Tale of two cities
> Visiting Taiwan’s former and current capitals – Taipei and Tainan – gives you a flavour of its rich history
SHAKESPEARE’S The Merchant of Venice is actually about two cities: Venice and Padua. Venice is fast, mercantile, hard-edged; Padua slower, cultured, reflective. It’s an opposition you see all around the world: Sydney/Melbourne; Warsaw/Krakow; Frankfurt/Heidelberg; Tokyo/Kyoto. And you can now add Taipei/ Tainan to that list.
A fiercer kind of rivalry usually comes to mind when we think about Taiwan. Those who have migrated to Tainan do so for the slower pace, lower prices, bigger apartments and distinctively lighter Tainanese cuisine. It is where Taiwan’s best-known cultural export, the film director Ang Lee, was raised.
On a busy downtown street corner in the West Central District, there’s an old threestorey cinema where the young Lee would go to absorb the classics and disappoint his father and tutors. The building is half-hidden by gaudy posters of t he l atest releases, handpainted, as they were in Lee’s day, by an elderly artist called Yen Chan Fe. It’s an arresting anachronism in a country better known for semiconductors.
Tainan is a flat, huge expanse of a city redesigned by the Japanese in the late 19th century, bombed to pieces by the Americans in the mid-20th and rebuilt in a frenzy of economic growth that doesn’t make for obvious prettiness, or easy navigation.
The best place to get your bearings is at the bar of the Shangri-La hotel in downtown – one of the rare tall buildings.
However, if you penetrate Tainan a little further, you are rewarded with quirky, bohemian streets, crazy indoor markets and wonderful, cheap if rough-edged restaurants.
The former Dutch settlement of Anping is the oldest part of town. The remains of the fort will not detain you long, but Chou’s shrimp rolls on First Street will. The food is ridiculously cheap and tasty. Inside it is airy, communal and distinctly Japanese: not a bad description of Tainan itself.
Take Hayashi. This is a 1932 Art Deco Japanese store over at Chungcheng Road. Instead of being bulldozed and forgotten, Hayashi was recently refurbished and given over to local and independent makers of clothes, stationery and cakes. After the glitz and pomp of Western malls, it’s an exquisite, low-key experience.
On Zhengxing Street, next to the white, boutiquey Jia Jia West Market Hotel, there is a decrepit entrance to the West Street market. It’s a happy, bustling mélange of Tainan old and new: old sellers of hardware and children’s clothes, new entrepreneurs selling hats and shawls, shaved ice and spicy noodles (not, thankfully, on the same plate). Those same entrepreneurs are on a mission to save the market from development.
In Taipei, you suspect, it would already have been saved, spruced up and sold as a top tourist attraction.
Life in Taipei is different. It is a city in a constant rush and never sleeps. Taipei’s streets are wide and cars glide easily past the everpresent moped riders. In Tainan’s narrow streets, they almost share the back seat with passengers.
Travelling along the expressway into the city centre, you are amazed by the modern buildings that are forming the landscape of the capital city.
In the distance, the building that symbolised the city’s arrival on the regional power scene, Taipei 101 – the world’s tallest building until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa took over – presides over the city and the distant hills of Yangmingshan National Park. Inside 101 is a glitzy shopping mall, all Fritz Lang vaults, girders and arches, just like any big malls in big cities. It is full of famous brands and shoppers.
Indeed, Tanian and Taipei are poles apart, just like two sides of a coin. One is yin and the other is yang. And that is how the tourists will remember these two cities.