For almost a decade, Neil Armstrong has been running Surf Taiwan surf tours. Neil, a professional surf photographer and editor, decided to make his home base in Taiwan after experiencing what he calls the wonderful culture and amazing waves. To some, Taiwan may seem off the beaten path but it more than makes up with it with it’s diverse surf breaks and laid back vibe. The culture has a unique mix of influences like Southeast Asia and more developed nations like Japan. In this interview, I ask Neil to give me the run down on his own life and the life of a traveling surfer in Taiwan. For those curious about airfare to Taipei, Taiwan from the US please click this link.
Please state your name and country of origin:
Neil Armstrong, aka Moonwalker, originally from Australia.
How did you get into surfing?
Self taught. Utter struggle. Trial, error, and terror in the beginning. But as we all know, surfing is wonderfully addictive and the more you do it the better you get. I surf all crafts. I am a Jack of all boards; master of none, haha.
How did you transition from your country of origin to moving to Taiwan?
It was interesting to say the least and that’s not even taking the language into account. Over the years, I have traveled quite a bit as a surfing photojournalist. I am still the consulting editor for Pacific Longboarder Magazine. Also, my parents used to work in the airlines industry so I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different countries since I was real young.
“I am still the consulting editor for Pacific Longboarder Magazine.”
What drew me to Taiwan is the culture. The culture in Taiwan is really unique and the language is so impressive. To learn Taiwanese requires studying daily to stay on top of it. There is not a lot of English spoken in Taiwan so it is very useful. Plus a lot of the road signs that are in English are spelt differently on different signs and some places sound almost the same. It is really easy to get lost! Also, driving in Taiwan is extremely different and takes a while to get used to. Between the errant scooters, semi-trucks regularly on the wrong side of the road, ubiquitous blue work trucks undertaking and overtaking every other car at every opportunity; you understand why so many drivers have religious icons in their vehicles.
How is the vibe in Taiwan?
Taiwan is pretty mellow. Most folks around here are very friendly. Like anywhere else in the world, if you show respect and don’t drop in or paddle around people, everything is all good.
What do you love most about Taiwan?
What I love most about Taiwan is the real emphasis on family. As in a lot of Asian countries, family is really important. I think that this is special and hard to find. In most Western cultures the tight knit family unit seems to be lacking. Aside from family, the food is fantastic! Everything from snacks to full meals. The seafood is incredibly fresh and there are lots of dishes to choose from. Taiwan is also the most mountainous country in Asia outside of Tibet. So between soaring mountains, vibrant cities, hot springs, beaches, and being on almost the same latitude as Hawaii, as well as having plenty of waves on all sides of its coastlines; Taiwan is a pretty awesome place!
Could you share your thoughts on the surf scene in Taiwan?
Currently, the surf scene in Taiwan is skewed towards progressive surfing. The Taiwanese surf crews generally all want the latest and greatest equipment and boards. Since the surf culture is fairly new there’s not a great deal of local history to draw upon. So you won’t see many single fins, twin fins or logs in Taiwan. Taiwanese surfers appreciate the history of surfing, but they don’t feel the need to resurrect it.
What does it mean to be a surfer in Taiwan?
Freedom. That word is synonymous with surfing worldwide. It is as true as it is corny. As the Taiwanese have a very strong study and work ethic they don’t have much free time, so whatever they do for fun they do so with a passion. Also, the appearance of being a surfer in Taiwan is important. Taiwanese surfers feel the need to wear a lot of branded surf clothing and put lots of surf stickers on their boards and vehicles. There aren’t too many low key surfers in Taiwan — i.e., people with white boards and clothing with no logos.
“Freedom. That word is synonymous with surfing worldwide.”
But I think this is due to a case of arrested development. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. Because the Taiwanese study so hard and spend so many hours at school and cram-school (extra study and lessons after school) they don’t have much time when they are young to express themselves. So when they are older, they have a bit of free time and find something they are passionate about, they are full on about it. This also means there are a lot of surfers in the lineup with their friends who may not be great surfers, but they are just so happy to be out there. A lot of them radiate pure surf stoke.
What is your favorite time of year to surf in Taiwan?
Anytime is good but from May to mid-June it is a little slow because it is between seasons. MSW Taiwan Surf Report here.
What kept you in Taiwan and when did you decide to start Surf Taiwan as a business?
I love the Taiwanese people, culture, climate, and waves. It’s as simple as that. The surf tour business, Surf Taiwan, started inadvertently. Early on, I had done quite a few surf articles on Taiwan with pro surfers that I had invited over for photo shoots. After the trips I would syndicate these articles to various magazines. As a result, friends from overseas would email me about wanting to come to Taiwan. Then other pros I had shot with had friends who also wanted to visit as well. All of this culminated in me and a good friend who had a van and a small guest house deciding to give Surf Taiwan a go. I built the Surf Taiwan website and after that I put out the word and it built up from there. Now we have permanent bases on the South and East Coasts, offer day trips from Taipei, and have a great crew working with us. We are the only business like this here that works with local accommodation providers which are all family run (as opposed to solely running our own guest house). This means the money client’s pay gets spread around the communities. As you can imagine, we have a great relationship with the locals.
What do you like most about running a surf tour business in Taiwan?
Apart from surfing fun waves, I love being able to be the link between visitors who don’t speak the language and the local crew. We often have BBQ’s for our clients and invite local surfers over. There are often some hilarious animated discussions with people trying to get their points across. For example, try watching an Aussie trying to explain to someone how koalas walk and climb or an American guy explaining the difference between cougar the animal and cougar the elder female hunter.
