Tai­wan made head­lines for the wrong rea­sons re­cently: vot­ers came out against same- sex mar­riage in a ref­er­en­dum. But it might still be the the most queer- friendly coun­try in Asia

Attitude - - Contents - Words & pho­tog­ra­phy Markus Bi­daux

Find­ing the beat­ing LGBT+ heart in East Asia

Ar­guably the most di­verse con­ti­nent on the planet, Asia is rich with cul­ture and steeped in a his­tory that spans back to the ear­li­est days of hu­man civil­i­sa­tion. Al­though China, Ja­pan, Thai­land, Korea and other neigh­bour­ing na­tions of­ten hog the tourism spot­light, Tai­wan has been qui­etly mak­ing bold strides for­wards in

LGBT+ equal­ity. Last year, it raced ahead of its neigh­bours by recog­nis­ing the rights of its queer com­mu­nity af­ter a con­sti­tu­tional court told the na­tion’s leg­is­la­tors to en­sure that mar­riage equal­ity was in place by May 2019 re­gard­less of the re­cent refer­un­dum re­sult.

Lo­cated to the east of China, the is­land is sep­a­rated from the main­land by the

112- mile- wide Tai­wan Strait. Al­though China con­tro­ver­sially claims own­er­ship of the is­land, it op­er­ates au­tonomously and boasts the 22nd largest econ­omy in the world.

Given its re­cent em­brace of same- sex mar­riage equal­ity in a re­gion in which per­spec­tives on LGBT+ iden­tity are only just be­gin­ning to evolve, it’s def­i­nitely de­serv­ing of At­ti­tude’s at­ten­tion. As such we jumped at the chance to ex­plore fur­ther when Tai­wanese air­line EVA Air in­vited us there.

Af­ter ar­riv­ing in the cap­i­tal, Taipei, our first stop is the Chi­ang Kai- shek Memo­rial Hall to get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the coun­try’s fas­ci­nat­ing pol­i­tics. Stand­ing on tip- toes to look over the heads of a large crowd, we watch six chrome- hel­meted sol­diers per­form the chang­ing of the guard in front of an enor­mous statue of the Repub­lic of China’s former pres­i­dent, be­fore we head into the build­ing’s mu­seum.

In short, Tai­wan — for­mally known as For­mosa — was an­nexed by China in the

17th cen­tury, ceded to Ja­pan in 1895, which was then forced to re­nounce all claims to the is­land af­ter its de­feat at the end of the Sec­ond World War.

Around this time the Chi­nese Civil War broke out be­tween the Com­mu­nist Party of China and the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ists led by the Repub­lic of China’s leader, Kai- shek. Af­ter los­ing the bat­tle, he and two mil­lion Na­tion­al­ists left main­land China and made the north­ern city of Taipei the new Repub­lic of China’s cap­i­tal, ef­fec­tively mak­ing Tai­wan a dic­ta­tor­ship for al­most 40 years.

The is­land’s con­vo­luted his­tory es­sen­tially paved the way for the modern same- sex mar­riage bat­tle in Tai­wan. The lift­ing of mar­tial law in 1987 by Kai- shek’s son opened the coun­try up to new rights for pre­vi­ously marginalised groups such as the work­ers, women, eth­nic groups and the LGBT+ com­mu­nity.

The move to democ­racy and the free­dom of the press cre­ated a rift with the one- party state of China that be­lieves Tai­wan is part of its ter­ri­tory.

The Tai­wanese gov­ern­ment has granted the LGBT+ com­mu­nity many rights, such as pro­tec­tions against dis­crim­i­na­tion on the grounds of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment — thus im­prov­ing the coun­try’s im­age on the in­ter­na­tional stage and ef­fec­tively giv­ing China the two- fin­ger sa­lute.

En­light­ened by the coun­try’s pro­gres­sive poli­cies, we move on to Long­shan Tem­ple and the magnificent wa­ter­fall at its en­trance, which serves Bud­dhists, Taoists and Con­fu­cian­ists with more than 100 deities.

There is a hol­low clank­ing of wood as a group of women throw jiaobei, or moon blocks, on to the floor in front of the statue of the Chi­nese god of love and mar­riage, Yue Lao, whose name trans­lates as “the old man un­der the moon”.

