Saturday, February 20, 2010

Betel nut girl brouhaha

In Taiwan, fetching young women in outrageous outfits sell betel nuts. Is this a tourist draw, or national shame?

Global Post, February 9, 2010

Photos by Tobie Openshaw

HSINCHU, Taiwan — A magazine here is catching flak for touting scantily clad betel nut vendors as a tourist attraction.

The minor flap has renewed debate over a unique but controversial part of Taiwan's pop culture.

Betel nut, a mild stimulant, is enjoyed across Asia. But only in Taiwan is the nut sold by fetching young women in outrageous outfits, perched in neon-lit, see-through roadside stands.

Popularized in the 1990s, the so-called "betel nut beauty" phenomenon has long had a parade of critics, including feminists (the trade degrades women), health officials (betel nut causes oral cancer), embarrassed local officials (betel nut culture is low-class and vulgar) and environmentalists (the cash crop is over-planted and causes soil erosion).

But the beauties don't seem to be going anywhere. Ditto betel-nut chewing, a dug-in part of Taiwan male, working-class culture that has so far resisted reformers' best efforts to stamp it out. Truckers, taxi-drivers and construction workers are especially fond of the chew.

Outside Hsinchu's high-speed rail station, a taxi driver who gave only his family name, Hsu, said foreigners often ask him to take them to see the betel nut girls. (That might have something to do with the sidebar on "betel nut beauties" in the Hsinchu section of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Taiwan.)

Hsu laughed at the mention of the controversy, and drove us in search of the betel nut stands. "In Taiwan, if you want to sell betel nut, you have to take off some clothes," he said. "If you wear too much, you won't make any money."

Asked if he would mind if one of his own relatives worked as a betel nut beauty, Hsu considered for a moment and said, "I wouldn't say no, as long as they didn't wear too little. If their clothes were too revealing they'd be criticized."

They might also be fined by the police for indecency, in extreme cases, demanding a keen sense of exposure judgment from the girls.

"That stand's new, and the girls wear too many clothes," Hsu said dismissively, as we drove by one betel nut joint. "They're not going to make any money."

Driving past a strip of stands on Guangfu Road, he complained, "They're all wearing too much — you can't see anything. You really need to come back in the summertime."

One betel nut girl, staring out from bright blue, iris-enlarging contact lenses and unwieldy fake eyelashes, simply shrugged when asked about the controversy. "It's Taiwan culture," she said, before hurrying out of her stall to the sidewalk to sell a customer his betel fix.

Down the road, a scowling beauty, more advanced in years, prepared a batch of nuts. She slathered lime paste on a leaf, clipped the end off a betel nut, expertly wrapped the leaf around it and chucked it on a pile. They're sold in zip-lock bags, or in a box of 15 for about $1.75, with white- and red-paste varieties; fans chew the nuts like gum and spit out the juice.

A young woman who gave only her "nom de betel," (Steamed Bun) was more chipper and talkative. She sported white pumps, blue lingerie, a flimsy see-through negligee and a hooded winter coat. But not because of the chill. "A cop just came by and told us to cover up more," she explained.

As her fellow beauty slurped up a bowl of noodles, Steamed Bun said her parents originally opposed her line of work, but now they'd gotten used to it. She pulls in $1,500 to $1,900 in a good month, or about twice as much as a typical Taiwan college graduate's starting salary.

Steamed Bun said busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists come by their stand often to take pictures and sample the betel. "It's okay, I don't mind," she said, when asked if she objected to being touted as a tourist draw.

But she did complain about the occupational hazards. "There are a lot of perverts. They'll try to touch your breasts, or stroke you. Usually we take care of it ourselves. I've slapped customers before."

If that fails, video cameras monitor the stands and sidewalks outside 24/7. Anyone who messes too much with the girls risks a beat-down from a security tough in the backroom or nearby.

The situation's made more ambiguous because some girls sell sexual favors on the side, said Steamed Bun. "Here we just sell betel nut, that's it," she said. "But other girls might do more. It's up to them."

In typical Taiwanese fashion, the latest flap drew a mix of outrage, and pointers on where the "spiciest" betel nut beauties can be found.

The trouble started when "T-Life" magazine, published by the Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corporation and distributed free to riders, listed betel nut beauties as one of the five top attractions in the Hsinchu area.

That drew criticism from some residents of the region, which is known for its gusty weather. Said one indignant local to Apple Daily, "We're the Windy City, not the Immoral City," using a play on words in Chinese.

Soon the Hsinchu mayor and Hsinchu county commissioner had piled on, calling for a correction and apology. Partly, they didn't like being singled out. "Every city and county in Taiwan has betel nut beauties," said a Hsinchu city spokesman by phone. "In the south, there are even more, and they wear even less."

The high-speed rail corporation has so far declined to apologize. But it has "explained" the situation, according to a spokesperson at its Hsinchu station. The magazine is outsourced, the advice on betel nut girls was only "the author's personal point of view," and in the future the company will "closely review" its articles, the spokesperson said.

"Personally, I think it's inappropriate," to tout betel nut beauties, the spokesperson said. "We should respect different cultures and different points of view, but I wouldn't encourage visitors to see betel nut girls."

Meanwhile, a Hsinchu police official helpfully told the China Post that while the magazine had touted the beauties on Zhonghua Road, the ones on Gongdao Fifth Road and sections one and two of Jingguo Road wore far more revealing outfits.

On the way back to the high-speed rail station, another cab driver, Liu Hsiu-hua, said she respected the beauties' business, but that it was inappropriate to tout them to tourists. "There are so many other things to see around Hsinchu," she said.

And besides, Hsinchu's betel nut girls were nothing special, she said.

"The most outrageous girls? Probably the ones in Longtan," she said, referring to a nearby township that's also the headquarters of Taiwan's army.

(Editor's Note: See more of Tobie Openshaw's photos of betel nut beauties and and background on the topic

Original site

Friday, February 19, 2010

Taipei's street food

City walk: a tour of Taipei's street food

Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2009

Taipei boasts a wide variety of scrumptious, regional Chinese cuisines and a few down-home specialties, all of which stem from the island's history.

Take one part local food tradition, which shares much with southeastern Chinese fare and favors fresh seafood, especially oysters. Add a strong dash of Japanese flavor (like wasabi), culled from 50 years of Japanese colonization that ended in 1945.

Then mix in some of China's finest cooking traditions from Chongqing to Shenyang (think Sichuan-style gong bao ji ding (宮保雞丁-- kungpao chicken -- and northern China-style beef noodle soup) brought here by the Mandarin-speaking Kuomintang elite when they fled the mainland, along with their cooks, in the late 1940s.

The result: contemporary Taiwanese food.

For a city with a reputation among some foodies for having some of the world's best Chinese food, an eating tour of Taipei is highly appropriate. But it's not for the faint of heart, or small of stomach.

In fact, were you to actually consume all the food and drink on this itinerary, you'd feel more like a nap than a walk. Consider yourself warned: Nibble at the suggested stops, don't fill up. And pick and choose dishes according to your taste, appetite and endurance.

9 A.M. DOUJIANG AND YOUTIAO


For breakfast, start your stroll at the Taipei Fullerton, a boutique hotel on Fuxing South Road. From the hotel, turn left and cross Fuxing South Road. Soon, you'll hit a small strip of doujiang (soy milk, 荳漿) restaurants.

Head for the first one on the corner: Yonghe Doujiang Da Wang (永和 荳漿大王, Yonghe Soy Milk Emperor) at No. 102, next to a fire station. It takes its name from the suburb, Yonghe, where the original restaurant was located. Today, Yonghe-style breakfast joints are famous across the Chinese-speaking world.

The quintessential Yonghe-style breakfast is doujiang and youtiao (油條)-- soy milk and fried bread sticks. The soy milk comes cold or hot, spooned up from big vats near the entrance. If you want a more substantial breakfast, add the turnip cake with soy-based sauce (luo buo gao, 蘿蔔糕), a pancake-and-egg combo (shao bing jia dan), and crisp cakes (su bing), lightly baked, hollow thin cakes with sugar, sesame or peanut paste spread on the inside. You should be able to walk away with a full stomach for well under US$3.

