Monday, May 24, 2021

Taiwan's problem isn't vaccines -- it's China (or: Reuters Sucks Again)


Lizards try to hide, but you can see them if you look closely

There's a big stink right now about Taiwan refusing BioNTech doses from Fosun, a Chinese company. To show you what's going on, allow me to deconstruct a half-assed Reuters article which is basically just copied from Xinhua (a propaganda arm of the CCP, not an actual news organization). 

This propaganda garbage from Beijing with no Taiwanese perspective whatsoever starts here:

Fosun signed a deal with BioNTech to exclusively develop and commercialise COVID-19 vaccine products developed using BioNTech's mRNA technology in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

BioNTech's development and distribution partner for the rest of the world is U.S. firm Pfizer Inc.  

What they don't say: why on Earth would anyone believe a Chinese company had the right to ink a deal with a foreign company over distribution rights in Taiwan?

Imagine if an American company signed a deal with a Swiss company to be the sole distributor of a product in Canada, without ever actually asking the Canadian government. 

Of course, we know why they did this: to try and force Taiwan to accept a Chinese-made deal, as though Taiwan were a part of China and had to abide by whatever contracts China signed. 

Is it any surprise that Taiwan is resisting this?

This isn't clarified in the Reuters piece because the quotes are lifted from Xinhua, the CCP's main propaganda outlet. The Reuters copy barely reads as original work. 

As a Facebook friend noted, Fosun doesn't produce this vaccine. They were provided with a huge number of doses -- or the option to buy them, it isn't clear -- and have said they intend to produce it locally in the future, but as of now they have access to millions of doses they cannot sell in China, because they're not licensed to. This is because China is sore that the rest of the world doesn't want its crappy domestically-produced vaccine -- it's a pride issue, they don't want to admit that the European vaccines are far better. 

Notably, the original deal appears to include doses for Hong Kong and Macau, not Taiwan (I've also asked around my local network as I know a lot of pharma people, and I'm not the only one who's noticed this).

Why was that deal later changed to include Taiwan (which I am quite certain happened)? Nobody seems willing to say, and Reuters doesn't seem particularly interested in finding out.

They do seem to be rather interested in what Fosun chairman Wu Yi-fang told Xinhua, however:


Wu said certain groups in Taiwan he did not name had been in touch for an emergency purchase of vaccines and the company was willing to "provide vaccine services to Taiwan compatriots".

"Taiwan compatriots" are not a real thing, but I digress.

Who are those "certain groups"? There is another name for them: compradores. Basically, rich Taiwanese business assholes who are willing to sell out their country so they can get richer. They probably stand to make a lot of money off of this Fosun deal. I've had personal run-ins with such people, and simply calling them "business assholes" is about as nice as I am able to be. Taiwan would be better off without them; I wish they'd just go live in their ugly mansions in China and leave this country alone.

In other words, "certain groups" is a phrase doing a lot of heavy lifting here and I'm not sure Ben Blanchard, Lincoln Feast and the Beijing newsroom are aware of it. 

It doesn't take a huge leap of logic to figure out which "certain groups" pressured which officials to include Taiwan in this big Fosun/BioNTech deal. I know "follow the money" is a cliche, but come on. Follow the damn money.

Did Reuters call a single soul in the Taiwanese government to ask what Taiwan's view of this was? 

I bet you an ugly mansion in China that they did not. 

Since last year, Fosun has been promoting vaccines for Taiwan, Wu said, adding they hope shots can arrive on the island soon to help prevent a resurgent spread of the virus.

If China really cared about getting vaccines to Taiwanese they would not have blocked the deal Taiwan was trying to make with BioNTech to begin with, you business asshole. 

Fosun did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.

So, Xinreuters, when Fosun didn't call you back (and you knew they wouldn't), why didn't you call up any of the myriad people in Taiwan who would have talked to you about this country's perspective? 

Taiwan's government has said it is talking with BioNTech rather than Fosun, and that the two sides were on the verge of announcing a deal in December when BioNTech pulled the plug.

Taiwan has implied China was to blame for the failed deal, while China has blamed Taiwan for trying to circumvent Fosun.

Taiwan never agreed to be serviced by Fosun, and China has no right to force them to be. That's not "circumventing", just as I am not "circumventing" FamilyMart by going to 7-11 because I think their fantuan are better.  

The other thing this article doesn't mention: according to Chen Shih-chung, the Taiwanese government hasn't received any official application to sell these vaccines in Taiwan. How can the government agree to offer a product if the company that wants to provide it hasn't even asked the Ministry of Health and Welfare if they can do so?

It's almost as though Fosun, like the CCP, is pretending the Taiwanese government simply does not exist, while at the same time painting it as the entity creating obstacles.

In essence, it's a way of trying to force the Taiwanese government to accept, through backdoor maneuvers, that China has the right to negotiate for it.

There's another piece of information that doesn't quite fit neatly anywhere but I believe should be included: a Taiwanese company (Dongyang) was at one point looking into becoming the Taiwan distributor of this vaccine. There were questions about the cost, which the company would bear, compared to the quantity they'd acquire, and Dongyang pulled out. Was the markup too high, and if so, why (the article mentions that Chinese companies have a lot of power and this might have had something to do with it)? Should the Taiwanese government, knowing vaccines were needed, have stepped in and borne the costs? Was pulling out of the deal a mistake and if so, whose? 

I don't have answers to any of those questions, but it's worth noting that Fosun was not always considered by anyone to be the only possible distributor for BioNTech in Taiwan.

Finally, while all of this has been going on, Zuellig Pharma -- a company with offices across Asia, including Taiwan -- announced a deal in late April to supply much of Asia including Taiwan with the Moderna vaccine. The idea that Fosun is the only pathway to mRNA vaccines for Taiwanese is simply false, but Reuters doesn't seem particularly interested in that, either.

