[Blog Tour] Touring Taipei with The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

I’m so excited to present this special post for the Tour the World in 30 Books blog tour hosted by Sammie @ The Bookwyrm’s Den.

Tour the World in 30 Books is a blog tour focused on introducing readers to our favorite diverse books. It’s in conjunction with a Diverse Book Drive hosted by the CCPL—a small, rural library in an area with a high poverty rate and a very homogeneous population, where people rarely have the means to travel or experience new perspectives. However, the library doesn’t believe that should stop people from learning more about the world around them, so they’re running a Diverse Book Drive through the month of September in an attempt to bring the rest of the world to the county instead. With a focus on MG and YA books, the CCPL aims to expose especially its young patrons to new and diverse perspectives and cultures.

WANT TO DONATE?

The CCPL is accepting monetary donations sent via PayPal to orders@caseylibrary.org.

For donations of new or gently used books, send them to:

Sammie Betler
Casey County Public Library
238 Middleburg St.
Liberty, KY 42539

I’ve also put together a wish list of all the books that will be featured on this blog tour. Hardbacks are preferred but not required.

(If you order something from the Book Shop wishlist, please DM @srbetler on Twitter or email sammie@thebookwyrmsden.com, because I don’t believe that site automatically removes books from the wish list.)

Need more ideas? The library has a general Amazon wish list with suggestions, too.

Donations are used at the discretion of the library.


If you can’t donate, that’s fine. You can still join me for a little virtual visit to Taipei, Taiwan via one of my favorite books, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. This book is the first young adult contemporary book I ever read that is set in Taiwan, so it was very special to me. I interviewed Emily about the book back in 2017 as part of my Taiwanese American Heritage Week series but never reviewed the book after, so I’ve decided to make up for that with this post, which isn’t actually a review but rather a post discussing the Taiwanese elements to the story and its setting, complete with pictures. For some, it will be an introduction to a few aspects of Taiwanese culture, and if you are Taiwanese/have been to Taiwan, hopefully it hits the nostalgia buttons.

Synopsis:

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.

Note: All photos are taken by me unless otherwise specified. Please do not repost without permission or credit.

Daily Life

Store Signs

Vertical signs hang on both sides of the streets–lit-up stripes in yellows and blues and pinks and greens, bearing logos and Chinese characters.

(Page 223)

Taiwan is a small country that’s densely populated, so buildings tend to be small in width and length while extending up many floors. Stores usually occupy the first floor of buildings while the remaining floors are residential compounds. Chinese is traditionally read from top to bottom, and many stores have a vertical sign extending perpendicularly out above their storefront that reads from top to bottom so you can see the signs from a distance before you actually reach the store.

A view of a street in Tainan with a stationery store bearing a vertical sign.

7-Eleven

“There’s a Seven-Eleven on every corner–people just call them Seven.”

(Page 44)

Although 7-Eleven originated in the United States, they are more ubiquitous in Taiwan, where they constitute the largest convenience store chain and have the second highest per capita store count (second after Japan). The “convenience” in convenience store goes beyond what you would find in the U.S., as you can pay your credit card bill, receive packages, print and scan documents, and more at a 7-Eleven in Taiwan. I associate 7-Eleven with grabbing a quick bite to eat or a drink to quench your thirst.

Here’s a video from a Filipino YouTuber showing what’s inside of a nicer, bigger 7-Eleven in Taipei:

Garbage Trucks

“Their garbage trucks play music; it’s so random.”

(Page 44)

Taiwan has a reputation for being relatively eco-friendly. Trash collection and recycling is taken very seriously, and you can be fined for not sorting your trash properly between recyclable and non-recyclable items. On set days of the week, at the same time each of those days, garbage and recycling trucks stop at designated places on the streets where the people living nearby can come out to dispose of their trash bags. The most interesting aspect of the trash collection ritual is that the trucks play adaptations of classical music as an alert that they have arrived. Some play Beethoven’s Fur Elise while others play Badarzewska-Baranowska’s The Maiden’s Prayer.

Objects and Symbolism

Jade Cicada Necklace

“She makes a beeline toward the nightstand and picks up my mother’s necklace, holding the cicada pendant up to a sliver of sun peeking out from behind the curtain. The light catches on the jade.”

