My Taiwan Travels 2008

by Marc H. Mehlman

written 12 July 2008

Taiwan

Even after landing at Taoyuan International Airport (formerly called Chiang Kai-shek Airport) I did not know what to expect of Taiwan. The months leading up to my trip had been very busy with other urgent matters so my plane ticket and my hotel reservation in Taipei were all that I had time to arrange. It was not easy either making a reservation or judging the quality of a hotel from a distance - I ended up with a much nicer place than I am accustomed to.

I had foolishly given myself only eight days to explore this island nation - a month would have been better. Taiwan, unlike Japan and Thailand, is not a popular American tourist spot - but it should be. Stateside, I could find only one guide book to Taiwan.

I received a phone call the day before I left from a friend (a mainland Chinese national) warning me that not all the natives I might meet will be as nice or as honest as she or my friend Qi (originally from Shanghai). I now know that my friend was wrong - every Taiwan citizen I met was a decent person worthy of absolute trust. Not only are the natives friendly but, in my perception, a higher percentage of them speak English than in Japan or Korea. Furthermore, almost all toilets are western and most hotel rooms and public places are non- smoking (smoking rates are similar to those in the United States) and air conditioned.

Taiwan is in the tropics and as such it was quite hot (in the 90's) and humid, day and night. The natives seemed used to the heat, but I sometimes found myself day-dreaming of air conditioning when I was outside for any period of time.

My guide book was Lonely Planet's "Taiwan". It was not a bad book, but like all books of its ilk it tends to be a little too politically correct. The authors stand in judgement of the locals on issues such Taiwan's "gay cultural scene" ("good") and its level of feminist enlightenment ("adequate"). The book does turn up its nose at Taiwan's popular music ("best avoided by those with family histories of diabetes"). They seem to believe that wholesome love of the opposite sex, respect for one's parents and appreciation of one's friends can only go so far. One senses that the authors feel that good music should harbor a deep reservoir of bitterness, callousness and latent violence. I guess they miss the tattoos and piercings that their favorite musical artists sport. My tolerance of a well adjusted society is somewhat greater and I liked the music.

25 June: Taipei

Friends and Family,

After my first night in Taipei (I arrived at the hotel after midnight) Qi had arranged for to me to meet up with her friend Cecilia in the morning. Qi had met Cecilia when she was a summer student at the University of New Haven, but I had never met her. Qi has great friends - I was well taken care of. "Cecilia" is, of course, her English name. I learned later that unlike their Chinese names, English names are assigned to a child when they start attending school.

Cecilia showed at up my hotel along with her husband, Jin, and their two young sons and off we went in their small minivan. While the citizens of Taiwan are a prosperous group, they prefer to cruise their cities on scooters except when traveling with a large group. Here a large group is four or more. Most of the traffic on the city streets were scooters and it was not rare to see a couple, a child, groceries and perhaps the family dog scoot on by. It is just more faster, cheaper and convenient than driving a car. Cecilia and Jin use their scooter to take their kids to school and do chores, but we were five people that day - hence the minivan.

Our first stop was lunch - Taiwan food. The kezai tang (clear oyster soup with ginger) was great. The next destination: the Buddhist/Tao Longshan Temple which is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. One of the first things I noticed was that religion is alive and well in Taiwan. The temple was in great shape and was crowded with many more worshippers than tourists. Many Taiwanese believe that one of the longest lasting effects of communism on the mainland Chinese is the devastation of the Chinese spirit - they are convinced that the mainland Chinese no longer believe, are allowed to believe or have faith in anything. Jin is Buddhist while Cecilia is Catholic. Like most of Asia, religions coexist quite well here and it seems one can belong to several religions at the same time, or at least during the same day.

After our Longshan Temple visit we walked down to the Huaxi Street Night Market. It was still afternoon, but the market was interesting just the same. This particular market is known for its snake alley where one can view live snakes and then eat them. Unlike the five-steppers I saw in China (one never finds the victim more than five steps from where he/she is bitten), these snakes were nonpoisonous. The market is also known for its marital aids, pornography and the statues of sex organs for sale. Snakes and sex - Freud would have approved. Cecilia's kids enjoyed themselves all the time oblivious to the snakes and adult temptations.

