Language continues to be as much of an issue in Taiwan

5:26pm, 7 December 2007. Image from
5:26pm, 7 December 2007. Image from

Rectification of names by the new administration of the Taiwanese (ROC) government continues. The blog David on Formosa managed to get several snapshots of the old slogan over the entrance to the square surrounding Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, which was a reference to CKS’s chosen name for himself (Zhongzheng), and then followed up a few months later with some photos showing that the Hall itself had in fact been returned to its original name (i.e. CKS Memorial Hall) after a brief period of renaming as Democracy Memorial Hall under the Chen Shui-bian administration. As a comprimise, the KMT Ma Ying-jiu administration accepted keeping the new name of the square, which today is still labeled 自由廣場 (Liberty Square), while returning the old name of the Hall itself.

During my recent 3 week trip to Taiwan, I kept meaning to stop by the Hall, but simply never had the time. I did notice, however, the new “Liberty Sqaure” signs while driving past it. I also happened to be in Taiwan around the time that Taiwan Post, former Chunghwa Post, was again being renamed to Chungwha Post. I actually passed by one post office which just said “______ Post”, with a big empty space where the first word of the name should be. Unfortunately, my camera was in my bag at the time.

At the same time, there has apparently been another controversy over whether to use the name Taiwan or China, this time in a particularly comical place-the nation’s bird watching association.

The renaming of BirdLife International’s Taiwan chapter from Wild Bird Federation Taiwan to the Chinese Wild Bird Federation has caused an uproar among some of Taiwan’s bird lovers, with the founding president of the Wild Bird Society of Penghu, Lin Chang-hsing (林長興), saying that he will call for members to resign from the Chinese Wild Bird Federation.

Apart from refusing to pay yearly membership fees to the Chinese Wild Bird Federation, Lin said he would invite fellow bird enthusiasts to set up a new federation for wild birds using the words “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese.”

There are also at least two more serious developments that have made the news recently though. First is a decision by a Geneva, Switzerland court declaring that Taiwan (ROC) “is an eligible plaintiff in the case on the grounds that it possesses all the elements of statehood and that its government holds and effectively exercises sovereignty over its territory.” While I believe that this does not necessarily have any effect on formal diplomatic recognition by the Swiss government, it certainly seems like it could open the way for it. And most significantly, the court simply recognizes that Taiwan/ROC is a state, without particularly caring what it is called, or about anything related to the “one China” issue. This seems to mean that the Swiss court has effectively opted for dual recognition of China/PRC and Taiwan/ROC as separate and independent states. As a further wrinkle, the actual case involved a lawsuit filed by Taiwan/ROC against the ISO (International Standards Organization) “emanding that the organization correct Taiwan’s designation from Taiwan Province, China to Republic of China (Taiwan) in the ISO 3166 country codes list.” While the current administration certainly has no desire to force the ISO to change the designated name to a simple “Taiwan”, there seems to be no reason why it would not be possible. If Taiwan/ROC prevails in their lawsuit against the ISO, it would open the door for a future DPP administration to request a name change from Republic of China (Taiwan) to simply Taiwan.

And finally, in a move which ideologically could be considered as pro-China, but in practical terms is a victory for simple common sense, the government has finally declared that Taiwan will standardize Mandarin Chinese romanization on Hanyu Pinyin in 2009. Unlike in the PRC, Taiwanese themselves simply do not use Pinyin, and it exists on signs solely for the benefit of foreigners. While the cacaphony of mutually incomprehensible romanizations throughout Taiwan do have a certain charm, the fact that the same name or word may be romanized upwards of a half-dozen ways throughout the island is doing no favors to the visiting (or even resident) foreigner. Ma implemented Hanu Pinyin as an official system during his term as mayor of Taipei, and so this move is far from a surprise. It might be a minor victory for the pro China side in Taiwan’s culture war, but as a practical matter this is simply a good idea.

Oh, and on a more tangentially related note, it appears that the US has dropped Taiwan from the proposed list of visa waiver countries. I guess they didn’t want to piss off one of their largest creditors during the economic meltdown.

A visit to Losheng

Update: Photo gallery added on 9.23.2008. The new Flicker flash gallery has a fullscreen mode which is excellent for photos like these. Also added some additional comments by Mr. Chang.

I had meant to write a few days ago about what I’ve been doing in Taiwan, but my friend’s house mate forgot to pay the DSL bill and so I haven’t been able to get online all that easily, so tonight I finally broke down and paid the NT$100 (about US$3) for a 24 hour WiFly (WiFi service in every Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, etc. in Taiwan) access card.