10 A.M. AN DONG MARKET


From the breakfast place, turn right and continue south down Fuxing South Road. Take a right on Lane 148, Fuxing South Road (Taipei's side lanes are named after the roads they branch off).

Check out the betel-nut stand near the corner, and try some if you dare. This mild intoxicant is a favorite in Taiwan, India and some parts of Southeast Asia (but not mainland China). Working-class types here swear by the stuff, and you can tell a betel-nut fan by the telltale red stains around the mouth.

Across Taiwan, especially outside major cities, "betel nut beauties" -- 20-something females in microscopic outfits -- attempt to lure buyers to their roadside stands. But in Taipei, you're more likely to find a cranky middle-aged man or smiling granny selling the nuts. If you try it, bite or clip off the rind of the nut, then chew it like gum -- don't swallow it and be sure to spit out the juice, otherwise you're likely to get sick to your stomach. A small bag of nuts costs $1.50.

Continue walking down Lane 148 until you reach the An Dong market on your left, at No. 75 Rui An St. Here's your chance to check out a traditional Taiwanese market. Many are losing business to supermarkets, but they aren't extinct yet. Check out the butcher and the fruit stands. You'll also find shops selling "ghost money," paper that's burned for good fortune and to appease the gods or wandering spirits.

Leave the market and cut across Rui An Street to Lane 180, Rui An Street. There's an old-fashioned tea shop called Lao Ji Zi on your right, at No. 5 Lane 180. This is run by the Tseng family, who own tea fields in Taiwan and on the mainland.

Big metal canisters store their crop: oolong tea picked from Alishan, gaoshan (高山, high mountain) tea from Nantou County, and some much-prized puer tea, picked from trees in China's Yunnan province. The half-jin (500-gram) tins of tea make great gifts; a basic oolong costs $9, a tin of the gaoshan variety costs about $60. Say hello to Mrs. Tseng, who runs the shop while her husband tends to the fields in central Taiwan.

12 P.M. DA AN PARK


Lunch time. As you leave the tea shop, turn right and continue west on Lane 180, Rui An Street, which turns into Lane 151, Jianguo South Road.

The restaurant at No. 53 Lane 151 on your right is Mei Xiang La Mian Wu (open 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner). Order the "clerk's pulled noodles" (xiao er lao mian in Mandarin), a light Chinese-style lunch. You'll get a pile of noodles with a generous dollop of minced beef in sauce, garnished with scallions and cilantro. Mix up the noodles and sauce before eating, then slurp away. This northern Chinese dish was popularized here by mainlanders who came in the late 1940s. A big bowl will cost you $2.20; a small bowl, $1.75.

After lunch, take a long walk through Da An Park. This 26-hectare patch of green is Taipei's answer to New York City's Central Park. On weekends, it's packed with rollerblading kids, dog-crazy Taipei urbanites walking their canines and bicyclists.

You'll enter on the east side of the park across from a public library. Make your way through to the southwest corner of the park -- you can take the shaded jogging path on your left, which runs along the edge of the entire park. The exit is across from a Sizzler steak house.

From the park exit, cross Xinsheng South Road, take a left and follow the road south. You'll come to the Wistaria Tea House (No. 1, Lane 16). This famous Taipei teahouse has recently re-opened after a long renovation.

Back in the days of martial law (1949 to 1987), democracy activists gathered here over pots of oolong tea to strategize. Now, it's an obligatory stop for local tea-lovers. The shop boasts a wide variety of Taiwan- and mainland-grown teas, served in a cozy, Japanese colonial-era setting, with low tables, tatami mats and partitions, as well as a no-shoe policy in some rooms.

Try the Bai Hao or "Oriental Beauty" oolong ($9) -- grown with the help of katydid (an insect related to a grasshopper) saliva. (The tea tastes better than it sounds.) Or have a sip of some Dong Ding oolong ($8) grown in central Taiwan. Show-offs can shell out $90 for the "Dragon and Horse Tong Qing Puer," a 1920s-vintage puer tea.

2:30 P.M. XIAO CHI STANDS


Heading west -- take a right as you exit Wistaria -- you'll hit two of this area's most popular xiao chi stands, or street-food stalls. Both usually have long lines, so bring a friend, a book or a lot of patience. (If you don't want to taste these foods here, there are clean, well-lighted restaurants later on in the walk.)

First, try the turnip cake at the stand at the corner of Heping East Road and Wenzhou Street (closed Sundays). One cake costs 75 U.S. cents. Taipei foodies swear by this stuff, and are willing to wait in nerve-straining lines to get their fix.

Next, order the pan-fried dumplings in the Shida Night Market -- it's called a night market, but food is served from the early afternoon through to the wee hours of the morning. Weave your way over to Longquan Street, and look for Xu Ji Sheng Jian Bao at No. 24, a food stall famous for this kind of dumpling. You can try just one for 20 cents, but most people buy five for 90 cents.

Exit the Shida market and backtrack your way north on Longquan Street -- you'll hit Yongkang Street after a leisurely 20-minute walk. This street boasts typical Taiwanese xiao chi, but in nicer surroundings than a typical night market.

Hao Ji Mei Shi Zhuan Mai Dian, on the west side of the street (No. 1, Lane 10), serves southern Taiwanese xiao chi -- local favorites include tu tuo yu gen, a hearty soup with chewy, breaded lumps of fish, and crispy oysters with pepper (in the local Taiwanese dialect, Minnan, this dish is called oasu; in Mandarin, it's ke zi su). A small bowl of the soup costs $1.50 and a small dish of oasu runs $3.

Heading north on the same side of Yongkang Street, you'll hit the restaurant Yongkang Kou (No. 1, Lane 6). Here, if you dare, sample two of Taiwan's most famous dishes, stinky tofu or chou doufu ($1.30) for a small serving), which lives up to its name, and oysters in a broth with vermicelli-like noodles (oamisua in Taiwanese, $1.15 for a small bowl; $1.60 for a large one).

Now, cross to the other side of Yongkang Street, turn left (north), and look for Tu Hsiao Yueh (No. 9-1 Yongkang St.).

Here you can sample southern Taiwanese-style minced pork noodles (danzi mian), either dry or in soup. A small serving costs $1.50. Wash down your noodles with the island's standby brew, Taiwan Beer (台灣啤酒, "Taiwan pijiu" or "Taipi" for short); one bottle costs $2.65.

5 P.M. DIN TAI FUNG


No culinary tour in Taipei would be complete without a stop at the restaurant Din Tai Fung for a taste of its Shanghai-style pork-soup dumplings (xiao long bao), served with sliced ginger and soy sauce.

Guidebooks swear by them; food snobs say they're overrated. Decide for yourself. One serving costs $5.30 and includes 10 dumplings.

To get there, continue north on Yongkang Street from the stinky-tofu joint, then hang a right on Xinyi Road. Just a few doors down is the original location of this now-famous chain restaurant (No. 194 Xinyi Rd., Section 2). Be warned, though: Hordes of tourist groups mob this place at peak mealtimes, so be prepared for a wait. Of course, you may need time to digest the other snacks you've just had.

6 P.M. NATIONAL CHIANG KAI-SHEK MEMORIAL HALL


Finish your tour with a brisk 15-minute walk west down Xinyi Road to the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This monument to the dead autocrat (he ruled Taiwan from 1949 to his death in 1975), which opened in 1980 in a sprawling 25-hectare plaza, includes a grand concert hall at the other end of the square. It's best viewed at night, when it's illuminated by ground lights, and groups of middle-aged Taiwanese come to line dance to U.S. country-and-western songs on the plaza.

After a good rest and a break from eating, try Taiwan's famous pearl, or "bubble" milk tea -- a shaved ice-and-tea confection served with tapioca balls and jumbo-size straws. The place to get it is Chun Shui Tang, the central-Taiwan store that invented it in late 1980s, and there's a branch in the ground floor of the National Concert Hall on the north side of the memorial plaza (the shop closes at 8:30 p.m.). A small glass costs $2.20; a large glass that's big enough for two costs $4.40.

