Tuesday 18 June 2019

Tapping into Taiwan: My only regret? That the stay wasn't longer

Long-haul travel

A night shot of the Taipei 101 tower, which was once the tallest building in the world and utterly dominates the Taiwanese capital's skyline.
A night shot of the Taipei 101 tower, which was once the tallest building in the world and utterly dominates the Taiwanese capital's skyline.
The imposing Chiang Kaishek Memorial Hall in Taipei was built in honour of the man who ruled Taiwan for 50 years.

Jamie Blake Knox

I must confess that until recently I had only a vague awareness that there were two different states that both claimed to be the Republic of China.

One of these states is also known as Taiwan - and was formerly called Formosa. The other is known as the People's Republic - and used to be called 'Red China'. Its population is more than 1.3 billion - whereas Taiwan contains a mere 23 million. Beijing is the capital of mainland China - while Taipei is the capital of the island of Taiwan, and it was to Taipei that I flew via a stop-over in Dubai.

I had come to cover the inauguration speech of Dr Tsai Ing-wen - who is Taiwan's first female President. For many years, Taiwan was ruled by a military dictatorship and was dominated by one political party: the Kuomintang. Over the last few decades, Taiwan has been transformed into a multi-party democracy.

As I made my way to the imposing presidential building to see Dr Tsai's inauguration, I began to realise the peculiar political status that Taiwan enjoys. The streets and avenues were lined not only with the distinctive red and blue flags of the Republic of China, but some others that I found hard to recognise. These turned out to represent the small number of countries, such as Tuvalu, Belize and the Caribbean islands of St Kitts, Nevis and St Vincent, who recognise Taiwan's existence as a sovereign state.

More than 20,000 people had gathered for the inauguration, and huge inflatable cartoon mascots floated above the streets. The audience was eager to hear what the new President would say. But before her speech began, we were treated to four hours of a dazzling succession of acrobats, soldiers, horses, cheer leaders, baseball players, tribal dancers, folk singers, dragons and indie musicians. The complex and often traumatic history of Taiwan was acted out in a series of elaborate and heartfelt musical tableaux. This amazing spectacle struck me as falling somewhere between the Eurovision and our own St Patrick's Day Festival.

The People's Republic of China views Taiwan as merely a troublesome province which needs to be brought to heel, and absorbed by the motherland. For almost seventy years, Taiwan has lived with the possibility of military intervention by Beijing. However, Dr Tsai Ing-wen repeatedly referred to the island as a "country", and avoided any explicit endorsement of Taiwan and mainland China as part of "one China".

The architecture of Taipei reflects the turbulent and often chaotic history that has shaped it. By 1949, General Chiang Kai-shek had lost the Chinese Civil War. More than two million of his supporters, regime bureaucrats and Kuomintang soldiers, descended upon the island. It was all supposed to be a temporary measure before his army would retake the mainland. Buildings were quickly thrown up, which were not intended to last. When it became clear that the Communist regime was permanent, Chiang's followers began to construct huge and ornate palaces. This architecture was used to promote a sense of continuity, and ownership of Chinese culture. This is all intermingled with the old temples, as well as the remnants of Japanese colonial neo-classical architecture.

In more recent years, the Taiwanese economy has boomed, and huge skyscrapers now dot the landscape. The most iconic of these is undoubtedly 'Taipei 101', which was for many years the tallest building in the world. Its designers sought to combine cutting-edge technology and Asian tradition. The 101 floors are symbolic of Taiwan's high ideals since 100 is a number traditionally associated in China with perfection. The building is now full of offices and luxury restaurants and shops. The elevator to the top floor is one of the fastest in the world and I was on the observation deck before my ears had a chance to pop. It offers a vertigo-inducing panorama of the whole city, and the nearby forests and mountains.

Kaohsiung is at the opposite end of the island, but is linked by high-speed rail which makes the journey less than two hours. I was staying in the Ambassador Hotel which was modern, bright and comfortable, and only a short walk from the Love River. A huge dragon-snake lantern on its banks is illuminated at evening. Every year the city plays host to the Dragon Boat Festival, and each of the long boats is colourfully painted with distinctive dragons' heads at its prow.

Like most Taiwanese cities, Kaohsiung is bustling with vibrant night markets which serve some of the most exciting street food in Asia. The huge influx of mainlanders after 1949 included some of China's most accomplished chefs, and today it is a melting pot of regional Chinese cuisines. The island is one of the most densely populated on earth, and most apartments do not have room for a kitchen - so many Taiwanese prefer to eat at the street markets.

I headed to the Liuhe Night Market. The crowds can be a little overwhelming at first, but the locals are very friendly and ordering is easy. The food is not only cheap, but comes in such a rich variety that you end up trying several dishes. There are a seemingly endless variety of dumplings; boiled, fried, steamed, and filled with meat, seafood, cabbage and rice. There are skewers of freshly caught shrimp, deep fried soft shell crab, noodles and soups. I was particularly taken with the Gua Bao, or steamed buns. These contain mouth-watering layers of pork belly braised in soy sauce, wine and spices and served with pickled-mustard greens and crushed peanuts.

One Taiwanese staple which is hard to miss is called 'stinky tofu'. This name is richly deserved as its unmistakeable smell carries over a considerable distance. It begins life as regular tofu which is then fermented in basins of brine until it reaches a malodorous ripeness. It is then deep fried to render the outside crispy. It is definitely not for the faint of heart, and is regarded as something of an acquired taste.

The world's greatest collection of Chinese art is to be found in Taipei. When the Kuomintang fled the mainland, they took with them the Emperor's collection from the Forbidden City. This collection encompasses more than 10,000 years of Chinese history, and includes some wonderful examples of intricate jade carvings, lacquer ware, calligraphy, pottery and paintings. They are now all housed in the vast National Palace Museum. It contains possibly the most famous Chinese painting of all time, Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Zhang Zeduan. This scroll painting is more than five meters long. The level of detail, of a bustling city during one of China's most important annual festivals, is quite extraordinary. It is teeming with such exquisite observations of everyday life in 12th century China I wished I had been able to spend more time studying it.

In 1944, during some of the most intense fighting of the Second World War, my grandfather was captured by the Japanese in northern Burma. He was subjected to the savage brutality with which the Imperial Army of Japan habitually treated its prisoners of war. Fortunately, he was liberated by Kuomintang forces under the command of Chiang Kai-shek. When my grandfather died, I found in one of his notebooks a photo that he had taken of the Generalissimo speeding away in his car.

This gave a special meaning when I visited Chiang Kai-shek's colossal memorial in Taipei. It is flanked by the national theatre and national concert hall, and was designed in traditional Chinese pagoda-style. It was built in honour of the man who ruled Taiwan for almost 50 years, and its centre point is a large bronze statue of Chiang, grinning and seated like Lincoln's statue in Washington.

Despite his smiles, Chiang ruled Taiwan as a harsh authoritarian dictator. He suppressed political dissent and opposition, and persecuted the island's indigenous people. It was only after his death that Taiwan moved to establish a proper democracy, and his legacy continues to be hotly contested. Dr Tsai Ing-wen is the first president of indigenous descent, and that represents another milestone in Taiwan's democratic progress. There is much to savour in the culture of this vibrant island, and my only regret is that my stay wasn't longer.

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