By Ron Hanson, Asia New Zealand Foundation

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.

It was a passion for geography and a thirst for knowledge that set John Grant Ross on his trek through Asia. A bright student, Ross finished a B.A. in Geography at Auckland University in 1987 at the tender age of 19. The following year, he embarked for Papua New Guinea. He would spend the next several years writing for inflight magazines and newspapers from the jungles of Myanmar and other rugged destinations throughout the region.

Ross spoke to me about the initial spark of inspiration. “Picture an eleven-year-old school kid poring over old atlases, ones from the 1950s still showing blank spaces in the Amazon and a few other places as unexplored. Intoxicating. But of course, all the blank spaces had been filled in by the time I was ready to set off. Still, there were plenty of fascinating wild places, some of them isolated for political reasons.

“I was attracted to Burma because large areas of it had been shut off to the outside world since the 1940s. These areas were mostly mountain hinterlands inhabited by ethnic minorities such as Karen and Kachin, who were in a decades-long struggle against the Burmese military. I was first attracted by the adventure and romance, but grew up, and stayed out of interest in the insurgency and the plight of the people.”


Photo Credit: Asia New Zealand Foundation

A photo of Ross in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains and his notebook,1995

Ross’ travels were eventful and sometimes dangerous. He recalls sandstorms and twisters in the Gobi Desert and his camel collapsing from thirst in the summer heat. He remembers emerging from the Altai Mountains on horseback to discover a Mongolian ghost town; he later learned the reason for its deserted streets was an outbreak of bubonic plague.

In Myanmar, Ross traveled with a group of Karen insurgents and was forced to hide out from enemy troops. He spent a week on a clandestine trek paddling down the upper Irrawaddy River, moving past military checkpoints under the cover of darkness and at one point becoming caught in a whirlpool.

On another occasion, hiking through the central ranges, he lost skin off the soles of his feet to the point where he was unable to walk. Locals kindly built him a raft so he could continue his voyage by river. Ross’ adventures in Myanmar would result in his first book, Kawthoolei Dreams, Malaria Nights: Burma’s Civil War, written, out of concerns for his safety, under the pen name Martin MacDonald and published by White Lotus in 1999.


Photo Credit: Asia New Zealand Foundation

Ross’s writing in The Herald under allias, 1991

Ross’ travels certainly quenched his thirst for adventure but earning a living off writing and photojournalism was proving more difficult. “I made a living,” he says, “but it was half a living. So, then I had an idea… gold prospecting! I was on the South Island of New Zealand prospecting for gold. I found a little. I dug up a creek and built some earthworks, and I was going to run all the bottom gravel and silt through my sluice when days and days of torrential rain came. I had to spend two days by myself in my tent with my homemade grapefruit wine. And somewhere on the second day, out of the haze came the idea: Go to Taiwan. It’ll be easier than prospecting for gold.”

The plan was to use Taiwan as a base where he could earn money teaching English while resuming his intrepid journeys into Myanmar, and undertaking new ones in Mongolia. He would continue writing about those countries. But gradually, Ross became fascinated by Formosa (the Portuguese name for Taiwan), and over time the island would become a focal point for his literary exploits.

Ross moved to Taiwan in 1994, two years before the island’s first-ever presidential election. It was a dramatic time to arrive. After being released from nearly four decades of martial law in 1987, the island was undergoing a dizzying pace of change. The 1990s in Taiwan saw an explosion of creative activity as artists and writers explored previously suppressed topics and local identity.

“It was like a renaissance of culture,” Ross says. “For the first time, people could freely speak [the local dialect] Taiwanese, and there was a flourishing of the music scene. Previously a lot of rock ‘n roll bands had been banned. It was a wonderful awakening, kind of crazy too!


Photo Credit: Asia New Zealand Foundation

Ross with students in Meishan, Yunlin County, 1995

“People had money. They’d been saving up for decades and were beginning to spend. It was the tail-end of an economic miracle. And then in 2000, arguably when democracy really arrived, you had the opposition party, not that long before illegal, coming to power. So, they were wonderful, wonderful times.”

Ross began picking up books on early Taiwanese history. One, in particular, proved a turning point. The book, Pioneering in Formosa, published in 1898, describes adventures in Taiwan in the 1860s when the island had just opened up to the outside world. It was written by William Pickering, a British official who worked for the Qing Dynasty running customs in Taiwan from 1863 to 1870. Pickering, who spoke fluent Taiwanese, made several expeditions across the island.

“Pioneering in Formosa had tales of shipwrecks,” Ross says, “traveling into the mountains, into the wild Indigenous areas, and I just thought, wow! Taiwan has such a rich history, and it’s not well known. I thought I needed to read more, and then little by little, I realized I needed to write about it.”