If the blocks land with the painted side up three times, they get a red thread to wear on their wrist, which helps the match­maker de­ity find them true love and mar­riage. Look­ing at my ring- less fin­gers, I de­cide to have a go. I’m not see­ing any red paint when my blocks land, so I guess my boyfriend can spend some more time sav­ing for the en­gage­ment ring rather than get­ting ready to bend down on one knee just yet.

We spend the next few hours ex­plor­ing some of the city’s best shop­ping dis­tricts, start­ing with Di­hua Street. Lined with a mix of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine and food

“Tai­wan’s gov­ern­ment has ef­fec­tively given China the two- fin­ger sa­lute”

shops sell­ing every­thing from fish roe to bird’s nests, in re­cent years the street has been gen­tri­fied with the ar­rival of con­tem­po­rary de­sign shops. Next, we stop at Yongkang

Street where we queue be­hind 30 peo­ple for tra­di­tional scal­lion pan­cakes — some­times it’s best to fol­low the crowd. Af­ter our savoury onion pan­cakes, we weave in and out of the colour­ful gift shops, tea shops, hip­ster cafes and craft- beer bars. We fin­ish our odyssey in Xi­mend­ing neigh­bour­hood, where high- street and in­de­pen­dent cloth­ing shops are jum­bled up with ar­cade halls filled with mazes of bright- pink claw machines and Tai­wanese bub­ble tea shops.

The area is home to Taipei’s big­gest gay district, which sits around the cen­tury- old eight- sided Red House. There are two lev­els of gay bars and shops that all look out onto a court­yard filled with chairs and ta­bles for al fresco drink­ing.

Since plan­ning my jour­ney, the anti- gay re­li­gious right of Tai­wan had mounted their holier- than- thou high horses and de­manded a ref­er­en­dum on mar­riage equal­ity. The or­gan­i­sa­tion got its wish, cam­paigned and won with 72 per cent of the votes, an in­fu­ri­at­ing re­sult since Tai­wan’s Min­istry of Jus­tice con­ducted a poll of 200,000 cit­i­zens in 2015 and found that 71 per cent of Tai­wanese peo­ple sup­ported same- sex mar­riage.

Thank­fully, the gov­ern­ment says that the ref­er­en­dum re­sult does not af­fect the

coun­try’s road to mar­riage equal­ity, al­though many fear this will sim­ply mean a new law cre­ated for the queer com­mu­nity, giv­ing them, in eff ect, sec­ond- class mar­riage sta­tus. ( Some­thing sim­i­lar to the com­pro­mise the UK les­bian and gay com­mu­nity made with civil part­ner­ships be­fore fi nally win­ning the right to full mar­riage equal­ity in 2014.)

Fred, edi­tor of the LGBT+ web­site Ga­gaTai, and Fufu, a dance chore­og­ra­pher and YouTube personality, share my frus­tra­tions.

“I was an­gry and dis­ap­pointed by the ref­er­en­dum. Why have a ref­er­en­dum on hu­man rights?” says Fufu.

“I made a cou­ple of YouTube cam­paign videos and I am happy that three mil­lion peo­ple, in­clud­ing my fam­ily, voted to sup­port gay mar­riage. I think the prob­lem is the older gen­er­a­tion who vote in higher num­bers and don’t un­der­stand mar­riage equal­ity.

“The ref­er­en­dum is not the end, we will fi ght un­til we have com­plete sex­ual and gen­der equal­ity in Tai­wan,” he adds defi antly.

Fred is equally dis­ap­pointed. “I was shocked by the re­sult [ of the ref­er­en­dum] be­cause I am sur­rounded by a gay- friendly en­vi­ron­ment and didn’t know any­one against it,” he says. “The anti- gay groups have become so pow­er­ful, us­ing their tricks on peo­ple that we may have a sep­a­rate law cre­ated for gay mar­riage.”

De­spite the re­cent ref­er­en­dum Fred be­lieves Tai­wan re­mains one of Asia’s most gay- friendly des­ti­na­tions. “Tai­wan Pride is the big­gest in Asia. It’s a great sym­bol and off ers a warm hug to the whole LGBT+ com­mu­nity.”