Of course, this has made its way into the Taiwanese Fake News for Aunties and Uncles network. Various critics -- including former KMT legislator and unificationist trashbag Tsai Cheng-yuan (Alex Tsai) called Chen "too passive", saying he has a "bad mentality", that he buys "inferior vaccines" (the truth is that Taiwan purchased the vaccines that were actually available to them). 

They cry out, "do Taiwanese only deserve inferior vaccines?" and point to the fact that currently, the Fosun vaccines are in fact made in Europe, not China (for now). Of course, critics neglect to mention that that might not always be the case.  

Apple Daily added that DPP legislator Wang Ting-yu is saying these doses are mostly set to expire in June or July and that Hong Kongers don't want them. There are rumors that they're defective reported by both Apply Daily and UpMedia, I can't verify the veracity of that accusation. Let's be clear: this could be fake news. Others have said the expiration is September -- the different dates are probably related to different batches.

That Hong Kongers don't want vaccines has been true for awhile, by the way. It's not vaccine hesitancy, as BioNTech is available. One does not need to get Sinovac (though about half the doses available are Sinovac, so someone has to get them and I wouldn't want it to be me). The trust issue is not with vaccines, but with the government. I don't blame them. If the Chinese government told me I needed to do something, I would endeavor to the best of my ability to do the exact opposite. And I love vaccines: I got AZ voluntarily! 

This has trickled down into my local community. I don't go out much due to the recent outbreak, but I do get electro-therapy on my back. While there, various aunties and uncles at my rehabilitation clinic have been complaining that Taiwan should just buy these vaccines. From the media, they seem to have the impression that it would be an easy negotiation for safe vaccines and Chen and "the DPP" are just being obstinate.

Chinese media seems happy to perpetuate this and make it seem like Taiwan simply doesn't want to buy from a Chinese company. And there are media consumers in Taiwan who are lapping it up. People are worried about this outbreak and looking for reasons to criticize, and to be fair, the CECC has not come back with a strong campaign to clarify the issue.

Of course neither the KMT (though they are not the only critics) and the CCP are ignoring the fact that 'taking' these doses -- and how would the government even so that if Fosun hasn't applied to offer them here? -- would be a de facto abrogation of Taiwan's sovereignty. It would, in effect, be admitting that the Chinese government has the ability to preside over a deal made with a Chinese company to distribute vaccines in Taiwan, and at no point do any Taiwanese officials need to be involved. 

You do see how that is an impossible path for Taiwan, yes?

It's not a surprise that Alex Tsai is a sort of compradore, or at least compradore-adjacent, and the KMT and CCP are essentially in cahoots -- at this point I consider to be the KMT a puppet or wholly-owned subsidiary of the CCP -- so of course this is how it would play out.

Let me summarize for you what I think is really going on here: 

China is looking for ways to maximize vaccine diplomacy but is aware that it's domestically developed vaccine isn't very effective, and isn't wanted by the rest of the world. They know perfectly well that Taiwan won't accept it either. Some business assholes stand to make a lot of money if a company like Fosun can acquire and sell millions of vaccine doses, or produce it locally. 

So they inked the deal with BioNTech, but pride kept China from actually allowing these doses to be offered. So they played a long game of acquiring them "for Hong Kong and Macau" while quietly pushing to end Taiwan's own deal with BioNTech. After that succeeded, they quietly added Taiwan to the list, without actually talking to Taiwan. In fact, Taiwan might have always been the goal: not only does "refusing" these doses they were never officially offered make Taiwan (and the DPP) look "passive", but if Taiwan did accept them, they'd be basically abrogating their own sovereignty. 

Or, perhaps, faced with an oversupply of vaccines Hong Kongers don't trust for a variety of reasons, they decided to use them in a campaign to attack the DPP's image. Or maybe they haven't actually acquired the vaccines (there's no confirmation the doses are in Shanghai) but are using this as a way of stirring up an anti-government media frenzy in Taiwan, with their KMT friends helping out. But this is a weak and slimy argument if the doses aren't even in China, and we don't know that they are.

Either way, China wins.

So now, China can try to claim the "high ground" by saying they have good vaccines from Europe and want to help, but obstinate, difficult, troublemaker Taiwan doesn't want them. They make it sound humanitarian, but of course, they're the ones who blocked the initial deal.

And this isn't even getting into the question of whether anything sent over by China is trustworthy. I wouldn't take an injection offered by the CCP, even if they say it came from Europe. Would you?

They ensure this makes it into the Taiwanese news by getting some of their KMT muppets to make emotional arguments at a time when Taiwanese citizens are feeling ignored by the world, distrustful of the AZ vaccines available, worried about the current outbreak, and wanting someone to blame. What worried news watcher wouldn't be moved by an outcry that Taiwanese deserve the best vaccines available at such a stressful time?

(I will not go so far as to imply that the CCP engineered the outbreak in Taiwan. Not that they wouldn't try; they absolutely are that evil. I'm just not convinced they're quite that competent and the Novotel/Wanhua teahouse sources of the outbreak are plausible and likely.)

These same news reports elide the fact that a lot of people are looking to get very rich, a lot of the sovereignty issues are not being reported on accurately, and neither the Taiwanese nor the international media seem interested in reporting the whole story. 

In fairness, the government has made some mistakes with Taiwan's pandemic response. Frontline workers should have been encouraged more strongly to get the vaccines available. Pilots should not have been given shortened quarantines. We had a year to figure out how to do mass rapid testing should the need arise. But I would give Taiwan an A (not an A+) on its overall response, while the rest of the world gets a C, D or F. And although mistakes have been made, this is not one of them.

In other words: shame on you, Reuters, and your "writers" in the Beijing "newsroom".

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Eating The Valley (The Southern Bits)


As I've said before, when I do travel posts I try to focus on some specific thing of interest rather than just publish an itinerary. Most recently, I focused simply on how much the KMT sucks in relation to a trip to Green Island. That's relevant to this post: that trip was the second half of this one.

