Exploring Taipei

View of Taipei
Taiwan’s capital Taipei is one of my favorite cities in the world, having been my home for many years over the last decade. My mother and most of her family like my grandmother, aunt and cousins live in Taipei, having been there for decades. As a modern, orderly city, it’s got the advantages of being first-world and prosperous while also being relatively laidback, especially when compared with Hong Kong, Tokyo, or many Chinese cities. It’s definitely a great place to live, though working is another matter. A lot of people really enjoy the food in Taipei, but for me, it’s the comfort, safety and general pleasantness of the city that stands out (I like Taipei for living, not for traveling), as well as the hiking you can do in and around Taipei.

I recently wrote about Taipei for Rough Guides website, specifically on five places to enjoy and explore, that are not night markets, Taipei 101 or the National Palace Museum. Besides an article I wrote many years ago about Taipei’s Yongkang Street food places (my first and only food article), I haven’t really written about Taipei travel, because having lived there for so long, I don’t really see it as place to travel. This changed last year when I had some free time and decided to visit more places in the city, which culminated in the Rough Guides article.

I came to realize Taipei has a lot of different and fascinating aspects, especially nature and historical. These places might not be individually famous or spectacular but they are very much well worth visiting and make Taipei special.

These places are Yangmingshan mountain park; the city’s hiking trails; Beitou hot spring area; Guandu (which features a wetland park and a large historic temple); Daan Park, Taipei’s largest park; and the historic neighborhood of Dadaocheng. Besides these, there are other interesting, historic and scenic parts of Taipei.

Yangmingshan
This is a large park in a mountain range just north of Taipei which features dormant volcanoes and active fumaroles that spew sulfur into the air. Yangmingshan also has mountain trails, grasslands and gardens all entirely on the mountain range.
Yangmingshan fumarole, Taipei

Dadaocheng
This historic neighborhood used to be a busy trading hub in the 19th and 20th centuries due to its proximity to the Keelung river. Now, it’s Taipei’s best preserved historical district and features loads of colonial buildings, shops, and museums. It also hosts Taipei’s annual Lunar New Year outdoor market.
Dadaocheng, Taipei

Beitou
This is a historic hot spring holiday destination that fulfills the same purpose to this day. Beitou has a lot of hot spring resorts and an outdoor bath, a sulphuric lake and a cool library. See my post on my travel blog here for more about Beitou.
Thermal Valley, Beitou

Guandu
I’d never come here before but it’s a low-key area to the north of Taipei that just happens to have a wetland park as well as a magnificent temple, one of the biggest and most exquisite East Asian temples I’ve ever seen.

Guandu Nature Park wetland, Taipei

City hikes
Taipei is ringed with mountains and hills, several of which offer pleasant hikes and fine views of the city. While Xiangshan is the most popular due to its being close to Taipei 101, Fuzhoushan offers a nice, less-crowded alternative where you can also see Taipei 101. Jiantan Mountain is a fine ridge walk that also has some nice views (see the photo at the top of this blog post).
Fuzhoushan, Taipei

Daan Park
It’s Taipei’s version of Central Park, though much smaller. It’s also got a cool MRT subway station that resembles a giant turbine engine.
Daan Park MRT, Taipei

 

The Stolen Bicycle- book review

The Stolen Bicycle is a rare Taiwanese novel that has earned international acclaim, having been nominated for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Written by one of Taiwan’s best modern novelists, Wu Ming-Yi, The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating story seemingly centered on bicycles but which winds through Taiwan under Japanese colonization, World War II battles, disappearing fathers, and even butterfly collecting.

To be honest, when I started The Stolen Bicycle, I found the beginning kind of perplexing. The story didn’t draw me in and the details seemed a bit overwhelming, especially the meticulous descriptions of bicycles by the story’s narrator. I stuck with it and gradually, the story began to feel more captivating. The plot became more complex but also more interesting as it covered disparate topics like antiques, butterfly handicrafts, and zookeeping. By the time it reached World War II, the story reached its stride with military invasions and battles.

