Sunday, November 28, 2021

What interpretations of "status quo" polls get wrong


Peer under the clouds and the valley is clear

I'm sure others will write on this in the coming days, but something's been on my mind and I have to unload it in long form. 

You know those polls asking Taiwanese citizens what they think about maintaining the status quo, independence or unification? A couple of them have come out recently, one from NCCU, commissioned by the Mainland Affairs Council and one from the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI)

And I am here to tell you that while the data may be fine, interpretations of that data are almost always wrong. 

Interestingly, reporting of the MAC/NCCU poll doesn't seem to distinguish between maintaining the status quo and moving toward independence, deciding at a later date, or moving towards unification. The poll itself does so (look at Question 4). So what's up with the media? The MAC itself, the Taipei Times and Focus Taiwan all report "84.9%" of Taiwanese "support maintaining the status quo" with no further details offered. MOFA bumped that number up to "nearly 90%". I'm honestly not sure why, but my guess is that that's the line MAC wanted to put out there and the media reporting on it just followed their press release.

Previous NCCU polls differentiate as well. As of June this year, if you combine everyone who wants to maintain the status quo: indefinitely, with a decision at a later time, moving toward independence and moving toward unification, you get 83%, just slightly below this poll's results.

Those are very disparate views however: someone who wants to maintain the status quo but move toward independence (25.8% in the June poll) might agree on the "status quo" but their beliefs differ significantly in most other ways from someone who wants to move toward unification (an unimpressive 5.7%). "Move toward independence" is highly competitive with "maintain indefinitely" and "decide later", whereas "move toward unification" is down in the sewer. 

You simply cannot credibly combine those into the same set of beliefs, unless your bias and your goal are to push for maintaining the status quo and to mask what Taiwanese really think beyond that.

Despite not clarifying this, media reports do shed some light on the fact that for most Taiwanese, "the status quo" is a stand-in for we want peace, not war, and to maintain the sovereignty we already have. You can see this in the high agreement with Tsai's statements -- not perfect stand-ins for what Taiwanese actually, ideally want for their country but better than a lumpen status quo potato salad.

Most (77.1%) agree that neither China nor Taiwan have a claim on the others' territory, Taiwanese alone should get to decide Taiwan's future, Chinese annexation should be resisted, Taiwan's democracy maintained and Beijing's attitude toward Taipei was unfriendly. 85.6% don't support "one country two systems". 

Combined with the fact that most Taiwanese identify as solely Taiwanese, and those who identify as both Taiwanese and Chinese prioritize Taiwanese identity, does this sound like a country that is actively choosing the status quo because it doesn't know what it wants, or a country that does know what it wants, but is deferring discussions on formal independence because de facto independence is sufficient given the threat from Beijing?

If this is a country that does know what it wants -- and it does -- why is there a continued insistence on forcing very disparate beliefs into one lumpen mess and claiming it as the "center" position? 

The actual center position is that Taiwan is already sovereign. In other words, unification (that is, annexation) is an extreme or fringe position, but trying to both-sides Taiwanese independence is straight-up wrong.

Taiwanese independence is a mainstream position. It is not remotely extreme. 

That's not my opinion. That's what the numbers say if you read them without blinders.

At first glance, the WUFI poll had somewhat different numbers. Moving toward independence and indefinite maintenance of the status quo were both near 40%. Independence as soon as possible was more popular than fast unification, at 7% and 1.8% respectively, and only 7% want to move towards unification. Most support using Taiwan as the name of the country despite threats from China, and most are in favor of diplomatic relations with the US. The only number that indicates much disagreement is the question of "just Taiwan" or "Taiwan and the Republic of China", which came in at about 40.5% and 30.9% respectively. It's not close, but the latter isn't swimming in the gutter alongside support for unification. 

What that means is that Tsai's re-imagining of what independence means is indeed the center position: that Taiwan doesn't need to declare independence because it's already independent, and its name is the Republic of China (the last bit of that being a current statement of fact, used to bridge the two perspectives). It certainly shows her "consensuses" in line with what Taiwanese actually think than the fabricated 1992 Consensus.

Back to the status quo: if you do the irresponsible thing and combine the numbers that all indicate some maintenance of the status quo -- despite their deeper ideological differences which should not be papered over -- you get approximately 87%, which isn't far off from the MAC/NCCU poll.

So okay, blah blah blah, lots of numbers. What's wrong with that?

Nothing, on the surface. The numbers are real. The desire to keep things as they are is real. However, they are often used to advance a line of thinking that simply doesn't match up with what all the other data tell us. 

I'm thinking not only of all those other questions that indicate a strong preference for maintaining sovereignty and resisting Chinese annexation, a general feeling that Beijing is unfriendly to Taiwan (which it is), a strong lean towards Taiwanese identity and using the name 'Taiwan' internationally.

It's also a question of what "the status quo" means, and under what conditions those questions are answered. 

An argument could be made that the questions themselves were constructed to push people toward answering "I prefer [some form of] the status quo" and then encourage the media to report that line. I know others will make that argument, so I won't as they can do it better. Besides, while it would be fairly easy to say that the Mainland Affairs Council is perhaps questionable, I doubt WUFI would intentionally construct questions that push for a specific kind of answer. And NCCU? As an institution they may lean blue but they've dutifully reported on the ascendance of Taiwanese identity for decades; I can't say they are intentionally engaging in academic chicanery.

In other words, I used to think the polls perhaps lacked basic construct validity. Maybe they do, but I'm going to back off that for now.

I feel quite comfortable, however, in calling out all the extraordinarily wrong interpretations of the data.  

There's the obvious question of what the status quo means to Taiwanese: as a friend pointed out, who could possibly look at the current situation -- the status quo -- and not consider it to be de facto independence? It's an answer that says "yes, I would like to maintain Taiwan's democratic government, institutions, borders, currency, military and society." In other words, a form of independence. As Tsai herself says: Taiwan doesn't need to declare independence because it is already independent.

The real news here is Taiwan wants to keep the sovereignty it already has. Does that not make for a sexy enough headline or something? Why is it always reported as "Taiwanese don't know", when that sort of data massage could get you a job in a Wanhua teahouse?

That should be clear from which "status quo" sub-sets have more respondents: almost nobody thinks the current situation is a holding pattern for possible unification. That's not my opinion, that's most Taiwanese saying -- in these numbers -- they don't want to move toward unification, now or ever. It's not an "undecided" and arguably, since democratization, it never was.