This time, I want to talk a little bit about food. 

I noticed when looking for places to eat in the East Rift Valley that some of my friends knew a lot of great spots, and others none at all except perhaps that famous railway bento at Chihshang -- which I've still never tried. Most food recommendations seem to be for the northern end of the valley, closer to Hualien, not the southern bits.

The Hualien side also seems to be where most of the well-known Indigenous cuisine is. As you head south, the Hakka cultural influence becomes stronger, which is reflected in the large number of Hakka restaurants. (The other side of the mountains, where the coastal road runs, seems to have been overrun from Donghe to Dulan with foreigners, so that's where you should head if you want Western food). 

So, I thought it would be useful to talk about our driving trip through the southern reaches of the valley mostly through the lens of places to eat. Sadly, I did not actually take any food photos so you'll just have to settle for scenery. 


The view from our hotel room at the Luminous

We started our trip at Taitung Station, which is fronted by pretty good ice cream and tea shops selling locally-inspired products such as red oolong and hibiscus teas and custard apple ice cream. We used Avis/Budget through the KKDay app to book a rental car and drove to Luye (鹿野), about 30 minutes to the north.

In theory most of this trip -- minus Liushidan Mountain -- would be doable without a car. There's a train line running through the valley with local stops all the way up, it's a popular cycling route (and some of the more tourist-oriented towns offer bicycle rental) and there are public buses, though they don't seem very frequent. You'd have to be prepared to walk a lot. I recommend a car, but you don't need one unless you want to go up into the hills. Even the Luye Highlands are accessible by bus and tourist shuttle.

We'd been to the famous highlands of Luye before and didn't feel a need to return, but I'd booked us a few nights at the Luminous Hot Spring Resort & Spa. The hotel itself was nice -- I appreciated the balcony and in-room hot spring bath with mountain views -- though parts of the architecture were reminiscent of a public school. If you intend to forgo a rental car and just take the shuttle there and back, you'll be stuck paying resort prices for everything. We picked up breakfast for the next day at Family Mart, but we were fine with paying for one dinner at the extensive buffet. I was surprised with the quality of the sashimi; Brendan spoke highly of the braised pork rice. 

On our other night in Luye, we went to Ai Jiao Yi Dim Sum 愛嬌姨茶餐廳, which isn't actually dim sum at all. This friendly local restaurant serves tea-infused dishes (usually as part of a set menu but there's an affordable option for two people). I loved everything from the simple mountain greens braised in tea to the fried tofu with tea-infused dipping sauce. 

On the Monday evening when we ate there it wasn't crowded, but I do recommend calling ahead on weekends or during the high season. 

Ai Jiao Yi also grows their own tea, and you'll likely be invited to sit and try a few kinds if they're not busy. We came away with a packet of honey-scented oolong (蜜香烏龍). 

Our plan gave us one day in the East Rift Valley, and having driven around that area before, we weren't sure what precisely we wanted to do. After a leisurely coffee-drinking session our balcony, I suggested we check out the Japanese shrine in the lower part of town and then pick a spot for lunch that would require us to take a scenic drive. The shrine, by the way, is lovely -- it was built for the residents of what was at one point a Japanese village and has been restored -- and the fields surrounding it are pleasant to walk around. There isn't a lot of traffic on these village roads on a Tuesday morning in May.

The Japanese shrine in Luye



I had to move to Taiwan to figure out that's how pineapples grow. I"m not joking. 

I considered trying to eat at Mipu Hakka 米舖客家小館, a Hakka restaurant we'd tried years ago in Guanshan. It was truly excellent and they make their own kumquat sauce. However, they're really set up for larger groups, and were gracious the last time we stopped there with just three diners, despite not really having a menu for such a small number. Tongxin Dumplings 同心餃子館 was also recommended by friends.

Instead, we ended up at G九屋特製私房菜 in Dongli, which I suppose could be translated as G9 House Special Private Kitchen (?) in Fuli. This brought us into the southern reaches of Hualien County on the valley side, but still a bit south of Ruisui, whose scenic roads I've been meaning to get back to for a nice drive-around. 

One lovely part of getting up here were the opportunities to turn off Highway 9, which runs through the valley (and is barely a highway in some parts) and just meander through the countryside. A lot of people are nervous about driving on those tiny roads between fields as many don't seem like they can handle two-way traffic, but this is one of my favorite things to do. I'm scared of urban driving; even the dinkiest, most overgrown rural road is cake.  

G9 is another truly excellent find. They too have set meals, there's no real menu. We were served cold crab and vegetable spring rolls in rice skin, an absolutely delicious dish of local greens with black tree ear mushroom and bacon, a unique dish of fish slices in steamed tofu served in a bright green sauce made from local vegetables, Thai-style fried chicken, and a simple but tasty soup. The rice comes with pork oil so you can make a Hakka-style 豬油拌飯. 

Although it was still just a bit too far north for us, Our Cafe 我的咖啡館 in Guangfu (a bit north of Ruisui) comes highly recommended as well. 

After our meal at G9, we finished off our tea and discussed what to do next. We weren't far from Chihshang, which offers both scenery of the East Rift Valley itself, but also a highway that crosses the mountains and drops you off at Donghe on the coastal side. It's famous for both scenery and having a troupe of Formosan macaques.

We did both on our last trip, however, and decided to beat the usual tourist crowds by driving up Liushidan Mountain 六十旦山 instead. This area is packed with sightseers when the famous tiger lilies are in bloom across the hillsides in August and September (a similar tiger lily mountain can be found near Taimali). In early May, just a few buds were beginning to show, but the scenery was still gorgeous and there was hardly another soul around. In my opinion, the perfect time to go. 

