Random Taipei photo roundup


I was just doing a quick search through my posts and I realized I don’t often post about Taipei. This is even though it’s been my Asian home for a decade now and is one of my favorite cities in not just Asia, but the world. As most people already know, Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, and is Taiwan’s political, commercial and cultural center.

It is also one of East Asia’s major metropolises, though perhaps more laidback, less crowded, and smaller than Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul etc. For me, Taipei is ultra-convenient and safe, and most importantly, has the right balance of being modern and relatively cosmopolitan while not being too crowded (like Hong Kong), hectic (Tokyo) and overpriced (again, HK). There are always many events going on, but it is also easy to relax. There is a distinct local character that is both busy and pleasant. Besides all that, what I really like is that Taipei is surrounded by hills and mountain ranges, which means hikes are always nearby and easy to get to.



This bird, which I have no idea what type it is, puffed up its throat and didn’t care that it was in my way.

Beitou Library is a fantastic sleek, wooden building that is also “green.” It is powered by solar panels, uses rainwater for its toilets and taps, and is designed to maximize natural lighting and reduce heat.

Taipei Free Art show, which as its name says was a free showcase of local (and one Japanese) artists


Taiwan historical activist, (above) who had pamphlets and photos of Sun Yat-sen, and a map of China with Taiwanese names imposed on it, reversing the idea of Taiwan being China (below)

Continue reading “Random Taipei photo roundup”

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.

Taipei hiking- taking in 101


Taipei’s skyline has long been dominated by one building, Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings. Nowadays, it still is but it’s got company in the form of the Nan Shan Plaza and at least another skyscraper is under construction in the area. The best way to get an up-close view of Taipei 101 and its surroundings is Xiangshan (Elephant Hill), a small nearby mountain. There is a popular spot consisting of several boulders that is ideal for selfies but there are more than one vantage point. Besides Taipei 101, you can get sweeping views of the city as well as the northern hills.




Photo roundup-Asian airports

When you travel a lot, whether as a tourist or an expat returning home, airports become a familiar place. In Asia, there are a lot of modern, large, and sleek airports. It’s even better when they are attractive or have interesting features, like the ones below.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport might be small but the slanted latticed roof of Terminal 1’s immigration hall is a very attractive and welcoming sight for visitors, especially with the reflection on the floor. Every time I see this roof, I never fail to be impressed.

I’ve passed through Hong Kong’s airport, one of the largest in Asia, so many times but it’s still one of the best I’ve been too. The Terminal One departure gates as well as the newer and smaller Terminal Two check-in hall are attractive, especially the wavy ceiling of the latter.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport is another large and attractive one in the region. But despite the throwback metal shed-like appearance of the check-in hall, the departure gate area is another story.

Beijing’s airport is one of the largest in the world but even then, it isn’t as modern as Hong Kong’s airport, as sleek as Bangkok’s, or welcoming as Taipei’s. As with a lot of things in China, size and grandeur take priority over actual convenience and warmth. It does have a cool red ceiling with a layer of stripes below it.


Kuala Lumpur’s airport features a unique brown, lumpy ceiling that is probably based on indigenous hut design.

Taiwan number one for expats?

A couple of weeks ago, a major expat website released a survey of the best countries for expats to live in. You know which country topped it? Taiwan. On the InterNations Expat Insider Survey, Taiwan placed first due to quality of life and personal finances (affordability), both areas of life that it is very strong in.
In contrast, Hong Kong and mainland China dropped down the rankings, with HK falling 18 places to 44th. That certainly looks dire, but it is not that surprising given all the issues that HK has been coping with.

So did I make the wrong choice to move to Hong Kong to work? Well, no.
Because while it’s great to see Taiwan holding down the top spot on that survey, that doesn’t mean Taiwan is ideal to live and work in. To live in, yes, but to work in, not quite. Of course, one can’t discount the possibility that most of the respondents to this survey may be well-to-do professionals who get nice expat packages such as housing subsidies and so on. In that case, Taiwan would be great to work in. However, as an expat in a more regular job with slightly higher-than-average salaries and the same benefit packages as locals, working in Taiwan isn’t that good.

First though, why is living in Taiwan so good? The reasons are many – an affordable and accessible health system that covers everything from doctors to dentists to surgery, public safety, low cost of living especially in transportation, food and the aforementioned health system, and very polite and helpful people. Expats, even those who can’t speak Mandarin, can live relatively comfortable lives, save money, and enjoy good food and so on. The local health insurance system is extremely affordable (monthly premiums being roughly US$40) and provides coverage for both private (not all) and public hospitals and clinics and even Chinese medicine clinics. There is no need for foreigners to get expensive private medical insurance because as long as they are working in Taiwan, they are covered by the health insurance.
All of this is why I’ve said several times to people who asked, Taiwan is a comfortable and convenient place to live, especially compared to China and even Hong Kong.