(Page 65)

An important object that Leigh holds onto is her mother’s jade cicada necklace. Jade is a semiprecious stone that has a lot of significance in Taiwanese culture. Jade jewelry is very common, and I own a few jade accessories myself, including several jade roosters (my zodiac animal). Taiwanese American figure skater Karen Chen wears a jade necklace shaped like a rabbit (her zodiac animal) for good luck. My name in Chinese contains a character with the radical for jade.


My jade rooster collection plus a jade necklace that has “longevity” carved on one side and “prosperity” on the other.

Number Puns

Feng’s apartment is in a residential alley, tucked deep inside a tangle of narrow roads. I march us right up to the wide concrete step and double dooors of shiny steel, and buzz number 1314.

(Page 286)

Chinese has a lot of number homophones, so there are a ton of puns and coded messages that can be made using numbers. 1314 sounds like the Chinese phrase that means “for a lifetime.” As a result, this number is a romantic symbol.

Places

Taipei 101

The eighty-ninth floor of the Taipei 101 tower is the observatory deck, where you can look out at the entire city through walls of glass. Buildings in miniature. Mountains layered in the distance like gentle strokes of watercolor, the farthest ones fogged and fading into the clouds. It’s a strange juxtaposition: the city so tightly packed, everything build so closely together–and beyond that, the sprawling greens and blues of lush forests.

Feng won’t shut up. She’s going on and on with all sorts of tourist facts. “So it’s the only wind damper in the entire world that’s on exhibit for people to see.”

(Page 108)

Taipei 101 was, at the time of its completion in 2004, the tallest building in the world. As its name suggests, it’s 101 stories tall. Elements of traditional Chinese architecture and symbolism are incorporated into the design, which evokes a pagoda. The indoor observation deck is on the 88th and 89th floors (88 is an auspicious number representing prosperity).

The wind damper inside Taipei 101 is the largest and heaviest mass damper in the world. It’s become such an iconic tourist attraction that there is an official mass damper mascot called Damper Baby.

Jiufen

Light rain pricks its way down into the narrow alley between the little shops and stands. It’s impossible to take two steps without running into someone, but the crown thins as the rain picks up. Red lanterns swing overhead in long lines. The sound of rhythmic drumming winds its way down to the street. Outside a shop selling carved stamps, a little dog with floppy ears and caramel fur sleeps snugly curled, oblivious to the bustling around him.

In the teahouse, we sit all the way up on the third floor against the windows, peering out over the town and the water.

(Page 327)

Leigh visits Jiufen with her grandmother and takes shelter at a tea house that is probably A-Mei Tea House. Jiufen is a seaside town located in the mountains in New Taipei City. It’s a very scenic place and has become a popular tourist attraction over the years, fueled in part by the acclaimed historical film A City of Sadness by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, as well as its resemblance to the setting of Studio Ghibli’s feature film Spirited Away.

Danshui

The next morning, we hire a car that drives the four of us to Danshui, to the sea.

(Page 436)

Leigh goes with her family to scatter ashes in Danshui, officially romanized as Tamsui. It’s a port district that was historically a key holding for various colonial powers controlling parts of Taiwan, including the Spanish, the Dutch, and the Qing Dynasty. Today it’s a popular tourist destination due to its rich cultural heritage and scenic seaside view.

The view across the Tamsui Harbor.

Food

Taiwanese Breakfast

Waigong is already seated, his wooden cane leaning against the table by his elbow. He picks up one of the sesame-dotted flatbreads, digs his finger into the side, and opens the two layers like butterfly wings. He stuffs it with a section of cruller, and dunks the whole thing in his soy milk–just the way Mom would have eaten it.

(Page 66)

Breakfast shops that serve fresh, hot food in Taiwan are usually a short walk away from home. Some of the most common and iconic items on the menu that are mentioned in The Astonishing Color of After include shaobing, youtiao, doujiang, luobogao, danbing, and fantuan. My personal favorite is danbing, which is an omelette of sorts made of a scrambled egg rolled up inside a savory crepe-like wrapper made of dough with scallions mixed in.

Bubble Tea

Waipo bought us bubble tea, and we sat on a park bench people-watching as we sucked the tapioca up through fat straws.

