Little China

Little China
An elderly lady bows at the Long Shan temple as worshippers move around her,

Taipei -- Taiwan's capital city is a startling blend of old traditions and the new generation

Vidura Jang Bahadur
March 19 , 2014
15 Min Read

The Sun Yat Sen memorial is an impressive monument in Taipei. Known popularly as ‘Guo Fu’, father of the nation, in Taiwan, Sun’s legacy and popularity extends beyond the frontiers of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the ‘mainland’ People’s Republic of China. A unifying force between the communists and the Kuomintang (KMT), a party he founded and led till he died in 1925, Sun is also credited with leading the revolution that brought an end to centuries-old imperial rule in China.

The 10th of October this year marks the 98th anniversary of the 1911 Wuchang uprising and the creation of the Republic of China (which then also included the ‘mainland’ and now refers only to Taiwan). The history of the ROC is a chequered one — from its origins, dynastic rule, to the war against Japan, the relationship between the communists led by Mao and the KMT by Chiang Kai Shek, its ensuing complex and umbilical relationship with China, to its status as an ‘economic tiger’.

The Sun Yat Sen memorial or ‘Guo Fu Jinian guan’ exemplifies this marriage of the traditional and the modern. It is early morning and several enthusiasts have flocked the campus to exercise. Walking through the archways of the monument one can see people practicing tai chi and wushu in small groups, others waltz down the corridors listening to old Chinese and English songs, while a group practices sign language to the music of Teresa Teng in a corner of the large campus. By the afternoon the corridors will be overtaken by groups of teenagers practicing dance to the latest hip-hop and Chinese hits. The atmosphere is relaxed as groups mingle between breaks, joining others at the end of a session.

Taipei 101, a modern miracle (the tallest completed building in the world till the Burj in Dubai is ready) looms in the background. Interestingly, the architecture of the building is itself steeped in Chinese tradition. Resembling a stalk of bamboo, the structure has a series of sections of eight floors each, the number eight being associated with abundance and prosperity in Chinese culture. Hence numbers ending with eight or nine (associated with fortune and longevity, respectively) are extremely popular when buying mobile phone numbers, dates registering businesses or weddings.

A black sedan used by Chiang Kai Shek on display at the memorial dedicated to Chiang has the numbers 0888, denoting prosperity. Incidentally, earlier this year according to a news report there was a rush among Chinese couples to get married on the 9th of September, as the date ‘jiu, jiu’ or ‘nine, nine’ means lasting for eternity. That the year is 2009 adds to the auspiciousness of the occasion.

At the end of each segment at the 101, akin to a ring in the stalk of a bamboo, there is a section symbolic of a ‘treasure box’. Curved ruyi figures decorate the building as part of the design motif. Ruyi, literally meaning ‘as one wishes’, is associated with power and fortune. Tall and strong like the bamboo, also an association with learning and growth, the tower is shaped like an ancient pagoda, reaching out to the sky.

The structure is not so imposing when looked at from the outside — it’s only when you step in do you get a true sense of its scale. A large mall housing some of the world’s ‘best known [read ‘expensive’] brands’ occupies six floors. A high-speed elevator takes you from the 5th floor to the observatory on the 89th floor in 37 seconds, precisely the time it took our lift operator to relay this information to us in three languages — Japanese, Chinese and English. The 360-degree views of the city from this vantage are stunning. There is also an outdoor observatory on the 91st floor, though the best views are had from the indoor observatory on the 89th floor. There is a large store selling coral, jade, jewellery, souvenirs and artifacts at the observatory but for those on a budget Taipei 101 isn’t the best place to shop.

I would, however, recommend a visit to Page One (for English books), a bookshop on the fourth floor specialising in books on art and design. Eslite, a rival chain, runs a 24-hour bookshop on Dunhua South Road and is a good place to hang out and meet interesting people. At bookstores across the city it is common to see people from all walks of life sitting on stools, sofas and sometimes on the floor itself, reading for hours.

The Shi Lin night market in sharp contrast to the quiet of the bookstores is possibly the best market to head to for inexpensive and excellent street food and clothing and other knick-knacks. The market is very popular with locals, Taipei’s very own Sarojini Nagar, with a huge section for games and entertainment thrown in. From delicious oyster omelettes, hot pots, chou doufu (stinky tofu) and varieties of noodles in the food section to Nike imitations, local brands, shoes, T-shirts and underwear with Superman insignia — it’s all available here. The entertainment section at the back of the market is great fun, from a Chinese version of Bingo played with mahjong tiles to hoopla stalls, netting fish with paper nets and chucking baseballs at numbers at a distance.

