Time travel

For a main­lan­der like Ray­mond Zhou, Tai­wan does not ap­pear ul­tra­mod­ern, but its rich­ness in tra­di­tion has a charm that out­siders find hard to re­sist, he dis­cov­ers.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

Tai­wan’s rich­ness in tra­di­tion has a charm that out­siders find hard to re­sist.

My first trip to Tai­wan, which took place last month, was with a team of pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers. They were more in­ter­ested in the peo­ple in­hab­it­ing this trea­sure of an is­land than the tourist at­trac­tions it has to of­fer. And it made a world of dif­fer­ence be­cause it clicked with my in­tu­itive find­ing that the most won­der­ful thing about Tai­wan is its peo­ple.

It is dif­fi­cult to claim to know a place and its peo­ple af­ter a week­long tour. So I de­pended on my team­mates for cor­rob­o­ra­tion. He Yan­guang, a vet­eran pho­tog­ra­pher with China Youth Daily, was em­bark­ing on his fourth tour of Tai­wan. He first vis­ited it in 1997. “There’s not much dif­fer­ence,” he says, “not even in the fa­cade.”

And that lack of change could well be the most valu­able les­son we car­ried away from this jour­ney.

Sure, there is Taipei 101, the tallest build­ing in the world when it opened in 2004 un­til the ti­tle was snatched away by the Burj Khal­ifa in Dubai in 2010. It’s cer­tainly skyp­ierc­ing or a crane among a clutch of chicks, to bor­row the Chi­nese term, as Taipei does not have a dense clus­ter of skyscrap­ers as Hong Kong does.

When I ex­am­ined it closely, Taipei 101 seems an over­sized Chi­nese pen­dant, with coins on all four sides. All the sym­bols of money would take some ex­plain­ing when the world en­ters an all dig­i­tal era when cash may sound ex­tremely quaint to fu­ture visi­tors.

But worry not. Right­now, Taipei is a par­adise to those who want a taste of the old way. Here, gourmet could mean snacks and street stands, which at­tract hordes of din­ers, in­clud­ing the mid­dle class and chic youth. This is sub­ver­sive to my think­ing be­cause on the main­land a restau­rant can eas­ily have dozens or hun­dreds of ta­bles in amam­moth­hall or flanks of pri­vate rooms, of­ten with lav­ish dec­o­ra­tions.

In Tai­wan, we were taken to ev­ery lunch in restau­rants with no more than 10 ta­bles. The ser­vice is ef­fi­cient and the place is clean, but the taste of the food is so mem­o­rable that we in­stantly un­der­stand whyso­many are wait­ing for a seat. I had the best beef noo­dles I can re­mem­ber.

I was told that all of th­ese busi­nesses are op­er­ated by fam­i­lies and most have a his­tory that goes back half a cen­tury or more. And I no­ticed there are many busi­nesses of this size in Taipei, ei­ther down­town or in the sub­urbs, and they con­trib­ute to the feel­ing of a com­mu­nity.

I left Taipei with a strong sense that, though it’s a city with a pop­u­la­tion of al­most 7 mil­lion in the met­ro­pol­i­tan area (with 2.6 mil­lion in the city proper), it has a touch of in­ti­macy as if it’s still a vil­lage — only end­lessly en­larged. Peo­ple talk to each other in a way they’d talk to fel­low vil­lagers.

We vis­ited many old streets and night mar­kets, which are un­adorned and crowded. Ven­dors hawk their of­fer­ings and bak­ers ask you to have a taste of their fresh pas­tries, but they never pres­sure you to buy or give you the nasty look af­ter you’ve tasted some­thing but de­cided against buy­ing it. There is a friend­li­ness in their voices and their man­ners that is more neigh­borly than busi­nesslike.