So why do people keep writing about it as though it's a big question mark, as though Taiwan is less decided on its desired outcome than it actually is? Even if the data are solid, why this off-the-wall interpretation of it?

I keep asking because I genuinely want to know why. 

We must also consider the conditions under which the questions are answered. With China insisting it will start a war if any move is made toward independence, and most people understandably not wanting a war, some version of "the status quo" makes sense, when the status quo offers both peace (of a sort -- our lives go on as usual but I'm not liking those warplanes either) and independence. It's an answer given under duress. Not by the pollsters, but the general atmosphere of Beijing's credible threats. 

It tells you a great deal about what Taiwanese want with a gun to their head, but nothing at all about what they ideally want for their country, if they could choose it without war clouds looming.

So why do people interpret it as some sort of freely-made final decision, not influenced by the threat of violent subjugation?

As one person commented, if you're asked whether you want to stay in jail or go free, most people will choose to go free. If told, "well, okay, but if you walk out the guard will take his best aim and probably kill you", your answer might differ considerably. The prisoner is no longer being asked what they want in an ideal situation.

One might say it doesn't matter: the Beijing war drums aren't slowing down, so there's no point in asking what Taiwanese would ideally want if they didn't have to contend with that. I disagree: it may be a hypothetical question, but it would get a lot closer to answering what Taiwan really wants for itself -- not just how the people react to a real external threat. 

Right now, people are interpreting the current results as exactly that -- what Taiwan really wants for itself -- when that is simply not what they indicate. It's just not. So stop showing your whole ass on this, please. All of you.

It's interesting, at least, that nobody seems to have asked this question that I know of, though the polls cited by Michael Turton comes pretty close. Like NCCU, the pollsters have their own ideological bias.

However, it does matter that when offered an ideal situation, most Taiwanese choose peaceful independence.

The closest we seem to get everywhere else are answers about how Taiwanese identify, how they want to participate in the international community, what they see as the name of the country, what they think of Chinese annexationism, and the differential between those who want to move towards independence vs. unification. None of these are a perfect stand-in, but they at least approach the question: is there a consensus on an ideal outcome for Taiwan?

And looking at those numbers, the answer is yes. And that ideal outcome is peace, with eventual independence. 

Repeat after me: 

Taiwan independence is a mainstream position.

Interpretations that say Taiwanese just don't know are harmful, unserious, ignorant and miss the point. 
Some intentionally so: there's a lot of institutional support for toeing the line at we want to maintain the status quo, please do not ask further questions thank you and good night. Some of it is well-meaning, an attempt to seem "nuanced" -- not in the good way, but in the both-sidesy fake-neutral way that the most pusillanimous analysts seem to adopt as a standard.

Consistently ignoring the contextual factors around these 'status quo' polls, applying odd assumptions to the questions actually asked and lumping together data that say far more when separated out is problematic.

It not only allows one to misconstrue what Taiwanese are accepting under duress as they actually want, it allows one to believe two very untrue things: that the KMT's position on China might be popular again given enough time, and that any talk of de jure sovereignty "angers" and "raises tensions" with Beijing, when Beijing is the antagonist -- not Taiwan. 

Neither of these things will ever be true, but if you believe Taiwanese don't know what they want and the only credible "center" position is an "undecided" despite all available data indicating otherwise, then believing those falsehoods becomes possible.

The dartboard is right there in the pub, most people in the pub are telling them exactly where the bullseye is, but their darts keep landing in the road outside.

I still want to know why.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Taiwan’s COVID response: let’s stop assuming “imperfect” is the same as “terrible”

Just a warning: I wrote this after an extremely busy work week and after taking the anxiety meds that help me sleep. If that shows in the writing style or other weirdnesses, I’ll go back and improve on the post later.

“This is probably going to be my last year in Taiwan,” someone told me recently. This was partly for personal reasons, but partly because “I’m just not very happy with Taiwan’s COVID response.” Not enough vaccines, not rolling them out fast enough, the interminable quarantine — they simply weren’t impressed. 

“It’s really shocking how the government hasn’t made any effort to import more vaccines,” said another friend, though they admitted that view mostly came from their parents and the pan-blue news they watched. 

Still other friends are upset about the lack of information about what quarantine rules apply to foreigners — do we get subsidies? Do we qualify for the 7+7 program? Is it legal to charge foreign residents more than citizens for quarantine? There’s also a lack of consideration for foreign residents who want to reunite with family members, and extremely unclear guidelines regarding how to sign up for first or second shots.

I don’t agree with the negativity of most of these takes, but they’ve come from people I respect. They pushed me to think about the ways we all decide what evidence we choose to consider when forming an opinion, especially if you’re looking to justify what you’ve already decided you want to believe. Nobody is safe from confirmation bias.

My own perspective: Taiwan’s COVID response remains fantastic, and the evidence for this is simple. It’s one of the only COVID-free countries in the world. As far as I know, the only one with a comparable population and density. Despite considerable odds — Beijing’s attempts to block vaccines from reaching Taiwan, exclusion from the WHO and proximity and connectedness with China — Taiwan has crushed each COVID surge. What other country went from an extensive outbreak to zero COVID in 7 months, without (in my view) unduly impinging on guaranteed rights and freedoms. The vaccine rollout indeed began slowly, but it’s scaled up impressively since. I meet very few Taiwanese anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers: the vast majority of those jackasses seem to be foreign residents -- with some exceptions, of course.

(If you are one of those, I want nothing to do with you. I am not interested in your “opinion.”)

I empathize with the frustration, however. I support keeping the mandatory quarantine as long as experts deem it necessary, but the fact is, it’s made it impossible for us to visit family. At the same time, I’ve watched those family members travel while I am effectively stuck in Taiwan. I don’t miss leisure travel as much as I thought I would, but I do miss my family. I accepted that I’d miss Christmas 2020 and two weddings — the last family wedding before these two was my own 11 years ago, so they mattered to me — but I never imagined I’d have to give up Christmas 2021, too. 

Of any country to get stuck in, however, I am indeed grateful that it is Taiwan, with its zero domestic cases.

I watch friends and family in the US getting boosters, while my friends in Taiwan are still getting their second shots. I wonder how long it will be before I can get an mRNA booster, especially as both of my doses are AZ. I’m grateful that I was able to get the vaccine at all, but that booster? It’ll probably be awhile. Until then, international travel is indeed a bit more dangerous for me.

