Settling in Formosa: Part 1

New Zealand writer and publisher John Grant Ross has spent more than 30 years living in and reporting on Asia. His solo travels have taken him to destinations including Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, and Myanmar, where he wrote dispatches on the Karen insurgency. Since moving to Taiwan in 1994, Ross has authored several books and co-founded Camphor Press, the island’s leading publisher of English-language books on Taiwanese politics and history. Today, he also co-hosts the popular podcast Formosa Files. Ron Hanson spoke to Ross about his long journey off the beaten path. 

In part one of three, Ross talks about his travels as a writer through Asia and his arrival in Taiwan.  

It was a passion for geography and a thirst for knowledge that set John Grant Ross on his trek through Asia. A bright student, Ross finished a BA in Geography at Auckland University in 1987 at the tender age of 19. The following year, he embarked for Papua New Guinea. He would spend the next several years writing for inflight magazines and newspapers from the jungles of Myanmar and other rugged destinations throughout the region.

Ross spoke to me about the initial spark of inspiration. “Picture an eleven-year-old school kid poring over old atlases, ones from the 1950s still showing blank spaces in the Amazon and a few other places as unexplored. Intoxicating. But of course, all the blank spaces had been filled in by the time I was ready to set off. Still, there were plenty of fascinating wild places, some of them isolated for political reasons.

“I was attracted to Burma because large areas of it had been shut off to the outside world since the 1940s. These areas were mostly mountain hinterlands inhabited by ethnic minorities such as Karen and Kachin, who were in a decades-long struggle against the Burmese military. I was first attracted by the adventure and romance, but grew up, and stayed out of interest in the insurgency and the plight of the people.”

Ross’ travels were eventful and sometimes dangerous. He recalls sandstorms and twisters in the Gobi Desert and his camel collapsing from thirst in the summer heat. He remembers emerging from the Altai Mountains on horseback to discover a Mongolian ghost town; he later learned the reason for its deserted streets was an outbreak of bubonic plague.

John Grant Ross writing in the Herald under an alias in 1991. Out of safety concerns, Ross would sometimes write under a different name. Image: Supplied

In Myanmar, Ross traveled with a group of Karen insurgents and was forced to hide out from enemy troops. He spent a week on a clandestine trek paddling down the upper Irrawaddy River, moving past military checkpoints under the cover of darkness and at one point becoming caught in a whirlpool.

On another occasion, hiking through the central ranges, he lost skin off the soles of his feet to the point where he was unable to walk. Locals kindly built him a raft so he could continue his voyage by river. Ross’ adventures in Myanmar would result in his first book, Kawthoolei Dreams, Malaria Nights: Burma’s Civil War, written, out of concerns for his safety, under the pen name Martin MacDonald and published by White Lotus in 1999.

Ross’ travels certainly quenched his thirst for adventure but earning a living off writing and photojournalism was proving more difficult. “I made a living,” he says, “but it was half a living. So, then I had an idea… gold prospecting! I was on the South Island of New Zealand prospecting for gold. I found a little. I dug up a creek and built some earthworks, and I was going to run all the bottom gravel and silt through my sluice when days and days of torrential rain came. I had to spend two days by myself in my tent with my homemade grapefruit wine. And somewhere on the second day, out of the haze came the idea: Go to Taiwan. It’ll be easier than prospecting for gold.” 

The plan was to use Taiwan as a base where he could earn money teaching English while resuming his intrepid journeys into Myanmar, and undertaking new ones in Mongolia. He would continue writing about those countries. But gradually, Ross became fascinated by Formosa (the Portuguese name for Taiwan), and over time the island would become a focal point for his literary exploits.

John Grant Ross, pictured in 2022 at Heping Island, Taiwan.

Ross moved to Taiwan in 1994, two years before the island’s first-ever presidential election. It was a dramatic time to arrive. After being released from nearly four decades of martial law in 1987, the island was undergoing a dizzying pace of change. The 1990s in Taiwan saw an explosion of creative activity as artists and writers explored previously suppressed topics and local identity.

“It was like a renaissance of culture,” Ross says. “For the first time, people could freely speak [the local dialect] Taiwanese, and there was a flourishing of the music scene. Previously a lot of rock ‘n roll bands had been banned. It was a wonderful awakening, kind of crazy too!

“People had money. They’d been saving up for decades and were beginning to spend. It was the tail-end of an economic miracle. And then in 2000, arguably when democracy really arrived, you had the opposition party, not that long before illegal, coming to power. So, they were wonderful, wonderful times.”

Ross began picking up books on early Taiwanese history. One, in particular, proved a turning point. The book, Pioneering in Formosa, published in 1898, describes adventures in Taiwan in the 1860s when the island had just opened up to the outside world. It was written by William Pickering, a British official who worked for the Qing Dynasty running customs in Taiwan from 1863 to 1870. Pickering, who spoke fluent Taiwanese, made several expeditions across the island.

“Pioneering in Formosa had tales of shipwrecks,” Ross says, “traveling into the mountains, into the wild Indigenous areas, and I just thought, wow! Taiwan has such a rich history, and it’s not well known. I thought I needed to read more, and then little by little, I realized I needed to write about it.”

Read part two of the series here, where Ross talks about setting up Taiwan's leading English Language publisher.

Banner image: John Grant Ross in his canoe in Papua New Guinea in April River, a tributary of the Sepik. Image: Supplied

- Asia Media Centre