East Asia’s island nation provides the perfect mix of history and modernity
Avast cartoon dog in glowing 3D illuminates the night sky – along with a luminous giraffe, giant purple orchids, a psychedelic horse and chariot, trains, planes, abstract art, a radiant walk-in temple… and more dogs, many more dogs. It is Chinese Year of the Dog and Taiwan is celebrating, as it does each year, with its spectacular National Lantern Festival.
A very Taiwanese mix of ancient traditional and ultra-contemporary, fun and function, the event attracts half the population of the nation across its three weeks, and – one of its raisons d’être – thousands of foreign visitors. Most tourists to Taiwan are Asian but numbers from the West are growing – and UK visitors now have easier access than ever before. A fifth direct flight per week from Gatwick to Taipei was introduced by China Airlines this week; by the end of the year the expectation is that the connection will be daily.
Few people in the UK know much about Taiwan, except perhaps that it’s that long thin island off the south-east coast of China that is both Chinese and not Chinese. The population is more than 95 per cent ethnic Chinese, China claims the territory and a few in Taiwan still claim China, but whatever the politics, for tourists, Taiwan is a distinct country. It has its own government – democratic since 1996 – visa rules (none required by Britons staying up to 90 days), airline, local life and culture. Taiwan is keen to attract more Europeans and is selling itself as “an easy slice of Asia”.
I start in the capital, at the top of the town. Whisked up in the fastest lifts in the world I arrive at the 89th floor of Taipei 101, the tallest building on Earth when constructed. It now stands at number eight but still lords it over the city like a modern hilltop pagoda. The views are spectacular – patchworks of coloured rooftops with little New York City-style yellow taxis beetling along between. The scene is punctuated by modern architecture projects (one stalled by corruption, another about to be clad in 23,000 trees) while around the edges, as if defending the capital, crouch the densely green Four Beasts Mountains – Elephant, Tiger, Leopard and Lion. Down the centre of Taipei 101 hangs the damper ball – a massive weight, oddly elegant and, thankfully, still. It is state-of-the-art technology preventing this 1,670ft tower from swaying excessively in tornadoes and earthquakes, not uncommon on this Ring of Fire island. I decide to buy into the Chinese love of talismans and purchase a dinky red plastic “Damper Baby” in hopes of warding off tremors during my trip (it seems to work!).
Back at ground level, I wander the trendy pedestrianised streets of Ximending, where layer upon layer of brightly coloured posters, banners, storefronts and signs sweet-talk the crowds milling around on the chequered paving. Cute vies with Kung Fu, food with fashion, cartoon kitsch with genuine arts. “Creative entrepreneurs” (a favoured class in today’s Taiwan) show off their wares in repurposed historic buildings and a crowd watches open-mouthed as a young male dancer rolls round with sublime fluidity in an oversized hoop.
One moment I feel as though I am in Tokyo, the next in Beijing – but Taipei is more relaxed than either. People are friendly but not intrusive, polite without being formal, it’s clean but not pristine. Men and women coalesce, as do young and old.
On an early morning outing to Democracy Square (or Liberty Square) I watch a young hipster struggle to copy his elders at tai chi, while in colourful temples tucked between apartment blocks and convenience stores, Taiwanese of all ages and styles crowd in to bow, pray and wave their belongings above the burning incense.
Most tourists to Taiwan are Asian but numbers from the West are growing Food is one of its strengths, and it’s never far away, whether you opt for fine dining or night markets
For anyone visiting “the Orient” for the first time, Taipei – and indeed Taiwan – is a great introduction.
There’s world-class art. The cavernous National Palace Museum is home to one of the greatest collections of Chinese art. When Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan in 1949 having lost China’s civil war, he brought with him 600,000 pieces from the Imperial collection. Most of the rest remains in the Beijing’s Forbidden City – and China has never been happy that 20 per cent of the emperors’ proudest possessions are in Taipei.
