It was about 6 am, and the Taipei wholesale seafood market was hectic, smelly and noisy. Buyers were haggling over huge fish, from all over the Pacific, and perhaps the world. Tuna, lobster, squid and other sought after varieties of seafood were sold quickly, whisked off to the regional markets, supermarkets, and restaurants of this densely populated city. The amounts of money being discussed were staggering. The Taiwanese population is wealthy and health conscious; they know quality, and they are prepared to pay for it.
A tiny island, dwarfed by the looming giant of China to its west, Taiwan has a unique position in the world. Ruled by Japan from around 1895 to the end of WWII, it is now the last bastion of the government of the Republic of China that was defeated by the Communist Party on mainland China in 1949 and then relocated to Taiwan. The ROC claimed they were still the legitimate rulers of China. The Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China and claimed that they were the legitimate rulers of Taiwan as a province of China. With China’s growing power, Taiwan was replaced by the PRC in the UN’s Security Council in 1971, and today most countries of the world have transferred their recognition to the PRC.
It is all a diplomatic nicety really. Western countries maintain embassies in Taiwan in all but name (usually called Trade or Commerce Offices or similar), and China agrees to look the other way. An economic powerhouse with only 23 million people, Taiwan has the world’s fourth largest foreign exchange reserve holdings, after China, Japan and the EU. Needless to say, it was trade that brought me to Taiwan, where I spent six weeks working in the New Zealand trade promotion office, working with New Zealand manufacturers and seafood exporters.
I felt at home in the city, much to the surprise of some of the locals. An international city, even when it is internationally persona non grata, it felt like Bangkok to me. A bustling city with plenty of high-rise construction, accompanying traffic jams, and vibrant markets. It was to me a city filled with open, welcoming people who loved good food. However, few Western tourists visit Taiwan, at least in 1995 when I was there. Hong Kong, Shanghai and the rest of China just across the Taiwan Straits attract those who were prepared to fly across the Pacific, not Taipei. At the time, there were no direct air links between Taiwan and China, but these days there is much more travel between the two, and many Chinese will visit relatives in Taiwan and vice versa. The rewards for the tourist or traveller who does make the journey to Taiwan is a more authentic local and cultural experiences, rather than that of a typical tourist.
High on my priority list whenever I visit any new country is eating what the locals eat. And the Taiwanese love to eat. Ang Lee’s movie, Eat Drink Man Woman, is a wonderful portrayal of the importance of food in the culture. Traditional Chinese food is of course a staple, but I was surprised to find really excellent and reasonably priced Japanese food everywhere. Of course, as I learned that Japan had in fact ruled Taiwan for over thirty years, and still maintains a key economic involvement on the island, it made sense that there were dozens if not hundreds of excellent Japanese restaurants throughout Taipei.
If do you travel to Taiwan, though, you really can’t go past their most well-known local dish – beef noodle soup. The beef is tender, the broth fragrant and delicious, and the noodles are divinely slippery. It is a popular lunch dish, or perfect for a late night snack after visiting the markets or a club. Of course, not all dishes are so universally popular, and as usual, when eating with the Chinese, there is a degree of danger for the squeamish. Many times it is best not to ask what you are eating – black slimy things are easier to swallow if they are anonymous. I’m fine with that. But at one business lunch I was invited to, we were all handed a large bowl of grey, sucker-covered octopus tentacles. The same octopi I’d seen – and smelled – on the floor of the fish market a few days earlier. The Taiwanese men at the lunch sighed and drooled at the sight, a real delicacy. I managed one of the tentacles – it would have been insensitive not to, and was a superhuman effort in my opinion – then made great friends with the man sitting beside me and gave him the rest!
Whilst in Taiwan, we endured a tropical cyclone and an earthquake. Taiwan experiences many earthquakes, and new buildings are constructed to high earthquake safety standards. This was a relief when we experienced a 6.4 earthquake on the 26th floor. Feeling the building sway, we knew it was engineered to do so. The tropical cyclone was also dramatic. From our office window, we watched the wind hurl debris from construction sites across the city. Some people were killed, as iron sheets and other dangerous materials flew wildly. In reality though, the wind speeds weren’t much different from a good Wellington gale-force southerly.
These forces of nature may explain some of Taiwan’s construction. It is a city surrounded by hills. I had been there several weeks before one day, I looked up from my office desk and out the window, and exclaimed incredulously “there are mountains there?!” The wind and rain earlier that day had cleared the city of its pollution, the clouds had lifted, and the mountains were crystal clear, ringing the city protectively. I had noticed that even the smaller hills scattered in and around the city were kept green and lush. Instead, high-rise apartment and office buildings were constructed at the base of the hill, and sometimes towered over them. There was no real building on the hills, which I found odd, coming from a very hilly city.
I worked long hours, but managed to get to Snake Alley, the famous Hua Xi Jie night market. If it’s your kind of thing, you can see snakes milked of venom and blood, and order meals made of snake blood or meat, but fortunately only a few stalls are devoted to this, and I didn’t spend any time or money feeding a demand for such a place. The night markets however can be a lot of fun, and like anywhere in Asia, delicious freshly cooked and reasonably priced food is available, and is far more authentic and worthy of your attention.
On my days off, I explored the northern parts of the island, enjoying the proximity of nature, unusual in a large, concrete Asian city.
I had hoped to travel to the centre of the island, reputed to have beautiful natural sites, but ran out of time and good weather. I also visited the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall (first president of the Republic of China before it moved to Taiwan) and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, (a former ROC president on Taiwan), and a friend from the office took me to one of many colourful local temples.
But the truly memorable attraction in Taipei, the place you should go to even if you go to no others, is the National Palace Museum. This museum holds many treasures from the Forbidden City, moved to protect them from the Imperial Japanese Army in 1931, and then later sent across the Taiwan Straits in 1948 as fighting between the nationalist and communist troops worsened.
The museum holds the world’s most comprehensive and precious collection of ancient Chinese artefacts, covering 5,000 years of China’s historical and artistic achievements. There are so many treasures and curiosities that only 1% of the collection is displayed at any given time. Sadly I only had one day to explore the museum’s collections, a mere introductory visit. I was delighted by the priceless jade cabbage, and the grain of rice with a poem written on it. A full day in the museum left me feeling incomplete, and despite the pleasure of a dim sum lunch and tea in the elegant, traditional tea room – a reproduction of the Three Treasures room at the Forbidden City – hours of standing and an aching back and feet made me admit defeat. Several visits of a few hours would, in hindsight, have been more manageable. But somehow in Taipei, there is no concept of what is manageable. They didn’t get where they are today by looking at life that way. A good lesson to take away from this extraordinary little country.