The timeless traditions of Taiwan

The timeless traditions of Taiwan
Photo Credit: Corbis

Taiwan still holds on to its age-old culture and customs in spite of its transformation into a nation of the hyper-modern and quirky

Venky Vembu
September 07 , 2015
13 Min Read

The City God of Taipei, whose temple I chanced upon on a meandering, mid-morning walkabout of Old Taipei, is a flamboyant character, with bejewelled crown, flowing beard and all. And flocks of his devotees—middle-class professionals coping with the rigours of life in the Big City—come every day to propitiate him with offerings of incense and deep bows. They also come to ask him existential questions on aspects of their life, his oracular answers to which are channelled through a pair of crescent-shaped cowrie shells that his petitioners cast with a flourish in front of him.

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But above the ceaseless rattle of cowrie shells at this quaint 19th-century Daoist temple, it is the City God’s wife, hailed as the ‘Chinese Cupid’, who enjoys by far the greater reverential adulation of devotees. What renders her the top draw here is her reputation as a saviour of marriages: many a female worshipper procures tiny shoes, considered a sort of lucky charm, which, as the temple pamphlet suggestively says, “make sure her husband behaves himself.”

The veiled allusion to matrimonial mischief is something of a cultural meme in Taiwan, whose businessmen have, while embracing greater entrepreneurial opportunities in mainland China in recent decades, also embraced the xiao san concubine-and-courtesan culture there. Whether or not the lucky charm shoes of the Cupid goddess serve as adequate antidote against infidelity, it points to an abiding faith in traditional belief systems in Taiwan, which is in every other way a hyper-modern society.

I was in Taiwan to savour these timeless cultural traditions, and over the week that I was there, immersed myself in them as well as I could, but I found myself constantly having to peel back layers of modernity to get an up-close experience of the old and the classical. Illustratively, for days after my arrival, I was feted and dined at new and up-scale restaurants to the point where, for all the delectable fusion food and rich repasts, I yearned for the simplicity of a noodle soup, such as Chef Chu might have rustled up for his three daughters in Ang Lee’s classic 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman. And whenever that yearning grew into a desperation, I would quietly slip out into the back-alleys to slurp down a supremely satisfying mian tang.

The seeds of Taiwan’s modernity lie in its rise as one of the first generation of Asia’s ‘tiger economies’, but one aspect of its chequered history, dating back to the time when its leader Chiang Kai-shek fled in 1949 from mainland China to the island in the South China Sea, remains unresolved to this day. Mainland China claims territorial sovereignty over Taiwan, and although the island enjoys de facto sovereignty (it has its own currency and postal stamps, and issues its own visas), it doesn’t have de jure diplomatic relations with many countries, including India; its ‘embassies’ overseas can only operate as ‘cultural centres’ for fear of antagonising the economically more powerful China.

The delegitimisation of Taiwan’s national identity rankles with many people, and on an earlier visit, a Taiwanese official bitterly complained to me that Taiwan was being treated “like a xiao san” by countries around the world. Today, however, with greater economic integration with mainland China, there is far less rancour.

 Upon my persistent questioning, our guide, Mr Lin, acknowledged that although his ancestors had fought alongside Chiang, he himself would favour an eventual reunification of Taiwan with China. A straw poll that I conducted of visitors at the majestic Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, where men in immaculate uniforms performed a slow-mo Change of Guard routine with clinical precision, suggested that Lin’s view on reunification was widely shared.