6:45 P.M. KINMEN KAOLIANG LIQUOR


If you can make it in time, run by the Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor store, a short walk from the Memorial Hall plaza's southwest corner (No. 3, Roosevelt Rd., Section 1; open to 7 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays).

Sample the shop's famous Taiwanese sorghum liquor -- a fiery concoction brewed on Kinmen (also known as Quemoy, a small island in the Taiwan Strait controlled by Taiwan) -- and take a gift bottle with you. There's a variety of sizes and strengths -- choose between 28-, 30-, 38- and 58-proof. You can taste a few for free before you decide, but most people opt for the high-test 58-proof variety ($15.60 for a 750-milliliter bottle).

Assuming you can still fit in a taxi, hop in one here to return to your hotel.

Original site

Whaling on trial?

Two Greenpeace activists in Japan face up to 10 years in prison for tactics used in exposing black market sales of whale meat. Anti-whaling groups hope Monday's trial helps turn Japanese public opinion against the whale harvest.

Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 2010

Tokyo --
The menu reads like a "save the whales" activist's nightmare.

There's "gristle of the whale upper jaw" (750 yen or about $8). "Sliced raw whale heart" (750 yen). The variety platter: "five kinds of whale dainty bits" (2,800 yen).

At this elegant restaurant in Tokyo's bustling Shibuya neighborhood, some 20 customers dine on whale (kujira) as soft jazz plays. In more casual kujira joints on Tokyo's outskirts, a small, more working-class clientele does the same.

Such meals are at the heart of a perennial debate over Japanese whaling, and recently made headlines again with the collision of a ship from antiwhaling group Sea Shepherd and a Japanese "research" vessel.

Defenders of the practice here say whale hunting and consumption are part of a treasured heritage. Japanese antiwhaling activists dispute that, and join foreign critics, especially in the United States and Europe, who decry whaling as barbaric.

Now, Japan's antiwhaling forces are hoping to use a trial – that begins Monday – of two Greenpeace Japan activists to sway public opinion here against the practice.

Whaling as a cultural tradition

Konomu Kubo of the Japan Whaling Association – a nonprofit that promotes resumption of commercial whaling – says the controversy is stirred up by a few mostly foreign activists. "The Japanese people have used whale and whale meat as a valuable food source since ancient times," he says. "Such indigenous culture should be respected by other countries."

Commercial whaling was banned in the 1980s by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). But Norway still whales under a formal "objection." Iceland has also engaged in off-and-on whaling by that means and under the name of scientific research. Several indigenous groups are allowed limited catches, and non-IWC members Indonesia and the Philippines also catch whales in small numbers.

Japan's fleet has caught more than 500 whales per season in recent years in the Southern Ocean, and more than 350 in the North Pacific, according to Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs Japan's whaling program.

While the institute declined an interview request, Mr. Kubo of the Japan Whaling Association says the institute produces between 4,000 and 4,500 metric tons of whale meat per year from its research program. Most of that ends up on restaurant tables, likely including the Shibuya shop (the manager at the Shibuya restaurant declined a request for an interview).

Fried whale meat used to be served in school lunches, though that's now limited to a few coastal communities, Kubo says. He adds that Japan supports "sustainable" whaling, meaning it does not kill endangered or depleted species, but targets more abundant species like the minke whale.

He says Japan has a low "food self-sufficiency," and must secure its own food resources. He complains that the IWC promised to review the moratorium by 1990, but did not.

"Public opinion strongly supports whaling," asserts Kubo, though he acknowledges less support from young Japanese. "What we are afraid of is that the whale meat diet culture will disappear.

Reliable polls are hard to come by. The whaling association points to a 2002 survey by the prime minister's office, and could not provide more recent numbers. That poll found 76 percent support for hunting minke whales, if such whaling were "based on scientific evidence so that there was no adverse impact on whale resources." Ten percent of those polled were opposed.

The latest poll commissioned by Greenpeace Japan from 2008 found 44 percent of respondents were neither for nor against resuming commercial whaling; 31 percent were pro and 25 percent were against. But the poll, by the Nippon Research Center, only sampled those who signed up on a website.

Taxpayer money subsidizes 'research'

Greenpeace Japan says change is more likely under the new Democratic Party of Japan-led government, which has railed against wasteful spending.

Junichi Sato, an activist with Greenpeace Japan, says pro-whaling groups were "switching the argument" because their scientific research defense was not persuasive. Mr. Sato says Japan didn't begin large-scale whaling off Antarctica until after World War II, and used equipment and ships imported from Norway.

Sato argues that the government uses taxpayer money – 500 million yen per year (about $5.5 million), according to his group – to subsidize "research" whaling. He's one of two Greenpeace Japan activists who in 2008 alleged embezzlement of whale meat by research vessel crews.

The two were later charged with theft and trespassing over their obtaining of a package of whale meat at a transport depot, which they later turned over to prosecutors. They face 10 years' jail time, and their trial – with testimony from a "whistle-blower" inside the whaling industry and two whaling fleet crew members – is set to open Monday.

Sato and other activists hope to turn the event into a trial on Japanese whaling.

"The protests have to come from the Japanese public, saying 'This is a waste of taxpayers' money,' " said Sato. "We as Japanese citizens are losing so much respect from the international community on this issue, and more Japanese are starting to realize that."

Original site

Bad week for Taiwan baseball

24 are charged in game-fixing scandal, while a star pitcher makes news of a different kind.

Global Post, February 12, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan baseball took another hit this week as prosecutors charged 24 people Wednesday in connection with the pro-league's worst game-fixing scandal yet.

A probe was launched last October after the end of the Taiwan pro league's season.

Turns out the scope of the alleged corruption was far wider than fans feared. Those charged included three star players, a prominent local politician and five bookies, according to local press reports.

More than 40 other players were found to have colluded with gambling rings to fix games, and some of those may be charged after the Chinese New Year vacation, which runs through next week.

The lurid scandal involves allegations that gambling rings and crooked politicians used offers of cash, cars and prostitutes — and if all that failed, threats — to induce pro baseball players to throw games.

Baseball expert Yu Jun-wei said Taiwan's pro league would likely hobble on this year, despite the cloud of graft.

"They will still continue to operate the league, but I'm not really optimistic about attendance this year after what happened," said Yu, especially since one of those charged was the "Golden Warrior" Chen Chih-yuan, star outfielder for Taiwan's most popular team the Brother
Elephants.

Yu said he was surprised that so many teams and players were involved in the alleged corruption. And he was "shocked" at reports that gambling rings had recruited players to throw games while they were still in high school, years before they'd even made in into the pro
league.

"They approached these kids through a coach at the high school, so when they got to the pro league, they could control those players," said Yu.

Prosecutors are seeking the heaviest punishment — nine years in jail and a $1.5 million fine — for a local politician allegedly involved in threatening players and betting on games. A Japanese manager was also charged, as was the "Windshield Wiper," the nickname for the head of an alleged gambling ring.

Prosecutors said the alleged game-throwing took place over four seasons (2006 through 2009) and local media even speculated that players on Taiwan's national team may have deliberately lost to China in the 2008 Olympics.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan media was also buzzing with the latest on pitcher Wang Chien-ming, dubbed "Taiwan's Glory."

He's been a national hero here since making it onto the New York Yankees' pitching roster, with dedicated fans staying up into the wee hours or skipping work to watch him pitch live, American time.

Wang fever hit a peak in the 2006 season, when he won 19 games and came in second (behind Johan Santana) in voting for the Cy Young award.

His star began to fade, though, after injuries and poor performance saw him dropped from the Yankees' roster of starting pitchers last year. He had shoulder surgery last July.

This week's good news: Wang, now a free agent, may be within days of signing as a starting pitcher for another Major League team.

The bad news: That team may well be the Washington Nationals — the worst team in American baseball. (They chalked up a league-worst record of 59 wins and 103 losses last year, the mirror image of the Yankees 103-59 performance.)

