Menno Goedhart was the Netherlands representative in Taiwan from 2002 to 2010. He is the main author of The Real Taiwan and the Dutch, a guidebook to people and places connected to the seventeenth-century period of Dutch occupation.
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How do diplomatic postings work; were you assigned to Taiwan or did you choose to come here?
Normally diplomats never get the posting they are asking for. But for me it was different, maybe because I was not a career diplomat from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I asked for this job and got it. Lucky me. I liked the work so much, asked for extension of my contract and was happy they allowed me to stay for eight years till my retirement. Then I moved from Taipei to Tainan for another two years.
Did you take an instant liking to Taiwan or did it grow on you? For me it was the latter.
I knew some predecessors who were really enthusiastic. Based on their stories I asked for the posting in Taiwan. But, quite frankly, I did not know much about the country. My driver and my other office staff told and showed me a lot and helped me discover Taiwan.
Writing a guidebook on the Dutch legacy is no easy task, chiefly because there isn’t much physical evidence left. How did you tackle this challenge?
There is a huge amount of information about the Dutch presence in Taiwan, in the Dutch National Archives. Academia Sinica has it too. A.S. researchers and notably professors of Leiden University made that information available to the public. I, myself, have a lot at home.
What is lacking is the physical evidence. Where exactly some events happened. Where were the exact locations. In my years in Taiwan I met so many people with knowledge, that I concluded that it should be possible to find those locations. And I did, which you will find in our book. I was so convinced to be able to start a project which would benefit Taiwan (also creating touristic sites) that I decided to stay in Taiwan after retirement. To find and publish the historical sites from the Dutch presence. I agreed with the NCKU (National Cheng Kung University) to start the project, but it was a failure. It is one of the greatest deceptions in my life.
I was at Fort Zeelandia a couple of weeks ago and saw some copies of your book in the shop. Has the book sold well?
Thirteen thousand sold, which is not a bad score. However, I did not become rich because I spend the royalties for projects for indigenous people. Also the four songs I wrote for the CD “Siraya where did you go” (a CD with two Golden Horse nominations) did not bring me anything, because I gave the copy rights to the Siraya.
What kind of feedback have you had from readers of The Real Taiwan and the Dutch?
What to say… I still receive thank you emails from people traveling through Taiwan with my book. But there also might be disappointed people, who knows?
I hear you are updating the guidebook. When will the new edition be out? Have you needed to make many changes to the original?
I’m not sure when the new version will be available. We are still working on it and talking to the publisher. There is certainly a need for an update. It is a book for traveling around in Taiwan, with accommodation and restaurant information. Some restaurants no longer exist. Menus and prices might be different. But basically it will remain the same.
Probably the most interesting thing for me personally in The Real Taiwan and the Dutch was the story of Fort Vlissingen in Chiayi County. As you say in the book, nothing remains of the fort today, but a local researcher showed you the likely site, now marked by a stand of old banyan trees. Is there any follow-up to this – for example, archeological research?
Also for me this was exciting. Talking to the local researcher, standing on the location where Fort Vlissingen must have been. Wikipedia: “Fort Vlissingen, 3rd Dutch fort in Taiwan…exact location unknown”. And I was there!! I am told that researchers from Academia Sinica brought the remains they found there to Taipei; what they did with it, I do not know.
But what to think of Snake Head Hill at Penghu, maybe my most important discovery. A forgotten place (of which the exact location was known of by Academia Sinica researchers), where the first Dutch fort ever stood. Now it is a national monument, 50% financed by my country, arranged by me. The Dutch built this fort in 1622, angering the Chinese. After some fighting the Dutch left the Pescadores and went to Formosa. As an official document shows (in Dutch national archives) the Chinese stating: go to Formosa, an island we are not interested in!!! Chinese claims that Taiwan always was a part of China are nonsense, as this paper shows.
Academia Sinica researchers knew about the site?
The place was not only known by AS researchers but also published. But nobody used that information, also not me. That is what I learned later. I went to the place because a local told me about a plaque in a bay mentioning that the Dutch landed there. I asked him to bring me there. The fort must have been nearby. Impossible to reach, because the whole area was overgrown with plants and weeds. From the bay side we could climb the rocks and reach the fort. The Dutch had taken all the stones and used those for Fort Zeelandia. But the wall structure was still there. Now everybody can go there and see it.
And there are so many more (undiscovered) historical places in Taiwan referring to the Dutch. Even 500 meters from my house (where I lived 2010-2012) in Xinhua, there is a small lake, created by the Dutch.
While I was looking at Cheryl Robbins’ Tribe-Asia website, I came across a CD called “Siraya, Where Did You Go?” with your name on the credits alongside those for Edgar Macapili and Uma Talavan. I was under the impression that Siraya – the language spoken by the lowland aborigines who inhabited the southwestern plains during the time of the Dutch – was an extinct language. Can you explain the backstory of the songs and how the CD came about?
