your favourite Japanese cuisine.

And if you’re longing for something a little more familiar, the major cities also have some of the best Italian and Indian restaurants in this part of the world!

Welcome to Taiwan

In Taiwan then, the blending of Aboriginal, Hakka, Taiwanese and Chinese cultures has produced a rich and colourful tapestry that many visitors have come to enjoy.

Come and see for yourself why those early explorers called this place the Ilha Formosa — “Beautiful Island.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Stephen in Wonderland:
The Lure of Taiwan for Ex-pats

Adapted from Maple Leaf Magazine

Autumn 2005

For some, Taiwan is a pit stop in the journey of life, or at least in a journey around Asia. They make some money (often quite good as far as temporary gigs go, especially), check out the nightlife and then move on to other locales.

Others, however, are captivated by the opportunities, lifestyle, culture, energy and ambience that the country abounds with. Even though they may have intended to stay only a few months, or perhaps a year or two at most, they linger longer; in some cases, decades or the rest of their lives.

Maple Leaf Magazine asked four Canadians – including broadcaster/journalist Stephen A. Nelson (born in Scotland and moved to Canada in 1965) why they remain here after years away from Canada. The insights about Taiwan and motivations for staying make for good reading, especially Stephen’s more humorous approach, complete with a mock interview - appropriate for a guy who first arrived in Taiwan on April Fool’s Day seven years ago.

Stephen in Wonderland

By Stephen A. Nelson

Maple Leaf: So, Stephen… What brought you to Taiwan in the first place?

Stephen: Canadian Airlines.

ML: I see. But what I mean is, “Why did you come to Taiwan?”

Stephen: I used to tell people that it was my purpose, my destiny, God’s plan for my life. But a lot of Canadians get real nervous when you tell them that - especially if it’s true. So now I just tell them I came here because I was lured by promises of love, money and future considerations.

ML: So how did you find Taiwan when you came here?

Stephen: I turned left at Japan.

ML: No, I mean did you find your destiny? Did you find love, money and future considerations?

Stephen: I did, but then I lost them.

ML: So what keeps you in Taiwan, then?

Stephen: Gravity… gravity and inertia. A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

ML: So why don’t you do something? Go somewhere?

Stephen: Well, I keep running and running, but never seem to get anywhere.

ML: Why’s that, do you think?

Stephen: Coming to Taiwan is like Alice stepping Through the Looking Glass. Things may look the same, but nothing works the way you expect it to. It's like playing speed chess through a mirror. Sometimes you have to move backwards to move forwards.

And there is always someone yelling, "Faster! Faster!" So you move faster.

But as the Red Queen says to Alice, "You have to run much faster than that if you want to go anywhere!