Taiwan’s Farm Exporters Look to Unlock New Markets

With agriculture accounting for less than 2% of Taiwan’s GDP, and its supermarket shelves crammed with imported produce, it can be hard to imagine that at various points in the 20th century, Taiwan was a food exporter of global significance.

In 1939, the island – then a colony of Japan – was the world’s number-three source of bananas and canned pineapples. Around the same time, it ranked fourth for sugar and sweet potatoes, sixth for tea, and tenth for rice and peanuts. Taiwan began regular exports of canned and bottled mushrooms in 1960, and within a few years it was supplying a third of the world’s imported mushrooms. For several years until 1997, when foot-and-mouth disease decimated local swine farms, Taiwan was second only to Denmark as a pork exporter.

But since Taiwan began its transformation into a highly developed market economy in the 1950s, it has become increasingly dependent on imports of bulk commodities like wheat and soy. A typical per-year agricultural trade deficit is US$10 billion. Meanwhile, agricultural exports slid in value from 5.05% of Taiwan’s total exports in 1992 to 2.25% in 2003 and 1.38% in 2021.

For many years, China represented the biggest and most lucrative market for Taiwanese farm exports. During Ma Ying-jeou’s 2008-2016 presidency, a surge in agricultural exports to China was attributed to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed by Taipei and Beijing in 2010. The deal granted tariff-free access to the Chinese market to certain tea, bananas, oranges, processed foods, and live, refrigerated, and frozen fish. Between 2008 and 2016, agricultural exports to China soared from 11.3% to 19.4% of total farm exports. This figure rose to 23.2% in 2018, then dropped to 20.7% in 2020.

Since 2020, a series of sudden actions by Beijing have disrupted sales of Taiwanese farm products in China. Citing biosafety, Chinese authorities in March 2021 excluded the island’s pineapples, wax apples, and sugar apples. Last year, following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Beijing expanded the ban to other citrus fruits and dozens of processed foods.

In the wake of Beijing’s March 2021 announcement that it would ban Taiwanese pineapples – timed, some say, with the start of the harvest season to cause as much economic damage as possible – Taipei scored political points with its “freedom pineapples” campaign.

Engaging in solidarity economics, Taiwanese consumers bought up fruit that had been grown for the Chinese market. Support from Vietnam and Japan also significantly aided Taiwanese farmers. Late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tweeted a picture of himself with Taiwanese pineapples after Taiwan initiated its #FreedomPineapple campaign, and Japanese buyers ordered a record 10,000 tons of the fruit in one month. Despite these efforts, 2021’s pineapple exports decreased 35% from the year before to US$36.46 million.

To reduce farmers’ and fishers’ reliance on the Chinese market, the Council of Agriculture (COA) has been trying to expand and diversify export channels, says Lin Chih-hung, deputy director-general of the COA’s Department of International Affairs. In addition to identifying potential export markets for Taiwanese produce and gaining a better understanding of consumption trends in target markets, the COA is working to enhance export industry chains while stabilizing supplies in terms of both quantity and quality.

According to Lin, notable breakthroughs have been exports of oncidium orchids and mangoes to New Zealand, candied dates to South Korea, and pineapples to Australia. The first shipment of Taiwanese guavas to the U.S. arrived in California in January 2020. Before then, Mexico was the only country permitted to export fresh guavas to the U.S.

“At present, we’re negotiating access for our pineapples and sugar apples with Vietnam, for brown-marbled grouper with Japan, and processed and heat-treated pork products with the U.S.,” says Lin.

Lin says work to develop alternative markets is beginning to pay off. The proportion of farm and fisheries exports going to China fell from 19.8% in 2021 to 12.9% last year. In fact, China is no longer the number-one overseas buyer of Taiwanese produce. Exports to the U.S. edged down last year, yet it took a greater share (17.5%) of the island’s farm exports than any other market. Japan was a close second (16.3%). Compared to 2021, exports to Australia, Canada, South Korea, and Thailand were up, but ground was lost in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Japan looks to be a promising market for agriculture exports. Since 2010, Taiwan has managed to supplant the U.S. as the leading supplier of fresh lettuce to the Japanese market, including to McDonald’s branches throughout Japan. Takuya Murata, director of Nippon Ichiba Hong Kong, which exports Japanese and Taiwanese produce, says Taiwanese fruits are popular in Hong Kong due to their taste and affordable prices. Among Japanese consumers, he has noticed, Taiwan’s pineapples and mangoes are particularly popular on account of their taste.