Even dismissing the exaggerations and truth-twisting of Taiwanese TV news (especially pan-blue news), it’s easy to see COVID-era Taiwan two ways: 

The half-empty glass: the delay in ordering vaccines caused the delays in receiving them. The quarantine is keeping Taiwan closed off while the rest of the world opens. The vaccines many of us were able to get aren’t the best, and aren’t necessarily going to make it easier to travel in the future. Guidelines have been vague and unclear, and foreign residents have been ignored entirely, treated as though we don’t exist. The government grew complacent in learning about the latest treatments and approaches because the country was COVID-free for so long, which led to higher mortality when an outbreak did occur. A surprising number of pilots (though still a tiny minority) didn’t follow the quarantine rules tailor-made for them. Businesses, especially those which typically served tourists, have closed. Taiwan is being left behind, and it’s starting to show.

The half-full glass: dude. We’re living in a COVID-free country. How many people can say that? How can you say a response that resulted in zero COVID isn’t working or isn’t impressive? This is despite having to fight just to be recognized on the international stage. Nobody has turned the wisdom of masking or vaccinating into a major political battle, even when they criticize the government. Taiwanese are masking and vaccinating and that’s more than you can say for a lot of belligerent ultracrepidarians in the US.

Perhaps the government could have jumped on orders faster, but the fact is that Beijing’s attempted (and somewhat successful) sabotage was real, and is not Taiwan’s fault. There have been outbreaks, and we’ve crushed them. There has been confusion and poor communication, and certainly missteps as well. What country can’t say that though? What government has handled the pandemic perfectly? What government has handled it better than Taiwan’s? The only real contender is New Zealand, and I’m not even sure that case is strong. We’ve all made sacrifices, and compared to what people in other countries have lived through, they’re mostly bearable (my heart goes out to anyone still waiting to bring a spouse to Taiwan with no timeline as to when it might be possible. That’s cruel.) 

My family in the US spent upwards of a year mostly locked indoors, away from others. I’m (de facto) being asked to wait about a year longer than I’d like to make that long-desired trip to see my family.

At the end of the day, however, we are living in a COVID-free country. What more do you really need in your glass?

To come to that more positive outlook, I pushed myself to think through the glass-half-empty view of Taiwan’s COVID response. Indeed, I found a lot to criticize: their views didn’t entirely lack logic or a point. Every day I don’t book a plane ticket to the US, that becomes clear. Every day I wonder when I’ll be able to get better protection than AZ for the Delta variant, I get it. 

The lesson: every country has made mistakes. Some more than others — the US’s strategy seemed to be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, followed by a pretty decent effort, followed by a bunch of bellicose Dr. YouTube graduates who act like they’ve swallowed not-smart drugs ruining everything. No mistake Taiwan has made was worse than that of any other government, let alone so much worse that they deserve to be singled out for a poor response.

I’ve noticed a tendency of some — especially foreigners in Taiwan who’ve had a rough day — to assume every good strategy is simply obvious and doesn’t merit any praise for the Taiwanese COVID response, but every bad strategy is an indictment of the country.

That is, if it’s not absolutely perfect, they say it’s terrible. And they call it terrible with a level of dismissiveness and frankly condescension that they would most likely not aim at any other countries. COVID cases are surging in Europe, but do you see them going after that? No — Taiwan is a disaster to them because a few mistakes were made, but Europe? “Oh that’s worrisome”. That’s it. Oh, in Rotterdam they’re rioting against masks — that’s fine. But a pilot didn’t follow the rules in Taiwan? The problem must be the rules, not the individual pilot!

This leads to polarized viewpoints where Taiwan’s excellent-but-imperfect response is viewed as either unassailably amazing, or unforgivably terrible. 

The “unassailably amazing” people are in fact willing to be assailed, if you offer good evidence. 

The “anything less than a perfect response is a disaster!” people— a standard they would be unlikely to apply to any other country — are harder to reach. It’s hard to change someone’s mind if they want to dwell in negativity.

Fortunately, the middle ground is not devoid of people. There are also reasonable voices who posit that a generally excellent response was marred by a few missteps, but that the bad odds Taiwan has faced thanks to China merit quite a bit of grace towards Taiwan. Some of those missteps, however, do need to be addressed. 

This would best describe my viewpoint. But I had to come to it from an excessively positive one, genuinely consider the negative takes and incorporate what made sense while sloughing off everything that didn’t make sense when compared against the bigger picture (that is, the response of the rest of the world). 

If I can beg everyone reading this to one thing, it’s this: reconsider. Go through your baseline opinion on Taiwan’s COVID response and examine each of your assumptions, beliefs and areas of especially strong pride, anger or defensiveness. By all means, ignore the anti-science junk which is truly not worth your time.

Then, check them against your previous opinion. If this process causes your bright & sunny views to moderate a bit, then that’s a new level of nuance. It doesn’t mean your overall perspective is not a positive one.

If it causes you to question your previous negativity, great. 

If not, that’s your right, but we’re not going to agree. 

Perhaps consider that process for any opinion. Are you dumping on Taiwan because it doesn’t meet impossible standards of perfection that you wouldn’t apply to your home country? Stop, maybe. 

Are you looking at Taiwan through rose-colored glasses that you haven’t tried to remove? Your issue is the less severe one, but there might still be something to be learned here. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

How the Tainan Museum of Archaeology challenged my approach to criticism


As you approach the Museum of Archaeology in Tainan Science Park, you might not notice its dark exterior of stacked bricks.  This unassumingly natural edifice almost seems to rise out of the grasses, bushes and flowers around it, as though they are part of it and it of them. Even the paved areas have different textures of stone, with the main entrance at the end of a long outdoor passage that cuts open at various intervals, as though giving you a glimpse of the world here, and here, and there.  Throughout the exterior, more modern elements in metal and glass bring the building into the future. 

The easy symbolism here is "melding the ancient and modern", but I think that's too simplistic. The dark, low stacked stone of the exterior recalls Rukai Indigenous stacked-slate housebuilding techniques. The cuts in the entrance hall remind you that we only view moments in history as a cutting-in, and must use our imaginations to fill in the details. 

