Sunday, December 12, 2021

So was that a Christmas Market or a Holiday Murder Dungeon?

I think Krampus was the brains behind the German Christmas Market

One week ago I was all set to write a post about how events in Taiwan had finally learned how to be good, which has not historically been the case. 

In 2016 the taco festival was such a disaster that I left to grab potstickers because I could not get a single goddamn taco at an actual, literal taco festival where tacos were presumably being sold in exchange for money. Hot tip: if all your guests can get at a taco festival is a place in line where they're told "no more tacos", you are not running a taco festival, you are running a 'stand in line and cry hangrily' festival. 

Later that year Santa died thanks to the fake "Strasbourg" Christmas Fair where they played Green Day (?) and pushed you to buy vouchers that couldn't buy much -- I ended up with a random assortment of food items that I didn't want and mulled wine that wasn't good. The church running it suggested donating unused vouchers back to them, which felt like a scam. 

This year, I walked through the European Christmas Fair in Hsinyi. It was crowded but not overly so, and I didn't begrudge the fact that the many food stalls had mostly run out of food as it was near the end of the final day. It was fairly easy to buy other items including gingerbread cookies and Polish ceramics. I had skipped the taco festival, but friends said that the implementation of ticketing, crowd control and better ordering and space planning made it more of a success. In 2020 I happened across a small Christmas market outside the old Taichung train station, and it was lovely. 

Events like these in Taiwan seemed to be turning a corner, and I was happy to see it. It'd always confused me how night markets can run fairly smoothly, but events just couldn't. Night markets might be crowded (a side effect of living in a densely populated country) and there might be a few lines, but you could always get food. Perhaps people had taken advantage of this obvious local logistical knowledge to, y'know, plan less shitty events?


Such high hopes

With this in mind, I enthusiastically headed over to the German Christmas Market held near Maji Square on Saturday night, as visions of bratwurst danced in my head. This could be good, I thought. I'd heard last year it was good.

Alas. Whatever the German Christmas Market was this year, it was the exact opposite of good.

I could forgive the long line to get in, as contact tracing was required, and the slow trickle of entries meant it was never so crowded that you couldn't walk around. We managed to get gluhwein and order bratwurst after waiting in a second, shorter line. Okay. 


The line to get in

It was strange that someone pushed in front of us to demand a refund on her bratwurst, but perhaps she just wasn't hungry. 

Then we trekked to the other end of the fair to wait in the hour-long line to actually get our food. 

While waiting, we took turns as scouts hunting for other food. After getting jostled so that hot wine spilled all over his hand, Brendan stood in the bacon raclette sandwich line only to get one person from the front before they announced they were sold out. I checked out the Christstollen (lowest price NT$800, more like a gift than a Christmas fair snack. I didn't buy any.) Another friend stood in line for an hour to get some chicken thing with peppers and a few slices of bread. 


Empty spaces cut through with lines of people waiting an hour for food

The line for Dutch sweets was just as long as the line for bratwurst. Almost halfway through our (hourlong) wait, the bratwurst sold out. We'd be served because we'd paid, but newcomers were out of luck. They'd just waited an hour to get into the market only to have just about every single actual food item unavailable.

I bought a beer out of spite. Also, I needed carbs. This made me drunker. 

Seriously, how does one go to an outdoor event in Taiwan and not get food? I am pretty sure that's against the law here. If a Taiwanese sausage vendor had set up just outside they would have made a fortune.

I will say, the food I was able to get was very good. The alcohol was all top-notch. They just needed several thousand more bratwursts and more stands to sell them. 


Me after I was physically unable to put anything in my stomach but alcohol until I left the market

Determined to find more food, I wandered the emptier section of the market, where there were lots of stalls but very few people. 

The music was holiday appropriate, or at least mostly Christmas-adjacent (I'm not sure what the guys in matching suits dancing in sync like K-pop stars were doing, but whatever). 

