is not still and wanting it to be so is such a contradiction towards
what I do.
is a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in magazines
including Travel+Leisure, Elle Decor, AsiaSpa, Real Travel UK, and
Business Traveller. She has made several guest appearances with her
photography featured on the Travel Channel and has published three
books on Bangkok and Vietnam. In addition to her book and magazine work
she shoots for fashion and other commercial clients. Nana splits her time between Bangkok and Saigon.
You were born in Taiwan, but your family moved around a lot when you
were growing up. How does this figure into your urge to express
yourself through writing and visual arts? In what ways does it affect
how you see things? Can you remember one event from your childhood that
speaks to why you moved towards creative expression?
Moving as much as I did was devastating. I left Taiwan when I was six.
From then on, there were very few constants in my life. As children we
had no TV for many years, and we rarely saw our parents. Having so much
time to ourselves, it was natural to be creative. I rebelled against
school, so that gave me even more time to get bored. As a result, I
started knitting when I was 7, cooking at 8, gave my brother a
horrendous afro perm at 11, got my first camera from a garage sale at
13—just some of the things I remember doing.
weekends, I’d take pictures of my cousins and my brother while they
posed in fashion disasters that I created each week. That was so
exciting for me. The same year I started taking pictures, some girls at
school were exchanging notebooks they’d decorate the covers of, so I
decorated one and suddenly became very popular. But when many girls in
school asked to “exchange” notebooks with me. The “exchange” really
meant my handing over the notebook and that’d be the end of it.
one girl as unpopular as I was, continued to write, filling up several
notebooks with me that year. We corresponded until our late 20s, and I
also started keeping a journal. So, the notebook, or writing, came to
be the one constant friend in my life that I could call upon whenever I
liked or wherever I moved. There was no need to be scared of being
judged, of not fitting in, saying what’s right, having the right accent
or looks. I could sit in a crowd of strangers, look down at my notebook
and write just how uncomfortable I felt. I suppose writing was a sane
and acceptable way to talk to myself. I wrote until my fingers became
misshapen. With visual arts, I felt even freer since English is my
third language and has the tendency to make me feel quite like a
foreigner at times. However, none of these creative outbursts were
taken very seriously since the main focus was the violin—“my pain in
the neck”—for 13 years, giving me chronic heartburn for 14.
don’t know how to pinpoint what I see or do as an effect of my growth
or experience. I get stuck on this question every time. I know that I
am different from a lot of people around me. This depresses and
paralyzes me at times when I think about it too much. I don’t know if I
perceive something a certain way because of my background. It’s
tempting to say that when people don’t understand me it’s got to be
because of my background, but that’s probably not the case.
Despite all the moving your family did, you were drawn back to Taiwan.
Why? How did you come back to settle there? How do you see the country
differently than those who grew up there? Which subjects in Taiwan seem
to speak to you most?
I returned to Taiwan in 1992. My parents had gone bankrupt and Taipei
was where they had family. For me, the choices were quite clear: I
could either stay in Atlanta working as a waitress and freelance
violinist putting myself through school or dare myself to move to a
place I had very little memory of. I knew that it’d be easier with my
parents near so we booked three tickets. I hated Taiwan the moment I
breathed the air. It was heavy, damp, and smelt strange. Taipei was so
noisy, so gray, and people didn’t smile and always bumped into me. I
felt like a mute as well because I could only speak English and basic
six months of watching the BBC and writing in my notebooks, I got out
and started taking Chinese classes. I realized just how very sheltered
and unexposed to cultures I had become living in Atlanta for nine
years. How completely narrow my views were. Traveling to very poor
countries has also helped me appreciate what I’ve got. Slowly, and I
mean very slowly, I’ve grown to shrug off the old lady who spits next
to me and see how much things have improved in Taipei. It is amazing
how perceptions can change when one is doing exactly what they want
with their life. When there is focus, the very same things that used to
drive me crazy become quite trivial.
I differ from those who grew up here in that I still don’t see Taiwan
as my home. I know that if things don’t work out, I’ve got the U.S.
passport to settle elsewhere. A lot of my friends do not have the
option and I see their struggle. And perhaps in seeing their struggle
I’ve joined them subconsciously in trying to make things work here. I
have packed and unpacked too many times to say where I will go next or
if I will stay for good.
I pick up my camera, I tend to focus on subjects related to people and
food. I’m currently shooting for a book project on Chinese food
culture; it’s bringing me closer to the street vendors or restaurateurs
whom I’ve built a relationship with over the years. It will also take
me to Hong Kong to shoot the markets and other food scenes. I’m quite
looking forward to that. Only thing about shooting food is: it’s
torture to know that with every shot I take, the food cools down a
Why do you say you focus so much on food as a photographer? Where does
that originate for you? How does that differ in terms of what you cover
in your painting and writing?
came to photograph food only after starting this book project a year
ago. It’s been great because the author and coordinator, Betty Chung
and I, shared the same vision from the start, that the photography
would largely be travel and documentary with minimal close-up shots on
food. Not having shot for a book or worked on a long-term project
before, it has forced me to plan in a very different way. I have had to
imagine myself new to this country, mapping out the areas to cover, [in
other words], what are the specialty dishes in the [Taiwanese] southern
city of Tainan? What food is manufactured there? Can I visit the
factory and shoot? And so on.
love for food originates from my parents, of course, who owned and ran
six restaurants in different cities throughout our childhood: Buenos
Aires, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Before that, my father was in the food
flavoring business. As children, our first books were cookbooks. That
was a mistake on my mother’s part, for we’d rip out pages that did not
The photography stands alone. I
see it as the older relative of my fiction and painting.