Fresh guavas and lychees could also become popular, says Murata, but import regulations make it difficult to profitably export them to Japan. Because of the risk of bringing in pests, certain fruits are admitted only if fumigated; this adds to importers’ costs while damaging the taste, he explains. Some growers in Taitung get around Tokyo’s ban on fresh sugar apple imports by chilling them to minus 50 degrees Celsius and selling them as frozen treats, Taiwan News reported on September 27, 2021 – but that only works with a few types of fruit.

Kaohsiung-based She Sun Dae Trading Co. has also looked to Japan to increase its exports of Taiwanese produce. The company has developed a strong relationship with Ministop, Japan’s number-four convenience store chain in terms of sales revenue. Among the products supplied to Ministop are fresh and baked sweet potatoes, frozen pineapples, fresh mangoes, and fresh bananas. She Sun Dae Trading also ships Taiwanese cauliflower, cabbage, and lettuce to Japan while importing Japanese apples, pears, persimmons, and strawberries.

“Taiwan’s agricultural export strategy has two directions,” says Ignacio Chang, a consultant at Taiwan Sweet Potato International Food Co. and She Sun Dae Trading, its parent company. “The first is to sell large quantities at low prices, like the pineapples we used to sell to China. The other is to sell high-priced, small quantity, but delicate agricultural products. We’ve chosen the second approach, as the Japanese market has extremely strict requirements on the quality of agricultural products, including appearance, size, aroma, sweetness, newness, certificate of origin, production plan, environmental protection labels, and so on. For each of these, there are established specifications.”

Each year, specialists sent by Japanese buyers audit both the trading company and the farms to ensure that all requirements are fully met. Finding Taiwanese farmers willing and able to grow the right type of crops is challenging, Chang says. Few “have the energy to cope with such requirements. Our company has tried to contract with many different farmers, but in the end, only about one in 10 can meet the standard.”

“Based on my experience – and this is only my opinion – COA assistance for exporting agricultural products is very limited,” Chang says. The COA subsidizes exhibition fees, helps with publicity in Taiwan’s media, and assists with brand design. But it does little to help would-be exporters negotiate cumbersome procedures such as pesticide inspections and license acquisitions, he says. Chang expresses disappointment that “because it’s impossible to check the regulations of target countries through official channels here in Taiwan, we have to pay for private inquiries.”

Chang’s complaint is corroborated by Nancy Lang, founder of Three Leafs Tea, which she launched in 2016. About half of Lang’s business consists of dispatching tea direct to consumers in various countries. For small orders, she can use regular postal services or package delivery services, and the paperwork is minimal. Exporting larger quantities of tea is far more complex, however.

Lang says that despite being an export-oriented economy, Taiwan’s government hasn’t done well in terms of assisting small farmers or brands in exporting their products. Experienced tea merchants and producers have proven more helpful than the authorities, she adds.

“Most of the government programs I’ve come across are aimed at helping local farmers promote their teas within Taiwan,” says Lang, an American. “And as a foreign-owned company, Three Leafs Tea probably doesn’t qualify for certain schemes or subsidies.”

The number-one overseas market for Three Leafs Tea is the U.S., which Lang says is a relatively easy market to enter. Hong Kong is the number two destination, while France and Germany are also important markets. Japan-bound shipments require a great number of certifications, and much paperwork on the Taiwanese side, adding expenses to exporters.

“Most international trade seems to be conducted via just a few channels,” says Lang. “For individuals who want to get into the business, this makes it very hard. It also makes exports very vulnerable for all agricultural products. When relations with China take a dive, farmers suffer, and the government picks up the tab.” If the government in cooperation with farmers’ associations could diversify Taiwan’s sales channels and export destinations, “the situation wouldn’t be so fragile,” she adds.

The COA’s Lin cites government investments in cold chain logistics and quality assurance systems that will make it easier for local farmers to meet U.S., EU, and Japanese standards and the upgrading of quarantine treatment facilities and low-temperature storage equipment as actions that should lead to an expansion of agricultural exports.

Meanwhile, Chang calls for a thorough overhaul of the agricultural sector. In addition to export issues, climate change is having a serious impact on agriculture. But in Chang’s opinion, “the government’s coping strategies for extreme weather have almost no effect. Losses caused by abnormal weather are only subsidized. When the weather is favorable and there’s excess production, it’s impossible to adjust market demand or assist in long-term preservation of produce.”

