Daniel Reid is a prolific writer on Chinese philosophy, medicine, and food. He lived in Taipei from 1973 to 1989, and by number of book titles – more than thirty – and copies sold, he is surely the most successful Taiwan expat writer of all time. His latest book, a memoir called Shots from the Hip, is I believe his best. It’s unlike any other Taiwan book you’ve ever read. The subtitle Sex, Drugs and the Tao is no marketing ploy, but an accurate description of the contents, which include, among numerous episodes of drug-taking, heaven-sent prose on the exquisite pleasures of smoking opium (I will not quote them here as they are from his travels in India and I wish to concentrate on the Taiwan section). The whole book is a spinning carousel of memorable anecdotes, musings, and insights. It will have readers shaking their heads in amazement, smiling with vicarious enjoyment, and, perhaps, leave them with a sense of regret for their own youth insufficiently misspent.
Reid was born in San Francisco in 1948, coming of age during what he regards fondly as “America’s most exceptional moment, the Late Sixties.” His love affair with traditional Chinese culture began with a moment of drug-inspired clarity during his senior year in Berkeley in 1969, when he attended an introductory lecture on China while tripping on LSD. Reid was “infected … with the China bug.” He would develop a lust for all things Chinese, an intensity of passion which he feels the name “Sinophile” doesn’t sufficiently capture, so uses the term “Sinopathology,” (“a strange and incurable syndrome that compels those who acquire it to pursue all things traditionally Chinese with tenacious zeal”) and proudly calls himself a “Sinopath.”
Midway through his master’s degree in Chinese Language and Civilisation at Monterey he used the summer vacation to visit Taiwan and road test his language skills: he liked the country and people so much he decided to live in Taiwan after graduation. Arriving back in 1973 at the age of twenty-four, a sixteen-year Taiwan adventure began for this “refugee” looking for “a new place to call home after the collapse of the short-lived Late Sixties Dynasty in America and the rise of corporate culture there.”
And then he got a corporate job. His father, a senior airline executive, used his connections to secure Reid a position at the Hilton Hotel in Taipei. The hotel was brand new, the tallest building in Taiwan at the time, and the first international five-star hotel in the country. Located on the southern side of Taipei Main Station, it’s still there today, though run as the Caesar Park Hotel since 2000. After a year at the Hilton, Reid moved on to a managerial position at the American Club in China (ACC),
Taipei was then for an amorous young Western man like Reid, an absolute paradise. His life was “a nightly carnival of wine, women, and sensual pleasure.” Not someone given to doing things by half, Reid threw himself headlong into this “garden of carnal delight,” and he admits to becoming “obsessed with having sex with Chinese women.” Early on most of his partners were from the city’s many bars and hostess clubs, but he broadened his net: “I fished in all sorts of waters — restaurants and hotel lobbies, shops and street markets, bus stops and waiting rooms.”
Read says there is something special about the women in Taiwan, possessing as they do a traditional Chinese “insight into the true nature of men and consummate skill in dealing with male sexual drive.”
After about two and a half years in the high-end hospitality trade, Reid decided he had had enough of regular work: “And so, at the age of 27, I retired from the world of office hours, staff meetings, and balance sheets and have not held a steady salaried job since.”
Reid used his free time to explore traditional Chinese martial and medical arts under accomplished masters, including one of the all-time martial arts greats, Hung Yi-hsiang, though rather than fighting techniques, Reid studied qigong with him.
Reid’s journey as a writer began in 1978, when he was asked to write a chapter on Taipei nightlife for a regional guidebook. This led to numerous article assignments on travel and culture for magazines, and then various book projects, including ones on travel and food for a newly opening China. He was commissioned to write the first international travel guide on Taiwan, Insight Guide: Taiwan (1984).
Reid’s first work on traditional health practices was Chinese Herbal Medicine (1987). The book had its origins in a back injury sustained while playing racketball. Reid took a friend’s recommendation to seek treatment at a small private clinic with a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. Dr Huang Bo-wen didn’t cut the most commanding presence, dressed as he was in slippers and crumpled clothes, and chain smoking “Long Life” cigarettes. He used tui-na (literally “push and grasp”) which is like acupuncture with pressure massaging rather than needles, and then applied a balm of herbal paste, the formula for which “was a fourth-generation family secret handed down from his great grandfather.”