There’s also lots to do in Taiwan other than just surf. It is great to be able to take guests to nice local restaurants, show them the best street food, hot springs, snorkeling, diving, local sights, parks, hikes, bike rides, etc. Heaps of options! And we’ve been running our surf tour business since 2008 so we have all the local knowledge.
Your photos are amazing. Could you tell me a little bit about your photography?
Thank you very much. I really appreciate that. I have been a photojournalist in the surfing world for quite a few years now and I have been humbled and truly honored to work alongside some talented photographers, writers, and magazine editors. All of whom have guided and influenced me in some way. Sometimes it was to pay their bar tabs, but mostly (while sober, for the most part) to have my photos grace their pages and covers. My photos and articles run under the pseudonym ‘Moonwalker’, which is a somewhat of an inevitable nickname. The name was bestowed upon me by some of the legendary Noosa surf crew from Australia.
What sort of photo and video projects are you currently working on?
Ahh, this is where I’m supposed to plug my crowning opus! But alas, nothing so grand. I really just take things day by day. If conditions are unique, interesting, or epic I will most certainly shoot — but I do spend a lot of time happily surfing as well.
How is it being an entrepreneur and surfer? Any insights into how those two combos work together?
As long as you are dedicated and genuine, the combination totally works. Surfing is awesome, but if you want to be involved in it as a way to support your family, you have to work hard. Also, working with good people is a key factor. If you’re working with honest people who are passionate about what they are doing, it’s all good.
“As long as you are dedicated and genuine, the combination totally works.”
Who have you had the pleasure of bringing to your local surf spots? Also, who is your main customer base?
We have had the honor of hosting some really well known surfers! Our guests are an eclectic mix of different crews at different times. We have hosted Wingnut, Sunny Garcia, Chris Del Moro, and Daniel Jones. We have also hosted multiple World Longboard Champion Taylor Jensen and a host of other surfers for various magazines and video projects. We were really stoked to host a Taylor Steele production, which can be seen in the film Se7en Signs. But all of our clients are treated the same, regardless of how many stickers they have on their boards!
Most of our main clientele are more or less guys aged thirty and above who are looking for a variety of waves like beach breaks, river mouths, mellow reefs, points, good food, and who want to go somewhere different. The waves in Taiwan are what we call ‘every-man’ waves. Whatever board you ride at home, you’ll likely be able to surf here because you don’t need to order a special gun. If you are looking for double overhead barrels, breaking on shallow razor sharp reefs, ala the Ment’s, then Taiwan is not for you. Honestly, most of our clientele are either repeats or come to us from word of mouth.
In what direction do you see the Taiwanese surf scene headed in?
Taiwanese surfers are slowly becoming more aware of surf history. With this new found awareness some Taiwanese surfers are also starting to travel overseas more as well. Little by little the surf scene in Taiwan is slowly growing domestically. There are some really passionate Taiwanese surfers. But as the Taiwanese don’t have much leisure time, surfing is never going to be mainstream in terms of a significant percentage of the population compared to OZ, Europe or the U.S for example.
One serious question. At present, Taiwan seems to be and has been in a long period of political limbo. On the one hand, Taiwan has been ruled since 1945 by the deeply entrenched Republic of China (ROC) regime which maintains that Taiwan and China are one. On the other hand, Taiwan has developed a sense of national identity where the idea of self-determination and self-rule has led many Taiwanese to advocate for the Independence of Taiwan. What are your thoughts on the political situation in Taiwan and where do you see Taiwan in the future?
Good question. I’ve spoken to many Taiwanese about this and the short story is that the general consensus leans towards independence. But for a lot folks, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal, which surprised me. Taiwan is a full on democracy and has freedom of speech, which is vastly different from China. In Taiwan there are two main political parties and several independent parties. Actually, the mayor of Taipei is an independent! In Taiwan no internet is censored or sites banned. Taiwan also has it’s own currency, stock market, one of the best medical systems in the world, and is for all intents and purposes, independent. Taiwan has plenty of trade with the rest of the world, including China. Taiwan’s main exports are high grade computer chips. Almost all the cheap ‘Made In Taiwan’ goods moved to China to be manufactured about 20–30 years ago. So no, I don’t think China will rock the boat in Taiwan because it would upset trade in a major way. China just likes to talk tough to keep ‘face’ or retain their honor in other words.
If you could send a message to the surfing community at large what would you tell them?
Simple. Don’t be afraid to surf somewhere new! The world is an awesome place! Don’t grumble, get out there!
“Don’t be afraid to surf somewhere new! The world is an awesome place! Don’t grumble, get out there!”
Any parting words or shout outs?
A huge thanks to my legendary business partner who puts up with me, ensures everything runs smoothly and does a phenomenal job! The Taiwanese crew we employ, thanks for being friendly, honest and full of energy. And to all the other crew we work with and families we interact with and see all the time, from accommodation providers, restaurant owners and the food stall owners, you make Taiwan what it is — so friendly and full of life. Thank you!
Where can people find you on social media?
This interview was edited and created within Medium by myself — Peter Mc. I am a graphic designer, photographer, and journalist who is obsessed with surfing. I have two home bases, one in Miami, FL and another in Kobe, Japan. I am always on the lookout for interesting people who want to share their stories. I can be reached at email@example.com. If you enjoyed this story please like it and hit the follow button for more great stories in the future!