Fireworks over Taiwan: My adventure on an island of striking contrasts
It was unlike any fireworks display I had ever attended. We had travelled by high- speed train from Taipei in the north of Taiwan to attend the Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival in the south of the island.
This annual event is celebrated on the 15th day of each Lunar New Year, and commemorates a cholera epidemic that occurred in the late 19th Century. Fireworks were intended to drive away the evil spirits of that disease.
Nowadays, the festival has become notorious for its danger. What makes it so dangerous is that spectators are encouraged to stand as near to the fireworks as possible. They are also advised to wear multiple layers of protective clothing. The event lasts for many hours, with ear-splitting explosions and thousands of rockets being fired in all directions.
A local man told me that being hit by a rocket is said to be an omen of good fortune - and shortly after I was told this, I was struck by one of them. So I am expecting great things of this year.
Taiwan is an island of striking contrasts. It is less than half the size of Ireland, but its population is almost four times as big. While just 10pc of Ireland is forested, more than 40pc of Taiwan consists of thick jungle. Taiwan's population is heavily urbanised, but many species of wildlife can still be found on the island. These include macaque monkeys, leopard cats and black bears. A few weeks ago, there were even reports that a Taiwanese clouded leopard, previously thought to be extinct, had been sighted.
Parts of the island are almost uninhabited, but the cities on its western coast are among the most densely populated regions on Earth.
The capital, Taipei, is a crowded and bustling metropolis of more than six million people where space is at a premium. Taiwan has become a global centre of high-tech industries and is a hub of commercial and consumer activities. Indeed, some of its department stores are so vast they make our own ones seem like corner shops.
Lunch was hosted on our first day by Henry Chen, director general of the Taiwanese Department of International Information Services. He told me that he had once been the principal representative of Taiwan in Ireland. The People's Republic on the Chinese mainland has cut off diplomatic relations with any country that recognises Taiwan as a separate state. As a result, Ireland does not give accreditation to ambassadors from Taiwan, so I was curious how Mr Chen had fulfilled his diplomatic duties when he was based in Dublin.
He told me that Ireland, like most other countries, maintained unofficial contacts that allowed him to function as a de facto ambassador. He also told me that a number of our TDs had visited Taiwan to explore ways in which economic bonds between the two islands might be strengthened.
There are certainly some lessons that we might usefully learn from Taiwan. Although the island has very few natural resources, it enjoys one of the highest standards of living in south-east Asia and boasts educational and health services that are comparable and sometimes superior to any western country.
At the end of World War II, the armies of General Chiang Kai-shek fought a bitter civil war against the communist forces of Mao Zedong. By 1949, the communists were victorious - but Chiang was able to evacuate around two million of his supporters from mainland China to Taiwan. He established a military dictatorship on the island and suppressed all political opposition.
Since the early 1990s, Taiwan has developed into a vibrant multi-party democracy. The current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is not only the first woman to lead the Taiwanese government, she is also the first member of an indigenous tribe to hold that office. President Tsai opened the Lantern Festival in Pingtung, in the south of the island, which we were also able to attend. This festival takes place on the last night of the Chinese New Year.
According to traditional astrology, we have just entered the Year of the Pig, and the lantern festival usually features the current sign of the Chinese zodiac. On this occasion, however, the main lantern was created in the shape of a huge bluefin tuna, and pig-shaped lanterns were confined to supporting roles. This was an evening of dance, music and dramatic spectacle, culminating in scores of light-carrying drones that created astonishing images in the night sky.
Back in the capital, we visited the Taipei World Financial Centre at its iconic headquarters. This remarkable building is usually known as Taipei 101, and was until recently the world's tallest skyscraper.
Taipei may seem an unlikely location for a building of this size since the city is prone to regular earthquakes, typhoons and intense tropical storms. In fact, the 101 is built on a fault line, but it incorporates a number of innovative safety features that make it one of the most stable buildings ever constructed. One of these features is a massive 'damper', a 660 tonne circular steel pendulum that sways to compensate for any movements in the structure. We were shown a video taken during a powerful tremor that rocked Taipei a few years ago: the damper moved a couple of centimetres - and the 101 remained undamaged.
We travelled to the top of this building in a lift that is said to be the fastest on earth. It managed to carry us from the ground floor to the 89th in just 37 seconds, and without causing our stomachs to lurch. We emerged above the clouds, and were afforded panoramic views of the city as well as the nearby mountains and the deep blue waters of the Taiwan Straits.
The architectural style of Taipei 101 combines ultra-modern design with elements of traditional Chinese culture. Its overall appearance resembles the structure of a bamboo cane, and it is divided into eight principal sections, a number that is traditionally associated in China with abundance and prosperity.
This gigantic building contains a great selection of high-end shops and numerous restaurants. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at one of the most celebrated of these. The Din Tai Fung Dumpling House is Michelin-starred and specialises, as its name indicates, in steamed dumplings.
These delicious morsels come in a variety of mouthwatering flavours and are produced by teams of staff who wear surgical masks and work behind plate glass windows. They have the appearance of medical researchers as they prepare the dumplings with meticulous care. We were also instructed in the correct way to eat them, making sure to puncture each soup dumpling so that it wouldn't burn our tongues.
Very few apartments in Taipei come with what Irish people might regard as a working kitchen. As a result, many Taiwanese eat out for almost all of their meals. This means that there is a great number and range of restaurants to chose from.
The Palais de Chine hotel in Taipei boasts another of the island's Michelin-starred restaurants, and we ate lunch there on our last day in Taiwan. We were served eight classic Chinese dishes, including two delicious courses of soup and two of duck. These were accompanied by a few glasses of the local Taiwan beer - which I can also recommend.
There were many other experiences that made this trip memorable for me, but perhaps the most outstanding of these was our visit to the National Palace Museum on the outskirts of Taipei.
The museum contains almost 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artefacts and artworks. This enormous collection covers 8,000 years of Chinese history, and features work from the Ming and Qing imperial dynasties.
Chiang Kai-shek brought these to Taiwan from the Forbidden City in Beijing. For understandable reasons, the presence of such national treasures in Taiwan is resented by the government of the People's Republic. However, it is questionable how many of these precious artefacts would have survived the Cultural Revolution had they remained in mainland China.
The relationship between Taiwan and the People's Republic has been problematic for decades. In recent months, the cold war between the USA and mainland China has also intensified - with belligerent speeches being made by leading figures on both sides.
This is not the first time that Taiwan's future has seemed uncertain. Indeed, back in 1949, many people assumed that this small island would soon fall to the forces of communist China. Taiwan has managed to survive against formidable odds for the last 70 years.
Given the resourcefulness of its citizens, I would not be surprised if it manages to survive for many more years to come.
Take Two: Top attractions
The Chimei Museum, near Tainan in Taiwan's south, opened its doors in 2014. It is devoted to Western art and culture. Forbes magazine praised it as 'one of the world's most surprising art collections'.
Tribute to Chiang
The National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall opened in 1980, five years after the death of the man who ruled Taiwan for 25 years. It contains a huge statue of Chiang and a museum dedicated to his life.
This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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