Baseball bloggers went nuts over the news (see a rumor roundup). Chico Harlan, writing in the Washington Post's Nationals Journal, got a hold of Wang's agent Alan Nero, who said Thursday there was no deal yet.

"Once again, I don't know where everybody is getting info," he said, asked whether an informal or verbal agreement was in place with the Nats. "There is no [deal], and won't be for another week or so." Nero said unequivocally that Wang is still open to offers from any club in baseball. "We haven't finalized anything with anybody," he told Harlan.

Taiwan media noted that the Nationals were the "worst" (zui cha) team in American pro baseball. But baseball expert (and fan) Yu said Taiwanese would likely change their loyalty to whatever team Wang played for, even if they were the Bad News Bears of the major leagues.

"I don't know if many people know about the Nationals," said Yu. "But I'm not disappointed. As long as he can start for a team, I think it will be good."

Original site

Flat-panel firms eye China

Taiwan gains mainland market entry

New York Times, February 11, 2010

TAIPEI — Taiwan’s decision to relax some restrictions on investment in mainland China will help its flat panel manufacturers compete in the mainland’s booming consumer electronics market, analysts and company officials said Thursday.

The top producer of liquid crystal display panels in Taiwan, AU Optronics, said it would apply to the Taiwanese government to build an advanced LCD panel facility in China as soon as possible. Until now, Taiwanese companies have been allowed to assemble only panel modules — consisting of panels and frames — in China.

The company expects China to become the world’s No.1 market for flat screen televisions sometime next year.

AU Optronics, which has 20 percent of the market in China for the screens used in such televisions, said the new rules would help it compete against South Korean and Chinese rivals.

“China will be the biggest market next year, so it will be very helpful for us” to have a factory there to provide faster service to customers and shorten shipping times, said Freda Lee, a company spokeswoman. A factory to build LCD panels can cost $3 billion.

The government in Taiwan, under pressure from its top technology companies and other businesses, has been relaxing limits on China-bound investment over the past decade.

Taiwan said Wednesday that it would let flat panel makers build screen-making factories in China, as long as their most advanced plants stayed in Taiwan and they keep equivalent investments on the island.

The government also lifted some limits on investment in China by semiconductor companies, and will let them use more advanced manufacturing technology at their mainland plants. Also relaxed were China investment rules for Taiwan chip testers, packagers and companies involved in real estate, telecommunications, wind power and solar energy.

The biggest implications are for flat panel makers in Taiwan, who build the screens used in devices like cellphones, computer monitors and televisions.

Companies in Taiwan have long battled with the South Korean giants of Samsung Electronics and LG Display to dominate that market. The move by Taiwan on Wednesday followed the South Korean government’s approval late last year of ambitious plans by those two companies for joint-venture factories in China.

AU Optronics said it wanted to build a “7.5 generation” factory in China when the new rules take effect. Such factories produce 42-inch to 46-inch screens. The company’s most advanced, “8.5 generation” factory produces 65-inch screens, Ms. Lee said.

On Wednesday, the chairman of Hon Hai Group, Terry Gou, told Reuters that the group’s flat panel unit, Innolux, would also consider building a factory in China.

Dale Gai, a flat panel industry analyst at Yuanta Securities in Taipei, said that the Chinese flat screen television market was growing 80 percent yearly and that Chinese makers were “aggressively” building factories.

DisplaySearch, a market researcher, said last year it expected flat panel television sales in China to increase from 13 million in 2008 to 37 million in 2012, as subsidies from the Chinese government fueled demand and Chinese users replace old cathode-ray tube televisions with newer models.

Flat panel companies in Taiwan sell screens to Chinese televisions makers. Chi Mei Optoelectronics has about a 35 percent share of the market in China for flat screens while AU Optronics has 20 percent, Mr. Gai said.

Samsung and LG Display, each have 10 percent to 20 percent, according to Mr. Gai.

AU Optronics’ main customer is Changhong, Mr. Gai said, and Chi Mei’s main customers are Skyworth and Hisense.

“The weakness of both companies is they don't have own brands, like LG and Samsung, so they need to be close to their Chinese TV brands,” Mr. Gai said. “Now Taiwan panel makers can set up fabs in China to compete with South Korea,” he said referring to factories.

Chi Mei is in the process of merging with Innolux. The combined company would be the largest flat panel maker in Taiwan and No. 3 globally by revenue.

AU Optronics reported revenue in 2009 of 359 billion Taiwan dollars, or $11.2 billion while Chi Mei Optoelectronics posted 209 billion dollars in revenue from its LCD business last year.

According to DisplaySearch, LG Display was the No.1 LCD panel maker in 2009, followed by Samsung, AU Optronics and Chi Mei.

Original site

Japan builds 'hydrogen highway'

Japanese carmakers, such as Toyota, are developing an affordable hydrogen car using fuel cells. Meanwhile, the government and energy companies are funding hydrogen refueling stations needed for the cars' widespread use.

Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2010

Yokohama, Japan -- Fill 'er up -- with hydrogen.

It may still sound like science fiction to some. But Japan is taking a lead in making zero-emissions hydrogen-fueled cars a reality.

It's part of the country's aspiration to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050; nearly a quarter of those emissions come from transportation. And it's a more urgent task in a country that imports all of its oil.

Japan leads Asia in early hydrogen-car infrastructure and is a world-beater in emerging fuel cell technologies.

"Hydrogen is still in very, very early days," cautions Ashvin Chotai, London-based managing director of Intelligence Automotive Asia. "But in the area of green cars, Japan has been investing a lot further ahead than the Western companies in the last few years, and they have an edge."

Take Toyota. Last year they announced they hope to retail an "affordable" fuel-cell car by 2015. It would be next step toward what the firm calls the "ultimate eco-car," after today's popular hybrids like the Prius, the "plug-in" hybrids that just came on the market, and fully electric vehicles.

Long term, Toyota sees hydrogen-fueled cars as ideal for long-haul driving, with plug-in hybrids better for mid-range driving and electrics best for short-range commuting.

That's because fuel-cell cars have a much longer range from one fueling: more than 500 miles already, in a test run of a Toyota vehicle last year in Japan, compared to a maximum 125-mile per charge range with electric vehicles.

Building hydrogen highways

But as with electric vehicles, the biggest hurdle is a lack of power stations. "Fueling infrastructure is the joker in the whole thing," says Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco. "You can't have fuel cell vehicles without the infrastructure, and you can't have infrastructure without fuel cell vehicles."

The Japanese government is stepping in to address that chicken-and-egg problem. It's subsidizing fuel cell development and collaborating closely with energy and auto companies to build Japan's "hydrogen highway" of the future.

The government has subsidized 13 hydrogen stations for fuel-cell cars, covering at least half of the $5 million to $6 million per station cost, according to the Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference of Japan (energy firms have ponied up the rest). It hopes to build 40 to 50 more by 2015.

Japanese energy firms are actively working together with the government to build the hydrogen car infrastructure. Tomohide Satomi, of the Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference of Japan, says such firms are looking into the future and seeing a need to develop new products as gas sales decrease.

"To survive, they have to change the portfolio of their energy supply business," Mr. Satomi says. "So they're looking to the future. They have to seek new business areas besides gasoline."

He says Japan's hydrogen highway efforts are on par with those in the United States (particularly California) and Germany, and that it leads Asia, with South Korea close behind.

Not cheap, or 100 percent clean

At one such station in a harbor-side, industrial area of Yokohama City, the Japan Automobile Research Institute's Hideaki Matsushita showed off a fuel-cell demo model from Toyota. After a test drive, the car came to rest and a pool of water puddled under the exhaust pipe.

In fuel-cell vehicles, hydrogen fuel and oxygen flow over a fuel cell stack, producing the electricity that runs the motor; the byproduct is water. It's not a 100 percent "clean" energy source: currently one of the cheapest ways to produce hydrogen fuel uses natural gas.

Producing such fuel by "electrolysis" (combining electricity and water to create hydrogen) is the Holy Grail of green vehicles, but that's an exorbitant process for now.

