Looking for patterns in page-view numbers

More than 20 years ago, I kicked off my writing career by doing travel pieces for an English-language newspaper here in Taiwan. A few books and hundreds (possibly more than a thousand, I long ago stopped counting) of articles later, things seem to have come full circle. Since summer 2018, I’ve been taking care of the weekly travel column at Taipei Times

In 2018, I wrote 22 Highways & Byways articles. The 2019 total will be 48. I also wrote five non-travel features for the newspaper this year, one of which will appear on New Year’s Eve. Each article appears twice on the newspaper’s website — once as a conventional webpage with photos, then again in a text-only format labeled “Print Edition.” Google searches favor the former, while the latter pages don’t show how many times they’ve been viewed. Earlier this week, I decided to tally the visible viewing statistics in case I could learn something useful about readers’ preferences.

My writing doesn’t set the Internet alight. I’ve long known that. Page-view numbers are mostly four digits. In terms of online eyeballs, the most successful article I wrote for Taipei Times this year was the non-column feature “Expats play key role in boosting Taiwan’s tourism” (September 10). So far, it’s accumulated just over 12,000 views. The Highways & Byways winner, “A modest achievement in Nantou” (April 19), looks set to top 7,000 views any day now. Oddly, it’s a fair way ahead of the next five most-read travel pieces, all of which were viewed between 5,000 and 5,500 times.

TT Shrines 8So what common denominators are shared by the most popular articles? It’s very hard to say. People searching for cycling travelogs might stumble across “A modest achievement.” But of the next five? A couple are about museums (and very different museums: one focuses on insects, the other is archaelogical); one describes a hike near Alishan; the other two cover stretches of coastline seldom visited by international travelers. Is there a “slow burn” effect, with articles gradually picking up page views months after publication? I’ve no idea. Perhaps in six months’ time I’ll go back and check the numbers again, to see if certain types of article are more likely to become evergreens.

East Taiwan is many Westerners’ favorite region, yet the articles I wrote about Taitung and Hualien didn’t get much attention, typically fewer than 3,000 views. Is this because I steered cleared of famous destinations like Taroko Gorge? Perhaps. So… will I change the way I choose places to write about? No, I won’t. I’ve learned no clear lessons from this little bit of web-data analysis, and I’m very fortunate to have an editor who gives me a great deal of freedom. I’ll continue to visit and write up destinations that I think deserve coverage, be they religious sites, museums, or nuclear research reactors.

UPDATE: A few weeks after I wrote this piece, page-view counts disappeared from all Taipei Times articles! I’m told the website will be revamped in the near future.

A once-in-a-lifetime book review?

cropbtWhen my first book came out, back at the start of this millennium, I was fortunate to receive a very favorable review in Taipei Times. After that, I thought it unlikely I’d ever again have my name on a book winning such plaudits.

However, some weeks back Eugene N. Anderson, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, posted on Amazon.com a 5-star review of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, the food book I co-wrote with Katy Hui-wen Hung:

This is one of the best food books I have ever read–authoritative and densely packed with facts, but extremely readable and delightful. It is more of a food ethnography of Taiwan than a food history of Taipei, but all the better for that. One very good detail is that the linguistic transcriptions are excellent and sophisticated, not only from Mandarin (in standard Pinyin) but also from Hokkien, the usual spoken language of Taiwan. Hokkien is a most unappreciated language–beautiful, flexible, adaptable, creative, with an incredible oral literature, and I am glad to see it get some love for once (it is slowly dying out as China pushes Mandarin on everybody). There are also some words from Hakka and Cantonese, and from Austronesian languages. This book is a linguists’ and ethnobiologists’ delight.

Particularly unique and interesting is the material on the Austronesian-speaking Aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, a diverse and fascinating group almost unknown in the English-language literature. They have a range of unique crops, including a species of quinoa, independently domesticated from the South American one–a striking case of parallelism … this is an exceptionally carefully done book, in marked contrast to too many books on Chinese food. If you are at all interested in Asian food, you need this book.

