Friday, April 30, 2021

Is Taiwan really the "most dangerous place on Earth"?

No, but this sensationalistic headline from The Economist would posit otherwise. 

The article is pretty bad, but not as bad as the completely preposterous header and sub-header. So, because it's bad but not so awful as to be irredeemable, I thought it would be a useful study in media literacy to see what it gets right and where it goes very wrong. 

Other than me completely losing my temper at the author, the interesting thing to note is how much it says by what it doesn't say: namely very much at all about what Taiwanese people think and want and how both war and annexation would affect them. He ends up sounding like Henry Kissinger and that is not a compliment, because I'd rather have hemorrhoids than listen to a single thing Kissinger says about anything.

Let's start with the subtitle: "America and China must work harder to avoid war over the future of Taiwan".

Okay, so, I suppose you also think the Sudetenland need not have been lost if Hitler and Chamberlain had just negotiated harder?

China is the actor actively threatening war on Taiwan. They don't care about any peace that would keep Taiwan from their grasp. They might not want a war right now, but it's utter foolishness to believe their priority is to prevent a future war. They want Taiwan, and are willing to fight a war someday to get it. Avoiding war is a "nice to have", but not a "need to have". So why would they work harder to prevent it? Their military buildup says they're actively working towards it. 

How could you possibly think they would want to work harder and be a part of an acceptable solution?


For decades just such an exercise of high-calibre ambiguity has kept the peace between America and China over Taiwan, an island of 24m people, 100 miles (160km) off China’s coast.

I suppose, but it's also given China time to expand its military and plan for an eventual war over Taiwan. If we're worried about China starting a war now, after decades of this supposedly "successful" policy of strategic ambiguity, does it not make sense that China has been using those decades not to keep the peace, but to strengthen its position?

Maybe if something had been done before things got to this point, China would have been forced to accept for these decades that Taiwan was about as likely to become part of their territory as Mongolia. Or as a friend put it, all these Western diplomats who thought they were doing the right thing by letting old conflicts simmer under an uneasy "peace" -- when they didn't have to live in the quagmires they created -- have mostly made situations worse, not better. 

The rest is not factually incorrect, but this makes it seem like Taiwan just...doesn't have a government or something? Does the writer think those 24 million people just sort of live as ungoverned nomads on this island? Can Taiwan be defined only in relation to its proximity to China? No. They have an elected government, currency, military and defined territory. Taiwan is a country. Please call it one. 

Leaders in Beijing say there is only one China, which they run, and that Taiwanis arebellious part of it.
Do you just not care about proofreading, The Economist?

America nods to the one China idea, but has spent 70 years ensuring there are two.
This is an interesting way to describe the US's policy. In fact, the US acknowledges that Beijing makes these claims, but does not go so far as to "nod" to them. At the time the policy was created, the colonial ROC government on Taiwan did claim to be part of China, and the US's acknowledgement reflects that. But that has changed, so the part about "Chinese people on both sides" is essentially null and void. 

The bigger reason is that Taiwan is an arena for the rivalry between China and America. 

Okay, but this makes it sound like Taiwan doesn't have any opinions of its own, it's just a rugby field on which China and the US beat each other up. If Taiwan still believed it was a part of China, then it could still placate China by adhering to the fabricated "1992 Consensus". The fact that Taiwanese have minds of their own and do not want to be a part of China is why there's a "problem" (a problem which exists entirely in CCP heads), not because two superpowers feel like duking it out. 

War would be a catastrophe, and not only because of the bloodshed in Taiwan and the risk of escalation between two nuclear powers. One reason is economic. The island lies at the heart of the semiconductor industry. tsmc, the world’s most valuable chipmaker, etches 84% of the most advanced chips. Were production at tsmc to stop, so would the global electronics industry, at incalculable cost. The firm’s technology and know-how are perhaps a decade ahead of its rivals’, and it will take many years of work before either America or China can hope to catch up.
It's interesting that the "catastrophe" is defined mainly in terms of semiconductors, not people. It would be a catastrophe, but you know what else would? The mass repression and murder of Taiwanese people. Maybe focus on that a little. 

Otherwise, this isn't exactly wrong, but it makes it sound like war would be the worst possible outcome. Indeed, it would be horrible. Catastrophic, even. But it's actually the second-worst possible outcome. 

The worst outcome would be Taiwan becoming a part of China. We'll look at what that would mean below.

Although the United States is not treaty-bound to defend Taiwan, a Chinese assault would be a test of America’s military might and its diplomatic and political resolve. If the Seventh Fleet failed to turn up, China would overnight become the dominant power in Asia. America’s allies around the world would know that they could not count on it. Pax Americana would collapse.

Again, it's not that this is factually incorrect, but pay attention to what it doesn't say. We've got the potential outcome of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in terms of how it would affect China and the US, but not a thought is spared for what it would mean for Taiwan. 