Chang suggests elderly farmers receive more guidance on subletting or transferring their land and planning their retirement to make way for young agriculturalists who are more comfortable with modern technology. But Chang notes that initial investment costs are enormous, and the government’s loan system is neither complete nor entirely sound, so few young farmers dare to try. “At the same time, government agencies have obviously failed to keep up with the progress of global scientific and technological agriculture,” he says.

“The export dilemma isn’t difficult to solve,” Chang notes. “Many agricultural marketing companies are capable of negotiating international business, but only if there’s a stable and high-quality supply of goods will exports be sustainable.” He urges greater transparency as to the availability of land and personnel and stricter enforcement of rules governing the use of pesticides and fertilizers, so private-sector matchmaking can allow farmers who are “truly capable of producing high-quality agricultural products to connect with the international community.”

This article first appeared in the April issue of Taiwan Business Topics, and can be read online here.

When Questions Are Asked but Not Answered

A recent interview with a corporate spokesperson turned into an interesting and slightly frustrating exchange. Among the list of questions I’d presented was one which they flat-out refused to answer, and another to which they responded by saying the company hasn’t collated that data. 

The former touched on financial matters, so it’s understandable if the company didn’t want to divulge any details, even if it was a question many people would like to see answered. But the latter surprised me. I’d assumed it’d be a metric all enterprises of their size would track — yet given a peculiarity of the business environment here in Taiwan, I might well be wrong.

When I told the spokesperson that my article would mention that they’d declined to answer the first question, and that they couldn’t give me an answer to the second, I was told: “You shouldn’t do that.” It was irrelevant, they said. I’d be wasting the readers’ time. I should report facts, not the absence of them, I was advised.

I can’t help but smile when people try to do their job (protecting and enhancing their employer’s reputation) by telling me how to do mine. They didn’t want to say, “Please don’t do it, because it could embarrass us.” Anyhow, this experience has reminded me of something important: The questions that people can’t or won’t answer are very often as newsworthy as the answers they’re willing to provide.

Note to everyone I interview: If an answer to a key question isn’t forthcoming, don’t expect me to pretend that the question was never asked.

Persuading Taiwanese to Pedal

The environmental benefits of getting people to ride bicycles instead of using petroleum-powered vehicles are obvious. Hoping to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption, mitigate air and noise pollution and ease road congestion, dozens of governments now encourage their citizens to pedal or walk, rather than drive.

Proponents of cycling point to countries like the Netherlands and cities like Copenhagen. In both, the majority of people regularly use bikes to get to work or school. Despite hefty investments in bike-only lanes and other infrastructure, and a sizable population of leisure cyclists, nowhere in Taiwan has developed a cycling culture remotely like that of northwestern Europe.

According to a 2014 Ministry of Transportation and Communications survey on traveling habits, the demographic most dependent on bikes are teenagers who ride to school. The unemployed and retirees are more likely than full-time workers to use bicycles, yet just 9.8 percent of those aged 65 or above say they cycle when the journey exceeds 500m.

For a Taiwanese perspective on European cycling habits, and what Taiwan could learn from Europe, Taipei Times reached out to Lin Fen-yu, a Taichung native who’s lived in the Dutch city of Delft since 2014.

Lin, who works for a company that designs and engineers floating urban projects, says she got around by bike throughout her high school and university studies in Taiwan, and that she often rides when she’s back in her hometown of Taichung’s Fengyuan District. In Delft, now that she’s used to the weather, she uses a bicycle almost every day of the year.

According to Lin, key differences between the cycling environment in Taiwan and that in the Netherlands include, in the latter: better infrastructure; far stricter enforcement of traffic rules; and a widespread understanding of road-use etiquette that not only makes riding safer, but also ensures the harmonious co-existence of cyclists and pedestrians.

In Taiwan, she says, more than once she’s been on a bike lane that’s ended without warning, only to mysteriously reappear a few blocks down the road…

To read the rest of this article, which appeared in Taipei Times on November 24, go here.

Road Safety in Taiwan in Need of an Upgrade

On their first full day in Taiwan in September 2013, Jason and Keiko Jenkins and their two children were given a terrifying lesson in local road-use conventions.

Their son, then aged 11, stepped onto a crosswalk in downtown Tainan. A moment later, when the animated green figure that Taiwanese call xiaolüren (小綠人) began moving faster, Keiko urged the boy to speed up. Despite pedestrians having priority, vehicles turning right from Zhongshan Road onto Minzu Road began edging over the crosswalk, a common practice among drivers in Taiwan. Two- and four-wheelers were slowing or stopping as necessary, but the boy’s sudden acceleration resulted in a collision with a motorcycle ridden by a college student.

