“The Island: A Personal Account of Taiwan’s Extraordinary Transformation” by Mark O’Neill

The Island: A Personal Account of Taiwan’s Extraordinary Transformation, Mark O’Neill (Earnshaw, February 2024) The Island: A Personal Account of Taiwan’s Extraordinary Transformation, Mark O’Neill (Earnshaw, February 2024)

When Mark O’Neill first came to Taiwan in 1981 to study Mandarin, the island was under martial law that had been in place for several decades. Since then, Taiwan has undergone momentous changes to become a modern and prosperous democracy while remaining one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots, a great deal of which O’Neill witnessed and covers in The Island.

As a language student in Taiwan, and later a journalist visiting from nearby Hong Kong, O’Neill observed Taiwan’s transition as it gradually moved out of being a martial law dictatorship under the Kuomintang (KMT) in the 1980s to become a full democracy in the ’90s.


O’Neill provides up-close views of Taiwan’s presidential elections, one being that of 2000, when Taiwan elected its first president from the localist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which advocated for formal independence while the economy stagnated. After the KMT returned to power in 2008, the new president Ma Ying-jeou established closer ties to China such as direct flight and postal links. This then reversed in 2016 when the DPP again returned to the presidency while overseeing a growing sense of a more locally-based identity.

Taiwan’s population is over 95 percent ethnic Chinese Han, divided broadly into those whose ancestors arrived during the 17th-19th centuries, and those who came over during the late 1940s with the KMT from mainland China. While martial law affected everyone, the former group chafed more as the KMT tried to impose a uniform Chinese identity to replicate that from the Mainland. O’Neill had classmates and friends from both groups, allowing him to realize the differences and tensions between the two groups. As Taiwan democratized, these tensions have lessened among younger Taiwanese even as politics still remain fractious.

Taiwan retains  a strong affinity for Japan, which colonized Taiwan between 1895 and 1945 after defeating China in a war, whose influence lives on through baseball, hot spring resorts and Japanese restaurants. As O’Neill describes in one chapter, some Taiwanese who lived through Japanese colonization were able to speak Japanese and even went to study there for university. In World War II, 80,000 Taiwanese even served in Japan’s military and over 30,000 died, including the brother of Lee Teng-hui, who won Taiwan’s first democratic election in 1996. Indeed, Lee Teng-hui, who died in 2020, famously identified strongly with Japan where he had also studied at university.

Besides history and politics, O’Neill also features chapters on the National Palace Museum (Taiwan’s best-known museum, which contains treasures from China brought over by Chiang Kai-shek and which O’Neill has written a separate history book on), chip foundry TSMC (one of the world’s most valuable companies) as well as art and culture, including the illustrious Cloud Gate dance troupe and Taiwan’s most well-known sculptor Ju Ming. Taiwan’s civil society, of which the most prominent exemplars are several massive Buddhist charitable organizations which run worldwide operations, is also covered in detail.


 O’Neill clearly has a rosy and supportive stance towards Taiwan which he admits in the epilogue, and he tends to overlook Taiwan’s faults such as its stifling work culture, insular attitudes, history of conflict against its minority indigenous people, and discrimination towards non-Westerner foreigners. He is chided by a Hong Konger who lives on the island for his relatively privileged status as an American visitor, “But you are not competing with them for jobs, housing and opportunities, as we are. Then you see a different face, more inward-looking and protective of their own interests.”

Nevertheless, the book features a good mix of reporting anecdotes and facts, providing a decent and entertaining overview of modern Taiwan and its political and socio-cultural complexities.

Hilton Yip is a writer based in Taiwan and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.