Once inside, natural wood benches and a large atrium allow families to keep children occupied while someone stands in line for tickets. As you ascend the escalators, an interior side of the facade comes into view: the Rukai slate-house colors are still there, but now they're designed as geological layers, complete with replica fossils that come into view as you rise. 


The Archaeology Museum took quite awhile to build, having been first conceived when priceless finds were discovered when developing the science park, from Indigenous settlements dating back thousands of years. (There are some shards of modern pottery and even "figurines of foreigners" from the Dutch era, too). 

Tainan has built on its reputation as a historical and cultural capital with its Taiwan-focused museums: the Tainan Fine Art Museum, housed in two buildings, one vintage and one modern; the National Museum of Taiwan History which offers a bracing definition of "who is Taiwanese" alongside a building-size timeline of the country's history with (mostly replica) artifacts; and the Museum of Archaeology, understated and elegant, displaying the real deal -- including treasures like a carved deer antler knife handle, centuries-old dice, and millenia-old pottery, tools and jewelry. 

There is more to love about this museum, despite its distance from the city center -- there's probably a bus, but I recommend a car to get there. We went with a local friend. But first, I want to talk about a particular effect it had on me.


It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of the National Palace Museum. Sometimes when subjugationists sneer that if Taiwan wants to be independent so much, why doesn't it just give back all the treasures they carted over from China?

I usually retort: "Sure, you can have your junk back. Guaranteed freedom matter more."

I don't really mean this -- well, I would be in favor of sending most of it back across the strait, but I don't get a say. Regardless, that was never a serious proposition. Rather, I know perfectly well that it's not "junk". It's a museum in an ugly building full of priceless foreign artifacts, displayed in the most unengaging manner possible -- bland rooms of vases and scrolls, with very little context offered to tell you why each one matters in its own way. You are supposed to gape at it and agree that it matters, without getting a real feel for anything. (Some items, like the carved ivory or the colorful porcelains of the Empress Dowager Cixi do indeed stand out on their own). 

I tell visitors that it's worth going if you are specifically interested in Chinese history, but you won't learn much about Taiwan beyond a better understanding of all the loot the retreating ROC hauled over here. 

Otherwise, though, it's just kind of there, in its ugly building, expecting your admiration and thinking it owes you not one jot of engagement that you don't bring to the visit yourself. A shrine to a foreign country, a lost war, an enforced identity that couldn't even be enforced very well once Taiwanese people were actually given a say.

In other words, it's easy to take a big ol' dump on the National Palace Museum. Criticism is easy. "This thing sucks!" "I don't like that!" "Most. Uninsightful. Song-Ming Blue and White Porcelain Display. Ever!" I could do that all day. 

What's harder is offering a positive alternative: try this place instead. This is cool. This is a hidden gem. This truly captures a tiny piece of the soul of Taiwan. This other museum is small but really captures a poignant moment of Taiwanese history. 

The Tainan and Taipei Fine Arts Museums are just such museums. Do not miss the exhibit of vintage Taiwanese paintings from the Japanese era, including the original Dihua Street market scene by Kuo Hseuh-hu (郭雪湖), ending in two weeks. The Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art too, but recent scandals have soured me on it a tad. The Shunye Museum of Formosan Aborigines is across the street from the National Palace Museum and is a more edifying visit if you are actually interested in Taiwan. The Nylon Deng Memorial Museum deserves to be in this list, though it's difficult to access in English. The 228 Museum, the National Prehistory Museum (temporarily closed for renovation), Jingmei Human Rights Museum and Green Island's White Terror Memorial Park and so many more -- too many, in fact, to list -- not only offer deeper, more intimate and more local understandings of Taiwan. 

And that's just the short list. 


All of these museums utilize design concepts to offer engaging museums with experiences beyond we built this Chinese-lookin' cement thing and put all our stuff in it, people will come because of its obviously superior cultural refinement. Even the museums that were once prisons have options to discuss what you are seeing with a former inmate who'd been imprisoned there.

But again, it's easy to criticize that old dinosaur up in Shilin.

Instead, let the design elements of places like the Tainan Museum of Archaeology wash over you and perhaps spur you to think a little more deeply about the subtler elements. 

Coming here helped me remember: it's easy to criticize. It's easy to say the National Palace Museum pushes a (mostly fabricated) narrative of Chinese history "preserved" by "free China" in Taiwan.


It's difficult to offer a positive alternative. It's even harder to offer that alternative simply, for its own sake, without a specific agenda. Or rather, if there is an agenda, it's simply to get more people to go to museums about Taiwan when they visit Taiwan. 

There's a lot to like about the place: when you enter, one of the first things you come across is a timeline of who exactly lived in this part of Tainan when. 

Ya think the vast majority of Taiwanese history is Han? Think again, mofos:


Some objects (which may be replicas) are even presented in ways that show how archaeological digs actually look -- there's an entire glass-floored room where you can walk over what would be the roped-off grid on a dig. I have a friend who's an archaeologist and I came away with a fresh appreciation for how she could look at, say, a specific shape of stone and identify it as a tool rather than just an interesting rock. One floor has dioramas -- along with real artifacts found in places that might have hosted scenes like these -- of how the people who used these items lived. You access each floor by going down a gentle ramp, as though you're descending through layers of the earth. The floors themselves are often made of materials meant to mimic a semi-natural, semi-industrial look. It is in a science park, after all, and the metal beams holding up all that glass on the way to the top remind visitors of that.

As you do, square windows offer odd light from a bright yellow courtyard. They're all at different heights and sizes, seemingly sprinkled down the hall. The effect is once again of peeking through at different levels of visibility, the way a reconstructed pot or a carved knife-handle might allow you to have a peek through a tiny window about lives lived in the distant past. 


The courtyard itself is where all these windows converge, sunny-hued in even the cloudiest of weather. A single bench, a single beautiful tree, and several stories of viewpoints peering down at balanced but irregular intervals.

It's small and difficult to get to, but this is a museum worth visiting. This is a museum that incorporates its mission into its very structure, which attempts to reach out and engage you. This is a museum about Taiwan

So what did I learn? Don't dwell so much on what is wrong -- though you can, if it's merited. Spend perhaps even a little of that time talking about what is right.


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Who should Taiwan open for?


For not quite two years now, Taiwan's borders have been closed to most people. In on-and-off policies, students, resident visa holders, foreign blue-collar labor, businesspeople and others have been permitted to enter...or not. Tourists have been firmly shut out. As the rest of the world (wisely or not) begins to re-open and "live with COVID", there's been debate about whether Taiwan should do the same. 