Here's what it would mean: an end to freedom and self-determination in one of the most free and competent democracies in Asia. It would mean genocide, as China would absolutely commit mass murder on a massive scale against those who identify as Taiwanese and those who do not want to be a part of China -- which is the vast majority of Taiwanese. The purpose would be to end all notion of a unique Taiwanese culture, identity and history. Opposition leaders would be executed, and collaborators would, at best, be shipped off to some mansion in the middle of nowhere, never to be heard from again (because the collaborators would still be Taiwanese with elite positions, see, and they can't have that). It would mean appropriating Taiwan's resources (such as semiconductor technology and manufacturing facilities) for their own gain, while ensuring Taiwan itself is plunged into poverty and exceedingly brutal repression.

If you thought Hong Kong was bad, just wait. 

This would happen even if Taiwan surrendered "peacefully" and allowed annexation to happen. This is in part because some Taiwanese would fight back regardless of what agreements the governments came to, and in part because China would be aware that a surrender would not mean that all pro-independence sentiment would be wiped away. So they'd need to brutally crush it. There is no option for a peaceful annexation. 

Anyone who thinks Taiwan could at least take advantage of China's thrumming economy is fooling themselves. China's ultimate goal is extractive. They do not want locals with resources fighting back. 

The Taiwanese, who used to agree that their island was part of China (albeit a non-Communist one), have taken to electing governments that stress its separateness, while stopping short of declaring independence.

I'm not so sure that's true, although I am aware polling data from years past, unreliable as it probably was, told a different story. Taiwanese people never had the chance to freely express what they really believed under Martial Law and the years of continuing repression immediately following it: to say you didn't think Taiwan was a part of China would at best land you on a watchlist. Of course people said they "agreed" with whatever they were supposed to (and I am sure many actually did, but not all who said it). So it's pretty rich to simplify that into "Taiwanese used to agree their island was a part of China". 

More accurately, the unelected KMT government used to agree that Taiwan was a part of China. That government never represented the people of Taiwan, and I don't think we'll ever know in any detail what "the Taiwanese" used to think.

It's useful to note that the first president elected after Lee Teng-hui was pro-independence, and identifying as solely Taiwanese, not Chinese, was a trend that began soon after gross unificationist Ma Ying-jeou's election. So, very soon after democratization, a pro-Taiwan sentiment began to emerge in politics. That it happened so fast makes one wonder how much "the Taiwanese" ever truly believed otherwise.

Oh yes, and do not mistake electing leaders who "stop short of declaring independence" for "not wanting independence". They elect leaders who promise not to allow Taiwan to become a part of China. If we define "independence" as "sovereign, not a part of China", most people do want that. But they're not stupid: they don't want war, so they vote for the leaders who will protect the sovereignty they already enjoy without taking too many semantic risks. That's just smart. 

Under that definition, there's no need to "declare independence". It would be like declaring the sun is hot or we breathe air. Taiwan is already independent -- if not from the ROC colonial structure, than at least from China. 

But hey, in one line in this entire piece, the writer bothers -- deigns -- from his elevated perch to recognize that Taiwanese citizens have opinions and ideas too. Thanks for the breadcrumbs.

And America has protected Taiwan from Chinese aggression, even though it recognises the government in Beijing.
Why wouldn't they? Awful as they are, the government in Beijing is the government of China. Recognizing Taiwan doesn't have to mean ending that, because Taiwan is Taiwan, not the government of China. The only reason not to recognize both is to avoid pissing off Beijing. It's not endemically an either/or proposition.

These opposing ideas are bundled into what Fitzgerald’s diplomatic inheritors blithely call the “status quo”. In fact, it is a roiling, seething source of neurosis and doubt.
A roiling, seething source of neurosis and doubt? 

Huh, I thought you said just above that it was successful at keeping the peace. Perhaps not so much? That sure doesn't sound like a success to me. 

What has changed of late is America’s perception of a tipping-point in China’s cross-strait military build-up, 25 years in the making.
I guess, but again you're making this only about America and China. The fact that Taiwanese not identifying as Chinese and seeing their country as the separate entity it is has also driven this change, and what's made it notable is the fact that it doesn't look like there's going to be a reversal of that trend. Taiwanese will almost certainly never believe they are Chinese again, regardless of what the CCP does. 

China has talked itself into believing that America wants to keep the Taiwan crisis boiling and may even want a war to contain China’s rise.
China may project that belief, but no: they're preparing for war because they can. They could stop the threat of war at any time by simply promising they will never start a war over Taiwan. It's entirely in their hands and they know it, but they're not going to stop, because they're pretty much convinced that a war will eventually be necessary and they've painted themselves into an impossible corner by insisting this is non-negotiable. They're not so dumb as to actually believe that Taiwan would be interested in "peaceful unification", if it ever was. So what's left?

This also makes it sound to uninformed readers that the US, not China, is driving the Taiwan conflict. It's not. China started it, China is continuing it, and China has the power to stop it. Everything else is a reaction to China's threats.

It has trampled the idea that Hong Kong has a separate system of government, devaluing a similar offer designed to win over the people of Taiwan to peaceful unification.
Again, this is not factually wrong. But it elides the question of whether it ever held traction in Taiwan. Does Broseph here think that the people of Taiwan were ever seriously interested in that offer? It's hard to tell because he seems so uninterested in what Taiwanese people think.