What else was there? Occupying prime real estate was the China Airlines booth. Though they had a raffle going for free tickets to Frankfurt (during a pandemic? Perhaps they don't have an expiration date), there was nothing else happening there. Next to them, a booth selling appliances. 

Who goes to a Christmas market to buy an oven?

There was a Mercedes Benz parked by the Christmas tree. I am pretty sure everyone in Taiwan who afford a Benz has either already bought one or is aware of the brand. Nobody is getting their brand awareness raised at a Christmas market. 


More empty space that could be used not to sell chains or padlocks or something to clean up with, but rather big fat wieners to stuff in my face

The stalls on the far end had an array of presumably German brands. You could buy some of this stuff -- but who goes to a Christmas market to buy cleaning products or padlocks?

The padlock stall seemed to just be...padlocks. At least the cleaning product stall was decorated with Christmas things.

"There's no fucking food," a friend remarked, "but you can buy everything you need for your murder dungeon. And a getaway car too!" 

I don't think I saw any chains or handcuffs for sale (essential components of a Holiday Murder Dungeon). That's a shame, as it might have made the whole thing a bizarrely fun experience. But no. It's almost worse that they half-assed the whole Murder Dungeon angle. On Christmas and Murder Dungeons both, go big or go home.


Me looking for some goddamn food at the German Christmas Market

I had gotten a shot of rum in my gluhwein, so I was in a freewheelin', brainstormin' mood. 

"Maybe because people do buy cleaning products at Lunar New Year, they thought they'd buy them at Christmas?" I said to no one in particular. 

A Taiwanese friend scoffed. "Nobody's silly enough to think that. Maybe because it got rave reviews last year it became this business sponsored thing and that killed it?"

"German Christmas Markets are supposed to be 90% food. FOOD!" added the person in our group who'd lived in Germany for over a decade. "Not padlocks. I just wanted some burnt almonds. I cannot eat a fucking padlock!"

After the obligatory hour in line at Oma's, our other friend returned with his tasty-looking chicken thing. We'd finally gotten our bratwurst but it hit too late to absorb the rummed-up gluhwein. I mean, I know I say this a lot but I really needed more hot sausage, a lot faster than I freakin' got it. What is a German Christmas Market even good for if I can't get absolutely stuffed with wieners?

"So I'd actually just wanted some cookies," he said, putting small bags of speculoos, sugar cookies and candied almonds on the little table we'd cornered to form a Bitching Circle. "Turns out, you could walk right up and buy the cookies. The line was for hot food. But nobody makes that clear."

We ate most of his cookies.

It didn't matter that we weren't full. By 7pm every stall was sold out of food, at a market that would traditionally be mostly food. Imagine turning up to a night market and there are 3 food stands and they all sell out by 7. But you can buy a washing machine! Would you return? 

We headed to Maji Square. I teetered, one friend anxiety smoked and the person who hadn't gotten anything at all hunger-marched. We found a bar that served exactly one type of panini and wasn't packed, so we stuffed ourselves with ham and Emmenthal paninis until we felt better. It was run by a French guy who could understand my drunk ordering (it helped that he only had the one food item). Clearly the French know how to feed people better than the Germans.

Honestly, I thought Germans were supposed to be good at this Christmas Market thing. But I, a boorish American, have some advice for the German Office on how to make next year's market less like a Holiday Murder Dungeon Superstore and more like, well, a Christmas market. 

First, by all means have sponsors. But make sure that you have more than a half-dozen stands selling actual food. One bratwurst stand? One raclette stand? One place in the whole market to buy Christmas cookies and they don't even tell you that you don't have to wait in the hot food line for them? 

Certainly, this fair needed far more hot meat injection opportunities. They needed to quintuple -- no, octuple -- the number of places selling snacks and food for immediate consumption, so no one line gets too long. The only things sold in multiples in the whole market were beer and wine, which is of course why I got trashed. Of course that moves faster because it's easier to serve, but multiple food stalls cut down waiting time.

And order enough food. No Christmas market should sell out hours before it closes.