“My son had the right of way, but he did something unpredictable, causing the accident,” says Jason Jenkins, who grew up in the US state of Georgia.

The youngster suffered a leg injury, but no broken bones. “The guy who hit him couldn’t have been better about it,” recalls Jenkins. “He helped us at the hospital. In a way, I’m glad this happened at the very start of our time in Taiwan. After that, my kids – who were used to Tokyo’s traffic conditions – were extraordinarily cautious.”

Taiwan is not the only country where avoiding mishaps depends more on doing what other road users are likely to expect than on following rules set out by the authorities, says Jenkins, who has also lived in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Spain, and Mexico.

Tragically, Taiwanese road users do not seem to be getting any better at anticipating one another’s movements. Statistics from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) show that between January and December 2021, 2,990 people died within 30 days of being injured in a road crash – 18 more than in the previous year – even though the number of recorded accidents (356,779) was down by just over 1.5%, and the total number of injuries (more than 450,000) was also lower. 

Compared to the same period in 2020, fatalities in the first 11 months of 2021 among those under the age of 18 rose 9.1%. For those aged 65 or older, road deaths totaled 1,031 (down 6.6%). Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities declined slightly, but those involving electric bicycles jumped 27.3% to 56.

The most recent year in which road fatalities declined was 2017, when 2,697 people lost their lives. Some attribute the uptick in deaths since then to a huge increase in the number of food deliveries made by motorcycle. Indeed, every year many of those killed (including 1,655 between January and November 2021) are on motorcycles.

Counting both deaths and injuries per 100,000 residents, Tainan City, Taoyuan City, and Pingtung County have Taiwan’s most dangerous roads.

In 2000, deaths on highways totaled 3,388, or 15.4 per 100,000 residents. At the start of 2021, deaths per 100,000 had dropped only slightly, to 12.6. Some of Taiwan’s neighbors have made far greater progress. According to the OECD’s International Transport Forum, in 2018 South Korea recorded 7.3 road fatalities per 100,000, down from an atrocious 21.8 in 2000. Between 2000 and 2019, traffic deaths in Japan fell by 62% to just 3.1 per 100,000.

Riding a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous than driving a car – and, per square kilometer, Taiwan has at least 10 times more powered two-wheelers than Japan. But this is not the only reason for Taiwan’s higher death rate. In an Apple Daily article dated December 1, 2018, Taipei-based Japanese journalist Nojima Tsuyoshi described road conditions on the island as reminiscent of 1970s Japan, and “almost like a battlefield.”

Responding by email to Taiwan Business Topics, the MOTC said its efforts to reduce traffic-accident injuries and deaths are unceasing. In recent years, the ministry stated, it has curbed drunk driving, enhanced training and licensing standards for motorcyclists, provided police with new enforcement technologies, and stepped up educational work.

In a May 7, 2021 article on her Facebook page, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmaker Yeh Yu-lan contrasted government spending on policies designed to boost the birth rate with the Ministry of Education having set aside just 0.0025% of its budget for road-safety issues. Arguing that this low figure showed “disregard for the rights of those already born,” she asked, “are people willing to have children in an unsafe environment?”

Since 2006, the Jing Chuan Child Safety Foundation has been working with local schools to teach students correct traffic-safety concepts and improve the local road environment. According to a foundation spokesperson, in addition to improving traffic-safety education, the government should investigate accident hotspots and reconsider its approach to road design. The foundation suggests that Taiwan follow Japan by installing railings on both sides of busy thoroughfares, so people cannot cross wherever they like.

The spokesperson also urges the authorities to enforce speed limits more strictly in urban areas. In Western countries, speeding is cited as a factor in many crashes. However, according to the Statistical Analysis of Road Traffic Accidents data from January to October 2020 posted on the MOTC’s website, excess speed is not among the top five causes of road deaths and injuries in Taiwan.

Many of Taiwan’s road accidents are caused by drivers failing to pay attention rather than speeding. Failing to pay attention and failing to yield were the two most common causes of fatalities. Such behavior was also linked to 155,963 cases of injury. Making left turns “not in accordance with rules” is another major cause of deaths and injuries. Failing to maintain a safe distance is the number-four cause of non-fatal spills but does not kill many people.

Other dangerous behaviors often seen on local roads include running red lights, turning without signaling, driving or riding without lights after dark or during torrential rain, and driving or riding while using a cellphone.