At the Yokohama demo station, it's clear that fuel-cell vehicles aren't quite ready for prime time. The ideal customer is a millionaire – and a bodybuilder. For safety reasons, the pumping of high-pressure hydrogen fuel requires a heavy, rugged case and nozzle. A mechanical arm helps lift the nozzle to the car for fueling.

And a typical fuel-cell vehicle goes for about $1 million, according to Sayaka Shishido, of NEDO, the government's funding arm for fuel cell and other "new energy" development projects. Toyota leases its 14 fuel-cell vehicles in Japan for a cool $9,000 to $11,000 per month, to universities and local governments.

Target year: 2015

Ten years ago, the Japanese government hoped to have five million fuel cell cars on the roads by now. Satomi said that cost and durability issues were greatly under-estimated.

The new goal is more realistic, with a focus on building the necessary infrastructure for very small-scale commercialization by 2015.

Aside from infrastructure, other technical hurdles remain. One focus now is reducing the amount of expensive platinum used in each car. Many fuel cell vehicles now use around 100 grams; the goal is to whittle that down to just 10 grams.

Toyota says it's making progress: It has doubled the capacity of its hydrogen tanks in the past year, and sharply reduced the platinum it uses per car, to under 50 grams.

NEDO is funding research on reducing costs and improving fuel-cell durability. And it's confident about its commercialization targets, because auto and energy companies are on board.

"2015 – that will be the key year for Japan," says NEDO's Ms. Shishido. "This will be the starting year for utilization of fuel-cell vehicles by the general public.”

Original site

Arms sale more symbol than substance

Riling China, the US's newest $6.4 billion sale includes 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, and sophisticated command-and-control software.

Christian Science Monitor, February 18, 2010


Taipei, Taiwan -- The latest arms package for Taiwan, cleared for sale by the White House Jan. 29, has more political than military significance, military analysts say.

With Taiwan playing catch-up to a rapidly modernizing People's Liberation Army (PLA), the deal does little to alter a military balance that has tipped in China's favor.

But the arms do send a political message.

Beijing always objects loudly to US arms sales to the self-ruled island it views as its own. But China has reacted more strongly than usual to this $6.4 billion package, which includes 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, minesweepers, Harpoon antiship missiles, and sophisticated command-and-control software.

And for the first time, it has threatened sanctions against firms involved in the deal, which include Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft.

"It's not purely a military issue, it's a symbol," says Arthur Ding, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies (CAPS) in Taipei. "It signifies US support for Taiwan's democratic institutions, and for Taiwan this is very important."

Whatever the reason for China's sharper tone, it has little to do with the capabilities of the military gear offered to Taiwan, analysts say. "I don't think they're breakthrough items," says Lin Chong-pin, a professor of strategic studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University. "They're at most maintenance items."

Take the Patriots. China now has some 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles and scores of cruise missiles aimed at Taiwan. Lin said two or three Patriots are needed to knock out every Chinese missile; last week's package included 114 Patriots.

"It's a continuation of what we've been asking for, but not a great stride forward for our capabilities," says Mr. Lin.

The Blackhawks may be more significant for disaster relief on the typhoon- and flood-plagued island than for military use, he says. The command-and-control software has long been requested by Taiwan, and, according to Lin, "it doesn't make a huge difference."

Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, noted that the 12 Harpoon missiles were for training only.

He says the latest sale was for "legacy" weapons held over from the Bush administration; many of the others were released in 2007 and 2008. The Obama administration added nothing to the list of systems in the pipeline, he says, and left out Taiwan's more sensitive – and militarily significant – request for advanced F-16 fighters and submarines.

"There was nothing new in the release," says Mr. Minnick. "So the question is actually, 'Will the US continue to back Taiwan's defense needs?' "

Beijing has warned Washington not to sell the F-16s that Taiwan wants. And the submarines request has now likely been "killed," says Ding, of the CAPS.

US weighs its response

For several decades, Taiwan's vastly outnumbered military has counted on its edge in quality over the PLA. The PLA's modernization has erased that advantage, leaving Taiwan more dependent than ever on its chief deterrent: the US Navy's Seventh Fleet.

Now, China is developing and deploying submarines, destroyers, and missiles to keep the US out of a fight.

Of particular concern to US planners: an aircraft-carrier-busting antiship ballistic missile, now believed to be in development.

Those expanding capabilities have sparked a debate among Taiwan and US security analysts on how best to respond.

Taiwan's government touts a "preventive defensive" posture that it dubs the "Hard ROC" strategy, a play on Taiwan's formal name, the Republic of China.

In a 2008 essay that was widely discussed in Taiwan's security circles, retired US naval officer William Murray argued that the island should go further, adopting a so-called "porcupine strategy" focused strictly on hunkering down and hardening facilities.

Taiwan's own deterrent

But some in Taiwan say the island needs to strengthen its own offensive deterrent.

"If China continues to modernize its military force, they'll reach a level that our defensive-oriented posture could not withstand," says Ding. He argues Taiwan should develop precision-strike cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles as a deterrent, to "make China think twice" about any attack.

Tamkang University's Lin argues that Taiwan needs F-16s and submarines. But as a last resort, it should also develop a lower-tech deterrent to dissuade China from attempting an occupation of the island.

"Taiwan needs to develop its asymmetrical capabilities, because we cannot confront the PLA head-on," he says. He envisions home-grown, perhaps US-trained "cement jungle guerrilla warfare" units, consisting of trained reserves and snipers who can operate independently and harass PLA occupiers.

"When the PLA comes, let them in – don't engage in bloody, Stalingrad-type warfare," he says. "Give them one shot today, two tomorrow, and three afterward, so they cannot conclude a war."

Original site

Taiwan welcomes US weapons

Taiwan asked for weapons from the US years ago, and most on the island back the deal.

Global Post, February 1, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's reaction to America's formal offer of $6.4 billion in weaponry could be summed up as follows: "Thanks — but next time, give us the good stuff. And can we talk about the price?"

Across the Taiwan Strait, China's government and netizens are lashing out at Washington over the deal. But they're conveniently overlooking a couple things. Taiwan asked for the weapons years ago. And despite warming cross-strait relations, most Taiwanese back the deal.

Here, as in Beijing, the offer is seen first and foremost for its political symbolism. With the deal, the United States is signaling that it's in Taiwan's corner.

"It sends a message to China that the U.S. is still concerned about Taiwan," said retired banker Robert Lin, 75, as he and his wife Y.K. finished up lunch in Taipei on Monday. "If the U.S. didn't sell us the weapons, the message is very clear that they don't care."

Like many here, Lin and his wife don't think Taiwan could go toe-to-toe with China in a fight, with or without the weapons cleared for sale last week. Those include 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, anti-ship missiles, mine-sweeping ships and sophisticated command-and-control software.

"If China attacked, it would be very hard for us to resist," said Lin. So U.S. political and military support is critical.

Most Taiwanese back economic engagement with China. But the number supporting political unification with China is under 10 percent and falling. Only America will sell Taiwan the weapons it needs to prevent being gobbled up by its neighbor.

A Global Views Survey Research Center poll last year found that 48 percent thought it necessary for Taiwan to purchase better weapons, while 37 percent thought it unnecessary.

An Apple Daily poll released Sunday found that 57 percent support buying the arms offered last week, while 30 percent said they weren't necessary (13 percent expressed no view).

The Apple Daily put the U.S. arms news on its front page Sunday, and posted one of its "Action News" clips, made famous by the Tiger Woods animations.



(Watch the clip on Youtube. The highlight: the entire island of Taiwan blinking red in alarm at 0:48.)

The daily also parsed U.S. officials' comments, fretting that America's "six assurances" to Taiwan may not be so sure anymore.

That refers to Ronald Reagan's 1982 commitments to a nervous Taiwan as America moved closer to Beijing. Those promises to Taipei included that the U.S. would not consult with Beijing before selling arms to the island, and that Washington's promise to Beijing to curb arms sales to Taiwan was conditioned on Beijing committing to a non-military solution of cross-strait differences.

Other Taiwan media reaction was mixed. The pro-independence Liberty Times lamented that the deal didn't include the advanced F-16 fighter jets or submarines that Taiwan wants (U.S. officials say they're still studying those items).