Lured by the ease with which a young child, seated in his mother’s lap, was netting fish with a sieve, I decided to give the game a shot. The prize, if I netted five fish and put them in a large plastic bowl (with water in it, of course), was a set of goldfish, considered auspicious by the Chinese. The task looked easy. The kid, maybe three years old, stretched his hands across the large tub netting fish with gay abandon much to the delight of his mother. It was almost like giving goldfish away for free. The stall owner handed me the sieves, and here I may add is where the tables turned as the sieves unlike that of the little boy’s were made of paper. Each time I tried to net a fish either the fish was too fast, or in my attempt to corner the fish the paper would tear and the fish would pass through the gaping hole in my sieve. After several futile attempts, I left a little disappointed and much humbled.

The atmosphere at Shi Lin is lively with food; music wafting in from different stalls and yes the occasional onslaught of stinky tofu. True to its name, it does smell but I must admit I enjoyed the mix of deep fried cubes of fermented tofu served with a sweet and sour chilli sauce. Fruit in Taiwan is excellent, from watermelons, passion fruit and guavas to fruit one may have only seen in books.

Words fail me when it comes to describing the local cuisine. The food, delicately flavoured and balanced, is among the best Chinese I have eaten in all my years of travelling (including several years of living on the mainland). What impressed me most was the presentation of the food and the service. Besides their own aesthetic, the Taiwanese have also imbibed the best of their colonial past and there is a strong Japanese influence in the cuisine, local design and fashion.

Located in the ‘Song Yuan’ or Pine garden on Yang Ming Mountain, Shi Yang Cultural Restaurant dishes out a treat for the senses and the palate. The décor is elegant and views of the surrounding hills and dense growth of pine trees make the experience all the more pleasant. The menu varies with the changing seasons and the food is served in leisurely courses with generous helpings of tea, wine and vinegar (to drink) to accompany the meal. Shi Yang has an excellent room above the main dining area for tasting tea or simply to sit and read. At the back is a little platform and sitting area where discussions are held and artists and musicians perform regularly.

Another popular restaurant is The Silks Palace at the National Palace Museum, possibly the best way to end a visit to the museum. On the menu are several dishes, identical replicas of artifacts that you may have just seen in the museum. The Jade Cabbage, from the Ch’ing Dynasty, voted the most popular among the museum’s exhibits in a recent poll, is also served up at The Silks Palace. The dish made from cabbage, its size and shape similar to the artifact itself, is boiled in a broth and served as a salad with a black sesame sauce. A shrimp is delicately placed on top to represent the insects on the original!

To learn more about Chinese history, you have to simply walk into the National Palace Museum, easily one of the most modern museums in the world. The collection was initially housed in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Towards the end of the civil war between the Communists and the KMT, a large part of the collection was moved across the Taiwan Strait to Taiwan. Today, the museum houses over 500,000 artifacts spanning eight centuries of Chinese civilisation.

The use of modern technology here is commendable both with respect to display and making information accessible to visitors. Guides can be seen speaking into their microphones as groups provided with wireless receivers and headphones follow the commentary and instructions of the guide without disturbing other visitors. The museum’s regular staff is supported by a team of volunteers who work there in different capacities and often as guides for tourists. It is easy to while away hours, even days, at the museum.

Overwhelmed by the experience, I head to a hot spring in the Beitou district, an ideal way to end a day in Taipei. Dipping my feet tentatively into the spring water, I quickly take them out. A young boy lazing in the water tells me the way to do it: to put my leg into the hot water three times, each time going deeper in, before fully immersing myself. Lying on my back in the medicinal spring, I look up at the stars. There are several people in the water, a few huddled in a corner chatting, a lady at another end massaging her husband’s head. Lifting my head, I can see the horizon in the distance. The atmosphere in Beitou is tranquil, almost as if time has stood still.

Taipei, modern in its outlook, is yet an extremely relaxed city. Little do you see of the frenzy and aggression associated with cities in India. The warmth and hospitality of the Taiwanese, and their rich cultural heritage make Taipei an ideal getaway for battered nerves. Above all it’s an excellent education in innovation, from that in technology and its use in public spaces, to innovations in tourism and agriculture — an example of how the traditional and the modern can walk hand in hand.

The information

Top tip
Stress buster Leisure farms are very popular in Taiwan and from spending a quiet evening with friends, reading a book to taking part in a DIY activity, you could be spinning giant tops, singing the latest karaoke hits or watching ducks race at one of these farms.