However, when it comes to work, there are several factors that mitigate how great Taiwan is. Salaries are extremely low, the job market is limited, and so are opportunities to rise in companies. In addition, Taiwan is not a very international place, though Taipei is quite decent, and there is a very local mindset and not much knowledge or awareness of the wider world that constrains how Taiwanese companies operate.

Salaries haven’t budged much from many years ago, and fresh university graduates can earn starting salaries even less than those from 17 years ago. Things are somewhat better for expats, who by law have to receive at least about NT$48,000, which is still only roughly US$1,600 (and my first job’s wages didn’t even reach that). Fortunately, aspects of daily life like eating out and transit and apartment rents, even in Taipei, can be ridiculously cheap, especially again, compared to Hong Kong.

However, if low salaries can be bearable, there are not that many different type of jobs available for foreigners with English teaching, technical writing, and marketing making up the vast majority. Meanwhile, in the workplace, it is difficult for foreigners to get promoted, because of language and local working culture. There is no corporate ladder for expats to climb in local companies. Many Taiwan companies that operate in overseas markets are focused on China to a very heavy extent. Even at larger companies that are very active in many international markets, like a networking company I worked in, there were roughly 10 expats and only two, including my boss, were managers, and even then it was only one level above.

Taiwan could do much better when it comes to being more internationalized and attracting more expats.
Improving relevant work and immigration policies for foreign professionals would be a good start.
Unfortunately, Taiwan seems to continue to want to do things on the cheap. One proposed measure to attract more expat white-collar workers is to lower the requirements, including scrapping the NT$48,000 minimum salary. Now while this might sound like it will be easier for companies to hire foreigners, the question is why would expats be lured by even lower salaries than those being offered now? Perhaps those from less developed countries like the Philippines or India might be ok with low salaries, and this would indeed be beneficial to Taiwan. Though I’m not sure that engineers or IT specialists, for example, from those countries would indeed be satisfied and willing to relocate to Taiwan for salaries less than US$1,600. Even a government minister said earlier this year salaries were too low to attract expats, though the unspoken question is what is the point of lowering the salary requirement in the first place.

Companies also need to consider other markets beyond the local one and China, and with the government’s new “going south” policy which supports firms in expanding into Southeast Asia and India, there may be a greater need for expats and hence, more jobs.

It is good that Taiwan got some recognition for being a great place for expats but it’s still got some ways to go.Still, getting more expats to come to Taiwan would be beneficial. Taiwan itself is not a very diverse society, and neither is the expat community, which is mostly Western and male. In this sense, Beijing and Shanghai have much bigger and broader expat communities. So yes, Taiwan is very convenient and rather pleasant for expats, but it isn’t the land of honey that being termed the best place in the world for expats might cause one to think it is.

Taipei travel and farewell (again)

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When I moved to Hong Kong in March, I said goodbye to Taipei for a second time. But unlike the first time when I moved to Beijing, my move this time happened abruptly and deliberately because I’d been job-searching from Taiwan and decided to move once I’d gotten an offer. Coincidentally I’m writing this from Taipei, which I went back to for the Labor Day weekend. But whether it’s because I only left only two months later, or because Hong Kong is close to Taipei and arguably more developed, I don’t feel as much relief or gladness to be back. Taipei seems very quiet (admittedly it was rainy and I stay in a peaceful residential area) and a bit dreary compared to noisy, crowded Hong Kong.

Anyways, before I left for Hong Kong, I went to a few places I hadn’t been to.

A monument to one of Taiwan’s worst tragedies, the 228 Peace Memorial Park occupies a spot right in the middle of Taipei, next to the NTU Hospital and near Taipei Train Station. The 228 incident in 1947 resulted in several thousand, perhaps even over 10,000 as the actual death toll is not known, civilians were killed by ROC soldiers in an effort to contain disturbances sparked by a riot over a vendor being arrested and beaten. The mass killing was covered up for decades until finally the government publicly addressed it in the nineties and later declared a public holiday to commemorate it. The monument features a steel sculpture of two mounted cubes mounted on their edges and fused together facing a large concrete structure featuring two blocks also fused together crowned by a towering steel spire. In the midst of the concrete structure is an underground fountain that flows downward.

See further down for Ximending and Huashan Creative Park.

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NTU Hospital, one of the city’s better hospitals. This is the old wing, which was built under Japanese occupation in the early 20th century.
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Shin Kong Life tower, the second-highest tower in Taipei

Ximending
This is a busy shopping and entertainment area that is popular with young people. I don’t usually come here (the last time being when I was a university student visiting Taiwan) but I had to go to the nearby Immigration Department for paperwork so I decided to go here out of curiosity. The area features the Red House, a renovated historic building that is full of artist shops.
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Art for this age- a statue of two youngsters taking selfies. It’d be meta to take a selfie in front of it.
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Huashan 1914 Creative Park
This art park used to be a winery that was built in the early 20th century. It’s got theaters, galleries, shops and an upside-down house, which you can see for yourself below.
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