A watershed moment came when Ross wrote his second book, Formosan Odyssey, first self-published in 2002. Initially intended as a travel account, unforeseen circumstances would intervene and force Ross to adapt and write a different kind of book from what he had originally envisioned.

“It was going to be a travel book, mostly hiking through the mountains,” Ross says, “but that very night, the morning before I was to leave on this trip, a huge earthquake struck Taiwan. This was 1999, September 21. More than 2,300 people died. All the mountain trails and roads were ripped up and destroyed. So my book changed right away. I switched to writing a book about the history of Taiwan with a little bit of travel mixed in, so it’s a hybrid, whereas originally I’d planned it to be a travelog.”


The book begins with Ross laying out maps on his bedroom floor and preparing for the trip. But hours later, he was awoken by the earthquake. After a week of unsettling aftershocks, he embarks on a new journey, with much of the original route encased within a disaster zone.

Ross’ account takes us through contemporary sites such as Wanhua’s Snake Alley and Taroko National Park, his interactions with locals, and the culture shock of adjusting to his new home. But it also guides the reader through a broad sweep of Taiwanese history from Ming loyalist general Koxinga’s siege of the Dutch Fort Zealandia of 1661-62, through tumultuous eras of colonial rule and uprisings, and up to the island’s economic miracle and transition to democracy.

After several rejections from publishers, Ross decided to self-publish Formosan Odyssey and work with a local distributor to get the publication into stores. The book sold quickly and was enthusiastically received. It became somewhat of a cult classic, though Ross is humble about its success.

“An author would like to think it was the writing quality that was behind this,” Ross says, “but if I were interrogated — subject to sleep deprivation, drink deprivation, and assorted horrors — I would likely be reduced to a sobbing wreck and say it was largely a matter of a lack of competition. There simply weren’t many Taiwan books in English aimed at the general reader.”

One fan of the book was UK marketer Michael Cannings who had moved to Taiwan in 2002 and himself became fascinated by the rich tapestry of Taiwan’s myriad histories. In 2013, Cannings approached Ross with the idea of re-publishing Formosan Odyssey as an e-book. Their discussions led to them forming the publishing house Camphor Press the following year. Cannings would handle administrative and book formatting duties, while Ross would be responsible for development and acquisitions. American Mark Swofford was brought in to take care of copyediting.


Photo Credit: Asia New Zealand Foundation

Titles of Camphor Press

Camphor’s publications cover history, politics, and contemporary fiction from Taiwan and throughout Asia. Its titles also include rare previously out-of-print publications. In less than ten years, Camphor has published more than 100 books. The publisher has proved highly influential. After some initial years of struggle, by 2017, the Taipei Times reported that Camphor was dominating the Taiwan English-language book scene.

That same year, Camphor acquired the back catalog of U.S. publishing house EastBridge. This includes the English translation of the bestselling Korean novel Everlasting Empire which had sold more than one million copies in its original language and been turned into an award-winning film.

It includes works of creative non-fiction by Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. Buck’s memoirs Fighting Angel and The Exile, both first published in 1936 and since republished by Camphor, chronicle the lives of her parents, who spent time living in China when Buck’s father was posted there as a missionary.

Camphor also republished the historically important book Formosa Betrayed, written by U.S. diplomatic officer George H. Kerr after he witnessed the bloody 228 massacre by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and the subsequent period of White Terror. The “betrayal” refers to the disappointment of Taiwanese in discovering that the Chinese Nationalists were perhaps even worse than the previous Japanese colonial rulers, but also to U.S. culpability in the tragedy.

But Camphor’s best-selling title is Ian Easton’s 2017 book The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. The book contains a foreword by controversial former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Ross jokes dryly that despite its success, he hopes the publication goes out of print and becomes irrelevant.

One of Camphor’s most intriguing titles, Formosa Calling, was authored by a New Zealander, Allan J. Shackleton. “He was with the United Nations,” Ross says of Shackleton. “He was here in Taiwan in 1947, and he witnessed the 228 massacre. Now, he was quite traumatized by it, and he wanted to tell the world. So, he’s back in New Zealand, and he writes up a manuscript, but he can’t find a publisher. It was much too sensitive. It was during the Cold War, and New Zealand was an ally of the Republic of China, the Nationalists.

“Shackleton died in 1984, and the manuscript for this book on the massacre and the looting lay in a chest somewhere. In 1997, someone called Stanley Liao, the president of the Taiwanese New Zealand Association, was looking to do some activity to mark the 50th anniversary of 228, and he’d seen a book that mentioned Shackleton’s name.

“He thought, maybe I’ll contact the family and see if they have any pictures. So, this Taiwanese chap called everyone in New Zealand called Shackleton in the telephone directory. He found the family and got hold of the manuscript, and in 1998 finally published it. It went out of print, so Camphor Press republished it.”


In 2021, Ross began a new endeavor 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, traveled 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.

“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.

“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.”

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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