Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present

Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present
By John Ross

I must admit that I'm a little embarrassed that this book has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for almost five years. I rarely get books about Taiwan and I love reading them when I have them. So what gives? Why did it remain so long on the shelf? Part of me didn't think I needed to read a travelogue about Taiwan after having been here for four years. The other half of me was just feeling guilty about damaging the book. Here's the story:

A friend lent this book to me way back when my (currently) adult dog was still a teething puppy. I left the book on a table a little too low to the ground and Milo (my dog) got to it. The corners of the books became a bit of a chew toy for my dog and some damage was done. I had put off reading it because I had other books to read but I then put off reading it because I figured that when I finished the book I would be forced to give it back, revealing my dog's crime. Five years on, the damage doesn't look that bad and I felt a reverse pang of guilt seeing the book on my shelf. So I finally cracked it.

Well, anyway...

I wish someone had handed this book to me at the airport when I landed in Taiwan in 2002. It would have helped immensely. John Ross' book is a fun romp through Taiwan both past and present (and when I say present, I mean turn-of-the-millenium... his assessment of Chen Shui-Bian looks a little odd now considering the 2004 election, assassination attempt and post-presidential scandals). It's written in a very laid-back style that endears the reader to the writer even when he seems to be doing the most mundane things. The fact that Ross is a Kiwi (an under-represented English speaking nation in Taiwan I might add) added to my enjoyment of this book if only that he takes a few unnecessary but highly amusing jabs at Australians. He also seems to like beer as much as I do.

Along with beer, Ross seems to be a big fan of Taiwanese history and offers up some pretty interesting bits from yesteryear: George MacKay, the tooth-pulling Canadian missionary in Danshui, absolutely riveting stories of aboriginal head-hunters (there are pictures!) and harrowing tales of British POWs in Japanese-run work camps during the Second World War. For anyone remotely interested in Taiwanese history but uninterested in reading the typical, highly politicized books on the market, Formosan Odyssey is a really fun start.

I really enjoyed the way Ross ties critical points in Chinese history with Taiwan. From the voyages of Zheng He (the actual Sinbad the Sailor), the rule of Koxinga to the way in which he explains to a layman why there is such friction between China and Taiwan. Again, none of this stuff should be cited in any academic work, but it offers a working knowledge for those interested in Taiwanese history.

Interspersed among his histories, Ross details his own travels around the island in the days and months following the 921 earthquake. Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny for anyone who has spent any amount of time in Taiwan. I imagined while reading his musings about Taiwan that virtually anyone who has spent two years in Taiwan could have written much the same stories. The fact is, nobody has. However, there are superb blogs that provide the same sorts of material online (with the added bonus of daily updates). My favorites are The View From Taiwan and David on Formosa.

Ross' personal stories about living, working and traveling in Taiwan are not terribly unique, but the way he presents them exudes a sense of camaraderie with the writer, especially among those who have done the same. We've all been there, done that, had that done to us. It's funny cause it's true. It's hard not to like Ross in the same way that it is hard not to like Bill Bryson.

There are some weak spots in this book. The middle chapters which deal with religion in Taiwan bogged the work down somewhat, although that may be my own bias. I have little tolerance for religion, especially those that promise salvation via the wallet, which is a major problem I have with Taiwanese folk religions. For all the beauty and curios that religion offers, there is ten times more blatant embezzlement done in the name of the gods. I found Ross' tolerant tone a little unnerving through this part.

While this tolerant tone irked me in this particular section of the book, I must note that Ross' forbearance is otherwise refreshing. While I do believe that any English-speaking foreigner in Taiwan could write a very similar book, I doubt they could write it as even-handedly as Ross. Foreigners in Taiwan are often one of two sorts: Overly apologetic (the you-just-don't-understand-Chinese-culture crowd) or spitefully venomous (the ethnocentric my-way-is-better crowd). There are varying degrees of both, but it takes a special writer to find that middle ground (I know I couldn't... I'm spitefully venomous). Perhaps it's a Kiwi trait. The only other person I know that would be able to write a fair and balanced (and not in the Fox News sense of "fair and balanced") book about Taiwan is also a Kiwi. Go figure.

It's unfortunate that Formosan Odyssey is currently out-of-print. If I had my way, which I never do, I would make this a required reading for anyone planning on staying in Taiwan for more than a year. It really gives you a flavor of what is to come your way (without really spoiling the surprise) and offers a lot of insights into the culture, the people and their history. There is something to be gained for everyone, from fans of politics, sociology and anthropology to those planning to study martial arts or simply to travel around the island. Even Taiwanese might find it an interesting account of how visitors see their nation.

Great book. Milo is sorry about the corners.


nomadeye said...

A balanced review of an entertaining and informative book about Taiwan's history and culture. Ross lives in Chiayi now but no one knows where. He doesn't get out of his book-lined, beer-filled mancave much, I hear. And why should he? But I too enjoyed this book, and enjoyed being able to relate to - and laugh along with -the anecdotes within.

Interactile Learning said...

You seem to be very shilly shally about Kiwis of late. First ya can't work out why Anthony Keidis would want to buy property there and now we'll all fair and balanced!

Ryan said...

I like the idea of a beer filled mancave.

Aren't all Canadians "shilly shally?"

Camphor Press said...

Happily Formosan Odyssey is now back, with a new afterword by the author addressing the time that has elapsed since he wrote the book. Camphor Press is selling the e-book for NT$90 (half price) until the end of February.

While you're there, you might like to check out his latest book, You Don't Know China. It's brilliantly written, informative, and a lot of fun.

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