Perhaps years ago it looked a little more tempting to some thoughtless people, but I can't find any sort of proof that Taiwanese were ever enthusiastic about the idea, even when it seemed to be (sort of) working in Hong Kong. 

As for Macau, the territory seems obedient to China, but a friend from there once told me that if she could tell Taiwan one thing, it would be to never trust the CCP or any offer they made, including One Country, Two Systems. To never give in. I'm not so sure they've won over the people of Macau as much as they think.

Although China has clearly become more authoritarian and nationalistic, this analysis is too pessimistic—perhaps because hostility to China is becoming the default in America.
Um, no. It's not "too pessimistic". They are literally committing genocide. Christ alive. Do you even know things?

Looking at everything we think about China through an American lens is not a very smart mode of analysis. How about looking at what China is actually doing -- and that's fucking genocide. 

Xi Jinping, China’s president, has not even begun to prepare his people for a war likely to inflict mass casualties and economic pain on all sides.
So all that military build-up and simulations of an invasion of Taiwan are not a preparation for anything? All those speeches that China "will not renounce the use of force" are just air instead of being honest that they will not renounce the use of force? Okaaaay.

Also, Xi Jinping does not give one single solitary shit about any pain and casualties on the Taiwan or US side, so what's this "all sides" business you imply he might be considering?

In its 100th year the Communist Party is building its claim to power on prosperity, stability and China’s status in its region and growing role in the world. All that would be jeopardised by an attack whose result, whatever the us Navy says, comes with lots of uncertainty attached, not least over how to govern a rebellious Taiwan. Why would Mr Xi risk it all now, when China could wait until the odds are even better?
Good, so we actually do agree that Xi's ultimate objective is indeed to invade Taiwan. Perhaps not next week, but someday, and sooner than we'd like. Glad we cleared that up. 

Perhaps you also see that "strategic ambiguity" merely gives Xi more time to ensure that the odds are better? Maybe? Hmmm?

Yet that brings only some comfort. Nobody in America can really know what Mr Xi intends today, let alone what he or his successor may want in the future.
Oh shut the fuck up. Just shut up. No it doesn't. Shut up. We know what he intends today, which is an eventual invasion of Taiwan, because he keeps saying so. When does he not say that? 

When someone tells you who they are, J-dog, believe them. 

Also, what successor? I thought The Economist agreed he was emperor for life.

China’s impatience is likely to grow. Mr Xi’s appetite for risk may sharpen, especially if he wants unification with Taiwan to crown his legacy.
You just negated your previous statement by accurately describing what Xi wants today and in the future. I hope you realize that.

If they are to ensure that war remains too much of a gamble for China, America and Taiwan need to think ahead. Work to re-establish an equilibrium across the Taiwan Strait will take years. Taiwan must start to devote fewer resources to big, expensive weapons systems that are vulnerable to Chinese missiles and more to tactics and technologies that would frustrate an invasion.
This part is surprisingly fine and actually acknowledges that Taiwan has people, and those people have desires and thoughts. Like swallowing a diamond and crapping it out, there is one valuable takeaway in this sea of feces. Though if the writer thinks Taiwan doesn't already devote a lot of energy to considering asymmetric warfare, perhaps he should read some Ian Easton.

America requires weapons to deter China from launching an amphibious invasion; it must prepare its allies, including Japan and South Korea; and it needs to communicate to China that its battle plans are credible. This will be a tricky balance to strike. Deterrence usually strives to be crystal-clear about retaliation. The message here is more subtle. China must be discouraged from trying to change Taiwan’s status by force even as it is reassured thatAmerica will not support a dash for formal independence by Taiwan. The risk of a superpower arms race is high.
Okay, sure. 

Good thing Taiwan doesn't need to declare formal independence as it is already independent. 

Be under no illusions how hard it is to sustain ambiguity. Hawks in Washington and Beijing will always be able to portray it as weakness.
You're gonna have to tell me who those non-hawks are in Beijing, because you sure do imply they exist. 

And yet, seemingly useful shows of support for Taiwan, such as American warships making port calls on the island, could be misread as a dangerous shift in intentions.
I'm too classy to react to this in GIF form on my blog but you know that one where Sideshow Bob just keeps stepping on rakes?

This is a rake.

Most disputes are best put to rest.
Cool. Tell China that. 

Those that can be resolved only in war can often be put off and, as China’s late leader Deng Xiaoping said, left to wiser generations. 
This makes no sense. So, you think war is fine as long as it's later on? When you just said China would be smart to wait "until the odds were better"? Do you want China to win? Because this is how you let China win.

Besides, the current generation of Taiwanese are already pretty wise. Wise enough to know China is full of shit. If they're sharp enough to realize this, why on Earth do you think China can be a part of the solution to a problem it is actively continuing to create?

