Taiwan Journal

At The Taiwan Journal, I wrote features and commentaries covering developments in democratizing Taiwan and its relations with mainland China. Here are a few of my reports.


Wulai dancers

Story and photo by Sam Dixon, published in print August 1995 in The Taiwan Journal and online at Taiwan Today’s website: http://taiwantoday.tw/ct.asp?xItem=13509&ctNode=122.

Carnival rides in the land of aborigines

Taiwan, island of ironies, is the kind of place where a person goes on a nature walk and encounters a gray-haired granny pedaling a bicycle high up in the trees.

I had paused at a thick grouping of giant ferns that had me musing about the Mesozoic Era when nature’s enchanting spell was suddenly broken by the loud rattling of steel on steel above me. The bicycle skyrail, its route cleverly concealed by the dense foliage, had escaped my notice until that startling moment.

And there she came─expressionless, sitting erect, hair tied in a silver bun, legs pumping in a furious rhythm as she clattered along on her determined mission like the wicked witch of Oz.

This is Dreamland, aptly named. Located on a ridge above the aborigine village of Wulai, the recreational park is an odd but enjoyable place where the unexpected leaps out to greet you around each bend in the woodland path.

Looking like a joint investment by Donald Trump and John James Audubon, Dreamland is just the spot for day-trippers; it offers enough excitement to stir the mind and enough greenery to calm the nerves. But this carnival in the forest, about an hour’s drive south of Taipei City, is only half the fun of a trip to the lush enclave of Wulai.

The mountain stream that meanders lazily through the thick vegetation of Dreamland eventually plummets off a cliff to become a powerful waterfall that smashes into the Nanshih River. Across this river, opposite Dreamland, is the Wulai Aboriginal Culture Village, the other half of the visit.

At the culture village, tourists gain a strong sense of the history of the Atayal─the dominant tribe in the Wulai area─as well as Taiwan’s other tribes of aborigines. But that comes after first running the gauntlet of gift shops that offer everything from mahogany carvings to jade necklaces to tribal handicrafts. There is also the Nanluwan Hotel restaurant, which specializes in aboriginal dishes.

While the clifftop Dreamland park is wild and wacky─with its roller coaster, blossom-strewn nature trail, small boating lake, and vibrating massage chairs─the culture center is the serious side of the river.

Owned and operated by members of the local Atayal tribe, the center features dance performances and photography exhibits that pull back the veil on Taiwan’s nine tribes of aborigines and their fascinating traditions.

On the stage of the center’s performance hall, beautiful long-haired girls wearing beaded, brightly colored tribal costumes tell the story of aboriginal life through the dances of the different tribes.

Taiwan’s aborigines of hunting tribes used bamboo poles to form pits for trapping wild game. Symbolic of the traditional hunting technique is the center’s “Bamboo Dance,” during which performers holding long poles try to catch the feet of other dancers who hop rhythmically around the stage.

In the “Dance of Invocation,” performers wearing bells on their wrists and ankles depict a ritual peculiar to Taiwan’s Saisiat tribe. Every two years the Saisiat gather en masse at a mountain clearing near Nanchuang, Miaoli County. Holding hands, they dance throughout the night in a huge circle, seeking the forgiveness of a village of pygmies who were massacred by the tribe’s ancestors. The biennial celebration ends with an exulting “whoop!” at sunrise after much drinking of the tribe’s special wine.

The center’s performers also stage the “Spirit Dance” of the Yami, a tribe of loin-cloth-wearing fishermen from the offshore Orchid Island. The “Harvest Dance” depicts the joyous autumnal feast of the Ami, a large tribe of mostly millet farmers. Other aboriginal dances include the “Wulai Love Song,” a bitter-sweet solo performance, and the “Wedding Dance,” which features a jew’s-harp-like tribal instrument known as the lubu.

The photographs on display at the center bring the curious rituals of Taiwan’s aborigines back to life. Unfortunately, though, the photo captions are written in Chinese, which is of no help to the Western and Japanese tourists who frequent Wulai.

One picture shows a nearly naked Paiwan headhunter proudly holding the chopped-off head of a victim, which eerily still bears a faint smile. The warrior will use his prize catch as a sacrifice to the gods of the forest.

Another photograph shows several skulls arranged on a log like porcelain jars lined up on a museum shelf. Paiwan villages believed that the more heads their warriors collected on their journeys, the more generous the gods would be in filling the fields with crops and the rivers with fish.

Traditionally, Atayal men were known as good hunters and their women skilled weavers. They were also efficient at farming corn, rice, sweet potato and taro on the steep, jungly mountainsides of northern Taiwan.