Some of this discussion has been quite reasonable: allowing students, family members of citizens and residents and people who have accepted jobs are all logical policies to support. Other points have been, shall we say, less trenchant -- for example, the push to let tourists back in. 

So, let me change the tone here and just lay it out. Yes, we should let family members -- especially spouses and children -- of both citizens and residents into Taiwan. Most spouses of citizens can now do so, but family members of non-citizen residents remain barred from entry. This is wrong. Quarantine and contact tracing have been fairly successful -- I see no reason not to let students and people with jobs waiting for them in as well. A special category of visa you can petition for if your situation gives you personal reasons to go to Taiwan can also be made available: for, example, unmarried partners, siblings and other family members.

Tourists, however? No. 

There was a recent article in The Guardian about this, but I don't want to focus on it. The discussion has been going on longer than that, and the attitude is widespread enough to merit a general response rather than a targeted breakdown. 

International tourism is a little over 4% of the economy. That's not nothing. I'm not saying the hotels, restaurants and tour businesses affected aren't important. But let's be honest -- it's a thin slice of what makes Taiwan hum. Even if Taiwan were more of a tourist-dependent place like, say, Bali, I'm not sure I'd be in favor of opening up. At such a small slice of what makes Taiwan go, however? Absolutely not.

Am I personally in favor of giving up a zero-COVID life and risking an outbreak in Taiwan so we can get that 4% or so humming again? No. Why should I? Why should anyone?

I'm sorry, hotels in Kenting, but I'm not  willing to give up the more or less normal life we can now have in Taiwan so that you can get more customers. I am certainly not willing to risk my health for it! I don't think many people are, nor should they be. Your business is simply not as important to me as normalcy in daily life in Taiwan and a near-zero chance of catching COVID -- for everyone who lives here. When vaccination rates rise that can change, but we're not there yet.

Perhaps think of strategies to entice domestic customers to take all that annual leave they're not spending on international travel to stay at your hotels during the week. 

Besides, re-opening for tourism would mean doing away with the quarantine. I suppose borders could be opened but the quarantine kept in place, which would certainly deter tourists but be tolerable to those with reasons to make the trip. However, we're still at the point where it's better to actively discourage non-essential travel, and framing it that way does the opposite. Perhaps in a few months, especially if quarantine capacity could be increased, that would be a conversation worth having. But by the time that happens, we'll also have higher vaccination rates anyway.

Honestly, I'm sick of the quarantine regulations too. We all are. I would very much like to go back to the US to see my family, some of whom I have not seen in person since 2018. My grandmother is 95 years old and I worry every day that things won't get better in time for me to see her again. It's just a sad financial fact that quarantine hotel rooms for my husband and I are simply not financially feasible after a genuinely rough summer. 

But the fact is that the quarantine has helped catch imported cases, and we still need it until vaccination rates are higher. Mandatory 2-week quarantines and international tourism are simply not compatible.

Besides, opening up for tourism would guarantee an outbreak -- for this reason, the entire premise of the argument is flawed. An outbreak wouldn't exactly cause tourists to pour in, would it? It would not only depress the exact sort of inbound travel that opening up would aim to bring in, it would depress domestic tourism too. We know this because that's exactly what happened during the May outbreak. I was in Tainan recently and the B&B owner admitted that from May until the "soft lockdown" ended, allowing indoor venues to re-open, they didn't have a single guest. Now, they have some -- we weren't the only people staying there. A fresh outbreak would mean none.

What's more, the risk such a move would bring would devastate a far greater chunk of the economy than the sliver fueled by international tourism. Business that rely on local custom -- restaurants, shops, cafes, smaller hotels catering mostly to local crowds, even cram schools as much as I dislike them -- all took a hit from the May outbreak. Many closed: the hotel I liked in Taichung which seemed to mostly attract young Taiwanese weekenders on mid-range budgets, the Konica shop I'd use to print out photos for relatives, more than one cafe I liked as well as several restaurants, gone. My own income was briefly torpedoed, as was my husband's, though fortunately at different points.

They didn't close, and we didn't have to dip into savings, because there weren't international tourists. That all happened because the domestic economy was affected. Risk that again for that tiny 4%, which probably wouldn't even reach 4%? No thanks.

I don't think the CECC is being particularly wishy-washy about this, either. It's true that they haven't set clear milestones for re-opening or changing quarantine rules. It's true that they won't state clearly what vaccination percentage will be considered "sufficient". But that makes sense to me: this is literally an evolving disaster, and it's evolving because people are not smart. They hear ignorant takes about vaccines and hesitate to protect themselves and others. They make obviously logically flawed arguments about "re-opening", which brings further outbreaks.

Oh yes, and they complain that "we can't find mayonnaise" -- or something -- when supply chains are disrupted around the world and there is indeed mayonnaise to be had. I have some in my fridge. It's available. I'm certainly not interested in risking my health and life because some guy whined to The Guardian that there isn't enough mayo. Come on.

The virus mutates, it becomes more infections, and all the milestones have to change. 

I don't call an evolving response to an evolving problem wishy-washiness or lack of clarity. I call that being flexible, which is exactly the right way to be. There is some strain, but the whole world is strained. By comparison, Taiwan is not a festering hellhole due to bad policies (though there have been some, I admit). It's stayed pretty good, due to (mostly) good policies.

So yes, by all means let's push the government to consider allowing home quarantine for the vaccinated at some point in the almost-predictable future. Let's push to allow people who should have the right to be here -- family, workers, students -- to be allowed in. Certainly, let's look at further relief as necessary for the worst-affected sectors. If you're able, take some time off during the week and go use those quiet tourist facilities while they're not crowded. Give the hoteliers and tour operators a bit of domestic custom. I'm looking at some trips I can take myself, now that life in Taiwan is closer to normal again.

But no, it is not time to re-open for international tourists. It's just not. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

My Favorite Tainan Cafes

The interior of Tin Drum 

Sometimes, I just don't feel like writing about politics, media or social issues -- I just want to talk about all the great things in Taiwan. (But if you want a bit of media fun, see if you can make it through this video -- I can't decide if the best part is Eric Chu acting like he actually thinks he's cool, or Wayne Chiang clearly knowing this is cringe-tastic but going along with it).

