Bursting

Taipei, Taiwan  臺北

I said I was done with travelling for the time being. Turns out sometimes trips just happen, and a bunch of factors led me to say goodbye to home again, but just for three weeks. (There is an end!) Being in Hong Kong for a wedding meant a short hop over to Taiwan, a nation (for lack of a better word… we’ll get to that later) I’ve been to around 20 years ago, but only remember of it a hotel room shared with my family and a hospital: I was sick the entire time. Never saw anything else other than some traffic, but never felt curious enough to return either.

What was I thinking?!

Amongst the hordes of Hong Kong tourists I encountered (and eavesdropped on) throughout Taiwan, there’s one primary thing on the minds of visitors. I count myself in that crowd, and certainly didn’t have to hear it from them: it’s the food.

Food food food food food.

This national obsession manifests in the form of night markets all across the nation. To a degree unmatched anywhere else in the world, people here love their night markets, and they’re packed on any day of the week. Sure, you can buy stuff like cheap electronics, phone cases, clothes, souvenirs, and memorabilia, but the main attraction is the food. I ended up hitting five (of at least ten!) night markets in Taipei: Ningxia 寧夏, Shilin 士林, Raohe 饒河 (my favourite), Gongguan 公館 (a close second), and Tonghua 通化.

There’s the classics, of course, like the infamous stinky tofu 臭豆腐 (very much an acquired taste, and to me quite delicious) that’s only really the good stuff if you can smell it from like half a block away, pork rib soup 濼敦排骨, flaky black pepper beef buns 胡椒餠, braised pork rice 魯肉飯, fish ball skewers, and ever-ubiquitous dumplings of fried and steamed varieties, among a million other things. As simple as they sound, every bite is a revelation. Stalls sell their one or two items, they’ve done it for decades, and they have it down to an exact science.

But Taipei pushes it a bit further, getting a little playful with their food. Things like fried milk (pudding) 炸奶 or Taiwanese wheel cakes 車輪餠 are classics already done right (both crispy and melt-in-your-mouth), but when you’ve got liquid nitrogen ice cream with a flavour needle injection, “smoking cookies” (airy rice biscuits dipped in liquid nitrogen, like biting into a gust of cold wind and exhaling vapour), egg yolk custard-exploding fried taro balls 爆漿芋, giant fried chicken twice the size of your face, blowtorched beef with any flavour of salt you want, fries the length of rulers, U-shaped ice cream “pipes”, aiyu 愛玉 jelly drinks, cheese rice-stuffed grilled squid… I could go on and on and on, and I wasn’t able to come even close to trying them all.

This extends to stalls and small shops outside of night markets, too. On the classic side, there’s beef noodles and soup dumplings — and the best shops have the giant lineups. Same goes for the modern stuff! Boba 波霸 (bubble tea, universally delicious here) was invented in Taiwan in the mid-90s (“why not chew something gummy while you drink?”), and it’s taken to much further heights here with the “boba pancake”, which tastes exactly as it sounds, except somehow even better. Snowflake ice 雪花冰 is a trend that’s started to catch on elsewhere in the world — I mean, who thinks of putting a giant ice block into what looks like a cross between an industrial meat slicer and a turbo-charged wheel? The result is like eating a cold, fluffy cloud, quite unlike regular shaved ice, served with fruits and syrups and anything else sweet you can think of. Vancouver may be Asia in North America, but it’s years behind the stuff I’ve been having here! It got to the point where I had up to five meals a day, stuffing myself more even when already bursting full!

If anything, Taiwan seems like a world-class trend-setter, with Taipei at the center of it all. Hey, in addition to boba and food, they’re the ones that started the whole cat cafe thing. And again, they’ve taken it one step further: roughly one hour east of downtown by train is the former mining town of Houtong 猴銅, which, in the wake of the decline of the coal industry, has found a renaissance as a cat village. Locals started taking care of the strays, passersby (and cats) started taking notice, and now it’s a tourist thing! Cats. Everywhere. Villagers started putting out bowls of water and food, leaving cozy kitty-houses furnished with blankets around, and generally leave their doors unlocked, letting all cats wander around freely. Every cafe here is a cat cafe by default!

Back downtown, there’s plenty of trendy student districts, but none seem to go as far as Ximending 西門町, which feels almost like Taiwan’s own little Tokyo — even with its own Shibuya Crossing-esque intersection of bright lights and giant screens. Anime figures decorate the streets, themed cafes are a thing, arcades are now all J-pop rhythm games, street art covers empty walls, “cute” merch is everywhere, and there’s the occasional cosplayer walking around. One street has shops peddling samples of traditional Taiwanese snacks like pineapple tarts and milk biscuits, another street is all movie theatres, you might find one street full of clothing stores from large chains and another full of niche ones, and of course there’s its own little night market with lineups left and right. That’s the tame, milquetoast stuff. Nodding to Taiwan’s liberal reputation, there’s even a street full of tattoo parlours (with plenty of young customers) and some rather risqué shops nestled around the neighbourhood, advertising unsubtly. It may not sound like much, but in relatively-conservative Asia, that’s stuff that’s usually not so accepted. But here, liberalism means tolerance, as even gay couples walk around hand in hand, unafraid of social judgement. (Taiwan’s set to become the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.) That’s pretty cool.

The Japanese influence isn’t limited to Ximending: Taiwan was a colony of Japan for 50 years, until 1945. Depending on where you are, sidewalk-less streets and low rowhouses resemble Japan. Taipei has an excellent metro system already, but the entire country also has an extensive, reliable train network complete with a bullet train. And being geographically similar, Taiwan also has plenty of hot springs, many of which have been developed Japanese onsen-style. (Others, like the public hot springs in Beitou 北投 which I couldn’t resist going to multiple times, are more like outdoor, free-for-all public pools. Hey, when they’re only like $1.50 entry and accessible on the metro… you take what you can get.)

