Tale of two cities

> Vis­it­ing Tai­wan’s for­mer and cur­rent cap­i­tals – Taipei and Tainan – gives you a flavour of its rich his­tory

The Sun (Malaysia) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.