But the custom of facial tattooing is the tribe’s distinguishing signature. Atayal men tattooed their foreheads and cheeks to ward off evil spirits and to show distinction as brave hunters. Atayal women received the beauty marks on the eve of getting married.

The Atayal practice of facial tattooing has been outlawed since the Japanese occupation (1895-1945) of Taiwan. Today, only Atayals aged over 80 can be seen with the marks. Fortunately for today’s visitors to the mountain villages, another aboriginal custom that vanished in the earlier part of the century was the headhunting by tribal warriors.

After spending the morning at the Wulai Aboriginal Culture Village, it’s time to make the ascent to Dreamland. To get there, take the cable car ride which, as it rises through a deep gorge, provides a dramatic view of the Wulai community and the river that slithers between distant mountains.

But before jumping onboard, where riders are serenaded by a recording of the Taiwanese folk song “Four Seasons,” there is still time for a shopping spree at the cable car base station. Vending stalls here sell chrysanthemum tea, wild mushrooms, candied sweet potatoes and the aboriginal snack for which Wulai is famous: rice balls rolled in sesame powder.

At the summit station atop the waterfall, visitors again have to pick their way through a plethora of gift shops. Diamond necklaces, toys, bags of bamboo shoot biscuits, hats with Viking horns. Inside a shop that sells Oriental silk slippers and handpainted Chinese fans, a stereo plays a tape of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York.”

Parts of Dreamland border on tackiness. At the Emperor and Empress Photo Gallery, you can dress up in traditional Chinese or aboriginal costumes and have the photograph mounted on a souvenir platter.

“It’s like a night market on the top of a mountain!” Amber Lee, a marketing director for a Taipei medical supplies company, remarked with astonishment.

Once away from the clutches of commercialism, however, Dreamlanders climb steep stone steps past a shrine dedicated to the Chinese Earth God, the guardian deity of Mount Wulai. The altar is built directly into the mountain’s rock face, which is mottled with patches of soft, green moss and orange- and lavender-colored fungus.

The smoke from the burning joss sticks blends with the fresh mountain air and the mist of the waterfall, a concoction that immediately clears the mind of troubles.

The steps level off at Cloud God Lake, where rowboats can be rented for a ride past Chinese pavilions and under arched bridges. This small lake teems with Japanese carp that are clearly enjoying the good life. As fat as fireplace logs, these floating gourmands congregate all day near an embankment, gulping up at children who buy packets of fish food from a large, carp-shaped vending machine.

Deeper into the forest park are quiet oases where the stream gathers in tranquil pools. Shafts of sunlight dart through the vast canopy of trees and glint off the water.

Families enjoy these peaceful spots for picnics or wading. Couples hold hands and rest on the cool boulders, listening to the mesmerizing gurgle of the stream.

“The water sounds very peaceful. If you walk along here you can think about many things,” said Diana Chiu, a clinical coordinator with a health care firm in Taipei.

The path through the woods is also dotted with faucets made of chiseled quartz, where visitors can pause for a drink of natural spring water. The nature walk has an educational aspect as well. Small signs identify significant flora and fauna throughout the park, including many species of broad-leaved plants, butterflies, rhododendrons, azaleas and fruit-bearing trees.

At the foot of a fern-carpeted slope, bird-watchers are given a pictorial introduction to the many songbirds that cavort in the forest. Among them are the rufous-breasted fly catcher, yellow-billed wren warbler, black bulbul and gray-throated minivet.

The park is also home to a 2,000-year-old cedar tree, known to Wulai residents as “the spirit tree” and to scientists as Caloeedrus Formosan florin.

At one spot beside the path, a large boulder has been labeled “Giant’s Shoe Rock.” According to local folklore, a Chinese deity stomped through these parts eons ago, losing one of his shoes, which eventually petrified into this great stone. There is also a species of tree vine that travels through the park like a green telephone wire. This, presumably, must be the ancient god’s shoestring.

It is later explained, however, that this is the same sort of vine from which Taiwanese furniture is made. “It also makes a good switch for children,” a mother quipped after reading the sign.

The soothing sounds of nature yield to the screams of thrill-seekers at the Cloud God Recreational Area in the furthermost reaches of the forest park. Near the entrance to the amusement area is where granny trundled by overhead on her solo excursion.

Besides the bicycle skyrail and the roller coaster, there is a pendulum pirate ship and a flying saucer spin, as well as robot panda bears and a haunted house.