And there was more. There were a number of booths nearby with small cages containing beautiful white birds. These birds - and not their owners - are fortune tellers. When presented with cash (these birds liked cash a lot) they would stick their feathery necks outside the cage and carefully select a card from a stack of such cards placed just outside their cage. The cash giver's fortune is then found written on the selected card. These birds were doing a good business.

The next day Cecilia and family picked me up at the hotel and we headed northeast out of Taipei and up into lush jungle mountains before arriving to the 12km Pingxi narrow gage rail line. The rail line, completed in 1921 during the Japanese occupation, was used to transport coal before finally shutting down in 1987. Nowadays the line is used for tourists, with many scenic stops. Taiwan was not named Isle Formosa by the Portuguese for nothing. A large part of the charm of Taiwan is its incredible countryside, mountains, hot springs, beaches and wildlife. This island is blessed by Mother Nature several times over. We did not take the train, as we had a car, but we walked along the tracks (the kids brought their bikes). Later we enjoyed some cooked crawfish plucked from the Keelung River along with some greens picked from the wild.

In the beginning of each year (the fifteenth day of the first lunar month), the annual Lantern Festival is held here. Large numbers of Taiwanese came to launch five feet tall paper lanterns skyward in the night. Each lantern is made of paper and floats upward on the heat of a paper fire started below it that also gives the lantern it's light - like a luminous hot air balloon. While I missed the festival, I did see photographs of hundreds and hundreds of these lanterns peacefully floating up into the night sky - very impressive and beautiful. In return for purchasing (only about $3.00) and launching a lantern, one is granted a wish. My wish would have been for three more wishes. I would have then used one of my three wishes wishing for peace in the Middle East.

Later, after another pleasant drive through the mountains we arrived at the coast, which reminded me of Hawaii's coast. Driving past a nuclear power plant (and another one under construction) we turned inland and wound our way up a narrow twisted road to the town of Juifen. Juifen was at the center of an earlier gold rush during the Japanese occupation - in the 1930's it was called "Little Shanghai" due to its prosperity. Now that the gold has been mined out Juifen is a tourist town and also a movie set. As noted above but worth repeating, Taiwan is located in the tropics and it was very hot and very humid in Juifen. It is built into the side of mountain and it is very popular and very crowded with tourists. We had to park a distance from the center of town and climb countless unshaded steps to get to the center of town and yet it was well worth it. After the gold rush the town went into suspended animation until it was rediscovered in the late 1980's. The decorative teahouses, Japanese style homes, and narrow pedestrian paths still remain. It has been my experience that miners are not usually tea fanatics so I conjecture that many of cute teahouses from which nowadays souvenirs and sweets are sold once catered to other pleasures that miners have more traditionally been known to lust for.

The next morning I took Taipei's wonderful subway (with a bus transfer) to the National Palace Museum containing one of the largest collection of Chinese art and relics. When Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland in the 1940's to Taiwan, he took with him everything that was not tied down in Beijing's Forbidden City - the stuff of emperors. Stuff that Chinese curators have been methodically cataloging for thousands of years. Chiang Kai-shek was a "collector" and the collection made it to Taiwan without a single piece missing or broken. As can be imagined, China wants the collection returned to Beijing. It is as if Napoleon took the contents of the Louvre with him to Elba and decided to keep it there. In truth, the entire collection probably would have been deliberately destroyed during the cultural revolution along with the numerous cultural treasures that were actually destroyed. Both the museum building and the collection are very impressive.

Later that day I met up with Cecilia who was suffering from a stomach ache. She asked if I would mind stopping with her so she could see her doctor on our way to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This not being the United States, Cecilia did not need either an appointment or a second mortgage on her apartment in order to see her doctor. After waiting for less than ten minutes the doctor saw us (Cecilia invited me to join her when she saw the doctor). The doctor was a acupuncturist who Cecilia had known for many years. Later, after Cecilia had been suitably punctured, she needed to lie still for twenty minutes, so I moved to the waiting room that was filled mostly with Taiwanese women who found me to be a curiosity. After talking among themselves they approached me and mentioned that it was somewhat rare to find a Caucasian American in this waiting room. I tried to reassure them that actually I was really native-born Taiwanese, but they did not and would not believe me. I was told that most of the women there were having acupuncture to lose weight. One middle aged women informed me she had lost two kilograms in just one week. Like the rest of the Taiwanese, the women in waiting room did not look overweight to me (this is a nation that has few if any heavyset people). Most Taiwanese women are quite slender and good-looking.