The only explanation for why this seems to keep happening at events like Christmas markets and taco festivals is that foreigners planning for them don't seem to take into account the crowds generated by the classic Taiwan combination: high anticipation and dense population. Night market stalls know what it means to be crowded in a Taiwan sense, and plan appropriately. It's time foreign-run events figure it out, too (or just collaborate with locals to work this stuff out). 

Have a meeting with all the sponsors. Tell them to make it Christmassy or GTFO. had the right idea with this, selling hot wine under a sign with their name on it. Now I remember as the cool kids at the Christmas party. Not Mercedes Benz.

Here, I'll even give them some free ideas, although they are probably not genius ideas because I did indeed have them while hopped up on Gluhwein.

Padlock Guys: You know that thing where people put love locks on a bridge or fence to show they'll be together forever? Riff on that with Holiday Love Locks, which are lightweight locks you can write or paint your name on (painting service costs extra for those who don't want to DIY). They come in an array of holiday shapes and colors, including hearts, and are lightweight so you can hang them as ornaments on a Christmas tree, string of lights, holiday lantern etc. You can set aside part of your display for actual padlocks, and put the fake ornament ones into branded pouches.

Cleaning Product Guys: Have you not heard of holiday-scented cleaning products? Maybe you don't want to put out a whole new line of stuff, but sell some scented candles, sachets, potpourri or room sprays to your lineup. Do raffles where buying something will enter you to win one of your products.

Mercedes Benz: I'm not really into cars but someone who is would definitely buy Benz-logo or car-shaped iced Christmas cookies. Snowglobes and mini snowglobe ornaments with little Benzes inside! There are people who will totally buy that as a cute gift for a loved one dreaming of owning a real Benz someday. Soft pretzels shaped like the Benz logo! I'd buy that, because I like soft pretzels. 

Bosch and other white goods sellers: Cookies and other baked goods are the obvious choice here. Team up with Mr. Mark or Oma's for these things, with free samples of pastries and breads. Soft pretzels and cinnamon rolls in branded paper pouches (or bags or boxes for takeaway) under a big sign that says "It bakes better in a Bosch!" Put business cards for your actual stores in the bags maybe. Whatever. Or team up with the Polish office to sell Polish ceramicware, with advertising about how well it survives your awesome dishwashers. 

China Airlines: I mean there are the obvious airline-themed stocking stuffers, ornaments and iced cookies, but they fly to Frankfurt. Frankfurter wurst! Anything for more of the hot wieners you know we all crave.

Everyone else: Baby Jesus cried because of this fair, you guys. Have your sign and whatnot, but make sure you actually do Christmas things at a Christmas fair. Sell little bags of holiday nuts, chocolates, snacks or dried fruits in branded bags. Get some sponsors who actually do food and drink and have a whiskey stall, a hot toddy stall, a stall with chocolates (eat now or take home), a stall with mini cinnamon rolls. 

Get places that make actual gift-y items to sponsor. Like little jars of jam and chili sauce or earrings that look like sleigh bells. Get all the wine sellers that seemed to do well in Hsinyi last week to mop up again handing out samples and selling bottles for a second weekend in a row.

I mean I don't even care if some of it's tacky -- that makes it better. You had booth babes in Sexy Santa gear, which is totally fine but it also means that anything goes.

Keep some of the music, but you couldn't get like a band in lederhosen up there doing a tuba thing? I associate that with a stereotype, and therefore it's a good idea! 

But really, just have more food and stuff one might actually buy at a Christmas market. You were on the right track with the alcohol but it's better if you don't make it so that the only thing people can reasonably do at your market is get trashed.

Otherwise, do better next year because this was a middle finger to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Overall rating? 2/10 (extra star for the good and plentiful alcohol). Needs more wiener.

I just innocently wanted to scarf down a pile of wieners, but the German Christmas Market was hiding around the corner waiting to ruin my dreams and also physically assault me with hunger

Monday, December 6, 2021

From all sides, the treatment of Kao Chia-yu has been deplorable


I don't have an appropriate cover photo so here's a picture.

"I was married before," she told me once. 