The drive up to Liushidan Mountain from Dongli is somewhat terrifying, with more switchbacks than the drive down the other side at Dongzhu, but that's the sort of driving I'm actually good at and there was no traffic whatsoever, so I didn't mind. We stopped at as many beautiful lookout points as we could, watching low clouds and patches of sun wind their way down the valley below. In most cases, we were the only people there. The drive down was just as lovely, and we took our time as there was no one around.

(Downside: all the shops that seem like they're usually open in the tourist season and would typically have restrooms were shuttered, so I had to pee behind a bush.)





When we felt ready to head back into the valley, I suggested we look for a cafe with nice views to relax and recharge before heading back to the hotel. We found the perfect destination in No. 9 Gourmet Coffee 池上鄉九號咖啡館 in Chihshang. The massive windows offer a lovely vista of the fields and mountains, and the coffee, which comes with a small pudding-based dessert,  is good too. 

There's no parking to speak of, but in this part of Taiwan you can just sort of pull over. 


The view from No. 9 Gourmet Coffee

My goal had been to take the scenic (as in, farms and fields) route back to the Luminous, but we lingered so long at No.9 that dusk began to set in and rain was coming, so we just drove directly back along the highway.

The next day we dropped off the car at Taitung Station and had a few hours before our flight to Green Island...or thought we did. With much of Taitung City's culinary scene closed during the exact post-lunch hours we needed to kill or off on Wednesdays, I searched for places that would welcome two people killing time (like a cafe) but also served food (like a restaurant) and found Taimali Culture and Creative Cafe 太麻里文創咖啡館.

Don't let the name fool you -- it's in downtown Taitung, not Taimali. The food is at the higher end of typical cafe fare, but it's in a restored wooden Japanese building with a beautiful inside-outside feel, and they have cats! 


Of course, something had to go awry. Our flight to Green Island was canceled due to a sudden rainstorm and we had to spend the night in Taitung (we took the boat the next morning). I was in the mood for something in the general category of yakitori, so we ended up at Kasugabe Japanese Home Cooking 春日部日本家庭料理, in a lane which also boasts an interesting-looking Italian restaurant, a highly-rated super-modern Thai place, and a funky cafe that I would have happily checked out if we hadn't wanted to be in bed early. 

Kasugabe was far better than its mediocre Google ranking. I was pleased with everything, though the spicy mentaiko cheese potato sticks in my memory as particularly great. I commented that they seemed to have laced it with pure unadulterated crack, and Brendan commented that it was probably just all the butter. 

Although it's a little far away, Seasonal 漁采時令料理 is another friend-approved, highly-recommended Japanese restaurant, but it was a bit too far from our hotel and we had already turned in the car. 

The bad weather had cleared by next morning we were finally able to head to Green Island, so that was the end of our East Rift Valley adventure! 

Please enjoy some more photos: 




















Thursday, May 20, 2021

I'm frustrated too, but don't freak out


Just a travel photo of a hilly path on Liushidan Mountain

My Taiwanese students, trainees and friends seem to be handling Taiwan's new reality pretty well. "We'll get through this!" "Safety first!" "We can flatten the curve together!" "We'll do what it takes to fix this problem and get back to normal!" 

Okay, they don't sound that jingoistic, but there's more or less a spirit of cooperation and belief that we can handle what's coming. They're all staying home, and we are too -- I venture out once a day to get some sunshine, do electro-therapy on my back and buy fresh vegetables. The work I still have is online.

Contrast that to the news, which makes it sound like Taiwan has been botching it all along, their epidemic prevention strategy was never as good as the world believed it was, and they made so many mistakes that now the house is on fire and the roof is caving in.

Many of these articles are pretty bad (sorry Bloomberg and BBC, but they are). They twist Taiwan's difficulty in getting vaccines as some sort of complacency on the government's part, rather than international issues of vaccine hoarding compounded by China's alleged efforts to stymie Taiwan's acquisition of vaccines while bloviating that they could have bought Chinese vaccines this whole time (not that anyone would be willing to take them, and frankly I'd be surprised if they didn't just send Taiwan sugar water).

I don't recommend you actually click that Global Times link, by the way. It's a train wreck. They always are.

Many reports spin out one big mistake -- allowing unvaccinated pilots shortened quarantine and not paying enough attention to hotel safety protocol -- and make it sound like the country's pandemic prevention strategy was riddled with holes. They throw around the word "complacent", but most people were reacting naturally to the low threat level that existed in Taiwan for months. This is normal human behavior.

The pilots who caused the outbreak were not complacent so much as deeply selfish. The government did attempt to get as many people vaccinated as possible by opening up the self-pay program, although perhaps those eligible for the free vaccine should have taken the offer more seriously.

On top of that, they pile on Taiwan because their excellent defense, which kept the country safe for over a year, faltered slightly after holding the line for so long. And why did we have to hold that line for so long? Because the rest of the world couldn't get its shit together. 

So it's not that the government didn't make a mistake. They did. But in every other respect they've been doing an amazing job and the news coverage making it sound otherwise is simply not fair. I suspect there's a smidge of schadenfreude, where the rest of the world might be feeling like ah, so now you finally have to experience what we've been going through for the past year. Except not, because although some people are more locked down than others, we're not actually in a lockdown.  

And yes, the threat level has changed. We should be careful, but please, don't freak out.

Certainly you should stay home as much as possible, mask up when you do need to go out and wash and sanitize frequently.

Still, don't freak out. I don't mean "don't feel anxiety", I feel it every day. I take medication for it! I mean don't freak out. Don't let headlines that make it sound like TAIWAN HAS FALLEN scare you; they're hyperbolic. We are not going to resort to a zombie apocalypse in which we must run each other down with souped-up scooters to survive. 

I want to point out some data points that I hope will calm everyone down. 