Cheng Tsu-Jui is among those who contend that driving behavior in Taiwan lags behind other countries that have reached a similar level of economic development. Many people in cars assume roads exist for their convenience and that they deserve priority over citizens on two wheels or two feet, he says.

Since taking up an assistant professorship at National Cheng Kung University’s Department of Transportation and Communication Management Science in the summer of 2020, Cheng has tried to make a habit of commuting by bicycle to the campus in central Tainan.

“But I’m finding it a bit tricky and a bit dangerous,” he laments. He says that when he studied in London a decade ago, the environment and infrastructure there for cyclists was much better than it is currently in any part of Taiwan outside Taipei. In London, and later during the two years he worked in Bonn in Germany, he got around by bike, on foot, or by public transportation.

In both the UK and Germany, Cheng explains, the authorities now emphasize a hierarchy of road users that puts pedestrians and users of mobility aids at the very top, followed by cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists, cars, vans, and – at the bottom – buses and trucks. Taiwan’s government should follow suit, and make clear through education who must yield to whom, he argues.

Taiwan needs an island-wide road safety agency “with real teeth,” he says. The MOTC’s National Road Traffic Safety Commission (NRTSC), established back in 1983, is not structured to properly challenge the authorities’ ideas and assumptions, he explains. Spending by the ministry on road safety, which in 2021 accounted for just 0.4% of the ministry’s total budget, “should be much higher,” he adds.

A body like the NRTSC is unlikely to approve radical action, says Cheng, because it is staffed mainly by civil servants and thus lacks independent assessments and stakeholder engagement. In addition to being cautious by nature, technocrats in the MOTC and local governments’ transportation bureaus got their jobs after passing examinations based on textbooks, which Cheng says must be updated if Taiwan is to build a modern road-safety culture.

The mandatory helmet law that came into force in 1997 helped reduce deaths among motorcyclists. Tightening the DUI (Driving under the Influence) law contributed to a reduction in drunk-driving fatalities, from 909 in 2011 to under 300 in recent years. Taxi drivers now require passengers to buckle up. Yet in other respects, enforcement of traffic rules is sporadic, particularly in rural areas.

Enforcement is so fundamental, Cheng explains, that transportation experts call it one of the “three E’s” or three pillars of road safety, along with education and engineering. He adds two more “E’s” to the list: Engagement (involving as many stakeholders as possible) and empowerment (teaching everyone that they are part of the road-safety equation).

When it comes to getting people to obey the law, Cheng says he is hopeful for two reasons. Cameras tied to License Plate Recognition software make it possible to surveil every stretch of road, reducing the need for “boots on the ground” policing. At the same time, young politicians often pressure the police to more strictly enforce the law, while pushing local governments to improve road design.

However, Cheng says, the authorities should make far greater use of the penalty points system introduced more than 20 years ago. Despite the millions of fines issued for traffic violations every year, relatively few drivers have their licenses suspended, or are ordered to attend road-safety courses.

Evaluation tools developed by iRAP (the International Road Assessment Program, a UK-based NGO) could be very useful for Taiwan. “We’d be able to find out where we are, which is necessary if we’re to progress to where we want to be,” Cheng says. The MOTC, after showing initial enthusiasm for iRAP, did not pursue the initiative. Cheng wonders whether this was because “they realized that Taiwan wouldn’t score well, and politicians in Taiwan may not want to be embarrassed. But it means we’re avoiding the first step.”

Like Cheng, Charles Lin, executive director of the Taiwan Traffic Safety Association, argues that a pedestrians-first policy must be central to any effort to make the roads safer. “This civilized concept will require brave and decisive execution,” he says. Lin’s association was formed in 2017 to represent road users excluded by what he says is the authorities’ focus on cars and trucks.

Lin is pushing for modern, uniform road-design standards, like those set out in the US Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the UK’s Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, and the Netherlands’ CROW design manual for bicycle traffic. He also calls for better training for drivers, motorcyclists, and traffic engineers, and for greater reliance on crash analysis before tightening speed-limit enforcement.

In addition, Lin says the construction of new cycleways is less important than amending the existing policy that consigns powered two-wheelers of up to 250cc in slow lanes together with bicycles. “This creates a bad traffic environment for all kinds of slow-moving vehicles,” he says.