How and when did your writing in notebooks evolve to become an
aspiration for writing? How and why did you get into journalism?
After the notebooks, I started writing letters to my brother and
friends when I moved to Taipei. It was like engaging in a long
conversation. I was writing at least four letters a week, sometimes up
to 20 pages each—this was before email—I also wrote in my journal every
day until I was 28 or so.
first writing job came quite by necessity. I had by that time worked as
editor of ACNielsen Taiwan for seven years, editing sometimes several
hundred pages of consumer reports by day and running a very successful
children’s English school in the evenings for six years. I also taught
English corporate classes during lunchtime. It was an intense period
where I slept little. But with the art and photography gaining some
recognition, I shed the corporate courses first then quit the corporate
job, even though they let me work entirely from home. A while later, I
announced that I was going to close my school and move into a much
smaller apartment. I then spent my savings on more lenses to practice
with, shooting a lot more, buying magazines and books to study writing
and photography, promoting my work, traveling to my first gallery
months after I closed my school, I couldn’t find the morning teaching
job I wanted. I applied to over 14 schools in Taipei. They either told
me I didn’t have the looks for an English teacher or I was
overqualified, which made them highly suspicious. Finally, I answered
an ad reluctantly. It was for a monthly English educational magazine in
Taipei. They were seeking an editor who would also be a writer. I
called and knew even during the first interview that I’d get the job.
They were more excited than I was, however. I wasn’t sure I could
satisfy the writing part. I had never written an article. I asked to
study their magazines and studied them thoroughly. I learned quickly
that my corporate background made me work much faster than my new
colleagues. I’d finish my work usually three weeks early and use that
time to research new topics for the following month. It did not feel
like work. I enjoyed every part of it and gladly took work home.
finishing university and also being so rebellious in secondary school,
I always feel I’ve got to make up for the lost education. I’m also
quite curious by nature, so non-fiction satisfies both cravings. The
“free time” at the magazine allowed me to search for other
opportunities. I can’t be confined and thought of ways to go freelance
after I felt confident about writing articles. The search eventually
led me to travel ezine e-Marginalia.com
where my first travel piece was published. I was very impressed by the
website and felt it had a lot of potential. It was simply elegant and I
hadn’t seen a travel website quite like it. Out of appreciation for the
website, I edited a few pages and sent it to the publisher during
lunchtime one day. After a few exchanges, he asked if I’d like to be
the travel editor on a voluntary basis. That was about two years ago.
recently resigned to focus more on non-travel related writing and to
concentrate on shooting, but will stay on as a contributor. I now work
freelance for the magazine as well, which publishes textbooks for the
local market and was assigned a ten-book biography series last year.
I’ve got two more to finish plus another two for a grammar series. I
would like to eventually move away from education-based writing, and
it’s looking quite hopeful. I also just found out two days ago that I
am now the Taipei contributor to the South China Morning Post
column WorldBeat. I will be writing about weird or strange art in
Taipei and photographing it, too. Features Editor, Winnie Chung was
very encouraging from the start and may have sought ways to put most of
my skills to use.
How did your nomadic upbringing evolve into your interest in travel
writing and photography? Who are your influences?
In moving so much, I’ve come to long for things that hold still, that
give me a sense of stability. I know this is unrealistic, however. Life
is not still and wanting it to be so is such a contradiction towards
what I do: living in foreign cultures, traveling and living the
adventure of not knowing where my work will take me. I suppose work is
my stability for now—when I finish something, be it a photograph,
painting or story, it is there to return to.
borrowed my parents’ Minolta X-700 around 1998. I’ve still got it. I
studied the images of Cartier-Bresson most. I stood in awe of his
precision, the composition, and in many instances, the humor and / or
the strong emotions he captured. Later, I came across the work of Steve McCurry, and
was very much drawn to his dark rich portraits. A photographer I like
studying now is Shiho
Her work is so clean, her angles so interesting and mesmerizing. There
really is so much to draw inspiration from. I only need to look and
learn, even from images I don’t like, by asking why and how I’d do it
Who are your biggest travel writing influences?
Nana: Pico Iyer
with his elegant speech comes to mind, as does Jan Morris. But for the most part, my writing
influences come from reading Gustav Flaubert, Vikram
Seth, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Soseki
It’s important for me to be exposed to different voices. I also listen
to audio books occasionally, just to give my eyes a rest. At any time,
I’ve got a stack of books that I’m reading—this includes books to
enhance my skills, books of poems, art history textbooks and several
novels. Occasionally, I’ve had bouts of digression in my reading path,
taking me towards topics I don’t normally read about, [in other words],
pandemics and epidemics, sociology, women’s issues, social linguistics,
horticulture… I just know that everything I read is an influence on the
mind, the writing. I’m merely a gatherer of words, sentences and
expressions that, on good days, can be retrieved when I need them, and
the broader the base of knowledge the better.