Professor Anderson is himself the author of landmark books about food, such as Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture and The Food of China. Thanks to his immense experience in Taiwan and Greater China, he was able to point out two minor mis-translations in our book which no one else seems to have noticed! If we’re able to revise the book for a second edition, correcting those errors will be among the changes.

Thank you, Professor Anderson, for your kindness and support!





When God Isn’t Green

Diving deep into my email account the other week, I stumbled across some 2012 correspondence with Jay Wexler. Introducing himself as a law professor at Boston University who was working on a book about examples of religious practices harming the environment, Wexler told me: “One of the examples I’m interested in investigating is the practice of burning paper and incense in China and countries with significant Chinese populations… I came across a terrific article that you wrote about joss paper in Taiwan Today, and I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions about the issue that might help me in my research.”

The commentary he referred to, published in November 2010 and now back online after a few years in the vaults, urged Taiwan’s government to act against the burning of joss paper with the decisiveness they had showed when trying to curb smoking in public places. Burning such paper (also called “ghost money”) is, I wrote, “a major cause of air pollution in urban areas, especially during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, so-called ‘ghost month.'”

A couple of emails later, I mentioned the issue of mercy release. “It’s exactly the kind of thing I want to talk about in the book. Thanks very much for pointing mewgig to it,” he told me.

We exchanged a few more messages, then all went quiet… but he did complete his book. When God Isn’t Green came out in 2016, and in it he says he first heard about mercy release from me: “Crook explained the practice to me, and although I could hardly believe it, a quick web search confirmed its reality.”

It’s nice to think I gave a fellow writer a useful lead, and it’s satisfying that credit was given where credit was due.



Full steam ahead with food writing

Building on research we did for our book, A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I produced two feature articles for the wine & dine special issue of Taiwan Business Topics published in January. One examined the role sweet potatoes have played in local foodways since the 1600s (“The Sweet Potato’s Rise and Fall – And Rise Again”). The other was a history of bento boxes (“The Biandang from Japanese Days to the Present”) which touched on the issue of recycling used lunchboxes. We actually had three items in the magazine, as the editor invited us to describe how we came to write our Taiwan food book (“Why and How We Wrote a Culinary History of Taipei”).

The day after I returned to Taiwan from a month-long visit to the UK, I traveled to a town about an hour from my home to report on a bando. What is a bando? An outdoor banquet of traditional delicacies prepared on-site, usually to celebrate a wedding, a temple anniversary, or a company’s end-of-year bash.  The online version of that article (“The Art of Managing Tables”) has just appeared; it’ll also be in the print version of Travel in Taiwan. Over the years, that magazine has sent me on several railway journeys, to explore Taiwan’s oldest neighborhoods, and in pursuit of migrating butterflies.crksp

Compiling a roundup of Tainan’s best street food (“A Culinary Walking Tour Through Taiwan’s Street Food Capital”) for Eater.com took a good amount of time, but led to me discovering several excellent little eateries, to which I’ll surely return in the future. After living in Tainan for 24 of the past 28 years, I feel I’ve no excuses for not already knowing about these places. To make partial amends, I’ve added a couple of them to my Taiwan guidebook; Bradt will publish the third edition this June. My article for Eater is just one component of their very comprehensive and beautifully structured guide for Taiwan-bound gourmets. It begins here.



A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #3)

Between now and the end of the year, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I will be sharing some excerpts from our new book, which is available direct from the publisher and also via Amazon.

This extract from Chapter 5: The Farms That Feed Taipei describes the poor economic situation many farmers find themselves in, and some of the cultural, social, and regulatory factors that undermine agriculture across the island.


Without them, meals in Taiwan would be dull and less healthy, and the country’s food security situation much worse. Yet Taiwanese farmers are poorly rewarded. Since the early 1970s, agriculture has never accounted for more than 40% of the total income of the average farming household. In the same period, the total disposable income of farming households (one in eleven of all households in 2015) has fluctuated between 62 and 78% of that in non-farming households. When the economy boomed between the 1960s and 1990s, many farmers – male and female alike – spent as much time laboring on construction sites as cultivating their fields.