What followed was one of the most horrible stories to cross anyone's lips. I try not to tell too much of anyone else's story here, but this past week an old account hit the memory stratosphere, burning on re-entry.

Her boyfriend had been abusive while they were still dating, and threatened to kill her if she wouldn't agree to marry him. She didn't want to, and went to her father for advice. 

"Then you should marry him," he said, "because that must mean he really loves you."

She did. 

Of course it escalated. One day she simply had to leave. They divorced, and the whole town gave her the cold shoulder. She couldn't get a job or rent an apartment because she was a divorcée. Her family barely helped -- they didn't like the stigma, either. Even people who didn't know her would find out soon enough, she said, and it was usually the same:

"A man doesn't beat a good woman. What did you do to make him so violent?"

She didn't have the connections to legally change her household registration and set up a new life in a new town, and didn't want to try her luck as a domestic migrant worker without many legal rights.

Looking for any way out of her situation, she married my coworker, a foreigner who didn't care about her past. Or much of anything at all, it turns out: he'd crow proudly that she'd never leave him no matter how often he cheated on her (which was often -- he was well-known at the teahouses and barbershops). He'd announce his intentions to do just that and wander off while we (the only other foreigners in town, and we barely filled a four-top) stayed put at the riverside bar like respectable drunks. 

I told his wife what was up. She sighed and said she knew.

This happened in China -- a different country -- twenty years ago. I shouldn't have expected similar details to pop up in a story from the past week: Taiwan is a more progressive country than the one where this took place, and it is 2021. We know better. 

Why did I remember this story from so long ago?

Last week, legislator and former city councilor Kao Chia-yu 高嘉瑜 told the public her (presumably ex) boyfriend, public figure Raphael Lin 林秉樞, had subjected her to unconscionable abuse.

I won't recap Kao's account in this post. You can read about it here and here. There are a few things the English-language media mostly missed, however -- only the Taipei Times seems to have picked up some of it. First, that Lin made a concerted effort to silence Kao, saying "you know, I know and God knows, doesn't exist" and threatening to derail her political career, using his network of business and political giants willing to "vouch for him". 

When it became clear she would not be silenced, he called up one of the political talk show hosts who frequently had him on the air, saying that people will forgive a person who apologizes and shows contrition, but won't forgive a "scumbag". Kao is not the first woman Lin has threatened.

That's not the only reason I remember this story, however. Another public figure in Taiwan had the audacity to say this:

The person saying it? KMT Central Committee member Huang Jinwei 黃覲偉. His more complete remarks can be found here (in Mandarin). Here's a screenshot from FTV:

My translation: "a woman who makes a man so angry he physically beats her really is such an ignorant person [this is also slang for a deliberate troll, troublemaker or drama-stirrer, especially online]. Especially her cheeks [slang for an irritating person]. But a woman named Tsai [that's President Tsai] who has never been hit by a man, isn't qualified to support her. A woman that no man wants is disgusting enough."

Of course, Huang was roundly criticized for his remarks. No emotionally healthy person could think they were anything other than deeply unacceptable as well as a sign that Huang is, bluntly, a misogynist.

How did he respond? By saying that she "deserved to be beaten".

This all happened about a week ago. Lin has been taken into custody. The KMT has come out to denounce Huang's remarks and insist that disciplinary action will take place. Huang himself has "apologized", saying his remarks were inappropriate and fully his responsibility and not in keeping with "the current state of gender relations" in Taiwan. He neither mentioned his misogynist treatment of Kao or Tsai specifically nor clarify what was unacceptable in his remarks. Nor did he express any sort of deeper understanding of why he was wrong. Essentially, it was an apology only in the most literal sense of the term (in which he issued a statement that contained vague language of regret and took personal responsibility, likely because he'd been ordered to do so). 

I couldn't help but think back to that time in the early 2000s when I met another woman who was told by an entire town that women get beaten only if they "deserve it". It was inappropriate then as now, and in the decades before. People knew that. 