The Beijing-friendly China Times had sticker shock, reporting claims that the weapons were as much as 40 percent more expensive than their original asking price.

Under the headline "Uncle Sam's a sharp dealer; it never loses out," the China Times wrote that the U.S. was taking advantage of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Taiwan government officials have publicly thanked the U.S., repeating the line that American weaponry will help Taiwan enter talks with China from a position of strength. Officials promised to look into the price, and if necessary haggle with the Americans to avoid a budget-busting buy.

Last week's release of arms sales to Taiwan was the first under President Barack Obama, and focused on less-sensitive defensive weaponry. It followed several formal "releases" of weaponry first offered by President George W. Bush in 2001.

Those included some $2 billion in sub-hunting aircraft in 2007, $1 billion in upgrades to Patriot anti-missile systems the same year, and $6.4 billion in Apache attack helicopters, Patriot missiles, and anti-ship and anti-tank missiles in 2008.

In Taipei and Washington, such arms are seen as a response to China's rapid military buildup. Beijing's arsenal now bristles with more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles and scores of cruise missiles, along with advanced, Russian-made fighter jets and destroyers.

China is also believed to be developing an aircraft carrier-busting, anti-ship ballistic missile that, if and when deployed, could significantly change U.S. war planners' calculus for a Taiwan conflict scenario.

Security analysts say that despite warming cross-strait ties in the past two years, China's aggressive military posture toward the island is unchanged. It's keeping the stick held over Taiwan, even as it dangles the carrot of economic cooperation.

"They haven't scaled down the deployment of missiles targeting Taiwan," said Arthur Ding, secretary general of the Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. Ding said China's only concession to Taiwan sensibilities in recent years has been to lower the profile of its military exercises.

It's stopped conducting such drills near Taiwan and hyping them through Hong Kong "mouthpiece" media outlets, said Ding, instead running thinly disguised mock Taiwan invasions farther inland or in northern China.

Ding said he's concerned that the defensive items released by the Obama administration last week didn't go far enough.

Taiwan has also requested more than 60 F-16 fighter jets. That's sensitive in part because F-16s have more obvious offensive capabilities, though security experts say China's air defenses are now so advanced that any attempted Taiwan F-16 strike would be a suicide mission.

The island also covets latest-generation aircraft, such as the planned F-35 joint-strike fighter, and high-tech, Aegis-equipped destroyers. But the U.S. typically gives Taiwan only older technology, and sometimes even hand-me-down gear (four destroyers built for the Shah of Iran are now bobbing in Taiwan's military ports).

Experts attribute that to fears of China's wrath, and U.S. concerns that America's cutting-edge technology could end up in China's hands, either through corruption in Taiwan's ranks or the penetration of Taiwan's military by Chinese intelligence.

Original site

iTablet supply chain rumors

Here's the latest chatter about the supply chain of the coming Apple gadget — if it really exists.

Global Post, January 26, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Here comes, maybe, Apple's "iTablet." Or "iSlate." Or "iWhatever."

Apple's so-called "Jesus Tablet" has been described as the ultimate gadget: A netbook, e-book reader, movie player and games platform all in one. It's going to revolutionize publishing, and education. No mention yet on solving Middle East peace, but surely it's only a matter of time.

Now, Apple fans are in a frenzy over a press event Wednesday at which the tablet may finally — maybe — be revealed to all. And yes, all the jokes about Moses bringing the tablet down from the mountain have already been made.

GlobalPost doesn't have any solid information to add since our last dispatch on this topic, nearly a year ago. But here in Asia, where many of Apple's mos popular products are manufactured, there's been plenty of unconfirmed hearsay.

Apple doesn't comment on its suppliers, as a rule. Calls to reported suppliers for the wonder gadget got the usual litany of "no comments" and a few chuckles that we even asked.

"Apple's a very special customer, so their information control is very, very strict," said one spokesperson, who didn't even want to be named saying,"If we address any question it could be very embarrassing."

"It's highly confidential," said another spokesperson, before rushing to add, "If we really have this plan."

Why the Manhattan Project-like secrecy? Here's how tech consultant Tracy Tsai of Gartner explains it: "Apple treats confidentiality as so important, so any release of information could jeopardize business relations between suppliers and Apple."

Still, there are plenty of rumors about the supply chain from industry analysts, several of whom also did not want to be named.

If the tablet's for real, Taiwanese companies will be key contractors, as with other Apple products like the iPhone. Herewith, a roundup of the chatter.

ASSEMBLY

One of the single biggest winners from Apple's tablet hype could be Hon Hai, also known by its trade name Foxconn. Headed by celebrity billionaire Terry Gou, it's the world's largest electronics contractor and a longtime Apple partner.

Analysts say Hon Hai will likely be tapped for most of the final assembly of the tablet. Such assembly is typically done at its factories in China. Hon Hai declined comment.

It's possible that other Taiwan contractors Inventec or Quanta could get some assembly orders too — Apple likes to diversify and play off suppliers against each other to get the cheapest prices, say analysts.

TOUCH SCREENS

This is the key component, according to analysts, and one of the most expensive. Apple's tablet is rumored to feature a 10-inch touch screen that's a larger version of what's used in the iPhone or iPod Touch.

"Apple has developed this product for at least a year and a half," said one industry analyst. "The bottleneck is the touch panel sensor. It's very difficult to make, so the project has been postponed."

Rumored suppliers for tablet screens included TPK, possibly working together with Sintek, as well as Wintek (the firm at the center of Global Post's Silicon Sweatshops series and Hon Hai flat-screen subsidiary Innolux.

"From Apple's perspective, whoever can deliver good yields (the percentage of screens produced that pass all tests and function well) and better costs will be used as the main source," the analyst said.

Analysts say Apple's original touchscreen partner was TPK, a Taiwan-based firm that manufactures in Xiamen, China. It's a privately-held firm with investment from Germany's Balda AG, which reportedly reduced its holdings to less than 20 percent last November, and other investment from a group of "Asian institutional investors," according to this press release.

TPK declined comment on the tablet and would not confirm that Apple was a customer. But it did say it is planning an initial public offering on the Taiwan Stock Exchange in mid-to-late March.

One analyst said TPK was almost the sole supplier of touch screens for the first-generation iPhone, with some screens also made by Japan's Sharp. Wintek made screens for the second-generation iPhone, after its experience working with Apple on the iPod Touch, the analyst said.

"For today's iPhone and iPod Touch, TPK likely supports 60 percent, and Wintek 30 percent, and Apple has other smaller suppliers," the analyst said, making them logical suppliers for similar iTablet screens. "For sure, Wintek's one of the suppliers for the tablet," said another analyst.

Wintek spokesman Jay Huang declined comment on the tablet rumors, but said, "Apple is one of our customers. We have had a close relationship with them over the past two to three years."

Now, Innolux and Sintek may be in the mix too — for iPhone screens, iTablet screens, or both. "Innolux sent sample products to ship to Apple," in the second half of last year, "but the volume was very very small," the first analyst said.

Innolux is a rising star in flat-panels; it recently inked a deal to acquire two other liquid crystal display panel makers. When completed, that merger will make Innolux Taiwan's largest panel-maker, with the scale to better go head-to-head with South Korean giants Samsung and LG Display. Innolux declined comment for this story.

The more obscure Sintek may be working with TPK to provide an integrated supply solution for touch panels, the analyst said.

"Sintek would make the touch sensor, give it to TPK for the assembly of the touch panel with lens and display, and then give it to Foxconn for final assembly," the analyst said. Sintek did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The firm Cando was also mentioned by one analyst as a possible screen supplier. Cando did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeff Pu, a handset analyst at Fubon Securities, said touch-screen manufacturers with newer-generation factories would increasingly have an edge.

"Higher generation factories means you produce on bigger substrates," said Pu. "The larger the glass substrate, the more output. More output means lower costs. So the trend in future will probably be a shift to later generation fabs like [those of] Sintek, Innolux and Hannstar."

OTHER COMPONENTS:

Battery: Dynapack is the rumored supplier. Phone calls to the firm went unanswered.