This question is not easy to answer in a few sentences. It is exactly why I love and respect Taiwan. First of all you must realize that the Siraya is the tribe the Dutch met first, already in 1620. So, for Taiwanese-Dutch history the Siraya tribe is the most important. There is quite some Dutch DNA among the Siraya. Most tribes living in the plains, left for the mountains, but not Siraya; they stayed and integrated. My song ‘Siraya where did you go’ deals with this subject. The second part of the song is about Siraya identity reappearing.
That brings me to Uma Talavan (now an adviser of Taiwan’s president) and her husband Edgar Macapili. These two, together with her father, have been for many years fighting for Siraya recognition. They worked 10 years to make a Siraya language dictionary. They founded a Siraya school. Exceptional people, who became my good friends.
Edgar is a musician, and in fact so is Uma. Edgar asked me to write some songs for a Siraya CD. It had never been done before. I accepted to try it and wrote my first song “Siraya Girl” about the love between a Siraya beauty and a Dutchman. I wrote three other songs and worked with Edgar on harmony between text and music. Why? I did it to give publicity to the Siraya, helping the tribe in its fight for recognition. And publicity they got! A lot. The money gained with the CD is for the Siraya school.
That I accepted to become an elder of the Rukai tribe was also to give publicity to the tribe. And with success. President Ma Ying-yeou called me by my Rukai name … Daganau. Not as Dutch representative.
Do you have any advice on ethical tourism in aboriginal areas? My own would be to spend money in these areas by staying overnight in villages rather than just visiting on day trips.
That is why I wrote my book. Discovering the real Taiwan is impossible with day trips. The real Taiwan has nothing to do with Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge, which you will not find in my book.
Do you miss Taiwan?
Yes, although I am happy with my life in southern France. But I have so many friends in Taiwan and so many good memories. The tribes for sure I miss. The Rukai of which I became an elder. The Tsou in Dabang and Tefuye are my very good friends and of course also the Siraya, a tribe that should be recognized by the government. I am daily emailing with Taiwanese, such as the family in Sinshih where I stay when I am in Taiwan. I am reading Taiwanese newspapers every day.
When were you last in Taiwan?
December 2016 for three weeks, traveling around in my “own” car. When I left Taiwan in 2012 I sold the car for a fair price with the condition that I can use the car when I am in Taiwan.
You have quite a few contacts among the political elite in Europe. Is there much knowledge of and sympathy for Taiwan?
No. China is the business. Taiwanese democracy, freedom of press, independence of justice, human rights (all not existing in China) are not recognized. I must add that Taiwan is not doing much promoting its existence in Europe and even the few good friends of Taiwan at a political level are ignored. Quite frankly I do not understand this part of Taiwanese policy.
The European Union talks a good fight when it comes to championing human rights and democracy around the world but when it actually comes to physical action, well, just think of Bosnia and more recently Crimea. If China were to attack or blockade Taiwan, how do you envisage the EU responding?
Not. They just will let it happen.
Do you have any recommendations for books on Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, the Dutch period, and Taiwan in general?
For sure. On indigenous people just read the three books Cheryl Robbins wrote: A Foreigner’s Travel Guide to Taiwan’s Indigenous Areas, 1. Northern Taiwan, 2. Hualien and Taitung, 3. Central and Southern Taiwan.
What do you like to read in your free time?
Free time is what? Now I am a gardener. Also a volunteer worker in my village…. Basically the village bartender at village events. I am not reading much. If relaxing, I watch sports events on TV. But if I read, I prefer historical novels. I just finished a fantastic 950-page book: The Company, by Robert Littell, 2002, about the CIA and KGB.
What are some underexplored Taiwan topics you would like to see written about?
The truth about China-Taiwan relations:
In 1622 China told the Dutch to “go to Taiwan because we are not interested in that Island”. At that time there were only a few Chinese fishermen living in Taiwan not in but outside the aboriginal villages.
The Dutch brought in Chinese to become their farmers.
Coxinga expelled the Dutch in 1662, not because he liked Taiwan (Formosa), but he needed a place to reconquer (for the Ming) China. In 1683 his sons surrendered to the Qing. And that is why China got the power to “govern” Taiwan. Not because they wanted it; they just got it.
China did absolutely nothing to develop Taiwan. China never showed any interest in Taiwan.
No wonder that China had no problem to hand over Taiwan to Japan after the China-Japan war in 1895.
Japan did more for Taiwan, notably working on infrastructure. Of course there were some bad acts (Atayal, Sediq, Taroko), but you will not find a strong anti-Japan feeling in Taiwan.
After WW2 the situation of Taiwan was undecided. But CKS came with his millions of soldiers. Not to rule Taiwan because he liked the island, but because he needed a place to reconquer China (as in 1662).
Taiwan claimed China; China did not claim Taiwan.
After China became a UN member (1971) and CKS decided to quit the UN, China began to claim Taiwan … only then!
And now the whole world is following Chinese propaganda…. “Taiwan is Chinese already for thousands of years”; nonsense!
… that is what the world should know.
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The Real Taiwan and the Dutch: Traveling Notes from the Netherlands Representative is published by Taiwan Interminds Publishing Inc.
It is available from co-author Cheryl Robbins’ Tribe Asia website.
You can read my review of the book here.