This is one of those times. I'm just not feelin' it news-wise, so let's talk culture. I've offered rundowns of my favorite Taipei cafes before, but a combination of work and personal travel has taken me south a lot this year. For this reason, despite not living in Tainan, I've been able to put together a list of Tainan cafes I like, most of which are not on, say, the Tripadvisor algorithm-generated list (though some of those, such as Zhengxing Cafe and Lure, also look quite good. Others I wonder about. A branch of Louisa? Louisa is fine, but hardly unique.)

If you live in Tainan, I doubt my choices will surprise you. If you don't, maybe you'll get a few new ideas for where to hang out! These aren't ranked in any particular order, so where they appear on the list isn't a reflection of how much I like them. 

Since most cafes in Tainan seem to have shorter hours and close much earlier than their Taipei counterparts, in the future I'll do a post about where to hang out after 7pm if you're not into loud bars. There are a few places I want to try before I make that post, though, so you'll have to wait.


Cafe Kokoni

This quintessential Taiwanese hipster cafe is just a short walk from Chihkan Tower. Set it an old house with pretty vintage floor tile which is impressively intact. They're well-known for their desserts, which are indeed quite good. They also have food, as well as selling a few small items (think pins, washi tape). The only downside is their 7pm closing time, but if you want a centrally-located vintage-feel cafe, you can't go wrong.

镹 (jiu) Cafe & Dessert 

Jiu is located at the southern end of Xinmei Street, not far from Wudao Cafe (which I haven't included here because they're more of a restaurant). Like Kokoni, they have short operating hours and aren't open early in the week. They're not in an old house, but they have two great things going for them: fantastic desserts, especially the chocolate banana cake, and pets. They have at least two dogs and two cats, most of whom are friendly to varying degrees (there's one dog who gets scared if you make eye contact). 


Narrow Door

Narrow Door is one of the most 'famous' cafes in Tainan, named such because you have to squeeze through a tiny alley -- really just a crack between buildings -- to get to the entrance of this cafe in an old mansion on Nanmen Street, directly across from the Confucius Temple. (You can also enter from the other end of the alley which is a little wider but hard to find). They don't have food beyond light sweets, but there is a range of decaffeinated drinks. They normally close at 8:30pm but have shorter hours due to the pandemic. Vintage furniture in the vintage space -- especially the lamps -- gives this place a fun old-school vibe. 

Be aware that their only restroom is a squat-style.


La Belle Maison

Run by a Frenchman in the old village of Anping, La Belle Maison is in a lovely Art Deco (specifically Streamline) mansion, and have hands-down the best desserts in Tainan. The tiramisu is the size of a baby's head! They also have brunch foods and croissants, which are excellent. They're only open until 4:30pm, so this is a place to go for brunch more than a cafe to hang out at, and on weekends you might want to reserve. Try to get a seat in the gorgeous sunroom in the back, and see if you can spot the hidden bust of Chiang Kai-shek among the other vintage and antique items.


Follow Coffee (花樓咖啡)

Located next to the Water Fairy Market near the intersection of Minquan and Hai'an Roads, this funky cafe has loads of vintage charm, and a great place to get out of the heat midday -- though generally Hai'an Road isn't at its peak in the middle of the day anyway. Note the WWII-era map and the fact that right outside the window is a huge poster for some KMT candidate, smiling at a bunch of Tainan hipsters who almost certainly won't vote for them.


Cafe Bar

This tiny place on Guohua Street (Section 3 #211) run by an interesting guy is one of my favorite chill-out spots in Tainan. It's in an old one-story house and is semi-outdoors, which is fantastic if it's a beautiful day (or night). They only really have coffee and tea, but the coffee is spectacular. So good that they have a perfect 5-star rating even with hundreds of reviews. They open at 9:30 if you need some coffee before getting out into the city -- that's early by my standards -- and stay open until about 10pm, so they're great for an evening chill-out, too. They're about equidistant from Chihkan Tower and Hai'an Road, right around the corner from Tsai Family brown rice wangui (碗粿, savory rice pudding) which makes a good breakfast. They're also not far from 176 Lab, which is basically a massive antique/vintage warehouse that is absolutely worth checking out.


Tainan Fine Art Museum Cafe (Building 1)

Yes, I'm putting a museum cafe on my list. But I promise, you'll love this one. You do have to pay admission to the museum to go, but it's worth it: that ticket will also allow you to explore the museum as well as the 2nd building down the road. The cafe is in the part of the museum that is housed in the Japanese-era police station, and a sign at the entrance offers the most delicious Taiwan-style "fuck you" to authoritarianism that you'll be glad you came. You see, the cafe is housed in what used to be a detention room during eras when political prisoners were common, so "detention" did not necessarily mean you'd done anything wrong. So what did Tainan do when they wanted to preserve the Art Deco architecture of the beautiful old police station, remembering but not lionizing the past? They turned it into a cafe, attached to an art museum specifically dedicated to local fine arts. Another big draw is the outdoor courtyard, which offers a good vantage point to enjoy the Art Deco facade as well as a small garden around a banyan tree. 

The museum is not only near the Confucius Temple, but also Zexian Monastery, an overlooked little gem with welcoming nuns and a lovely courtyard.

A Room

A Room is a very cool book-themed cafe in an old house, with drinks and desserts in a chill atmosphere. They have some outdoor seating, and are in a part of town where not a lot else is going on -- quite a distance from anywhere a tourist might regularly go. But, they're not far from some Japanese dormitory buildings (now a historical landmark), an old 'fort' -- some Qing-era fortifications at least -- another Japanese-era building with signs still intact which now sells scallion pancake (府東街147號蔥油餅) and one of Tainan's city gates (the East Gate or Welcome Spring Gate 東門/迎春門). The area also has a Western-style restaurant in an old house (never tried, so I don't know it is) and a few other dessert shops and cafes, such as Murmur (which also has food) and East Town, which I haven't tried but want to. So, in theory, you could make a half day of it. It's hard to get a taxi in this part of town, but there are buses which tend to get very full at peak hours.

Jiajia 加加

Run by Japanese and Taiwanese co-proprietors, this small cafe in an old house a short walk from Sun Hong Ho, Floating and Tin Drum puts an emphasis on good coffee -- they're wild about offering up a fantastic product. They'll make recommendations based on the sort of flavor you want (eg. more floral, nutty or sour) and they sell beans to go. Although I didn't try any food or desserts here, everything looks fabulous.