Af­ter a cou­ple of beers with the boys, I re­join my group at the Shilin Night Mar­ket. Taipei has many of this type of mar­ket and they are a real jolt to the senses with nu­mer­ous food ven­dors cook­ing all man­ner of de­lights, the sound of kids play­ing car­ni­val games, and the odd feel­ing that I have become part of a herd as the al­ley­ways of the mar­ket fi ll with peo­ple. Af­ter stuff ing my­self to the gills with cobs of spicy corn, charred sesame buns and bowls of fried herby mush­rooms, we head back to our ho­tel to switch off from a busy day.

The next morn­ing we are up early to catch a bul­let train to Tainan, the former cap­i­tal, on the south- western coast of the is­land.

Our fi rst stop is Du Xiao Yue, a cen­tury- old noo­dle restau­rant. As we walk in we’re greeted by a man sit­ting on a stool sur­rounded by pots on hot burn­ers pre­par­ing the fa­mous dan zai noo­dles, topped with minced meat, dried shrimp and black vine­gar. We eat with en­thu­si­asm as our hosts or­der what ap­pears to be every­thing on the menu.

Ap­petites sated, we walk down the street to Hayashi. Opened in 1932, the six- storey depart­ment store was only the sec­ond in Tai­wan with a lift, which I skip, think­ing I could use the ex­er­cise af­ter my lunch.

On each street cor­ner in Tainan is a small shrine. The city is the coun­try’s spir­i­tual cap­i­tal, its streets fi lled with hun­dreds of tem­ples. Many hon­our specifi c gods or great war­riors, with a small one ded­i­cated to a war­rior’s horse.

The tem­ples are all very wel­com­ing and my favourite ac­tiv­ity is search­ing out each tem­ple’s Gen­eral Tiger, a de­ity in the form of a tiger, of­ten with big eyes, buck teeth and in­tended for chil­dren.

Af­ter a long walk­ing tour, I take a break and sit watch­ing the koi fi sh splash about in one of the ponds at Chihkan Tower. The build­ing and park were erected on the re­mains of 17th- cen­tury Fort Prov­in­tia, built by the Dutch when they tried but failed to oc­cupy the is­land.

Tainan does not have much of a gay bar scene, but I still have a great night out sam­pling cock­tails at the popular Check­ered Record Club, fol­lowed by drinks at the suit­ably named The Dive Bar, be­fore fi nish­ing across the street at an­other bar, by this point the Tai­wanese name of which I couldn’t pro­nounce or spell.

We sit at a ta­ble on the pave­ment in the warm mid­night air and bravely or­der meaty dishes from the menu sans English -— I have to ad­mit chicken hearts are pretty tasty.

Wak­ing up slightly worse for wear the next morn­ing, I jump on our coach and we are driven to­wards Alishan, an in­land range of moun­tains. We zigzag up moun­tain roads, stop­ping half­way up at Fanlu, a small town­ship made from cor­ru­gated metal. We are here to visit the High­light Tea es­tate - one of the many plan­ta­tions - and sam­ple a dozen teas be­fore tak­ing a stroll through the per­fect rows of tea plants, each im­mac­u­lately trimmed.

Fur­ther along the road, the bus drops us off at Zhuqi town­ship, where we watch the kids play­ing on rail tracks as their par­ents look on from the plat­form. We as­sume it isn’t a busy sta­tion, and there is no elec­trifi ed third rail to give the way­ward lit­tle ones un­ex­pected shocks. My cu­rios­ity is piqued by a pretty white trum­pet- like fl ower hang­ing from a tree, but as I reach to touch it I’m yelled at by our guide. It tran­spires it’s An­gels’ Tears, a poi­sonous fl ower. I guess the lo­cal chil­dren know to steer clear.

We sit down to a lunch of bento boxes or­dered from a restau­rant shaped like a train, then walk around the town’s mar­ket stalls that sell cook­ies, fra­grant cooked gin­ger and wasabi peas.

Mak­ing it back in time to watch the sun­set from the ho­tel’s view­ing plat­form, the sun

looks like a golden can­non­ball with a plume of red smoke bil­low­ing from be­neath it. With the af­ter­glow fad­ing and the chill set­ting in, we push off to bed in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a 4am wake- up call for the sun­rise over Mount Jade.

