Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9.
Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of varied terrain, from the coastal plains of the west to the high mountains stretching the length of the island. I may be imagining this, but I believe early indigenous tribes featured snakes as part of their religious culture. I am on firmer ground in asserting that during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945) the Japanese established a snake farm up on Yangmingshan (陽明山). Toward that end, they collected exotic snakes from throughout East Asia for experimentation and development of serums to counter snake bites.
As a young boy living on the edge of Kaohsiung, I encountered snakes on a regular basis. Our first home was a small fenced villa not far from the harbor. I remember one morning we found a small snake inside our house. He had apparently slithered through a drainage pipe and lodged himself into our downstairs bathroom. It seemed harmless, but my mom and sister were not amused.
On a compound in Tsoying (左營) the US military built an officer’s club. This was when the US Navy still paid port visits to Kaohsiung. One Saturday night, an inebriated naval officer wandered out behind the club, where there was a small liquor store, with a night light. This attracted frogs. The frogs attracted snakes. This reckless sailor saw a cobra lying out under the light, stuffed with frogs. He picked the serpent up by its tail and walked back into the bar to show off his new friend. Fortunately, this cobra was stuffed with frogs and so was evidently in a docile state. But it is said no one had ever seen a bar empty out faster! The next day we Boy Scouts were presented with the cobra, in a nasty mood having slept off his feast. I believe we released him back into the wild, but a good distance from our compound!
In 1964 and again in 1965, our Boy Scout troop hiked the cross-island trail from Chiayi to Hualien, following the Tai Power route laid out on some ancient aborigine path. We saw plenty of snakes there, but tried to make enough noise to scare them off the trail as we passed by. I later lived on Yangmingshan near the Cultural College during two of my AIT tours. This was quite close to the abandoned site of the Japanese snake farm, which was located next to Sha Mao Shan (Scholar’s Hat Mountain, 紗帽山), named after its resemblance to a traditional hat). When hiking up that fun little peak, as well as Chi Shing Shan (Seven Star Mountain, 七星山) and other nearby peaks, we regularly encountered a variety of snakes.
I remember one sunny afternoon I encountered a “hundred pacer,” so named because it was believed the victim would be dead before he took a hundred steps after being bitten. It appeared to have just eaten and was sunning himself in the middle of the stone-step trail. I stopped, and made discreet noises from a safe distance until the snake reluctantly gave way and slithered off the trail.
Another time I was running on a farmer’s foot trail up on Yangmingshan when I suddenly came upon a long brown snake sunning himself after a nice meal. I had no time to react, so I simply leapt over the creature and kept running before he could do me any harm. I also had a Taiwanese friend whose military service had involved doing night patrols to guard then-President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) when he stayed at his guesthouse up on Yangmingshan. Fearful of the deadly but beautiful bamboo snake dropping down from a tree to bite him on his neck, my friend said he buttoned up his collar very tightly and tried to march through his patrol duty as swiftly as possible.
No discussion of this subject can ignore the culinary attraction for snakes to many residents of the island. In that regard, one of the top tourist destinations for visitors to Taipei has long been Snake Alley (華西街), located in the oldest part of the city. The special ritual for young men was to eat the gall bladder of the snake and possibly have a chaser of snake blood, prior to visiting the adjacent alley full of dens of iniquity.
At some point, I got a book detailing the snakes of Taiwan. I remember learning that the great majority of fatal snake bites occurred among fishermen out in the Taiwan Strait. They would occasionally capture a poisonous sea snake in their fishing nets, and if they were careless in hauling in their catch, might be bitten in the arm by the angry serpent. Two points here: first, sea snakes’ venom is particularly deadly. Second, the fishermen are a long way from medical help when working out at sea. Thus the frequency of fatal outcomes when bitten in this fashion.
In short, Taiwan has a rich and long history of snakes, yet another small window into the Taiwan I knew over the years. I appreciate my readers’ indulgence here. I will return to the current politics on the island in my next column.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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