Lin views the current vehicle safety standards for both larger commercial vehicles and passenger cars as insufficient, and singles out Direct Vision Standards (which regulate the visibility and awareness of the driver and other road-users through sensors and cameras, as well as windows and mirrors) for trucks as lacking. His association regularly interacts with the MOTC and local transportation bureaus but has yet to receive a response to its suggestions from the Vehicle Safety Certification Center, a non-profit under the supervision of the MOTC.

Lin says that because various lobbies hold sway among politicians and within the central and local governments, road policy is heavily influenced by economic considerations. Illegal parking is often ignored because stores and restaurants hope customers can park nearby, SUVs and trucks enjoy priority over pedestrians and motorcycles, and speed traps are positioned to maximize revenue, not enhance safety.

This emphasis on what is good for business may well be injurious to the overall economy. A 2010 study by the MOTC’s Institute of Transportation concluded that the previous year’s traffic accidents cost Taiwan NT$431.9 billion (US$15.5 billion), equal to 3.17% of GDP. In 2014, the institute estimated the economic burden had reached NT$475 billion per year.

These tallies do not include what the World Health Organization calls “psychosocial losses.” In a 2016 paper, Huang Lan-ying, an associate professor in National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Criminology, noted that “post-crash occupational disruption” among victims’ families in Taiwan is almost as prevalent as among seriously-injured victims themselves. Traffic collisions “carry a very high socio-economic cost for the society and the families affected, in part because traffic-crash injuries and casualties generally occur in victims’ mid-life years.”

In her conclusion, she called for a redoubling of efforts to reduce collisions, and – in a remark that is as valid now as it was in 2016 – observed that “Taiwan has had appropriate legislation in place for a long time [yet] ongoing enforcement of these laws, even with the addition of closed-circuit TV monitors in key locations, remains far from optimal.”

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Taiwan Business Topics. This version was updated to include road accident statistics for December 2021.

3.5 Articles in Taiwan Business Topics

Three and a half articles. How is that possible?

You’ve perhaps guessed. One of the four features to bear my name in the December and January issues of Taiwan Business Topics was jointly written with Katy Hui-wen Hung, my long-time collaborator on food matters.

For the December issue, which focused on Taiwan’s tourism industry, I wrote about how the growing number of prosperous older travelers (both foreign and domestic) has huge potential to transform the sector, and what the authorities could do to ameliorate the feast-or-famine cycle that afflicts tourist destinations and businesses in Taiwan.

In this month’s magazine, Katy and I describe the history of three traditional sweet desserts in Taiwan: aiyu jelly; mesona jelly; and shaved ice. My solo effort looks into human consumption of insects (such as the dried crickets shown above; photo courtesy of Timothy Seekings), something I’d been investigating for several months with the kind help of researchers and entrepreneurs.

As I type this, I’m putting together two more articles for Taiwan Business Topics… but I won’t say what they’re about until they’ve been published.

Reinventing Kaohsiung

Back in April 2013, Business Traveller Asia-Pacific published my article about the great strides forwards Kaohsiung was making in terms of livability. I won’t post the entire article, just the first few paragraphs; it’s now seriously out of date because the city has continued to make steady progress.

For much of Taiwan’s postwar history, Kaohsiung wasn’t so much lagging behind as written off. Business visitors described the oceanside city as irredeemably polluted, saying it had the sprawl and congestion of Taipei but little of the capital’s cuisine and none of its cultural attractions.

Until the late 1990s they were mostly right. An early sign of the city’s betterment was Love River changing color. Even before Taiwan made the shift from authoritarianism to democracy, public demands that something be done about the smelly, tar-black waterway were too loud to ignore.

Sewage plants are one reason why Love River now has a much healthier hue, but ecological engineering techniques also played a role. So the water’s edge would take on a more natural appearance, the river’s banks were covered with coconut-fiber matting in which aquatic plants could take root, but which will eventually decompose.

The fact that many of the city’s nastiest industries have migrated to the Chinese mainland has helped. Kaohsiung’s sky, like its river, is bluer than it used to be.

In late 2010, Kaohsiung City merged with the surrounding county, increasing the population to 2.8 million. The municipality now encompasses many rural districts, up to and including the south face of Mount Jade, East Asia’s highest mountain. But even before the reorganization, urban Kaohsiung managed to go from way behind Taipei in terms of green space per resident to slightly ahead. It’s little wonder “the general impression of Kaohsiung has taken a 180-degree turn,” to quote a mid-2012 article in CommonWealth, one of Taiwan’s most respected Chinese-language publications…

Living History

Just after Taiwan went into Level-3 epidemic countermeasures on May 19, I emptied out a huge cupboard where I’d been storing old magazines, newspapers, and other work-related materials. Knowing I’d not be able to travel beyond the nearest supermarket for a while, I was determined to declutter at least one corner of the house.