As of the time of writing, our new daily new reported cases went up terrifyingly quickly over the course of a week, but then flattened out somewhere in the 200s, down from a high of 333 new reports in one day just a few days ago. Note that these are not new daily infections but infections we've found. I won't try to interpret this, I'll just point out that I personally expected a week of much more quickly escalating numbers of daily reported cases. This is pretty acceptable news, relatively speaking. The CECC has also reported that they do not anticipate needing to go to Level 4 (a real lockdown). 

What I'm trying to say is, the growth is not as terrifying as it could have been. It's a good reason to stay home and take extra precautions, but not a good reason to lose your cool. It's even a good reason to prepare just in case there's a Level 4 lockdown, but preparation doesn't mean panicking.

Here's the second reason not to freak out: we know everything the world didn't know a year ago. We know masks work. We know staying in place works. We know sanitizing and contact tracing works. The government hasn't been perfect about this (I don't think those acrylic table separators in restaurants do any good at all) but they have a system for when to implement what protocols, and mostly the decisions seem to be swift and based on good science. We're in the best hands we could possibly be in. No government is perfect, but there is no government I trust to handle this more than Taiwan's. 

Although I've heard instances of people not wearing masks, not using sanitizer and not social distancing when outside, I also do believe that in general Taiwanese citizens are more likely to do what the government asks. Not because of Confucius or whatever, but because they've seen what happens when you don't, and most of what we're being asked to do makes sense. 

A third reason: compare it to what's happening in the US. 

I wrote this post a few days ago, so my data is a few days out of date, but I think the overall point is the same.

News from my in-laws is that Maine is starting to open up. Restaurants are re-opening, people are visiting each other, and mask mandates are being loosened, often in very unclear ways. For example, the rule is supposed to be that vaccinated people can take off their masks in some situations, but there is no clear way to check who is actually vaccinated and this is often being left up to individual businesses, who have an incentive not to annoy or turn away customers.

And yet, on May 14th, Maine had more overall daily reported cases (278) than Taipei did when it hit 188 the next day. Maine has a total population of about 1.3 million -- that's half the population of Taipei City alone. One county in Florida had more daily cases on the 14th than Taiwan's terrifying current peak of 333, but they're opening up too. (Florida's overall population -- not just that one county -- is a few million lower than Taiwan's.) 

More new cases, fewer people, and they're opening up -- not locking down. 

I don't think this is smart, and I don't think Taiwan should follow their lead, I'm just pointing out that Taiwan, with a dense population equivalent to that of Australia, is escalating its response quickly to a number of cases that, per capita, is still lower than what the US sees as a harbinger of better days ahead.

This means we're taking the threat seriously. That's a good thing, and it probably means we'll defeat it. The US certainly didn't do that in the early days, and yet Taiwanese are being called "complacent"? Come on.

Finally, we will soon have something the rest of the world did not have when this began: vaccines. Granted, they're not here yet. And yes, the vaccine rollout program has hit some bumps, many of them due to the overall lack of threat until very recently -- but we should be on track by July. So, there is at least the hope of a clear endpoint, a goal toward which we can focus our outbreak containment efforts. We may be in this for awhile, but at least there's a clear way out that we can measure in months, not years. 

I won't say we have nothing to worry about. Anxiety is normal. I'm frustrated too. I'm angry at the selfishness of the pilots, and angry that they were not mandated to be vaccinated before they could be approved for shortened quarantine. I'm angry that the international media is treating Taiwan's situation like it's apocalyptic when frankly, it's all relative: the US went through an actual apocalypse, so several hundred cases a day in their state or county is an improvement. You're still probably safer in Taiwan. I'm slightly worried, because I've lost a lot of hours and my summer teacher training schedule is in jeopardy (we'll make enough to get through and are grateful for that, but certainly it'll be tighter than usual in the Lao Ren Cha household). Taiwan is just now figuring out how to improve its long-term epidemic prevention strategy, and there will be bumps. 

By all means, of course, if you're a worker who's seen their hours shrivel or feel like the government is just telling you to figure out an impossible work/childcare situation, complain loudly and push for improvements.

We can get through this, and the experts guiding us have done a good job so far. We're doing more to contain the spread than the US is while their daily caseload is still higher than ours. With some exceptions, people are taking it seriously. 

So be prepared, but don't freak out. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Gorgeous Views (and the KMT Sucks): Our Green Island Vacation


The Three Sisters on Green Island: it was said that when inmates reached shore and saw the Three Sisters, walking under the natural stone bridge near them, that they would know where they were going: the infamous political prison. Over time, they have become something of a symbol of the need for transitional justice from the Martial Law era.

Just before the pandemic came to Taiwan for real, I was lucky enough to have taken a weeklong vacation to the East Rift Valley, Taitung City and Green Island. Because everything else is doomsday news about the escalating case numbers, I thought a peaceful retreat into one of the most beautiful parts of Ilha Formosa was in order, to calm ourselves and think of days ahead. 

I don't post about every trip in Taiwan, because I don't always have something to say (what more is there to cover from yet another weekend getaway to Tainan?). But when I do, I try to focus on a particular thing -- usually history, geography, old houses, or itineraries. 

This time, my only real focus is on just how hard the KMT sucks, because Green Island is home to their infamous White Terror-era political prison.

In a future post, I'll offer up more photos with an emphasis on food and cafe recommendations for the southern portion of the East Rift Valley -- stay tuned. 

So, please enjoy. I hope these will transport you away from your worries for a moment:







While on Green Island, we stayed at Waiting Here B&B. It's in a funky little house off the main road sandwiched between what looks to be a fancier (but not open) hotel, and a banquet-style restaurant for local tour groups. Some rooms have no windows, but they're decorated in a kitschy retro style. Ours was a "no window" room but indeed there was one window; it was high on the wall and afforded little light. However, this helps to keep the rooms cool and I didn't mind. They have a friendly dog named Shu-fen and the owners are lovely people. There are seats and a water machine with coffee, tea and candies in the common room and a refrigerator for guests' use on the 2nd floor. There's an additional, very reasonable fee for breakfast, which is always a unique combination. I liked it! 