This isn't a recent social revolution or some great change. It's not a culture difference either. In the mid-20th century, domestic abuse wasn't considered a crime so much as a "family matter" or even "therapeutic" (not joking) in the US, and presumably in Taiwan and China as well. The women it happened to generally knew it was wrong. 

Most people know it is wrong, and they have for awhile. There's nothing "current' about these fundamental social evolutions, in all countries. (I also note that Huang mentioned that "the two genders" should get along, but I don't exactly expect this sort of person to have a more enlightened view of gender identity). 

If the person I knew who suffered similar backlash from a less progressive society twenty years ago knew it was wrong then, then Huang should have known before he opened his big jerk mouth that it's wrong in Taiwan now. And it always was.

There is no apology that can erase that. There's nothing that makes it okay. It shows a fundamental problem with how he sees the world and specifically his attitudes towards women.

The only possible outcome is that Huang be dismissed. There's no forgiveness here: his remarks reveal a belief system totally out of sync with Taiwanese society and certainly not in tune with what his party needs to even begin to rehabilitate their image. I've been keeping my eye on the local news, and so far I've seen no evidence that any disciplinary actions have taken place. Promises, yes. Sent to the disciplinary committee? Sure. Action? Nothing yet. That man should not be on the central committee of any political party. I know one must be patient, but that man should already be gone.

What's worse, it seems the KMT's promise that such remarks do not reflect the party's own stance and are wholly Huang's responsibility don't mean much to other members of the KMT. 

As reported by FTV, KMT Youth League director and member of the Central Standing Committee of the KMT Tian Fang-lun 田方倫 asked "whether the case could be considered domestic violence if the couple is not married" and implied that a cohabiting intimate relationship was somehow different in terms of what and was not abuse.

Tian Fang-lun brands himself on Facebook as a "different kind of youth", which I guess is true in a sense.

City Councilor and all-around superwoman Miao Po-ya 苗博雅 shot back with something to the effect of "if you don't know what you're talking about maybe just shut up" (she said it a bit more diplomatically), and that these sort of "sloppy" comments actually target the victim even more, which perpetrates verbal abuse. 

I am extremely happy that Miao is one of the councilors from my district.

What I want to know, however, is why both Huang and Tian still appear to have jobs. It's unlikely that Huang will face any serious repercussions, as the KMT central committee is sending the case to the party's examination committee.

It's heartening that their comments have been met with near-universal condemnation. Taiwan is not a country where the social consensus is that domestic abuse is acceptable or a mere 'family matter' (although it does happen, at a rate higher than you'd likely expect from a country that seems so otherwise safe). 

But the fact that they could make those comments and -- despite promised disciplinary action -- drop out of the news cycle while perhaps getting a finger-wag from some buddy in their own party, shows there's a lot more progress to be made. 

I'm also somewhat pleased -- and a little surprised -- to see that most of the local media I've read on Kao's ordeal has reported it fairly straight, by local media standards. Including commentary that points out the way people like Huang and Tian engaged in victim-blaming and further harm to Kao is frankly kinder than I've seen the media be to her in some time, although I certainly won't be calling for any journalism awards.

The Internet commentariat, on the other hand, has been an entirely different beast. Yes, the worst offenders such as Huang were slapped down, but there's an entire board on PTT dedicated to treating Kao like garbage. I don't know whether that falls under 'free speech' or not, but despite most Taiwanese believing domestic violence is a problem in their country, that such ideas still fester in its underbelly (much as they do in the US) is its own problem.

In the past, they spent a lot of time dallying on really unimportant aspects of her political career, which Donovan Smith of Taiwan Report covers in more detail here (it starts after the pig innard extravaganza, about 2/3 of the way through) and here. She's also been one of the people targeted with deepfake porn. I'd like to say more about media and personal representation of Taiwanese women in politics here, but I think that's fodder for another post.

This past week has been perhaps a little better in terms of responsible media coverage, but that's quite a low bar to hop over. Nobody is vaulting.

Kao deserves better, the voters deserve better, the media can do better, and Taiwan knows better. 

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).