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

 

Doing the unthinkable in Hong Kong- slowing down

I’ve been spending some time in Hong Kong recently so I think it’s fitting I publish this short essay below which I first wrote last year on whether Hong Kong should try and slow down.

As a major regional business hub, many Hong Kongers take pride in working and talking quickly. An English-language book released by a local well-known HK writer a few years ago (and which I bought) was titled “No Place for Slow Men,” implying only fast doers thrive in Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong is full of fast talkers and movers and shakers. But is this really something to continue to be proud of?

While Hong Kong is a bustling business hub that tops many business-related lists, it has developed an unabashed money-first mentality and a stressful society that lags in certain measures of livelihood including happiness. Maybe Hong Kong should take a look at elsewhere in the region.

Take Taiwan as an example. The stereotypical image of Taiwanese are of people that are laid-back, friendly and not in a rush. While there is a lot of truth to it, the fact is the “laid-back” Taiwanese are not sitting around relaxing and doing nothing. Many working Taiwanese face just as much or even more stressed than their counterparts in Hong Kong. Salaries are much lower, annual leaves are shorter, and working hours are among the highest in the world.

Frankly, as someone who has worked in both Hong Kong and Taipei as well as on the mainland, my Hong Kong colleagues were no more hardworking than those in Taiwan or Beijing, actually took more days off and seemed the most happiest, spending much more time hanging out in the office and chatting.

When it comes to customer service, the difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong is like night and day. And the politeness is matched by efficiency. As someone who has lived in Taiwan, I can safely say that going to the bank, hospital or convenience store is almost always a quick and efficient experience. Over the last decade, I have flown on Taiwanese airlines Eva Airlines and China Airlines as well as Cathay Pacific many times and I would say service on Eva and CA are better than Cathay, especially in recent years.

Going beyond work ethic and customer service, Taiwan has achieved significant progress in areas like recycling and e-government.

In Taipei, residents must separate food waste, paper, plastics and regular garbage into different bags so they can be recycled accordingly. In contrast, the HK residential building I lived in did not offer any recycling so I had to take my paper waste to the public bin out on the street or even to my workplace. The local recycling industry is small as the vast majority of Hong Kong’s waste is sent to mainland China. Hong Kong has no paper recycling plants nor is food waste able to be utilized. Hong Kong is however set to implement a new garbage fee on the public to help reduce waste. Similar schemes have already been undertaken in Taipei and Seoul, while Hong Kong’s will start, not right away, but sometime in late 2019. It is striking that the speed with which Hong Kong authorities approach business-related matters is not replicated in policies that are not economic-related.

Let’s also look at Hong Kong’s regional rival Singapore. Almost every other week, it seems there is at least one article in local media about yet another area in which Singapore has outperformed Hong Kong. Yet I remember once overhearing in my workplace elevator a Hong Kong lady give her opinion on Singapore to someone next to her, “It’s alright, but the people walk so slowly there! They are not fast like us [Hong Kongers].”

Nevertheless, those Singaporean “slowpokes” have outpaced Hong Kong in things like Smart City initiatives and mega-projects like Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa. One can just as easily look at the more spacious and green urban layout and the affordable and bigger public housing flats, and see a big gulf between Hong Kong and Singapore in the latter’s favour.

Hong Kongers might still revel in thinking they walk and talk very fast, but that hasn’t prevented others from overtaking them in many aspects. As unpalatable as it might sound to Hong Kongers, being less obsessed with moving fast, taking the time to concentrate on issues other than business, and being more considerate might actually be a good thing.

Maybe it is time Hong Kongers should consider slowing down a bit, and realize fast is not always the best.

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.

My mistaken China illusion

I wasn’t always such a strong supporter of Taiwan and its status as a country. There was a time when I had this idealistic, naive and silly illusion of a Great China entity, comprising China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a student up until living in Beijing, I harbored this fantasy. It was only a few years ago, while living in Beijing, that I came to my senses. I realized it was unrealistic and foolish to think China could or should rule Taiwan, especially as China’s Communist regime isn’t even good for its own people. I recently wrote about my change of heart in an article for Taiwan’s Ketagalan Online. However, I’ll also go over this briefly here.

Taiwan is a controversial and sensitive issue in the world because its status and freedom is bitterly contested by China, which claims Taiwan belongs to it. That’s why Taiwan is not part of the UN and is only officially recognized as a country by less than 20 countries (China forces countries it has diplomatic relations with to stop recognizing Taiwan as a country). Just in the past 2.5 years, China has stolen 5 of Taiwan’s allies.

Anyways, it’s common knowledge that Taiwan is its own state with its own government, judiciary, laws, schools, and military. Taiwan is a de facto independent nation. Even when I was pro-China, I was aware of this. However, what I was ignorant about was thinking Taiwan should be part of China because it didn’t have its own history or culture. I was very much mistaken. Taiwan also has its own history (which has at times been intertwined with China) and culture (much of which originated from China but which has evolved over time) and traditions. While most Taiwanese have Chinese ancestry, some don’t – the aboriginal people in Taiwan have been here for thousands of years.

As I’ve learned more about Taiwan and traveled to different parts such as the south, it’s apparent that Taiwan has its own history, culture and traditions fostered from almost 400 years of formal settlement. Of course, there is a strong Chinese element from most Taiwanese people’s ancestral origin, but given both Taiwan’s existence as an island and the development of democracy, Taiwan’s people have developed their own identity and the right to be seen as themselves and not little China with democracy and genuine traditions (which some people mistakenly believe).

This week marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and is a weeklong holiday in Taiwan. So as the Year of the Pig kicks off, here’s to better days and progress for Taiwan, and the world.

Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei’s Dihua Street annual Lunar New Year outdoor market

 

Taiwan kicks off 2019 by refuting China’s “unification” threat

First, Happy New Year everyone! I hope this year turns out great for everyone.

That said, it’s a new year but not new rhetoric from China’s Xi Jinping. Thanks to him though, my first blog post of 2019 is about Taiwan and China. In a speech on January 2, Xi chose to make a grand demand that Taiwan “must and will” agree to “unification” with China. He also said reunification would be peaceful, yet warned about using military force (the irony). Xi also said that “Chinese don’t fight each other” which is actually wrong because Chinese have always fought each other. Just in the last century alone, there was the Civil War which saw the Communists come to power, the Cultural Revolution, which saw millions of Chinese die at the hands of other Chinese, and the Warlord Period of the 1920s, when China was carved up by Chinese warlords. Not to mention the infamous Tiananmen tragedy in 1989.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen responded afterwards on the same day by refuting this demand, and rightfully so. Tsai was adamant that Taiwanese did not want unification, especially not under the “one country, two systems” concept, which has already been applied in Hong Kong and which has not had a positive effect. Tsai further added that talks could be possible between Taiwan and China, but only if both meet as equals as sovereign states.

China has claimed Taiwan for a very long time and has made demands for Taiwan to “unify” in the past. This year though, Xi’s speech focused heavily on “unification,” which raises concerns that he might turn to military means to force the issue. After all, starting a war against a foreign foe to divert attention from domestic troubles and boost nationalism is something that dictators have done before.

China is going through a lot of domestic problems now, especially serious economic issues and an ongoing trade war with the US (though further tariffs have been suspended for 90 days). The Chinese authorities have intensified crackdowns on major churches and even student Marxist organizations, while continuing to detain at least a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. So it would be plausible to think that Xi is desperate and deluded enough to want to attempt an armed invasion of Taiwan. I personally don’t think there is a big chance of success for several reasons though (as do some experts), but Xi has shown he thinks highly of himself, given he made himself leader for life last year by abolishing presidential term limits.

But whether Xi’s tough talk on Taiwan might be just talk or a prelude to something much more serious, the reality is that Taiwan is a country. Only its people, the Taiwanese, can determine Taiwan’s future.

2018 roundup

Taipei, Taiwan
As we come closer to the end of the year, I’ve got several things on my mind. First is that 2018 turned out to be a rough year for the world. While 2017 wasn’t so great, it seems like 2018 saw the world become more troubled. Donald Trump continues to baffle ad mismanage his own country, the UK can’t figure out Brexit, while civil wars in Yemen and Syria continue.

Taiwan had a decent year, though there was a shocking train crash in October that took 18 lives and injured almost 200 (train accidents are rare in Taiwan). However, the November local elections and referendum stunned and disappointed a lot of people. The ruling DPP party suffered huge defeats and lost many of Taiwan’s counties and cities, while the referendums showed Taiwan isn’t as progressive as many people had thought.

The bigger concern for me is the DPP lost big to the KMT, which is pro-China and openly intends to expand ties with China. As you know, China still claims Taiwan belongs to it, and continually launches provocative military flights, bars Taiwan from participating in international multilateral organizations (hence Taiwan is not a member of the UN), and even threatens invasion. It does not make sense to me for Taiwan to become more economically dependent on China and look to it as some kind of savior.

I still feel that Taiwan has several things that are going well such as increased investment from major international tech firms, a growing reputation for civic and political freedoms, and a president who is not afraid to stand firm against China. That said, President Tsai Ing-wen took a lot of blame after November’s election results, and was forced to step down as chairman of her party. Hopefully this will help her focus more on her presidency as she is freed from having to oversee the DPP.

China is going down a dark road, exemplified by its recent seizure of 3 Canadians on nebulous or made-up charges as revenge for the arrest of the Huawei CFO and founder’s daughter. China has also imprisoned over a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang in concentration camps or “reeducation centers,” for no reason other than to “re-educate” them. This was shocking when it was first reported, and China kept denying it. However, as more news and evidence came out about these mass detentions, China was forced to admit it though they still claimed that there was no sinister reason. China has also continued to threaten Taiwan with military planes flying close to and around Taiwan.

For me personally, the year was a bit mixed. I worked at a Taiwan company in a field that was new to me and things didn’t work out for various reasons. What was good is that I got to do more writing and was published in several major outlets. I wrote about China’s “victimhood” status which it exploits in international disputes such as against Canada over the Meng arrest, Hong Kong and the “Greater Bay Area“, about China’s state media’s global push, and the “disappearance” of yet another Chinese due to Chinese authorities. I also wrote about museums and arts attractions in Southern Taiwan, which I visited for the first time in many years. I also reviewed several books including a novel about Taiwan when its southern part was ruled by the Dutch and a travel book/memoir about a couple traveling around Taiwan.

I also did a little traveling. I hiked a mountain and visited ancient city ruins in Thailand, and I wandered through two superb Malaysian cities filled with historic buildings and street art. I also went to Kaohsiung and Tainan (first time in many years for both cities) in southern Taiwan, and I visited Hong Kong as well.

I do hope that 2019 will be better, but I feel it might be even more turbulent than 2018.

Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of the major temple ruins in Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand before Bangkok
Penang, Malaysia
Penang’s oldest Chinese temple
Hiking in Hong Kong
Hiking in east Hong Kong, near Tseung Kwan O
Tainan, Taiwan
Tainan’s restored Hayashi Department Store, just as classy as it was 80 years ago
Ipoh, Malaysia
Mural of tin miners on the wall of the Hakka Miners’ Club museum, Ipoh
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan’s northeast coast
Krabi, Thailand
View from Khao Ngon Nak, Krabi, Thailand