The owners can help you rent a car if you don't want to rent scooters, and will meet you at the airport or ferry terminal where you can also pick up or drop off your vehicle. 

Though the B&B itself has no view, it's right by the sea wall. Walk up the sea wall steps. Bring your morning coffee, but do this before 8am by which time it's too hot -- and enjoy your breakfast drink of choice with a sweeping view of the Three Sisters (the cover photo for this post). 

The guesthouse with the best view is probably Green #32 Houses, but we didn't stay here, so I can't review it. It's not near town, so you'd have to drive to get just about anywhere.

For food, we recommend 只有海 Our Ocean Restaurant, which is on the scenic side of the island and serves up excellent sashimi and don (Japanese rice bowls). Make reservations several days in advance -- they're very responsive on Facebook.


We also liked maunmaun 漫漫, hidden down a path from past some construction from the main road -- it's impossible to see from the road, you'll simply have to park and walk, and the sign pointing to the correct path is easy to miss. They have great fresh fruit smoothies, creative cocktails, an artsy-youth oasis in the jungle vibe, and good food (although only the green curry was available when we went). Nearby, you can grab a snack at SeeSea Toast, which has a friendly cat and sea views on the top floor. Our preferred cafe is right next to the airport, and is connected to a hostel (you don't have to stay at the hostel to stop at the cafe). 

What else is there to do on Green Island? Mostly drive around and look at scenery. The Taiwan-facing side of the island is developed, and the open ocean side is the 'scenic' side, offering many viewpoints where you can stop and enjoy the volcanic rock formations, cliffs and vast ocean scenes. In particular, the scenery around the prison, the two pagodas at the "Little Great Wall" (emphasis on "little") are worth your time, as is the viewing platform and grassy field above Zhaori Hot Springs (closed for renovation when we visited, but friends speak well of them), Youzihu 柚子湖 and the road that leads to the Sika Deer Ecological Park. The park itself was closed when we visited, but the road affords some lovely views. The area around Dabaisha 大白沙 is also stunning. Guanyin Cave isn't much on its own, although it is a good place to stop for some shade, bathrooms and cool drinks. Butterflies and lizards abound here, and there's also a gift shop. 

In fact, there are clean public bathrooms scattered along the circular island road, so you're never too far from one. 








There is a cool story about a shipwreck on Green Island that I'd like to tell you here.

In 1937, the SS President Hoover was diverted from Hong Kong to Shanghai to evacuate US nationals living there during the Sino-Japanese war. Despite draping a massive US flag draped across the deck to identify to both sides that they were a neutral US ship (they were at war with neither side as of 1937), the ROC air force mistook them for a Japanese ship and bombed them, wounding 8 and killing 1. The ship aborted the mission and returned to San Francisco for repairs. The Americans were evacuated by other ships, as this Transatlantic Accent Guy will tell you.

Wondering who could be so stupid as to bomb the President Hoover, Chiang Kai-shek vowed to execute whomever had given the order. Apparently, this wasn't because it was a US ship so much as that it was owned by Dollar Lines, and Chiang had known Robert Dollar. This was strictly a "you hurt my dead rich friend's toy, and I am also rich!" sort of anger. 

Robert Dollar, by the way, not only seems like he looked and acted just like a robber baron, but here's a quote for you:

He travelled himself all over the Orient, seeking products to take back to the US in empty timber ships. In doing so, he made friends with all the key people in business and politics. One observer said that the ordinary people of China idolised him and that on one of his trips a three hour procession of thousands of men and women passed by his hotel to honour him! “A power in his own land, he was all but a god in the Orient”.


Anyway, it turned out that the person who gave the order was Claire Lee Chennault, who had been hired by Chiang's wife Soong Mei-ling just months prior. So, instead he paid him a bonus! My opinion of Soong is highly unfavorable, but instead of harping on how bad she was for Taiwan, let's take a look at how unqualified Chennault was instead:

Poor health (deafness and chronic bronchitis), disputes with superiors, and the fact that he was passed over as unqualified for promotion led Chennault to resign from the military on April 30, 1937; he separated from the service at the rank of major. As a civilian, he was recruited to go to China and join a small group of American civilians training Chinese airmen.

It seems he got a little better at his job later on, but at this point he was basically a dude who bumbled into his job and mucked it up. But "well, my wife hired you, so here's ten thousand dollars" was just how Chiang rolled. Seriously: instead of executing him, Chiang paid Chennault a $10,000 bonus. That was 10 months' worth of his regular salary!

Anyone who thinks a guy like Chiang was a brilliant military strategist against the Communists is sorely mistaken.

Anyway, the President Hoover returned to Asia and was headed to Manila for business reasons later that year. Due to the Sino-Japanese War, they avoided the Taiwan Strait and coast of China, instead sailing down the unfamiliar east coast of Taiwan.

There was a heavy mist and monsoon wind, and the Japanese had turned off the lighthouses due to the war. The Hoover struck a reef about 500 meters off Chungliao Bay (where the main town is located). Attempts to right the ship and get people to shore included offloading cargo -- but the cargo was oil, so that just covered the beaches in oil. Great thinking, Captain Yardley! 

Reports are that two lifeboats capsized more or less due to the incompetence of the crew. Nobody died, but many passengers suffered from hypothermia. 

Fortunately, the US and Japan were not at war yet, so the Japanese and local villagers assisted the evacuating Americans (a German ship was also nearby but couldn't get close enough). While this was happening, please enjoy this little tidbit from Wikipedia:

According to Time, while the passengers were being taken ashore a small number of the crewmen aboard President Hoover plundered the ship's liquor supply.