The novel really brings Taiwan under Japanese colonization to life, including moments of turbulence such as when Taipei was even bombed by American aircraft during World War II. Certain characters are drafted by the Japanese into their army to fight in distant Malaya (Malaysia) and Burma (Myanmar). The military scenes are especially vivid and haunting, especially in portraying the hardship and terror of battle and retreat in remote jungles.

By this point, I didn’t mind all the details and I was actually impressed. The author did a fine job in being accurate with military history while making the characters and events believable, while conveying a strong sense of drama and danger. Just to give you an example, the story makes use of war elephants, which were actually used by both Japanese and Chinese armies in Southeast Asia to transport military goods. After the war, the KMT brought over a few of these elephants to Taiwan, one of whom became a beloved part of the Taipei Zoo and is also a part of the story.

War aside, there are nice descriptions of oldtime Taipei and Taiwanese society, as well as Japanese colonization, which while brutal to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, is regarded as having been somewhat beneficial. The inclusion of Japanese characters presents a rare Japanese colonial perspective of Taiwan.

Despite the honor of being longlisted, The Stolen Bicycle couldn’t escape political controversy arising from China. The Booker organizers tried to change the author’s nationality from Taiwan to “Taiwan, China” due to Chinese interference but luckily international criticism forced them to backtrack.

The Stolen Bicycle might have been challenging at a few parts, but reading the whole novel was a rewarding experience.

China “can’t fail,” but it’s certainly not winning

Another week, another set of negative incidents involving China.

First, I need to mention a recent New York Times feature article about China titled “The Land That Failed to Fail.” It’s an extraordinary headline as the article charts China’s economic and geopolitical rise during the last 30+ years as an amazing story. The article makes some valid points, such as that China managed to keep on developing whilst maintaining an authoritarian regime, albeit one that made constant adjustments. It is also true that China’s Communist regime has stayed in power while defying expectations that it would flounder. But the Times has put out this article (the first in a series of five) at a very strange time because the thing is that when one looks at recent news involving China, whether geopolitical or economics or even cultural, China looks like anything but a winner.

On the weekend in Taiwan, the Golden Horse awards, often considered the Oscars of the Chinese-speaking world, were held. This innocuous event saw a major controversy when Taiwanese director Fu Yue, winner of the best documentary award, spoke out about her hope that Taiwan can be recognized as an independent country (which it actually is) instead of being ignored on the world stage (which often happens). This led to a Chinese actor who, while about to present an award, said he was happy to be in “Taiwan, China,” thus implying Taiwan was part of China.

Afterwards, Chinese directors and actors at the awards refused to turn up for the post-awards banquet. The awards show was also cut off in China after Fu Yue’s speech, while a Hong Kong news media outlet reported that China has banned all Chinese films from being entered for consideration for next year’s Golden Horse awards show. Chinese commenters, not surprisingly, attacked Fu online on Chinese social media service Weibo, with many sharing a map of China that includes Taiwan and a phrase saying that not even one bit can go missing from China. Even Fan Bingbing, who has still not been seen in public after having been secretly detained by Chinese authorities after June, shared this post. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen weighed in on the controversy by highlighting Taiwan’s freedoms of expression while insisting (rightfully) that Taiwan is Taiwan, and not part of China.

Also on the weekend, Papua-New Guinea (PNG) hosted the APEC summit, which saw leaders from 20 Asia-Pacific countries meet. Even amid the tense atmosphere which centered around the ongoing US-China dispute, China still did some really paranoid and weird acts as reported by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. That Chinese officials tried to storm the PNG Foreign Minister’s office to demand a meeting with him after being turned away is bad enough. But they also, according to Rogin, tried to crash in on private conversations involving officials of other countries and yelled about countries “scheming” against China. The Chinese officials also filibustered to prevent a joint statement from being decided on due to a clause about fighting protectionism, then “broke out in applause” when time ran out. The summit thus ended without a joint statement for the first time. As it is, China basically opposed something which all other 20 countries had agreed on because it was scared of being held accountable for conditions mentioned in the statement.

