Monday, November 09, 2009

Simplified, empty and too close

With relatives visiting Taiwan, I had the opportunity to leave my desk — the closest thing to the ivory tower in the world of journalism — and to visit, or revisit, many parts of the country. Unable to entirely shed my political skin, even on vacation I kept an eye out for Chinese tourists, their impact, and how the locals were reacting to them. Here are some brief observations on the subject.

Sun Moon Lake is, unsurprisingly, becoming increasingly commercialized. This is the age-old double-edged sword of tourism, where a balance must be struck between attracting tourists and keeping the environment as unchanged as possible. As we went there on a week day, there weren’t too many people around, but I can imagine that weekends would be a nightmare. On my first visit there two years ago, merchants were not overly aggressive in peddling their wares, but were more so this time around. Some stores now had signs in simplified Chinese, which I found a little unsettling. Anyone who knows of the substance “Ice-nine” in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat's Cradle would know where my fear comes from.

While in Kaohsiung, we went to the Liuhe Night Market and enjoyed great food, good deals and a much-needed foot massage after all this walking. The city was stunningly quiet — even the beautiful Love River waterfront, where we rented a villa-style apartment. Again, it was a weekday, but the contrast with Taipei was disturbing. It is hard to entirely attribute the situation to the Chinese boycott of southern cities, however, for surely before Chinese first began visiting Taiwan, tourists from other countries were going to the port city. A friendly cab driver (as always, the greatest source for intelligence on what’s going on anywhere) told us that there was some friction between local vendors and Chinese tourists and that some vendors in night markets no longer bothered to open their stalls as a result. Apparently, some Chinese tourists had a habit of poking food without buying anything (anyone who knows anything about stinky tofu knows that poking a hole in the crust ruins the whole thing). Asked for people’s impression of Chinese visitors to the city, the driver could not have been more blunt: “we like their money.”

After a delightful rest at the White Hotel in Kending and two days on the beach, we took the train from Fangliao, Pingtung County, and snaked our way along the mountainous east coast to Hualien, passing by such ill-fated stations as Sanmin Village, which suffered catastrophic devastation during Typhoon Morakot. The next day, after visiting the awe-inspiring Taroko National Park, our driver took us to the beach at Chishingtan, which is famous for its marble stones and is located right next to the Hualien Air Force base. Putting myself in the shoes of a Chinese spy, I could not help but be struck by how close we were to the base — at some points less than 100 meters, and only separated by a 7-foot concrete wall. We could see the F-16s on the tarmac as they taxied before takeoff and had a perfect view as they roared above our heads. 

While the aircraft are stored in inaccessible mountains, the opportunities for espionage — or sabotage — nevertheless remain. Discussing the matter with our driver, she told me that people caught taking pictures of the base are immediately told not to do so, a line of defense that might work with ordinary tourists but that is far for sufficient to deter determined individuals trained in the art of espionage. The proximity may have been acceptable when only Taiwanese or non-belligerents were visiting the beach, but today, with thousands of Chinese coming to the area, something will have to be done to increase security and create the buffer required to prevent intelligence-gathering, intrusions, and sabotage. 

Given that in time of war the F-16s would be Taiwan’s first line of defense in ensuring air superiority in the Taiwan Strait, it is obvious that more should be done to protect the aircraft and the base. Doing so would also demonstrate to the US government that the Ministry of National Defense is serious about defending the nation and preventing advanced US technology from falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army through theft. Such reassurances (though in themselves not sufficient) could make it easier for Washington to continue supplying Taiwan the weapons it needs to defend itself.

Having once again the chance to visit Taiwan from north to south, west to east, I was struck by the beauty of the country, its richness of life and people and ingenuity, as well as the kindness, openness and liberty with which people carry on with their lives. From ceremonies marking the opening of an electoral office in Puli, Nantou County, to Aborigines selling traditional food and performing traditional dances in the heart of Taipei on the weekend, all reinforced my conviction that this country deserves the attention of the international community and that its sovereignty must be preserved at any cost. 

One thing is certain: As a result of everything they’ve seen on this trip and how hospitable Taiwanese have been to them, Taiwan now counts two new goodwill ambassadors who will return home to Canada with news that Taiwan is, undeniably, a magnificent place.


Anonymous said...

A beautiful place but as you wrote, a country with a jeopardized sovereignty...
Maybe Canadian tourists will replace the Chinese ones?
As usual, very good post!

Tommy said...

I was wondering how much of the tourist difference you noticed between Taipei and Kaohsiung has to do with poor marketing of the tourist spots of the South. Even after living in Taiwan for a spell, I am ashamed to admit that I didn't know much of what was in Kaohsiung. I have never really visited.

And from my vantage point in Hong Kong, there isn't a lot of marketing. I never hear about Kaohsiung sites, and, on TV and in the media, all I see are Taipei landmarks, with a few notable exceptions (Taroko, Alishan, etc.)

So it makes sense that more tourists would choose Taipei over Kaohsiung to me, not that there is nothing to see in the South.

Anonymous said...

off topic, but any thoughts on how many medals China will win in Vancouver? Canada might have to start treating their athletes as full time employees too if they want to win gold in Curling :)

Άλισον said...

I wonder if poorer marketing has anything to do with uneven north -south distribution of resources from the central government.

When there is no money, there will be less ads produced, less people working on local government's official tourist internet sites, etc.

The uneven distribution of resources may affect not just the inflow of foreign tourists, but may also affect the outflow of Taiwanese tourists.

I hope in a few days, our group site will be able to provide a promotional post about the weather advantage of the souther Taiwan in winter time and the beauty of Kaohsiung city to some European readers as a counter measure for such disadvantage.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Kaohsiung under Frank Hsieh did a great job cleaning up the Love River and turning it into a tourist spot. In fact, the aunt I was traveling with and who’s traveled quite a bit said that it beats Paris’ La Seine river hands down.

I’m pretty sure that advertising has a lot to do with it. Hopefully the World games, and now Kaohsiung becoming part of the Discovery Mega Cities documentary, will help. More aggressive tourism ads overseas would definitely help and serve as a counter to over-reliance on Chinese tourists.

Given the nice weather there year-round, it would help if the harbor and most shops around Love River were opened off-season and during the week, which they were not.

More needs to be done to export, via the arts, the city’s image. Producers of such TV shows as Black and White (痞子英雄), which beautifully highlighted the city, should dub or subtitle those series and export them abroad. From my past experience working in TV, stations are keen on buying rights to play foreign series and meet every year in Europe to purchase them. This is something Taiwan — and Taiwanese cities — should do. Culture and the arts are powerful tools to sell an image and create a consciousness. China’s good at it, as is South Korea; Taiwan could do much better.

The World Games stadium is definitely worth seeing in person and the KMRT is top notch and certainly more comfortable than the Zahu Line in Taipei.

Robert Scott Kelly said...

Nice post, Michael. Kaohsiung is a great little spot for a visit and once the air pollution gets down a little more (huge improvements already) it will be the most liveable city in Taiwan. I may just retire down there in 20 years.

One thing though regarding your train ride: you didn't go anywhere near the Sanmin that was nearly wiped off the map. That's north of the South Cross Island Hwy which is closed. If you had a 4-wheel drive and a steely will you could get there but not by train.

The Observer said...


You're absolutely right, I wouldn't have passed by Sanmin other than by four-wheel drive. I wasn't clear on that. What I mean to say is that our train passed by a sign pointing to Sanmin. We did stop at Guangfu, however, which if my memory serves me was swamped.