Settling in Formosa: Part 3

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 three of three, Ross talks about the Formosa Files podcast and the tales of Taiwan’s history. You can read the previous chapters here.  

In 2021, Ross began a new endeavour when he and co-host Eryk Michael Smith launched the popular podcast series Formosa Files. Sponsored by Kaohsiung’s Frank Chen Foundation, and now with listeners in more than 100 countries, each episode tells a unique story from Taiwan’s history. Formosa Files draws together Ross’ bibliophilia and Smith’s extensive experience in radio broadcasting and journalism to tell captivating stories that enrich our knowledge of this island that has become so important globally in the present moment.     

The series begins with the odd and amusing story of George Psalmanazar, who, despite his fair-skinned European appearance, pulled off a bizarre hoax in London in the early 1700s by claiming to be a native of Formosa. The fraud was elaborate. Psalmanazar created a fake Formosan alphabet, was invited to meetings of the Royal Society, attended by luminaries of the day, such as Isaac Newton, to share his knowledge, and even wrote a published book about his claimed homeland. According to Psalmanazar, Fomosans lived underground, breakfasted on snakes, travelled on sedan chairs transported by teams of elephants, and sacrificed young boys to worship their deities.   

Psalmanazar became a celebrity and became friends with literary giant Samuel Johnson. His book was translated into European languages. The hoax, however, was eventually exposed, and Psalmanazar confessed, but not before his tale became one of the most well-known early accounts of Formosa in the western world. The Psalmanazar story is surprising and humorous and perhaps points wryly to the information black hole when it comes to knowledge of Taiwan in English that Formosa Files seeks to fill.   

Formosa Files is surprisingly digestible, even addictive. We learn about the Duck King, who led a rebellion that briefly took the then-capital of Tainan in 1721 during the period of Qing rule. We hear cloak-and-dagger tales such as Chiang Kai-shek’s secret nuclear weapons program, which was almost successful. We learn about the stories of filmmaker Ang Lee and Teresa Teng, Taiwan’s first pop superstar.   

Among Ross’s favorites is the tale of Teruo Nakamura, of Taiwan's Indigenous Amis tribe, who was the last soldier of the Japanese Empire to surrender following World War II after hiding out in the jungle on an Indonesian island for more than 30 years. The Taiwan he returned to was unrecognizable to him.   

Underpinning Formosa Files is Ross’ nonlinear concept of history. “There are at any time multiple possibilities,” Ross says. “There are multiple camps arguing at any given time and difficult decisions to be made. There are multiple futures, so I like to put the listener in the situation of what people were facing at that time.   

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

“It could be 1895. China has handed Taiwan over to Japan. People in Taiwan — some of them — are not happy. They pronounce the Republic of Formosa and raise the tiger flag. ‘We will fight the Japanese.’ And then other people are thinking, ‘Well, you know, Japan’s just defeated China. What hope do we have?’ And then, when Japan does seize the island, the Japanese give people a choice. You can stay here or, if you’re not happy, leave and go to China. There are difficult choices. And these are not minor choices. This is life-and-death stuff!   

“There are so many what-ifs, such as the Americans looking at setting up a settlement in Keelung in north-eastern Taiwan, a coaling station. That was a plan in the 1850s, but the American Civil War intervened. There are lots of fantastic what-ifs.”  

As well as writing and podcasting about Taiwan’s history, Ross has directly witnessed a fair bit of it unfold in the nearly 30 years, he has been here. He recalls fondly the early days, the energy of Taipei, a city that never slept. But he admits while Taiwan has mellowed, so has he. They have grown older together. Most of the changes, he believes, are for the better.   

John Grant Ross with students in Meishan, Yunlin County, Taiwan, in 1995. Image: Supplied

“Since I’ve been here in Taiwan, it’s changed a lot,” he says, “and what keeps me here, in part, is that it’s changed for the better. It’s just so much more developed. There used to be quite frequent disasters, fires, and buses going off roads, but that stuff doesn’t generally happen anymore.  

“I just think of some local examples near Chiayi, where I live in the countryside. I now have a wonderful museum just up the road, the southern branch of the National Palace Museum, a magnificent building and grounds. And not far away, I have a beautiful wetland that was rehabilitated from failed sugarcane fields. There are many more places to visit and more cultural and food options. Life, in general, is more international. Taiwan has moved up the food chain. It’s not just turning out cheap goods. It’s leading the world with semiconductors.  

“As to Taiwan’s future? Troubled. Nobody knows. Anyone who says with any certainty that China will or won’t attack is just guessing. But it remains a real possibility, so I’m worried. It’s one of the things that drives me to work so hard. Publishing is not a very profitable business, but we’re looking to educate people about what a wonderful place Taiwan is. It’s an example for the world. Ideally, I’d like to split the future between Taiwan and some other places and get back to New Zealand. But I’m very happy to end my days in Taiwan and remain here.”     

Read part one of Settling in Formosa here and part two of the series here.

- Asia Media Centre