Like any journalist or writer, Englishman Samson Ellis appreciates a good story no matter how unusual or strange. Taiwan certainly has its fair share.
“Do you remember the exploding sperm whale?” he says.
Ellis, editor-in-chief of English news at Formosa TV (FTV, 民視), remembers when his station covered the story of the 17m-long, 50-tonne sperm whale that died after being stranded on a beach.
The creature’s body burst open while being transported through Tainan, bringing traffic to a halt as it splattered cars and passersby with blood and guts.
“Stuff like that — that’s Taiwan,” he says laughing.
While he relishes such stories that spice up the typical news cycle, Ellis has also been exploring some lesser-known tales about Taiwan. Last year he wrote a series of one-hour documentaries that aired at the end of last year on the Discovery Channel.
There are no exploding animals in Unknown Taiwan, but the series offers enough intrigue to engage both local and international viewers. In an episode on Tamsui, two historians set out to try to find the fabled secret tunnels extending from the Dutch-built Fort San Domingo (紅毛城) to Keelung.
Another episode looks at the coastline of Penghu, the site of numerous maritime disasters and plane crashes, and entertains the existence of a Bermuda Triangle-like phenomenon near the island.
In his role as scriptwriter, Ellis said he tried to draw out elements of Taiwan that had universal appeal.
“When you’re writing for the Discovery Channel especially, you’ve always got to be thinking, okay, why should some guy in Mexico be watching this?” he says. “You’re really writing for a global international audience, so that’s always on your mind.”
The series also tells the story of a Japanese pilot who was born and raised in Hualien and served in a Japanese air force squadron secretly stationed on Taiwan during World War II. Just before the pilot was about to embark on his ultimate mission, a kamikaze raid, the war ended. The show documents the pilot’s visit to his childhood home and school in Hualien.
In addition to gaining an appreciation for Taiwan’s colonial history and Aboriginal roots, Ellis says he enjoys the “craft” aspect of making the documentaries: creating narratives that could “really sustain people, and people from anywhere, for an hour.”
The idea of keeping people’s attention brought him back to basics in working with the Taiwanese production companies that were commissioned by Discovery and the Government Information Office to produce the shows.
According to Ellis, Unknown Taiwan marked the first time that Discovery had a writer involved during the early planning stages for its programs produced by local production houses.
He said one challenge was to help the production companies think in terms of a global audience.
“I was very adamant — okay, you need a lot of maps [in the shows]. First of all, you need to tell people where the hell Taiwan is — a lot of people aren’t going to know where Taiwan is,” he says.
“You’re trying to reach out to people who aren’t interested in Taiwan with an interesting story about Taiwan. So you’ve got to give lots of basic information, stuff like what were the Japanese doing [here]?” he says.
Ellis’ own interest in Taiwan goes back to his student days and an enthusiasm for languages. The 32-year-old from Devon spent his high school years in Germany, where he became fluent in German and learned French, and studied at the University of Edinburgh, where he received his master’s degree in Chinese.
A year abroad at National Taiwan Normal University during his university days encouraged Ellis to return to Taiwan to live and work at the end of 2001. Intending to stay for just one year, he ended up working at the English daily Taiwan News for several years before moving to FTV.
What has kept Ellis in Taiwan and at FTV is the fast-paced and intense environment of the television newsroom.
“It’s never boring, every day’s different — there’s just so many possibilities, especially when you’ve got to condense everything into a small show,” he said. “You’ve got to be so succinct, there’s no room, there’s no time and there’s no space for any extraneous information and so writing for TV is a real skill…it’s one I didn’t appreciate when I went there [FTV].”
While the show may not appear as slick as an international news program, Ellis said that local organizations are taking notice and over the past several years, the program has been nominated for a number of awards.
Ellis continues to work for Discovery and also writes for the channel’s popular program Fun Taiwan (瘋台灣), collaborating with his friend and the show’s presenter, Janet Hsieh (謝怡芬). He is also working on a documentary to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/21 earthquake.
In between eight-hour work days at FTV and writing for Discovery programs, Ellis still finds the time to play soccer in several local leagues and mountain biking.
And he would rather be busy working than idle.
“I know myself … if I didn’t do it, I’d be sitting at home watching TV,” he said.