It also isn’t limited to modern Taiwan, it seeps into the nostalgia-tinged traditional towns. Again roughly one hour east of Taipei by train, the town of Jiufen 九份 is steeply situated on a hill, its narrow old street winding unpredictably and surrounded by decades-old sit-down shops peddling traditional taro mochi and fish balls. It continues to a lantern-filled set of stairs surrounded by teahouses. It may or may not have actually inspired the film, but it completely evokes the Japanese animated classic Spirited Away.

And not too far away is the town of Pingxi 平溪, rail tracks running within a hair’s breadth of shops, stopping regular life every thirty minutes or so. When the train’s gone, people run into the tracks, open up a paper sky lantern covered in wishes (good luck, good fortune, good exam results) painted all over, then light a wad of paper suspended underneath on fire, lifting the lanterns to the sky. It’s a beautifully old-world, romantic sight, and I would have loved to be there at night, during the Chinese New Year lantern festival when thousands of these go off at the same time. (Unfortunately, these lanterns drift off and land somewhere in the forest. Fire’s not much of a concern when it’s raining almost all the time, but I really hope they get cleaned up once in awhile.)

Of course, Taiwan isn’t Japan. It’s also not where Taiwan draws the most from. The many many many Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples that take up everything from street corners to entire blocks, the streets of traditional Chinese medicine shops, the pagoda-like Taipei 101 (former tallest building in the world until 2009), the gaudy red and gold filled Chinese New Year market, and of course the languages — Mandarin (official), Taiwanese Minnan, and Hokkien, all heard in the quadrilingual (including English) metro announcements — all point to China.

Taiwan claims the same founder as modern China, Macau, and Hong Kong — Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China after leading a revolution to topple China’s last emperor. Actually… Taiwan’s official name is still the Republic of China (ROC), much to the consternation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) next door, which claims Taiwan as an autonomous province despite never having any control of it.

After the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and conflict with China (then ROC) ended, the Chinese Civil War between the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party (CPC) continued, with the KMT, headed by general Chiang Kai-Shek, losing all remaining ground and retreating to Taiwan. The CPC then took over China and founded the PRC, but claimed that Taiwan was rightfully theirs. Meanwhile, the ROC in Taiwan continued to claim that all of mainland China was rightfully theirs. Even to this day, the ROC still officially claims to be the government of all of China and Taiwan — though of course, no one believes that, even them.

You’ve likely seen this play out in international sporting events like the Olympics, where there’s a “Chinese Taipei” delegation. Taiwan (and its 23 million people) is also the most prominent country out there not represented in the UN: while the UN used to recognise the ROC as the government of China, they shifted to the PRC in 1971. Modern China (PRC) refuses to have any relationship with any countries that recognise the ROC. This is why you’ll rarely see a Taiwanese embassy, consulate, or ambassador. (They do exist though.) As Taiwan hasn’t itself decided whether it wants to be an actual independent country or not, keeping in mind that the PRC threatens to fire missiles if it does, we’ve got this neither-here-nor-there status quo holding.

Wherever the debate lands, Taiwan’s history is inextricably linked with China’s. Taipei’s National Palace Museum is home to all sorts of treasures brought to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-Shek, who whisked off some of China’s most treasured cultural possessions during the Chinese Civil War. Despite being three floors packed full of rare crafted jades, porcelains, ivories, bronze mirrors, and art in general spanning all Chinese dynasties as far as 2000 BCE (with single dynasties dwarfing the empires whose histories I learned on the Silk Road), along with the hordes of mainland Chinese tourists coming to see it, it’s purported that they only exhibit 1% of the entire collection at one time! It’s amazing to see how so many of these crafts were ahead of their time: looking through each item, I never once guessed its time period correctly.

It’s been a long road since Chiang Kai-Shek. As much as he is remembered for planting the ROC in Taiwan, he’s also known for his mistreatment of the Austronesian-descent Taiwanese aboriginal groups and authoritarian tendencies, massacring tens of thousands of civilians in 1947 and starting 38(!) years of martial law amid signs of dissent and discontent. Where the PRC/China continues to mask and censor its own “June 4th” Tiananmen incident in 1989, Taiwan has come to see its “February 28” incident as a grave mistake never to be repeated, and one open to discuss. While by no means perfect, Taiwan’s the only Chinese democracy out there too, working on its aborigine relations and corruption issues and doing well on human rights, and they’ve even got the first female Chinese head of state since Empress Wu Zetian who interrupted the Tang Dynasty waaaay back in 690. That’s something: can you even imagine that in the PRC nowadays?

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

It’s still a sensitive topic, but one that seemed unavoidable during my stay, especially with locals treating me as a Hongkonger. Does modern Taiwan see itself folding into China? Probably not. China offers the “one country, two systems” arrangement that it uses with Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong tried to fight for a true democracy in 2014 and has only seen the movement stifled at every turn, population divided and angry — a situation Taiwan watched rather closely. No one I talked to here wants a part in that. And while I know there are still quite a few Taiwanese out there for a united China based on ethnic nationalism, a “we’re friends but different”, separate kind of Taiwanese identity emerges amongst virtually all I talked to. Independence? “Republic of Taiwan”? Missiles. Yeah… that status quo sounds pretty cozy.

All of this does not concern the visitor, and it does not concern me. What it does produce though is a boundary-straddling unique culture. More importantly, unique food…too delicious for its own good. That’s something we can all agree on — now back to eating everything in sight!

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