Deng Xiaoping, by the way, did not envision a solution that involved an independent Taiwan. So are you saying that unification is the best outcome? Because Deng wasn't exactly a great statesman as far as Taiwan was concerned, and do you really want to quote the guy who let Tiananmen happen?

Nowhere presents such a test of statesmanship as the most dangerous place on Earth.
First, no, it is not dangerous in its own right. China is dangerous. China is the threat. Taiwan is just the victim of a bully. In the meantime, I'm not at risk of COVID and also I have better healthcare than you. From my perspective, Taiwan is pretty safe and the US looks like the goddamn Thunderdome. 

Secondly, statesmanship by whom? The US? Because that's what got us into this mess. China? LOL. Taiwan? They're already doing a good job asserting their independence without being overly provocative. So who. Tell me who. GIVE ME A NAME. Because right now you sound like Henry "Shitsnack" Kissinger and I cannot wait until that asshole kicks it. 

In the meantime, maybe spend more time considering what Taiwanese lives are worth and that the people who live in the country you are talking about have their own ideas, too. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Temples, Rebuilt and Abandoned: A Luermen (鹿耳門) Day Trip


When I was young, my parents would take long Sunday drives, often stopping off at areas of historical significance. Dad was interested in wars and their associated geography; Mom, old houses and mansions. I was bored witless. I had no appreciation for that kind of history in my youth, and while the old houses could sometimes be intriguing — I’ve always been into cool structures and antique objects — the geographical locations themselves were generally quite bland. It honestly did not matter to me that “George Washington had a meeting here”. 

Taiwan, however, has kindled some interest in historical locations for their own sake. 

Enter Luermen (鹿耳門), where Cheng Cheng-kung/Koxinga (鄭成功/國姓爺) first landed in Taiwan. I’d been interested in the area since reading Tonio Andrade’s Lost Colony despite knowing that there was no longer a “landing site” per se, as the entire area had silted in through the intervening three centuries. 

I hadn’t prioritized a trip to the area in part because bus service is spotty: you can take a bus out to the park at the Koxinga landing site from Tainan City, but there isn’t much there other than a decrepit park, and the trip will take you between 1.5-3.5 hours despite it being just 15 kilometers northwest of central Tainan — about a half-hour drive. There are other things to see but they either require walking, or are simply too far away. I’d also heard that there just wasn’t a lot going on there, hardly worth organizing an excursion. 

We went with a local friend from Tainan, whose ancestors came to China with Cheng Cheng-kung and, having recently moved back to Tainan, was interested in finding the spot for her own heritage-related reasons. It certainly helped that she speaks fluent Taiwanese as you won’t find many people who prefer Mandarin in these parts. 

While it’s true that there’s “not a lot going on” in this corner of Tainan, if you have access to a car and some free time, I actually recommend taking a trip out that way. From temples of historical significance to a truly isolated beach and some cool old houses within driving distance, you can easily fill up a day out here. 

Oh yes, and you can visit what I believe to be Taiwan’s most scenic bathroom.

We began our journey at La Belle Maison in the back lanes of Anping, in a building that I’d rather confidently place as Art Deco/Streamline, though I didn’t ask. La Belle Maison is run by a friendly Frenchman and has excellent meals and coffee, luscious desserts (the tiramisu is the size of a baby’s head!) and is decorated in a sort of botanical-vintage style. See if you can find the partially-hidden Chiang Kai-shek bust. Then it was time to hit the road. 

Beishanwei Matsu Temple / Luermen Tianhou Palace (北汕尾媽祖宮/鹿耳門天后宮)

This temple was our first stop. At first I was impressed by the size of the place, but aesthetically it isn’t particularly unique: it has that late-70s red granite and orange roof look common to many temples across Taiwan. This rather boring facade hides a fair amount of history, however. 

Although it’s impossible to tell from the current structure, Beishanwei Matsu Temple was founded in 1661; the temple’s website states that this was done by Koxinga himself, as he had prayed to Matsu at that spot for a successful siege against the Dutch at his first arrival. Over time, the temple expanded with added gates and banyan trees, and in 1719, funds were donated to turn it into “Tianhou Palace” (天后宮). A flash flood in 1871 destroyed the temple, although the Matsu idol was saved. The idol itself is still ensconced in this temple and according to the website, is in fact the original, made of fine wood with emeralds set in her robe — not that one can get close enough to admire all this. 

The temple was rebuilt in 1977, which is why it looks as it does now. Nearby, attractive Luermen Mansion (鹿耳門公館) is a restored heritage building, though it appeared closed when we popped by. 

At the time Beishanwei Temple was located at the south end of Luermen Harbor, on a bit of land that sure does look like it was once a tail () stretching into the water. I'm not sure of the reason for using "shan" (汕) in the place name, but this post names the area Bexianwei 北線尾 or "north thread tail", which makes sense if you look at the included map. Don't quote me on any etymology, though. I also think this is the island Andrade calls "Baxemboy", as that sounds like it would be about right in Minnanyu -- but don't quote me on that either. 