According to Dr. Claude Conrad, a missionary official of Washington, D. C.: "A majority of the ship's crew came into camp more or less incapacitated and abusive from the effects of free indulgence in the ship's liquor stores. Out of control of officers partially in the same condition, many of the crew men continued most of the night terrorizing passengers and natives." However, when the liquored seamen began hunting for women passengers sleeping in scattered houses ashore, some officers and other passengers formed a vigilante group to protect them. There was no actual molestation. There would have been no disturbance at all ashore, said some of the passengers, if the Hoover's officers had been permitted by Japanese police to land with their guns."

Other witnesses reported that some of the passengers also got drunk.

Heh. Liquored Seamen.

Anyway, the passengers were evacuated, the ship was torn up for scrap and by the time it had been fully broken down, Dollar Lines had ceased to exist. 






Other popular Green Island activities include snorkeling or diving, which you are advised to do in groups, as the waters are treacherous and the currents deadly. We didn't go on any of these excursions, as I'm used to snorkeling in calm waters in Southeast Asia on my own. The last time I tried in Taiwan, on Orchid Island, I got seasick from the choppy waves and a fellow snorkeler kept whacking me in the face with her fin, oblivious to my attempts to get her attention. I was happy to give it a miss this time. 

Overall, I prefer Orchid Island for its scenery, size and unique local culture. I haven't been in almost a decade but when I visited, there was far less tourist infrastructure than Green Island. That's probably changed, but I hope not too much (even as I admit I am just such a tourist). 

It is a shame, however, that Green Island was also once home to Indigenous people: a group of Amis, who called the island Samasana. By the time the Japanese came to Taiwan, however, reports are that the island was entirely Han. How many Amis were massacred and how many married into Han families? I have no idea. 

However, Green Island boasts one thing Orchid Island does not: no, not the political prison, though it has that too. We'll get to that in a moment. 

It offers safe places to get in the water, even if you aren't going snorkeling.

At Dabaisha, if you arrive at high tide (this can be Googled), the water just about touches the rough white sand. There are flat sandstone boulders at the surf line, as well, and you can sit on these and enjoy the ocean safely. There's also a walk out to the edge of the shallows where you can stick your feet in regardless of the tide. It washes over a little at high tide, however. In low tide, pools of clear water to one side of the walk can be snorkeled without a guide, but you'd need your own equipment (no fins necessary). I do not recommend actually attempting to swim at high tide, as the currents are worse than ever. 

You can also get in the water at Youzihu, which is down a winding road off the main circular road (there is parking, but it's quite rough). Here, a natural inlet allows ocean water to come into a shallow, rocky pool but protects you from the deadly currents. It isn't very deep, but you can feel like you've actually reached the sea.

I also hear there are shallows at the lighthouse, but we didn't make it there. 


Now, it's time to talk about the prison. 

Just north of the main town, near the Three Sisters, the prison is free to visitors and pamphlets in a number of languages are available. There's a small shop just beyond, mostly selling books. It's now a human rights memorial and pulls no punches in clarifying how horrible -- how unforgivably vicious, cruel and authoritarian -- the KMT were. 

The "Oasis Villa" and "New Life Correction Center" -- named as a form of doublespeak to make it sound like the political inmates jailed there were oh-so-benevolently cared for by the KMT dictatorship, helped to re-shape their thinking and put them on the "correct" path to a better life as a docile supplicant to their brutal regime -- are infamous in Taiwanese political history and older activist circles. 

After arriving on Green Island, prisoners were not only subject to brainwashing sessions (and surrounded with pro-ROC political slogans), but routinely tortured. Stories abound of the "Great Wall" (not the same as the "Little Great Wall" viewing platforms mentioned earlier), a series of coral-stone squats that prisoners had to build for themselves, "water cells" at the sea line where chained prisoners suffered under the sun at low tide, skin burning and cracking, and then could barely lift their heads out of the water enough to breathe at high tide. One torture, called "ants on a tree", had guards pouring sweet syrup over inmates so that ants would swarm over them. They were pushed into forced labor and "voluntarily" received tattoos of anti-communist slogans. 

Although a robust black market grew and prisoners traded everything from cigarettes to writing materials, many were not allowed to talk freely during the brief exercise time they were allotted twice a day.

Cells ranged in size -- we guessed the larger ones were likely for sharing -- and quality. The prison had many solitary confinement cells which some prisoners found themselves in for years at a time. Many of these were padded, used for prisoners that the regime felt would attempt suicide by bashing their heads against the wall. Such cells had almost no natural light.

In the fictional novel Green Island, this is the kind of cell that the protagonist's father spent ten years in. 

The prison was in operation until the end of the White Terror, and was the site where writer Bo Yang was held. The Malaysian guide I met at the Jingmei Human Rights Museum is also mentioned in the informational placards. 

It is no exaggeration to say that there was probably not a single person imprisoned here who deserved to be (not that I think anyone deserves that kind of treatment, but most were political prisoners who, in a just world, would not have been punished in any way). 


This is the kind of Chiang Kai-shek bust that can and should stay where it is: it's at the entrance to an old prison block, and serves as a historical reminder. Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall on the other hand? Time to remove his statue and re-purpose the space for something better suited to the needs of a democratic nation free of his literal reign of terror. 

Two things stay with me after visiting these sites. 

First, to anyone who makes the argument that we need to keep statues honoring Chiang Kai-shek around, or that the China-centric names of Taipei streets should remain "so we can remember history" or "to avoid erasing the past": 

Fuck you. 

No, sincerely. Fuck you. 

There are many ways to remember the past. Books are good. Preserving historical sites -- not honorary statues or hagiographic "memorial halls" -- are also a good way to accomplish this. 

Anyone who visits this prison, the Jingmei Human Rights Museum, the 228 Museum, the statue park and tomb of Chiang Kai-shek at Cihhu, the old execution ground at Machangding, or any of the other numerous sites where the horrors of Taiwan's past can be remembered, can see that you don't need a statue honoring a soulless power-hungry mass murderer that his surviving victims and their descendants have to look at on, say, their commute to work to remember the past. 