(Page 67)

Although bubble tea has only been around for a few decades (it’s a Millennial!), it’s become extremely popular across Asia and beyond. While milk tea has existed for a while, the tapioca pearls were first added to the drink in Taiwan in Taichung during the 1980s. There are competing claims to which tea shop invented bubble tea from Chun Shui Tang and Hanlin Tea House, and in 2019, the Taiwanese courts ruled that neither side won the claim. I visited a Chun Shui Tang location in Taichung back in 2016.

Bubble tea shops are everywhere in Taiwan and a large cup usually goes for 40 to 60 NTD, which is between a little more than $1 and not quite $2 (USD). The big chains have expanded outside of Taiwan and can be found in some cities in the United States.

Taiwanese Bakeries

All around us are shelves bearing trays of baked goods. Which of these would my mother have picked out for herself? The cheery yellow tarts? The fat buns? Or the strangely shaped rolls, embedded with corn and scallions?

(Page 106)

East Asia is known for its bakeries that have remixed European baked goods with an Asian twist. The word for bread in Taiwanese Hokkien is “pháng,” which comes from the Japanese “pan” (パン), which in turn came from the Portuguese “pão.” Taiwan boasts a baker named Wu Pao-chun who won the international baking competition Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 2010. He has his own bakery chain and a movie based on his life story starring Taiwanese actor Lego Lee called 27°C – Loaf Rock (available on YouTube but not with English subtitles, unfortunately).

Baozi

“Baozi,” says Waipo, pushing the basket toward the center where we can both reach. A little white napkin unsticks itself from undereneath the bamboo structure.

(Page 329)

Baozi are fluffy steamed buns usually stuffed with pork and/or vegetables. It is one of many foods that are steamed in bamboo or metal baskets. Taiwan is known for its gourmet dumpling restaurant chain Din Tai Fung that specializes in xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. There is one located inside Taipei 101 and several locations have opened in the United States (but not near me, sadly).

Night Markets

The night market feels like a special sort of festival, except Feng tells me it comes alive every night. People walk by holding sweets like shaved ice and red bean ice cream. I see some things I’ve never tried but Dad’s told me about, like stinky tofu, and yellow wheel cakes filled with custard. One stand sells skewers of tiny brown eggs, and other kebabs that look dark and marinated. On the other wise of the crowd, there are stalls lined up in no particular order, some of them peddling trinkets and clothing accessories, others smoky with freshly cooking foods–

“The snacks here are called xiaochi,” says Feng. “That translates to little eats, literally.”

(Pages 223-224)

In most towns or cities in Taiwan, on designated nights (or sometimes every night) of the week, certain streets will close to vehicle traffic (minus motorcycles) and street vendors will set up stalls and carts to sell food, electronics, clothing, accessories and more. You can buy a lot of random things for very cheap at the night market. I usually don’t do anything besides eat the xiaochi, which is sometimes likened to tapas. Scallion pancakes are a must for me, and I also eat jidangao (small cakes usually shaped like cartoon characters), and popcorn chicken (which is nothing like American popcorn chicken and a thousand times better).

Pop Culture

Hello Kitty

Waipo hands me a scrap of paper that was in the box–a pink piece of Hello Kitty stationery.

(Page 82)

Hello Kitty hails from Japan, but she enjoys immense popularity in Taiwan as well. You can find Hello Kitty themed merchandise and decor in many places. Famously, Taiwanese airline Eva Air has a special flight where the entire plane, interior and exterior, is decorated with Hello Kitty. My dad rode one of those flights by chance, but I sadly have not the chance to do so yet. Every time I visit Taiwan, McDonald’s seems to have Hello Kitty toys with their Happy Meal.

Teresa Teng

The name of the singer is Teresa Teng,” says Feng. “Deng Lijun. Have you heard of her?”

“Ni mama zui xihuan,” Waipo says. Your mother’s favorite. She brings over the CD case. The album cover shows a rosy-cheeked woman, her black hair curled and fluffed, the expression on her face soft and demure.

(Page 183)

Teresa Teng is a Taiwanese singer who was immensely popular in Asia in the 70s, 80s, and up until her death in 1995. She sang in multiple languages, including Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian, and English. Her most famous song is “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). Google honored her with a Google Doodle celebrating what would have been her 65th birthday on January 29th, 2018.

