Slightly more than a week ago I returned to Taiwan 台灣 after visiting family in Canada for the summer. Something unusual happened while I was suspended in air: Apple Daily 蘋果日報 ran a rather unflattering story based on photos I uploaded to Flickr from two preliminary expeditions to Jingyin Temple 淨因寺, an abandoned temple in Keelung, just in time for ghost month. After landing I checked my messages in the airport and was shocked to find my inbox flooded with dozens of messages from Taiwanese acquaintances, most of them joking about my newfound infamy. Welcome to Taiwan! At the time I hadn’t the slightest idea how far the story had spread, nor did I realize how much other Taiwanese tabloids had distorted the details to manufacture controversy and incite outrage. Now that my 15 minutes are up, I’d like to reflect on what happened—and where Taiwan’s sensationalist media went wrong.
I wrote a letter to Apple Daily outlining my objections after getting some rest the same day the story was published. I was open to negotiating a post-publication license for the use of my images but was informed that they have no budget for web-only stories. Instead, they removed my images from their web site—but not before dozens of other media outlets ran with the story. Joining the echo chamber were UDN, Liberty Times, ETtoday, and CTS, among others. SETN also has the “breaking news” scoop as well as a video clip presumably broadcast on television (check out the spooky effects they used on my photos).
Now let’s consider the actual substance of the story, such as it is. Taiwanese media is notorious for yellow journalism: sensationalism, scandalmongering, muckraking, and the like—anything at all to sell papers and drive traffic online—so it should come as no surprise that the story devolved into another permutation of the “bad foreigner” trope. Apple Daily’s coverage wasn’t so terrible but some of the other media outlets really ran with it. Here’s the scoop (the worst permutation of it, anyway): last June a Canadian man and his Taiwanese girlfriend broke into an abandoned temple, went crazy taking photos of everything in sight including a bunch of urns containing bones and ashes of the deceased, disrespecting local cultural mores and prompting outrage by unspecified (and perhaps imaginary) netizens. The UDN report, for instance, claims that many people saw these photos and said that foreigners do not know how to respect the deceased (外國人不懂得尊重往生者), this despite the fact that Night Taiwan 夜遊台灣, a group of supernatural enthusiasts, previously posted a gallery of images from the same temple with the urns plainly visible. I suppose it’s only national news when the protagonist is a foreigner, hmm?
There are other mistakes in the original story—and many more in the lazy follow-up stories shared by other media outlets. For starters, the images shared in my original Flickr album3 were shot on two consecutive trips to the site with two different people. Secondly, at no point did any of us cause damage to the building or its contents, nor was there any need to break in or force entry—the temple is readily accessible. Third, that one of these people was a visibly Taiwanese woman was evidence enough for the original reporter to declare her my “girlfriend”, speculation repeated as fact and repeated and often shamelessly embellished in every follow-up story. My guess is that this represents an invocation of the CCR (cross-cultural romance/relationship) taboo, reinforcing the bad foreigner stereotype these stories were relying on to inspire outrage. The subtext here is that I supposedly corrupted some poor local girl and brought her to a haunted place to play with people’s bones or something, when in fact she wasn’t even there when the urns were uncovered (and wasn’t my girlfriend when the story broke, making things extra awkward).
The response to the story was mixed. Hundreds of thousands (or maybe even millions for all I know) saw it but I don’t get the sense it struck a nerve with the public. Perusing responses to the original news report on Facebook (as well as this one from UDN) suggest that most people people didn’t find it to be that big of a deal. Typical ghost month fodder—consumed and forgotten.
The story also landed on PTT, a local bulletin board system with outsized influence on local media4, to a somewhat lukewarm response. I suspect people were looking for a good ghost story, a common feature of the “marvel” board the story was posted to, but my photos aren’t particularly dramatic, nor was there much of a compelling tale of the supernatural to go with them. PTT users seemed rather blasé about the other hooks in the original article—the CCR angle, the disrespect for the dead, and so on, and the overall response resembles a disdainful collective shrug, almost as if to say, “What do you expect from foreigners?”
This discussion on PTT spawned a second, far more controversial thread, where someone posted their own photos from the temple and argued that media exposure will invariably lead to vandalism. This, in turn, revived an old discussion about Mister OGAY, one of Taiwan’s great street artists, who painted several pieces at the ruins of the Thirteen Levels 十三層遺址 (see my photos here and here). The raging PTT hordes consider this a heinous act of vandalism and have brigaded Mister OGAY’s Facebook page all week long, demanding answers and posting under hashtags like 黑雞必需死 (“Mister OGAY must die”). It is somewhat obscure to me why his work at the Thirteen Levels arouses such animosity while other historic ruins like the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory 南港瓶蓋工廠 do not, but I might be missing something here. Whatever the case, it’s been alarming to watch this unfold—I could have easily been on the receiving end of that kind of abuse had the Apple Daily article hit the mark5.
