You can forget Sun-Moon Lake. It’s so last season, darling. “It’s pretty but I don’t go there anymore,” says one of Ian Rowen’s interviewees. “If I wanted to feel like I am in China, I’d just go to China,” she adds.
Rowen’s new book, One China, Many Taiwans, delves into what it actually means when Taiwanese tourist officers and mainland Chinese entrepreneurs tried to rustle up tour groups to come to that famous island across the Taiwan Strait – an island with tourist attractions that can actually be seen among the watermarks of a People’s Republic passport. What would they see? What would they not see? He ends up lifting an idea from the science fiction of China Miéville, particularly The City and the City – that the Taiwan where people actually live is a reality that phases in and out of existence in tandem with the Taiwan experienced by mainland visitors.
Rowen’s account of the geopolitics of cross-Strait tourism starts with the long decades of no contact at all, and the slow thaw that saw a few veterans and exiles granted compassionate leave to visit long-lost family members or attend funerals. But he swiftly dives feet-first into the sudden boom in actual tourism that saw thousands of mainlanders boarding planes to see the island that still claimed to be the Republic of China.
The centrepiece and tour-de-force of Rowen’s book is his fourth chapter – a diary of his adventures on a ghastly package tour for Chinese visitors around Taiwan’s major tourist sites in August 2014. Along with his fellow inmates, he schleps dutifully around the edges of Sun-Moon Lake, sees Alishan, and almost gets into Taroko Gorge (closed due to landslides), mopes joylessly around the shopping centre at the base of Taiwan 101 (because a trip to the observation gallery costs extra), soaks up some culture at the National Palace Museum, and refuses to buy over-priced tea shilled at him by pushy girls in aboriginal costumes.
Recalling the arch commentary of Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad, Rowen chronicles the miseries of his fellow passengers, the local factionalism among two very different tour groups lumped in together, and the careful language of their put-upon guide. He also interviews hotel managers and tea-sellers, restaurateurs and bus drivers, in order to get a sense of what high-falutin’ scholars might call the political economy of Taiwanese tourism.
Rowen is fascinated by the degree to which attempts to depict Taiwan as just another Chinese province repeatedly backfire, everywhere from the booking office where secretaries tut at his very inclusion, to passport control, where a small boy doesn’t understand why the visa form has a different flag on top of it, and indeed why his mainland family needs a visa at all.
He is particularly good on nuances within nuances – the market traders who have learned, without official directives, to rephrase their language in order to avoid ruffling the feathers of sensitive mainland visitors. Sometimes this can result in intriguingly counter-intuitive approaches, as in the case of a tour guide who studiously avoids mentioning the 228 Incident and the ensuing “White Terror”. You would think something like that would be catnip to visitors from the People’s Republic, but the tour guide regards Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists as “people from the mainland” too, and hence doesn’t want to insult customers that he regards as their cousins.
Rowen also notes a recurring complaint among his fellow tourists that the Taiwan tour experience is too xiaoqingxin – a difficult term to translate, but immediately evocative for me of the last twenty years of Japanese tourism aimed at office ladies and empty-nest housewives – I say twenty years, but Japanese media theory has related it to the last fifty, ever since women with disposable incomes were identified as an exploitable travel niche. I suspect that a lot of the experiences that the Chinese chafe at were first concocted to impress Japanese ladies who lunch, with history thrown out of the window in favour of gourmet experiences, photo-ops and kawaii.
For years, I have cherished the idea of booking myself into one of the coach tours advertised in London’s Chinatown, taking in Bath and Stonehenge, Harry Potter’s supposed childhood home and the Bicester freeport. They are not officially Chinese-only, but you need to read Chinese to know they are even there. And I have been fascinated by the implications, and curious about the information imparted. Are they, to steal the lyrics of a satirical Chinese song, a case of: “Get on the coach and sleep / get off the coach and pee / go home knowing nothing”?
Rowen unpacks his own experience within a far broader context – that of the immense bargaining power wielded by Chinese tourists since the opening up of their country and the enrichment of its middle class. This is a concept that has exercised me on many occasions, not the least in my travels with National Geographic, where my attempts to chronicle the dying customs of a remote hill-tribe were once compromised by the invasion of an entire coach party of amateur photographers from Guangzhou, come to do the same. In the case of Taiwan, he points to what he unflinchingly calls weaponised tourism, which is to say a massive ding-dong between Beijing and Taipei, particularly after the landslide win of the Democratic Progressive Party in 2016 called into question the status quo that had existed across the Taiwan Strait for the previous two decades. Rowen argues that this political event jeopardised many years of lucrative cross-straits tourism, particularly after the torrent of PRC tourists in Taiwan slowed to a trickle, putting thousands of people’s livelihoods and businesses at risk.
Such big-picture politics helps put things like China’s own interest in internal tourism – e.g. the cynical creation of a new holy mountain – in perspective. Rowen also relates it to local political infighting in Taiwan, especially the Sunflower movement of 2014, ably demonstrating how supposedly parochial issues over language and policy can escalate into empty Arrivals halls and deserted hotels… themselves the cause of a massive protest march by Taiwan’s hospitality sector in 2016, which Rowen gleefully joins.
He also takes the time to ask, very pertinently, if amidst all this cross-Straits hoo-ha, the Chinese tourists are actually getting value for money, or are they being ground up in a relentless money-making scheme that shunts them around a bunch of non-descript hotels and maroons them for hours on end in shops trying to sell them tat? “Chinese tourists are getting up earlier than roosters,” comments one tourism official, “eating worse than pigs, and are totally exhausted from spending most of their days on intercity buses.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Ian Rowen’s One China, Many Taiwans: The Geopolitics of Cross-Strait Tourism is published by Cornell University Press.