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“Oh, you must have passed by a zombie-themed restaurant,” said Lin, chuckling, when I later told him of my blood-curdling experience. Evidently, themed restaurants are popular among youngsters in Taiwan. There’s a hospital-themed restaurant, where waitresses are dressed as nurses, and you order your ‘medicines’ from a menu; drinks are served from an intravenous ‘drip’ assembly. Similarly, there’s an airplane-themed restaurant, which stretches the aviation metaphor to the hilt. But arguably the most popular themed establishment is the Modern Toilet restaurant, where patrons eat from flush toilet-styled crockery, and the drinks are served in urinal-shaped cups. The restaurant chain clearly has its customers, well, gushing, but I myself yearned for the great, open spaces. So I got on a high-speed train and glided far south, to balmy Kaohsiung.
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Southern Taiwan offers a respite for the soul that yearns for slow-paced serenity. My very first stop in Kaohsiung—the Formosa Boulevard Station on the underground metro line—turned out to be a thing of beauty. The station concourse houses a striking and psych-edelic ‘Dome of Light’ glasswork, which lays claim to being the world’s largest, and which has won Italian-American artist Narcissus Quagliata numerous design awards. If artful embellishments of public spaces are the hallmark of civilisational refinement, Kaohsiung clearly points to a society that’s highly evolved.

More such beautiful vistas and cultural experiences unfolded over the next few days. Early one morning, we headed out to the Ten Drum Culture Village for a hands-on experience of banging away on Taiwan’s classical percussion instrument. A drum master led our motley international group through some elementary beats, but even to my untrained ear, our collective auditory output sounded discordant in the extreme.

“Boom-boom-tak-boom,” went the master, encouraging his pupils of the day to echo his efforts.
“Boom-tak-tak-boom,” we would go,horribly out of sync.
“No, no, listen closely,” he’d say. “It’s boom-boom-tak-boom.”
“Boom-tak-boom-tak,” we went,introducing yet more variety to our asynchronous drumwork.
“Oh, you’re all very good,” the master said, damning us with thoroughly undeserved praise.

By way of contrast to our amateurish efforts, a team of virtuoso performers put up a magnificent show on our behalf. As I walked out, my heart was pounding joyously to the boom-boomtak-boom of 10 masterly drums, which appeared to have been channelling an ancient mystical beat.

On our way to Nantou, we stopped by at the Tai Yi Ecological Leisure Farm,a quaint little eco-tourist community that is home to 250 of 400 butterfly species in Taiwan, and where an Amazonian rainforest has been recreated in elaborate detail. To enrich the handson experience of the day, we gathered flowers and leaves from the garden, and used them as brushes to paint on T-shirts, which we then wore like a badge of honour.

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Our hotel in Nantou was located on a shore of the expansive 5.4 sq km Sun Moon Lake, and early the next morning, well before roadside establishments had opened, I went on a leisurely amble along the lake. Spring was in the air, and the trees on the lake’s fringe were ready to burst forth in bloom; an early bird was trilling a tuneful morning raga. Boats were tethered to the mist-filled shoreline, waiting for the cruise crowd to stroll in later in the day. From a lakeside home, a langorous piano tune wafted down. As I surveyed this enchanting scene and took in a lungful of the cool, crisp air, my heart swelled with contentment.

Later that day, with a cool wind breezing across and uplifting our spirits, we went on a cruise on the lake, whose waters are recycled as part of an admirable conservation effort. The cruise ended at the base of a ropeway, onto which we clambered for a panoramic view of the lake; it took that bird’s-eye view to understand why the Sun Moon Lake is named thus. At journey’s end, we sauntered into the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, which showcases the traditional lifestyle and culture of the island-nation’s earliest inhabitants.

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Our travels in Taiwan were timed for the joyous lantern festival, and this year the celebrations were formally inaugurated in Taichung, midway between Taipei and Kaohsiung. The festival, in which homes and public spaces are bedecked with traditional Chinese paper lanterns (and, in modern times, more elaborate lantern patterns), traces its origins to the 3rd century BCE and honours a heavenly deity who evidently enjoyed having bright and colourful objects around him. Well, seeing the thousands of lanterns—done up in an assortment of animal, avian, human and architectural figurines, many of them up to 100 feet tall—I could readily share in the heavenly deity’s joy derived from bright and colourful objects.