While dividing print publications into three piles (discard, clip, or keep), I came across several articles I’d written but completely forgotten about. I had only the dimmest recollection of this one, for which I interviewed — by email, not in person, I’m pretty sure — the director of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum in the summer of 2010. It appeared in Silkroad, the inflight magazine of Dragon Air, now Cathay Dragon.

Storm Chasers Track Down Taiwan’s Winds

This article first appeared in the October 26, 2007 issue of Taiwan Journal.

As part of its efforts to attract foreign tourists to Taiwan, the Tourism Bureau has been working hard to promote the country’s scenic, cultural and architectural landmarks, such as the Sun Moon Lake, the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101.

However, when Stuart Robinson made a brief visit to Taiwan earlier this month, none of these attractions were on his itinerary. Computer engineering is the Briton’s profession, but tornadoes, hurricanes, twisters and typhoons are his passion.

The 40-year-old, who lives in England’s East Midlands, has chased storms in the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. He timed his visit to Taiwan — the furthest he has ever traveled to experience extreme weather — to coincide with the arrival of Typhoon Krosa.

Typhoon Krosa, which lashed Taiwan during the weekend of October 6-7, was responsible for at least nine deaths, with winds and torrential rains destroying more than US$117 million worth of crops and agricultural facilities.

“Watching this storm grow from my office back in England, I saw that the forecast tracked Krosa over Taiwan. I knew this storm was chaseable and that I had to be there!” Robinson said in an e-mail interview October 15.

Robinson then contacted Roger Hill, a weather enthusiast from Denver in the US state of Colorado. The two met up at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, where they hired a car. After booking a hotel room equipped with Internet access, which is important for getting the latest weather updates, the duo set about planning their intercept strategy. “The forecast track of the storm was across the northeast tip of the island. Landfall would be late afternoon the next day,” Robinson said.

For the British storm chaser, Taiwan’s seeming lack of preparation as Krosa closed in was astounding. With the typhoon due to slam into the island in less than 24 hours, “people were carrying on with normal life,” he said. “In the Gulf of Mexico, there would be a mass evacuation, and premises would be boarded up to protect them against the wind. Here in Taiwan, there was none of this.”

At dawn the next day, “it was totally overcast with a light rain and gusty winds,” Robinson said. “I knew this was just the beginning of things.” Robinson and Hill rechecked Krosa’s forecast track and then drove to the northeast coast.

When they arrived, the sea was already very turbulent, with six-meter-high waves crashing onto the rocks, sending up huge towers of water. The rain was starting to fall in earnest, with small streams and rivers filling up. Already the winds were up to gale force.

The two men looked for buildings that could protect them and their car when the typhoon hit, but found few suitable structures in the small fishing communities that dot the coast. “Road tunnels would have been our ultimate escape location” if conditions became too dangerous, Robinson said.

Tunnels afford protection, but landslides at both ends may trap people inside. According to a posting on an online forum often used by Robinson and other storm chasers, one foreign typhoon enthusiast got stuck in a tunnel near Hualien for three days during 2005’s Typhoon Haitang.

Robinson had another problem to deal with: The satellite tracking equipment he uses to chase storms in North America does not work in Taiwan. “The footprint for the satellite covers the United States only, so I knew it wouldn’t work in Taiwan. I didn’t have time to see if there was an alternative product available.”

Lacking up-to-the-minute radar and satellite images delivered to their car by high-speed wireless Internet, the two men had to go back to basics. “We decided to track it visually, measuring wind speeds and temperature. It tested Roger’s and my years of storm-chasing skills to the max!”

Early in the afternoon, they felt their first typhoon-strength gust. “This rocked the car and showered us with bits of soil and sand,” Robinson said. “We had parked behind a small concrete building to protect the car. With each gust the wind got stronger. The roads by now were deserted and visibility was reduced to about 300 meters as the air filled with rain that was being blown horizontally. We were totally on our own.”

“However, the storm was not behaving itself,” recalled Robinson. “The winds were not changing direction and the pressure was not falling as quickly as it should have. It dawned on us that we were too far north. The storm had in fact changed direction and instead of heading directly toward us, was heading south of us. We still had time to relocate, and elected to try and push down to find the eye.”