The amusement area also has a fortunetelling machine. Chinese who visit the park can be seen standing before the glass box with hands clasped in prayer. After a coin is inserted, a miniature soothsayer wearing traditional clothing delivers a tiny scroll bearing a description of the person’s fate.

Adding to the carnival atmosphere is an archery range as well as a shooting gallery with high-powered air guns that spit out hard rubber balls. This is also the place where visitors weary of hiking up the mountain rest in vibrating massage chairs and watch the clouds drift by.



Published in print March 1996 in The Taiwan Journal and online at Taiwan Today’s website: http://taiwantoday.tw/ct.asp?xItem=13509&ctNode=122.

Women’s rights advocates rally in Taipei for equality

Children scurry down a Taipei sidewalk in a cool morning drizzle. They line up outside a school gate, waiting stiffly for the sound of the entrance chimes.

On a street corner in sunny Kaohsiung, a vendor spoons a mahogany-red paste into hollowed-out betel nuts in anticipation of the day’s customers who will stop at his stand for a chewy pick-me-up.

At the foot of a sheer marble cliff in jungly Taroko Gorge, an elderly tribeswoman poses as several tourists, each handing her a small fee, photograph her tattooed face.

Life goes on in Taiwan, despite the threat of Chinese Communist missile firings. Amid the tense environment created by mainland China’s all-too-close war games, the island’s residents are managing to plod ahead with their domestic affairs. And perhaps the best example of this was the women’s rights demonstration in Taipei on March 8─International Women’s Day and the first day of Peking’s latest round of missile tests off Taiwan’s shores.

Hundreds of local women rallied outside government offices that Friday. They petitioned for an end to the legal, economic and social injustices that women face in Taiwan’s traditionally male-oriented society. Seeking equality in the home and workplace, they decried sexual harassment, domestic abuses such as marital rape, and favoritism toward men in employment and property ownership.

But the political uncertainties of the times also weighed heavily on the minds of the women demonstrators. Several of them carried placards that denounced Peking’s military maneuvers with phrases such as “Mothers are against war and invasion” and “Mothers have the obligation to safeguard the homeland.”

By linking condemnations of gender inequality and Peking’s bullying of Taiwan, the women’s rights demonstration became a suitable metaphor for the island’s struggle for global recognition: As women seek greater respect in local society, so does Taiwan strive for a stronger role in the international community.

The women’s rights movement is a relatively new phenomenon in Taiwan. Social scholars trace it back to February 1994, when the issue of domestic violence made headlines. A Taiwan woman who had killed her abusive husband received a prison sentence of five and a half years. Women’s rights advocates called the sentence harsh, as the man had put his wife through a living hell for eight years.

Giving impetus to the movement, in May 1995 women’s rights advocates and university students marched through Taipei’s streets to protest sexual harassment in schools, hospitals and the workplace. It was regarded as Taiwan’s first ever women’s rights march.

Another milestone in the women’s rights movement was the Council of Grand Justices’ ruling in September of last year that a Civil Code article giving fathers priority in deciding issues related to their children was unconstitutional. The landmark decision threw light on the fact that all citizens, regardless of sex, are equal before the law.

In the two years since the 1994 trial, progress in protecting the dignity of women has come swiftly in Taiwan. But that’s because at the outset there was such a long way to go.

Today the government allocates a larger share of the social welfare resources to help women. In Taiwan there are almost as many women’s advocacy groups as there are women legislators. And the fact that a woman, namely Wang Ching-feng, is in the running to become vice president in the March 23 election is testimony enough that public attitudes are changing.

Last week the mayor of Taipei opened three women’s services clinics. The mayor of Kaohsiung, the island’s second largest city, handed out International Women’s Day commendations to local women who have been outstanding in social work.

However, sexual discrimination has not been wiped completely from the face of Taiwan society, as the demonstrators made clear last week while the rest of the world tracked the mainland’s M-9 missiles.

The modern Taiwan woman is forced to wear many hats. Social pressures compel her to be wife, mother, career woman, daughter and daughter-in-law all at the same time. An exhausting task.

To help local women receive their just rewards, the government should strengthen the support programs, medical services and legal aid for women.

More shelters are needed to help put destitute women back on their feet. Taiwan needs stronger policies on gender equality at the Cabinet and local government levels, and legislation should be passed to provide adequate child-care services to assist working women.



Tea Mt restaurant

Story and photo by Sam Dixon, published June 1997 in The Taiwan Journal and online at Taiwan Today’s website: http://www.taiwantoday.tw/ct.asp?xItem=15366&CtNode=122.

