My sister and I celebrated the Christmas of 2015 in Taiwan, a kind of childhood dream realized. When we were children we got it into our heads that when we were grown up we would travel across China together, maybe because of our aunt who brought us back souvenirs from Hong Kong, maybe from seeing pictures of the karst cliffs in the south and imperial culture in the north. We neither of us managed to get to mainland China, we never had enough time to devote to a proper visit to even one place. Sometime in the future I hope we can go there.
But Taiwan more than satisfied our dreams of China! Taipei is just a few hours away from Tokyo and serviced by low-cost carriers like Peach. We decided to spend our few days in and around Taipei, although I had heard the south of Taiwan was lovely, because we didn’t want to rush anywhere. Taipei’s status as an important city in the region dates to the late nineteenth century, so there is a lot of history there from the Japanese colonial period, the establishment of the Republic of China and Taiwan’s economic growth in the late twentieth century. Not far from the city it’s possible to get a glimpse of some of the island’s stunning natural beauty from places like Jiufen which we also visited.
My sister and I unintentionally jetlagged ourselves for our trip by spending the night at Haneda Airport before our early morning flight. We did our best to get some sleep on the seats in the terminal, but that hangar-like space got too cold during the night. When we arrived in Taipei on Christmas Eve it was a summery 23°C, though for the rest of the time we were there it was in the mid-teens and rainy. Taipei is a wonderful place to be up and outside at night, with the many temples and night markets that are on all tourism recommendations.
Longshan Temple is dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Guanyin, though it also contains many shrines to Taoist and other deities. The rear hall is particularly crowded with statues that have been transferred from demolished temples in Taipei. It was originally built in 1738 by immigrants from Fujian on the mainland coast as a branch of the Longshan Temple in their homeland. It was rebuilt or renovated many times during its history; after an 1815 earthquake, a flood in 1876, in 1919 when termites invaded, and after being bombed by Allies in 1945. Apart from the main hall which was rebuilt after the bombing, most of the complex dates from the early 1920s when it was rebuilt by carpenter Wang Yi-shun who was known for his temples in Fujian province.
The temples are particularly beautiful at night when they are lit up, highlighting the gold accents and deepening the colours. Offerings of flowers and food create a vibrant atmosphere, and the air is filled with the smell of incense and the clatter of divining blocks. These red crescent-shaped wooden blocks are thrown on the ground in pairs to answer yes or no questions asked to a particular deity. If they land flat side down, it means no, one up and one down means yes, and both up means change the question. The same answer must be given three times in a row to be final, so there is a constant rattle of wood on the flagstones.Ciyou Temple is a spectacular six-storey structure filled with elaborate carvings on the inside and out, crowned by ceramic dragons on the roofs.Ciyou Temple is located right next to the Raohe Street Night Market. The night markets of Taiwan are wonderlands of lights, smells and sounds. I was reminded of Japanese summer festival markets, but these are open all year round! Different markets have different specialities, but in all of them you are sure to find something tasty. I have to admit that I’m not a gastro-tourist. I like eating well and I don’t mind trying new things, but I’d rather have other people make the decisions. My sister is the same way, so we had to do our research and be daring. Even so, our choices were not the most adventurous. Green onion pancakes, minced pork on rice, beef noodles and pepper buns are not acquired tastes, they were so good that we ate them again and again, not wanting to waste time in refining our palates. We did have an accidental experiment however; we ordered a soup to go with our pork rice at the Raohe Night Market, but noticed that it gave off a distinct whiff. It was a milder version of the stench of rotting garbage that came from the stalls selling the infamous stinky tofu. This popular street food is fermented in brine which gives it its distinctive odour and is often served deep fried, grilled or in a hot-pot, which is what we must have ordered. It was actually not as unpleasant as we expected, the broth was nice and spicy, and the stink was not terribly strong. But, we couldn’t get used to the unexpected smell and texture so we did concede defeat, leaving half a bowlful behind.
For a film with a cast of mouth-watering dishes, there is none better than Ang Lee’s Taipei-set Eat Drink Man Woman.