So, today I visited Taiwan’s famous Losheng Sanitarium (樂生療養院), a leper colony built by the Japanese colonial government in Xinzhuang City, Taipei County. As in leper colonies throughout the world, Taiwanese victims of Hansen’s Disease were forcibly imprisoned in Losheng by the government, as they were in Japan by the government there. Although the leper imprisonment order was lifted in Taiwan in the 1950s (I believe someone today told me 1957), they have for the most part remained. With modern medicine the patients are no longer inmates, and no longer contagious, but nothing can de-cripple them or regrow their missing fingers and stumpy limbs. And they have nowhere to go, and no way to survive except by public welfare of some sort.

I had first heard of Losheng perhaps a couple of years ago, due to the wave of protests to the government’s plan to demolish the entire complex to make way for a train depot, as part of Taipei metro’s never-ending expansion plan. Although there are naturally no opponents to MRT expansion itself, there have been severe doubts regarding the sense of building the depot in this particular location, which apparently requires the leveling of mountain to create flat ground which naturally occurs elsewhere and is widely suspected of having been chosen to satisfy local political interests before practical considerations of engineering.

Primary opposition to the plan however, is due to a desire to preserve Losheng. The adage goes something like, you never really appreciate something to it’s gone, and it is born out time and again in the history of urban preservation. New York City’s historical preservation regime was established in the wake of the foolhardy and abhorrent demolition of Penn Station in the 1960s, and throughout the world preservationist activity is often triggered by the threat of imminent loss. The government’s plan to demolish the place made people realize for the first time that it was worth preserving, and recent protests have spurred a surge of interest in the hospital site and its residents that has gone beyond simple preservationism to community organizing attempting to integrate Losheng, which for most of its existence was in principle as isolated as a prison, into the surrounding community. This has led to large numbers of non afiliated visitors spending time with the patients for probably the first time in many years, if not ever.

Since I cannot process the files from my digital camera until I get home to my desktop computer, words will have to suffice for now in describing Losheng. it turns out that from the articles I had read in The Taipei Times, not to mention the briefer pieces I saw in Japanese media I had no idea what it was like. When I read about a hospital/leper sanitarium being destroyed to make way for MRT construction I had for some reason imagined a cluster of shabby old buildings on a city street corner. But of course a leper colony could not be in such a place, and is in fact built on slightly elevated and up-sloping terrain on mountain foothills of a part of Taipei county that, at the time, was mostly farmland. Less a modern style hospital or a prison, Losheng is actually a sprawling and rather pleasant, almost collegiate-looking, campus with abundant greenery and attractive brick buildings. The main hospital building looks properly medical, and the general sense of design reflects its Japanese period origins, with semi-exposed corridors reminiscent of the older buildings on the Japanese Imperial Universities of the early 20th century, such as today’s National Taiwan University or Kyoto National University (the two examples whose architecture I am familiar with). Most other buildings are also in the pre-war Japanese style common in Taiwan, with a few notable exceptions. The least Japanese buildings in Losheng are probably the Buddhist temple, which is in standard Taiwanese style, and the now shuttered Catholic Church, which is perhaps the most spartan Catholic church building I have ever seen, with only a spare cross on the roof and no writing of any kind on the outside, but with a green Chinese roof, oddly complete with dragon tiles on the corners, and outer walls painted in the Chinese temple fashion. It reminds me of nothing so much as the far more elaborate Tainan Catholic cathedral, which is constructed and painted completely in the manner of a Chinese temple, if you do not look too close at the paintings. Of particular interest are the residence buildings for patients (originally, remember, inmates) from particular parts of Taiwan, such as Penghu or Tainan, donated by the governments of that region.

I mentioned above activity integrating the Losheng campus into the greater community. This consists of various activities, such as holding lectures and community meetings inside Losheng, or educational programs for children. As chance had it, I happened to go on a day which was particularly active. Community activists are currently running a summer camp for children from various elementary schools in the area, using various Losheng buildings for different activities. I was taken to see the room being used for a week-long Japanese language class run by a Japanese woman studying a PhD in Urban Planning at National Taiwan University, in the room of the hospital building where the sickest patients were brought, connected by a locked iron door to the much smaller room where they were taken to die. This is either morbidly incongruous beyond belief, or an excellent symbol of the way in which the space is being reclaimed and repurposed from its grim past. But little of that darkness remains. The staff (mostly Taiwanese college students) had cleaned the room fastidiously, and it was festooned with child drawings illustrating various basic Japanese words and phrases.