Heavenly realm of the tea mountain

An invigorating hike among the camphor forests, terraced tea farms and ornate temples of Chihnan Mountain opens the eyes to three kinds of passions embraced by Taiwan people.

For it is here, in a peaceful hillside community called Maokung, where Taipei residents can escape the pressures of hectic metropolitan life. In this mountain getaway less than an hour’s drive from downtown, day-trippers soak up nature’s calming beauty, chat with friends over a pot of Chinese tea and show reverence to folk gods.

“I believe there is a connection between the enjoyment of nature, tea and Zen,” said Chang Ching-chuan. He is the fifth brother in one of Maokung’s tea growing families. About 50 such families call this verdant mountainside home.

Whether climbing the lush enclave’s network of stone steps, venturing down a forest path or hiking along the ridge road, the mountain air is a sweet mix of wild flowers, dewy soil and camphor leaves.

“Nowadays, many people in the city are too materialistic. By being here in the outdoors you can realize some basic truths of life,” Chang said.

Even for downtowners who do not own vehicles, reaching the airy climes of Chihnan Mountain is surprising easy. Start by taking the mass rapid transit rail to the station stop at the Wan Fang community in the outskirts of the city.

The MRT train will be filled with excited children wearing Chicago Bulls and Snoopy T-shirts. Clinging to them are fathers in baseball caps and mothers wearing floppy sun hats. These families are eagerly heading to the Taipei City Zoo in the Mucha suburb.

Both Mucha and the more distant Maokung community are within the jurisdiction of Taipei City. The unpolluted green hills of the tea mountain make this fact seem amazing.

Leaving the zoo-goers to continue on their way, at the Wan Fang stop transfer to the No. 10 minibus outside the station. The bus is suitably small and spunky enough to climb the narrow mountain road to the terraced tea farms in the wet mist above the Taipei basin.

Immediately clear is the difference between the moods and appearances of the two groups of passengers. In sharp contrast to the MRT riders, many of the people on the Maokung minibus are elderly farmers in dungarees. They are returning home from their morning shopping in Mucha’s Sunday markets at the foot of the mountain.

They sit quietly, wrapped in their thoughts and wearing bamboo hats that cover sun-withered faces. One mahogany-colored old man hums along with the Taiwanese folk song on the driver’s cassette player. His melancholy tune adds to the view of the fertile valley below.

A simple shout alerts the minibus driver to stop at any desired spot along the horseshoe-shaped route of Chihnan Road. But almost everyone gets off at a ridge road branching off toward the tea terraces, teahouses and chicken restaurants.

For decades, the tea farmers of Maokung eked out a barely sufficient income by only tilling their terraces. But around 1980, then Taipei Mayor Lee Teng-hui, who would go on to become president of the Republic of China, suggested a way for the farmers to improve their livelihoods.

Lee loved to visit the peaceful mountain community to take a break from the rigors of government. He encouraged the Maokung farmers to band together and form a Mucha Tourist Tea Plantation, and to build teahouses and restaurants on their steep slopes.

Lee further instructed the Taipei City Government to build a better road up the steep mountain. Besides helping the farmers get their crops to market, the improved road also opened a door through which weekend sightseers started flocking to the highland area.

Professionals with the Taipei Farmers’ Association determined that Maokung’s soil type, humidity level and other environmental factors were best suited for the growing of a variety of tea known as tieh-kuan-yin. The local farmers took the advice, and gradually all of them switched to this kind of tea. The name tieh-kuan-yin refers to the Buddhist term “bodhisattva.”

“The area is famous for this kind of tea,” Chang said. “In fact, Maokung is the only place in Taiwan where tieh-kuan-yin is grown.”

In recent years, numerous teahouses have sprung up on the ridge road. They vary in size and decor. Some are small and have a rustic charm. Others are elaborately decorated, looking like tea palaces. What they have in common, however, are balconies where customers can relax and gaze out over the camphor groves and tea terraces and beyond to the skyscrapers of Taipei.

Interestingly, some of the teahouses offer a kind of tieh-kuan-yin leaf that when boiled curls up in a shape resembling a hand gesture often seen in statues of Buddha. For this reason, the special strain is locally known as “Buddha’s hand tea.”

Besides flavorful tea, another specialty in Maokung is a meal cooked from a wild chicken. While the smaller businesses only serve light snacks like dried fruits and peanuts, some of the farmers operate restaurants that serve chicken dinners along with the area’s tea.