Reid made a fast recovery and was so impressed that he returned to the clinic and asked Dr Huang if he could be a part-time apprentice in order to learn the basics of Chinese medicine. Thus began a friendship and a two-year period of informal training, and a solid beginning to Reid’s journey into traditional Chinese medicine.
The culmination of Reid’s Taiwan adventure was The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity: A Modern Practical Guide to the Ancient Way (1989). I remember buying a copy in the mid-1990s from the Caves Bookstore on Zhongshan Road in Taipei. It was a revelation, a portal into a bizarre parallel world; reading it made you feel like a Gulliver washed up upon a strange shore. The book revealed a new way of seeing the world through the simple yet beguilingly mysterious force of Tao, and gave practical ways to implement “the way” in your own life; there were sections on Chinese medicine, breathing exercises and meditation, and – most jaw-dropping of all – esoteric Taoist sexual disciplines carrying the promise of becoming a sex god. Intermingled with traditional Chinese wisdom were Western New Age elements such as fasting, colonic irrigation, and eating raw food.
All in all, although a fun read and containing some admirable core commonsense – taking responsibility for one’s own well being, viewing health holistically and consequently emphasizing the treatment of root problems rather than symptoms – there was also an awful lot of nonsense, magnificent nonsense admittedly, but still nonsense. Myths were repeated as fact; for instance, that the Yellow Emperor “kept a harem of 1,200 women with whom he coupled frequently” and “discovered the secret of immortality through the subtle blending of male and female essence during sexual intercourse.”
Speaking of essence, while Reid was doing research on Taoist sex practices for the book, he came across a method known as “contact without leakage,” in other words, copulation without completion by the male. The Chinese have long considered ejaculation as debilitating, and men were warned against squandering their “essence” (semen). Although Reid was skeptical about the practice of semen retention, he tried it and found it easier than expected, and immensely beneficial: “My sex life improved by leaps and bounds, and so did my health and vitality.”
Reid says writing The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity was a turning point. He learnt a lot about the craft of writing, and now felt himself to be a bona fide author. Intensive reading replaced much of his late-night carousing:
While I was working on The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity, reading good books became my favorite pastime, and so it remains today. Nothing is more rewarding for me than reading well-chosen words properly arranged to convey a worthy message.
Amen, Brother Reid! In a beautiful chapter on the subject of writing and books, wonderfully titled “Authors and Un-Captured Criminals,” he states a preference for deceased English authors: Robert Graves, Anthony Burgess, Aldous Huxley, Roald Dahl, Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Waley, and Rudyard Kipling. American writers he has praise for include: Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Nelsen Algren, Raymond Chandler, Jim Harrison, and Nick Tosches.
Thirty years after its debut, The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity remains Reid’s best-selling title, though his Shots from the Hip deserves to take that crown. It is an exceptional work: unvarnished, beautifully written, thought-provoking, and occasionally infuriating. Combining tales of earthly pleasures and spiritual meditations, Shots from the Hip is one of a kind, very much like the eccentric author himself. Credit also goes to publisher Graham Earnshaw for taking on such an explosive book; it’s never sleazy or vulgar, but it’s still sure to draw fire in this oddly puritanical age.
In 1989 Reid left Taiwan to live in Thailand. Read the memoir to find out why. Shots from the Hip covers Reid’s early days in Thailand, but for the rest – including his long and loving marriage to a Taiwanese woman who we encounter in the first memoir – we’ll have to wait for the sequel.
One final note: the cover image of an elderly Reid isn’t a great match for the material in the book; yes, there’s an appropriately Taoist sage aura about him, and he’s certainly looking emaciated enough to imagine he’s just come down from the Wudang Mountains after months of fasting in a cave. However, the memoir covers his younger years, and with its focus on sporting among “the clouds and rain,” a more youthful image would have made for an easier mental projection. Luckily, there’s some footage of Reid in his Taipei days available on YouTube. He appeared in and assisted with the production of “T’ai Chi: The Soft Way,” Episode 4 of a 1983 BBC documentary series called The Way of the Warrior. At about 5:50 minutes of this video you can see Reid training with Hung Yi-hsiang.