After the doctor's appointment we visited the very impressive Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Chiang Kai-shek was not shy about building monuments to himself and there are many buildings and places named after him (and many more formerly owned by him). However, the present day Taiwanese are not that enthused about Chiang Kai-shek - they refer to him as Generalissimo Cash-My-Check. In the 1950's Chiang Kai-shek instituted a period called "White Terror" where about 90,000 of Chiang Kai-shek's perceived opponents in Taiwan were arrested and half of those disappeared forever. I think this is why Taiwan is one of the few places in Asia were the Japanese are looked upon favorably; by comparison their occupation was much gentler and enlightened. Chiang Kai-shek's name has been removed from much of the monument and replaced with "National Taiwan Democracy Moment". There is even talk of removing the gigantic bronze statute of Chiang Kai-shek that the building was built around.

The museum in the lower level of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall tells of Chiang Kai-shek's amazing accomplishments - such as defeating the Japanese in World War II and how his defeat by the communists on the mainland wasn't really a defeat. The museum also gives a small glimpse of the extreme luxury Chiang Kai-shek and his wife (the dragon lady) lived in. Fortunately for Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, the next and last dictator of Taiwan, was a more enlightened and gentler human being. In interesting contrast to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is the more tasteful and less ostentatious Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. Sun Yat-Sen was the founder of modern China (and the Kuomintang Nationalist Party that Chiang Kai-shek would eventually lead) and is well respected.

Cecilia had to return to her husband and family after we ate dinner in the Taipei 101 food court. She was a fantastic host and quite an interesting person - thanks Qi for the introduction. I, on the other hand, paid a small fortune so I could take the world's fastest elevator to the observation deck on the top of the world's tallest building (there is one taller in Dubai, but it is not finished yet so the Taiwanese don't count it). Taipei 101's one hundred and one floors towers over the city. The building is built so as to suggest a giant pagoda. Dubai's new building will only hold claim to being the world's tallest building for a short time as China is building one even taller. This is a competitive sport in which the United States used to excel. One only has to look at the Freedom Tower that will replace the World Trade Center in NYC to see why we are no longer competitive. American bureaucrats and government officials will see to it that it costs ten times as much and takes ten times as long to build.

The next night I took the subway to the Shilin Night Market for dinner and some sightseeing. Shilin Night Market is perhaps Taipei's best known night market. One is the first things you notice is a rancid smell that I also found in the vicinity of street food vendors elsewhere in Taipei. The culprit: chou doufu (stinky tofu) which is fermented tofu. It smells bad but it tastes pretty good. Ji Jiao (chicken feet) are also sold here. One tastes mostly the skin as there is not much meat in the feet. The market was crowded with thousands of people (mostly young people). Besides street food, one could buy clothes, trinkets, have one's feet massaged, or play video games. Pretty interesting.

Tomorrow I take the high speed train to Kaohsiung.

Marc

28 June: Kaohsiung

Friends and Family,

I had apprehension about my trip to Kaohsiung before I had even left Taipei. Typhoon Fengshen, which had caused many deaths in the Philippines, was headed for southern Taiwan and furthermore there had been an outbreak of enterovirus in Kaohsiung which had already resulted in a number of deaths. Then things started improving. The typhoon was downgraded to a major storm and started moving away from Taiwan toward China. Wikipedia.com explained that while the enterovirus is a very serious, untreatable disease, only young children are vulnerable. My trip was on.

Taiwan's high speed train is new, it started service in 2007. It can zoom between Taipei and Kaohsiung, a distance of 345km in just ninety minutes reaching speeds of 330 kilometers per hour. That is the same amount of time it takes Metro North to go from Milford, Connecticut to Grand Central Terminal, a distance of about 80km. The high speed trains are based on Japanese Shinkansen technology and as such they are clean, punctual, comfortable and I love them. The entire system (trains, track, bridges, tunnels and stations) cost fifteen billion dollars so there is some debate among the Taiwanese if it was worth it, but all it cost me was $45 each way. It is a wonder of engineering considering the mountainous terrain of Taiwan and the number of tunnels that had to be dug. The United States is suppose to be the richest country on the planet so why can just about every other developed country (and many undeveloped ones too) afford high speed rail service and we can't?