A lingering sense of gratitude to the land that fed them and their ancestors motivates members of the older generation, but rarely inspires their children to pursue a career in agriculture. At the same time, this emotional attachment means landowners are reluctant to sell or lease plots they no longer cultivate. Around half of Taiwan’s farmers are over 65, and three quarters of them think no one will take over their fields when they are gone. But agriculture is clinging on, and cultivated land still accounts for more than 6% of Greater Taipei’s surface area.

Over the past half century, an expanding population and changing eating habits have left the island dependent on foodstuff imports. Wheat, corn and soy are grown in miniscule quantities, and less than 5% of the beef eaten is local. Few countries have experienced such a rapid collapse in their ability to feed themselves. Before 1968, food production in caloric terms was roughly equal to domestic requirements, but within two decades, self-sufficiency was below 50%. Even before Taiwan joined the WTO in 2002, farmers faced foreign competition due to rampant smuggling from China of mushrooms, tea and offal. In 2014, the self-sufficiency rate recovered slightly to 34.1%, and the authorities hope to lift it to 40% by 2020.


While the cultivation of genetically modified crops is not permitted, the country imports dozens of GM food products, Taiwan Business Topics pointed out in its May 2015 issue. Because inheritance customs give the oldest son half of his father’s land, with other sons (and sometimes daughters) sharing the remainder, farms have been getting smaller and smaller. By the end of 2010, average cultivated land per enterprise was down to 1.9 acres (0.77 hectares), with just one farmer in five having more than 2.5 acres. One expert who praises Taiwan as “the world’s best exemplar of high-tech, mechanized small-plot agriculture” believes government-sponsored efforts to achieve economies of scale are crucial to the future of farming. An initiative called “Small Landlord, Big Tenant” was launched in 2008 by the Council of Agriculture, the central government agency which oversees farming, fisheries and food affairs. Despite its flaws, the policy has succeeded in making thousands of acres of land available to younger professional farmers, some of whom are applying technological skills they learned in other industries. Taiwan is unlikely to meet the majority of its food needs anytime soon, but the future which faces the island’s farmers is slightly brighter now than it has been for some years.


A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #2)

Between now and the end of the year, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I will be sharing some excerpts from our new book, which is available direct from the publisher and also via Amazon.

In this extract from Chapter 3: Iconic and Emerging Foodways, we outline the remarkable culinary impact made by a small group of ethnic Russians who arrived in Taipei during the chaos of 1949, and how it was made possible by supplies of US flour and other agricultural commodities. At that time, Taiwan was so poor that the sacks in which flour arrived were cut up and turned into children’s clothes; the boy in this painting is wearing pants which bear the words “Sino-American Co-operation,” a slogan often stamped on US food aid to Taiwan.


That pineapple cake has become the default food gift when Taiwanese interact with foreigners is appropriate, as the modern pineapple cake was developed in the early 1950s by a Russian working with American flour and milk powder at Astoria Confectionary and Cafe. This culinary landmark is located roughly equidistant between Taipei Main Station and the former Japanese governor-general’s office, now the Office of the President of the Republic of China. Founded in 1949 by six White Russian former residents of Shanghai with the help of Archibald Chien, who was not yet 20, Astoria became a pioneering Western-style bakery. “We practically introduced birthday cakes to Taiwan,” Taiwan Today quoted Chien as saying in an October 16, 2009 online report titled, “Astoria, a corner of Taipei’s history.”

The Russians, who had fled to Taiwan as the Communists tightened their grip on the mainland, are long gone, and Chien (who eventually became sole owner) handed control of the business over to his daughter some years ago. Nevertheless, Astoria continues to sell borscht, Russian soft candy, mazurka cake, and other items seldom seen in East Asia. But few Taiwanese know the real significance of the place.