Ev­ery mem­ber of our del­e­ga­tion was im­pressed by this at­ti­tude of the peo­ple we met. One day we swooped into a fish­ing port in­Keelung and jumped onto sev­eral boats. The fish­er­men were sur­prised, but as soon as they learned of our pur­pose they blithely co­op­er­ated and even struck some poses for us. “I have not­met a sin­gle per­son­whois nasty,” says ZhangFeng, a pho­tog­ra­pher with The Bei­jing Evening News.

There are lots of place names fa­mil­iar to us main­lan­ders as they are fea­tured promi­nently in movies and pop songs. I was more sur­prised by the ubiq­ui­tous use of “kind­ness” and “loy­alty” for street names, terms re­vi­tal­ized in the re­cent cam­paign on the main­land to read Chi­nese clas­sics, such as Con­fu­cius’ Analects.

Sure, the dis­play of tra­di­tional virtues in­such­high pro­file couldbe win­dow­dress­ing, but it is more than that. We met a mid­dleaged woman in Daxi, an old town by the Tam­sui River where a cen­tury ago cargo ships would dock and turned the place in­toahubof trad­ing. Now it’s a quiet town with a cou­ple of com­mer­cial streets. On one of them, which is quite touristy, we talked to awom­an­whogave up her job to take care of her fa­ther.

The old man has to get around in a wheel­chair and his med­i­cal ex­penses have been cov­ered by wel­fare, but the full­time care by a fam­ily mem­ber would be some­thing of a lux­ury to most fam­i­lies on the Chi­nese main­land. “We get some in­come from rent­ing out a store­front,” she ex­plains, with­out a hint of bit­ter­ness or re­gret.

In the en­su­ing days, we en­coun­tered other ex­am­ples of this na­ture, where a grownup child gives up his or her job to care for an ail­ing par­ent. I don’t know how pop­u­lar the prac­tice is in Tai­wan, but it’s the ul­ti­mate man­i­fes­ta­tion of “fil­ial piety”, a con­cept sanc­ti­fied in Chi­nese tra­di­tion.

“We just scratched the sur­face,” says Wang Wenyang, a pho­tog­ra­pher with a news­pa­per de­voted to in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty pro­tec­tion in China. “We didn’t have time to go into peo­ple’s homes for long stretches of time. But from what we could see, the daily lives of Tai­wan peo­ple have shown suf­fi­ciently the life­styles and hu­man in­ter­ac­tion that are the bedrock of this so­ci­ety. It is heavy on small busi­ness and it is full of hu­man warmth. We did bump into two wed­dings, though.”

On Di­hua Street in down­town Taipei, I strolled into a store that has a plaque say­ing this is the old­est store in the city. Nowit sells tea from all over China. The ar­chi­tec­ture along the street prob­a­bly goes back to the early days of the Repub­lic of China. But at that time, Tai­wan was still oc­cu­pied by the Ja­panese.

Whether in ar­chi­tec­ture or food or ways of life, Tai­wan seems to have ab­sorbed from all sources, tak­ing what is good and valu­able and mak­ing it its own. In HoP­ing Is­landHi Park in Keelung, there is a seashore with rocks carved by mil­lions of years of winds and wa­ter, sim­i­lar to the nearby Yeliu Geop­ark. De­spite a gust, a cou­ple of fish­er­women were scout­ing for a cer­tain sea­weed that goes into a lo­cal snack. A fe­wof our pho­tog­ra­phers jumped down to search for the best shots.

Mean­while, our guide told us this was the lo­ca­tion where Chi­ang Kaishek landed af­ter he re­treated from the main­land in 1949. Across the Straits lies Fujian prov­ince, where most of the early set­tlers in Tai­wan hailed from. For many decades, there was some­thing stronger than the gusty wind to pre­vent peo­ple from call­ing on each other. Now it’s just a short flight away.

Af­ter a week of go­ing around Taipei, we stuffed our bags with Tai­wan pas­tries and the mem­o­ries of a way of life that used to live in an­cient text­books and is now so haunt­ingly real. It’s not the most touristy place, but in an un­con­scious way, it of­fers a cor­ri­dor into our past.

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