The temples and the night markets are the best way to experience local life, but being the capital, Taipei also has its monumental side, the most grand being Liberty Square, which features the National Concert Hall, the National Theatre and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. After the death of the Kuomintang Generalissimo and President, Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, plans were carried out for the memorial hall which opened in 1980, and the twin theatres which opened in 1987. The square was originally called the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Square, but in 2007 the first non-Kuomintang (Nationalist Party of China) President Chen Shui-bian renamed it, and the memorial hall as the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall, to mark the lifting of martial law and democratisation of Taiwan in 1987. However in 2008 when a Kuomintang president was elected, the name of the memorial hall was returned to commemorate Chiang Kai-shek, though the name Liberty Square was kept.
The history of the Republic of China in Taiwan is still a sensitive subject today. In the post-war period the ROC had a positive image internationally, representing a democratic China during the Cold War, however in Taiwan the regime severely restricted civil liberties. Tensions between pre-war residents of Taiwan and the mainlanders escaping Communist China came to a head in 1947 with the February 28 Incident in which the death of a bystander during an arrest led to violence between police and civilians throughout the island. The following period of martial law from 1949-1987 became known as the White Terror, with many thousands of people imprisoned or executed, particularly in the early 1950s. In February 2017, Culture Minister Cheng Li-chiun announced plans to use the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall as an opportunity for transitional justice for the 70th anniversary of the February 28 Incident and the 30th anniversary of the lifting of martial law, transforming a monument dedicated to an authoritarian leader on the basis of “facing history, recognizing agony, and respecting human rights.” Preparations are also underway for a National Human Rights Museum which will deal with the history of the White Terror era.
A less controversial figure is Sun Yat-sen, for whom a Memorial Hall was built in 1965 by Chiang Kai-shek. He was the founder of the Republic of China and regarded as the Forerunner of the Revolution in the People’s Republic. Sun Yat-sen had his early education in Hawaii, and later studied medicine in Hong Kong, though he gave up medical practical in favour of politics. His main achievements were the organization of anti-imperial revolutionary groups within China and abroad for nearly two decades, and despite many failed rebellions over the years, the 1911 Revolution resulted in the abdication of the emperor and the eventual establishment of modern forms of government in China. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, and his legacy was used by both Chiang Kai-shek and by Mao as the founding father of the modern Chinas, in the same way that Lenin was for the Soviet Union. I remember reading about him in a book on great historic figures of the 20th century and was captivated by his narrative. He led an extremely interesting and influential life in China and around the world, and the exhibition in the Memorial Hall was very informative.Despite the crowds, anyone with an interest in Imperial China shouldn’t miss the National Palace Museum, which contains over 600,000 objects from 8,000 years of Chinese history. The collections are based on the Ming and Qing imperial collections, consisting of exquisitely crafted artworks and objects. The Palace Museum was originally established in 1925 in the Forbidden City in Beijing. With Japanese encroachment in the 1930s, the collections were evacuated from Beijing, eventually arriving in Taiwan in the late 1940s. Due to limited space and for conservation reasons the objects on display are rotated every few months. During our stay, on December 28 2015, the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum in Taibao was opened, and so we unfortunately didn’t get to see the Jadeite cabbage sculpture which had been sent there for the grand opening. A pity that they hadn’t sent the meat-shaped stone instead. There was a great exhibition on Giuseppe Castiglione, Jesuit priest and artist who was court painter to three Qing emperors in the eighteenth century.
For a sense of cool modern Taipei, the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park is a trendy cultural and commercial space set in the grounds of an old tobacco factory. There are art exhibitions, workshop spaces, craft shops and attractive gardens. Nearby is Taipei’s most modern monument the Taipei 101 tower. The design is inspired by Chinese symbols of pagodas and bamboo, and as well as being green in colour it is also the largest ‘green’ building in the world, having the highest certification for energy conservation. It used to be the tallest building in the world until the completion of the Burj Khalifa, and it used to have the world’s fasted elevator until that was surpassed by the Shanghai Tower (in 2016, so when we went up it was still the fasted you could travel by elevator). At the top there is an exhibition on the tower’s construction, the (world’s largest) tuned mass damper which balances the effects of strong winds on the tower, and an observation deck.
I have one more post about Taiwan, moving outside the centre of Taipei, but I’ll end with the trailer for Yiyi, a film set in Taipei, but so universal in its story of the beauty and sadness of life that it doesn’t seem relevant to connect it to any particular Taiwanese experience I had.