Donuts did not come to Taiwan from the US, as many assume; Astoria was the first bakery to sell both freshly baked and deep-fried donuts. The Russians could not find cranberries or blueberries, and rejected Chien’s suggestion that they use candied fruit. In the end, they made fruit jam using oranges from Yangmingshan, the range of mountains immediately north of the capital. Chien later found papayas and carambolas suitable for jams. Astoria’s seasonal fruit jams are still star items today.


Along with vanilla biscuits and almond flakes, one of the three most popular handmade cookies was a Taiwanese-style macaron. While French macarons are made using egg whites, for Astoria’s early Taiwanese-style macarons (which have a drier texture) the entire egg was used; the white and the yolk were separated, then each was whisked with granulated sugar. In that era, no Taiwanese (or Russian resident of Taiwan) would have contemplated wasting anything as valuable as a yolk. What is more, the eggs available then came from native tǔjī hens and were fairly small, so a recipe using only whites would have been a shocking misuse of resources. Making one butter sponge cake required eight tǔjī eggs.

European macarons did not catch on until some years into the 21st century, with the manager of the Taipei branch of a Parisian pâtatisserie reporting that families were buying the confections for shōuxián ceremonies. This ritual involves the relatives (and often their friends) of a four-month-old baby stringing cookies around the baby’s neck, breaking off pieces, and then rubbing them on the youngster’s lips in the belief the infant will then stop drooling. Macarons are thought to be ideal for this because they come in different colors, making for appealing photos of the event.

A shortage of walnuts and blueberries stymied the Russians’ efforts to recreate the rich fruit cakes they had baked before reaching Taiwan, but Chien persisted, eventually making a longan-and-raisin version. He brought a chocolate cake to market in 1961. And, within a few years, Astoria was offering Taipei gourmets croissants, chiffon cake, and Taiwanese-style Swiss rolls.

Speaking to a New York Times reporter for a March 30, 2008 feature, Chien admitted that much of what Astoria has sold over the decades was Russian by inspiration, if not replication, and that this truth had to be disguised for political reasons. In the 1950s, Taiwan was on the Cold War frontline, and ruled by a paranoid dictatorship that saw the Soviet Union as an implacable foe. Astoria’s Russian presence – and the frequent gatherings of intellectuals – invited state surveillance. But perhaps the organs of state were simply ensuring the safety of two regular VIP customers who had a taste for Russian fare: Soviet-educated Chiang Ching-kuo (Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor), and his wife, an ethnic Russian born in what is now Belarus.


A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #1)

Between now and the end of the year, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I will be sharing some excerpts from our new book, which is available direct from the publisher and also via Amazon.

In this extract from Chapter 9: Teaching, Sharing and Learning Taiwanese Cuisine, we describe how an Australian-trained Taiwanese chef introduces and teaches common Taiwanese dishes to foreign and local culinary enthusiasts.P_20170501_094032

Calvin Tu pitches the small group classes he teaches at GOTUCOOK in Tamsui as a travel experience. “There’s nothing better than learning about a local culture by tasting and experiencing the food. Even better is experiencing this food culture by learning how to cook local cuisine yourself,” says the chef.

Trained at Le Cordon Bleu and TAFE South Australia in Adelaide, where he specialized in modern Western and Asian cuisine, Tu worked as a chef in Australia until returning to Taiwan in 2011. At GOTUCOOK, he sets his prices so the classes are affordable by young travellers passing through Taiwan, and he endeavors to teach (in English and Chinese) in a way that is, “as hands-on as possible, with plenty of one-on-one time for questions and answers.”

“I do this to connect with people,” says Tu, who first learned to appreciate food and cook with his mother. “Food gets people together, but food is also memory. I’ve been sensitive to flavors since I was a child, and good food flavors make for good memories. Sharing good memories with people who have the same interests and passions is delightful.”

In a typical class, Tu’s students may learn how to prepare beef-shank noodle soup with tomatoes and carrots; Taiwanese-style pickled cabbage; and a platter of lǔwèi. Asked which Taiwanese dishes he most recommends to Western gourmets, he names lǔwèi, three-cup chicken, and shredded chicken with gravy on white rice. The magic ingredient in the last one, he says, is deep-fried scallions. Tu helps Westerners understand Taiwanese food by relating local dishes to items they are familiar with. For instance, he introduces ròuzào fàn as “pork Bolognese sauce on rice.”