The Google Doodle of Teresa Teng by Taiwanese American artist Cynthia Yuan Cheng.

Boy Bands

Back at the apartment, Waigong’s lounging on the couch, hogging all the cushions under his back and elbows. He stares into the television, watching a music video with the volume all the way down. A dozen Asian men are dancing in a hexagonal tunnel filled with flashing lights.

(Page 80)

I strongly suspect this is an nod to the popular Korean-Chinese boy band EXO, which formerly had twelve members and whose logo is shaped like a hexagon. Boy bands have a few decades of history in East Asia, and kpop/cpop bands like EXO are popular in Taiwan. Their music videos can be seen on the MTV channel. One of the most famous Taiwanese boy bands is F4, which was formed by the four male stars in Meteor Garden, the Taiwanese drama adaptation of the bestselling Japanese manga Boys Over Flowers. Asian boy band members can often be seen endorsing various lifestyle product brands.

Religion and Spiritual Practices

Temples

Waipo points to the magnificent temple. Sweeping red roofs curve up at their square corners. Stone dragons guard the highest points with open mouths and hooked claws. Fire-bright lanterns hang down from the eaves, strung together like lines of planets, their tassels angling in the wind.

(Page 135)

The majority of Taiwanese people of Han descent practice a blend of Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Temples are found everywhere, with over 20,000 across the island. Most temples follow traditional Chinese architecture and are elaborate structures.

Ghost Month

The book takes place during Ghost Month. According to folk beliefs, the ghosts of the dead are able to cross into the human realm during Ghost Month, which is the seventh month of the lunar calendar used in various parts of Asia, including Taiwan (between August and September of the Gregorian in 2020). Food offerings are left out for the ghosts to satiate their hunger, and incense and joss paper are burned for the dead.

Ghost Weddings

While digging into her family history, Leigh finds out that one of her relatives had a ghost wedding.

The custom of ghost weddings originates in China but is practiced by people in diaspora in Taiwan and throughout Southeast Asia. Such marriages can occur between a living person and a dead person or between two dead people. It’s generally more common for these unions to be between a living man and a deceased woman due to patriarchal and heteronormative practices surrounding ancestor worship. Traditionally, daughters are not worshiped by their birth families after they pass away; instead, their spirit tablets are kept with their husband’s family.

In keeping with this tradition, my late mother’s spirit tablet is in the ancestral shrine of my paternal grandfather’s house. Last year, I learned that my paternal grandfather took a ghost bride, who appeared to him in a dream asking him to marry her. He asked around the village and found her family and agreed to the wedding.

Typically, a match is found for a deceased woman by placing a red envelope on the street for an unsuspecting stranger to pick up, as is the case with Fred in The Astonishing Color of After. This practice is also depicted in the Taiwanese drama The Teenage Psychic. I also recommend the Netflix show The Ghost Bride, which takes place in 1890s Malaysia and is based on the novel of the same name by Yangsze Choo.

Burning Items for the Dead

“Your grandparents put this package together, planning to send it. But they changed their minds. Instead, they burned it. The photos and the letters. The necklace, which I mailed to them. They burned all of it.”

(Page 54)

Leigh is given a box that contained items relating to her mother by the mysterious bird. After people die, it’s customary to burn items for the dead to use in the afterlife. Paper money is the most common, but small paper houses with furniture and even cars are also burned at funerals, and in the past decade smart phones have joined the list of amenities for the afterlife.

The 49 Days Between Death and Rebirth

“They’re chanting sutras for the ones who have passed. Especially those still within the forty-nine days. After a person’s death, they have forty-nine days to process their karma and let go of the things that make them feel tied to this life–things like people and promises and memories. Then they make their transition. So the temple will keep each yellow tablet for forty-nine days. After that, they’re burned.”

(Page 143)

This custom of waiting forty-nine days comes from the Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It’s a period that also gives loved ones time to mourn.


LOOKING FOR MORE DIVERSE BOOKISH GOODNESS? CHECK OUT THE FULL TOUR THE WORLD IN 30 BOOKS SCHEDULE BELOW.