Sun Hong Ho 順風號

No Tainan cafe listing would be complete without Sun Hong Ho, in a perfectly-restored house east of the Confucius Temple (in fact, in these winding lanes you'll also find a few more cafes on my list, including Tin Drum and Drifting, and it's a beautiful area to walk through, full of vintage architecture). I'm not exactly sure of the history here but either the building or the proprietors were related to the electric fan business in the past, but the old residence is now a cafe with an emphasis on desserts. They also have three adorable shiba inus who are friendly, but will bark at you as you enter. They don't take reservations and do get busy, so I recommend arriving early. They're open for brunch on weekends, and make a good quiche in addition to desserts. The dogs (Lili, Lulu and Lele) are only allowed on the 1st floor, but the most beautiful decoration is on the 2nd.


Drifting 浮游

You might be noticing a pattern here -- unlike Taipei cafes, Tainan cafes close on the early side. The same is true of Drifting, but if you're around during the day, it's a funky little place that will get you out of the southern Taiwanese sun. They have a friendly dog who will hang out with you if you take the table near the couch, and have seats in several rooms in an old building. The menu is limited but the coffee is great, and it's about equidistant from the Taiwan Fu City God Temple (the one east of the Confucius Temple, not the one near the North District) and Lady Linshui Temple. It's in the same warren of lanes as Sun Hong Ho and Tin Drum. It's also walkable to a few interesting spots: a couple of bars I haven't tried out yet like Tipsy & Co, Algae Bar, Teabeer and Wanchang (but all of which seem worth a look), the Liu Rui-shan house (劉瑞山古厝, now the Liu Rui-shan church), which is an old Japanese building painted blue with yellow window grilles, and the Japanese-era Tainan County Governor's Mansion. It's also a short walk from Old House 1933 (老厝一九三三) which I've been itching to try -- they serve old-school Taiwanese barbecue in, well, an old house. There's also a Cuban restaurant practically next door. Finally, the very expensive but extremely hip Moss Archives shop is not far away.


Tin Drum 錫鼓

This is one of the most beautifully-preserved Japanese-style houses I've ever had the good fortune of enjoying. Tin Drum also closes early, but you'll be happy you made the trek to sit in such a perfectly-preserved wonder. Located in the same lane as Sun Hong Ho, Tin Drum has a peaceful courtyard, with seats indoors. Take off your shoes, climb on the rock and take a seat on the tatami. The woodwork is so delicate I was afraid I'd break it just by looking at it. It's so picturesque that people come here just to take Instagram shots in the courtyard. They have a full menu, and are especially well-known for their waffles. They're cooked just right, with a bit of crunch on the outside giving way to a softly chewy center. 

Pinpeng 品蓬 

Just off the shopping street that starts at the old 'chastity arch' across from the Confucius Temple, there's a lane that leads to a small temple with a huge banyan covered in wishing plaques.  (There is more than one such arch in Tainan, by the way, but the other is hidden in some back lanes, not visible from a main road). Next to that temple is Pinpeng, which fortunately has later hours than most -- they're open until 10pm. The outside is a typical old house, so well-hidden by the banyan that you might miss it. The inside is surprisingly cavernous and modern, and a thoroughly enjoyable place to relax.

Cheer For

You're probably wondering why I'd pick a cafe in Blueprint Creative Park, attached to a shop, as a "favorite cafe" -- to be honest, they're not specifically a special cafe in and of themselves. You can get standard drinks here, and the indoor sitting area is fine (great, even, if you've just walked a long way to get down to Blueprint and it's a hot day). But I like this place because it's a reliable spot in an area without many options, and if it's a pleasant day and you can score a table outside, especially on a busy day, it's excellent for people-watching. The last time we sat outside here, we watched someone set up a stall selling cottage core dresses and cardigans, attracting a stream of young Millenials and Zoomers checking out ruffled floral-print prairie dresses that were a decade out of style when I was young. It was wonderful. 

Hayashi Department Store Cafe

This is another one you might wonder about, but I have my reasons. The summer before last we ended up in Tainan on the hottest day of the year. It was just brutal. We were near Hayashi and decided to look around inside, but after we were done, we still couldn't face the hellfire outside (and Tainan was actually cooler than Taipei that day)! So we went up to the cafe, and I had a refreshing pot of iced honey-scented black tea. Not tea with honey, but tea leaves bred to smell of honey, which are an underappreciated specialty of Nantou if you ask me. No one, even people we know in the US who have received way too many Taiwanese tea gifts from us, has ever failed to comment on how remarkably good it is. The honey tea alone -- and the fact that it's open later than your average cafe -- makes it worth a visit. 


This cafe on Shennong Street -- a tourist hotspot, especially at night -- has the distinct advantages of not only being in a popular area, but also being open late. Usually, in Tainan, if you want to just chill out past 5-7pm, you have to find a quiet bar because there won't be many cafe options that aren't chains. I always seem to turn up here long after my ancient body can handle any more caffeine for the day, but the desserts are quite good (they don't have much in the way of actual food) and the flavored sparkling water drinks are good quality. 

Fat Cat Story 

We haven't actually been to Fat Cat Story since they moved (they had been across the street), but this cafe has a reasonable selection of drinks and desserts, and cats! They're at the quieter end of Shennong Street, on the other side of Kangle, but they close early. When we were last there they also sold an array of cat-themed items, but I'm not sure if that's still the case. 

Harbour Fantasy 南方安逸

Very close to Fat Cat Story, Harbour Fantasy isn't exactly a cafe, it's more of a vegan Southeast Asian restaurant with home-style food and a great beer selection. But I'm including them here because they have lots of seating in a cool old house, they're open later than your average cafe and they are totally cool with you just getting some beer and hanging out -- not too unlike a cafe, though I don't think they actually serve coffee. In fact, they're just chill in general, and they have an outdoor table where you can sit on pleasant nights (but wear mosquito repellent, trust me). 

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Three Great Articles About Taiwan

As I head back from a combination business trip/mini-vacation in southern Taiwan, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight three excellent articles about Taiwan by three smart women who care about this country, and tell you whyI like them so much. If you’re interested in changing perspectives on Taiwan, including through foreign voices, all three are worth reading. Sadly, two are behind paywalls, but if you have free articles left with the New York Times and Asia Nikkei, these are worth the views. 

