Sun, Mar 11, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Tales of Taiwan, from the smallest incident to the biggest

`Vignettes of Taiwan' may be slightly dated, but it does offer some witty insights of life on the island for foreign visitors and locals alike

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

VIGNETTES OF TAIWAN
By Joshua Samuel Brown
159 pages
Things Asian Press

Vignettes of Taiwan is a collection of anecdotes, travel impressions and photos put together by an American who's currently 36, but was only 24 when he arrived in Taiwan in 1994. He relates how he spent some time teaching English without a work permit, took a three-year break, part of it in China, then returned to Taiwan to embark on life as a freelance writer.

In the process of reading we also learn that the author spent many years as a New York bike messenger, and that he's of Jewish descent, a fact that endeared him to the Hakka family he lodged with in Shuangxi on the outskirts of Hsinchu. He describes himself as only ever bringing his "Taiwan steady" back to stay there overnight, and enduring a nasty earthquake only to find that his cat had kittened during it.

Brown has the freelancer's instincts in so far as even the smallest incident is seen as providing a peg strong enough to hang a story on. Thus, asking someone who may have been an Atayal, or perhaps an Ami, the way to Taitung, he goes on to outline how Taiwan's aboriginal population was first driven into the foothills by the Hakkas, then high into the central mountains when the Hakkas were in turn driven into the foothills by Han Chinese arriving from Fukien.

Elsewhere he finds himself on Green Island — which "will probably never make Asian tourism's A-list" — and encountering Vice-President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), only to discover that the person in question is a transvestite celebrity-impersonator recording a skit on Lu's incarceration there for TV.

("Room service was terrible, darling!")

There's an unusually frank piece on Western women's success or otherwise in Taiwan's dating game. The old adage that on the whole Western men enjoy Asia while Western women don't is partly lent support to here, but with an ironic twist that goes some way at least to save the Western female face.

Many familiar topics are covered, but there's no harm in that. Brown writes with freshness and apparent honesty, and several of his items end with a clever punch-line. One story concludes with a sardonic reference to "the cut-throat politics of the world of Taiwanese kindergartens," while another, on the advisability of going to a Hsin Beitou love-hotel with someone you're already attached to, concludes with the aphorism "Love, like advice, is best appreciated when freely given."

Some of the pieces, it must be said, feel dated today. Brown includes one on elections that was written in 2001, and begins one sentence, "President Chen Shui Bian's (陳水扁) term in office has so far been ... ." Not much insight there from our current perspective. Another, on trying to cycle up Five Finger Mountain from the North Taiwan town of Chudong, dates from 1995. But the author is perfectly open about the book's origins, and on the whole nothing important is lost by the inclusion of less-than-recent material.

Vignettes of Taiwan is smartly produced, with classy color photos, several of them featuring the author. Most of the pieces in it are light-hearted and mildly satirical. This, then, is a useful and in places stylish addition to the limited number of books available in English on modern-day Taiwan.

Things Taiwanese have remained on my mind all week. I may be the last person on the planet to have read Yann Martel's Life of Pi, the Man Booker Prize winning novel describing life adrift in the Pacific accompanied by a Royal Bengal tiger. It's an amazing work, exceptionally readable but with a profound message. What I didn't expect was that one important minor character would be Taiwanese.

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