Frequency stabilizer: TXC, which was not immediately available for comment.

Mini coaxial cables: reportedly supplied mostly by Wanshih Electronic. Wanshih declined comment.

Power supply "chokes": this part, which stabilizes power flow in gadgets so they don't get fried or under-juiced, will reportedly be supplied by Maglayers. The firm said that Apple was a customer, but declined comment on the tablet.

Printed circuit boards: Unimicron, Gold Circuit Electronics and Tripod Technology are potential suppliers.

Thermal module: Sunon.

Screen connectors: reportedly supplied by Cheng Uei Precision Industry Co, which sells products under the "Foxlink" logo. Said a spokesman: "Apple is our customer, but they've asked us not to respond," to questions about specific products. Asked about Wednesday's Apple event, the spokesman said: "We look forward to it, too."

Original site

Taiwan's gods of metal

They're loud. They're angry. They hate the Chinese government

Meet Chthonic, Taiwan's premier metal act. Don't expect to see them in China anytime soon.

Global Post, January 24, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The first time Taiwanese metal band Chthonic toured America, audiences didn't exactly give them a warm welcome.

"They stood there with open mouths, and some shouted that they wanted to see the headline band instead," recalled bassist Doris Yeh, in an interview early this month.

But Chthonic would typically silence the hecklers with their first tight, bone-crunching number. "I don't think they were prepared for seeing a band from the Orient," said Yeh. "They were shocked by our outfits and songs."

Chthonic has played Taiwan since the mid-1990s, mixing an "extreme metal" sound, derived from Scandinavian bands, with Asian flavors and a strong pro-Taiwan political stance.

Now, the band is starting to win converts abroad, too. They're recently back from a second tour of the U.S. and Europe, which featured songs from their latest album, "Mirror of Retribution," slickly produced by Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano in English and Chinese versions.

Chthonic was named second best band in Terrorizer magazine's 2009 reader poll, after Behemoth. Chad Bowar, the heavy metal editor at About.com, said in an email that when it comes to the best-known Asian metal band on the scene now, it's now a "toss-up" between Chthonic and two Japanese acts, Sigh and Dir En Grey.

"Their look is definitely unique, with the makeup, and using traditional Taiwanese instruments like the erhu (a mournful string instrument) also sets them apart," said Bowar, explaining Chthonic's appeal. "Their political activities help keep them in the spotlight."

"The music is also very good, and without that the other things wouldn't matter."

Bassist Yeh's sex appeal can't hurt, either. She's posed for FHM Taiwan and, to judge by fan websites, has already inspired more than a few metalhead crushes. "She's like three or four fetishes rolled into one," quipped one fan at Chthonic's recent show in Taipei.

Yeh's on a roll: She was voted the second most popular bassist in the Terrorizer reader poll, made Revolver magazine's "Hottest Chicks in Metal" calendar and was featured as GQ Taiwan's "GQ girl" for this January.

Strong politics

In Taiwan, the band — especially 33-year-old songwriter and vocalist Freddy Lim — is well known for their outspoken politics. "Freddy," as he's known here, was a regular on political talk shows in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, and rallied youth support for the pro-independence party.

Now, Lim says he's told producers he's not interested in more talk show appearances, despite the easy pay (about $150 per show). He'd rather go on the unpaid university lecture circuit to speak out on his favorite causes.

"I want to influence young people on issues like Tibet, and global human rights," said Lim. "Tibetans, Uighurs, people in Myanmar — they face even worse situations than Taiwan. As Taiwanese, I feel we have the power and responsibility to support them."

Such causes haven't made Chthonic any friends in the Chinese government. Lim says he's been to China seven times, but hasn't been able to go after he organized a "Free Tibet" concert in 2003. Said Yeh: "We know we're on the blacklist."

Lim says he would love to tour China again, and that he stands on the side of Chinese human rights fighters. "I'm not anti-China, I'm anti-Chinese government," he emphasizes. The problem isn't the Chinese Communist Party's ideology, but its repression.

"China's communists aren't communists," said Lim. "They're communist in name, but they're really just tyrannical bastards."

Historical anger

Lim started the band in 1996, inspired by Scandinavian acts like Norway's Emperor and Sweden's At the Gates. But though he loved such music, he couldn't relate to the cultural symbols and messages, especially the anti-Christian themes.

"I'm always an outsider in their culture," said Lim. "The percentage of Christians here is very low, so there's no reason for us to be anti-Christian."

A search for themes to inspire Chthonic's lyrics and message led him to local history instead. "I felt like, if I want to write my own extreme metal songs with the same anger and feeling, it wouldn't be anti-Christian, or Satanic, because I have no emotion or passion about that."

"So I started to think more locally. What I really care about is my homeland."

In Taiwan's history, Lim found plenty to be angry about. "The whole of Taiwan's history is one of oppression by different empires — Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese," he said.

The oppression persists, this time from China's current government, which has some 1,300 missiles pointed at Taiwan and has vowed to some day absorb the self-ruled island, by military force if need be.

"We're under another kind of oppression, so we write our songs from these roots, and we put in stories from history," said Yeh.

Hear more from Yeh in this interview:

One album's theme was Taiwan Aborigines' resistance to Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). The latest album, "Mirror of Retribution," tells the story of a spirit medium who journeys to hell to try to steal the book of life and death so he can rewrite Taiwan's history.

The backdrop is the real-life 228 massacre of 1947, when Kuomintang troops under Chiang Kai-shek slaughtered tens of thousands of local Taiwanese who had risen up against the KMT's bumbling, tyrannical rule.

Lim said the story was one way to introduce fans to the "oriental philosophy of hell," which includes 18 levels, 100 small levels and 10 courts presided over by 10 ghost kings.

Welcoming confrontation

In a packed basement club in Taipei in late December, scores of Taiwanese banged their heads in unison and made the "devil's horns" sign with their upraised hands.

Now and then a fan threw in the air a fistful of paper "ghost money," traditionally burned here to appease ancestors or wandering spirits.

On stage, Lim screamed into the microphone between strands of long black hair, one booted foot planted on a monitor. His voice was nearly drowned out by a thunderous wall of distorted guitar and furious drumming.

When the number was over, two well-dressed youngsters took the stage to hand Freddy a bouquet of flowers. The gift was from a pro-independence candidate, who just won a county commissioner's post, to thank Freddy for his support.

It was clearly a love-fest for Chthonic and their loyal Taiwanese fans. On the first U.S. tour, though, Freddy said they heard that some Chinese students — angered by the band's pro-Taiwan stance — wanted to protest outside one of their gigs in California. In the end, it didn't happen.

"Most of our fans there were very strong guys with tattoos — Mexicans, white guys — and some older Taiwanese-Americans too," said Lim, with a chuckle. "I don't think the Chinese students wanted to fight them."

He said he hasn't yet been confronted by Chinese students at lectures, as happened recently here to a prominent, exiled Chinese democracy activist. (Taiwan's government is allowing Chinese students to study here in increasing numbers.) In any case, Lim welcomes such showdowns and said they're healthy for Taiwan.

"If you don't deal with Chinese people and talk to them, you don't know how different you are, and how different your values are," said Lim. "Without the people you hate, you don't know the people you love."

Chthonic hopes to tour the U.S. and Europe again before September, when their American visas expire. Another album is in the works for 2011. They're currently looking for a new manager.

Original site

Scandal clouds Japan reform

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan vowed to shake up the country's powerful bureaucracy. Instead it's bogged down in a corruption probe against key strategist Ichiro Ozawa.

Christian Science Monitor, January 21, 2010

Tokyo -- Japan's ruling party is pushing back against a legal probe that could threaten its ambitious plans to reform the country’s politics.

The Democratic Party of Japan rode to power last August on a wave of populism. It vowed to take power away from bureaucrats and give it to the people's elected representatives, part of its lofty goal of making government more accountable and transparent.

But now, the party's main powerbroker, Ichiro Ozawa, is under investigation over allegedly accepting bribes and buying land with the money. Prosecutors raided his offices and arrested three former secretaries, and will question Ozawa himself on Saturday.