First up, let’s talk about What Taiwan Really Wants. This editorial by Natasha Kassam in the New York Times does an excellent job of framing the issue. 

A key quote for anyone who can’t get around the paywall: 

The status quo means maintaining de facto independence but avoiding retaliation from China. And the percentage of Taiwan’s people who want to maintain the status quo indefinitely is growing. It is the best-case scenario in a sea of unenviable options.

To be sure, if there were no risk of invasion from China, the majority would choose independence.

But China’s President Xi Jinping has made clear that such a declaration is not available to Taiwan. So the status quo is pragmatic — and preferable.

This is succinct, expert analysis which acknowledges the role of the ‘status quo’ while clarifying that a preference to maintain that status quo does not mean that there is no consensus on sovereignty or unification.

Certainly, not everyone is on the same page. In any society there will be a range of opinions. However, stopping at “most people prefer the status quo” makes the issue sound far more fractious than it really is. The truth is that most people prefer sovereignty and peace — not just one or the other — and if the only available option is this “status quo”, they’ll take it. 

It’s also about time we acknowledged that the way the questions on the “status quo” survey are worded push respondents toward choosing it. Almost nobody wants to choose unification, but there’s no option for choosing “independence, but without fighting a war.” I'm not the first person to point this out, either.

Participants are never asked what they’d prefer absent a threat from Beijing — which is to say, what they ideally, actually want for their country. It's not a pointless question: it's the only type of question that attempts to probe respondents' true desires. Currently, every answer clearly leaning toward “independence” carries an implicit acknowledgement that war might be a part of that choice.

What people are trying to say here is that they want both. They want better options, but ultimately, the status quo is sovereignty. 

Pretending otherwise does a disservice to Taiwan. It relegates “pro-independence” sentiment to only a narrow set of views, when actual pro-independence Taiwanese don’t necessarily fit in those boxes. 

We know this because those same Taiwanese who say they “prefer the status quo” also identify as solely Taiwanese or prioritize Taiwanese identity. People know what they want. Listen to them.

Here is how you can tell Kassam is a true expert: it took my several paragraphs to say that. She clarified it in half the space, without falling into the trap that fells so many analysts: the idea that “the status quo” represents indecisiveness, or that the survey in question even has construct validity. In my opinion, it doesn’t — the questions don’t actually ask what interpreters of the survey think they do.

Next up, Rhoda Kwan writes about the erosion of the Taiwanese language in public spaces for Hong Kong Free Press. This is an excellent piece both for the clarity with which it discusses Japanese and KMT linguistic imperialism, while pointing out that attitudes today, influenced by past authoritarianism, are also barriers to making Taiwanese mainstream in all situations, including formal ones. 

Hong Kong Free Press has no paywall, but here’s a key takeaway:

The academic’s attempts to use Taiwanese in his daily life have been polarising. Although some Taiwanese have hailed his efforts to engage with a long-oppressed facet of Taiwanese life, some have also taken offence at his use of the language in professional settings.

“Some Taiwanese stigmatised the language and believe that it should not be used in formal situations,” he told HKFP. “I had an experience in southern Taiwan where a Taiwanese said to me angrily, ‘How can you speak the Taiwanese language in such a formal situation? I am very surprised that the university employed this kind of faculty member!'”

This anger speaks to the threats facing the Taiwanese language in the island today, where its use is almost confined to certain social milieus. 

“You often hear construction workers or police officers speaking Taiwanese… so there’s always been these environments [to speak it], even though it’s been formally suppressed,” Catherine Chou, a Taiwanese-American history professor, told HKFP.

That’s the tricky thing when a language becomes very context-specific, there’s the danger of actually losing it, because the mentality becomes ‘It’s not for general use, it’s for the home, it’s for very specific business relationships, it’s for people that I know, it’s not for people I don’t know’,” she continued.

This is fantastic because Chou (who is quoted here) is right. I say that with the full force of someone who actually is an expert in this stuff: I’m a die-hard social constructionist and interactionist. And that’s the core of it: you need meaningful and varied opportunities to use a language as well as the motivation to actually do so in order to attain a high proficiency level. 

And the attitude that Taiwanese is for family and friends and informal situations — a ‘kitchen language’ — is now the obstacle that must be overcome. If initiatives like Bilingual by 2030 are to truly give languages like Taiwanese adequate resources, this needs to be taken into account. 

Finally, Erin Hale talks about “Taiwan’s Enduring Fascination with Japanese Architecture” in Nikkei Asia. 

This is a fantastic piece because it uses architecture in an immediately relevant way to deconstruct the half-hearted screeching of online tankies and trolls. 

Ever heard one of them whinge about how Taiwanese still have “colonized minds” because they wish they were still ruled as a colony of Japan? I have. But it’s not remotely true: the underlying assumption here is that thinking of your cultural heritage as partly Japanese is “colonial”, and thinking of it as uniquely Taiwanese is “separatist” — the only way to properly think of one’s culture, according to these people (or bots) is to consider it wholly and unchangeably Chinese. 

But Taiwan is more than that, and Taiwanese history proves it. Acknowledging one aspect of one’s cultural heritage is not the same as idealizing a former colonizer.

Hale lays this out well: 

To many Taiwanese, however, these buildings represent a new "Taiwanese identity of pluralism" where Japanese cultural influence is "not seen as a foreign element that's going to dilute Chinese culture" but as part of a more complex identity for the third-wave democracy, said NTU's Huang.

But, Huang warned, by embracing Taiwan's past, people should not over idealize it. The Japanese era is remembered so well in Taiwan in part because of the martial law that came after it, not because of the innate superiority of Japanese culture or governance.

She also lays out the problems with architectural restoration: it’s expensive, and there are a lot of buildings which were left to rot by the KMT as a form of replacing Japanese influence with Chinese. The lack of maintenance makes them even harder to restore. There are only so many Japanese cafes and restaurants in restored buildings that a country needs, but allowing private companies to do the restoration with the government as a ‘landlord’ has worked in a few cases. 

I’d also add that some of these buildings have been turned into museums, like the Railway Department Park, which was carefully restored in conjunction with the National Taiwan Museum just up the road. 

There you have it — three great writers and analysts, three great pieces, three things worth reading this week. Every one of them evidence that discourse on Taiwan is changing.