Then I went to a much larger room, a sort of meeting hall I suppose, where the kids were being led in Japanese songs by some of the old patients who remember their Japanese well. One played the keyboard-no easy task with hands ravaged by Hansen’s Disease, while another sat in front of the stage in his motor chair, leading the children in Furosato.

After the class was over, I spent some time speaking to the old men, who seemed both movingly thrilled and slightly amazed to have so many young people, children, teenagers and 20-somethings, having fun inside Losheng and spending time with the patients as human beings, and not afraid of their no longer contagious disease. As is the case with many elderly Taiwanese, their first language is Taiwanese (aka Minnan, Hoklo, Fukkianese, etc.) Their Mandarin is generally weak and heavily accented, and most of them also speak Japanese to some degree, having undergone elementary education during the colonial period. I spent the most time speaking with one old man, Chang Wen-pin 张文贫 (can’t figure out how to type pinyin with traditional characters on this thing…), whose fluent Japanese was easily the best out of the group.

Mr. Chang, now 81 if my calculations are correct, went to a Japanese colonial elementary school in Taiwan and worked as, I think, a locksmith both under the Japanese and in the early years of the KMT, before he was interned. He was around 20 years old at the time of the 228 incident, and considers Chiang Kai-shek to be the worst thing to have happened to Taiwan.

To paraphrase, translated and from memory:

Taiwan’s history is full of tragedy. After WW2 Taiwan shouldn’t have been given to Chiang Kai-shek, but instead the allies should have occupied it. America, England and Russia should have managed Taiwan and then organized it for independence. If they had done that then we would have avoided the 228 massacre and noone in Taiwan would be speaking Mandarin (lit: guoyu) today!

He went on to mention that he suspected a war between China and Taiwan would involve Japan and the U.S., and expand into not just a nuclear WW3, but literally “becoming the battle of Armageddon as described in the Bible.” He mentioned his strong distrust of Ma Ying-jiu, and his worry that Ma and the other KMT supporters of unification with China would lead to the destruction of Taiwan.

When we were done speaking and I was preparing to leave, Mr. Chang and the others made me promise to come back and visit next time I come to Taiwan, and before I left he made me wait while he went back to his room and brought a copy of the photo and essay book about Losheng assembled by the preservationist activists, which he signed and gave to me.

Countless speakers have said that “A society is ultimately judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.” (Based on a quick search, the source of this quote seems obscure.) The leper has always been a symbol for the lowest in society, and despite having no use for religion myself, I think I can understand why Mr. Chang finds his solace in Christianity, a religion in which the leper is a symbol not of disgust, but of redemption. It says a lot of a society in which lepers are no longer lepers, but patients, and the resurrection of Losheng from a medical prison into a park where children play may be taken as a symbol for Taiwan’s transformation from colony and then military dictatorship into the relatively free and effectively independent country that it is today. But the current metro expansion plan still requires the demolition of something like 30-40% of Losheng’s territory, with some buildings kept in place, a few relocated, and many destroyed entirely. Even the preservationists have abandoned their attempts to save the entire site, with construction of the nearby depot building already well under way, and their best case plan today is the “90% plan.” There is still room for improvement.

The Viceroy’s many connections in the Orient

Two of the three bloggers at Cominganarchy, who go by the online handles of, Curzon and Younghusband, were in the same university in Kyoto where Adam and I did our undergraduate study abroad exchange program while we were there. Curzon, like Adam and Joe, had previously participated in a one year high school study abroad exchange in a different part of Kansai (and a different program from the one Adam and Joe were on), and even before that-12 years ago now-had done a summer program in which he stayed for a month with a host family in Otsu, a small city in Shiga Prefecture located just across the mountains to the east of Kyoto.

Although Curzon spent his first few months of undergraduate study abroad living in the same international students dormitory that Adam and I later lived in (Curzon arrived before us), and which Younghusband had lived in a couple of years earlier, he soon moved out and into one of the very cheap and very old fashioned dormitories that lie somewhere on the continuum of housing between hovel and tenement, with facilities so bare that they would never even be considered a legal residence back in the United States. I say dormitory because while each resident has an individual room-which cost a measly 13,000 yen (around $130) per month-for that price you got just a room, with only a shared toilet and no bathing facilities anywhere in the building. This sort of arrangement used to be typical in Japan, where neighborhood bath houses are still common in many areas, but has understandably fallen out of fashion in a period when most people can afford better.