✦ September 1 ✦
Sammie @ The Bookwyrm’s Den – Introduction, Paola Santiago and the River of Tears
Leelynn @ Sometimes Leelynn Reads – Dating Makes Perfect

✦ September 2 ✦
Lauren @ Always Me – The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

✦ September 3 ✦
Toya @ The Reading Chemist – Felix Ever After

✦ September 4 ✦
Michelle @ Carry A Big Book – Sharks in the Time of Saviors

✦ September 5 ✦
Shenwei @ READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA – The Astonishing Color of After

✦ September 6 ✦
Maria @ A Daughter of Parchment and Paper – Patron Saints of Nothing

✦ September 7 ✦
Bri @ Bri’s Book Nook – True Friends (Carmen Browne)

✦ September 8 ✦
Bec @ bec&books – Lobizona
Jorie @ Jorie Loves A Story – diverse TTT

✦ September 9 ✦
Sienna @ Daydreaming Book Lover – Loveless

✦ September 10 ✦
Kerri @ Kerri McBookNerd – Raybearer

✦ September 11 ✦
Noly @ The Artsy Reader – The Name Jar

✦ September 12 ✦
Jacob @ The Writer’s Alley – Forest of Souls

 September 13 ✦
Keri @ Are You My Book – The Tea Dragon Society

✦ September 14 ✦
Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight – The Space Between Worlds

✦ September 15 ✦
Melissa @ Ramblings of a Jedi Librarian – Girl in Translation

✦ September 16 ✦
Livy @ Shelves of Starlight – Clap When You Land

✦ September 17 ✦
Crystal @ Lost in Storyland – American Born Chinese

✦ September 18 ✦
Lili @ Lili’s Blissful Pages – A Wish in the Dark

✦ September 19 ✦
Leslie @ Books Are The New Black – The Poppy War

✦ September 20 ✦
Noura @ The Perks of Being Noura – Love From A to Z

✦ September 21 ✦
Crini @ Crini’s – A Pale Light in the Black

✦ September 22 ✦
Rachelle @ Rae’s Reads and Reviews – Dear Haiti, Love Alaine

✦ September 23 ✦
Dini @ DiniPandaReads – Wicked As You Wish

✦ September 24 ✦
Madeline @ Mad’s Books – Spin the Dawn

✦ September 25 ✦
Tessa @ Narratess – Brace Yourself

✦ September 26 ✦
Kimberly @ My Bookish Bliss – Truly Madly Royally

✦ September 27 ✦
Rena @ Bookflirting 101 – Anna K: A Love Story

✦ September 28 ✦
Susan @ Novel Lives – Burn the Dark

✦ September 29 ✦
Arina @ The Bookwyrm’s Guide to the Galaxy – A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

✦ September 30 ✦
Maya @ Awesome Reads – Jackpot

12 thoughts on “[Blog Tour] Touring Taipei with The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

  1. Thanks for this post, Shenwei! Taiwan has a special place in my heart because it’s the first place I was able to go to outside of my country (I’m from the Philippines). I didn’t know Astonishing Color of After is set in Taiwan! Now I MUST absolutely read it. 😉

    Like

  2. Oh my gosh, I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH. ❤ I loved the book, but it’s sometimes hard reading about other cultures without pictures attached (pictures in books should be more of a thing). I got such a better picture of Taiwan from this post, and now I kind of want to re-read the book with the new knowledge. I think it’d definitely change the reading experience! Ugh, and that FOOD. I’m so hungry now. It all looks delicious and I want to try it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ugh!!! I’m so hungry now. Hahaha. I love this post so much. This book is one of my favorite reads from last year and I almost feature it for this tour too. I’m glad I didn’t because you definitely thought of a much better kind of post. ❤❤

    Like

  4. Hallo, Hallo Shenwei,

    I loved the travelogue aspect of this post – how much I could relate to the foodie culture and to Hello Kitty, too! I miss those stores and especially of any store which sold paper products and cute letter pads!! Letter writing is becoming a lost art and I am one who wants to keep it moving forward. Esp as I want to shift into using my vintage and restored typewriters… moreso to the point though is how you tucked us so dearly close to the lead character’s own journey back to find her roots, her Mum and resolve her emotional angst! You did such a great job of anchouring us both to the story and to the theme of the story that everything just burst alive for me — I am not sure if I can handle a suicide story though… but I love the elements of how the story was brought to life and thereby I am celebrating this post!

    Like

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