There had been a small Dutch fort on Beishanwei guarding Luermen (鹿耳門 the Deers' Ear Gap), but it had been destroyed in a massive 1656 typhoon. I don't know exactly where it was, but it couldn't have been far from where the Matsu temple now stands. The destruction of that fort is one reason Koxinga was able to sail through.

In addition to slow sedimentation in the years after Koxinga drove out the Dutch, a flash flood caused by a typhoon in 1823 silted in much of the Taijiang “Inner Sea” (台江內海). This was the wide, shallow body of water separated from the Taiwan Strait by a series of sandbars, called the seven "kunshen" (鯤鯓) which now form several place names along the coast. That sea once stretched from the front of Chikan Tower in central Tainan to Xigang 西港 in the north, down to the northern edge of Kaohsiung County. Roughly, anyway: the sandbars and edges of the inland bay shifted frequently due to storms, floods and sedimentation.

I haven't seen a place name like this before and thought it might perhaps be derived from an Indigenous language, as with Chikan Tower (赤崁樓), named after the Siraya village of Saccam that once existed in the area, and some people are quite upset by the characters chosen to depict it. It's not, however: a kun 鯤 is a mythical sea monster or massive fish, like a whale, and a shen 鯓 is its back rising out of the sea.

Due to these geographical changes, the Taijiang area went from being navigable -- albeit dangerous -- by sea to being slowly silted up, with the old "sea monster's back" forming the coast. Now Beishanwei Matsu Temple is surrounded by dry land, shallow waterways and fish farms. 

There is another reason to stop at Beishanwei Matsu Temple: if you want to make a wish on a wooden plaque as close as possible to an area of great historical significance, this is the closest you’re going to get as the other nearby Matsu temple doesn’t have wishing plaques. I always wish for Taiwan independence (台灣獨立) and although I’m an atheist, it felt significant to make that particular wish at a temple founded by a man who was not the “hero” the ROC wants to portray him as, but still historically important to Taiwan. 

Luermen Matsu Temple (正統鹿耳門聖母廟)

This “orthodox” (正統) Matsu temple a few kilometers north of the Beishanwei Matsu Temple has a confusingly similar name, but the Chinese names help differentiate them. This is the closest temple to the actual Koxinga landing site.

People working/hanging out there (it’s hard to tell with temples sometimes) told us that Koxinga had passed by this spot on the way to the site of his first proper ‘landing’ and again prayed to Matsu. A related website also states that in 1661, Koxinga funded the reconstruction of the temple that once stood here as he prayed in this spot as well.

Temple rivalries are fairly common, so it could be that these temples disagree on which one the story relates to. However, it’s not inconceivable that he prayed at both places and ordered the founding of two Matsu temples in the same year to thank the sea goddess for her help in his victory over the Dutch. 

This temple was destroyed in 1831 by yet another Zengwen River flood, and its Matsu idols relocated to the Sanjiao Hai’an Temple (三郊海安宮) and Water Fairy Temple (水仙宮), both still in existence (the former seems to have undergone its own 20th century renovation, the latter still boasts an older structure, in the middle of a bustling market). It’s not clear if the idols are still in those temples or have been re-ensconced in the rebuilt Luermen Matsu Temple.

The site lay dormant until 1913, when a King Boat from Quanzhou’s Fumei Temple — the same type as the one they burn to Wang Ye in Donggang every three years — was found drifting near the site. Apparently, was pushed out to sea several times and floated back each time. People felt this was a good reason to rebuild the temple, although that structure doesn't seem to exist anymore, either. The current structure dates from 1981. 

According to this blog, that same boat can be found on display at the temple, but we didn't see it (that place is huge and we didn't know it was there).

So why visit? In addition to having reported historical ties to Koxinga, this temple boasts of being the “largest Matsu temple in the world”, though other sources merely state it's the largest in Taiwan. It is indeed massive, dwarfing the Beishanwei Matsu Temple, which is itself quite large. There’s also a bustling night market that sets up here, and two massive statues of Matsu’s guardians, Thousand Mile Eyes (千里眼) and Ears Hearing on the Wind (順風耳), which are apparently the largest statues of their type in the world.

Cheng Cheng-kung Memorial Park (鄭成功紀念公園)

A short drive from the Luermen Matsu Temple, you’ll come to what might well be the most underwhelming part of a day driving around the area: the actual landing site of Cheng Chenggong. There is a park here, with a cute vintage-y arch and a stone monolith. It’s poorly-maintained and usually empty; the only people you’re likely to encounter in the park itself are the folks watering the plants. There is a restroom here, but no promises on how well it actually works. 

It's worth revisiting the story of Koxinga's landing, as most summaries don't do it justice. 
To face the Dutch, Koxinga needed to get into Taijiang. But with Fort Zeelandia guarding the deeper channel into the Taijiang Inner Sea, Luermen was the only suitable alternative. The channel was far more shallow and full of shifting sandbars. Andrade notes that maps differed quite a bit, in part because the geography kept changing, but some clearly show a set of islands in this area that do indeed look like two deers' ears

Koxinga did not just successfully navigate this treacherous channel, he used strategy to do it. He braved foggy rain on the way from Penghu in order to reach the area by the new moon, when tides would be high. That higher tide allowed his deep-cutting ships to pass through an area that would have otherwise destroyed his fleet.