“Driving the car along that coast road at the height of the typhoon were some of the most nerve-racking weather moments I’ve ever had,” Robinson said. “Conditions were dreadful. Even with the wipers on full I could only just keep the windscreen free of rain. The wind would rock the car and forward speed was only about 30 kilometers per hour. After a few kilometers we realized that we weren’t going to be able to make it into the eye. I pulled the car up behind a dirt embankment, and we got ready for what would be a harrowing few hours.”

“At this point we were dejected,” Robinson said. “To come all this way and miss the eye by just a few miles was very hard to take. We were soaked though, cold and hungry. Moreover, we would have to suffer the very worst and most intense winds that surrounded the eye. Getting into the eye would have at least given us a chance to escape the winds.”

Then Krosa surprised the two storm chasers again. “The winds decreased instead of increasing, and we noticed that the pressure was not falling as normal, but was increasing,” Robinson said. “We both thought that we’d missed the eye completely and it was moving away from us over land. We sat there for two hours until it was safe to drive again. It was getting dark so we decided to return to Taipei.”

Arriving in Taipei, the men were surprised to find businesses open. “We got a room and started to look at the storm over the Internet. What we saw shocked us both,” Robinson recalled.

After approaching the spot where the storm chasers had been waiting, Krosa had suddenly turned south and back out to the sea. In the end it did a complete loop over the ocean before making landfall, by which time it was significantly weaker.

“Taiwan dodged a bullet” is how Robinson described this fortuitous turn of events. “At dawn the next day we drove back out to the coast. We were relieved to see that the small fishing communities were largely unscathed. Many trees were down but there wasn’t much evidence of building damage.”

“I feel dejected that I missed the eye,” concluded Robinson. “But that’s the weather!”

Robinson and Hill were not the only foreign storm chasers who rushed to Taiwan to catch Typhoon Krosa. According to Robinson, one came from Australia. Another, a Briton working in China, flew in from Shanghai.

The latter uses the pseudonym “Typhoon Hunter,” and posted several comments and photos on the UK Weatherworld forum. “Taiwanese infrastructure held up brilliantly as usual,” he wrote, noting also that he saw no gas stations closing or running dry, no panic buying and no looting. “This was my fifth typhoon in Taiwan, and this place is definitely my favorite place to intercept.”

The Graveyard

My friend and fellow writer John Grant Ross has called Taiwan “a graveyard of English-language publications.” I’m in my 30th year on this island, and in that time I’ve seen a good few newspapers, magazines and websites rise and fall.

I cut my teeth writing for The China Post, a daily newspaper that launched in Taipei in 1952. It ceased printing in 2017, but continues as an online publication. Taiwan News, where I worked as a copyeditor at the turn of the century, is also web-only (and seems to be far more successful, in terms of attracting readers, than The China Post).

Fountain, a biannual magazine put out by a government-backed cultural foundation, was a beautiful thing to hold and behold. For its fifth issue, I wrote big chunks of a special report looking forward to the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung. (This led to me writing about the event for other publications). A highlight of the assignment was getting to meet and interview Chi Cheng, a legendary track athlete and, in person, a gregarious and down-to-earth individual.

It’s sad but unsurprising that English-language publications struggle in Taiwan. In Hong Kong and Singapore, where far more people are likely to read something in English, the situation is hardly better…

Back to Black

The challenge came over a mug of coffee. If I was serious about reducing my environmental impact, a friend teased, I should be putting soy milk, not cow’s milk, in my drink.

Back in February 2016, EcoWatch.com told its readers that cow’s milk represents “60 to 70 percent of the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee with a few tablespoons of milk.” For a latte, the article said, “it’s more like 80 or 90 percent.”

My response to my friend ran to two words: “Food miles.” Most of the soy consumed in Taiwan is grown on the other side of the Pacific, I pointed out, whereas almost all of the cow’s milk sold in fluid form in Taiwan’s supermarkets comes from local dairy herds.

“But what do those cows eat, and where does it come from?” he asked.

We both knew the answer. Dairy cows don’t, as some people imagine, subsist on grass. Instead, the 20 to 25kg of food each animal consumes per day comprises roughly equal quantities of forage (grass, hay and silage) and grains (usually corn and soy). Food-processing by-products like cottonseeds, citrus pulp, almond hulls and soy hulls are often added, as are spent grains from breweries.

Just how much of the diet of Taiwanese cattle is imported may surprise you…

To read my April 21, 2021 Environmental Impact Assessment column in full, go here.