Some people might think China can behave so recklessly and arrogantly with impunity because it is a rising superpower. I beg to differ because I think this reeks of desperation and a lack of confidence.

So again, does China look like a country that cannot fail, or is it a case of China finally being found out for what it really is?

Taiwan cross-country photo roundup

Taoyuan Airport, Taiwan
I’ve spent over six years living in Taiwan and have called this island nation home during most of my time in Asia, but I haven’t traveled to that many places here. However, I have visited all the big cities, all the counties in the north, and most of the counties in Taiwan. Here’s a photo tour of Taiwan, featuring the cities and counties I have visited.

The capital Taipei is in the north, surrounded by New Taipei City, which formerly used to be Taipei County and is still more of a collection of large towns and villages than an actual city. On the northern coast is Keelung, a port city which has a distinct status as a provincial city.

Taipei skyline
Sanxia, New Taipei City, Taiwan
Sanxia, one of New Taipei City’s many districts
Keelung, Taiwan
Keelung harbourfront

The other big cities include Taichung, in the central, Kaohsiung, in the south, and Tainan, Taiwan’s oldest city (and perhaps most interesting), and also in the south. All three of these cities, like Taipei, are located along the west coast. Continue reading “Taiwan cross-country photo roundup”

Rallying for Taiwan

On the weekend, a massive anti-annexation rally was held in Taipei. Many tens of thousands (organizers claimed over 100,000) of people showed up, even coming from southern Taiwan, to listen to speakers and performers. Their message was to demand a referendum on changing Taiwan’s official name, because Taiwan is an independent country, is not part of China, and deserves to be a recognized member of the international community. That’s what the anti-annexation means, to resist China’s claims to Taiwan and threats of force to annex Taiwan.

The organizers, the newly-formed Formosa Alliance, want the government to approve a public referendum to allow Taiwanese to vote on whether Taiwan should change its official name from the Republic of China (ROC)* to Taiwan. The government is reluctant to do so, even though the Democratic Progressive Party, is in power. This is because it is very concerned that China would see this move as an attempt to claim independence, which Taiwan already has de facto, but not de jure. As such, the local authorities refused to allow the rally to be held in front of the Presidential Office and the DPP banned its candidates (for the upcoming November nationwide local elections) from attending.

I attended due to both curiosity and because I genuinely believe Taiwan is a country and that it needs to assert this. Even though Taiwan’s government has to be wary about what it says and does due to the threat and pressure from China, Taiwan’s civil society can still speak up for the people. I also feel that there will come a time when push comes to shove, and Taiwan cannot back down and be quiet.

Having arrived midway, I went to the secondary site, bordering the main site, where the speakers were being broadcast on a large screen. Even at this smaller site, there were several thousand people. Many were old people, which was not surprising, but there were some middle-aged and a few young people. The majority of the speakers spoke in Taiwanese Hoklo, which is different from Mandarin and a language I can’t understand, but I was definitely able to sense their passion and underlying sentiment. There were former politicians, a Christian pastor, and a few candidates from smaller opposition parties. Each of them gave fiery and enthusiastic speeches.

I don’t often go to rallies, even though I’ve lived in Taiwan for years, but I don’t think this would be my last.

*The ROC name is a holdover from when the KMT regime ruled China from 1911-1949. Having lost the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s to the Communists, who still rule China, the KMT fled to Taiwan and ruled it as an authoritarian regime. Unlike China, Taiwan became democratic gradually from the 1980s and has become one of the world’s most liberal and open nations. Unfortunately, due to the claim of China that Taiwan belongs to it, less than 20 countries recognize Taiwan as an official country. The UN also does not recognize Taiwan and does not allow it to participate. In the multilateral organizations that Taiwan is able to be a member of such as the Olympics and APEC, Taiwan does so under an artificial name like Chinese Taipei. Taiwan is thus unable to fully be a member of the global community as the ROC or as Taiwan.

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan

Anti-annexation rally, Taiwan Taipei, TaiwanAnti-annexation rally, Taiwan
Companion rally at a third site adjacent to the secondary site that was going on at the same time

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”