Anyway, back to the park.



Enjoy the middle-of-nowhere decrepitude for awhile, and meditate on how this spot used to be on the water — now completely silted in and well inland. Then, poke around behind the park, where a small road (which turns off just before you reach the park and runs behind it as a country lane) reveals a few rundown houses on the edge of yet another milkfish farm. A friendly guy who once trained in Hawai’i as an athlete for Taiwan — I think he said he’d played rugby — owns the small house back here, inherited from his parents. He doesn’t live there full time (honestly nobody would want to), but he sometimes pops around on the weekends to hang out and tend to his garden. He told us he always enjoys making new friends, and gave us some passionfruit from his garden. 

He also let us know about Luermen’s best-kept secret, a wide, clean beach at the end of a mangrove estuary, which you’ll probably have all to yourself. While you can take a bus out to the temples and park above, at this point driving is necessary.

The quiet beach


Here’s how to get there: drive towards the coast on the main road (Chengxi Street 城西街) that passes by the Memorial Park, to the very end. When you hit the T-junction, turn left. Keep going along the Zengwen River, do not turn back inland. Stop and walk up the concrete embankment to get a view of the river if you feel like it, though we didn’t. Take this embankment road all the way to the end, where there’s a small parking lot. In fact, it is possible to continue driving as the road you’ll be walking to the very end is passable by car and scooter, but it’s a pleasant walk through woods and mangroves. 

It’s perhaps another ten-minute walk to the beach; you’ll know it when you see it. You can continue along the path away from the beach, but we didn’t. 

When we went, the area was completely deserted and peaceful. We weren’t dressed for swimming or even going barefoot — I had socks and sneakers on — so we didn’t go in the water, but you absolutely could. Just be careful as there is literally no one around to save you if you get into trouble. It’s just you, the sand, the sun, the sea and lots of oyster shells. Perhaps a fisherman, but likely not even that. 

Nanching/Lady Tsai Temple (南清宮/蔡姑娘廟) and Taiwan’s most scenic bathroom

After the beach, it was time to take a pit stop. I have no idea how our friend found this small temple in the middle of miles of fish farms, but she did. We pulled up, asked about a bathroom — most temples have them — and were directed out back. 

I wish I’d stopped to ask the locals hanging out what the history of this temple was, but we were so focused on a bathroom that it slipped our minds. This website says that Lady Tsai would sail between Taiwan and Fujian in the jewelry business, and seeing all the corpses from shipwrecks in this area — remember, it was once a shallow harbor full of deadly sandbars — had a temple founded there, though it’s obviously been rebuilt many times since, and the current structure has a 1980s look to it. 

Anyway, I didn’t get a picture, but climb the stairs from the big metal structure in front of the temple to the raised dirt path out back, and enjoy the view across the fish farms! There’s even a picturesque palm tree swaying in the wind coming off the flat land transformed into a series of ponds and farms. The actual toilet is in a building with no view, but if you have the right parts, the open-air urinal will allow you to feel the country breeze on your cheeks (your other cheeks) as you relieve yourself. 

You're welcome! 

Abandoned Ji Gong Temple (Wansheng Temple) (萬聖宮/濟公廟)


On the road to the deserted beach, you’ll pass by an oddly-shaped temple structure topped with a huge Ji Gong statue. Ji Gong was a 12th century monk known for his tattered robes and proclivity for meat and wine, which got him kicked out of the monastery. He is commonly said to appear to spirit mediums, and has a strong presence in Yi Guan Dao (一貫道), a modern religious group with some fairly conservative strictures on practice. 


Curious, we pulled in just to see what the place was like. Though it’s not obvious from the road, it is indeed abandoned and locked tight, although one of the automatic lights at the entrance blinked on while we were there. I don’t know why this temple was abandoned, nor anything about it, but whatever happened, it occurred sometime after 2013, when a blogger was able to go inside and the temple still seemed to be active. 

The spot is quiet and slightly creepy, as the building itself appears to be in good condition but there’s nobody around. 

Heritage Houses (古厝)

From here, we looked into stopping at the black-faced spoonbill sanctuary, but the viewing platform closes in the late afternoon, and we wouldn’t have made it.

Instead, I keyed  “heritage homes” (古厝) into Google Maps and found a few that, while not in Luermen exactly, were within driving distance. My best guess for why Luermen lacks historic buildings? For the same reason the temples keep getting rebuilt: the area had once been a bay and was prone to rapid geographical change, flash flood, and sedimentation. I wouldn't have built a house there, either. 

I’ve gone "old house hunting" before; this is how I found the Liu Family House in Liucuo (the town’s name is literally Liu House, so it’s kind of a big deal), itself not far from Luermen. 