“The chickens raised here are different from what can be purchased in supermarkets or street markets in Taipei,” said Marco Wen. A career serviceman who lives in Mucha, he enjoys hiking up the mountain on weekends.

“The farmers here do not keep their chickens confined in small coops. Instead they let them run wild on the mountain,” he explained.

“The farmers go out at night and shine flashlights in the eyes of the chickens to stun them, making it easier to catch them. This is why the dishes served here are called wild mountain chicken,” he added.

There are four basic ways of preparing wild Maokung chicken. The meat is served blackened and spiced with ginger and sugar. There’s pineapple chicken and chicken flavored with dried turnip. Also, some restaurants pack mud around the chicken and cook it in much the same way that Boy Scouts in America bake potatoes when roughing it on camping excursions.

The wild vegetables of Maokung are another local treat. Most of the area’s restaurants serve preparations of the sweet potato leaves, water convolvuluses and celeries that grow wild on the hillsides.

“Because everything is taken straight from the natural environment here and cooked fresh, you feel that it tastes more delicious than down in the city,” Wen said.

Besides the tea plantation and its chicken restaurants, the folk temples further along the curve of the ridge road are also an important part of a visit to Chihnan Mountain.

Walking down this isolated stretch of road is itself a treat for the senses. Once past the last of the teahouses, the hiker enters a heavenly realm of silence and abundant natural beauty. Purple, trumpet-shaped morning glories bloom profusely on both sides of the road. The only sound is the occasional shrill call of a bird of prey soaring high above the valley floor.

This tranquil state continues for several kilometers before reaching a couple of smaller temples and finally the famous Chihnan Temple complex at cliff’s edge.

The first temple encountered is a sparkling new one belonging to the I-kuan Tao sect, a smaller religious group in Taiwan. The sect combines aspects of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Inside the building, worshipers bow before gleaming statues of Confucius, the Sakyamuni Buddha and Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism.

The temple’s second-floor balcony offers perhaps Maokung’s grandest view of the Taipei basin. “On a clear day, you can see Kuanyin Mountain all the way on the opposite side of Taipei City,” said Chiang Nien-hsiang, a volunteer worker at the temple.

At a far point along the road, the weary hiker can stop at the Confucius Chihnan Temple. The small structure juts out over the road and looks to be decades older than the I-kuan structure.

Only a few steps further is a small shop clinging to the side of the mountain. It sells refreshments. A welcome sight. Of course the customer can order a pot of tieh-kuan-yin tea. But after sweating in the sun for the two hours it takes to walk from the plantation area, a cold Taiwan Beer hits the spot much better.

The remotely located store also has its own specialty snack for trekkers who did not fill up on wild Maokung chicken. The shop dishes up small turnip cakes filled with meat and mushrooms and served on round-cut banana leaves.

The Chihnan Temple complex is the climax of a visit to Maokung and Chihnan Mountain. The complex includes three aged but elegant temples: Ling Hsiao Pao Tien, Chihnan Temple and Ta Hsiung Pao Tien. All three are managed by the China Taoism Institute.

The first of these, Ling Hsiao Pao Tien, has the upturned swallow’s-tail roof and ornately decorated eaves typical of most Chinese temples. Leading up to the temple is a promenade colorfully decorated with crossbeams and arches in the style of traditional Chinese architecture.

Near the entrance of the long roofed passageway is a large banyan tree. Its enormous exposed roots make perfect benches for elderly worshipers to rest upon.

Close by is the Chihnan Temple, which can be reached by descending steps dug into the mountainside. Currently, the side walls of the temple are being renovated with marble-framed windows. Etched into the stone frames are drawings of fluttering sparrows. In warm weather, such birds can be heard chirping among the azalea bushes that cover the hill immediately behind the temple.

More than 100 years old, the temple is the source of a wonderful Chinese legend. It is said that the folk god Lu Tung-pin, one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, stood on this spot long ago. One night the god entered the dream of a mortal. Lu Tung-pin instructed that a temple should be built in his honor on this ridge.

But there is also a curious twist to the legend. It seems that Lu Tung-pin was unlucky in love, as a goddess whom he had earnestly pursued had rejected his passions. Till this day, lovers refrain from going to the temple together, for fear of being fated to separate by the heartbroken and envious god.

Ta Hsiung Pao Tien, the third and final temple in the sprawling mountaintop complex, is slightly further downhill. There are large statues of elephants and a towering Chinese arch in the temple plaza.

Beneath the arch, worshipers drop cash donations into a glass box to help pay for restoration work. The falling money lands on a bronze statue of a Smiling Buddha sitting in the box.