We fly to Taiwan and bunk in its capital’s most infamous hotel.
Itis with a smidgen of consternation that I make my way to the awaiting limousine supplied by Grand Hyatt Taipei. Being weaned on a steady childhood diet of True Singapore Ghost Stories like many Singaporeans, my mind is naturally running wild with the stories I’ve read about the hotel I am about to stay in.
Of course, it’s a cliché, to begin this the way many other publications and travel sites have begun a review of this hotel. But it’s the elephant in the room, even Google suggests “haunted” before I even complete typing the hotel’s full name.
If the tales are to be believed, the heebie-jeebies should have descended upon me the moment I step foot in the lobby. Giant talismans standing guard by the lifts should have caused a chill to run down my spine. Auras, bad jujus and spirits to inspire every goose pimple to come forth.
But no, the infamous talismans are no more. There is a gweilo standing still by the lifts but that’s just Charlie, a hyper-realistic sculpture of a security guard done by Serbian-American artist Marc Sijan. He stands frozen, looking into the distance as lost in thought as Rodin’s Thinker. I almost ask him for directions.
I am met instead by the warm hospitality of the staff so characteristic of the friendliness of the Taiwanese, and tons of delicious food crammed into a four-day visit of the city. Over a meal at Irodori, the hotel’s Japanese buffet restaurant, I broach the subject and am pleasantly surprised by the openness of the staff and their readiness to supply the historical receipts. Grand Hyatt Taipei was not built over a POW camp, folks, and the tales of Jackie Chan being spooked have been drummed up by fevered imaginations. If you think about it, there’s not a square foot left on Earth that has not been touched by death, sometimes violent, in the past. We would be constantly haunted if that were the case.
For a city known to many Singaporeans as the place to go to for non-stop bingeing, it makes sense that tourists will not turn to their accommodation during mealtimes. But the many restaurants of this hotel remain full; it is the local Taiwanese that populate them and, according to the staff, they are popular locations for lunches and dinners, the sheer variety of cuisine on offer and the prestige of a classy hotel draws people in. Their buffet restaurants in particular draw the most crowds and I happily join them, stuffing myself to breaking point with delicious sushi, noodles, fried stuff and grilled meats. A visiting Japanese chef from the hotel’s outpost in Tokyo serves up some signature dishes at Irodori, including a cold, creamed corn soup with delicate chewy rice balls. But it is over shared slices of cheesecake at The Café, with its hugely popular international cuisine constantly ensuring full capacity all day, that I hammer out a plan to check out the night markets of Taipei.
Eschewing the obvious choice in Shihlin, I go with the recommended Linjiang Street Night Market. It’s just
one stop away from the hotel on the city’s highly convenient MRT system and a quick walk through the dark streets of Taipei at dusk as the bright lights of the market beckon. This is a place catered to the locals and so has less tourist tat while still keeping with the spirit of the classic Taiwanese night market. I try to find the recommendations from Executive Chef Tan Bankhim, a Singaporean who’s been working at the hotel’s Chinese fine-dining restaurant Yun Jin, but being full to the point of bursting, I decide on just drinking in the sights with my other senses instead. The aroma of stinky tofu lingers and snakes through the whole experience—although, thankfully, other smells soon overpower; deep-fried crispy chicken in particular is a welcome intrusion.
The riot of smells and colours is a stark difference to the elegance of my lunch at Yun Jin earlier. Classic Chinese flavours first draw you in before the more exotic leaves an indelible mark on your taste memories. Karasumi, or salted mullet roe, holds my palate hostage, hitting the taste nodes in the back and the top of the tongue. I can still summon the memory of the taste at will and remember the smoothness with which the slice yielded to my teeth. It’s a delicacy alright, highly-prized with com- plex flavours produced through a painstaking process of salting, pressing and curing. The intricacy of flavours in the high Chinese cuisine of various regions whisper of these difficult techniques. I try my hand at making a rice flour cake, easy enough at its demonstration, but drawing disappointed head-shaking from my teachers once it is my turn to make it. I will need far more years and a less excitable nature.
All that eating begs for some energy release. I climb up Elephant Mountain after a short meandering walk through the city. It’s as much a mountain as Bukit Timah, and in 30 minutes, you will be granted a sweeping view of Taipei, but the steep steps may do a number on your knees. Climbing and panting wearily, the weight of tens of thousands of calories pressing down on me, I soon fall behind a steady stream of vigorous seniors out on their daily morning hike. I grit my teeth and press on.
Cycling back to the hotel on one of the many bike-sharing services, I return to a lobby bustling with very important-looking people from various embassies. It does appear to be more of a business hotel, but its centrality, excellent restaurants and tasteful room interior design should be attracting more holidaying guests. If you need more convincing, there’s the Oasis Spa, its simple menu of treatments belies the sumptuous rituals of relaxation that you’ll be treated to once you head to its rooms. My aching body and frazzled work-decimated nerves are soothed by a three-hour session in a treatment room that immediately begins to relax you right at first look. It is probably the best spa experience I’ve had in ages.
Now, what was that about the ghosts again? With a mind unoccupied by stories meant to prime you with fear and unease, every strange noise and coincidence do not linger on the psyche. And if the stories still bug you, at least relish the thought that it is you with the corporeal presence that will be able to enjoy all that Taipei has to offer with your physical senses. Eat that, ghostly dudes.