‘Formosan Odyssey’ by John Ross: BOOK REVIEW

Re-reading <i>Formosan Odyssey</i> is like slipping back into the arms of an old lover!

Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan, Past and Present
by John Ross. RATING: 4.5 stars ****
Paperback, 285 pages
Published 2002 by Taiwan Adventure Publications
ISBN 9869995160

I recently re-read this book, and thoroughly enjoyed it again, perhaps even more than the first time. This is probably because this time around, I knew exactly which parts I sought to refresh my memory!

In particular, it was so entertaining to read about Chiang Kai-shek‘s shady Shanghai days, and the KMT’s massive opium/heroin production in Southeast Asia, which the US provided covert planes to get it to the North American market (this is nothing revelatory; you may remember the KMT general who met with the black US dealer played by Denzell Washington in ‘American Gangster’ – that was based on a true story; or the book ‘Air America’). It was so much fun reminiscing about the story of CKS’ wayward son, Chiang Ching-kuo (traditional Chinese: 蔣經國) and his early Soviet Communist days, as well as the KMT’s early alliance with them. Then there was the lovely tale about one of the first Presbyterian, Scottish-Canadian missionaries on Formosa, Dr. Mackay, who was pulling teeth whilst converting the savages ’round the island, and married ‘a Chinese’ on Formosa. Or Ross’ excellent comparison between Formosan aborigines’ cannibalism with truly horrifying nature of Chinese cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution. (Sigh), this book is truly like fine wine, or like going back to an old lover!

Chiang Ching-kuo (at left) and his father, the self-proclaimed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, in 1948.

I really like the laid-back, cool but simple narrator in this book – obviously, John Ross, who never let his ego or personality get in the way of telling a really good story. That’s great! He and his narrator: a Kiwi who wants to walk around Taiwan after the devastating 9-21 earthquake, and ever in search of a beer or some other spirit to warm him, and a safe place to set up his tent!

In between amusing anecdotes of being saved variously by the kindness of Taiwanese bystanders in his epic journey (e.g. the bus driver who waits while he gets the leeches out of his boots, offers a cigarette to burn them off; or the other passenger who volunteers change; the old man who mysteriously appears out of the mist to offer him a walking cane….), Ross delves masterfully into some of the most interesting bits of Taiwan history — at least for me — although there are many, many such episodes.

It’s easy to imagine Ross as he describes himself, sitting at a desk with a pile of well-thumbed tomes in front of him. This book might make a good text for a Taiwan Studies class, now that I think of it – because it spans early to modern history of the island.

I had the pleasure of meeting Formosan Odyssey‘s author, John Ross, at the Taipei Book Fair a few years ago, so this is my signed copy. I think with Formosan Odyssey, he’s one of the first modern expat authors to really try to do Taiwan history justice.

PLOT SUMMARY: Until the early twentieth century, Taiwan was one of the wildest places in Asia. Its coastline was known as a mariners’ graveyard, the mountainous interior was the domain of headhunting tribes, while the lowlands were a frontier area where banditry, feuding and revolts were a way of life. Formosan Odyssey captures the rich sweep of history through the eyes of Westerners who have visited and lived on the island – from missionaries, adventurers, lighthouse keepers, and Second World War POWs…. a smorgasbord of delights that both the general reader and any “old Asia hand” will find informative and amusing.

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