Jenny was waiting for me at the station with a sign with my name on it. Jenny is another one of Qi's wonderful friends. Like Cecilia (Jenny and Cecilia know each other), Qi met her when Jenny was attending UNH. Jenny and her husband are both public school teachers, but some of Jenny's students had caught the enterovirus and her class was canceled for the rest of her semester. Summer had come a little early for Jenny.

Jenny was eager to hike some mountain that bordered Kaohsiung, so off we went. Jenny is younger than I am and she looks like she is in good shape, but I figured I would have no problem keeping up with her. I was wrong. It had just rained and it was very hot and very humid and the path was very, very steep and very muddy. I kept slipping, sliding and falling backwards. I drank all my water but I needed more - much more. I was feeling dizzy. And then I spotted them. Monkeys. Big ones. Naughty ones. In the trees. On the ground. They were not afraid of us. Jenny was informing them that I was carrying bananas (I was not!), but I was not frightened because she was speaking to them in English, not the Mandarin the monkeys were used to and knew. The monkeys chose not to mess with Jenny and took pity on me, so we made it off the mountain alive. I had a good time.

Jenny dropped me off at my hotel to check-in and refresh myself (I took a quick swim in the indoor pool). A short time later Jenny returned and we were off again, this time to the old British consulate to catch the sunset. The red brick, two story ex-consulate is on a bluff facing the harbor on one side (Taiwan's busiest port and the fourth or fifth busiest port in the world), and on the other side the consulate faces the open sea. The views are stunning. It is a perfect place to sit and have a small meal while appreciating the ambiance (Jenny and I kept moving, in keeping with both our natures). As befitting British ex-consulates, this one had a gift shop and a dungeon. Next door to the consulate, and sharing the bluff with it, is a small Buddhist Temple. On part of the grounds of the Temple two Dutch naval commanders are deified. Apparently the Dutch were well respected in 1600's for their God-like commercial and military abilities.

After a visit to Kaohsiung's fisherman's wharf (not much happening there), a quick dinner and a visit to a night market, we both had a foot massage. The Chinese and Taiwanese have something about foot massages. After turning in that night, I was thinking they are on to something.

The next morning we took a walk along the Love River, which flows through the middle of Kaohsiung. Only a few years ago the Love River was an eyesore, but the most recent and beloved mayor has fixed up the riverfront nicely. In the evening there are boat tours of the river. However, it was daytime and the Taiwanese sun was upon us. Did I mention that in the summer Taiwan is very hot and humid? The heat had me thinking of an incident that happened to me in Taipei. On hearing the familiar good-humor popsicle man jingle coming from the street my heart had started to race. Given the heat and humidity, I had anticipated a much needed treat. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out the jingle was coming from a garbage truck. The truck driver was warning the residents that he was coming so they could take out their garbage and recyclables.

Afterwards we met up with two of Jenny's friends (also teachers), Betty and Kevin. It seems that even Qi's friends have great friends! The four of us took off for a road trip. After driving through lush countryside for about an hour we came to a small Hakka tourist town where we had lunch and inspected the local crafts (I even made a paper umbrella). The Hakka are Chinese who migrated mostly from Guangdong in China in the 1600's when it was illegal to migrate from mainland China. They now make up about fifteen percent of Taiwan's population. The Hakka have had an influence on Taiwan and other lands disproportionally large compared to their absolute numbers.

Later we returned to Kaohsiung and took the passenger and scooter ferry to Cijin Island, which is just off of Kaohsiung. Cijin Island is a resort Island with a great beach and seafood restaurants. After a eating a squid-on-a-stick and taking a nice walk, the four of us enjoyed a seafood dinner. After returning from Cijin Island and still possessing a little bit of room in our stomachs, we found a small street market not too far from the ferry dock and we all enjoyed some stinky tofu. We then topped off the night with a visit to a large night street market complete with bizarre foods - like duck heads. I had a duck tongue. I think we were all ready for a good night's sleep afterwards. Jenny, Betty and Kevin are great company!