You have all of these actual historical sites for that. They are informative, they are imbued with sadness, and they ground you in the real places where these events happen. 

Not only is nobody suggesting we do away with these, the intent is to preserve them, so as not to erase history. And by doing so, we ensure that we don't need some goddamn statue of a goddamn massacre-happy maniac in the middle of goddamn Taipei to do it. 

You know this, and yet you make your disingenous bullshit arguments again and again and again and again. You keep making them as though repetition will breathe sense into them. It will not.

It's almost like you don't actually care about "not erasing history". You just want to...I dunno. Score points? Stall change? Whitewash history by twisting an argument about 'historical preservation' around to defend a statue meant to honor a butcher and destroyer of human lives? 

Your argument is bad, and you should feel bad. 

Back to the prison.


The second thing I came away with was a renewed sense of just how impossible it is to ever truly forgive the KMT for their history. 

I often hear the argument that what they did was "in the past". They're a party competing in a democratic system now, and the White Terror is over. The government apologized (which Lee Teng-hui did do, at least on behalf of the government, though I can't find evidence that he specifically apologized on behalf of the KMT as a party).  Let it go, these voices seem to say. Move on.

I'm not Taiwanese. My ancestors barely survived a genocide that the government of their homeland still refuses to recognize, however, so I understand why burying the hatchet is not so easy. I completely empathize with the victims and their descendants refusing to bow down to those who want them to forget their history because it is inconvenient to some. 

But the KMT remains corrupt. They continue to attempt to undermine the core Taiwanese belief that Taiwanese identity, history and heritage are very real and quite distinct from China. They fight transitional justice at every turn despite insisting they will confront history "honestly". They're slow to open records. They try to keep money they stole generations ago by plundering Taiwan's resources and diverting it all to their pockets or patronage networks.

And they still let their members get away with saying White Terror-reminiscent crap like allowing one of their city councilors to call for Health Minister Chen Shih-chung to be executed

I see no reason at all to forgive them. I won't, and if I had family affected by their actions, I certainly wouldn't. As far as I'm concerned, the only just path forward is for them to become so unpopular as to be rendered irrelevant in Taiwanese politics, and for new, better opposition to the DPP to take their place, preferably in a more multi-party environment.

In other words, their history is so brutally unforgivable that I think it would be better if the KMT simply ceased to exist as a political entity. There is nothing they could possibly do to come back from their past. They committed these atrocities, and they knew what they were doing

I don't mean ban them. I mean abandon them. That is what they deserve. Not the execution block -- the trash bin.


There is more to say about the prison itself: the "defeat the communists, reclaim the mainland" graffiti, the murals, the Bagua Building, the art installations that evoke memory through creative expression. The many placards (all in English) about the history and inmates there. 

You also get a sense of why the prison was on Green Island at all. Think about the choppy boat ride most people take to get there from the Taiwan mainland. Could you imagine trying to swim that and surviving?

However, I recommend that you go see it for yourself. 











One of the strangest things about Green Island, however, is the number of prison-themed entertainment venues. In the main town of Chungliao, I counted at least for establishments -- some bars, at least one a shaved ice shop -- with this theme. At least the shaved ice shop offered something of a pun (冰, or ice, sounds like 兵, or soldier), and had some localized flair -- those cartoon guards have KMT sun symbols on their helmets.

People and cultures process trauma in different ways, including using humor, so I'm not going to pass judgment on this. But I skipped these establishments. 


I don't want to end this post on a sad note, as it's been a week of bad news. So I'll end with this: 

One might land on Green Island and immediately turn their nose up at how touristy it is. And it is! Almost all of the businesses on the island are geared towards tourism. Every third storefront is a dive shop or restaurant for tour groups. 

But here's the thing: this isn't for foreign backpacker crowds, though some foreigners do come. Taiwanese built this tourism infrastructure for themselves. Most of the tourists there are local, not foreign. This isn't like a Thai island. This isn't Palau (though I've heard it jokingly referred to as "Budget Palau"). It doesn't seem to have the same foreigner contingent as Kenting.

This is a beautiful part of Taiwan, developed so Taiwanese could enjoy their own country. Foreigners are welcome as well, but it's not for them.

I like that.

Now, some information.

I strongly recommend you visit Green Island in the shoulder season -- just before or just after summer vacation, when it gets packed. Don't go on a weekend, plan a weekday trip instead. It won't be hard to get accommodation or avoid tourist crowds on, say, a Wednesday in April, May or September. Even though we did just that, however, there were still several tours and diving groups about. 

This not only gives you a more chilled-out vacation with less traffic and fewer crowds, but enables business owners on the island to earn more money outside peak season. However, I'd advise aiming for spring rather than fall, as September is still typhoon season and many travelers' Green Island trips have been cancelled for just that reason. 

There are two ways to get there: plane and boat. The plane takes about ten minutes, and can be booked in advance through Daily Air. It's a ten-minute flight on a positively tiny craft. It's also prone to cancellation -- our flight was cancelled due to a rainstorm, and we had to take the boat the next day (fortunately it is fairly easy to refund half of a round-trip ticket). 

The boat can also be reserved in advance, and most accommodation on Green Island will help you do so. It takes about 50 minutes, and leaves throughout the day. These also get cancelled in rough seas sometimes. 

I recommend you hit up a local pharmacy in Taitung and tell them you plan to take the boat to Green Island. They'll give you the strongest anti-seasick pills you've ever had. Mine knocked me right out and I slept through the trip. Although we sailed on fairly smooth waters and it didn't seem as though many people puked, they provide generous barf bags and expats have dubbed it the Green Island Vomit Comet for a reason.

How long you should to spend there depends on what you want to do. If you like just chilling out around great scenery, you could spend days here. If you want to check out the main sights and maybe go diving, one full day or two days will be sufficient. 

Either way, I do recommend you go. Just not at peak season.