When I returned to Kyoto earlier this year, I spent the entire month of April living in the spare bedroom of a friend’s apartment, down in Kyoto’s far southern ward of Fushimi so that I would have a base from which to look for someplace else to live. Since I have another friend who was in fact studying with Cuzon, Adam and I back in 2002-03 who will be moving back to Kyoto in September to engage in some other study program, we had decided that, so we would be able to live cheaply and yet still have a decent amount of space, we would rent a house to share after he arrived. However, not wanting to be stuck with a double share of rent for the intervening months, I decided that it would be best to find somplace both cheap and temporary, and if at all possible also located close to campus.

The biggest difficulty here has to do with the way rental leases are often structured in Japan. Even when the actual monthly rent is low, is it typical here to pay an outrageous reikin (often translated as “key money” equal to several months rent, in addition to a month or two of rent upfront, and a deposit equal to a couple of months rent. I considered living in one of those foreigner guest houses for a couple of months, but I visited one and it seemed fairly lame, and I thought I could do cheaper. And I did. I managed to get very lucky and find a place which is very cheap, very well located, and has a contract that I can leave with no penalty. The building is, rather oddly, owned by a monk who actually lived inside the temple on Hiezan, the holy mountain on the NE corner of Kyoto, who is so seriously monk-y that he spent twenty years engaged in a special Esoteric Buddhist meditation where, although he could interact with people, he did not leave the mountain at all. Needless to say, his grasp of modern technology is rather weak.

The apartment is, while old, low-class, and rundown, is however, unlike Curzon’s aforementioned former place, actually an apartment. A small one, to be sure, (a single 6-tatami room and a 2.5 tatami kitchen area separated by sliding doors) but with a (very basic) kitchen, a (Japanese style) toilet, and a bath. What it lacks, however, is a shower. And the bath tap only produces cold water, so you have to fill it up, heat it up with the gas bath heater-that very annoyingly must be turned on from the veranda- and then wash yourself by sitting next to the tub and pouring water on yourself in a sort of poor-man’s psuedo-shower. But, at least there is an air conditioner. While far from ideal, the price was right. ¥25,000 a month, with no reikin, and only a one-month deposit that the monk landlord promises I will get back as long as there is no extraordinary damage. But considering the ragged tatami and old paint that was here when I moved in, the bar for that was set low. I believe that this is the lowest price you could possibly get in Kyoto for a room with private bath, and while on the shabby side, is still a solid two or three steps above the ¥13,000 room.

The landlord occasionaly drops off various gifts, senbei, expensive chocolates, fancy tea, etc. which I find hanging on my door handle every few weeks when I get home from somewhere. These are most likely gifts brought to the temple by parishioners, which the monks then redistribute for some reason. Two days ago I returned home to find a new treat, with an envelope containing the following note attached.

Mr. Roy Berman

It is my very pleasure and astonishment that you and Mr. Curzon my acquaintance should be good friends from the same province.As you know, he stays in Tokyo now, and orders me to serve you as possible!


Naturally perplexed, I emailed Curzon to see how this might be, and it turns out that Mr. Koutai (first name) was a friend of Curzon’s host father from his very first stay in Japan, 12 years ago in Otsu. The hostfather had taken the then-teenaged Curzon up Hiezan to meet the monk, and they met again a couple of weeks ago when Curzon visited the old host father in Otsu.

Could be called “10 places I’d like to visit”

I stumbled across a fantastic post on Oddee entitled “10 Most Amazing Ghost Towns“, all 10 of which are officially now on my list of places I’d like to go. My affection for ruins and abandoned places is well documented, so how could I resist places like this sand-drowned Numibian village?

As it so happens, I should actually be able to stop by one of these sites within the next month. The Sanzhi haunted retro-futuristic beachfront housing development is located on the north coast of Taipei County, not very far from Danshui. And I’m going to Taiwan next Wednesday for almost 3 weeks.

While Sanzhi may not exactly be a short walk from Danshui station, it looks like a very reasonable bike ride to me, and I’m fairly sure that Danshui is one of the MRT stations where loading/offloading of bicycles is allowed. Hopefully I’ll have some time to track down this place while I’m in Taiwan.

Original Flickr set.

Location on Google Maps.