For a mainlander, Taiwan does not appear ultramodern, but its richness in tradition has a charm that outsiders find hard to resist.
MY first trip to Taiwan, which took place at the end of last year, was with a team of professional photographers. They were more interested in the people inhabiting this treasure of an island, than the tourist attractions it has to offer. And it made a world of difference because it clicked with my intuitive finding that the most wonderful thing about Taiwan is its people.
It is difficult to claim to know a place and its people in a tour of one week. So I depended on my teammates for corroboration. He Yanguang, a veteran photographer with China Youth Daily, was embarking on his fourth tour of Taiwan. He first visited it in 1997. “There’s not much difference,” he said, “not even in the facade.”
And that lack of change could well be the most valuable lesson we carried away from this journey.
Sure, there is Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world when it opened in 2004 until the title was snatched away by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010. It’s certainly sky-piercing or a crane among a clutch of chicks, to borrow the Chinese term, as Taipei does not have a dense cluster of skyscrapers as Hong Kong does.
When I examined it closely, Taipei 101 seems an oversized Chinese pendant, with coins on all four sides. All the symbols of money would take some explaining when the world enters an all digital era when cash may sound extremely quaint to future visitors.
But worry not. Right now, Taipei is a paradise to those who want a taste of the old way. Here, gourmet could mean snacks and street stands, which attract hordes of diners including the middle class and chic youth. This is subversive to my thinking because in the mainland a restaurant could easily have dozens or hundreds of tables in a mammoth hall or flanks of private rooms, often with lavish decorations.
In Taiwan, we were taken to every lunch in restaurants with no more than 10 tables. The service is efficient and the place is clean, but the taste of the food is so memorable we instantly understand why so many are waiting for a seat. I had the best beef noodle I could remember.
I was told that all of these businesses are operated by families and most have a history that goes back half a century or more. And I noticed there are many businesses of this size in Taipei, either downtown or in the suburbs, and they contribute to the feeling of a community.
I left Taipei with a strong sense that, though it’s a city with a population of almost seven million in the metropolitan area (with 2.6 million in the city proper), it has a touch of intimacy as if it’s still a village – only endlessly enlarged. People talk to each other in a way they talk to fellow villagers.
We visited many old streets and night markets, which are unadorned and crowded. Vendors hawk their offerings and bakers ask you to have a taste of their fresh pastry, but they never give you any pressure to buy or give you the nasty look after you tasted something but decided against buying it. There is a friendliness in their voice and their manner that is more neighbourly than businesslike.
Every member of our delegation was impressed by this attitude of the people we met. One day we swooped into a fishing port in Keelung and jumped onto several boats. The fishermen were surprised, but as soon as they learned of our purpose they blithely cooperated and even struck some poses for us. “I have not met a single person who is nasty,” said Zhang Feng, photographer with The Beijing Evening News.
There are lots of place names familiar to us mainlanders as they are featured prominently in movies and pop songs. I was more surprised by the ubiquitous use of “kindness” and “loyalty” for street names, terms revitalised in the recent campaign in the mainland to read Chinese classics such as Confucius’ Analects.
Sure, the display of traditional virtues in such high profile could be window-dressing, but it is more than that. We met a middle-aged woman in Daxi, an old town by the Tamsui River where a century ago cargo ship would dock and turn the place into a hub of trading. Now it’s a quiet town with a couple of commercial streets. On one of them, which is quite touristy, we talked to this woman who gave up her job to take care of her father.
The old man has to get around in a wheelchair and his medical expenses have been covered by welfare, but the full-time care by a family member would be something of a luxury to most families in the Chinese mainland. “We get some income from renting out a storefront,” she explains, without a hint of bitterness or regret.
In the ensuing days, we encountered other examples of this nature, where a grownup child gives up his or her job to care for an ailing parent. I don’t know how popular the practice is in Taiwan, but it’s the ultimate manifestation of “filial piety”, a concept sanctified in Chinese tradition.
“We just scratched the surface,” said Wang Wenyang, photographer with a newspaper devoted to intellectual property protection in China. “We didn’t have time to go into people’s homes for long stretches of time. But from what we could see, the daily lives of Taiwan people have shown sufficiently the lifestyles and human interaction that are the bedrock of this society. It is heavy on small business and it is full of human warmth. We did bump into two weddings, though.”
On Dihua Street in downtown Taipei, I strolled into a store that has a plaque saying this is the oldest store in the city. Now it sells tea from all over China. The architecture along the street probably goes back to the early days of the Republic of China. But at that time, Taiwan was still occupied by the Japanese.
Whether in architecture or food or ways of life, Taiwan seems to have absorbed from all sources, taking what is good and valuable and making it its own. In Ho-Ping Island Hi Park in Keelung, there is a seashore with rocks carved by millions of years of winds and water, similar to the nearby Yeliu Geopark. Despite a gust, a couple of fisherwomen were scouting for a certain seaweed that goes into a local snack. A few of our photographers jumped down to search for the best shots.
Meanwhile, our guide told us this was the location Chiang Kai-shek landed after he retreated from the mainland in 1949. Across the strait lies Fujian province, where most of the early settlers in Taiwan hailed from. For many decades, there was something stronger than the gusty wind to prevent people from calling on each other. Now it’s just a short flight away.
After a week of going around Taipei, we stuffed our bags with Taiwan pastry and the memory of a way of life that used to live in ancient textbooks and is now so hauntingly real. It’s not the most touristy place, but in an unconscious way it offers a corridor into our past. – China Daily/Asia News Network