Let me now turn to the ethics of posting photos of the deceased. I am, of course, aware that some (but not all) Taiwanese people have strong feelings about taking pictures of graveyards, urns, and the like. While I do not share these beliefs I’m also not a dick about it. I refrain from taking pictures when there are people around, what photos I do take are tasteful, and I don’t stage photo shoots or perform stunts. Apart from that, what else am I to do? When I explore abandoned places I am often there in a documentarian capacity—and I am not about to avoid taking pictures relevant to the history of an abandoned place (or Taiwanese culture in general) simply because this taboo exists.
My exploration of the abandoned temple in Keelung is a bit of a special case, however. Never before have I encountered human remains in my travels. I was troubled by the experience—and also confused6. Given how strongly many Taiwanese feel about ancestors and ghosts how was it that these urns were left behind? Surely somebody knows about the situation, right?
Up until Apple Daily broke the story I wasn’t so sure about that. After my first trip to the temple I looked up what information I could find about the place but there wasn’t much. This is one of the only stories I found—and there’s no mention of any human remains. I found this completely inexplicable. This temple isn’t small, nor is it located in an obscure place. It is plainly visible from Keelung’s downtown shopping district if you know where to look. And it has been there for decades.
Part of the reason why I shot the offending photographs was to help unravel the mystery of the place—and perhaps even set the wheels in motion to have something done about those urns. In a roundabout way I suppose that is precisely what happened: now that everyone knows about the situation it is far more likely that something will be done about it. Still, I regret that those photos were presented completely out of context in such a garish fashion.
I know I shouldn’t expect anything better from local media but I must admit to experiencing a lingering sense of disappointment. I share stories of abandoned places in Taiwan as a means of exploring local culture and history here on my blog. I also know that urban exploration is fundamentally transgressive—it takes place outside the lines set by mainstream society—but at least I’m not sensationalist about my adventures. Taking photographs is nowhere near as disrespectful as abandoning those urns in the first place.
Read about Jukuiju 聚奎居, a historic mansion in Taichung 台中; Tainan’s Old West Market 西市場; or even the obscure Yangliufeng 楊柳風 in Changhua City 彰化市, and you’ll hopefully see that my approach to documenting the ruins of Taiwan is anything but disrespectful. I am usually meticulous in my approach to writing up my explorations, investing many hours into research and translation to provide context for the images I publish, ostensibly to make an original contribution to English language coverage of Taiwan. I certainly don’t do it for fame or money. More than anything I am motivated by a sense of gratitude—for the many other bloggers sharing their own authentic experiences of Taiwan as well as the Taiwanese people themselves, who have shown me great kindness and consideration despite spending most of my time blundering around the island.
Anyway, I don’t mean to sound terribly wounded about my portrayal in Taiwanese media, it really wasn’t that bad, particularly not in the original Apple Daily piece. Mostly I have been amused, bewildered, and only mildly annoyed at times. None of this matters in the grand scheme of things and it is not like I’m facing any personal consequences beyond some minor Facebook drama that has already blown over. I could say more about how Taiwanese news outlets are failing the people of this fine nation but that much should be obvious by now. Taiwan deserves better than this even if I don’t.
As for writing this post, I doubt anyone in the industry is likely to read it but that’s almost beside the point. I write about my experiences here on this blog—and playing the role of the bad foreigner in a Taiwanese tabloid hit piece certainly made for a surreal and interesting experience. What an absurd way to begin my third sojourn here! Hopefully I don’t leave Taiwan 台灣 the same way I came in—as headline news.
- This is not the first time Apple Daily used my photos without obtaining permission or providing credit, though they were merely recycling content from another infringing media outlet last time it happened. ↩
- The writer actually messaged me on Facebook requesting permission while I was cruising at 30,000 feet somewhere over the Kamchatka Peninsula mere hours before the article was published. Would it have killed them to wait for a response? ↩
- This gallery received 22,000+ views in the first 24 hours after the story broke thanks to a few media outlets linking directly to it. ↩
- PTT is like Reddit for Taiwan, a pseudonymous free-for-all that exposes the dark underbelly of local culture. Should you ever wish to be disabused of the notion that Taiwanese people are friendly look no further than PTT. Taiwanese media regularly break stories based on people talking shit and sharing rumours on PTT. Follow local media long enough and you’ll start to think the average reporter spends almost all their time at the office trolling Facebook and PTT. ↩
- I have received plenty of weird messages about the story from friends and strangers alike—some of them especially dramatic—but nothing that I would characterize as abuse. Mostly we’ve all had a good laugh about this sordid affair. Then again, they printed my name as “Alexander Flickr”, which may have spared me the worst of it. ↩
- I’m not just saying this either—have a look at this thread on Reddit and particularly this response to a request for photos posted not long after I returned from that second expedition. ↩