LONG BEFORE I met Robert Storey, who passed away in Taidong, Taiwan, last week, I edited the first edition of his Taiwan guidebook for Lonely Planet. I knew nothing about Taiwan and I was convinced he did not either. I changed every reference to Taiwan Beer in his book to “Taiwan beer”.
He was incensed. I was nearly fired.
Robert and I didn’t get to know each other until I moved to Taiwan in 1989. I was never sure what to make of him. He was a frugal teetotaler. I was the contrary. He was a Linux geek without obvious political convictions. He complained my Lonely Planet guide to Tibet was too anti-China. I could not see how you could not be anti-China—or at least not anti-Chinese Communist Party.
But we never argued. Robert had a quiet, empathetic temperament and spent most of his adult life in a personal battle with Crohn’s disease, which made his job as a guidebook writer difficult. It made his life difficult—and I never heard him complain about it once. He took pain and difficulty as a condition of living.
Crohn’s was a lifelong burden and he knew it would win one day, and was always candid about that outcome, and gave me the impression of being resigned to its eventuality.
Robert was also a highly eccentric personality and many of us who worked with him over the years have our Robert Storey stories. Perhaps my favorite is from long ago—before he married—the time he heard about a bar in Taipei where “basically all you had to do was go there [I do not recall the name] and the women were all over you”.
I was skeptical, and I spoke to him several days later to ask him how it went.
“Bullshit,” he said. “I was there for at least an hour sitting at the bar and nothing happened.”
It is an inconsequential anecdote that speaks to an oddly naive side to Robert’s personality, but he was also a man of unusual accomplishments. His first book was a do-it-yourself guide to divorce in the United States. He wrote the first Western guidebook for Mongolia, for which he undertook the massive task of visiting every aimag (province) in the country, as well as completing a guidebook for Northeast Asia that involved the first on-the-ground guidebook research in North Korea.
Writer and friend Ron Gluckman, who was with Robert in North Korea, recalls, “His dutiful fact-checking [meant] he passed on slipping away from our minders to go to the only disco in North Korea (really, in 1991!!) because he wanted to gather and type up some train schedules. As if, anyone could freely go to the trains and hop on and off.”
I do not know how Robert finally passed away, and as is always the case under such circumstances, I now wish I had reached out to him in recent years. We were never particularly close, but he used to come and stay with me when he was researching his Taiwan books and I would tell him where people went to eat and drink because he couldn’t do much of those things himself due to health issues. I don’t think I even ever saw him drink a beer, but writer friend Gluckman assures me he indulged moderately on occasion.
He was a kindly soul. When my ex-wife’s father was dying, he came to visit with a bag of pharmaceuticals and eased the old man’s pain. He had read the Merck Manual back-to-back several times due to his own medical problems and told me several times that he was probably unofficially qualified to be a general practitioner.
That may or not be the case, but he was patient practitioner of a highly unusual and fraught life that brought him from the United States to Taiwan, where he wrote multiple editions of the Lonely Planet guidebook and, shortly before his untimely death, became a citizen.
Robert Storey was a pioneering contributor to putting Taiwan on the international tourism map at a time when it was mostly ignored, and for that he was respected in Taiwan and will be missed—so much so that one Taiwanese artist, while he was still alive and with us, made him the subject of an exhibition.
It speaks more eloquently of Robert’s contribution to Taiwan than anything I can contribute.