On the evening before my train trip back to Taipei, Jenny informed me that she had arranged for me to have a massage from her favorite masseuse, Mai Li, while she went to her school to see a parent. I successfully did not let on to my surprise. At a little before 8:00 AM on the day of my departure, I am listening to Jenny shouting up at a second floor window to Mai Li, asking her to come and let us into her building. Mai Li turns out to be a pretty woman who speaks as much English as I speak Chinese - fewer than five words. Jenny tells me to undress and then disappears to meet a parent at her school. Meanwhile I find myself all alone with Mai Li (there wasn't anyone else on the second floor) in a dimly lit room wearing only my underwear. No problem, Mai Li was not concerned and spent an hour giving me a wonderful (non-sexual) massage, all for about $25 (no tipping in Taiwan). And all the time I am thinking, "I am not in Kansas anymore." Besides the other night's foot massage, this was the first professional massage I have ever had and all I can say is that Mai Li is very, very good. Unless I was gravely and tragically mistaken, in Taiwan a massage is actually just suppose to be a massage!

After the massage, Jenny took me to her elementary school where I became "show and tell" for one of her colleague's class. The kids were so cute and friendly - I would have had no problem taking a few home with me. Later we visited the administration. The administration for this 1,500 student elementary school consisted of one principal - that's it. He did not even have a secretary. It was so refreshing when compared to parasitical and bureaucratically overgrown American school administrations. Thinking I was experiencing a teacher heaven, I asked Jenny if she had "helicopter parents" - parents who "hover" over their offspring, constantly intervening in the classroom in support of their own (a phenomenon in the United States that has even spread to college campuses). Jenny mentioned that the parents were very involved in her classes, meeting with her all the time, arranging field trips, cooking treats for the entire class and helping out in other ways. Jenny says many parents continue helping out even after their kid moves on to another grade. However, parents, according to Jenny, would be embarrassed if they were seen as favoring their own children. It sounds to these American ears as too good to be true, but Jenny's school did seem impressive in many ways.

After showing me her school, Jenny took me to an incredible buffet on top of a large hotel downtown. With fantastic views of the harbor and a delicious spread of Asian food, it was a fitting end to my visit. We made a quick stop to see the observation deck of Kaohsiung's tallest building (nice) and then a quick run to the train station.

Thank you Jenny for such a wonderful time. What a generous and fun person.

I made it back to Taipei uneventfully and the next day I was on a plane to Korea. Taiwan is one of those countries that you not only enjoy visiting, but that you fall in love with too.

Marc

Afterword:

Taiwanese politics is complicated and the citizens are politically aware and sophisticated. Their lot is that of nations whose survival is called into question yet do not believe they are in control of their own future. This has resulted in bizarre politics in Israel and perhaps some of that is evident here too. The Taiwanese fear China and for good reason - their lives are already restricted by mainland government policy. China also has good military reasons for wanting Taiwan besides their belief that Taiwan is part of historic China (naval and air bases for a blue ocean navy, for instance). And yet despite all the tension, China is also a very important trading partner and Taiwan has invested heavily in Chinese factories and industry. One can sympathize with Taiwan's conflicted situation.

The Taiwanese fear that they are victims or about to become victims. I heard no desire to rejoin the mainland, but there is a universal fear of war if they were to declare independence. Short of declaring independence the Taiwanese currently attempt to convince themselves that they are not really Chinese, but hail from a different history and culture. On Retrocession Day, 25 October 1945, when Japanese rule ended, most of the Taiwanese spoke Japanese and not Mandarin. Nor were the newly "liberated" Taiwanese pleased to be ruled by Chen Yi, Chiang Kai-shek's cruel agent who plundered their island. Furthermore, unlike the Australians and New Zealanders who note the differences but strive to treat their aboriginal populations with respect, dignity and equality, the Taiwanese actually psychologically identify to some degree with their aborigines (former headhunters with Asian features). As one might guess, China is not happy with this we-Taiwanese-have-a-distinct-identity movement and is ironically much more comfortable with their former nemesis, the Kuomintang Party (Chiang Kai-shek's old party), that at least identifies with a Chinese heritage.

One of Jenny's friends asked what the United States thinks of Taiwan. I replied that in the 50's, 60's and 70's Americans felt obliged to side with Taiwan since it was anti-communist, but they did not like its dictator, Chiang Kai-shek. Nowadays it is the other way around: Americans like democratic Taiwan, but fear making China angry by being too close.

Clearly a peaceful resolution of the China/Taiwan quandary that does not involve selling out twenty-two million people would be a good thing, but I believe a permanent solution that will make both sides happy is not in sight. However, both the Chinese and Taiwanese are a very creative people and they may yet find a peaceful resolution. Meanwhile China continues to develop the military capability needed for invading Taiwan.


Copyright 2008 Marc Mehlman
Last revised: 24 May 2010


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