However, unlike the Liu Family House, which isn’t inhabited full-time, some of these other houses are, or at least the owners tend to be home on the weekend. The Liu house can be viewed from the road, so it’s worth stopping even if you can’t enter, whereas the houses we visited are set back from the road; to see them, you have to trespass on private property. 

The good news is that the owners of both houses we visited are friendly people all too willing to let some random historic house enthusiasts take a look at their courtyard (one even invited us into the family shrine). One family included a centenarian grandmother who was married in that same house at age 18 and her son — himself grandfather-age — watering the beautiful garden, and told us the inscription on the entranceway referenced the family’s original hometown in China some centuries ago. The other boasted gorgeous original paintings on wood; the ones on the outer doors are in dire need of restoration but it’s an expensive proposition. The painted panels in the family shrine are in far better condition, and the shrine itself boasts pristine original Majolica tiles. 

But, because people actually live in these residences, I don’t feel comfortable sharing exactly which ones I visited. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a trickle of visitors to people who will be hospitable if you drop by, but probably don’t want their lives interrupted that much. In any case, there are lots of options in the area: just find some near your chosen day trip route and go hunting. You don’t need me. 

I will, however, offer some photos: 







There is a lot we didn’t see on this trip. Historic houses and nature sanctuaries we didn’t get to and at least one seafood restaurant that looks excellent. There’s plenty to do in the area if you’re willing to go hunting. 

Because night fell while visiting the second historic house, we decided it was time to head back to Tainan. Our friend knew a good place in the East District near National Cheng-kung University called 鯤島xSoshow.


There's that sea monster 鯤 again: this should be a clue that KundaoxSoshow takes an interest in Taiwanese history, geography and agricultural products.

This restaurant specializes in traditional Taiwanese ingredients are used to make entirely new fusion-style dishes and boasts an excellent cocktail bar. I had a drink made with pomelo, tea, flower petals and gin, and another topped with egg white and served in a traditional steamed rice cake (碗粿) bowl — white with a cerulean rim, which could have passed for a steamed rice cake itself. It was delicious! 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Taiwan's anti-stalking laws are getting much-needed reform


I think this picture metaphorically depicts the current state of Taiwan's anti-stalking laws.

Years ago, the ex-boyfriend of someone I once knew was engaging in aggressive stalking and harassment. We're talking the stuff of horror movies here. Despite showing up at her work and later the same night outside her front door as she was coming home (!), it struck me that there seemed to be so little the police could do. She called them and they came, but they weren't able to guarantee her safety in any meaningful way. She had been planning to end her time in Taiwan in the near future, but it was clear that staying would have been a dangerous proposition regardless. I don't know the extent to which his actions hastened her departure, but it almost certainly had some effect. 

We're not in touch anymore, so I'm not willing to include any more detail than that. However, what remains with me is this: Taiwanese law enforcement could not or would not do anything to make Taipei a place where she could safely remain.

Now, imagine if she had not been planning to leave, or was from here and either had nowhere else to go, or didn't want to leave her life behind just to rid herself of a stalker. 

That's not the only story I've heard; I'm intentionally not including more recent tales from others I don't know the extent to which doing so -- even with permission -- might impact their safety. Others have been in the news, most recently a woman in Pingtung who had reported her harassment over several months to police, but was still killed by her harasser

Given all this, Taiwan's new draft amendment to improve anti-stalking laws in Taiwan is mind-bogglingly overdue and hasn't been reported on nearly enough, although taiwanreporter has consistently highlighted the importance of this subject for some time, as has the Taipei Times.

Here is what the new law would do: 

According to the bill, the police will have the right to issue a written warning to a stalker or someone accused of harassment, once the victim's report can be corroborated.

If the accused disregards the police warning, the victim, police or prosecutors can seek a restraining order from the court, the bill states. Currently, restraining orders are issued only in cases of harassment or violence within a family or between couples.

Under the draft bill, the maximum penalty for stalking and/or harassment is five years in prison or a fine of NT$500,000 (US$17,667), and it allows preventive detention if the offender is deemed a likely recidivist. [The current fines are far lower: see below for more information]

It broadens the definitions specified in both the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act and Domestic Violence Prevention Act and makes them applicable in almost any situation, not just in a home, workplace, or school.

In particular, the definition of harassment has been extended to include making unwanted advances on someone.

You might be wondering if it's really true that currently, the police can only issue a restraining order in cases of harassment between family members or cohabiting couples, and whether most relevant laws are truly only applicable at home, work or school. What's more, are the current penalties truly so low? Are people being stalked in situations outside these narrow definitions truly left without protection? 

The answer to all of these is "yes". 

You may also wonder how it got to be that way. The problem is that work, home and school were each targeted with specific laws, with no umbrella anti-stalking or anti-harassment law covering all situations beyond one very general and low-stakes provision in one very broad law. Since I am not constrained by inches or word count, I have the space to sift through these laws. So let's do that, and take stock of where they currently fall short. 

I'm probably not including every relevant sub-code or detail of every pertinent act and regulation because I'm not superhuman, but there are three that stand out: the Domestic Violence Prevention Act (家庭暴力防治法), the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act (性騷擾防治法) and the laughably inadequate Social Order Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法). Also relevant are the Gender Equity Education Act (性別平等教育法) and the Gender Equality in Employment Act (性別工作平等法). 

