As a place that doesn’t fit any of the world’s standard pigeon-holes, it seems fitting that Taiwan would have an unconventional book such as Formosa Moon written about it. Not a travelogue nor a memoir but both, Formosa Moon is about what happens after Joshua Samuel Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat moving back from the US, brings his girlfriend Stephanie Huffman to Taiwan for the first time. The trip stems from a premise years ago when after their relationship becomes serious, Brown makes it clear to Huffman she will have to accept that he would eventually return to Taiwan.
As a result, when Huffman finishes her studies in Portland, the couple decide to move to Taiwan and embark on a journey around the island so Huffman could see whether she could accept living there. The couple start off in Taipei, the capital, where Huffman is introduced to the usual tourist sights of night markets and the National Palace Museum. They then proceed to the East Coast and Green Island, a tiny isle whose volcanic beauty belies its past as a prison for political dissidents during Taiwan’s martial law era. They subsequently swing around to the south to Taiwan’s oldest city Tainan before coming back to Taipei. After a break, they travel back to the south to Yunlin, the south’s largest city Kaohsiung, as well as the central county of Nantou.
Formosa Moon is both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other.
Usually, travel information on Taiwan is dominated by night markets, the National Palace Museum, and the east coast. Brown and Huffman do visit those places, but they also go beyond them to explore the quirkier and artistic aspects of Taiwan. As Huffman is deeply interested in arts, especially puppetry, there is a particularly strong artistic emphasis during their travels, especially the Taiwanese glove puppet folk art potehi.
Besides hitting famous spots like Sun Moon Lake and Taroko, the pair also venture to places like Smangus, an aboriginal commune set up like kibbutzes in Israel, and Gukeng, the heartland of Taiwan’s coffee-growing industry. In addition, there are visits to the world’s first hotel built around a scuba-diving pool, aboriginal artisans. and a hot-air balloon ride over Taiwan’s most unspoilt country of Taitung.
One might wish for more about Taiwan’s other large cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung, which both get one chapter apiece. The Taichung chapter is particularly fascinating as Brown and Huffman stay at a hotel where guests could scuba dive in a 70-foot deep pool and explore Rainbow Village, which is famous for its gaily painted houses, all done by its lone resident. For Kaohsiung, most of the chapter is filled with photos and descriptions of major Taiwanese food dishes. But the book is not intended as a definitive travel guide to Taiwan, so the sparseness of content on Kaohsiung is pardonable.
There are in any case several chapters on Tainan, arguably Taiwan’s most interesting city, not to mention two chapters on Yunlin, a relatively obscure country sandwiched in the region between Taichung and Kaohsiung that not even many Taiwanese have been to.
It’s not all about travel as there are also a few chapters about life in their hilly neighborhood on the outskirts of Taipei and Huffman’s attempts to use Chinese and navigate the city by herself. The couple succeed in showing off what are Taiwan’s main attractions for travelers, which are not famous ancient historic landmarks or beach resorts, but a combination of plentiful cultural and artistic sights and experiences, quirky places, and beautiful mountain and coastal scenery. Brown also succeeds in his goal of convincing Huffman to base their future in Taiwan, at least for the next few years.
Contrasting Brown’s longtime knowledge of Taiwan and Huffman’s newbie status, the book has separate dual narratives in every chapter. This constant change of pace in perspectives works well because the pair are candid and quirky people who are sincerely interested in Taiwan.
Brown and Huffman never shy away from testy moments such as arguments or doubts; if anything they are too frank. To their credit, the book never gets bogged down by overly sappy or sentimental moments. In fact, one of the more striking parts of the book is when a Tainan fortune-teller tells Brown never to marry Huffman and then tells Huffman she will have other lovers later on.
While the book never gets overly sentimental, it is hard not to feel touched at the authors’ relationship, from Brown’s sincere desire for Huffman to like Taiwan and his earnest concern that she might not, to Huffman’s willingness to explore Taiwan despite her own initial nervousness.
Huffman is upfront that being new to Taiwan, not to mention Asia, she finds Taipei very intense and at times discomfiting as it is the largest city she has ever lived in. It is fitting that Taiwan is her introduction to Asia because, as seasoned expats and travelers know, there are many more intense and crowded places across the continent.
Brown, a travel writer who has written guide books for The Lonely Planet, can be quite humorous. The book also comes well-stocked with color photos.
Formosa Moon is both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other; it is also a very welcome addition to the collection of English-language literature about Taiwan.