American travel writer Joshua Samuel Brown has covered places as far away as Belize and Singapore for Lonely Planet, but Taiwan has long held a special place in his heart. He’ll be heading back to Taiwan in January 2017 to begin work on his fourteenth book, a hybrid travelogue/guidebook titled Formosa Moon for Things Asian Press.
When did you first arrive in Taiwan? And did you have any particular expectations about the place?
That was 1994, and the only expectations I had came from watching the film Eat Drink Man W
oman at the Little Theater in Rochester, New York. So basically: ‘Great food, bad traffic!’ I’d spent some time at the Taiwan trade office in New York City looking through copies of the China Post and China Times [now called Taiwan News] – this was before the internet – so knew I could get a job teaching English. And that’s what I did, pretty much off the plane.
You’ve been to about 25 countries, so you’ve seen a lot. Is there anything truly unique to Taiwan?
Honestly, I don’t really even view Taiwan as a foreign place anymore – it’s more-or-less become my adopted second country, which alone makes it unique to me. But I suspect you’re looking for something less subjective… Well, the Taiwanese have done something few other nations have, namely to emerge from a lengthy period of martial law, political repression and overall fear, and not just with a surprising lack of collective trauma, but also with a sense of cheerfulness, openness, and a downright sense of joy I’ve not experienced elsewhere. There’s a resilience in the Taiwanese character that is profound and unique. Betel nut girls, too. You don’t see betel nut girls anywhere else but Taiwan.
Recently you talked about Taiwan at a about a book festival in California. Please tell us a bit about that.
The panel came about as a result of Taiwan having become a veritable hot-spring of creativity, and also because the Taiwan Tourism Bureau has become increasingly interested in promoting Taiwan’s creative side, beyond the Jade Cabbage in the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101.
There were three other writers on my panel: Ed Lin, author of Ghost Month, a noir tale set in Taipei; Shawna Yang Ryan, whose recent historical novel Green Island made me weep twice; and Irene Hsiao, a very unique photographer and writer who wrote a book called Letter from Taipei. I was the only travel writer.
I’d say anyone interested in Taiwan, as a travel destination or otherwise, would have gotten a beautifully broad and enticing picture of Taiwan by attending the talk. It’s online here.
One thing I learned at the event is that people are definitely becoming more interested in visiting Taiwan than ever before.
Of the articles you’ve written about Taiwan, which one are you most proud of?
My friend Ada Shen once said something that’s always stuck with me, something like: ‘They may not all be pretty, but they’re all your kids’. So I have a difficult time playing favorites. However, I think the funniest story I’ve ever written about Taiwan is Your Least Fun Hour, some new journalism about revisiting Qing Dynasty banking practices by doing business at literally any bank in Taiwan. That’s in my recent illustrated book of short stories How Not To Avoid Jet Lag (please do purchase a copy for name-your-price at this website).
My most recent story, about the time I came closest to madness, is 48 Hours Around Formosa. The recipe for insanity was getting around Taiwan in 48 hours, jet lag, no sleep, coffee and betel nut!
If people have only three or four days in Taiwan, which places would you suggest they visit? Which experiences should be on their to-do list?
Due to the recent trend of bucket-lists passing for more substantial travel writing, I’ll avoid the list-thing. Also, I’m a huge proponent of meandering my way into adventure. About half of the stuff I’ve written has been about things that happened unplanned (as opposed to journalism gigs, where I started out with an objective of some sort). So in the spirit of adventure, I suggest visitors spend at least one of those four days wandering around the alleyways and parks of Taipei with no particular agenda. Try the foot-massage path in the 228 Peace Memorial Park. Eat at a vegetarian buffet around noon, when the food is freshest. (Just look for the Buddhist swastika; my fave is on Heping West Road in Taipei just across from National Taiwan University.) Visit museums, as even the small ones are fun. Head out to Keelung’s Miaokou Night Market – that place consistently tops must-see night-market lists – and wander around the hills north of Keelung. The entire town gives off a strange Popeye vibe, and the food alone is worth it. Lovely temples, too.
Then go to Jiaoxi and spend some time at the Art Spa Hotel. Why? It has a hot-spring water slide, that’s why! Spend another day wandering around Yilan, stopping at some point at a restaurant where you can tear apart a perfectly roasted chicken with gloved hands and dip it in perfectly fermented soy-paste. Then visit the Kavalan Whisky distillery and eat whiskey-flavored ice cream. The combinations are endless, really, and four days hardly enough. Interact! Taiwan will work her subtle magic on your visit.