With so many remarkable artefacts, the museum rotates its collection, but some things are always on view including the Qing jadeite cabbage. Everyone queues up to see this wonder, but I find the millennia-old decorated bronzes and beautiful Chinese paintings more compelling. That said, I do enjoy eating the cabbage at the restaurant next door with several amusing (and tasty) dishes mimicking star exhibits in the museum.
Food is one of Taiwan’s strengths – and it’s never far away, whether you opt for fine dining or night markets. From traditional noodle or dumpling dishes to squid and cheese; tofu pudding (like vegan crème brûlée) to ice cream pancakes with peanut and coriander, the choice is vast.
I wander the night markets munching sweet potato balls, browsing trinkets, and watching games of Mahjong, pinball and shoot-the-balloon at the wonderfully analogue fairground-style sideshows.
It is time to go beyond the capital and Taiwan’s High Speed Rail whizzes me south. Along the coastal plains there is barely a break in the urban sprawl, but beyond the central mountains rise steep and verdant. These are home to outdoor activities such as trekking and mountain biking, to aboriginal tribes (two per cent of the population) and to Taiwan’s tea plantations. The island produces aromatic oolong teas, which I sample in something akin to a winetasting in a wooden teahouse in Tainan.
Taiwan’s first capital, Tainan, remains its historic heart. Though much of the city is modern, there are rows of traditional Chinese shophouses around Shennong Street (named for the God-King of Medicine whose temple guards the road).
Tainan has a temple around every corner. I stroll around the calm, spacious courtyards of Taiwan’s oldest Confucian temple, before immersing myself in a bustle of Taoists. Nighttime visits are atmospheric, particularly to the remains of Dutch Fort Provintia (the East India Company briefly ruled Taiwan) now subsumed into a floodlit temple complex.
Standing before the terrifying-looking “Education God” who brandishes a calligraphy brush like a samurai sword, I throw divination blocks which land in the configuration that means “yes”, and I am invited to help myself to a branded pencil.
Across the road is the impressive Grand Matsu Temple, with a 13ft statue of the sea goddess, this island nation’s favourite deity. She looks benign, but the temple has a lessthan-peaceful history. It started life as the palace of a 17th-century Ming prince who reacted to imminent overpowering by the Qing by killing himself, preceded by his five concubines who hung themselves from the beam in his chamber, now the temple’s back hall. Chiang Kai-shek’s, it seems, was not the first Chinese “government in exile” to look back at the mainland from Taiwan.
Chiang was, though, more successful at holding on to his life and – at least local – power. Though his qualities are much debated, he is central to the foundation of modern Taiwan.
When Chiang arrived in 1949 he brought with him not only Imperial treasure but some two million people, many of them single soldiers. To house them he built walled compounds of identikit bungalows. As the occupants have aged and died these “Military Dependents’ Villages” have mostly been demolished. One, though, has taken on a new life.
In a nondescript suburb of Taiwan’s second city, Taichung, an elderly veteran (now 96) has painted all over his settlement. Known as Grandpa Rainbow Village, every inch is brightly muralled with figures, animals, colourful patterns and innocent symbols of love.
Rainbow Village has the same typical Taiwanese mix of artistry, function and fun that pervades the Lantern Festival. As the towering 69ft main lantern throws beams of light into the night sky, a troop of traditional drummers reminds me momentarily of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – but they are different, too. The Beijing drummers were so minutely in time they were almost scary. Taiwan’s drummers are brilliant, but they are human.
Taiwan is Chinese and not Chinese; enjoyably, interestingly different from the West, but not alien. It is indeed “an easy slice of Asia”.
MIX OF OLD AND NEW Taipei 101, above; Grandpa Rainbow Village, below
THE MAIN ATTRACTION A lantern on display during Taiwan’s annual National Lantern Festival
SAVOURING HISTORY Democracy Square, below; a night market vendor, top right