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One distinctive ritual associated with the lantern festival is the release of sky lanterns with wishes inscribed on them, ostensibly sent up to some wish-fulfilling deity in the heavens. In Taiwan, that happens at Pingxi, in the suburb of Taipei, so on an overcast evening, we proceeded thither to experience yet another timeless Taiwanese tradition.

Even from a few hundred metres away, we could see a steady stream of lanterns going up into the sky, still glowing in the twilight. It was an enchanting sight, but up-close, that serene image was underwritten by an assembly-line of clinical operations. Over to one side, the lanterns—made of oiled rice paper (and held up by a bamboo frame)—were being inscribed with wishes. I wrote out my festival greetings—in Chinese, much to the amused wonderment of onlookers. After all four sides had been inscribed, we unfolded the lantern, and, assisted by a volunteer, lit the recyclable gas burner. For a brief moment we held the lantern aloft, to allow time for it to fill up with hot air.

A surge of emotions welled up in me as I reflected on how far I’d come from home to share in the gaiety of a millennia-year-old festival, and on the warmth of the embrace that I’d experienced here. And then it was time to let go.

As we released the lantern, it rose up into the sky, along with dozens of others. We watched, moist-eyed but happy, as the shimmering light rose higher and still higher, until it faded away to join some heavenly constellation I know not where.

The information

Getting there
Most international airlines offer one-stop services from Indian metros to Taipei. China Southern (csair.com) offers the cheapest Delhi-Taipei round-trip economy fares (about â?¹33,000) via Guangzhou, but the layover is tedious. I flew Delhi-Taipei direct on China Airlines (china-airlines.com); round-trip economy fares start at â?¹53,000.

Visa
Apply to the Taipei Economic and Culture Center in India, which has its visa office in New Delhi (roctaiwan.org/IN). Fees for single-entry visa: â?¹3,000.

Currency
1 New Taiwan Dollar (TWD) = â?¹2

Where to stay
>TAIPEI I stayed at the centrally located Hotel Howard Plaza(taipei.howard-hotels.com), where doubles start at TWD 5,525,
and at the plush and elegant Regent Hotel (regenthotels.com/EN/Taipei), doubles from TWD 6,685.
Amba Taipei (ambahotel.com) in downtown Ximending is Taipei’s first home-grown design hotel. Doubles from TWD 3,000.
>KAOHSIUNG The 85 Sky Tower Hotel (85sky-tower.com) affords a breathtaking view of Kaohsiung; doubles from TWD 3,600.
>NANTOU Hotel del Lago (dellago.com.tw/en/home) commands a scenic view of the Sun Moon Lake. Doubles from TWD 6,080.

What to see & do
>TAIPEI
Saunter through Old Taipei, past colonial-era mansions, traditional Chinese medicine shops and Daoist temples. Grab a bite at back-alley noodle-soup shacks. Watch the solemn Change of Guard ceremony at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall (cksmh.gov.tw/eng). Open 9am–6pm. Change of guardhappens every hour on the hour 10am–6pm.
The National Palace Museum (npm.gov.tw/en) has a rich collection of Chinese imperial artefacts. Open 8.30am–6.30pm; tickets TWD 250.
Visit the Shilin Night Market, famed for its street food and shopping. Open 5pm–midnight.
>KAOHSIUNG
The Ten Drum Cultural Village in Tainan (ten-hsieh.com.tw/eculture/village.html) offers scintillating drum shows. Open 9am–5pm; show times vary; tickets TWD 300.
Amuse yourself at the Grecian-themed E-da World Theme Park (edathemepark.com.tw/Website/index.aspx). Open 9am–5.30pm; tickets TWD 899.
>NANTOU
Go cruising on the Sun Moon Lake or cycle around it. Take the ropeway to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village (nine.com.tw/webe/html/information) for cultural shows centred around the aboriginal communities of Taiwan. Open 9.30am–5pm; tickets TWD 780.
Drop by at the Tai Yi Ecological Leisure Farm (taii.com.tw/en/profile.php) for an invigorating ecological immersion experience.

 


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