With its key strategist under a cloud, the party is casting the probe as the revenge of the bureaucrats for the new government's bid to curb their clout.

Ozawa himself lashed out against the probe in an address to party members last weekend, saying it "cast a shadow over the nation's democracy" and suggesting prosecutors may be politically motivated.

In a Jan. 15 interview at her office, Kuniko Tanioka, a DPJ upper house legislator, said she found it "puzzling" that prosecutors leaked so many details about an ongoing probe to the media. She suggested that some in the judiciary were trying to "extend some influence over politics."

"The bureaucracy looks at themselves as the victims of the change of government," said Ms. Tanioka. "[They're] forgetting the fact that they were themselves victimizing the people, and forgetting that the government is not theirs."

As one example of bureaucrats' past sins, she cited the recently revealed, secret deal by which Japan agreed to allow nuclear-armed United States vessels enter Japanese ports during the Cold war. As recently as last year, bureaucrats brought before the Diet insisted that no such deal existed, Tanioka said. "In other words, they were betraying the people."

Tanioka said the bureaucracy clings to an outdated mindset that has no place in 21st century Japan. "They still don't understand that the people are the rulers of the country," said Tanioka. "They are like tradition-worshippers – but society has changed drastically."

Locking the bureaucrats out

Since World War II, business-friendly coalitions led by the Liberal Democratic Party have governed through backroom deals and cozy relations with bureaucrats and big contractors. Often, LDP-appointed ministers were only figureheads, with the bureaucrats holding the real power.

Japan's new, center-left government promised to change that. The government's most visible champion of people power is Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan, a one-time human rights and environmental activist. He famously wrested from bureaucrats evidence of the spread of tainted blood when he served as health minister in the mid-1990s.

Kan was recently appointed to double as finance minister, a move widely seen here as a bid to tame one of Japan's most entrenched and powerful bureaucracies.

In Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's own e-mail letter early this month, he said the party had made progress in establishing more direct democracy. "The people's strong desire to change politics led to the change of government last year, allowing us to finally come to the starting line of a politics in which you, the people, will play the main roles."

Hatoyama cited as one example the scrapping of permanent vice-ministers’ meetings, "a tradition symbolic of the bureaucrat-led politics that had continued since the Meiji era."

The DPJ plans to increase the number of legislators appointed to vice-minister posts, increasing the clout of the people's direct representatives. Decisions are now made by such political appointees, with bureaucrats locked out of the room – a big change from the LDP days.

The bureaucrats have begun to grumble about the new order. In an article on Jan. 13, the Yomiuri Shimbun quoted anonymous bureaucrats from three ministries, all complaining about their reduced status, and more desk work.

"The ministry can't make decisions for hours because the three top-ranking politicians won't let any bureaucrats in," said one. "We now have to report every important matter to the minister and wait for his approval – it's time consuming," griped another. "Nothing can be done without the instructions of the three top-ranking politicians," said a third.

Other commentators have suggested that the DPJ may have gone too far in demonizing the bureaucracy, since it ultimately must rely on bureaucrats to implement its policies.

The DPJ is practicing "a kind of populism to appeal to the public by bashing the bureaucrats," says Mikitaka Masuyama, of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. "But in the long run, politicians and bureaucrats have to cooperate with each other."

But politicians losing appeal, too

The DPJ's revolution could yet prove short-lived. The Ozawa scandal, and the DPJ's mixed performance in power, have taken a toll: Polls this week showed approval ratings for the party had plunged to the low to mid 40s, from more than 70 percent after the party's election triumph last year.

The party faces an Upper House election in July that will test its hold on power. If Ozawa is charged and forced from his position as party secretary general, the DPJ would lose its "shadow shogun," the man credited as both the strategist who guided it to power, and the strongman who can enforce party solidarity.

The DPJ's Tanioka said the first half of this year would be a critical transition period, as the party establishes its "grip" over the bureaucracy and government. Despite the current troubles, she remains confident of victory in July, saying the public would give them more time to produce results.

"The Japanese people are very patient," said Tanioka. "They know that the rust and scars have accumulated for over 50 years, and the clean-up job is going to take some time."

Original site

Sex, drugs and inner-tubes

As Laos opens to tourists, some fear it may be losing its soul. Others are merely losing their bikinis.

Global Post, January 18, 2010

VANG VIENG, Laos — Drunk Brits leer at passing female tourists. A Western tourist gets in a public shouting match with her guide.

And stoned backpackers lounge gape-mouthed in cafes, eyes glued to televisions playing looping reruns of "Friends" and "Family Guy."

Welcome to Vang Vieng, one of Laos' premier tourist destinations. Just don't call it "unspoiled."

As this Southeast Asian country opens its doors to tourism, it's facing a classic conundrum. The poor, underdeveloped country desperately wants to earn tourist dollars. But it also wants to preserve its conservative, traditional ways. Doing both may be impossible.

"It's hard to keep the balance between development and the preservation of tradition and local culture," said Thavipheth Oula, an official at the Lao National Tourism Administration, in an email. "The issue is how we can keep Lao identity while the number of tourist arrivals increases."

In the 1960s, America waged a "secret war" here against the Pathet Lao communists. Now, the country that once crawled with spooks has been invaded by tourists.

Annual tourist arrivals have tripled in 10 years, from half a million in 1998 to 1.7 million in 2008, according to numbers from Laos' tourism authority. Tourism now brings in $275 million in annual revenue, up from $80 million in 1998, making it Laos' second biggest money-maker after mining.

The key draws are the capital, Vientiane, and the temple-studded World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang. The latter's development is regulated — for example, with strict building codes. Well-preserved wats crowd up against hip, new French-Lao fusion restaurants and bars.

But Vang Vieng has no such restrictions. Instead, it's carved out a niche as a mandatory stop on the backpacker trail through Southeast Asia. And it caters to 20-something hedonists with scores of cafes, bars and riverside debauchery, making it something of a "lost city of sin" in the heart of Laos.

Vang Vieng's natural beauty is breathtaking: It sits on the Nam Song River amid jagged karst mountains.

The obligatory activity here is inner-tubing down the river. Tourists crowd onto trucks that drive them to a spot upriver from the city. By the launch site, hordes of shirtless and bikini-clad Western tourists gyrate to deafening techno music, as others hurtle into the river from rickety wooden platforms three stories high. As these two YouTube videos illustrate, it's like the underground party scene from a "Matrix" movie.

Enterprising locals have built riverside bars hawking the national pride, "Beerlao," and jerry-rigged flywires over the river. Lao touts tempt passing inner-tubers by throwing lines at them; if you're thirsty you just grab on and they pull you in.

Such attractions are a big draw for younger tourists, in particular. But they have some wondering whether Vang Vieng has lost its soul.

"Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng," said Brett Dakin, the author of "Another Quiet American," a chronicle of two years in Laos working for the tourist authority.

"Tourism has contributed a great deal to communities like these: rising incomes and higher standards of living," Dakin wrote in an email. "But there is a sense that something has been lost in the process."

There's no easy solution to the problem. Oula, of the tourism authority, says restrictions on young foreign backpackers would backfire by taking away much-needed income from the local Lao who run guesthouses, restaurants and other tourist businesses.

Instead, the authority is pinning its hopes on "awareness programs" for tourists and locals. Such programs will "ask tourists to respect and strictly follow the rules, regulations, tradition and cultures of the Lao people," Oula said.

"At the same time, [we should] educate local people to maintain the Lao identity, way of life, tradition and culture and not imitate tourist behavior."

For Dakin, a little sensitivity could go a long way. There are some basics in Laos: dress conservatively (that means no bikinis and shirtless-ness in public, a suggestion posted clearly in English throughout Vang Vieng). Take off your shoes indoors. And try not to poke your camera in the monks' faces at the traditional morning alms-giving in Luang Prabang.

(See more dos and don'ts, and other information, from the tourism authority).

"It's not hard to travel responsibly in Laos, it just requires a little thought, and perhaps above all the ability to empathize," said Dakin. "Would you want your visitors acting this way in your hometown?"

Original site