Tu has found certain local foodways are more difficult for Westerners to accept than others. Americans, he points out, think pork gēng looks a bit like porridge, which they consider a breakfast food. Also, few of them find the concept of savory porridge appealing. A similar mental barrier stands between some people and the iconic oyster omelet. Not only do they think that eggs dishes should be served for breakfast, rather than after dark, but they find the lumpy texture off-putting. Most have eaten tofu, yet are caught off guard by the use of fermented black soybeans (dòuchǐ) as a condiment.


“In general, I think Taiwanese are pretty adventurous when it comes to food,” Tu says. He teaches culinary skills and restaurant management part-time in local vocational high schools, and concludes young people’s interest in non-Taiwanese cuisines is not driven by any particular fascination with Western culture: “They can accept different flavors, and they’re ready to explore, not just Western, but also Southeast Asian cuisines. The key thing is taste, not geography.”

Highways & Byways

TT Beipu Jiang

Highways & Byways is the title of my weekly travel column in Taipei Times, Taiwan’s leading English-language newspaper (and a paper I wrote several articles for, including this one, back in the first decade of the 21st century). When Richard Saunders, a regular contributor of travel articles to Taipei Times, decided to move back to the UK, he asked me if I was interested in taking over his spot. Without hesitation I said “yes.” A key reason for taking on this job is that these months I’m busy updating my Bradt guidebook. The third edition is due out in the first half of 2019, so I’ve been traveling all over the island, seeing what’s changed, what’s new and deserves to be included, and what can be dropped.

The first installment of Highways & Byways came out on August 3, when I wrote about historic buildings in Tainan’s Anping District that are open to the public but fail to provide much in the way of information. Among the places I’ve covered since then have been a couple of hiking routes in Chiayi County, the delightful old town of Beipu near Hsinchu (where I took the photo here), and sites related to local food history in Kaohsiung’s Gangshan.


History at every turn: A stroll through Lukang

lukangwenkaiEvery few months I write a travel or cultural piece for Les Isles (previously called En Voyage, and before that, Verve) the inflight magazine of EVA Air and its domestic and regional subsidiary, UNI Air. Among the destinations and themes I’ve covered for them over more than a decade are: Taiwanese opera; the historic side of Tainan; the Hakka township of Meinong in Greater Kaohsiung; Neimen’s Song Jiang Battle Array; indigenous cuisine; and Taiwan’s branch railways.

In the July 2018 edition of Les Isles, I have a 520-word article about Lukang, a place I never get tired of visiting or writing about. It can be read online here. The photo here shows part of Lukang’s Wenkai Academy.

Exploring Taiwan by train


I’ve just returned from rainy Taitung, where I bounced between little towns in the southernmost part of that county for Travel in Taiwan. Since November 2016 I’ve researched and written eight explore-by-rail articles for that magazine. Possibly the most enjoyable was the very first, where I took the Coast Line through Miaoli County, but each trip has been an education… not to mention an excuse to get away from the computer for an entire day, or even two.

All this train travel prompted me to count up how many of Taiwan’s stations I’ve been to over the past 27-plus years. The high-speed railway has just 12 stations, and I’ve boarded and/or disembarked at all but two. Taiwan Railways Administration, the government agency that operates the island’s conventional rail system, currently has 227 functioning passenger stations; after some back-of-an-envelope reckoning, I think I’ve been to about 90 of them. I don’t count Duoliang Station, pictured here, because trains no longer stop there, even though it’s a popular tourist attractions.

I expect to tick off a few more TRA stations in the near future – but the list of never-visited stations is about to grow. In the next year or two, several new stations in Taichung and Kaohsiung are set to begin serving commuters in those cities. At least one of these, Sankuaicuo in Kaohsiung, will actually be reopened station.