In the morn­ing, we join a mas­sive queue at the train sta­tion to board the For­est Rail­way, which has been in op­er­a­tion for more than a cen­tury. It is packed, and pitch black out­side the win­dows.

Get­ting off the train we walk up a paved road to find our spot on a view­ing plat­form and watch the sky fade from a dark, inky blue to a warm am­ber un­til shards of light shoot across the moun­tain. With the land­scape fully lit, we can see the sea of clouds that fill the val­ley be­tween the moun­tains.

We ride the train back down where most of the group rush off for break­fast but I take my time hik­ing through the for­est. Signs re­veal the age of the old­est trees and there is a 20m- tall stone pagoda ded­i­cated to the tree spir­its.

The area is most fa­mous for its sun­rises, but the Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion left the area with Ja­pan’s fa­mous cherry blos­som trees, which bloom in March and April.

Walk­ing the tim­ber walk­ways and stone stairs, the smell of cedar and the sound of dis­tant wa­ter­falls hang in the air. I could spend a whole day walk­ing the trails, but we must move on and head back to the cap­i­tal.

On our re­turn we stay in the Beitou district, which is rem­i­nis­cent of Ja­pan. There is a mas­sive hot spring lake from which a river runs in which peo­ple used to dip their feet into, some­thing that has re­cently been banned in or­der to pro­tect the area. There are both clothed pub­lic bathing and Ja­pane­ses­tyle nude hot spring baths to en­joy.

We carry on to the Na­tional Palace Mu­seum, which is filled with treasures that Kai- shek and his na­tion­al­ists smug­gled out when they made their flight from China. The most fa­mous of th­ese treasures in­clude the jade cab­bage, a small carv­ing that is so beloved that I see peo­ple bring out binoc­u­lars to get a bet­ter view of its finer de­tails. In truth,

I find the rooms filled with paint­ing and cal­lig­ra­phy far more en­thralling.

Our day ends at Taipei 101, a build­ing that looks like eight Chi­nese take­away boxes stacked on top of each other, but is ac­tu­ally mod­elled on bam­boo, and there are no prizes for guess­ing how many floors it has.

On the 91st floor there’s an ob­ser­va­tion deck and near ground level are sev­eral floors of shops and restau­rants. We by­pass the crowd queue­ing to get into the Din Tai Fung dumpling restau­rant in the base­ment. It’s won nu­mer­ous awards and the BBC has been to the restau­rant twice to film the im­pres­sive kitchen staff who we watch make up to 12 dumplings per minute. We are told they can make 12,000 over the course of a day.

When we sit down to try sam­ple the goods, the food writer sit­ting next to me ex­claims it’s one of his top foodie ex­pe­ri­ences ever. I have a sim­i­lar re­ac­tion when they present us with the gooey choco­late dessert dumplings.

Leav­ing Taipei 101, evening has set in and the build­ing is lit in a pur­ple hue. Each night of the week the build­ing is lit in one of seven colours of the rain­bow, and I de­cide this is to hon­our the LGBT+ com­mu­nity.

Sure, the ref­er­en­dum re­sult on mar­riage equal­ity was dis­ap­point­ing and pos­si­bly down to con­ser­va­tive older gen­er­a­tions.

But this is not re­flec­tive of my ex­pe­ri­ence in Tai­wan, nor of the vi­brant young men and women I meet on my jour­ney here, nor the gov­ern­ment and law­mak­ers who still plan to le­galise same- sex mar­riage.

All be­ing well, come May, Tai­wan will be the most gay- friendly na­tion in Asia - with leg­is­la­tion to prove it.

EVA Air flies to Taipei via Bangkok from Heathrow daily. Econ­omy re­turn from £ 527 evaair. com eng. tai­wan. net. tw

“The smell of cedar, and the sound of dis­tant wa­ter­falls

hang in the air”

ON GUARD: Chi­ang Kai- shek Memo­rial Hall

OR­NATE: Taipei’s Long­shan Tem­ple

CHI­NESE CHECKER: Markus vis­its Taipei’s Xi­mend­ing district

TO A TEA: The High­light Tea es­tate in Alishan

IN­SIDE TRACK: Zhuqi town­ship


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