The Domestic Violence Prevention Act covers harassment, stalking (which is specifically defined) and other abuse by family members, including spouses and ex-spouses, relatives and cohabiting or formerly cohabiting couples. This is the act that allows for restraining orders to be issued, and allows for fines of up to NT$100,000 for contravening court rulings, including restraining orders and orders to relocate. However, it does not cover non-familial, non-cohabiting relationships -- so it would not cover a creepy date, friendship-turned-sour or terrifying ex that you didn't live with. 

The Sexual Harassment Prevention Act covers school and workplace sexual harassment, and stipulates fines of up to NT$100,000 (and higher for certain professions) and imprisonment for up to two years for unwelcome touching. The act includes threats, offense and intimidation, inundation (of behavior, approaches or images), creating a sense of fear or hostility or impinging on rights and interests of a person within the organization. Although the organization is meant to conduct its own investigation, it must report to municipal authorities and can be punished for not investigating appropriately. This act does not mention stalking, but the focus on the reaction of the targeted person to the unwelcome behavior might potentially cover this.

The Gender Equity in Employment Act and the Gender Equity Education Act cover any sexual harassment at school or work not covered by the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act, and include language against discrimination (which includes bullying or verbal harassment) based on gender or sexual orientation. Neither clearly stipulate that harassment or bullying of transgender workers or students is included in this definition, and neither use the term "stalking". 

The Social Order Maintenance Act attempts to cover everything else. This is the one that would cover that creepy date, rando who follows you or ex you never lived with. However, it does not define "stalking", saying only that it prohibits "stalking another person without justifiable reasons despite having been dissuaded" (emphasis mine).  It stipulates a fine of not more than NT$3,000 for stalking, and includes defacing someone else's property, such as a house or car. 

I have no idea what a "justifiable reason" for stalking would be, and am nonplussed that this language would be included in such a wide-reaching law. It goes without saying that NT$3,000 is barely a punishment; it's essentially a stalking fee, which if you have to pay it at all amounts to permission to keep on stalking. The law mentions "dissuasion" but makes no provisions for issuing restraining orders against such stalkers. Police may, however, restrain a person who is -- and I am quoting the law here -- "caught red-handed in the commission of an offense". 

It's terrifying to me that this is the only law under which my then-friend could have sought redress, and it would not have even stipulated so much as a restraining order.

Clearly, this change has been long overdue. Every time there is a widely-reported case (or number of cases) that could potentially have been prevented by more concrete anti-stalking laws, there is an outcry, followed by a call for reform, followed by what seems to reform. 

It happened in 2018, when the Executive Yuan approved a draft bill to bolster harassment and "pestering" laws. That seems to have gone nowhere, as it did not have the support of women's rights groups. From the Taipei Times: 

While they support the idea of the bill, [women's rights groups] said its current version would not provide enough protection to people who are being harassed or stalked.

Once a person files a complaint with police, the police are required to spend three months investigating the allegations, which is both time consuming and fails to provide a victim with timely protection, Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation deputy chief executive Jasmine Bai (白智芳) said.

It happened again in 2020, when the National Police Agency proposed anti-stalking legislation. It's not clear if that's the same proposal that was lambasted once again by women's groups, as by November 2020 the anti-stalking proposal under discussion came from the Ministry of the Interior (I was following this issue, and couldn't figure it out then, either).  This time, criticisms of the proposal included a lack of immediate tools to protect victims, and equating stalking to sexual harassment, even though not all stalking is sexually motivated. 

By March 2021, the New Power Party (NPP) was pointing out that the government was taking far too long to take action. Of course, as we now know, that short lag between March and April meant that there was no law already in place when the woman in Pingtung was murdered by her stalker about two weeks ago. 

That was the price society paid. A life was lost. This isn't abstract, it's an immediate need. 

The approved draft amendment seems like it will go further than its dead-on-the-vine predecessors, as Premier Su has requested that it be implemented within six months rather than the originally-slated year, according to the Taipei Times. It includes immediate protection for victims, expanding the power of law enforcement to issue restraining orders on any harasser, not just those with family/couple relationships. It includes non-sexual stalking, such as spying, sending unwanted messages, images, goods or services -- meaning it should also cover cyberbullying and online stalking -- and raises the penalty for aggravated stalking with a weapon. Because it covers stalking behavior rather than who is stalking (e.g. a colleague, family member or person at school) or why they're stalking (e.g. for reasons related to sexual desire, gender or sexual orientation), it ought to cover marginalized groups such as transgender people who face stalking and harassment.

Most importantly, the passage of this new law is more likely because it finally "draws on relevant laws in other countries and on the views of women's rights groups and legislators in Taiwan", according to Focus Taiwan. 

Imagine that. The government finally listening to women's voices when drafting legislation that will help protect women. 

Imagine if they had done that in 2018. How many people might still be alive?