Leisure farms started as a way to enable farmers to supplement their earnings, especially given the fact that Taiwan is prone to typhoons that often damage crops. The Shangrila Leisure Farm (+886-3-9511456, www.shangrilas.com.tw) in Yilan County is an excellent getaway from Taipei and you could team this up with a visit to Yilans National Centre for Traditional Arts and Jinguashi where the gold ecological park is located. The drive from Taipei offers some of the most stunning views of the sea.

Getting there: China Airlines flies directly from Delhi to Taipei for approximately Rs 50,000 return. However, cheaper options of approximately Rs 30,000 can be found among many of the South-east Asian Airlines, including Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Air and Cathay Pacific, all of which make a stop at their home countries.

Getting around: Cabs are easily available, though a tad expensive. Public transport is excellent and easy to access. The Taipei Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT) stretches across the length and breadth of the city making it one of the best in the world. Signage is very good and people are helpful. Buying a rechargeable ‘easy card’ to pay for tickets on the MRT and buses is advisable. A one-day metro pass costs NT$200 (1 New Taiwan Dollar= Rs 1.5).

Where to stay: A great high-end option is the Hotel Eclat (from NT$5,500; +886-2-27848888, www.eclathotels.com), which has an excellent collection of contemporary Chinese and European art including an Andy Warhol in one of its private dining rooms. Hotel 8 Zone (NT$6,000; 23583500, www.hotel8zone.com) is a lovely boutique hotel, with a very contemporary and chic design. Tourists and locals both throng to Spring City Resort (NT$5,610; 28974112, www.springresort.com.tw) famed for its hot springs. The décor is simple and guests can even enjoy a bath in hot spring water in the privacy of their rooms. For those on a budget, the YMCA (from NT$1,800; 23113201, www.ymca hotel.tw) and the Taipei Backpackers Hostel (from NT$420; 25590202, www.taipeibackpackers.com) are the best options. Both places are located close to the MRT and the bus stations.

Where to eat: For cheap and inexpensive snacks try the Shi Lin night market, the old street in Danshui or the market near Taiwan Normal University. Street food even in other parts of the city is generally very good. Try the stinky tofu, fish ball soup and oyster omelettes, a local favourite. If you’re looking for a quick bite, pop into the nearest 7-Eleven and grab a packet of fan bian mian or instant noodles, eggs hard boiled in soya sauce and tea leaves or simply sandwiches. You know you’re in the boondocks if you haven’t passed a 7-Eleven in over a kilometre. There are several convenience stores to choose from — 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Hi-Life are among the most popular. With over 9,204 outlets at the end of last year, Taiwan is said to have the highest density of convenience stores in the world. There are several good dining-out choices as well. To sample the cuisine of imperial China head to The Silks Palace (28829393, www.silkspalace.com.tw) at the National Palace Museum. The trendy Shi-Yang Cultural Restaurant is also worth checking out (28620078, www.shi-yang.com). If you have the stomach for it, the Modern Toilet is a must-visit, not so much for the menu (which ranges from Korean to Texan) as for the wacky toilet-themed décor (23118822, www.moderntoilet.com.tw).

What to see & do: Visit the world’s tallest completed skyscraper, Taipei 101 (admission fee for the observatory on the 89th and the outdoor observatory on the 91st floor: NT$400/adults; concessions: children under the age of 12: NT$370, group tickets for 20 people or more: NT$350, www.taipei-101.com.tw).

National Palace Museum (admission fee: NT$160 for general audiences, NT$120 for groups of 10 or more. Group admission is NT$100 per person, plus a rental fee of NT$20 for the NPM audio tour unit. Please note that all purchasers of group tickets must use the NPM group audio tour system. Discounted rate of NT$80 for students, free for children under school age and for the physically challenged and an accompanying person; see www.npm.gov.tw/en/home.htm).

Chiang Kai Shek memorial, where the changing of the guards is worth a watch at the stroke of every hour. The memorial also houses a museum with several of Chiang’s personal belongings.

Danshui is also a good place to spend a relaxed evening. You can take the ferry from the wharf to the old street and enjoy some excellent street food and music.

Yang Ming Shan with its scenic views and hot springs makes for an excellent getaway. If you’re looking to go hiking there are several trails you can follow up into the mountains.

There are several temples in the city. Prominent among them are the Xingtian Gong and Long Shan temples. Tian Hou Gong in Ximenting often has live opera and theatre performances that are a treat to watch. Ximenting itself is an exciting place to visit where temples, Indian restaurants, nail bars, queer-friendly, old theatres and the city’s biggest karaoke place are all a stone’s throw from each other.


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